How to Make Bad Discussion Questions Better for an Online Course: Case Study Using an edX MOOC

I’m enrolled as a student in the MOOC Saving Schools Mini-Course 1: History and Politics of U.S. Education on the edX platform and share in this post discussion questions used for assignment purposes from the course to illustrate what NOT to do when it comes to writing discussion questions. I use these for illustration purposes to help readers who teach online to further improve their own courses.  I share three questions from the MOOC, describe why they don’t work and include revised questions in better and best categories. I’ve incorporated guidelines from “Best Practices for Designing and Assessing Online Discussion Questions”, a webinar hosted by the Online Learning Consortium along with my experience.  In a later post I’ll review the entire course from an instructional design viewpoint, highlighting what worked and didn’t. 

First we examine (briefly) why discussions can be an effective method for learning, and second explore how to write better and best questions by looking at examples of not-so-good questions.

Discussion Questions – Two Layers of Pedagogy
It’s not uncommon for educators to believe that discussion forums are used primarily as a method to encourage student interaction. This is only partly true. There are two layers of pedagogy to the discussion method.

First layer:  Good discussion questions prompt students to evaluate course content, reflect, construct knowledge and articulate understanding through a written response. Scenarios or case studies are also effective where students are required to develop and provide a written solution demonstrating application of course concepts. Student responses are (typically) crafted individually then shared in a forum. This method encourages student to construct meaning and build knowledge by engaging with course materials, reflecting then applying concepts through written explanation.

Second layer:  Dialogue is more meaningful when students have a solid grasp of the concepts accomplished in the first layer.  Students continue to evaluate course concepts, construct knowledge, but also develop alternative perspectives, even critical thinking by engaging in discourse with classmates.  Students are exposed to others’ perspectives in this phase, ask questions, defend their own positions, evaluate alternative positions, challenge others’ positions, construct new knowledge and further develop communication skills. This is the ideal scenario. In reality what’s described will not always happen, but different levels of learning will occur depending upon the student’s motivation, confidence and trust level.

Guidelines for Developing Discussion Questions:
Discussion questions should closely align with course concepts and objectives. Below are guidelines to consider with developing questions for an online forum.

  • Frame the question as open-ended. Begin questions with how, what or why
  • Create questions that will elicit more than one answer or solution
  • Ask students to provide support for their response with examples/references, e.g. personal experience, course materials or outside sources.
  • Create questions that encourage students to voice their opinion, perspective or personal experience
  • Make specific reference to theories, diagrams, authors, and/or page numbers
  • Use words such as ‘describe’ or ‘explain’ to elicit deeper responses.
  • Review and consider the course/module objectives —ask  ‘does this discussion question support the course/module objective or focus?’ Students dislike busy work— discussion questions without a focus and purpose lead to shallow responses

Consider the above guidelines as you read the discussion questions below from the MOOC on edX. I realize that this is not perfect as the questions are out of context given you don’t have full access to the course. However the aim is to provide readers with ideas and tips for online discussion forums. Blue text highlights content from the MOOC. Following I explain why the question is ineffective—bad.  The rewritten questions follow the blue text in better and best categories.

Question One: The Challenge

Read “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests” by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann from the Fall 2014 issue of EducationNext: “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests”

Based on the results of this study and the lecture video, are you surprised to discover that the United States has two large gaps in its education — the gap within the country and the gap internationally?

Why it’s a Bad Question: The question is closed, “are you surprised?” •  It encourages no further dialogue or application/exploration of course content • Research suggests majority of MOOC students hold at least an undergraduate degree, this question would not be a surprise to MOOC students and could suggest to MOOC learners the course is shallow, superficial

Better:  “Consider the International PISA results presented in the article and discussed in the lecture video. Identify two or more reasons using course content and/or outside sources that could account for the United States performance. Explain.”

Best:  “1) Describe the impact of PISA scores on education policy in the United States. Identify one education policy designed to raise student performance. Describe the intended outcome(s). 2) Do you agree with the policy, why or why not?”   Note: The course materials would need to provide background information, including primary sources. The questions could be more focused by providing a time range for policy, or even identifying a list of policies.

Question Two: School Boards

Read Lost at Sea by Lisa Graham Keegan and Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Steering a True Course by Sarah C. Glover, both from the Summer 2004 issue of Education Next: Lost at Sea   and  Steering a True Course.  Based on these readings and the lecture videos for this week,  discuss what you feel the role of the local school board should be in the 21st century.

Why it’s a Bad Question: Using the word ‘feel’ in questions does not encourage students to approach questions from an analytical perspective • The readings and videos in this module show only one (biased) perspective • Models a narrow point-of-view

Better:  “1) After reviewing the primary role of the school board as outlined in the materials (examples below) determine the role the school board has in the district where you reside. If there is not a school board in your district consider one from this list [provide list of 4 or more]. 2)  From your research do you think the school board is effective?  Why or why not.”

Best:  “1) After reading about the role of the school board as outlined and the other materials, and considering the poor performance of several districts within the United States as outlined in______,  do you think school boards should have a role in school districts?  Explain. 2)  What do you consider as a viable solution(s) to districts’ poor performance? Share any resources that may be of interest to other students.”

Question Three: The Progressive Movement

Read “Romancing the Child” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. from the 2001 issue of Education Next:  “Romancing the Child”.

Based on the lecture videos, do you feel Progressive political reforms have gone too far or do they still have an important place in 21st century education? Based on the required readings (both the above article and the this week’s chapter from Saving Schools), do you feel Progressive philosophy should still play a role in 21st century education?

Why it’s a Bad Question: Questions are closed • First question is leading — “Do you think reforms have gone too far“… (it’s better not to include options) •  There is little content or resources that describes the principles of progressive education or its characteristics thus (some) students won’t have the background to respond adequately  • The content is biased and suggests that progressive reform is ‘bad’ • The essay is overtly critical of the progressive education movement, which is fine if there were resources provided to portray additional perspectives

I would eliminate this question altogether. The question lacks purpose and focus.

Alternative question:  What are examples of education reforms put forth by John Dewey in the progressive era that are evident in policy of US public schools today? Discuss.  2) Are these policies still applicable to learners’ needs? Why or why not?”

 Further Resources:

“Spreadable Media” — How its Relevant to Education

The media industries understand that culture is becoming more participatory, that the rules are being rewritten and relationships between producers and audiences are in flux.” (page 35)

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spreadablemedia.org

I recently read “Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture”.  Its focus (not surprisingly) is social media; how people consume and engage with content via various channels of social media and its effects on business, entertainment and other sectors. It addresses how meaning and value are created from content that is spread; ‘spread’ meaning sharing of content not just between people, but within communities. Content, the authors suggest, is shaped even manipulated throughout the spreading process.

It’s a dense read. The lead author Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at USC, wrote the book with two digital strategists, Ford and Green. The book aims to “build understanding and conversation among three groups of readers: media scholars, communication professionals, and citizens who actively produce and share media content”. I’d say that there is quite a bit to discuss and not just for those involved in media studies. It’s applicable to education, more so given that social media platforms are used with greater frequency by students and instructors to connect with, consume and create education content.

Several of the book’s sub themes address topics educators and institutions are wrestling with, particularly those offering any form of online education. For instance engagement topic of chapter three—The Value of Media Engagement explores engagement from the perspective of market value, recently a topic of discussion among MOOC providers (Dodd, 2014). Building on the engagement theme, chapter four What Constitutes Meaningful Participation explores the changing relationship between producers and consumers, another parallel to education, as more students seek to be actively involved in a course’s content development—to co-create with instructors and other students. Both chapters offer insight into the issues in context of education, even though authors draw upon examples primarily from the business and entertainment sectors—the applicability is hard to miss.

Lurking
One discussion in chapter three addresses the behavior known as ‘lurking’, a topic of concern when it comes to MOOCs and online courses. Lurkers are students that typically don’t participate or contribute to asynchronous discussion forums, or engage in a real-time video conferencing sessions or other chat venues, yet are reading and/or watching—they are consuming content. Lurking is viewed negatively, or at least as a challenging behaviour by course instructors. More so in courses that require students to participate for course credit. Lurking in connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) also doesn’t go over well, particularly with other MOOC students (Milligan, Littlejohn & Margaryan, 2013). Jenkins, Ford & Green attempt to reframe lurking behaviour. They discuss barriers to online participation and suggest there might be opportunity to scaffold learning, or at scale least levels of participation (p. 158).

The authors portray “lurkers” (the bane of online communities where the vast majority of members who only consume others’ information without contributing any of their own) as only learning and biding their time until they too understand the rules and start to participate. In Chapter 5 they even describe what makes materials sharable. This will help me to completely rethink the development of content rather than just to focus on why community members are either engaged or not.”  T. Sales, Amazon Reviewer of “Spreadable Media”

Startling Parallel: Audience Fragmentation
Authors discuss engagement specific to television audiences, yet the similarity between television consumers and participants in education (particularly those engaging in open learning) is strong.  Beginning on page 116 the authors address the challenges the media industry is facing due to audiences consuming content across multiple channels e.g television, mobile devices, or DVRs. This behaviour, according to the authors, fragments the audience, an audience that traditionally consumed content via one channel—television. The audience has since splintered in response, and the result?— people consuming the same content on a variety channels creating smaller audiences. This fragmentation makes it difficult for providers to gauge the value of the different audience groups—to establish an appropriate pricing model.

Note the similarities to the education sector. Education, at one time used two distribution channels for content, 1) the instructor in a physical location delivering content to student, and 2) the textbook. It’s no longer the case. Today education content has numerous distribution channels, for example open education resources (OER) via the web, MOOC providers, textbook companies, closed, fee-based education platforms, Khan Academy and the likes. These channels suggest a fragmentation of the education sector—similar to what’s happening the media industry. It’s not surprising that MOOC providers are finding it a challenge to settle on a viable business model.

Even among those who understand that developing business models around such engagement is key, there has been little consensus on how, or even which, measures of engagement are valuable or how to agree on a model… (p. 116).

Closing Thoughts 
“Spreadable Media” puts forth several relevant and thought-provoking concepts specific to our digital culture. The book on the surface seems more applicable to business decision makers, marketers and media scholars given the numerous references to marketing and entertainment examples, however, the parallels to education though subtle are striking making it a worthwhile and interesting read.

Resources

Need-to-Know-News: edX goes Corporate, Wired Magazine/USC Partner to Create Degree & More on Competency Education

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

1) edX Goes Corporate
Udacity the for-profit MOOC provider did an about-face a few months ago, shifting its focus from the higher education market to vocational education, partnering with big tech companies. Coursera too is reaching out to companies looking for ways to generate a revenue stream. Now edX is going the corporate route. Most disappointing given its not-for-profit premise, which differed significantly from the others—”(edX is) committed to research that will allow us to understand how students learn, how technology can transform learning, and the ways teachers teach on campus and beyond“.  This past Wednesday, October 1, edX announced the launch of professional education classes on topics including energy, entrepreneurship and cybersecurity, priced at up to $1,249 a person, with volume discounts available for some employers (Korn).

Why? According to CEO of edX, Anant Agarwal, “This goes to our sustainability story. Though edX is a nonprofit enterprise, it still needs cash to develop the free courses taken by nearly three million participants world-wide”. 

When considering the statement above in conjunction with one that Agarwal made in another interview, one with Wired magazine last month, “…effective uses of the MOOC model are only beginning to take shape. Enrollment in edX courses has doubled over last year, and he (Agarwal) believes we’re on the verge of an era he calls MOOC 2.0. “We’ve been growing as others are throwing in the towel” (Lapowsky), one wonders if he meant MOOC 2.0 as the corporate-MOOC—the not-for-free version of MOOCs.

Insight: MOOC providers do not (and never did) have a sustainable financial model to offer free courses indefinitely. It sounds noble—offering free education to learners worldwide. But somebody has to pay eventually. Development costs run into the thousands (paid for by the university-partners), operating costs considerable. MOOCs are not ‘free’. We all pay for free education in different ways; now it’s running dry and the only way to go it appears is to go corporate.

post_wired_logo_150x602)  Wired Magazine and USC Team-Up to offer “Real World Degree”
Another twist this week on an education partnership—University of Southern California (USC) announced its partnership with Condé Nast and Wired Magazine (Condé Nast is the parent company) to offer a degree program. And, as a journalist at Wired puts it “it’s a real credential, not just a certificate with the WIRED logo stamped” (Wohlsen). This is perhaps the most odd combination for an education partnership I’ve read about to date. There’s other businesses involved too, Qubed Education, which is joint venture between higher-ed investment firm University Ventures and Condé Nast, and an online degree consultancy company Synergis Education.

Taking the best from USC and WIRED, we can teach discipline and disruption, business fundamentals and the very latest innovation models from Silicon Valley. This is going to be thrilling

Insight: Businesses and now education institutions are capitalizing on an underserved market in the education sector, which is the adult learner that works full-time with some or little higher education. Yet the implications for traditional higher education are many— higher education institutions (and students) become a testing ground for business experiments and models, it draws funds away from higher education institutions, and the practice could be viewed by some, as undermining the integrity of higher education.

3) (Another) Course Management Platform geared to Competency-Based Education 
A couple of weeks ago I shared a story about a new course management provider, Helix Education. The system is different from your traditional LMS, it’s created to deliver a single platform to serve competency-based education programs (CBE), on-campus, online, or continuing education formats (Helix).  This week, another LMS launch by Motvis Learning. It’s also a  platform focused on CBE, though it’s referred to as a ‘relationship management system‘ rather than a LMS.

For students, the system looks more like a social network than a learning management system. When they log in, students are greeted by an activity feed, showing them a tabbed view of their current projects, goals and feedback. A column on the right side of the screen lists connections and to-dos, and a bar along the top tracks progress toward mastering competencies. (Straumsheim)

Insight: Competency based education has more potential for disruption to the higher education model than MOOCs ever will.

4) Multi-Language MOOC on Ed-Tech starts October

The 27th of October we will launch the third edition of the Learning Design Studio for ICT-based Learning Activities MOOC. The course will last 5 weeks and a group of facilitators will support you in the task of designing your own learning activities and lessons. The course will be offered in six languages: English, Spanish, Catalan, Greek, Slovenian and French.”

For more information: http://handsonict.eu/join-the-mooc/

 

How to Develop a Sense of Presence in Online and F2F Courses with Social Media

Social presence is a significant predictor of course retention and final grade in the college online environment. Two effective interventions are recommended: establishing integrated social and learning communities;… (Liu, Gomez & Len, 2009)

Presence is considered a central concept in online learning. ‘Presence’ in the online course is understood as the ability of people “to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to other participants as ‘real people’”. (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, p. 89). One way of examining ‘presence’ online is through the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, a frequently referenced model that outlines three interdependent dimensions of presence: social, teaching and cognitive. When all three elements interact, it’s then that students are able to experience deep and meaningful learning.

COI_model_adaptedCoI–is breaking through the social barriers that exist because of the transactional distance between students and instructors (Moore, 1993)…. These human qualities, established through personal sharing, help students develop a sense of trust in and connection with an instructor…foundational for cultivating the social presence needed for a healthy and productive [learning].

Other bodies of research suggest presence is a key factor to engagement, another metric for predicting student success in online coursework. Presence in this context also considers student perceptions of instructor involvement as a central factor. High levels of engagement, studies indicate, lead to higher levels of student achievement, greater likelihood of graduation, and deeper satisfaction (Oblinger, 2014, p 14).

Presence and Social Media
But describing presence in an online course is vague, slippery—hard to describe. It’s a challenge for instructors to figure out how to make presence happen. What does one do to create social and teaching presence in an online course? This post outlines examples that describe how faculty and instructors use social media to establish presence—that feeling of connectedness among students in online and F2F courses. What’s described here, social media as a vehicle for presence-development, is different however from using social media as a pedagogical tool, which I wrote about in a previous post, How to Use Social Media Platforms to Create Meaningful Learning Assignments. Though there is some overlap. One of the aims of using social media platforms in this context is to bridge the distance gap that exists in online education, to overcome the disconnectedness student can feel when studying online.

Presence in F2F classes: Numerous educators have found that social media tools support a sense of community, or connectedness in face-to-face (F2F) courses as well. One faculty member shares his experience in the Prof Hacker column over at The Chronicle, “Twitter adds to the community spirit of the class and help to sustain student interest across the days and weeks of the semester” (Sample, 2010).

Examples of Instructors Using Social Media
Below are examples of how instructors use social media platforms to create a sense of being ‘there’.  Note: the methods described here facilitate informal learning; to foster a learning community. Social media used in structured (or formal) learning activities is used as a method to bring about targeted learning outcomes as mentioned earlier.

1) Twitter 
The paper “Tweeting the Night Away: Using Twitter to Enhance Social Presence” describes how the Twitter platform creates a sense of community among students. In 140 characters or less, learners share ideas and resources, ask and answer questions, collaborate on problems of practice, participate in discussions at conferences, webinars, or lectures.  A hashtag (a.k.a.the pound sign ‘#’) for a class aggregates all ‘Tweets’ (messages) sent on platform when the hashtag is used as a tag for all class-related messages. For example a professor at Trinity College created a tag #eng685 for his face-to-face English class (Sample, 2010). Hashtags are also used to aggregate tweets on specific topics, e.g. #onlinelearning, #highered.

“Twitter’s just-in-time design allowed students and instructors to engage in sharing, collaboration, brainstorming, problem-solving, and creating. Participants noted that using Twitter for socializing and learning purposes felt more “natural and immediate” than did using a formal learning management system.” (Dunlap & Lowenthal, n.d.)

Examples of how Twitter is used:

  • To post news and share resources relevant to the class
  • To ask questions and respond with clarifications about the readings
  • Professor Sample allows and encourages students to tweet during class, in an attempt to create a “back channel” to class discussion but admits, “This back channel idea has never worked as successfully for me in class as it has at an actual conference” (Sample, 2010).
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Screen shot of the Twitter exchanges between students and instructor for F2F class #eng685

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Screen shot of a current course, ‘Indian Epics’, #ou3043, an online course taught by Professor Gibbs at the University of Oklahoma.

2) Pinterest
Pinterest is a digital bulletin board, and holds great potential for education settings. It’s visual, flexible, customizable by using images, and text to create themed boards that can be templates for projects; individual and group—a tool to support instructional activities. Yet Pinterest also has tremendous potential for increasing presence and interactivity. Professor Gibbs is experimenting with Twitter and Pinterest as vehicles for socializing in two of her online courses this semester:

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Screen shot from Professor Gibbs’ course web page for students describing how to socialize in Indian Epics and Myth & Folklore undergraduate online courses.  Retrieved from http://onlinecourselady.pbworks.com/w/page/83588941/socialize

Gibbs shares links to students’ Pinterest boards on a webpage within the course site on the Pinterest Class Directory. Students can comment on one another’s boards, re-pin to their own board and/or ‘like’ a pin. Students do need sign up for a Pinterest account using an email address.

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Screen shot of a student’s Pinterest board ‘Epics of India Portfolio’. Retrieved from http://www.pinterest.com/catherinelesser/epics-of-india-portfolio/

3)  Google+ Hangouts/Video Conferencing
Real-time meetings, seminar discussions even watching panel discussions over video conferencing platforms are excellent methods to create a feeling being there and together. I’ve participated in several online courses (MOOCs & closed, small online courses) where the Google+ Hangout platform (or similar) has been used in a variety of ways that do create feeling of being in a learning community. Even if students can’t engage in the active discussion on the platform, Twitter is frequently used as the back channel for questions and discussion. Sessions are usually recorded, then posted for students that can’t participate live.

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Screen shot of Google Hangout of a seminar discussion around a class reading with five students and professor of a Massive Open Online Course. Other students’ watching live, asked questions and discussed via Twitter.

4) Instagram
searchInstagram is one of the most popular social media platforms used by high school and college students in North America. It’s similar to Twitter, as the platform uses hashtags, though it’s billed as a photo sharing platform. Yet it has more potential than Twitter since character limit for Instagram captions is 2200, considerably more than Twitter’s 140 limit. Instagram comments have a limit of 240 characters.

I’ve not yet come across examples of educators using Instagram to create social presence for courses, though numerous institutions use Instagram as a marketing vehicle. There is considerable potential in online courses for Instagram as a presence-building tool given its popularity with the younger set—it’s just a matter of time.

Closing
Technology is shaping culture. Alternatively, one could say that culture is shaping technology. Whichever viewpoint one takes, social media is central to the change, to the shift in how we communicate, socialize and learn. Educators have an opportunity to help students (and ourselves) blur the lines between informal and formal learning—creating life-long learners.

References:

Need-to-Know-News: GradSkills Program, Competency-Based Education Gets its Own LMS, & College Rankings

MP900405500This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

1)  Skill Development for Grad and Post-Doc Students including Entrepreneurship
A group of universities in Ontario, Canada released a platform earlier this month, mygradskills.ca . The Moodle-based platform features online modules to support professional skill development for graduate and post-doctoral students. The tag line for the program is “Find your Future“.  Students can choose between 20 mini-courses, in five topic areas. And though you wouldn’t normally associate post-doc students with entrepreneurship, that is one of the categories.

According to program founders, the aim of mygradskills is to give graduate students the opportunity to develop the skills they’ll need to succeed “both in their graduate programs and beyond” (Samson, 2014). One of the goals of the program is to expose students to career options available, over and above research opportunities. Apparently it’s needed as one of the founders of the platform shared in an interview, “I can’t tell you how many graduate students have told me that they were afraid to tell their faculty advisers that they didn’t want to go on in academia.” 

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Screen shot from mygradskills.ca “Courses” page. Currently there are 20 self-paced courses available to enrolled students.

The courses are free to graduate and post-doctoral students from Ontario Universities, and there are plans to extend the program to other Canadian Universities (the Ontario Ministry of Training funded the program).

Insight: This type of initiative has great potential for all students, including undergraduates. We read statistics of many students with undergraduate degrees either unemployed or under employed soon after graduation, yet at the same time we read of employers claiming a skills gap. This type of program could address some of the shortfalls. If available to undergraduate students in their senior year—it could get students moving towards a career or post-grad study pathway. I see it augmenting the career center services.

2) LMS for Competency Based Education
Readers may not be too interested in reading about Learning Management System news; often LMSs are considered a necessary evil to faculty and teachers of education institutions. However, news last week shared by Phil Hill over at e-literate  is worthy of attention—the launch of a LMS platform geared to  competency based education (CBE) programs. The new LMS launched by Helix has a different approach than traditional LMS providers.  It’s not catering to an institution, but to a method of teaching and learning—CBE.  Interesting.

Insight: There is, and continues to be an emphasis and support ($$$) for creation of CBE programs by the Department of Education (Fain, 2014). This new LMS approach by Helix is another indicator. I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more about CBE in the next few months with more institutions offering CBE options for students.  Why it’s significant, is because CBE is a radical departure from traditional education; it does not rely upon the credit-hour or ‘seat time’ as its often referred to, but upon mastery of units of instruction.

comp_assessment_examples

Competency Based Education (CBE) is an approach that allows students to advance based on their ability to master a skill or competency at their own pace. Credit is granted when the skill is mastered regardless of learning time. (image: Capella University)

Several institutions are already basing their model on CBE, College for America, an offshoot of Southern New Hampshire University and Capella University for instance. Purdue University is planning on offering a competency-based degree in the near future. Other universities that incorporate CBE principles—Western Governors University and Kentucky Community and Technical College System for its 2-year degree program.

3) College Rankings News
US News released its 30th edition of Best College Rankings earlier this September. It’s given fodder for many articles and blog posts. The rankings are clearly aimed at parents and students, “U.S. News provides nearly 50 different types of numerical rankings and lists to help students narrow their college search“, yet the rankings are based solely upon a “peer assessment survey”, where the peers are deans and senior faculty at peer institutions. I give much value to faculty and deans opinions, however the fact that it is the only metric for such surveys, and that the rankings are given so much weight by parents and students is disconcerting.

Insight: There is a college that is the right fit for every student that wants to go to either a two or four-year institution. Yet there is an emphasis and pressure for students to get into one of the ‘best’ colleges—often unrealistic, wasting students energy, time and (parents) money. The focus should be on finding the right college for him or her which would yield far better educational results in the long run. The ‘best’ college rankings isn’t helping students.

Even in Education Everything Old is New Again

“There are more people In the world than ever before, and a far greater part of them want an education. The demand cannot be met simply by building more schools and training more teachers. Education must become more efficient. To this end curricula must be revised and simplified, and textbooks and classroom techniques improved.”  (Skinner, 1958)

what's old is new again sign

It’s been over fifty years since the article “Teaching Machines” appeared in the Science Journal from which the opening quote was excerpted. Author B.F. Skinner would be pleased to read some of the headlines in the education sector this week, one in particular “College in a Box” (Kahn, 2014) which describes how textbook publishers such as Pearson have developed enhanced textbooks and put them on their online platforms such as MyMathLab. These enhanced ‘books’ feature interactive quizzes, tutorials, immediate feedback, and tutorial videos based upon students’ responses. Pearson’s new spin on the old textbook would likely meet Skinner’s definition of efficiency. Coincidently, the instructional method used for Pearson’s textbook programs is programmed instruction; a method Skinner developed and applied with his teaching machine. Skinner’s machine consisted of a program, developed to deliver a self-learning experience for the student that included presenting of content, related questions for students to answers, immediate  and corrective feedback.

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Skinner’s teaching machine, a mechanical invention to automate the task of programmed instruction

The expression (also a song) comes to mind, ‘everything old is new again’.  We don’t need to look far into the education sector to find more examples of traditional, which some may consider old, instructional methods repackaged and presented as new. We see this with MOOCs offered through institution-affiliated platforms that feature recorded lectures delivered to students, multiple choice assessments and certificates awarded upon successful completion of institution-established criteria. A new twist on traditional methods.

‘Old’ Instructional Methods
In doing research recently about influential educators and educational psychologists of years past—their philosophies of education, corresponding instructional methods, influence, etc. I see glimpses of these educators’ philosophies in many new methods and education models—with Pearson as described, with Coursera’s model which according to their website uses Benjamin Bloom’s Mastery learning as its pedagogical premise, or essay-grading software that touts immediate (and formative) feedback to students as one of the most useful instructional benefits.

In this post I’ve created a photo post that illustrates the old and new concept with a selection of images on four instructional methods. Included is the corresponding scholar, an image of the method implemented in the past, and today. For description of each image, roll the cursor over the photo; text appears.

The Four Methods Illustrated: Old and New

1) Programmed Instruction: B.F. Skinner (1904—1990)
2) Experiential/occupational learning: John Dewey (1859—1952)
3) Mastery Learning: Benjamin Bloom (1913—1999)
4) Discovery learning: Jerome Bruner (1915 —  )

Closing Thoughts
In discussing the instructional methods in this post in terms of old and new, I’m more making an observation than a heavy hitting point. But, it did come to mind when writing, that if one wants different results, as many seem to want when it comes to education, that they perhaps should be trying different methods, not the same methods slightly repackaged, and then expecting different, (presumably better) results.

References

How-to Use Social Media Platforms to Create Meaningful Learning Assignments

This post describes and provides examples of three social media platforms used as a pedagogical tool to create meaningful learning assignments in face-to-face and online courses.

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‘Social learning’ by MKHMarketing, creative commons

Social media platforms such as blogs, Wikis and Twitter hold great potential as vehicles for student learning. These tools can support meaningful, rich learning outcomes when assignments are developed to align with course objectives. Yet social media has an image problem—in education at least; it’s viewed as frivolous, a distraction, a time waster. In this post I outline how three social media platforms, when used in pedagogically sound ways support student learning and skill development in for-credit course work.

Social media is the collective of online communications channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration. Websites and applications dedicated to forums, blogging, social networking, social bookmarking, social curation, and wikis are among the different types of social media” Definition via techtarget.com

Social media In Higher Education
Social media applications are used by instructors in several contexts: 1) as a tool for communicating with students, 2) as a subject of study, e.g. UC Berkeley’s course “Analyzing Big Data with Twitter”, and 3) as a pedagogical method for instruction and learning. The latter is what we focus on in this post but it’s instructive to acknowledge the other uses. 

Most educators were first introduced to social media via Facebook, with students checking-in during class time. But some of these same educators have discovered the value of social media applications, as teaching and learning tools. Twitter for example—instructors can send Tweets to students with class updates, reminders and/or links to course-related resources as described in “Class Twitter Account”. Other options include Facebook or Google+ that can serve as a platform for a course (club, study group, etc.) where notices can be posted, messages exchanged, and resources shared. In these instances, social media applications act as supplements to a course that enhance learning.

Three Platforms—Three Instructional Strategies
Different from above however, is using a social application such as Twitter or Wikipedia as a pedagogical method to support learning objectives of a course. Below I share examples of instructor-developed assignments requiring that students’ apply course concepts using a social media application as the vehicle. The learning outcomes vary depending upon the course and assignment, but instructors find students learn not just course concepts, but develop additional skills that include critical thinking, advanced written communication and digital skills.

Wikipedia-logo-en-big1) Wikipedia: A professor of Museum Studies at the University of Memphis teaches a one-credit hour, face-to-face course “Wikipedia as a Research Tool” to freshman students. The focus of the course is less on Wikipedia, and more on the concepts of user-generated content, open authority and public access. He uses the Wikipedia platform for the primary assignment where students create a Wikipedia article or substantially edit an existing page—a process involving considerable research, edits, responding to feedback and criticism. Students seem to learn just as much from the process itself, as about their topic. You can read a selection of student comments in “My Experience in Teaching a Class on Wikipedia, Part 2“.

The professor shares his experience in a series of three articles on his blog, including resources available through Wikipedia Outreach.

blogicon2) Blogging: I share two examples of faculty using blogging platforms for assignments: 1) a professor teaching an online, under graduate course, Mythology and Folklore and, 2) a professor teaching a face-to-face, graduate level course, Communicating Science through Social Media.

In Mythology and Folklore students are required to set up their own blog the first week of class, which they use for weekly assignments throughout the course. Students ‘publish’ their writing each week, which allows the instructor to review the work, and classmates to read other’s work. Credit is given for students commenting on two or more posts in select weeks. Instructions for each assignment are detailed; the professor describes how to make each blog post clear, encouraging students to put their writing into context for potential readers (e.g. using an ‘author’s note’ as applicable).

Students are also required to add bibliographies and images. The instructor includes a detailed section on her course site describing the concepts including digital copyright, Creative Commons and public domain, along with instructions and resources for each. You can read more about this professor’s instructional methods on her blog, “Anatomy of an Online Course“. Students seem to engage at a higher level in this course, given they are writing for an audience; skills developed go beyond comprehension and writing skills.

The second example, a graduate level course takes blogging to the next level, as described on the courses’ blog site Mind the Science Gap:

“Mind the Science Gap is a science blog with a difference. For ten weeks each semester, Masters of Public Health students from the University of Michigan will be posting weekly articles as they learn how to translate complex science into something a broad audience can understand and appreciate.

Each week, ten students will take a recent scientific publication or emerging area of scientific interest, and write a post on it that is aimed at a non expert and non technical audience…And they will be evaluated in the most brutal way possible – by the audience they are writing for!  As this is a public initiative, comments and critiques on each post will be encouraged, and author responses expected…”

I followed this blog for the first semester the course was offered. I posted comments to students articles on a consistent basis. It was rewarding to watch the students’ writing develop and improve over the semester. Yet the purpose of the course was not about blogging, as the professor describes:

“This course is not designed to teach the art of science blogging (although inevitably this will be a by-product), and because of this, no previous experience with blogging and social media is needed.  Rather, through the medium of the blog, it is designed to teach participants how to collate, synthesize and translate scientific evidence into information that a non-expert audience can access, understand and act on.”

Note: This course started as an experiment, and unfortunately won’t be continuing given it is, “extremely time-consuming, dependent on feedback from readers and other science communicators” writes the professor in a recent post.

search3) Twitter
A digital humanities professor created a unique assignment using Twitter—the Twitter Essay. A challenge given Twitter is known as a micro-blogging platform due to the 140 character limit of messages, or ‘Tweets’. The instructor shares the assignment details in this article—he writes:

There is pleasure in the act of composing with these constraints, an intentional and curious engagement with how sentences, words, and letters make meaning. Composing a text-message or tweet is most certainly a literate (and sometimes even literary) act. And, interestingly, the average text-message or tweet distorts grammar much less than the naysayers would have us believe.

Student Learning Curve
Almost all of the professors mentioned the learning curve students experienced when becoming familiar with the features of the social media platform. Contrary to what we expect, young people are not always proficient in all social media platforms. Thus educators planning on using a social media application would do well to provide links to tutorials, step-by-step instructions, and build time into the course to accommodate for technical learning.

Conclusion
Though social media platforms can be a valuable learning tool, there is an upfront time commitment required on the instructor’s part. Planning for the assignment, involves not only the writing of the instructions and materials, but requires familiarity with the platform, evaluation of the alternatives and then the selection of method that fits the needs of the class. Though, the time investment on the instructor’s part appears worth it, not only for the students benefit, but for the quality of learning students experience as a result.