Seven Must-Read Books About Education: 2015 List

Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly  — Francis Bacon

Book selloutTwo thousand and fourteen was a great year for books. I read all the books on last year’s list, “Seven Must-read books about education for 2014” and wrote reviews for each. The books were thought-provoking, refreshing, well worth the investment of my reading time. I’ve complied a selection of titles for 2015 and share the top seven related to education. Collectively the books provide unique and broad perspectives on education. Three titles fall outside the education discipline though each provides insight worth exploring. The list is based upon reviews of several published lists featuring best books overall and best-selling education books of 2014 by The New York Times, NPR, The Chronicle of Higher Education etc. as well as readers comments on GoodReads and Amazon. Like last year, I’m aiming for thought-provoking reads, and quality over quantity.

1. Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, (2014). Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III & Mark A McDaniel

“Make it Stick” made The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Top 10 Books on Teaching. Though two of the three authors are college professors, the book emphasizes the practical application of learning techniques rather than teaching strategies. Authors present recent research on memory, cognitive functioning, how the brain encodes, consolidates information, etc. The subject might suggest a dry read—but reviewers claim it’s engaging, even lively. The book delivers practical advice on effective learning techniques that trump traditional methods of cramming, rote memorization, etc.

“From the perspective of a professor with a good 20 years of experience, this book is a gem. The authors use research to demonstrate how students learn best and how teachers can structure courses to facilitate student learning. While I’ve read many books on teaching, few are as helpful as this one”  Elizabeth Theiss (Goodreads)

2. Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, (2014). Nir Eyal (author),  Ryan Hoover (editor)

“Hooked” is not about education, but product design. The design concept is typically not considered among educators let alone applied when creating learning environments, yet it’s a critical component in developing learning for online spaces. Up until now online learning has focused on delivery of content, level of engagement of learners, completion rates, etc.  There’s been little consideration of usability of learning platforms, of creating and structuring content, or guidance for students that provide intuitive pathways for learning. Design principles—principles that guide product design to create user-friendly, intuitive products can and should be applied to online learning. There’s science behind the book too, it incorporates behavioural theory and research.

3. Mastery, (2013). Neil Greene

I chose to include this book for a few reasons, first—the publisher is Penguin Books, my favorite book publisher. I’ve yet to read a Penguin book I didn’t like. Second the format of the book is intriguing as the author Robert Greene examines the lives of several masters—Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Leonard da Vinci, and contemporary experts such as tech guru Paul Graham. The book is also the sequel to New York times bestselling book “48 Laws of Power”. As the title implies, “Mastery” is about mastering a subject through a three-phase learning technique that includes, 1) apprenticeship, marked by intense learning, 2) the active level, set apart by practice and final phase is mastery.  This book sounds review-worthy.

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Social Network Theory and Educational Change, Alan J. Daly, Harvard Education Press (December 16, 2010)

4. Social network Theory and Educational Change, (2010). Alan J. Daly

This book intrigues me. After reading the description it appears to be about implementing change in education settings by using the theory of social network analysis as a framework. Worth considering since the focus is on examining the relationships between teachers, leaders, and students, considered ‘nodes’ in the network, and the patterns of communication and information flow between them. The author, a professor of education, uses a case study approach to illustrate application of the network analysis model. 

 5. Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), (2014). Christian Rudder

Not just a book about big data and what it tells us, “Dataclysm” explores the idea of the vision itself.  Highly acclaimed, it made NPR list of Best books of 2014 under the ‘eye-opening reads’ category, The Globe and Mail’s Best Book for 2014, Amazon’s top book of 2014, and was a New York Times Bestseller. As education moves online and institutions and companies gather millions of data patterns of students, Big Data is a BIG topic that both students and institutions need to examine closely for different reasons. “Dataclysm” made my list this year so I can learn more about data that’s collected and the implications for design and development of online education and its students.

“Most data-hyping books are vapor and slogans. This one has the real stuff: actual data and actual analysis taking place on the page. That’s something to be praised, loudly and at length. Praiseworthy, too, is Rudder’s writing, which is consistently zingy and mercifully free of Silicon Valley business gabble.”  Jordan Ellenberg, Washington Post

6. Peeragogy Handbook version 3, (2015). Howard Rheingold et al.

I was introduced to this book last year by a reader, and placed it on my must-read list for 2015. The book’s premise is technologically enhanced peer learning, and is a guide to help peers around the globe attain their educational goals and improve their projects. In keeping with the thesis is its authorship; it’s collective, anyone can contribute. From the Peeragogy Handbook website:

“The “Peeragogy Handbook” isn’t a normal book. It is an evolving guide, and it tells a collaboratively written story that you can help write. Using this book, you will develop new norms for the groups you work with — whether online, offline, or both.

Version 3 of the handbook is launching January 1, 2015 and will be available as a free PDF download on peeragogy.org. Version 2 is available up until January 1. The softcover format is available on Amzaon.com for $20 .

7. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, (1964). Marshall McLuhan

I’m a big fan of Marshall McLuhan’s work; the man was a genius. McLuhan was a philosopher, author and professor of communication studies. Reading his works and listening to recordings of his talks, one hears him speak of the effects of the internet long before we had the internet. I’m eager to read this book where he argues a society is affected and shaped by the medium, its characteristics rather than the content that’s delivered over it. How intriguing!

Closing
I look forward to another year of good company with some great books.  I track my book list and reviews on the Goodreads platform, which you can find here.  If interested in viewing the previous books I’ve read on education along with their reviews click here for my education virtual bookshelf on Goodreads.

How (Not) to Design a MOOC: Course Design Scenarios From Four xMOOCs

designThis post examines four MOOCs completed as a student then de-briefed from a course design perspective—I share insights into what worked and what didn’t for the purpose of helping educators create better online learning experiences.

I recently completed two MOOCs on the edX platform that are part of a mini-series on education policy. The courses are great examples of how higher education institutions misuse the MOOC format by using traditional teaching methods that end up falling flat. I debrief the two MOOCs from a course design perspective and share why they were sub par, uninspiring. I also describe two other MOOCs that provided exemplary learning experiences. The two pairs of MOOCs provide instructive examples of contrasting course design approaches.

This post follows “How to Make Bad Discussion Questions Better: Using a Case Study of an edX MOOC” the first MOOC of the mini-series “Saving Schools: History, Politics, and Policy in U.S. Education”. I used actual discussion questions from this MOOC’s forums as examples of how not to write questions to foster student discussion. I rewrote the questions, providing better and best formats that would be more likely to encourage meaningful dialogue.

The second edX MOOC, “Saving Schools: History, Politics and Policy in U.S. Education: Teacher Policy” wrapped up this week (December 4). Both MOOCs followed an identical course structure that included: recorded video lectures that relied on the interview format featuring one (sometimes two) faculty member(s), two assigned readings per week (from the same source), one discussion question each week, and a final exam. This format is typical of xMOOCs; one that tries to mimic the in-class experience.

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Click to enlarge. Screen shot of instructions for the final assignment, a digital artifact, in E-learning and Digital Cultures. At the end of this post my Digital Artifact created for the course assignment

Exemplary MOOCs
The other two MOOCs used a non-traditional design approach. They took advantage of what the MOOC format could offer by acknowledging its uniqueness and providing content from a variety of sources outside the MOOC platform. They also utilized a range of assessment methods, and included social media that encouraged interaction. Both MOOCs, Introduction to Sociology and E-learning and Digital Cultures (from Coursera), inspired and promoted thought. The learner was a viewed as a contributor, not a recipient.

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Introduction video of Professor Duneier introducing his course on Coursera (2012). Duneier pulled the course from Coursera after concerns over licensing his course for other institutions use.

E-learning and Digital Cultures featured YouTube videos not lecture videos to demonstrate course concepts, along with articles, mostly from academic journals. The learning experience closely resembled a cMOOC experience (the original MOOC format developed by Downes and Siemens)—one that leverages sources on the web, shares student blogs and views students as contributors. Introduction to Sociology featured two video formats; one featuring Professor Duneier, not lecturing, but sitting in an armchair (above) talking, sharing course-related experiences. He acknowledged learners (some by name) and encouraged student interactivity. The other was live (and recorded) using Google’s Hangout platform with eight students and Duneier leading a seminar discussion.

Course Design Shortcomings of the edX MOOCs
The purpose of the following discussion about the edX MOOCs is not to criticize the course designers or faculty, but to consider the MOOCs as learning opportunities. Doing so aligns with one of the goals of edX, to use the platform to advance teaching and learning.

Learning/instructional methods: The MOOCs relied upon mostly traditional methods of instruction—lectures, multiple choice assessments. Content was instructor-centered, limited to lectures (featuring faculty member), textbook readings (from a book written by same faculty member), and articles from one source, Education Next, of which the same faculty member is editor-in-chief.

  • The edX MOOCs would benefit from inclusion of open resources, with links to outside sources showing various perspectives as well as social media platforms where students could engage live with content experts or static content. Also to share content sources, and/or their own content creations (blog posts, etc.)
  • Learning was confined to a virtually, walled classroom—inside the MOOC platform.
Target objectives

MOOCs that provide a focus and structure for students by including goals or focus questions, allow students to shape and customize their own learning accordingly

Course Objectives: There were no learning goals outlined for the MOOCs. There didn’t appear to be a focus for each week, or guiding questions to provide structure. Granted, learners should create their own learning objectives when working within a MOOC, though a stated focus or general goals for the course allows learners to establish and shape their own learning goals. E-learning and Digital Cultures provided an overview of the course which outlined the focus for each unit of study, and each week included focus questions to consider. 

Rigor: Course rigor was low. Disappointing given the institution behind the MOOC was Harvard. It’s worth noting at edX’s launch in 2012, the Provost of MIT at the time L. Rafael Reif emphasized the rigor and quality of courses on ex’s platform ”(edX courses need) not to be considered MIT Lite or Harvard Lite. It’s the same content” (MIT News).  Yet the discussion questions as outlined in my first post, the biased readings, lectures, the application activities for students did not add up to a rigorous learning experience that encouraged critical thinking. Several factors may have contributed. Suffice to say that the course design team would have benefited from someone with a high-level of expertise in effective course design principles, knowledge of learning theories and instructional methods.

Content: As mentioned the majority of the content was limited to the faculty member in the lectures, two or three chapters of a book authored by the same faculty member, and essays from the one source.

  • Biased resources did not contribute to learner’s considering multiple perspectives. Though in the second MOOC there was an effort by course facilitators to incorporate other perspectives in the discussion forums.
  • Lecture videos were long — typically 12 to 15 minutes. Research on MOOC videos suggest ideal length is 4 to 6 minutes (Guo, 2013).
  • Repetitive Content. Content from the readings were also included in the lecture, and frequently two interviews in the same lecture covered the same content.
  • Delivery methods of content were repetitive, uninspiring.
  • Content came across as telling, not interactive.

Application activities: There were few activities for learners to engage in except for discussion forums. Unfortunately the questions in the first MOOC did not encourage robust discussion, though they improved in the second course. There were two or three multiple choice questions after each video. Several questions could be considered common knowledge. I could have answered the majority of them without watching the videos.

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Screen shot of a forum discussion question from the MOOC “Saving Schools: History, Politics and Policy in U.S. Education”. A close-ended question, and one not likely to stimulate thoughtful discussion. In my previous post, “How to Make Bad Discussion Questions Better” I provide examples for more effective questions formats.

Conclusion
The pairs of MOOCs illustrate how varied approaches to MOOC course design significantly impacts engagement levels, perceptions and learning outcomes. The edX MOOCs examined here, typical of the majority of MOOCs, relied upon learning methods that failed to leverage the benefits of an open platform, failed to view as students as knowledge sources and contributors. Over time the MOOC format will no doubt settle into something quite different from what we’re experiencing now. A format that will find it’s purpose, engage learners and build bodies of knowledge that benefit all.

Further Reading:

“I am Malala”: A Review of the Book and Its Implications for Education

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I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. Little, Brown and Company, 2013

“I am Malala” is the true story of a fourteen-year old girl’s campaign for women’s right to education. In 2011 Malala was shot  by the Taliban in a bus on her way home from school. Two men boarded the school bus—“Who is Malala” they asked and fired gun shots; two lodged in Malala’s head. The series of events that followed, described in Malala’s voice, are remarkable—the politics, the media frenzy and her recovery. The shooting triggered a complex series of negotiations involving prominent political figures from Pakistan and England. It’s a powerful book. Malala’s story is remarkable in light of women’s role in her culture and the groups fighting to oppress women—in this case the Taliban. It was the Taliban that claimed responsibility for shooting Malala calling her crusade for education rights an “obscenity.” (Walsh, 2012).

Overview
The first half of the book Malala describes Pakistan’s history including the history of her ancestors and the northern region of Pakistan, Swat where she lives. Malala also shares stories of her family, giving the reader a glimpse into the culture of Pakistan from a young woman’s perspective. Many of the stories involve Malala’s father Ziauddin Yousafzai. She describes his involvement in local politics, in the community and his vocal support of education for boys and girls. There’s no doubt Malala’s passion and courage to stand-up for women’s rights stems from her father’s actions and character. Ziauddin Yousafzai defied Taliban orders by running a private school that encouraged girls to attend. Malala describes the challenges and frustrations her father faced when starting the school. The motto over the school’s door read “We are committed to build for your the call of the new era”. Her father believed the school’s students could fight the enemy with pens, not swords.

Some reviewers claimed the book was poorly written, disjointed. It’s a valid point. The first half of the book does jump around, sometimes repeating facts. But I see this as a sign of authenticity; it’s written in a 14-year old’s voice, from her perspective. The first half of the book provides context for the second half. I could appreciate more about what happened to Malala after her shooting because of the background she included.

Education’s Value
In Western culture it’s unthinkable that women be excluded from education. Malala and her story are symbolic of education freedom and the book delivers a message to the world. Education, considered a right for many is used as a mechanism for oppression in some countries.

Education is education. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow.” Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human. —  Malala Yousafzai

Malala’s story emphasizes education’s value. Looking deeper it challenges readers to examine the role of education, its purpose and function within a society. Withholding education from certain groups within a society hinders progress, threatens peace and perpetuates poverty. These principles also apply to Western cultures where education is the starting point for eliminating poverty, reducing crime and violence in impoverished neighborhoods. There are parallels; it’s thought-provoking.

MOOCs and Education for Women Without Access
Daphne Koller founder of Coursera when launching the MOOC platform often spoke about MOOCs as a vehicle to bring education to those without access and MOOCs “democratizing education”. Though the chances that MOOCs will bring education to women In countries like Pakistan and empower them is questionable. How can MOOCs democratize education if a country’s government is unstable, when there is oppression of women and other groups? Or where there is no internet or access to computers or mobile devices? What about language barriers? MOOCs do have potential to deliver education to those without access, yet there are significant barriers to overcome.

Curriculum for “I am Malala”
George Washington University and the Global Women’s Institute developed a university-level curriculum based upon “I am Malala” to work across various academic disciplines. The tools focus on themes such as how education empowers women, global feminism, political extremism and youth advocacy. One of the goals of the program is to encourage college students and eventually high school students to get involved, to facilitate dialogue among various groups, and to influence public opinion about access to education and women’s rights.

Closing
“I am Malala” is a compelling read. Malala as an individual is a remarkable women who is a hero for women’s right to a quality education. With her father, Malala created the Malala Fund that supports education for women including the Global Partnership for Education. The book is a good starting point for learning about the complexities of women’s rights in some countries and education access. “I am Malala” delivers a message to each reader about the value of education. Education empowers.

The Wisdom of Jerome Bruner in “The Culture of Education”: Book Review

Education is not an island, but part of the continent of culture  —Jerome Bruner

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THE CULTURE OF EDUCATION, Jerome Bruner, Harvard Univ. Press, 1996

The Culture of Education presents nine thought-provoking essays on the subject of cultural psychology and its implications for education. The essays embody Bruner’s experience, knowledge and wisdom of the science of learning, and culture’s influence on teaching and learning.  A scholar of psychology, Bruner defines cultural psychology as a system that describes how humans make sense of their world. A cultural approach to education describes how the mind works—the science of learning with culture. In Bruner’s words the theory of education lies at the intersection “between the nature of mind and the nature of culture”.

The essays are still relevant in today’s context with the abundance of educational technology. Bruner provides a unique construct for thinking about technology. He describes how humans make sense of the world—where learning and thinking are dependent upon cultural settings and the use of cultural artifacts. Thinking of educational technology as artifacts of culture, and learning as dependent on culture—puts technology in a different perspective. Technology as part of culture suggests education needs to embrace technology, as according to Bruner learning is always dependent upon the cultural setting and its resources. Technology in education settings, as many have already argued, needs to be closely linked with pedagogy (Anderson & Dron, 2011Okajie et al., 2014).

In the first essay, Culture, Mind, and Education, Bruner devotes significant discussion upfront to contrasting theories that describe learning. Bruner is critical of the information processing theory or what he calls ‘computationalism’—comparing the mind to a computational device. Bruner proceeds to methodically outline how the psycho-cultural approach addresses learning via ten tenets that each include, to varying degrees culture’s influence and theory of the mind—cognitivism.  Bruner argues each tenet elegantly; none better than number seven—the institutional tenet.  The institution refers to all types of institution, each embodying a distinct culture reflected in symbols, stories and power figures. Complex structures within institutions Bruner argues, leads to coercion, power struggles which are especially detrimental for entities responsible for education. Bruner concludes that any efforts towards improvement (reform) by education institutions must involve teachers; teachers are critical and central to reform efforts.

Several of the essays quite practical in nature, focus on how to teach effectively. The second essay Folk Pedagogy brings in to the open the idea that teachers do not always approach teaching and learning effectively. Teachers (and students) bring with them to the classroom pre-conceived ideas of how learning happens, explained in part by ingrained cultural beliefs about how the mind works.  Bruner outlines in his methodical manner four models of the mind based on pre-conceived ideas, and the related education goals of each. Bruner suggests that by examining and evaluating each carefully, we are then able to rethink our approach to education. Pedagogy is not innocent Bruner states—it’s a medium that carries its own message (page 63).  The latter statement is an example of how powerful and deep Bruner’s ideas are.  The remaining essays are just as stimulating as the first two. Each presents a dimension of education worth examining. Each challenges the reader to think about teaching and education from a different viewpoint, sometimes several.

Closing Thoughts
The Culture of Education deserves a place on every educator’s bookshelf. Bruner is a remarkable scholar, author and man. At ninety-nine years of age his contributions to the study and advancement of education are numerous. As recently as 2011 Bruner participated in Arizona State University’s Inside the Academy program via an interview. The Culture of Education is just one of Bruner’s many works well worth studying; it’s an indispensable guide to finding answers to today’s toughest questions about education.

Educational encounters, to begin with, should result in understanding, not mere performance. pg. xi

Need-to-Know-News: edX’s T-Shirt Giveaway & MOOCs Identity Crisis

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) EdX’s Free T-Shirt Campaign
As a student of edX I frequently receive edX newsletters via email announcing upcoming courses, recently added courses, new university partners, etc. Yet there’s been a subtle shift in tone lately; the last few have emphasized courses with a price tag attached: verified certificate courses* ($), two or more courses within a subject area—xSeries courses ($$), and professional education courses ($$$) .  With edX’s most recent newsletter (screenshot below) there is a not-so-subtle promotional angle:

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Screen shot of heading of newsletter emailed to edX students on November 11

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* Screenshot of options given to students upon signing up for the verified certificate track in a course on edX.  This pick-a-price option for pursing the verified certificate is a change implemented within the last few weeks.

Insight: Offering free (branded) t-shirt is a marketing tactic companies typically use to encourage sales, increase brand awareness, customer loyalty, etc. Which makes one wonder—what’s going on over at edX that free t-shirt tactics are deemed necessary? Note: Despite the offer of a t-shirt in the newsletter, determining how to get the t-shirt is impossible—there’s no mention of a the t-shirt when clicking on the newsletter, registering for a course, or on edX’s site.

2) MOOCs Identity Crisis
I thought the media’s preoccupation with MOOCs was over. If using the number of articles in the media about MOOCs as an indicator—it’s not. Over the past few weeks there’s been several articles in mainstream media about MOOCs—in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. The title of the New Yorker’s piece is amusing “Will MOOCs be Flukes” but the article demonstrates how the term MOOC now includes courses that aren’t necessarily free, or open or even massive.

MOOCs are flexible and they can (emphasis added) be free” (Konnikova, 2014)

Which is consistent with what’s happening in the MOOC marketplace. xMOOCs on platforms such as edX, Coursera, etc. look quite different today than they did in 2012.

Insight: According to a recent article in EDUCAUSE Review, MOOCs are here to stay—the MOOC “experiment is not over; in fact, it has just begun” (Mazoue, 2014). Fair enough. MOOCs have been a catalyst for challenging the traditional view of education. But it’s time for institutions to change terminology and describe courses appropriately. And as Tony Bates describes in a recent blog post, institutions need adjust strategies and approaches to online and open learning in general.

Chauhan describes the increasing variation of instructional methods now associated with the generic term ‘MOOC’, to the point where one has to ask whether the term has any consistent meaning. It’s difficult to see how a SPOC for instance differs from a typical online credit course…The only common factor in these variations is that the course is being offered to some non-registered students, but then if they have to pay a $500 fee, surely that’s a registered student? If a course is neither massive, nor open, nor free, how can it be a MOOC? Tony Bates, A review of MOOCs and their assessment tools

Need-to-Know-News: How Big is the MOOC Market? More Money$ for Minerva & Impact of MOOCs

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.

The MOOC Market
What is the size of the market for xMOOCs? I’m not sure anyone really knows, not even the MOOC providers. The size of a market for a good or service is defined as the number of individuals in a market who are potential buyers. Market size also translates into dollars, typically measured in terms of revenue ($ sales) for a given product/service. Companies—sellers in the market seek to obtain a share, or a piece of the pie.

Since for-profit MOOC providers such as Udacity, Coursera and even not-for-profit edX now charge fees for select courses and/or services, we have ourselves a market—a MOOC market.  But how big is it? How much revenue ($$$) will MOOC providers need to generate to satisfy investors or in edX’s case keep the lights on?  Only time will tell. But in the meantime it’s probably a good idea for educators to take note of what’s happening in the MOOC market.

Here’s a rundown of what MOOC providers are doing to get a share of the market share pie:

  • EdX launched five courses this under the banner of Professional Education. Though they come with a price, starting at $495.

Build skills and advance your career with edX Professional Education courses. Taught by experts at leading universities, our courses are designed to offer working professionals flexible online learning. Check out the courses currently available for enrollment, and stay tuned as we announce more in the coming months. —email to edX students, October 17 2014

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Screenshot of course listing featured in email sent to edX students.  On the edX website, prices for courses are not prominently displayed or obvious from reading course descriptions as per this example 

  • Coursera is counting on the Specialization Certificate programs for a revenue stream. A Specialization Certificate program features two or more MOOCs grouped around a specific topic, described by Coursera as a “targeted sequence of courses”.

At completion of the course series, students will feel they have a connection to today’s workplace with a focus on using real work issues and situations as a practical context for the application of needed knowledge and skills in communication. The culminating experience of the final project will help the students to demonstrate their value to potential employers.  Coursera—Specializations

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Screenshot from Coursera Specialization program description. Cost for Certificate program depends upon number of MOOC in the sequence: each MOOC is $49 (the cost of a Signature Track credential), and $49 for a capstone project.

  • Udacity launched the nanodegree program several weeks ago. Details are now available. The cost structure is not per course as edX and Coursera, but by month. This format closely resembles competency-based education programs (e.g. Western Governors University), where students invest as much time as needed to master the content of a course. Students then demonstrate via competency assessment where mastery is the benchmark.

You can take a nanodegree for $200/month. Most nanodegrees are expected to take between 6-12 months to complete, depending on your study schedule and prior background. For more details, check the overview page for the nanodegree that you’re interested in getting. Nanodegrees —Udacity

Insight: Soon we’ll need to drop the ‘O’ (for open) from the MOOC acronym. Perhaps the ‘M’ too, given potentially shrinking class sizes once a price is attached to ‘free’ learning. We will be left with ‘OC’, for Open Course. Or maybe for Online Credential. An online credential that one pays dearly for.

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Minerva tag line “How will you define your future?”

Minerva Raises More Funds $70 M 
The Minerva Project, a new university with a novel concept—students study in different locations around the world starting in San Francisco and not in a typical university setting. There’s no classrooms, sports teams, or libraries. Minerva sees itself as an elite university, a rival to the Ivy leagues. It’s for-profit with a diverse set of investors. The founder and CEO is Ben Nelson, former executive of Snapfish.

$70 million to San Francisco based education firm Minerva Project:

“Bringing together partners for this round of funding that include one of the most respected, top quality, and innovative education companies with TAL and the most forward thinking technology investors with Benchmark, ZhenFund and Yongjin, is a powerful combination committing to Minerva’s next stage of development.” Reuters

Insight: I was skeptical of the concept when Minerva first launched, and still am. Apparently investors are not.

The Impact of MOOCs 
Inside Higher Education reported on a meeting of an international group of higher education institutions that came together to explore the impact of MOOCs on higher education. The meeting, convened by George Siemens produced some interesting conclusions, though not all surprising including 1) the future for higher education is digital and 2) MOOCs provided safe spaces for experimentation and innovation in teaching and learning and more.

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: