What the Internet is Doing to Our Education Culture: Book Review of “The Shallows”

Following is a book review of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains”, though I suggest it’s more aptly titled, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains Culture” and I describe why in this post.

“Culture is sustained in our synapses…It’s more than what can be reduced to binary code and uploaded onto the Net. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers.” Nicolas Carr, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” a Pulitzer Prize finalist for general non-fiction in 2011

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by Nicolas Carr, 2010

Overview
Author Nicolas Carr made a name for himself with his article featured in the Atlantic “Is Google making us Stupid” in 2008. Carr is not a proponent of the Internet as one might guess from his article and from the title of his most recent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brain (2010). Though the book’s title implies that the Internet is not good for our brains, makes us shallow, no longer capable of deep and thoughtful thinking and learning, Carr fails to provide convincing evidence that this is indeed the case. A more appropriate title might be The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Culture. Carr describes his own challenges with disconnecting with Internet-enabled devices and social media, which is more of a reflection of our current culture—the constant and often frenetic connectivity to the Internet via our mobile devices. Our behaviours as a society have deeply changed due to engagement with digital media, and it’s this behaviour research suggests, that is responsible for changing our brains. Granted the Internet is the vehicle, the catalyst to the Information Age, which impacts society, culture and global economies significantly. Though the point is moot, what I found worthy of consideration while reading Carr’s book from an education standpoint is the concept of ‘efficiency’.  Frequently mentioned throughout the book via the studies quoted, is the idea that the Internet increases efficiency—efficiency usually in the context of work, doing more with less, or in terms of finding information quickly and accurately.

The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient, automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are Internet on finding the “one best way”— the perfect algorithm—to carry out the mental movements of what we’ve come to describe as knowledge work” (p 150)

The Culture of Efficiency and Education
And is this not what we have been hearing in the last couple of years in education circles, how technological advancements can increase efficiencies in education? Efficiency is often cited in the same context as effectiveness, yet more often in terms of cost savings. I was surprised to unearth a book on this topic, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, by Raymond E. Callahan, published in 1962 no less. The author was responding to the post-industrial business model that sought efficiencies in work processes for greater costs savings and higher profits.

Raymond Callahan’s lively study exposes the alarming lengths to which school administrators went, particularly in the period from 1910 to 1930, in sacrificing educational goals to the demands of business procedures. He suggests that even today the question still asked is: “How can we operate our schools?” Society has not yet learned to ask: “How can we provide an excellent education for our children? GoodReads

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By Raymond Callahan, 1962

And though Carr references efficiency in his book, it is not necessarily in an economic context as Callahan outlines. Yet the theme of efficiency as it relates to the Internet extends to our education culture—institution leaders, politicians and administrators seeking efficiency in practices and methods (automated grading, online courses with great numbers of students, etc.) Efficiency is not a ‘bad’ outcome to strive for, yet the idea of efficiency in education is frequently referenced in terms of increasing or maintaining education outcomes, with fewer resources. A recent situation in California’s public higher education system illustrates this point beautifully. Governor Jerry Brown looked to online education (MOOCs is more accurate), as a solution to the problem of bottle neck courses, where students couldn’t graduate from public universities due to too many students and not enough general education classes. Brown and members of his team referred to efficiencies frequently:

“Gov. Jerry Brown last year said that the state’s public colleges operate on a high-cost delivery model that the state cannot sustain. The price of a college education in California is growing steadily without “adding productivity or value,” the governor said….Online education is one practical way for the state’s public universities to improve efficiency.

But online education can expand college capacity and access to courses in affordable fashion. That approach is sensible for the UC system — and a worthwhile start on the much larger task of creating a more efficient and sustainable higher education system.”  The Press Enterprise

In fact, there are numerous articles and papers describing efficiencies in education published by many prominent organizations involved in education. This article for example, Higher Education: Quality, Equity and Efficiency published by the OECD which has this to say:

All nations face the challenges of mobilising more resources and using them effectively in meeting the strategic goals of society with maximum efficiency. “

Conclusion
I’ve referenced the theme of efficiency as it relates to education here which is really not the thrust of Carr’s “The Shallows“, however his book raises several interesting points about how the Internet has affected our culture which extends to our culture within education. The book is a worthwhile read, specifically for the references to how the Internet affects our ability to educate and learn—though learning not from a scientific perspective but from a behavioural one. However, when it comes to efficiency and education, I rather like Callahan’s question posed in his book “Education and the Cult of Efficiency”, ‘how can we provide an excellent education for our children’, and I would add to this, ‘in a connected world’.  The latter is now on my to-read list.

Further Reading:

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ and What it Means for Education

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Macmillan Publishers

I recently finished Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics. Kahneman received the distinguished prize for his “Integrated economic analysis with fundamental insights from cognitive psychology, in particular regarding behavior under uncertainty, thereby laying the foundation for a new field of research.”

Kahneman writes extensively in Thinking, Fast and Slow about his research conducted over a period of several years with his late friend and research partner Amos Tversky. Though heavy in theory, the book is an engaging and frequently challenging read. It provides a unique perspective on the decision-making process which Kahneman demonstrates via his thesis—how we think with two systems, fast and slow. His supporting research reveals just how fallible we are. Kahneman describes the fast and slow thinking as two systems→system one which is quick, spontaneous and often inaccurate, and system two, that is slow [even lazy], methodical, yet when engaged, accesses memory for facts. Kahnemen examines how the two systems affect cognitive biases, choices, even our well-being and happiness. Going deeper, Kahneman explores how [flawed] biases and perceptions when applied to larger issues, policy decisions for example, can have significant impact on sectors such as healthcare, education and employment.

→ System 1:  fast, instinctive, is biased to believe and confirm, infers and invents          causes and intentions, exaggerates emotional consistency (halo effect)
→ System 2:  slow, deliberate, rational, logical, relies on facts and knowledge

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The image above displays the different images used in a study carried out in a kitchen in a UK university. The poster was placed above the tea/coffee area where the ‘honesty’ box was set for the payment of cups of tea or coffee consumed by employees. Above the box a different image appeared each week. The study charted the impact the image had on the value of payments into the honesty box each week (p 57).

Book Highlights
Throughout the book Kahneman incorporates numerous details and specifics of his research, describing the scenarios of his studies, even providing illustrations and images within the book. He shares the outcomes of the research in great detail along with his personal insight. The anecdotes are often humorous, providing a balance to the heaviness of the topic.

One of the writing techniques of Kahneman I enjoyed the most, was his use of summary statements at the end of each chapter representative of the concepts discussed. If I didn’t follow the logic of the statements, I had failed to grasp the concepts Kahneman presented in the chapter, which sent me back to reread it to find what I’d missed (which happened more than once). I’ve chosen a selection of statements from a few of the chapters:

Chapter 4 ‘The Associative Machine’: “They were primed to find flaws, and this is exactly what they found

Chapter 14: ‘Tom W’s Speciality’: “The start-up looks as if it could not fail, but the base rate of success in the industry is extremely low. How do we know this case is different?”

Chapter 16 ‘Causes Trump Statistics’: “No need to worry about this statistical information being ignored. On the contrary, it will immediately be used to feed a stereotype.”

Chapter 18 ‘Taming Intuitive Predictions’: Our intuitive prediction is very favorable, but it is probably too high. Let’s take into account the strength of our evidence and regress the prediction toward the mean.”

What ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ Means to Education
As mentioned, Thinking, Fast and Slow is full of concepts that challenge traditional views on human decision-making, application of choice theory, even probability. What Kahneman’s research reveals is that people, regardless of their education background are prone to cognitive biases, faulty decision-making that fail because system 1 kicks in before the more rational and logical  system 2 is engaged. Viewing the book through an educator’s lens, the results highlight the need for institutions to educate learners to be disciplined thinkers, which is quite opposite from today’s emphasis on teaching creativity and innovation skills. Our minds, according to  Kahneman don’t naturally rely upon logical, rational or critical thinking processes.  Instead system 1 thinking dominates, prompting emotional reactions, reliance on recent events and experiences, and is susceptible to the priming effect, where exposure to one stimulus influences a response to another. Kahneman’s gives examples to support his point.  One example of a study involved doctors, which revealed even medical professionals were susceptible to the priming effect (p 227). Other scholarly research supports Kahnemans’ results, described in this research paper

Notes to Educators
If one subscribes to Kahneman theory, education for high school and undergraduates should focus on teaching disciplined thinking, decision-making skills and principles of probability, choice theory and statistics.  Another skill to emphasize is to approach problems methodically, without jumping to conclusions and settling on easy answers—a challenge given the way culture has shaped expectations for answers at the speed of light.

“The most glaring deficiency of system 2, according to Kahneman, is that it is naturally very poor with probabilities and statistics. Fortunately, system 2 can be trained to improve here, and this is another major concern of the book.” News Books In Brief, 2013

When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment… You can… feel a surge of conscious attention whenever you are surprised. System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains” (2011, Kahneman).

Conclusion
Thinking, Fast and Slow highlights what is missing from education, or at least what is not emphasized across disciplines, which is the concept of disciplined thinking, logic, application of methodical processes that harness factual and theoretical knowledge one learns. As mentioned already, the trend in education today leans towards teaching creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, even the application of design thinking principles. Kahneman’s books provides solid evidence for education that includes applications of disciplined thinking, logic and methodical decision-making.

If you are interested in this book, but short on time, the resources below provide excellent highlights and descriptions of the key concepts of the book. The short YouTube video illustrates one example outlined in the book, and the link to edge.org includes an interview with Kahnamen where he discusses much of the content outlined in his book.

The video below demonstrates a scenario Kahneman describes in his book (p 186).  Note: the video uses the idea of the US grade point average (GPA).  For those not familiar with it, the top score is this instance is 4.0.

Further Reading:

Seven Must-Read Books About Education for 2014

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”   Mortimer Jerome Adler

Many booksAt the close of every year I draw up a list of books I want to read for the upcoming one. When I was [much] younger the goal was to read as many books as I could—the more books I read the greater the sense of accomplishment I felt. I’m far more selective than I was in my youth; my aim is to read books that are worthy of my time, which is no doubt a sign of aging or crankiness, though likely it’s a bit of both. In this post I share with readers a selection of titles from my to-read list for 2014—the top seven related to education. This year [as in the past two at least] the number of titles to choose from was overwhelming. But I’ve narrowed it down to a mere seven. As the quote from Adler [above] suggests, I’m aiming for quality over quantity.

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
This book has been on my radar screen for sometime. I’ve read snippets from a variety of sources over the last couple of years, but it never quite made it onto my list.  I formally added it for  2014, placing it right at the top after seeing it made the number two spot on The Top 75 New York Times Best-Selling Education Books for 2013. The book has received numerous awards including Winner of the National Academy of Sciences Best Book Award in 2012,  The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of the Year 2011, The Economist’s 2011 Books of the Year, and The Wall Street Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of the Year 2011.  Impressive.  Review by The Globe and Mail: The Heart of Reason, and the Reason of the Heart.

2. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicolas Carr
The title alone is intriguing enough, but it secured a spot on my list given it was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. Author Nicolas Carr, technology writer is best known for his sensational article Is Google Making Us Stupid? which was featured as the cover story in the Atlantic Monthly in 2008. He’s written numerous books about technology, mostly about the negative effects of information overload and 24/7 connectivity. Carr appears to be a major cynic when it comes to technology; he describes the Internet as a medium based on interruptions, and how it’s changing the way we work and think for the worse. I look forward to reading it nonetheless. Review by the New York Times: Our Cluttered Minds.

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Hardcover, 327 pages, Little Brown & Co

3. I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban, by Christian Lamb and Malala Yousafzai
The young woman Malala Yousafzai, both the subject and title of this book, made headlines in 2012 when shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for her activism in education rights for women. Malala began sharing her views at the age of eleven—in 2009 when she began writing a blog for the BBC under a pseudonym. Her blog documented life under Taliban rule and her perspective on women’s suppression and lack of access to education. For women living in the West it is hard to imagine being barred from pursuing educational opportunities, it is something we take for granted. Ironically, I am Malala raises awareness of women’s right to education in the Middle East, yet is banned in Pakistan by an organization representing 40,000 private schools.  Review by NPR: I am Malala.

4. Burning the Page: The e-book Revolution of the Future of Reading, by Jason Merkoski
I discovered Burning the Page when reading Jonathan’s Rees’ [blogger, professor, author] post, Reading is Fundamental.  In his post, Rees suggests that reading, specifically skilled reading is on the decline, and e-books are not helping.  My interest piqued, after a bit of research discovered the book is part history, part memoir of the author’s experience as a member of Amazon’s development team for the Kindle e-reader. It’s available in e-book format AND paperback.

“Jason Merkoski was involved on the development team for the Kindle e-book reader and, for a time became a “technology evangelist” for Amazon. This book is a combination memoir and thoughtful exploration of the future of reading in as we make the shift from “analog” to digital in books.” Bob’s Review

5. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green
A speaker at a conference I attended recently mentioned that Harold Jenkins, co-author of Spreadable Media is a modern-day Marshall McLuhan. I am a big fan of McLuhan— author, philosopher, professor, and he is responsible for coining the phrase ‘the medium is the message‘.  Spreadable Media also happens to be part of the PostMilliential Pop Series; a series that “strives to publish work that re-imagines scholarship on popular culture in the age of transnationalism, convergence and globalization.

6. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t, by Nate Silver
Though this work is not specific to education it’s geared more to business-minded readers, yet it is so very applicable the realm of education, more so with the advancement of our digital applications and devices. Also a timely read as the end of the year closes and we read more of the predictions for yet another.  Review: Nate Silver on Predicting the Unpredictable, interview [Podcast]

7. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown
A New Culture of Learning is another one that made the New York Times 2013 list. Yet it’s not only the book topic that’s of interest, but the process the authors followed to write and publish their work. Brown and Thomas describe the publishing approach as self-styled”, essentially mirroring the learning experiences outlined in A New Culture of Learning. The book’s editor cut the book in half from the original manuscript, eliminating any and all “academic jargon“.  In the spirit of a new culture of learning, the authors solicited ten times the reviews that an academic publisher would normally seek by “including a selection of eighteen short reviews of their final manuscript from an eclectic roster of academic and digital-culture all-stars, among them James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan; Joichi Ito, chief executive of Crea­tive Commons; and Beth Simone Noveck, a professor at New York Law School” (Blumenstyk, 2011).

“The book is designed to help teachers “cultivate the imagination of students,” says Brown. But equally, or more important, he says, it is also meant to inspire and challenge the teachers. Faculty might ask themselves, “how much do they manifest these cultures themselves?” Manifesto for a New Culture of Learning (Blumenstyk, 2011)

Conclusion
I look forward to another year and the good company of the books I’ll be reading.  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 and recommend on education, please click here for my education virtual bookshelf on Goodreads.

Happy New Year to you!

‘I Got Schooled’: Acclaimed Filmmaker’s Book on How to Fix Education

16130208I Got Schooled is an ambitious book about education reform. The author M. Night Shyamalan is not an educator, policy analyst or even a parent of public schooled children (his three girls go to private school); but a film producer—a successful one at that. Readers may be familiar with the “Sixth Sense” and “The Village”, two of many films produced by Shyamalan. He is in unfamiliar territory here. I admire Shyamalan willingness and tenacity to tackle the complex and gnarly issue of the achievement gap in U.S. public schools. His view on education reform is fresh and bold. The research backing up the five keys outlined in I Got Schooled  is extensive. Though there is nothing really startling in Shyamalan’s book,  he does frame the five keys quite well. I appreciate the scholarly research referenced, and the extensive personal interviews Shyamalan conducted for the book. His interviewees are eclectic, teachers of public and charter schools, principals, economists, professors, students, and student teachers. Each provides a thought-provoking perspective on education. For these reasons alone it’s a worthy read.

I also appreciate Shyamalan’s neutral viewpoint on U.S. public education; he approaches the book without any baggage, or with an axe to grind. His purpose for writing the book seems to be to jolt readers into caring about education, to shock them with the numbers on the United States’ public school performance for example (which are quite depressing), “My goal is to systematically awaken every part of us that cares” (p 17) —another reason why I found myself liking the book, and Shyamalan. He appears genuine, smart, and passionate about improving education.

Myths Uncovered – Class Size
Though not all readers will find Shyamalan’s five tenets pleasing, nor the myths he debunks. He addresses numerous misconceptions about education which many hold dear. ‘Myths’ as Shyamalan calls them that he even admits to adhering to until digging into the research. One contentious issue addressed is class size. Shyamalan interviews an expert on public education, Professor Eric Hanushek, economist, professor of education, and senior fellow at the Hoover Institute. Several pages in the book describe Professor Hanushek views on class size, as well as results from numerous studies, for and against.

All kinds of people believe in smaller class size. I did, and I had a lot of company. According to the Gallup Organization’s survey “The Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” the number-one choice for a change that would improve American education was reducing class size. I don’t usually go with the crowd, but this one was common sense. (pp. 43-44)

Finding out just how much it would cost to reduce class size in the United States by a third was a wake-up call, but not because of the expense. After all, we’re spending more than $ 500 billion every year on primary and secondary education, so spending another $ 10 or $ 20 billion or so isn’t as crazy as it sounds— as long, that is, as it actually closes the achievement gap. The real problem with class-size reduction isn’t that it costs so much but that it buys so little: barely a fifth of the difference between the bottom quarter of America’s schools and the top quarter. (p. 53)

Other myths Shyamalan ‘busts’ are teachers salaries and education. He outlines that paying teachers more does not produce higher [and better] student achievement, and teachers with advanced degrees do not prove to be more effective teachers. There is no question that Shyamalan claims will rankle many. However, the topics do provide for discussion, consideration, and perhaps may be a catalyst for change, big or small.

Shyamanlan’s five keys to closing the education gap
1. No Roadblock Teachers
2. The Right Balance of Leadership
3. Feedback
4. Smaller Schools
5. More Time in School

I agree with four of five of the keys; I disagree with number five, more time in school. Starting with using school time more efficiently, is the place to begin rather than lengthening the school day as Shyamanlan suggests. I’ll use my children’s public high school here as an example, cut out the daily brunch of twenty minutes (recess), shorten lunch hour and reduce teacher collaboration time at least change the timing so that it doesn’t shorten the school day. In our district collaboration times translate to ‘late start Wednesdays’. I suggest scheduling full days for collaboration throughout year and extend the school year by these days [this last point is updated based upon a comment from a reader]. Another option which some districts are implementing is year round schooling, which means shorter break periods, avoiding the summer break.

Overall the book is an enlightening and fresh read, highly recommended for parents and educators. However the downside, is that the barriers to implementing the ‘five keys’ are such that another book would need to be written on how to dismantle them.

Other Reviews:

MOOCs, Milkshakes and Clay Shirky’s book ‘Cognitive Surplus’

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The ‘Milkshake Mistake’ described in Clay Shirky’s Book

I’m a big fan of professor and writer Clay Shirky. The insights he shares about digital culture via his writings are sharp and thoughtful. I read Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizers last year and found it relevant and instructive despite its publication date of 2008. On its heels is Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers Collaboraters (2010), which is accurate not only in the predictions made of how society behaves today with our abundance of time, connectivity and tech tools, but of most value was how it changed my views about MOOCs’ role in education.

I realize that the education community [myself included] may have been thinking about the purpose of xMOOCs all wrong. We’ve been caught up in the details of the MOOC itself— the pass rates, the content, the delivery, the grading, etc., and in turn the applicability of MOOCs to higher education. Yet its the profile of the participants and their behaviours that we should have focused on, not the MOOC characteristics. It was Shirky’s story in Cognitive Surplus about ‘Milkshake Mistakes’ that prompted this revelation. I’ll elaborate further, but first a brief overview of the book.

Overview of Cognitive Surplus
Shirky examines how North American society spends much of their leisure time, which during the 1960′s was on television; millions of hours on passive media consumption. Yet with the expansion of the internet and the reduced barriers to access, there has been a dramatic shift to more active media consumption. Shirky describes in Cognitive Surplus how the collaborative energy (time) that individuals collectively contribute to causes; community and global, are changing how societies function. Wikipedia, patientslikeme.com, and pickuppals.com are examples Shirky shares that illustrate his point. Groups that come together to participate in online spaces created to provide knowledge, support, and/or community action via the internet. Shirky describes the internet as the ‘connective tissue’ that binds people together.

From Milkshakes to MOOCs
The instructive story about milkshakes comes early on in the book—chapter one. The vignette is a marketing story from an article published in MIT Sloan Management Review, Finding the Right Job for your Product (2007).  Shirky’s example is not about comparing education to a product, but illustrates how thinking differently about a user’s experience should be the focus, not the product or tool.

CognitiveSurplusCoverThe journals’ article uses the milkshake story to make a point about product development, how McDonald’s was seeking to improve sales and market share of its milkshakes. The story describes how several marketing experts in an effort to solve a product problem were focusing on the milkshakes, and to a lesser degree its customers. They were examining how to improve the milkshake’s appeal; the flavor, sweetness, consistency, even its packaging.  However, one marketer examined the situation differently. He analyzed how customers used the shake, when and why. The results were interesting, he determined that the milkshake customers where commuters, buying the shake for breakfast on their way to work. The shake fit their breakfast bill; easy to consume in the car, not too hot, a one-handed meal, it was somewhat tasty. This was McDonald’s ‘aha’ moment—finding a solution about the product that wasn’t about the product, but about what the customers were using the product for. The example illustrates how assumptions about traditional practices [what is eaten for breakfast], can get in the way of thinking about new solutions.

Shirky uses the McDonald’s example to help the reader think about media differently, “we talk about the effects of the web or text messages, it’s easy to make the milkshake mistake and  focus on the tools themselves” (p 12).  We need to focus on user behaviours, and the solution we are looking for and not the tool, or product itself [i.e. technological tools] to solve problems. Below is an excerpt from the article that highlights the point, and I’ve added words to demonstrate the applicability to education.

“The odds of getting it right will be much higher when we frame the market’s [education’s] structure to mirror the ways that customers [students] experience life [learning].”

Application to MOOCS
There are parallels to how many educators perceived and analyzed MOOCs initially. Many thought MOOCs would challenge and potentially replace traditional higher education. The focus was on the MOOCs details: the significant student drop out rates, the content delivery methods (the varying quality of recorded lectures), the course rigor (or lack thereof) the peer-review grading platforms etc. All these factors were made in comparison to traditional methods of higher education. The yard stick for the MOOC was the traditional, face-to-face college course. This was the problem. Granted, this made sense given the number of universities that rushed to apply the MOOC model to undergraduate education for purposes that were somewhat unclear, but appeared valid.

Yet have we not been preoccupied with the details of the product, the MOOC as per the Milkshake example?  Perhaps we should be looking at MOOCs from a different angle—who is taking the courses and why, the behaviours of the students, and then analyzing the results before making predictions that MOOCs will disrupt traditional higher education. When drilling down and examining MOOCs students and their behaviours we find this:

  • Many students sign up, but few become active, and even fewer complete the course.
  • Many of the active students, if not the majority of MOOC students have a college degree, and in some cases more than one.
  • Many are working professionals, are over the age of thirty.
  • Many students are outside of North America, countries including, UK, Australia, India and countries within the Russian Federation
  • Course completion rates are low – usually around 10%
  • MOOC students cite reasons for taking the course as personal, interest, to brush up on their skills or to learn something new.
  • A small minority of students participate on class discussion boards within classes (ranging from 4 to 10% of active students). Those that do participate, do so actively, are articulate and appear motivated. *

Granted much of this data was not available until many courses were underway – and we needed the early adopters to even be able to have data to analyze. However several programs continued to develop even after this data on MOOCs became available. San Jose State University for example, implemented a pilot program with Udacity offering three courses for undergraduate students, including a remedial math course. Now looking at the behaviour patterns of MOOC participants, does it seem logical that a remedial math course would be successful? No surprise the results from this program were dismal. Another Colorado State University-Global Campus offered students the chance to take a use a MOOC for credit, as long as they passed the proctoed exam (at a cost of $89). Apparently there were no takers.

Fortunately a few schools and even MOOC providers have been paying attention to MOOC participant behaviours. Coursera implemented a professional development program for teachers, offering a series of courses for education professionals. Likewise some companies, Microsoft for example, have recognized the opportunity and partnered with Udacity to create specific courses for working professionals in skill areas that are in need at the company. Georgia Tech may be on the right path by offering an Online Master’s Degree of Computer Science. The profile of the potential students is more in keeping with the MOOC profile of students.

Conclusion
Overall the MOOC phenomenon has been a catalyst for conversations about change within higher education institutions. Such discussion and analysis about education practices and methods is needed. However, to further the conversation and move discussions and actions in a positive direction, thoughtful analysis and consideration of the students; their behaviours and educational needs is required before applying the technological tool [or product] to fix the problem. Think of the Milkshake Mistake  —McDonald’s needed to create a new breakfast product, not a new version of the same milkshake.

* References: I’ve included the links here to papers, and blog posts that have been published by professors of institutions offering MOOCs that shared results of demographic data on participants collected from surveys completed by students on a voluntary basis.

Related:

Clay Shirky’s Ted Talk, How cognitive surplus will change world. TedX.com

The ‘Quiet’ Online Student: What it Means and How Educators Can Respond

“The opportunities for those who tend toward reflection, synthesis, and personal introspection [introverts] to participate in a course discussion or activity is dramatically increased, in effectively designed fully online and blended learning”. Dr. Curtis Bonk

41m0N7IIcsLAccording to Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, at least one-third of the population are introverts. I just finished reading this superb, well-researched book. It was the title that piqued my interest. I classify myself as an introvert; I was curious about what power introverts might have. Though the book went beyond describing the power and positives of introverts. It provided far more than profiles or strategies—it provides rich insight about introverts living within a culture that rewards and favors extroversion. It also delves into educating introverts in the classroom, describing how peers perceive quiet students, and their teachers and parents. Cain describes what drives introverts’ learning and gives practical advice for educators.  Though In this post I focus on quiet online students in context of Cain’s analysis. I discuss online students, those that don’t participate, and contribute little to discussions. I’ve included strategies from Dr. Curtis Bonk that may help readers support and foster less quiet behaviours from their online students.

“The school environment can be highly unnatural, especially from an introverted child who loves to work intensely on projects he cares about, and hang out with one or two friends at a time”. (Cain, p 253)

Introverts in the Classroom
Cain has much to say on the topic of educating introverted students in the classroom. She provides a unique perspective about quiet students—those that don’t raise their hand, are soft-spoken or reticent to participate. Her book is filled with case studies of K-12 and college students, though one stands out, Maya and her struggle to participate in a group setting. Educators will recognize the scenario right away – one or two student leaders take charge, and the quiet student, in this case Maya, is not heard or encouraged. Cain provides thoughtful advice for teachers in chapter eleven on how educators can support introverted students that includes, 1) not thinking of extroversion as something that needs to be cured, 2) keeping groups limited to two or three for collaborative assignments, etc. (p 255).

The ‘Quiet’ Online Student
This book does prompt further thought about learning, and online learning specifically. Educators might ponder what learning looks like for introverts in online class environments. What do educators do about quiet students, or those who don’t participate, contribute to discussions or group work?  Some educators perceive non-participatory online students in a negative light—these students are often referred to as lurkers or passive learners. Putting labels aside, the question should be how does one encourage the quiet student to engage at appropriates timesHow can meaningful exchanges be fostered for deeper learning?   I’m not suggesting that students that don’t participate in online forums are all introverts, but rather I suggest we think about ‘quiet’ students in a new light.

Dr. Curtis Bonk professor of education at Indiana University and author of The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education suggests several strategies for online educators in response to a blog post on this same book, Quiet: Susan Cain on Introverted Students. Dr. Bonk describes why online learning environments can support deeper learning for quiet students, and what online instructors can do to support and further learning.

Benefits of Online Learning for Quiet Students by Dr Curtis Bonk

First, they have time to think. Much of the hesitancy among those deemed introverted or shy is that they want to fully form a response before commenting. Thoughtful responses and creative ideas often take time to formulate.

Second, they might also simply be courteous to those around them. Hence, others are allowed to go first and one who does such may be deemed more toward the introverted side.

Third, in online courses or discussion forums, introverted and shy students can refine their ideas before sharing. Many people strive toward perfection before allowing their ideas to be shared. Their standards may be higher.

And, fourth, if and when you do share, it is just ideas on a virtual napkin. If there is a typo or an misconception, that is a problem of that virtually shared space, not a problem with me or my brain. We can fix or adjust that shared idea. Unlike a live class event, we can edit it. The Web, in effect, become a safe harbor for sharing one’s thoughts and ideas.

Fifth, the tools for creative expression are amplified on the Web. You might have an idea in audio or video format instead of text. The use of VoiceThreads is a case in point.

Sixth, instructors can offer more options in a world of abundant course resources. Open education now offers a rich array of video, animations, text, and audio options. Those deemed introverted may simply just have more skill, passion, or interest in nontextual spaces. They may excel in an academic space rich in video or pictorial resources. Unfortunately, text continues to dominate in schools and universities. This is now changing, however. (May 3, 2013, Quiet: Susan Cain on Introverted Students).

Closing
As online learning becomes a viable modality for learning, determining how to engage all  students in meaningful learning activities, whether it be discussion, group work or other, will require further research and exploration. The starting point I believe, is viewing quiet online students in a different light, not as a passive, unresponsive individual but as a students with something to say and contribute even in a world that can’t stop talking.

Resources:

Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative with Ken Robinson

7113972I’ve watched several of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks about education, [as have millions of others] which is why I chose to read his book ‘Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative’. This version is the updated edition, published in 2011—”fully revised” from the bestselling 2001 version.  I enjoyed the book, but a warning to readers, the title is misleading. I’m not sure what I expected, but likely I was looking for detailed ideas and strategies on how to foster creativity. Though the content was interesting, at times thought-provoking, the ‘learning to be creative’ part didn’t appear until chapter nine and ten, the last two of the book. However, there is powerful underlying message for readers, especially for educators and parents—an education that includes instruction [not just experience] in the humanities—music, art, history etc. is essential, as are opportunities for games, personal interaction, play time and discussion. Though the message is perhaps a bit different from Robinson’s intent for the book:

“My aims in this book are to help individuals to understand the depth of their creative abilities and why they might have doubted them; to encourage organizations to believe in their powers of innovation and to create the conditions where they will flourish; and to promote a creative revolution in education.” (Robinson, 2013, p xvi)

Readers are likely familiar with Sir Ken Robinson. He is most famous for his TED talks about education.  He is also an author and educator, and considered an expert on creativity. In fact, he acquired his title of Sir in 2003 when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to the arts in education. Robinson has done numerous talks related to K-12 schooling and creativity, and not all with TED. My personal favorite is the one on YouTube  Changing Education Paradigms.  It’s done with RSA Animate, [perhaps this is why I like it so much], and focuses on “three troubling trends: drop out rates, schools’ dwindling stake in the arts, and ADHD”. I highly recommend watching it if you haven’t already [it’s 11:41 minutes], though this is not his most popular.  It’s the TED talk Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity from 2006 with 17,127,222 views that trumps all. This talk does touch on key points included in the book.

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Sir Ken Robinson’s talk “Changing Education Paradigms” on YouTube with RSA Animate

Robinson on Creativity
I looked forward to how Robinson would define creativity, and if he would describe for readers why we should be concerned about it. Creativity is closely linked to innovation, and innovation is a concept that our current culture places a high value on. Innovation and creativity are themes that many sectors appear preoccupied with—corporate organizations, the start-up community and education. Robinson follows this line of thinking, describing how creative thinking leads to generating new ideas and productivity (p 153). Robinson defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value” (p 151) and that creativity is always about “doing” something. I don’t agree with his definition per se but more important is Robinson’s argument for a revamped approach to education, and the need for the integration of humanities in education.

Book Highlights
In the first eight chapters of the book Robinson discusses creativity and education, or the lack thereof. He suggests our current education paradigm kills creativity in children, thus leading to a void in innovation and collaboration in workplaces. He describes the cause of the void as the “academic illusion”:

As the pressures of education continue to intensify, many students are simply not learning the personal skills they need to deal with modern life and the increased pressures of continual assessment and being examined at every level” (p 78).

Chapter nine, Being a Creative Leader offers numerous strategies for leading a culture of innovation. Though the chapter is also applicable to leaders of organizations in a flux of change—it does provide coping strategies in addition to proactive strategies. Robinson says, “the task of the creative leader is to facilitate a resilient relationship between the external and internal cultures” (p 224). It is fitting advice for any leader, though especially for those heading an institution that is resisting innovation.

Chapter ten Learning to be Creative focuses on creativity in the education sector specifically. Robinson provides many examples of schools successful in creating a culture of creativity, and identifies the barriers to creativity. Though readers could be discouraged in some ways as the changes required to instill creativity, require a district, even state-wide shift in approach to K-12 education, i.e. assessment methods, curriculum standards. However there are several ideas individual educators can implement into the classroom; Robinson identifies [and describes] the three tasks of teaching for creativity: encouraging, identifying and fostering (p 269).

Closing Thoughts
A good book overall, and a thoughtful read emphasizing the [dire] need for including arts instruction in education. If you don’t have time to read it, I’d suggest watching the TED talk Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity which encapsulates key concepts in twenty minutes.

Resources