An Unique Approach to a xMOOC — Learner-Centric Course Design

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Applied Sustainability” Fanshawe College

Not all MOOCs are created equal. I know of one, Applied Sustainability, delivered by a community college in Ontario, Canada that defies what many have come to expect from a Massive Open Online Course offered through a university-sponsored platform such as Coursera, Open2Study or edX. What makes Applied Sustainability offered by Fanshawe College unique?  It’s the learner-centric course design that makes it different, where the focus is on students and their learning. This approach contrasts with an instructor-centric design—an approach which emphasizes content delivered by faculty with a learning strategy that follows accordingly. Though both formats are applicable in given learning situations, few student-centric course designs in xMOOCs exist, which is what motivated me to share a learner-centric design example with readers. It’s a worthy endeavor for educators to explore and consider different approaches to course design for MOOCs, to improve upon what already exists, and bring xMOOCs to the next level.

How Fanshawe’s MOOC is Unique:  Fanshawe’s MOOC takes the form of an educative journey that engages students in the learning process with active, and practical learning assignments that make learning meaningful, relevant and specific to each student.

The interview approach supported the practical focus of the MOOC – as the interviewer was learning along with the student, as opposed to having an expert deliver a presentation.”  MOOCs at Fanshawe

This approach contrasts significantly with the course design model that the majority of MOOCs delivered on university platforms feature.  The pedagogical methods used in xMOOCs  are remarkably similar to the traditional classroom format—course content delivered via the subject matter expert. xMOOCs typically are associated with top-tier higher education institutions, and are led by faculty members, sometimes referred to as ‘super professors‘, or ‘talking heads’, labeled (not so kindly) by MOOC skeptics. The instructors deliver content that mirrors the classroom method quite closely, but without the accessibility and feedback capability that instructors offer. Fanshawe’s format is closer to the original version of MOOCs as its co-creators [Downes and Siemens] introduced in 2008, where the focus was on learning within a network where knowledge is co-created, not from one expert i.e. the super-professor, but from many sources including the learners within the course.

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Image from Presentation Slide featuring student project, posted during Webinar with Contact North, with Wendy Wilson describing the MOOC’s development strategy

“For the students, the most significant benefits they reported on the first offering of this MOOC were the changes they made in their thinking, behaviour, and habits concerning sustainability – for some it was truly life changing.The wide range of students from around the world appreciated the truly applied nature of the course.”

Course Description: Applied Sustainability: The course is designed to emphasize the practical and the personal elements of sustainability, with each of the six modules featuring on-site video interviews in locations and with experts involved with different aspects of sustainability. The themes of the modules focus on: water, waste and wastefulness; homes; streets and neighbourhoods; cities and regions; policies and certifications; and a final section on our community, your community. Applied Sustainability, Desire2Learn

Below is a brief outline the characteristics of Fanshawe’s MOOC that make it unique. For readers interested in learning more, the Pockets of Innovation series on Contact North’s website provides further background and description—Designing and Offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at Fanshawe College.

Characteristics of the Learner-Centric Design

1) Diffusion of subject matter expertise: Rather than one subject-matter expert leading the course, there is an interviewer who travels to visit numerous subject matter experts in the field. The interviewer acts as the ‘host’ of the course, going on exploratory journey along with the students to learn about applied sustainability by conducting interviews with experts in the field.

“Three short videos (8 to 10 minutes) highlight three specific themes through visits to facilities directly related to waste and water such as the Greenway Wastewater Plant and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (pictured below). Staff interviews, facilities tours, and demonstrations of their ongoing work are presented.  The interview approach supported the practical focus of the MOOC – as the interviewer was learning along with the student, as opposed to having an expert deliver a presentation.  Topic-related links are provided to articles, report summaries, videos, TED talks, and other resources.”

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Presentation Slide posted during Webinar with Contact North, featuring Wendy Wilson describing the MOOC’s development strategy

2) Reliance on open resources, with a collection of curated resources. Students accessed content on the course topic (sustainability) primarily from the experts in the field, on the field trips with interviewer, and by exploring list of curated resources provided on the course site. The resources are from a variety of sources, with very few coming from scholarly or peer-reviewed sources.

3) Customization of learning experience. The Fanshawe MOOC provided options for students to customize their learning by offering four options for course participation. The four levels of achievement—Green, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

“… At the Silver level, students take part in weekly discussion on such topics as the use of rain barrels and antibiotics in agriculture.  The Gold level involves completion of a weekly task, such as undertaking a three-day waste audit at home, posting a photo of the accumulated waste, and reflecting on personal consumption and disposal habits. The Platinum level of achievement requires the completion of one project over the length of the course, assisted by a project manager from Fanshawe. The project-options include creating a Green Gaming Journal by using a blog, Tumblr, YouTube, or a podcast to comment on the green elements of a video game with ecological themes, such as SimCity. Another choice involves using QGIS, an open source geographic mapping system, to map a neighbourhood and analyze issues such as park vs residential space usage.”

Conclusion
We can credit MOOCs for generating discussions among educators and stakeholders about technological advancements and education, specifically how technology can be used to improve access, quality and cost. Yet we need to move discussions about online education forward, and one dimension which needs attention is how to create learning experiences for students that are relevant and meaningful. The current format of most xMOOCs are not much different from the traditional instructor-focused model, yet student-centered course design is a viable option very worthy of our time and energy.

Update: After this post went live, two other institutions reached out to share MOOC, learner-center models.  Open2Study, customizes courses for the MOOC format; you can read more from the comment posted. Another, Penn State’s Center for Online Innovation in Learning is developing a ‘flex-MOOC’ framework, which appears to have much potential.

Further Reading:

What Will Education Look Like in 2025? What the Experts Have to Say

“Experts predict the Internet will become ‘like electricity’ — less visible, yet more deeply embedded in people’s lives for good and ill” 

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Word Cloud from Pew Research Report ‘Digital Life in 20205′

The Web is 25 years old this month. Quite astounding really if one thinks how entwined with and dependent our lives are on the internet.  Pew Research published a weighty report this week in honor of the Web’s anniversary, Digital Life in 2025. The results are thought-provoking, even controversial.  I urge readers to read the full report at some point, though in this post I highlight a host of predictions specific to education, made by numerous experts and scholars. Pew’s report includes thoughts and visions from hundreds of experts, including faculty from some of the best public and private research institutions in the world.

Brief Overview
To appreciate it fully, readers may find the background of the report helpful. The report is the work of Pew Research group and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.  The Digital Life in 2025 looks to the future of the internet, collectively assessing how life might look in 2025 with input from hundreds of experts on how the Web will influence various aspects our lives, including privacy, relationships, education to name just a few. This report is part of a series, its forerunner The Web at 25 in the U.S. looks at the present and past of the internet. A good read that provides context for the future and emphasizes the incredibly swift adoption of an invention that has changed institutions, values and culture.

The Purpose of the Report: To look to the future and identify patterns and themes that may affect aspects of society and everyday life in 2025 by examining a collection of predictions from internet experts and engaged citizens. In this post I focus on predictions specific to education.

Who had input: Pew gathered feedback via a web-survey, collecting 2,558 responses. Respondents fall into three categories, 1) targeted experts identified by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project; experts that have extensive experience with internet research and/or input during its formative years, 2) targeted technology groups gathered from listervs of internet analysts and associations, and 3) the mailing list of the Pew Research Center Internet Project that includes individuals who closely follow technology trends and related research. Many of the experts are faculty members at leading public and private higher education institutions within the United States and beyond. Input from non-experts is included to give insight into how everyday people are influenced by the abundance of digital information and constant connectivity.

“Make your prediction about the role of the Internet in people’s lives in 2025 and the impact it will have on social, economic, and political processes. Good and/or bad, what do you expect to be the most significant overall impacts of our uses of the Internet on humanity between now and 2025?”  One of the eight questions from the survey 

The Fifteen Theses: More-Hopeful and Less-Hopeful 
Upon analysis of the responses, Pew identified recurring themes, summarizing each into fifteen theses. Eight are considered ‘more-hopeful’ where experts view the effects of the internet as positive overall, while six are grouped into the ‘concerned’ category, the word used by Pew authors to describe the ‘less-hopeful‘ theses, and one thesis is categorized as neutral. After reading the less-hopeful theses, I might describe the category somewhat differently than ‘concerned’ as Pew does, given thesis #10 for example, “Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale.’ Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography, dirty tricks, crime, and those who practice them have new capacity to make life miserable for others”. Though I can see why Pew wanted to put a more positive spin on the darker predictions given there is a continuum of negative viewpoints.

“These experts expect existing positive and negative trends to extend and expand in the next decade, revolutionizing most human interaction, especially affecting health, education, work, politics, economics, and entertainment. Most say they believe the results of that connectivity will be primarily positive. However, when asked to describe the good and bad aspects of the future they foresee, many of the experts can also clearly identify areas of concern, some of them extremely threatening. Heightened concerns over interpersonal ethics, surveillance, terror, and crime, may lead societies to question how best to establish security and trust while retaining civil liberties.” 15 Theses About the Digital Future, (Anderson & Raine, 2014)

Predictions about Education
Education is mentioned throughout the report.  At the top of most experts lists is the idea of sharing and accessing knowledge within a global community; several experts “expect the evolution of online tools to expand the ways in which a formal education can be delivered, disrupting the status quo.”  Though thesis number eight addresses education specifically. It’s a bold statement that could be viewed positively or negatively depending upon your perspective, though it is categorized in the more-hopeful theses section: “An Internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities, with less money spent on real estate and teachers.

Selection of Comments from Thesis #8:

Adrian Schofield, manager of applied research for the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering, wrote, “The Internet will be the core means of creating, analysing, storing, and sharing information in any form that can be digitised… Learning will no longer be dependent on the quality of parents and teachers in person. Scholars and students will have access to the best materials and content available globally.”

Alex Halavais, an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at Arizona State University, predicted, “I suspect we will start to see some really extraordinary changes in the way people learn over the next decade that will continue beyond that. Especially in higher education, the current institutional structures are at a breaking point. The Internet is both a large part of the problem and a part of the solution…”

All public education will be by master teachers who connect through the Internet to all students across the country — local teachers will become tutors only.” — Anonymous (U.S. based)  

The following comments though included in thesis #8, appear quite concerned, not hopeful at all.

Celia Pearce, an associate professor of digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote, “… The US education system will continue to decline; as a result, we will continue to see a poor match in labor demands and labor pool, along with a continued growth of economic disparity in this country, as well as outsourcing to tech-related jobs abroad.”

Joan Neslund, an information resources professional, agreed, writing, “Education will totally change with global classrooms. The United States will no longer rule the world; we will have a difficult time keeping our heads above water. Corporate greed has killed us. Students won’t think about the technology behind what they do; they will focus on the methods and collaboration that will happen.

On the other hand some educators don’t believe much will change at all, in fact things will pretty much stay the same.

Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, predicted, “The transformation of the educational sector will prove far, far overblown. Especially in the K-12 system, schools in 2025 will look an awful lot like schools in 2013.”

Anonymously, a professor at the University of California…”The educated, capable, innovative populations from which local and national leaders have traditionally been drawn will be less involved with geographically oriented communities and institutions — to the detriment of those communities and institutions…”

What Does This Mean for Educators
Granted Digital Life in 2025 is a set of predictions, guesses really, but educated guesses given the expertise of the respondents. The Pew Internet Research Series holds great value for educators—it demonstrates that change is coming, is inevitable. Though it doesn’t provide a blueprint by any means, it does provide glimpses into what education might look like, could become in a few short years, for better or worse. Will your institution be ready?

Further Reading

Why is Adoption of Educational Technology So Challenging?… ‘It’s Complicated’

“If an institution’s stated strategy is to promote the use of educational technology, that institution must establish an adequate framework for faculty to use technology successfully. This includes not only formal incentive structures but also the development of a sufficient educational technology infrastructure and a satisfactory framework for educational technology support.” Faculty Adoption of Educational Technology by F.Z. Moser

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Technology Integration can be complicated

After reading the paragraph above readers will likely nod in agreement…yes, yes that makes much sense.  Yet most institutions fail to recognize the complexity of introducing educational technology into the classroom and curriculum. Granted, the majority do recognize that faculty and teachers need guidance on how to use the features of a new educational tool or platform, but support usually stops there. Professional education for faculty and teachers that addresses skill development, focuses on integrating educational tools using pedagogically sound methods, for the most part is nonexistent. Yet what can be done? The answer—it’s complicated, which is the thrust of the research brief from EDUCAUSE—Faculty Adoption of Education Technology. Complicated, but by no means impossible.

Author of the paper Franziska Moser, conducted research with nine U.S. institutions focusing on education technology and the types of support strategies provided [or not provided] for ed tech implementation, and the resulting impact on faculty’s teaching behaviors. As part of her research, Moser put forth the Faculty Educational Technology Adoption Cycle, a model for institutions to consider when working with faculty and their implementation of educational technology.

The Model
Moser’s model includes five behavioral characteristics of faculty, observed upon implementation of educational technology in higher education settings. The model includes outside factors and variables deemed to have positive influence on each characteristic.

  1. Time commitment. The time instructors invest in integrating educational technology into their courses lies at the core of the model. Moser suggests that the level of time commitment depends upon organizational incentives provided (extrinsic motivation) and on individual variables such as personal values and goals (intrinsic). Moser also identified a causal relationship between time commitment and competence development of faculty.
  2. Competence development involves focused skill development for faculty; the skill set required to integrate technology in a pedagogically sound way. Competence also leads to quality course design and teaching expertise.
  3. Course redesign includes support from a variety of departments that may include instructional designer, tech specialists, multi-media experts, peers, department faculty, etc.  Using an instructional design model as a guide, serves as a frame of reference for the design team. The redesign process puts the focus on students’ learning, and the accomplishment of learning objectives via pedagogical methods, not the educational technology tool.
  4. Teaching/Learning experience that includes trustworthy infrastructure with a built-in support mechanism and a feedback loop leads to: teaching effectiveness, better learning outcomes, and increased satisfaction—not only for students but for instructors.  I’ll emphasize here, how critical the availability of support for instructors is—without such support, student learning is at risk, as is the motivation of the educators.
  5.  Reflection, the final phase encourages faculty and instructors to examine newly implemented teaching strategies, consider student feedback, discuss and share results with peers.
Screen shot of Faculty Adoption of Educational Technology

Franziska Moser’s model depicts a circuit of faculty behavior activities (bold) which are influenced by several outside factors and conditions (italic).

Moser’s diagram is instructive as it is insightful; it highlights the complexity of the course design process in a simplified format.

Fast Forward to 2014
Moser’s article was published in 2007, quite some time ago in this age of rapid technological transformation. Yet many institutions still face the same challenges that Moser describes in her paper.  There are but a few institutions that appear to follow a model similar to Moser’s. Two that I’ve studied are Purdue University with its IMPACT program and University of Central Florida’s Distributed Learning Program. Both schools’ invested, and continue to invest significant effort and institutional resources in supporting faculty in the redesign of courses and implementation of innovative teaching practices. Though there are others that I haven’t mentioned, these schools are in the minority. Why this is the case I don’t have the depth of expertise to answer completely, but I do see that many institution look externally to address the implementation of technology as a method to increase efficiency and improve learning outcomes rather than creating strategies with the human resources they have within, by human resources I’m referring to faculty, technical and media experts, graduate students, etc.

There are numerous examples of higher education administrators going externally, making decisions about the use of technology without involving internal stakeholders.  A recent example is California’s public higher education system. One school in the California state system San Jose State University, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a pilot project with MOOC provider Udacity in an attempt to solve the schools’ challenge with bottleneck courses in its institutions. The pilot served as a potential model for other California public higher education institutions. The program failed. Yet University of Central Florida dealt with a similar issue of bottleneck courses and limited institutional resources to accommodate students, yet were able to solve the problem by relying upon its own faculty and staff. UCF’s solution involved developing four types of learning formats including, mixed-mode, face-to-face, and video-streaming, all of which were completed by UCF faculty after they engaged in a comprehensive development program that provided skills training and support for course redesign. The result was a roster of courses in a variety of formats that allowed administrators to achieve a significant reduction in institutional overhead, while getting students into courses they needed to graduate.

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Screen shot of the headline from the Los Angeles Times Newspaper

There are other examples of failed roll-outs of education technology programs where there was little, if any instructor development plan in place as per Moser’s model. One that is incredibly expensive is the L.A. Unified School Districts’ iPad program. The program cost is said to be $1 billion dollars, which aims to put an iPad or computer into the hands of every student, teacher and administrator in the district, yet little if any resources are allocated to teacher competence development, support, instructional education, lesson planning strategies or curriculum redesign.

Why is Integrating Technology so Challenging?
So why don’t institutional leaders take a strategic approach to address the challenges associated with integrating educational technology? My guess is that it’s a combination of factors—some that are common to all, and some unique to the institution. I suggest strategic planning is required for educational technology implementation program, course redesign, or roll-out and that takes a strong leader that is willing to challenge things as they are. Doing this is difficult. Also required—a leader who can assess what is needed, create and communicate the vision of the project, build a team of experts, and follow through on its implementation. Also difficult.  It also requires short-term and long-term planning, and patience. Challenging. Course development takes time, as does learning the skills needed for implementing new teaching practices and methods.  Another obvious factor is resources—needed are a significant investment of funds. Most Challenging.  And finally, knowledge of a model or framework such as the one presented here, that outlines the complexities and dimensions of technology integration and course redesign. Complicated, but not impossible.

Conclusion
The transformative nature of technology offers tremendous opportunity to improve learning outcomes, improve access, and even reduce institutional overhead costs that does not involve reducing faculty or instructors, yet as discussed it’s challenging to accomplish given the complexity of such an undertaking. But as stated, not impossible as evidenced by institutions like Purdue and UCF that have forged a path of leveraging internal resources to redesign courses, implement technology and develop innovative teaching practices. I’ll delve into Purdue’s program in a post next week, share details of IMPACT, and a selection success stories from faculty.

 Resources:

Tools-of-the-Trade to Make your Online Teaching Even Better

In this ‘tools-of-the-trade’ post I review methods and tech tools that help online educators use voice and media-rich applications that deliver vivid descriptions and instructions that support and enhance learning. 

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Tools-of-the-Trade for Online Instructors

Before I get into the details and strategies of using a variety of tools and applications to communicate beyond words on a page, I’ll admit that I have a love-hate relationship with technological applications of the ilk that I review here. I love them for what the results they produce; how students are motivated, feel more connected with the course, and how the quality of learning is enhanced. An example of this might be a video clip featuring an instructor giving a course overview, describing the syllabus and including welcome message which can reach students in a way words on the page cannot.  But I hate the barriers associated the technology—and there are many unique to educators. The learning curve is one thing, which I consider short-term pain for long-term gain, but then it’s battling with the non user-friendly applications, the steep learning curve, or using tools outside of the course management system.

Yet despite the drawbacks, it’s worthwhile to persevere. The benefits are great for students and instructors. For educators, saving time is a big one. An example—a short video featuring the instructor describing details and expectations of an upcoming assignment, and posting it to the course site to augment written instructions goes a long way. An experienced online educator I’ve worked with uses this method extensively. It’s significantly reduced the number of email questions from students, and the quality of student work is also higher.

I’ve selected three different methods for online instructors to engage with their students and tools that I think are most reliable, easy to use, and best suited for educators. In this tools-of-the-trade post I focus on only one method, Delivering Guidance and Instructions, and in the next post, Giving Feedback to Students and Engaging in Synchronous Discussion.

  1. Delivering guidance and instructions to learners about assignments, course content, projects OR informational content such as course messages or updates using video, audio or screen cast (capture of audio and still images, screen shots, or moving actions on a computer screen)
  2. Giving feedback to students individually using audio or text tools [next post]
  3. Engaging in synchronous discussion with one or more students using tools facilitating such—online chat, voice or video contact [next post]

My aim is to help readers save time—reduce the learning curve and minimize the aggravation associated with tech-tools.  I have used most of the tools below using a Macbook Pro and share my insights about each, though I indicate which ones I’ve not worked with. Before getting into the tools here are few items of note:

  • Screen cast: video recording (usually used to deliver instructions or explanation) of the computer screen, capturing the movements of the user (instructor) accompanied by audio narration
  • When creating a video clip or screen cast there are several places where the digital file can be stored for students to access: 1) the Course Management system, 2) YouTube, 3) Google Drive, or 4) screencast.com [specific to screen casts]

Deliver Guidance and/or Instruction
Description/Purpose: A short video, audio clip or screen cast recording communicating instructions about an assignment, how to participate in an aspect of the online class, a review of the syllabus, answers to a case study or discussion question, etc. Brings life to a course by explaining a difficult concept or complex instructions. Videos clips, audio clips or screen casts featuring the instructor can be powerful.

Example below of an instructor delivering a screen cast for her students describing how to participate in class discussions. The setting on this file is public, however instructors can select the private option, allowing only students with the link to view an uploaded video.

Screen Casts:  I created a screen cast recently and tried four programs on my MacBook Pro, QuickTIme, Jing, Camtasia and SnagIt (though there are others), though I found Camtasia had too many features (too complicated) and QuickTime though straightforward, the pause feature didn’t work consistently for me,  [I like to pause during recording to collect my thoughts, otherwise I have to start over]. If you are confident that you can record straight through without needing to pause, this program is for you.

Jing  [for Mac and Windows] by Tech Smith is by far the easiest to use, with the shortest learning curve. Jing is a free software program available for Mac or PC that you can download from Tech Smith’s site. Once a screen cast is recorded and saved, it automatically is uploaded to screencast.com, a server that hosts the file for free. Though there is a limit on file space (you can buy additional space for a reasonable fee). The screen cast can be made private so only the students with the link can view it, which can be shared via the course management site or email.  Another bonus is TechSmith’s excellent video tutorials, and help desk support available via email.  The drawback with Jing is that you are limited to sharing on screencast.com.

SnagIt  [for Mac and Windows] is the paid version of Jing, which I am using the trial of, and I will buy— it’s worth it for my needs at $49.99. It offers more features, including the file format which is mp4, a versatile file format that condenses the size of a file without losing quality, allowing it be uploaded to different platforms, (YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook) and play on a variety of devices.

Recording a Video Clip:
One option is recording a video or audio clip within the institution’s course management system (CMS). Though not all LMSs’ have the capability, and of those that do, I can only share the instructions found from links on the web.  If your  CMS offers  the capability of recording a short video seamlessly, this is the way to go.

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Quicktime screen casts, videos or audio recordings can be uploaded to the applications listed here

Quick Time for Mac (the application that comes installed with Mac laptops and desktops). It’s very easy to record, has a low learning curve and many share options.  The only drawback is the pause feature, which is tricky as sometimes I miss clicking it and then I have to start recording again. To pause, click the option button on the keyboard, and click the corresponding pause button on the menu bar. Resume by clicking the record button again. When the circle button to when finish. The sharing button in the menu bar reveals several options, which is one of the best features of this particular program.

Options for PC users,  Capture Video with Windows Movie Maker, mediacollege.com

Create a Channel on YouTube: If you plan to post your videos to YouTube, you will need to create a channel [a specific page reserved for your videos only], and need a Google email account  to do so. It will take approximately 30 minutes to set up.  Once you create a channel you can upload videos. Settings allow you to create public or private, videos [where only students with the link can view the video]. Don’t worry about the filming process, most webcams on laptops with the built-in audio produce high quality videos, as do smart phone devices. Also learners are forgiving of the quality—sounding natural is the key, so a flawless performance is not necessary.

Conclusion: As I mentioned in the opening, the toughest part to using tech tools is the initial process—the downloading of the software, the learning curve, etc. But once you get over this hurdle, the process becomes seamless. In the tools-of-the-trade post I cover tools to facilitate synchronous communication between student and instructor, and tools for providing meaningful feedback.

Further Reading:

Need-to-Know-News: MOOC Mentors for Hire, Coursera’s MOC$s, Edx Shares MOOC Data and More

The ‘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. 

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Need-to-Know-News

News Snapshot: MOOCs make headlines this week, though MOOCs in-the-news are barely recognizable in comparison to the original Massive Open Online Course offered in 2008 by Downes’ and Siemens’. Accordingly, Coursera will soon need to drop the letter ‘O’ for ‘OPEN’ with its new Specializations program launched this week. Given the price points that range from $250 to $500, Coursera might consider calling the courses in this program MOC$s instead of MOOCs.  Academic Partnerships (AP) also launched a Specializations Credential, though AP’s program has a broader, global scope. Both programs launched within 24 hours of the other’s announcement and not by coincidence; details below.

Another twist on the open concept, you can now pay for a mentor to help you complete a MOOC. Yes for $30 per course you can sign-up for this service and get a MOOC tutor through a company called MOOCs Mentor.  With the paid service customers also have access to the MOOC help line, offering one-on-one assistance 24/7. Also in the MOOC world, Harvard and MITx released a beefy thirty-two page working paper offering summaries of seventeen MOOCs offered on the edX platform. To close this week’s post, I conclude with an overview of a promising new writing and sharing platform I stumbled upon this week, Medium, and a link to a nifty tool.

1) ‘Specialization’ Programs Launch from Academic Partnerships and Coursera
Academic Partnerships launched its Specializations Credential two months ahead of schedule in light of Coursera’s launch of its own Specialization program. Coursera and Academic Partnerships were in talks to potentially collaborate on a program, though Daphne Koller told Inside Higher Ed that for “various reasons the timing wasn’t right” (Straumsheim).

When examining both programs, it’s Academic Partnerships’ program that appears to hold the most potential for its university partners. AP seems to provide the institutions’ with most of the control over the program, and strive to support the institutions efforts to generate revenue from the program through scale. The reach of AP programs is far greater than Coursera’s, given that AP plans to translate the programs in several languages.

“Under development for the past 18 months, Specializations are designed to expand reach and increase revenues for U.S. universities, while filling a void for accessible and affordable higher education globally.” Academic Partnerships, press release

As mentioned, Cousera’s  program costs the student up to $500 per credential, though Academic Partnership has a different pricing strategy. According to email communication with Jacquelyn M. Scharnick, Director of Corporate Communications for AP, the program cost will be unique to each market:

“The cost of Specializations will be indexed to per capita income and local market pricing in each country they serve and, as such, the price will vary from market to market.  Of course, Specializations are designed to help universities achieve scale, so the cost will be competitive.”

"Academic Partnerships country focus for global distribution of Specialization in 2014, includes more than 50 countries internationally based on economic growth, broadband access, college participation rates, and demand for higher education."

“Academic Partnerships country focus for global distribution of Specialization in 2014, includes more than 50 countries internationally based on economic growth, broadband access, college participation rates, and demand for higher education.”

Below is what I see of the core differences between the Specialization programs:

  • Premise: AP is focused on supporting and growing revenue for the University partners, whereas Coursera, a private company is focused on growing revenue for Coursera.
  • Reach: Academic Partnership is committed to global penetration, reaching markets in native languages.
  • Support:  Academic Partnerships has considerable support behind it, given that the Credential is on the agenda at the upcoming conference in March “The Globalization of Higher Education”, which features keynote speakers that include Hillary Clinton, Thomas Friedman and Sir John Daniel.

Insights:  I see MOOCs trending towards a niche of providing vocational education for working professionals, which supports the idea that MOOCs will not replace or even be considered a supplement to undergraduate education any time soon.  Udacity is moving in this direction with its recent partnerships with ed-tech companies. And Alison, another MOOC provider, though often flying under the radar, provides fee certification training in similar areas of specialization. However Alison’s model is different from both Coursera and AP; revenue is generated through advertising on its sites.

2) A MOOC Mentor for Hire
Hard to believe that there is a need for this service from MOOCs Mentor, given that most enrollees of MOOCs are educated, working professionals, however perhaps the company’s founder is on to something, with the recent developments of certificate options and typically very low completion rates.  The company, founded in India in late 2013, has yet to hit the airwaves as far as I can tell. It promotes a toll-free help lines for United Staes and India. Advertised price for a student  I called the number advertised on the website today, which is also the MOOC Helpline number…no answer, or chance to leave a message.

We are a global enterprise with an Indian soul. Established with the aim of facilitating the outreach of higher education among the masses, we saw promise in Massive Open Online Courses as the future of education. Having studied the teaching methodology, we realized that there was a need to incorporate the human touch into the way these courses are taught”.  About Us, moocsmentor.com

Insights:  An enterprising business concept on one hand, yet so counterintuitive to the premise of MOOCs. Yet MOOCs are morphing into an education experience that is quite different as already mentioned, perhaps this concept is a glimpse into the future of education.

3) HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses, Fall 2012-2013
The working paper, a collaboration between HarvardX and MITx provides excellent and insightful summaries of the descriptive statistics of seventeen courses offered between Fall 2012 and Summer 2013 on its registered students and their respective activity levels within the edX platform. The authors provide thoughtful commentary on the potential implications and limitations of the results.

Key Takeaways:

  • Sound interpretation of data from large-scale courses, (MOOCs, is threatened by four common fallacies (pages 5 – 8):
  1. Platforms provide all the data we could wantFALSE. Many variables potentially  interesting to researchers aren’t collected, such as students’ prior knowledge, motivations, etc. Thus putting together a profile of MOOC participants in order to draw conclusive
  2. A small percentage is a small numberFALSE: interpreting the magnitude of numbers is challenging and subject to framing, drawing conclusions based upon an initial frame of reference (i.e. traditonial education)
  3. A course is a course is a courseFALSE. Courses differ dramatically on multiple dimensions. With so many varying factors, not to mention the course topic itself which attracts a wide array of registrants, the metrics of individual courses should not be used to measure one against the other. The comparison is potentially misleading.
  4. Certification indicates learning: FALSE. This one has to be the most insightful of all fallacies. While certificates are easy to count, certificates are a poor proxy for the amount learning going on within a course.  This is a point I’ve mentioned frequently in my blog posts, we cannot use traditional education methods (such as credentialing) as yardstick for MOOCs success. Thankfully the authors do an excellent job of emphasizing this point.

Insights: This report is a worthy read for anyone in higher education, specifically pages one through nine, and thirty-two and thirty-three which hold the most valuable insights.

4) Ed Tech Tools
Medium: Though I just came across this platform, and think it really cool, apparently Medium has been around since 2012; founded by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone.  As per the website:

Medium is a new place on the Internet where people share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends. It’s designed for little stories that make your day better and manifestos that change the world. It’s used by everyone from professional journalists to amateur cooks. It’s simple, beautiful, collaborative, and it helps you find the right audience for whatever you have to say.” Welcome to Medium, medium.com/about

Any stories I might have missed, please share on my Twitter feed.  Thanks!

What’s Next for Education? Answer: Follow-the-Learner

follow-the-leader-sign-620x250Most readers are likely familiar with the childhood game follow-the-leader. The ‘leader’ would lead doing various antics while the ‘followers’ would mimic the leaders’ every move. Players who failed to follow risked elimination from the game, typically an insignificant consequence from what I remember. It’s not unlike what’s happened in higher education in the last two years with the MOOC phenomenon. A handful of elite institutions began to offer Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs] taught by the best-of-the-best faculty, for free to the world, and the me-too race began. Now there are over 119 institutions worldwide offering MOOCs via for-profit and not-for-profit MOOC providers (Haggard, 2013). It’s apparent that many institutions that played follow-the-leader, weren’t quite sure why they were in the game in the first place.

I attended several conference sessions in 2012 where I had opportunities to pose the question “why are you offering your MOOC[s]?” to institutional representatives—typical responses were ‘to promote the institution brand’ and/or to ‘participate and experiment’.  It turns out that much was for naught given that most learners enrolled in the MOOCs [known as xMOOCs which differ significantly from the initial constructivist MOOCs] were not the university’s target market in the first place. The majority of learners [typically 90%, if not more] didn’t complete the courses, and were in fact quite well-educated, holding at the very least an undergraduate degree. Reasons for taking the courses varied, but usually learners cited ‘personal interest’ or to ‘upgrade skills’ (Haggard, 2013). Yet higher education administrators [and the media] viewed MOOCs as panacea for its woes, despite reports emerging early on from various institutions with insights into student demographics.  As readers might remember San Jose State University tried the MOOC format for undergraduate courses with Udacity that failed quite spectacularly. This was just one of several efforts by various institutions to use xMOOCs for undergraduate education. Thousands of hours [and dollars] later, many institutions are entering into 2014 wondering what do we do now?  The answer lies with the learners.

The pressure is greater now than ever before for higher education to reform in some way—cut class sizes, reduce tuition fees, reduce administrative costs, attract students, etc. Numerous US colleges and universities are entering the New Year with varying degrees of angst. According to the report The financially sustainable university by Bain & Company, one in three colleges and universities are spending more than they can afford; these schools are financially unsustainable.

Leading change is challenging in any organization. But in higher education, it’s markedly more difficult. If the stakes weren’t so high, incremental improvements might be enough. But they aren’t, and that’s become abundantly clear. Change is needed, and it’s needed now. (Denneen & Dretle)

As the Bain report infers it’s time to stop following and start leading—time for a bold, fresh approach. Addressing finances is one facet, but a proactive plan that meets learners where they are is critical for long-term viability. That bold approach begins with understanding the learner; how they learn, communicate and interact in our digital culture. We need to look to learners’ actions, and behaviours—examine and analyze potential, existing and target students. It’s not uncommon for education decision makers, administrators and/or leaders seeking to reform education in some way, to implement strategies or plans that don’t take into consideration behaviours patterns and actions of the students they ultimately serve. 

Why Study Learner Behaviours
The approach I’m suggesting, considering behaviors, is similar to Clay Shirky’s instructive description of a scenario coined the Milkshake Mistake in his book Cognitive Surplus. Shirky describes how the fast food chain McDonald’s hired researchers to determine how to increase sales of its milkshakes by examining the shake characteristics, sweetness, thickness, flavors, etc. to appeal to customers. Yet one marketer chose a unique approach; he started by examining customer behaviours— when customers purchased milkshakes and why—essentially asking the question “what job did the customers hire [buy] the milkshake for?” [Shirky, p 12-13].  It turns out researchers were missing an opportunity for innovation by focusing on the product [milkshake], assuming that everything important was implicit in the attributes of the milkshake.

Researchers missed examining the behaviours and actions of the customers, i.e. how, why, and for what purpose was the product used [which turned out to be a for a quick, easy breakfast food to consume during the commute to work]. The key takeaway here is not to focus on a solution before examining the problem one is trying to solve. We can apply this analogy to the recent phenomenon with xMOOCs.  Institutional leaders of public higher education, the media, even state officials, focused on the how the product, xMOOCs, could solve a problem within higher education given its mass appeal and ability to reach thousands of learners. Yet what were the behaviours of the majority of students? What did the student ‘hire’ the MOOC to do? What we know now, as mentioned already, is that the majority of learners completing MOOCs were not potential or existing students of post-secondary education.  Unfortunately, numerous institutions and stakeholders viewed xMOOCs as a solution, creating policies and programs to solve a complex problem with a complex product.  An example of the Milkshake Mistake in action.

Four Learner Patterns of 2013 
Below I’ve identified four student behaviours patterns of 2013 that appear significant when considered in conjunction with several reports and predictions of societal, technological and even political events and trends. Considering one report or trend in isolation, for instance the Bain report mentioned above, does not provide scope for a thorough analysis. Yet when synthesizing student behaviour patterns, advancements in digital infrastructure, trends in education, shifts in cultural norms for instance, there is potential to be proactive rather than reactive, anticipate what the future may hold for education and plan accordingly.

I’ll highlight another valuable resource before moving to learner behaviours of 2013, which is a series of reports, collectively called The Shift Index published by Deloitte’s Center for the Edge. It provides further insights about learner behaviours, even though it’s geared to non-education sectors. Updated each year, the indices seek to help leaders understand and take advantage of the changes around them.  An excerpt:

The world around us is changing. Long-term trends, driven by public policy and the exponential rate of change in the digital infrastructure, are fundamentally altering the global business [education] environment. We initially respond to these changes by working harder within existing institutions and practices. The result is diminishing performance and mounting stress. Until we understand the nature of those changes and evolve our institutions and practices accordingly, we won’t be able to effectively harness new capabilities and turn stress into success.  Report 4, The Shift Index

1. Learners acting as savvy consumers. During the last few years’ business has changed its model, shifting from a product-centric framework to a customer-centric one. The End of Business as Usual by Brian Solis describes how customers, with their constant access to abundant information flows transformed how organizations conduct business. This same transformation is now affecting education institutions as students drive change, and influence the traditional model of education. The model is morphing to a learner-centric one as students behave more like customers, and savvy ones too. They shop schools—compare facilities, residence halls and cafeterias. As tuition prices become more transparent and comparison-shopping is encouraged—yet again students are in the role of customer with access to numerous tools and sites that facilitate ‘shopping’.

Students are also balking at buying textbooks, discouraged by hefty price tags. Renting is becoming increasingly attractive to students as is buying used books and comparison-shopping through online sites.  In some instances, students are choosing to do without.

2. Learners connected to friends, peers and information anytime, anywhere. And it’s not just learners that are connected, it’s the majority of the population in numerous countries, not just the United States. Constant access to flows of data, information, and people is facilitated not just by mobile devices connected to the internet, but by applications [phone apps], social and other innovative platforms. The traditional boundary between work, school and life is rapidly dissolving.  The next generation of learners, will not only expect to use devices and applications in and out of school, but won’t know any other way.  And, the Internet of Things, we’ve just started hearing about, is not too far off.

Seventy-one percent of students in Grades 3–5 use the Internet from home to help with schoolwork; and within that same cohort, 40 percent have smart phone access, and 41 percent have tablet access. gettingsmart.com

3. Students are value conscious – avoiding private, four-year institutions and seeking alternatives.  Post secondary age students are avoiding high sticker price of private four-year institutions. From 2010 through 2012, freshman enrollment declined at U.S. private four-year schools by ten percent. The trend continued into 2013, enrollment was down at for-profit, private education institutions. The increased transparency of college costs, and the media’s emphasis on the cost and value of college likely influenced students.

Students also appear receptive to, and eager to explore alternative types of higher education. An example is Quest University, a new concept institution that far exceeded enrollment expectations last year with increasing student demand (read more here from a recent blog post).  Another type, founded by a college drop-out, Dale Stephens is the UnCollege experience, encouraging students to seek alternative and diverse higher education experiences. Stephens also wrote a book, Hacking your Education, which appears highly regarded if one considers the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads as a benchmark.

4. Learners are customizing their learning paths, by choosing courses from various institutions, creating their own digital transcripts—essentially becoming untethered to any one institution. Badges, another form of credentialing is a route some learners are following, as well as gathering certificates from various MOOC platforms, such as Signature Track with Coursera or others through Alison.com.  New platforms are satisfying student needs for recording and showcasing their learning accomplishments with sites such as Degreed.com, and others including Linked In. Another term for this concept is personalized learning, we will likely hear more of personalized learning in 2014.

Conclusion
Following-the-learner is a concept that seems counter-intuitive. Yet I’m convinced that in order for education institutions to remain viable and relevant in the future it is essential to analyze its learners, behaviours, and actions, in conjunction with an analysis of societal and cultural trends and events. The traditional method of education needs to change, and has changed with the technological developments and digital infrastructure available, yet it’s apparent we need to focus on learners, and not technology to solve education problems and challenges. Though there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for each institution, there is a solution that lies within its learners.

Further Reading

Four Ways Educators Can Think About the Future

Forward to 2014 new year conceptHow should educators think about the future? A better way to phrase the question might be, ‘how can educators best think about an unpredictable future for education in a connected and open learning environment’? A recent article Four Keys to Thinking about the Future featured in Harvard Business Review offers what I believe is relevant, practical and unique strategies that any individual faced with change or ambiguity would do well by. This post reviews the four methods outlined in the article and though written for a business audience the ideas are universal and readers will see how applicable each is to an education context. It was the symposium The Next Big Thing: A Historical Approach to Thinking About the Future, sponsored by the Legatum Institute, Harvard Business Review and the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study that provided inspiration for the Four Keys article.

Confronting ambiguity is one of the issues that came up time and again…the day-long symposium, called “The Next Big Thing: a Historical Approach to Thinking about the Future,” [that] included a small, formidable mix of business leaders, technologists, historians, economists, defense experts, pollsters, and philosophers. 

Though there were few educators in the mix, [and the purpose of the conference was to examine how different disciplines think about the future] the outcomes appear relevant to all. The Four Key strategy differs from traditional advice on how to approach change in an uncertain future — it’s far more proactive. The Four Keys suggest incorporating a point of view with great depth and breath—it involves listening carefully something that is most difficult to do when holding firm convictions about a given topic, and studying similar patterns or events from history, not because history repeats itself, but because history often rhymes (Gedmin). The third key also provides a fresh perspective by encouraging individual think, in contrast to groupthink. Key four, learning to deal with ambiguity, is one we’ve all heard before, yet is stellar advice, though often the most difficult.

Four Keys as per Four Keys to Thinking About the Future
1) Enhance your power of observation, in other words listen up.  In our culture of infinite distractions, listening is becoming a lost art.  The article includes several links to related articles about listening and patience, though this essay The Power of Patience is brilliant.

2) Appreciate the value of being (a little) asocial. The author warns of groupthink, a dangerous phenomenon and encourages one to think outside of the box, yet how do you actually do it, when life and livelihood generally depend on operating inside a box? (Gedmin)

3) Study history. I couldn’t agree more with this point. So many mistakes could be avoided had someone done some research into what was done prior, identifying what worked [and didn't] and why

4) Learn to deal with ambiguity. As the saying goes, just do it.

Conclusion
A worthy read as we head into 2014. The advice provided by the author sums it up well “consciously attempt to act on these four pieces of advice and I think you can only get better at anticipating the big things (and small things) that will come next”. 

Further Reading:

Four Radically Different Models in Higher Ed Worth Considering

change-ahead-street-sign-300x225There are radical models in higher education worth examining that challenge the conventional model of undergraduate education; the traditional model representing a four-year on-campus program that includes instruction by faculty or teaching assistants, institution-determined course selections guided by the credit-hour formula, transcripts with GPA calculations, etc. Yet there are countless articles and posts that cry out for reformed models of higher education, even more that provide suggestions and remedies. Yet there are few models in practice that offer face-to-face education experiences that are truly transformational. However, I suggest the four models presented here are worth pondering; two created from scratch, and two that changed within an existing framework.

To reiterate, the institutions discussed here are not virtual schools, each provides face-to-face undergraduate learning experiences where technology is leveraged to facilitate learning. The schools are also committed to teaching foundational subjects—courses from the humanities, yet each provides unique learning experiences that challenge the traditional model in some way.  Each institution takes a different approach, though all encourage learners to choose a learning path, to be self-directed, to follow their interests, and establish their own learning goals. All seek to engage young people in learning, prepare students to think critically and to guide them to find their passion.

Why We Should Be Interested
Why should educators concern themselves with considering non-traditional models of higher education; models that appear far-fetched and irrelevant?  It’s becoming apparent that the current model needs to change, and change for several reasons. First, the majority of existing models at four-year higher education institutions are not sustainable. For the past two years we have heard about the bubble of higher ed, the rising costs that are pricing college education out of reach for many. It’s coming true as predicted. According to a report described in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 percent of public institutions, compared with 15 percent the year before, expect declines in their net-tuition revenue. Already several private institutions have taken drastic measures in response to declining revenue as reported in Inside Higher Ed.  Second, the four institutions described here offer a different perspective on education; a lens that provides a glimpse into what higher education might look like in the future—food-for-thought.  Third, some argue that there is a gap in what the current higher education institutions offer students; not only are many students excluded from higher education for a variety of reasons, but there is a lack of preparation for students to be effective as a post-graduate. Many are ill-equipped to find meaningful work in the knowledge and global economy.

Education Needs to Adapt to the ‘Big Shift’
Change is hard to do, and not just for higher ed. Deloitte’s Center for the Edge for the past three years has published a report that describes the ‘Shift Index‘ which provides metrics that signal changes in order for institutions and organizations to identify long-term trends, and plan accordingly. What is interesting is how applicable the content of the 2011 report is to higher education. The full 2011 report is here, but one interesting fact applicable to higher education is this—”the price/performance capability of computing, storage, and bandwidth is driving an adoption rate for our new “digital infrastructure” that is two to five times faster than previous infrastructures, such as electricity and telephone networks.” Furthermore, it appears individuals (i.e. students) are having a far easier time keeping up with the changes than are the institutions and organizations. It is far more challenging for organizations to remain nimble, yet still quite necessary. The point is, there are significant implications with the Big Shift we are experiencing, and it’s consumer, student, employee, life-long learner behaviours and their adoption of technology that will shape institutions, organizations and businesses of the future. It will be organizations [i.e. higher education institutions] that adapt and harness the new “knowledge flows” that will be successful, and “doing so will require significant institutional innovations” (Kulasooriya, Brown & Hagel, 2011).

Four Schools:
Below I provide a summary of each the four schools, and highlight why each is radical in context of conventional higher education. Though there are other higher education institutions implementing new models, many embracing technology and responding to the needs of students, the four presented here were chosen because of the uniqueness and diversity.

1) Quest University Canada. I heard Quest University’s Vice-Chancellor, David Helfand speak at a conference in November where he described the school he founded. Quite remarkable. Quest started with its first class in 2007 with 73 students. Classes are small. There are no lectures, but all classes are seminar-discussion format. All students complete the same foundational courses in the first two years that cover the humanities, math and sciences, yet the latter two years are unique and individual learning paths chosen and directed by the student. The selection process for professors is most unusual, and all work in an open office where there is no separation by academic schools or disciplines. Why it’s radical: there are no grades; students receive check marks to indicate if they are engaged in learning. The study path for the last two-years of the undergraduate degree program is a unique learning path chosen by each student based upon his or her personal interest/passion. Quest at a glance.

2) Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom.  Founded in 1825 started as a Polytechnic, and in 1992 the school became Liverpool John Moores University, one of the UK’s new generation universities.  This is a research university, that launched ‘a globally unique model of higher education that stresses work-related learning and ‘skill development in tandem with effective employer engagement’. Why it’s radical: the university’s program, World of Work is a support and skill development program for all students that involves involvement and input from national and international employers and business experts. Students not only gain work experience with top companies, but students develop a skill-set labeled World of Work skills. Students abilities are also verified through an employer-validated Skills Statement and interview during their undergraduate course of study. More info here.

3)  University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia. UTS is one of the largest universities in Australia and aims to be a world leader in technology education. The focus is on global, practice-oriented learning where students undertake research, professional and community work experiences. It is heavily focused on collaborative learning that integrates institutional research. Why it’s radical: the hands-on learning approach beginning in first-year of study, and the school’s updated learning strategy for 2014 includes student-generated learning goals, personalized learning paths that integrates online sources, faculty feedback, and development of a personal learning network using digital platforms and tools (three-minute video clip that describes the approach: UTS 2014). UTS undergraduate information.

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Minerva’s logo

4)  Minerva Project, United States. I hesitated to include the Minerva Project here, as this school has long been in the planning phases, and has only just begun to enroll students. However, even if it doesn’t work in this format, it’s worth examining. Conceptualized by Ben Nelson, former chief executive Snapfish the online photo printing site, Minerva seeks to be an ivy league institution with tuition fees that undercut elite US universities by half while guaranteeing students an education based not in one location, but in six of the cities around the world. Why it’s radical: it’s ambitious—not only does it seek to compete the Ivy Leagues, but provides education in brick and mortar classrooms in cities in different countries. It will leverage technology by encouraging students to access content and resources online, i.e. MOOCs but still include face-to-face interaction. By its very nature, it’s an education in globalization. More here.

Conclusion
As highlighted, the schools examined here and the respective models, provide insight into what can be done in higher education to address the Big Shift as described by the Deloitte Center. Though radical as they may seem, each provides a glimpse into how face-to-face undergraduate education is adapted to provide relevant and effective education for a global and digital world.

Resources:

Related Reading: