If Change is Inevitable–Is Progress Optional? Four Education Institutions Opting for Progress

“Change is inevitable. Progress is optional.” Tony Robbins

change-architect-sign1The above quote from author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins sums up Dr.  Richard DeMillo’s presentation The Fate of American Colleges and Universities delivered in May of last year at Dartmouth University. Readers might be familiar with DeMillo—professor of computer science, speaker, author of several articles and books including Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (2011). He currently serves as Director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. His talk carried a similar message that’s outlined in his book— colleges and universities in the Middle will need to change—and if they don’t they’ll be headed for irrelevance and marginalization‘ (MIT Press). It’s been three years since the book’s publication and many of his warnings about higher education appear close to reality.  In the book and in his talk at Dartmouth, DeMillo doesn’t candy coat his message, wrap it up into a more digestible form, but serves it straight.

The system of higher education…is not a sustainable system. I don’t know anyone who has seriously looked at American higher education that can come to the conclusion that what we are doing is financially, socially, pedagogically and morally sustainableRichard DeMillo, Dartmouth University, May 7, 2013

Though the message may be grim, the education sector needs individuals like DeMillo with their extensive experience and knowledge of higher education to tell it like it is. Granted, some will say DeMillo is wrong, is only making predictions and value judgements. However, three years after Abelard to Apple’s release, events described are no longer predictions

Responses to The Message
DeMillo describes leaders’ reactions to what he has to say—some are open, eager to look for ways to adapt to change and move forward, and others are unaware, dismissive, or even defensive.

University leadership in the United States for the most part is unaware that the crossroads is ahead.  […] The obvious question is how so many smart people could miss what seems to be an inevitable crisis?”  Richard Demillo, Abelard to AppleThe Fate of American Colleges and Universities (2011)

But many institutions are listening, are opting for progress, embracing change and striving to remain relevant. Below I share four examples of institutions that are choosing to implement strategies for change. Some projects are complex, are institution-wide, engaging the majority stakeholders. Others are on a smaller scale, yet no less bold.

Readers may question whether all initiatives are progressive, a way forward. Some appear to be going backward, as the University System of Georgia where several institutions are merging, resulting in some institutions names disappearing altogether. Though institutional leaders of these schools might say that it is progress for the long-term, with changes in the short-term that are difficult.

Below are descriptions of the strategies of each, and related links to outside sources with further information.

Four Institutions Opting for Progress

1. Corporate Sponsored Degree Program: University of Maryland, Cybersecurity

Strategy: Universities are beginning to seek funding support for undergraduate programs by partnering with corporations and other private institutions to build infrastructure and curricula for specialized degree programs. Companies are motivated to do so, hoping to fill skill gaps within their own workforce by creating a pool of educated potential candidates. This initiative is part of University of Maryland’s overall plan to remain financially sustainable, and relevant; it has also cut costs by eliminating seven varsity sports teams and forcing faculty and staff to take furlough days.

change_image2. Strategic Planning InitiativeBeyond Forward, Dartmouth University

Strategy:  Dartmouth University provides an illustrative example of an institution seeking to embrace change and prepare for the future by implementing a comprehensive strategic planning effort. Dartmouth’s end goal—’to identify significant opportunities and challenges as we consider an ambitious and forward-looking course for Dartmouth’s future.’  The website describing the program is detailed, sharing many resources, including the recorded talks of experts and scholars as part of the Leading Voices in Education series of which DeMillo was one. The two-year effort involved over 3,000 stakeholders including faculty, administrators, staff, students and alumni, and assigned nine working groups a topic to research, report upon and develop recommendations for. Impressive. To learn more, you can read Dartmouth’s Synthesis report of ‘Beyond Forward‘. Other institutions that have implemented a similar strategic initiative and shared the process are Georgia Tech University, Brandeis University, and Brown University.

Strategic planning is the first significant phase of opting for progress, however putting the plan into action—the execution of the plan requires more than talking about and planning for change, it’s about making it happen. Action.

3. Institutional MergersUniversity System of Georgia

Strategy: The primary motivation for education institutions to merge is to realize costs savings through sharing of administrative expenses common to each, i.e. finance, human resources, facilitation services, IT, etc. Universities merging is not new. There’s been several examples of institutions coming together over the years. Though recent mergers are on a large-scale. Not two institutions merging, but in the State of Georgia’s case, eight in all since 2012. As you can imagine, these actions are drastic, messy, often chaotic and stressful for all involved. Even more so when communication is poor, which it usually is. Though perhaps necessary to remain viable, and may be a way forward, no doubt it must appear institutions are taking several steps back. Successful mergers require a tremendous amount of planning, communication and diplomacy. Merging Into Controversy, Inside Higher Ed (2014).

4. MOOC-Inspired Initiatives. Penn State, flex-MOOC and Georgia Tech Institute.

Strategy: There are a few institutions seeking to use the MOOC format to seek sustainability for the long-term. Even though MOOCs continue to enroll and engage thousands of students, few higher education institutions have demonstrated how MOOCs will contribute to its sustainability, relevance, and direction for the future (more so when there is no strategic plan for the future). Two schools that are taking a step forward are Georgia Tech with its Online Master of Science in Computer Science and Penn State.

Georgia Tech: “OMS CS officially launches with first cohort Today about 375 students begin coursework as the first cohort in Georgia Tech’s online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS) program, offered in collaboration with Udacity and AT&T. The group was admitted from some 2,360 applications…”

Penn State: “A flex-MOOC is a MOOC that offers content in modules that the learner can assemble into a personally relevant “course” and giving learners control over content, the sequence and timeline…creating a learning path that is relevant given learners’ individual contexts, strengths, and leaning needs.”

Closing
Change will happen. It is happening. Examining how institutions handle change, move forward is instructive. Is not changing an option and the right thing to do? Possibly. But making a decision not to change but is backed by a strategy, makes sense, not changing with no strategy doesn’t. How does your institution deal with change?

Related Reading:

Image credits: ‘Time for Change’, by marsmetn tallahasse, Flickr

Resources to Help Students Be Successful Online in Three Areas: Technical, Academic & Study Planning

iStock_supportsginXSmallThis post features a collection of carefully selected resources for students learning within online environments; it’s geared to leaners and educators seeking resources for just-in-time learning for technical, academic and study skills required to learn efficiently and successfully in a for-credit or open online course.

Students need a wide range of skills to learn successfully in online settings; they need to be tech savvy, know how to collaborate with peers, conduct online research, navigate proficiently within the learning management platform, manage their time effectively and engage in the learning process by interacting with content, peers and completing course work via the learning platform. Many high school and undergraduate students (perhaps even learners with an undergraduate degree or higher) have a skill gap in one area or another when beginning an online course for the first or even second time. It’s also likely a significant number of students lack the required academic skills for the online course they plan to complete. Research states that as many as 60% of entering college freshman do not have the math or writing skills required for college-level course work.  It’s no wonder that some college-level students are not successful with online studies. Several students will fail, withdraw, or may not learn as deeply as they could have due to a lack of skills in one or more areas.

Three Categories of Resources: The resources featured here address skill gaps in three areas: 1) technical, 2) academic and 3) study skills. The academic section includes resources for subject areas of writing composition, grammar and math. The technical section links to sites that provide instruction for learners in basic web skills including e-mail and file uploads, how-to navigate and search on the web, and it also features a list of resources for student support specific to learning management (LMS) platforms. The section on study skills provides a list of resources geared to learners studying online; skill development for time management, study planning and prioritizing.

How to Help Students:  I’ve compiled the following resources hoping it may help  online learners, by readers sharing ideas and strategies for learning support as discussed here. To further support students, I also recommend institutions create an orientation program for new online students that introduces students to the LMS platform, the features specific to the course site, the syllabus, as well as the resources for academic and technical support. Another idea implemented already by several institutions is a learner readiness quiz, specific to online students. Illinois Online Network has a Self-Evaluation for Potential Online Students, as does Penn State’s World Campus, with its Online Readiness Assessment. This quiz is licensed under that Creative Commons Share Alike license allowing other institutions to use it as long as certain conditions are followed.

It goes without saying, though I’ll emphasize the point anyway, that the onus lies with the student to take advantage of support and resources provided; educators and institutions do have a responsibility to support learning, but it’s the student’s responsibility to take charge and learn.

I. Resources for Technical Skills
Basic Web Skills: Students require a minimum set of skills to function within an online course that includes: how to email, browse the Internet, upload files, download needed plug-ins or software, etc. Yet some students won’t have one or more of the needed skills when beginning an online course. Below are suggested resources to fill in the skills gap.

640px-WebLiteracyMap-v1.1

Image of Mozilla Foundation’s ‘Web Literacy Map’ developed by Doug Belshaw that outlines the skills and competencies people need to read, write and participate effectively on the web. Further details see resources section.

  • Digital Learn.org: tutorials between five and seven minutes on: email basics, web search, basics of Windows or Mac operating systems, and navigating a website
  • Teach-ease (University of South Florida) how to use a web browser, and Internet basics

How to Use Google Drive (formerly Google Docs): Knowing how to share documents, collaborate within virtual teams are other skills needed for students, and not just for learning online but for working and functioning within a digital culture.

How to Bookmark Sites: Bookmarking, also known as “social bookmarking” are actions that allow students to save web sites and online documents for later reference, reading, annotating, and even sharing. There are several online bookmark platforms:

How to Navigate within the LMS Platform: Each learning management platform has its own unique features, and though many are designed to be intuitive and user-friendly, some users require instruction in the form of video clips or text documents to develop confidence and proficiency. It’s helpful for the student that just-in-time-learning is provided by way of links within the course site to instructions specific to a task—for example: how to comment within a discussion forum, or how to upload an assignment file. Several institutions have created tutorials geared to the institution’s students. One example, New Jersey Institute of Technology created tutorials on how to use features of Moodle.

I can see why some institutional educators create their own instructional videos for students, as unfortunately many help videos and text instructions offered by the LMS providers are geared to instructors, not students, per below.

  • MoodleStudent Tutorials are written for instructors, not students
  • CanvasCanvas Student Guide also appears written for instructors, note the first help topic ‘Where do I find more help for students?’
  • Desire2LearnDesire2Learn Resource Center another example of the poor support options provided for students. I found nothing on this site that provides support for students, yet numerous help documents and resources for instructors. It’s no wonder that many institutions have created student help videos—all on the same topics, for example ‘how to post to a discussion forum’ see examples from Mansfield University, Montana State, San Jose State University, Clayton State University, (the list goes on) all which provide the same instructions. This is further evidence of the barriers students face when learning online; unless their institutions provides detailed support, some students face barriers to learning due to lack of support for navigating within the learning platform.
  • Blackboard: Blackboard for Students: tutorials geared to students and instructors
  • HaikuFor Students: Using Haiku LMS: of all the platforms, this is the only one (I could find) featuring a section specific to students.

II. Resources for Academic Skills

Writing Help:

  • OWL The Purdue Writing Lab: Purdue is the mother-of-all sources for writing help of any kind—from grammar help, to developing thesis statements, to report writing, citation help and more. The site features over 200 free resources , all of which are available to anyone.
  • Guide to Grammar and Writing by Capital Community College Foundation. Very good site covering a breadth of topics to support various aspects of writing including essays, outlines and reports. Includes a section on grammar.
  • Institution resources. Many institutions offer writing help centers free of charge for students. Ideally, students studying in for-credit online classes should have access to similar support services online. If a writing center for online students is available at your institution, provide details on the course site, and/or post a note on message board with details for students.
  • e-Tutoring.org is a collaborative online tutoring program and platform for writing skills that provides one-on-one, online support to students from numerous subscribing colleges within the US. It offers two models: collaborative and single. Within the collaborative model, participating institutions share resources to provide greater coverage and quicker turn-around time. e-Tutoring monitors the quality of the tutor feedback. Within the individual model, an institution is free to use the software platform with their own tutors.” The platform appears to be a viable option for institutions with a large online student population. Click here to view the list of the participating schools.

Grammar:

Math:

  • Kahn Academy:  Khan academy is one of the most comprehensive web sites providing skill development in algebra, trig, calculus, statistics, chemistry, biology as well as subjects in history and language arts. Lessons begin at the elementary level, and continue to up to university-level topics and subjects. The site features hundreds of short videos on specific concepts within a subject that range from five to twenty minutes in length. Also offers practice exercises, and support forums.
  • Institution support. As mentioned above some institutions offer virtual support in math for online students, if this is the case, provide details on the course site, and/or post a note on message board with details for students.

III. Resources for Study Skills

  • What Makes a Successful Online Learner? by iseek education with Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota Online High School
  • Effective Habits for Effective Study, Study Guides and Strategies Website
  • Five-Step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning, Online Learning Insights
  • HowtoStudy.com: A clean, clutter-free site dedicated only to study skill development, and though it’s geared to college students, any student may benefit from the concise and focused information provided. The site features twelve chapters, ranging from time management, to creating a study plan, note-taking, etc.
  • My Study Life, a new [and free] app—an online student planner designed for students to plan and manage their learning time. It appears to have numerous features including tracking of due dates for assignments, schedule of classes and study times, notifications for scheduled tasks, due dates, and study times.

Closing Thoughts
There are numerous other sources on the Web students can turn to for help. The list above is but a very small representation of what’s available.  However, often time is a barrier for students needing help; searching is time-consuming which is why institutions offering online courses [ideally] need to make help available, and easy to find to support learners that are still learning how to learn. Offering just-in-time help that is focused, and specific to a deficient skill can reduce barriers to learning, and lead to meaningful and successful education experiences.

Resources/Further Reading:

MOOC ‘Jam’: Highlights from a Jam on Digital Pedagogy

This post includes takeaways from a ‘MOOC Jam’, a synchronous discussion online I participated in with a group of educators about digital pedagogy. 

MOOC_Jam_Image

‘Jam’ by John Wardell (Flickr)

“What is a Jam?  A Jam is an asynchronous, typed, online discussion designed to work around your schedule. The goal of a Jam is to gain perspective and solicit ideas that inform the community. After the Jam is over, you can read the exchange and the posted resources, which will remain available for several weeks.” MOOC Jam II, Digital Pedagogy   (The three threads of asynchronous discussions in this jam are: 1) Competencies for teaching online, 2) Developing Faculty Competencies, and 3) Learner Analytics for Faculty)

Screen Shot 2014-04-01 at 11.16.09 AM

Screen Shot of participants online during the Jam participating in the threaded discussions (only partial shot of participants)

This past Tuesday, I participated in a  MOOC Pedagogy Jam via the website Momentum, a platform created for stakeholders to discuss critical issues related to education, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The purpose of the platform is to provide a space to host online events about topics related to online education, with the ultimate goal of the Jams ‘to gain perspective and solicit ideas that inform the community’.  I participated in the first MOOC Jam this past November. The topic, “Peer Review of a Framework for MOOCs” hosted by George Siemens, focused on the design of the MOOC Framework. Siemens, creator of the Framework, sought input from the community of participants.

The topic of this Jam, [which turned out to be more of a synchronous discussion] was digital pedagogy, divided into the three threaded discussions as mentioned above. Each discussion featured a moderator, responsible for responding to participants and furthering the discussion, and another moderator summarizing key themes of the discussion each hour. I chose to participate in ‘Competencies for teaching online: describing effective pedagogy’ given its description— “An exchange on how information is delivered to students, how they are engaged as active learners and community is built and how learning is assessed”.

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 3.55.00 PM

Screen shot of one the three threaded discussions of the Jam held on the Momentum platform

Digital Pedagogy: Themes and Highlights
Following are my insights from the discussion on digital pedagogy and I’ve included comments from other participants. (Jam II, Momentum, Digital Pedagogy).

The discussion was rich with ideas, insights and provided a glimpse into the issues and challenges with online instruction. Though the title of the Jam featured ‘MOOCs’, much input from contributors pertained to closed, online courses which created an interesting discussion by highlighting one of the primary challenges in online education—the application of appropriate pedagogical methods, which will vary depending upon the learners, the delivery method and goals of the course.

Themes:

1)  Part of the discussion was devoted to the contrast and challenges between learner-directed and instructor-directed learning. The fact that much discussion focused on this issue highlights one of the challenges with MOOCs; a MOOC, due to its scale and format lends itself to be learner-directed. It’s not surprising then that MOOCs attract learners that already know how to learn, are motivated and educated. Several Jam participants discussed methods to get learners involved in learning, how to encourage students to engage and participate [typically in the context of closed online classes].

“I’ve done something similar to engage students in action research with me. I was teaching Web Development and was not happy with the development framework we were using. So as a class we researched the pros and cons of various frameworks and decided as a class (with my approval) which one to use. This worked well – they had “buy in” as we used to say.  Beyond that, I set basic specifications as to what they were to include in their work product, but allowed them to choose the subject matter (content). I also had to give approval before they began coding.”

I see the above challenge highlighting two opportunities: 1) to provide support to students to learn how to be self-directed, and 2) to provide skill development for educators and course designers in how to be flexible and adapt instructional strategies by assessing learners, the learning context and creating appropriate learning experiences, implementing pedagogical methods that match the learning needs.

One Jam participant shared an initiative that his institution recently started for its students; a program designed to address much of what was discussed here.

“California State University, Monterey Bay, is creating an online training module for training in baseline skills in web technologies for collaboration and other soft skills, such as team working relationships. Selecting appropriate pedagogy again depends upon an analysis of the learners — goes back to careful and thrustful planning”

2)  Considerable discussion focused on how to get students to interact, collaborate and engage with peers in online classes, and what the instructors role is in facilitating group formation, participation and learner engagement. Though this theme is similar to the theme mentioned above, interesting thoughts on group formation and collaboration emerged—should it be encouraged, facilitated or left for students to form spontaneously? And if so, how? This relates to the motivation of the learner, which is quite different when students are in for-credit classes versus ‘free’ and open classes  [MOOCs] that are driven by interest and desire to learn—essentially self-directed.

But a key trade-off when you have non-static groups, as Michaelsen, Fink et al have looked at is that you lose the crucial accountability factor and or the time to form constructive group norms/roles etc. — this then leads to the ‘freeloaders’ issue that gives groupwork such a bad rep.  There is the challenge — in a MOOC context, can you establish stable, productive learning groups with accountability, positive norms, roles etc to really activate the engagement, peer learning and other benefits of group learning?”   

The comment above is interesting—is it really possible or desirable in a MOOC environment that the responsibility for group accountability and productivity rests with the instructor?

3)  The session wrapped up with discussion that focused on supporting learners, helping learners to learn in a MOOC format.  The question appears to be—how can this be accomplished, is it through course design, or while the course is live, accomplished via course facilitators?  Or do we need to teach students how to learn in a MOOC?

I think one of the goals for a MOOC is enabling learners to make connections, share, collaborate and learn from one another. Rather than thinking about self-directed or facilitator directed maybe we need to think about how we can create ways that encourage learners to support one another?”

I am very interested in how learners can and do support one another’s learning in MOOCs. Do you have some thoughts in mind about the answer to this question? What can we build into the design that supports and encourages peer-peer learning?”

Closing Thoughts
Discussions, similar to those within this Jam, create excellent opportunities to get the issues and challenges facing education, specifically online education, out in the open.  It also helps stakeholders identify what needs to be discussed and explored within their own institutions. There are commonalities across all institutions when it comes to online education, and ironically the very barriers affecting these issues, exist within institutions at all levels. Fortunately there is progress—many institutions are experimenting, collaborating and striving to adapt to cultural shifts, increase access, yet still provide high quality, relevant education. Are there similar discussions happening within your institution?

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

course6671

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.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.25.07 AM

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.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.22.07 AM

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:

The Next-Big-Thing in Online Education…Learning in Real Time

This article examines the potential of synchronous communication in online education by analyzing the newest tools and platforms that facilitate real-time group communication, and the pedagogy associated with implementing synchronous communication tools into asynchronous learning environments.

synchronous communication in online courses

synchronous communication

Communicating in real-time from a distance has never been easier. There are numerous new platforms and applications (apps) available free-of-charge that are easy-to-use and facilitate seamless communication between geographically distant people with access to a smart phone or laptop. After reading a WSJ article reviewing several smart phone apps that facilitate real-time communication among small groups seamlessly, I realize that the time is coming where synchronous tools will bring online education to the next level. Over the last two years there’s been a flood of free apps and platforms on the market that break down distance barriers and allow people to communicate from their handheld mobile device, tablet or laptop. One example is group video conferencing. There are now several free web-conferencing tools for groups that also feature document and screen sharing, including Google Hangouts, newly launched appear.in (video conversations for up to 8 people), and meetings.io (also free). These platforms knock down the once insurmountable barriers for video conferencing use in education—barriers of student access, and technology that was cumbersome and expensive.

A key aspect of this is the consideration of approaches to capitalizing on the capacity of video communications to reduce isolation and increase personalization of learning experiences for distance students. Indeed there is now scope for the empowerment of distance learners and an opportunity to offer a much wider choice of strategies intended to enhance and support learning (Smyth & Zanetic, 2007). Indications from the research literature are exciting.(Andrews, Tynan, Smyth &  Vale, 2010)

However, one significant barrier still exists when considering synchronous tools for education settings, and that is pedagogy.  From the same paper as the above paragraph, is this statement that describes the barrier crisply, “from a practitioners point-of-view, the challenge will come from the need to be flexible, adaptive and innovative. In other words, the need is to rapidly develop new understandings of pedagogies to best utilize the person-to-person interactivity of emerging technologies” (Andrews et al, 2010).

hangouts

A group of students in an online hangout using the platform meetings.io

The Great Potential: Synchronous Tools for Online Education
These apps and platforms hold great potential for online education—seamless real-time chats, video discussions that can facilitate peer-to-peer, and educator-to-student(s) exchanges that foster social connections, learning support, feedback or create a space for discussion of concepts and ideas in a way the asynchronous communication cannot. The new technology brings with it numerous possibilities. But though the potential is great, so are the challenges associated with implementation. As with any educational technology tool, the purpose for using the tool has to make sense, has to fit in with the curriculum in a pedagogically sound way that supports learning and achievement of the course objectives.

Although video conferencing has been around for some years, in many cases the use has not been informed by rigorous research leading to sound pedagogical practices. videoconferencing has frequently copied typical lecture style format of didactic lecture style delivery rather than exploring approaches….” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)

How-to Implement Educational Technology, i.e. Synchronous Tools
Before getting to highlights of the research addressing synchronous tools in online education, I’ll emphasize what needs to happen prior to implementing educational technology into a learning environment, which essentially is a needs analysis. The first step is asking questions—questions such as, “what educational problem are we trying to solve? what method can we apply that supports the problem? what tool will best work for the application that works within the learning context?“.

To be more specific with regards to implementation of synchronous tools as discussed here, the question might be, “How can a synchronous tool be used to improve the learning outcomes, or solve a learning problem that is not being met within asynchronous online classes?

It’s the answers to these questions that guide the learning design process. The next steps are when the real work of course design begins, developing the learning strategy to meet learning objectives ideally by following a model of learning or instructional design [I write extensively about instructional design. A good post for readers interested in learning more about instructional design is "Start Here": Instructional Design Models for Online Courses].

Learning Challenges Synchronous Tools Can Solve
Synchronous tools are not a given for each online course, it will depend upon a number of factors as determined during the course design process. Though to give readers an idea of the types of situations where synchronous tools may be used, I’ve included excerpts from Kansas State University’s webpage ‘synchronous course delivery‘ from its e-learning faculty modules site.  Note, that it’s not always the instructor that will use synchronous tools, but learning counselors, tutors, small groups of students and others.

“Online real-time may be used for a number of learning purposes. There may be a small window of time when an online class may access a digital lab; a simulation; …an interactive streamed event.

….to introduce learners starting a cohort-based program. … there may be icebreakers to help people connect online….

…for academic and professional advising and counseling. It may be used for group or expert critiques of student designs and e-portfolios.

….for student group work, collaborations, and study sessions. Learners may interact with each other for problem-solving, planning, co-design, or strategy sessions.

If there is not a need for synchronous learning, then it may well be better left alone.e-learning faculty modules, 2012

No Talking Heads
One of the papers I review here from the International Journal of Education Technology, provides sound advice based upon the research, and one worthy of highlighting is that synchronous tools should not be used as a one-way medium, a format where the instructor can deliver information in real-time, but instead be viewed as a vehicle that allows for the exchange of information, for accommodating three or four-way [or more] conversations that build learning, ideas and learners’ motivation. The synchronous communication medium should be reserved only for exchanges that support a course objective or other learning-related function that can’t be accomplished through asynchronous methods.

“In other words students find the talking head presentation to be undesirable. This finding is not a new one (Commeaux, 1995; Schiller & Mitchell, 1993)…” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)

Research Highlights
Below are a selection of highlights from the papers referenced in this post that outline the impact of, and considerations for synchronous methods used in online education.

1) Building Social and Teacher Presence: More than one study suggests that synchronous communication activities support the social needs of online students not typically met in the asynchronous format, “Social support is desirable as a way to foster knowledge work and collaborative learning; it provides an environment where communication is encouraged; e.g., anecdotes and personal experiences encourage trust, which foster receptive and creative learning environment” (Hranstinski, 2008).

Synchronous activities contribute to building of social presence, one of the three dimensions of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, a  frequently referenced model that describes the conditions for optimal online learning experience (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). When the three dimensions are present, teacher presence, social presence and cognitive presence, the student can experience deep and meaningful learning. Purposefully developed synchronous [and asynchronous] activities can contribute to building social and teaching presence as supported by the research cited here.

2) Group Size: The purpose of a group activity as determined by the course design process, will determine the appropriate group size as well as the best tool or platform to support it.

It is worth noting here that multi-point videoconferencing is most effective with small groups of students (20 to 25 across 3 or 4 sites) as stated by Mason, (1994) cited in Burke, London and Daunt (1997)…” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)

Video and hangout platforms each have a limit to the number of individuals participating at once, as do chat platforms, which again reinforces why the instructional strategy created in the course design process is critical. The meetings.io platform for instance allows up to five people per hangout, ideal for a small group discussion, while Google Hangout accommodates up to ten, which may be applicable for a meet-and-greet type session held at the beginning of a course.

Chat platforms, for example whatsapp, might be used effectively for group discussions, i.e. one question related to a course topic, where students contribute initial thoughts and exchange ideas, followed by an asynchronous forum discussion continuing the conversation.

3) Differences in Time Zones: One of the drawbacks of synchronous tools often cited is students living in different time zones, however in closed online courses for credit, this is not as much of an issue as massive courses that cater to a world-wide audience (though even in these instances, there are ways to accommodate learners in different time zones). In my personal experience with synchronous activities in closed, online classes, most students are willing to adjust their schedule to participate in synchronous activities, more so when activities have a clear purpose and appear worthy of students time.

“Students were willing to deal with the problems of time difference in order to take advantage of this opportunity, which, on this occasion, resulted in very early classes. Additionally, they liked the experience of interacting with a wider peer group and of learning from each other’s different knowledge-base and backgrounds.” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)

4 ) Instructor and Student Familiarity with Tool: As with any technology used in online education, familiarity with the technology is essential to establish the foundation for a successful learning outcome. The institution is responsible for providing professional development for faculty and instructors, and working with course designers/instructors to build-in course time for student practice with the tool, and make available resources that support students (and faculty) with the technological issues.

Resources:

References

Best Methods and Tools for Online Educators to Give Students Helpful and Meaningful Feedback

strict businesswoman shouting in megaphone

Giving Feedback to Students that Stands Out

In last week’s post Tools-of-the-Trade to Make your Online Teaching Even Better I reviewed various tools that help online educators make a connection with students by using media other than text to deliver guidance and instructions to students in online classes.  In this post I focus on how educators teaching online [and face-to-face] can use ed-tech tools effectively to provide formative and summative feedback to their students. I’ve included several resources and examples of ed-tech tools in this post in a case study format featuring both online and face-to-face educators describing their methods. 

The Case for Formative Feedback
Formative feedback in some cases is more valuable to student learning than the final assessment. For instance, when a final grade comes later in the course session the student is not as receptive to feedback, and often focuses on the grade not the feedback. Formative input on the other hand allows instructors to promote deeper learning by prompting students to dig deeper and expand and clarify their argument or position while the student in engaged in the learning process. Instructors that foster depth of learning with this kind of real-time feedback, push their students to dig deeper and think more critically. Below is a selection of excellent and user-friendly ed-tech tools that allow educators to give this kind of input seamlessly.  

p_WwmiCgOn3TnVRGLGPYCLe-RLWAeo7P9uRrbplomGwj5ACN6j0fhwzfUEj03mFq1Kk=w78-h78Case study #1: Using Audio Feedback  A long-time online educator based in Austria outlines in a blog post Audio feedback and human touch her methods and rationale for using audio feedback for student assignments. She captures the essence of how students benefit by audio feedback in this paragraph:

“I feel that by using voice recording and screen casting tools, we can now provide more personal, more meaningful and more effective instruction in an acoustically and/or visually supported manner. Intonation and voice tone both help to convey feelings, which in turn really help to create tutor presence and build rapport (the human touch). Finally, since students can decide when, where and how often they listen/watch, an element of choice is added, a step towards promoting learner autonomy.” Veronica’s Teaching Online Blog

Tools to use for Audio Feedback:  Many LMS platforms have built-in audio tools, Canvas  does as does Desire2Learn. There are also several Apps available for Mac and Android systems that facilitate audio feedback, though Vocaroo seem to be the most highly rated audio app for its simplicity.  I like the audio record feature in Evernote. It allows you to record easily, and then email the voice recording in a note format in a snap.

Case Study #2 Feedback [formative and summative] via Screen Casts.
Screencasts allow an instructor to talk through a student’s work by recording audio comments on the student’s assignment displayed on the instructor’s screen. Below is an example of screen cast where an instructor provides formative feedback to a student on her essay using the free program for screencasts, Jing [screen casts are also used frequently for summative feedback on individual and group assignments].  With this method, the focus is on the students’ work which is featured on the screen—either a document file that has been downloaded onto the instructor’s computer and is opened, or any resource online—Google document, e-portfolio item, etc.  It is best not to sound too formal in screencasts—speaking naturally as you would to a student face-to-face feels more authentic to students.

The resource below is on the platform Screencast.com (associated with Jing, both are by the company TechSmith), and which is free as well. In this instance the professor made this available as a public file, though one can make it private for only those with the link able to view it [a unique link (URL) is created for each screen cast when uploaded to Screencast.com. This functionality is built into the Jing program].

The Center for Writing at the University of Michigan, provides an excellent resource in PDF format Giving Feedback on Student Writing. The screen cast below is drawn from this resource.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 12.57.02 PM

Click the image to view a screen cast recording of an instructor giving formative feedback to a student on her essay.  Thanks to University of Michigan’s Writing Center for making this example available.

Case Study #3: Formative Feedback using Google Drive.  A literature professor teaching face-to-face classes at Santa Clara University uses Google Drive (the new term for Google Docs) with his students to provide feedback on the draft copy of students essays.  How it works: The student creates his or her essay in Google Drive, enables the sharing feature and includes the professor’s email address which sends the link to the prof.  The professor then makes comments, notes on each student’s draft document [Google drive provides excellent tools for providing comments in the side bar and/or making comments within the document itself] and the student is automatically notified of the comments made.  

If there are methods for giving student feedback that you would like to share with readers, please do so by posting a comment.  Other readers benefit greatly with the exchange and sharing of ideas. Thanks!

Other Resources:

MOOC Development Advice from Instructors that Have ‘Been-There-Done-That’

Recomended stamp

“Recommended” istock

I’ve collected several YouTube video clips of faculty and instructors sharing their experiences and giving advice for those developing a MOOC. Readers adapting a face-to-face course to a xMOOC format may find this post helpful. Who better to get advice from than faculty or instructors that have developed at least one MOOC and have-been-there-done-that?

The video clips below are not longer than four minutes a piece; I’ve summarized each and categorized the advice into four categories:  1) Video Production, 2) Pedagogy, 3) Course Design and 4) Instructional Strategy. This should help readers determine which clips are worth watching. The video clips feature instructors that developed one or more MOOCs for one of three platforms, iVersity, Coursera, and Open2Study.  One clip is in German, from a professor teaching a course on the iVersity platform. It focuses on video production techniques specific to a math focused class, and is very worthwhile to watch given the techniques demonstrated.

1. “Reflecting on the MOOC Experience
Categories: Pedagogy, Course Design, Video Production
Platform: Open2Study
Course: “Understanding Common Diseases
Summary: Course instructors surprised to discover some aspects of the MOOC format applicable to their face-to-face courses
Takeaways

  • Required a completely different skill set to teach a MOOC—most challenging: i) teaching in short blocks [condensing the course content], ii) filming lectures—talking to a camera not a live audience
  • Discovered a new teaching method for teaching in their traditional program, by incorporating MOOC format into face-to-face program
  • Instructors spent 5 days filming approximately 40 videos, 6 to 8 minutes each

 

2. “What Makes a Good MOOC with Dr. Charles Severance”
Categories: Pedagogy, Instructional Strategies
Platform: Coursera
Course: Internet History,Technology and Security
Summary: Provides excellent tips for adapting a face-to-face course to the MOOC format
Takeaways:

  • Implement a course design and instruction strategy for the MOOC that is different from one’s face-to-face course, though make it personal—inject humour and personality into course

3. “10 Steps to Developing on Online Course [MOOC]“
Categories: Course Design, Video Production
Platform: Coursera
Course: Think Again: How to Reason and Argue”, Coursera
Summary: Practical steps for creating a low-tech MOOC [with one camera, and small development team]
Takeaways:

  • Break course content down into smaller segments (chunks), plan the course outline (syllabus)
  • Write the scripts for the videos
  • Practice and more practice before recording the lectures

4.  “Making-of MOOC “Algorithmen und Datenstrukturen” von Prof. Dr. Oliver Vornberger”
Category: Video Production
Platform: iVersity
Course: Algorithmen und Datenstrukturen
Summary: Demonstrates various video production techniques for filming mathematical calculations and physical demonstrations
Takeaways: Variety of lecture formats holds interest for students. A video production team can support execution of diverse formats: green screen, whiteboard and demonstrations with white background

5.  “The Making of an Online Course: Ronen Plesser”
Category: Video Production
Platform: Coursera
Course: “Introduction to Astronomy”
Summary: Professor shares how experiments/demonstrations traditionally done in a face-to-face classroom, translate into the MOOC format
Takeaways:

  • A highly skilled video production team helped produce high quality videos
  • Certain demonstrations turned out better in the recording studio than in classroom, and vice versa

Further Reading:

Why Educators Need to Know Learning Theory

This is the second in a three-part series about Learning Design. The first post introduced the Learning Design Framework; a guide for educators to create optimal learning experiences for students by leveraging: 1) content resources, 2) collaborative web resources and 3) human resources. This second post focuses on learning theory and how it applies to not only course design, but educators’ role in creating excellent learning experiences for their students.  Note: this is a revised version of a post that appeared on January 19, 2014. 

800px-Theory_(Clothing)_Logo

We need to study learning theory so we can be more effective as educators. In this post I bridge the gap between learning theory and effective educators; describe why we need to start at A to get to B.  I also describe how a grasp of learning theory translates to knowledge of instructional methods, that moves educators towards creating optimal learning environments.  Post one of this series described optimal learning environments in the context of a framework that includes three dimensions of resources. Post three will include scenarios of institutions applying the principles of the framework, and in this post we take a step back to examine briefly the underpinnings of pedagogical methods.

This article covers three categories of learning theories, objectivist, constructivist, and connectivist.  Connectivism is relatively new [2004].  Its theoretical principles describe how learning happens within a networked and connected society. Objectivist and constructivist theories have, and continue to have, significant influence on teaching methods and practices in K-12, higher education and professional development programs. Connectivism on the other hand, is associated with learning in an open virtual space on the web, typically in massive open online courses or MOOCs.

The theories differ significantly in the perspectives on learning, though each has influenced and shaped instructional methods and practices to some degree. An example is assessment practices using standardized tests. This method is based upon principles of the behaviorist learning theory: instructor delivers content → student studies to commit knowledge to memory → completes an assessment → feedback is provided on his or her responses. This is one example I use here to [try to] emphasize the point that educators are better equipped to handle a variety of learning situations with an understanding of how these theories affect teaching methods.

Theories of Learning

Objectivist Theories
The objectivist learning category includes both the behaviorist and cognitivist theories. Each views knowledge as existing as an entity ‘outside’ the mind of the individual. Behaviorists’ suggest knowledge is transmitted to the learner without any interpretation or contextualization by the learner. Learning is reinforced in the memory through drill and practice. The founder of the behavioral learning theory, B.F. Skinner, conducted extensive experiments in the 1950’s of which several were dedicated to learning methods research. Skinner theorized that learning could be shaped by reinforcements that followed learner behavior; the principles were foundational to Skinner’s behaviorist learning theory.

The cognitive learning theory built upon the principles of behavioral learning theory. Cognitive psychologists focused on internal thought processes of the learner, not just the observable behaviours as the objectivists did. This theory emphasizes internal thought, focuses on mental structures and processes of the learner and its application to learning. Robert Gagne is an influential educational psychologist who developed the cognitive-behaviorst theory, which suggests learning is shaped by providing optimal conditions for learning. He developed the theory of conditions of learning and the nine events of instruction.

Constructivist Theories
The constructivist perspective took the cognitivist principles one step further by asserting that individuals construct knowledge from within, by engaging in problem solving, experiential and/or social learning experiences. Constructivism puts learners in the center of the learning process, and suggests that learners contribute to knowledge construction by activating prior knowledge and personal experiences. Learning is viewed as adapting one’s mental models to new experiences and knowledge. Several theorists that were part of the constructivist movement include John Dewy, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, and Jerome Bruner.

“Network”

Connectivism Theory
The very new learning theory, connectivism, developed by Stephen Downes and George Siemens is a response to society’s connectedness within a network of digital infrastructure. The connected approach views the student as the driver of learning; where the learner connects with, and builds knowledge via the connections [nodes] made within a network. Nodes can be resources or people. Connectivism is “driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital” (Siemens, 2004).  Connectivism is the theory behind massive open online courses, MOOCs. But MOOCs with a ‘c’ for cMOOC, which incorporates the connectivist theory, in contrast to xMOOCs offered through higher education platforms such as edX and Coursera that offer MOOCs that follow more of the objectivist, and some the constructivist approach.

Conflict in Theories
Constructivists’ and objectivists’ have different views on the conditions that contribute to learning, but of most significance is the difference in viewpoints of how (and where) learning happens—one views that knowledge is transmitted, the other that knowledge is constructed from within. The conflict between the two theories is ongoing. However, the root of the differences between the theories of constructivist, objectivist, and connectivism, is best described as a difference in epistemology—the nature, scope and development of human knowledge.

 Learning Theories and Instructional Methods 
The learning theory’s philosophy of how learning transpires as reviewed, does translate into a set of instructional methods. Below are characteristics of each of the three described above. Readers will likely be very familiar with most if not all.

Characteristics of Instructional Methods Associated with Objectivist Theories

  • Instruction is directive
  • Instructors transmit body of knowledge/skills to learners
  • Assessments: multiple choice, short answer tests, or essays and projects graded by rubrics or checklists
  • Students require prerequisite skills for advancing through curriculum
  • Instruction is sequential, linear, standardized
  • Efficient

And Characteristics with Constructivist Theories

  • Universal goals such as problem solving and critical thinking
  • Students generate knowledge through collaborative group work
  • Learning is not linear, often exploratory in nature
  • Prerequisite knowledge not always required or considered
  • Instruction emphasizes learning in experiential contexts
  • Learning is social
  • Assessment varies

And Characteristics with Connectivist Theory

  • Learning is primarily online, open, learners engage within network
  • Learning objectives are not pre-determined, emerge throughout the course, determined by learners’ needs
  • Variety of content sources on web, extensive, accessible
  • Learners are self-directed, independent, know how-to-learn
  • Prerequisites not required
  • Learning is often disorganized, chaotic

Implications for Creating Optimal Learning
Is one set of instructional methods better than the other? No—and this is the crux of the post, that there is a variety of methods that serve different learning needs. It’s the skilled and intuitive educator that analyzes a learning situation, leverages the resources at his or her disposal (as per the Learning Design Framework) and is able to analyze the situation and design the very best learning experience for his or her student.

“[Learning theories] outlined [above] suggest a set of instructional principles that can guide the practice of teaching and the design of learning environments. It is important that design practices, must do more than merely accommodate the [theory's] perspective, they should also support the creation of powerful learning environments [specific to the student]” from Constructivism, Instructional Design, and Technology: Implications for Transforming Distance Learning, Tam, 2000

Stay tuned for part three of the Learning Design series.

References

  • Tam, M. “Constructivism, Instructional Design, and Technology: Implications for Transforming Distance Learning”, Educational Technology & Society 3(2) 2000
  • The Learning Design Framework, Online Learning Insights

Image credit: Theory clothing logo, by WestportWiki. Used under the Creative Commons share alike license.