An Essential Read for Online Education Decision Makers: “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education”

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By Gary Miller, Meg Benke , Bruce Chaloux, Lawrence C. Ragan, Raymond Schroeder, Wayne Smutz & Karen Swan

“Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education” published in 2014 by Stylus Publishing in association with The Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan Consortium) is the first book in a planned series about distance education.

Overview The book is current and relevant; “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education: Meeting the Challenges of Technology and Distance Education” is an invaluable if not essential resource for leaders and decision makers in online education, though anyone involved with the development or implementation of an online learning strategy for a higher education or K-12 institution will find it an excellent resource. The themes are familiar—e-learning effectiveness and quality, support for faculty success, student success and retention, and the impact of online learning programs has on an institution’s traditional programs. What sets this book apart and makes it exceptionally valuable is the diversity of perspectives from the authors—seven leaders in distance education representing five higher education institutions and the Online Learning Consortium.

The book aims to guide and support leaders as they make decisions about online learning including how to overcome barriers and implement change. The purpose of the text is to provide readers with new perspectives on online program implementation and skill development for approaching education transformation proactively. 

Each author brings experience and a perspective to the topic of online learning that gives readers insight into a variety of models and organizational structures for setting up their own online education programs. Organizational structure and culture, influence on traditional institutions are discussed at length, as are standards of quality for online education including the framework for the Five Pillars of quality online education.

Highlights The book is divided into sections categorized by three principal themes: Part One: “Leading Change: Making the Match Between Leadership and Institutional Culture”, Part Two: “Ensuring Operational Excellence” and Part Three: “Sustaining Innovation”. Each features three or four chapters dedicated to a topic that addresses current and real challenges institutions face as they seek to adapt and transform within the constraints of institutional culture, policies and administrative issues. Each offers instructive insights and practical alternatives for consideration. Below I’ve included highlights of one chapter from each section.

In Part One, Chapter Two:The Impact of Organizational Contextoutlines in detail five very different programs of online education in higher education institutions. The five examined: 1) The Pennsylvania University World Campus, 2) University of Illinois at Springfield, 3) Empire State College, 4) Rio Salado College and 5) the American Public University System.  The leaders’ views are examined within each of the programs’ institutions on the leadership challenges, culture shifts, attitudes of faculty and impact of business models. The leaders’ responses in comparison with each other is instructive and enlightening.

In Part Two, Chapter Six: “Supporting Faculty Success” suggests that the skills and competencies required by faculty are contextualized to the culture, practices and administrative structure of the online initiative of the institution. I agree with the authors— culture and administrative structure pose a significant barrier in many instances. There is gap between what is needed and what most institution  provide in the way of support and skill development for faculty and instructors teaching online. This issue, the chapter emphasizes, is central to effective online education delivered by an institution.

The challenge for the institutions is to understand and address the needs of the online instructor and create appropriate programs and support services and policies that help develop the competencies necessary for online teaching success (p. 109)

In Part Three, Chapter Ten: “Policy Leadership in e-learning” discusses the multiple challenges e-learning growth has had on policy at the federal, state and institutional level. Policy remains a barrier and threat to the growth and success of e-learning the authors’ state, and they outline five policy issues that pose real barriers to online education now, that have emerged within the past ten years. The five identified and discussed are: 1) tuition, 2) transfer credit, 3) state and campus budgeting and allocation, 4) federal and state financial aid, and 5) student support services.

Closing No doubt, one can see the value this book holds for leaders of e-learning education.  What’s also helpful to the reader is the organization of the book, which makes it  unnecessary to read it from beginning to end; readers can choose to read chapters of interest and relevance. Though I suggest that all chapters are relevant to anyone involved in online education programming.

Resources:

Need-to-Know News: Are Lectures Really Dead?, edX CEO on Perils of Unchanging Education, & Will MOOCs Replace College?

Student bored

Are Lectures Dead?

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

1) Are Lectures Really Dead?
Tony Bates posted an excellent piece this week on his blog  “Why lectures are dead (or soon will be)”, yet contrary to the title, Bates does describe a context for when and how lectures are valuable. Though Bates gives lectures another ten years before they become obsolete, he outlines the circumstances and provides an example where lectures are effective:

  • Example: A public lecture delivered at a higher ed institution by a newly appointed research professor where he delivered an inaugural lecture summarizing his research customized to the diverse audience of lay people and subject matter experts—used excellent visuals and analogies 
  • Other contexts: Lectures delivered as supplemental events,  e.g. as a course introduction where the instructor connects with students by sharing his or her interests and enthusiasm for the course topic, interest in getting to know students and supporting their learning, thus motivating students, or midway through the course to address difficult concepts, or to summarize at course end

Bates also refers to two textbooks geared to educators that convey skills and suggestions for effective teaching methods, lectures in particular. From the text “McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers”:

McKeachie and Svinicki (2006, p. 58) believe that lecturing is best for:

  • providing up-to-date material that can’t be found in one source
  • summarizing material found in a variety of sources.
  • adapting material to the interests of a particular group.
  • initially helping students discover key concepts, principles or ideas
  • modelling expert thinking.

Bates also covers the history of the lecture, and the research that supports why traditional lectures are ineffective. Nothing educators haven’t heard before, yet it’s an excellent summary piece. Below are links to the texts Bates mentions. I’ve also included an article “The Twilight of the Lecture” featured in Harvard Magazine of a similar vein about lectures. It’s about Eric Mazur’s (professor at Harvard University) journey to transforming his classroom instruction; he is now an advocate for active learning and a reformed lecture.

2) edX CEO Gives Keynote at Campus Technology Conference, 2014

“Everything around us has changed. Communication has changed, healthcare has changed, but education hasn’t,” Agarwal said. “It is actually pretty shocking and pathetic that the way we educate learners hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.”  Anant Agarwal, CEO, edX in Keynote address at Campus Technology Conference

Anant Agarwal delivered the keynote, “Reinventing Education” at Campus Technology’s conference this week where he described how MOOCs, (edX particularly) can transform higher education. Though Agarwal acknowledged that the concepts of active learning, peer learning and instant feedback, those used in edX’s platform are not new, yet he stated that  “what is new is applying the technology and making these ideas more scalable and available.”

Not sure if I buy this. Though he’s right about how new technology scales some aspects of education, e.g. providing (short) recorded lectures and instant feedback in the form of multiple choice tests, the real issue is how do these methods transform higher ed? How does the MOOC platform address quality and access?

3) Will MOOCS Replace a Traditional College Education?
The Atlantic published an article this week “Will Free Online Courses Ever Replace a College Education?”. The answer the author (an attorney) implies is no— MOOCs he surmises are like films, almost a form of enlightening entertainment. Though I see more value to MOOCs than the author, the piece is worth a read given the insights into edX provided by two individuals interviewed, edX’s Chief Scientist Piotr Mitros and Richard Lue, edX’s faculty director. Mitros discusses automated grading with edX’s Open Response Assessment (ORA), though “carefully points out that no one—least of all edX—seriously believes that automated grading can fully replace a live instructor“.  That is some good news.

Though what I found more enlightening is what Lue shared with Wintehalter about the value of MOOCs, which appears to be how it benefits the MOOC instructors—by improving their teaching skills back in the classroom.

“The MOOC,” Lue told me, “has been a catalyst that helped us realize just how different things are. I have tried some blended-learning techniques in my own classroom and been startled by the results. The level of performance was remarkable.”

This is a common theme I’ve read about and heardinstructors find great value in MOOCs for the different perspective it provides back in the traditional classroom. They are able to adapt and view classroom teaching differently, are more ready to try new techniques and incorporate methods that leverage digital resources, including those used in the MOOC format.  Perhaps this is how MOOCs will revolutionize higher education—not for bringing access and lowering costs for students, but for supporting faculty in professional development. This is great news, albeit a very costly method of professional development.

You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI 

Need-to-Know-News: BBC gets into MOOCs, Global MOOC Report for $2,500 & Competency Education gets Boost

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

1) BBC gets involved with MOOCs
Four universities in the United Kingdom are partnering with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to include never seen before film footage from World War One via its archives. Times Higher Education reports that FutureLearn will host the four MOOCs. The venture with BBC promoted as a creative approach, will be different from the traditional lecture format typical of the majority of xMOOCs:

“FutureLearn chief executive, Simon Nelson, said that many Moocs had been “rightly criticised as just being a repackaging and redistribution of the traditional lecture format, and that some universities were using the internet to “pump out videos”, rather than using their courses to tell a story. He said he hoped that working with the BBC would help institutions to be more creative.” 

Insight: This venture is a great opportunity for institutions to demonstrate they can reach non-traditional xMOOC students (traditional MOOC students: holding an undergraduate degree or higher), and engage learners not familiar with online learning or self-directed education. Not to mention introducing a novel method for delivering content. The four MOOCs launch soon—in October so we won’t have to wait long to see the response.

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Image from “BBC helps produce First World World Moocs” by Chris Parr

2) Report on MOOCs for $2,500
It’s not only Udacity and Coursera that are starting to make money from xMOOCs. It seems that there’s even demand for research reports about MOOCs—$2,500 a pop, or $10,000 for enterprise wide access. The report, published by Research and Markets, The World’s Largest Market Research Store described as follows:

“The report, the Global Massive Open Online Courses Market 2014-2018, has been prepared based on an in-depth market analysis with inputs from industry experts. The report covers the Americas and the EMEA and APAC regions as well as the key leading countries in this market. It also provides in-depth overview of the revenue generation models adopted by the vendors in the market and discusses the key vendors operating in this market It also includes discussions of  “…the market segmentation based on student demographics and course preferences, as well as the market landscape and its growth prospects in the coming years.” 

Insight: xMOOCs are big business, though not necessarily for higher education institutions.

 3)  Competency Education Gets a Bigger Boost
There’s bi-partisan support for competency-based education in the United States, a bill passed this week by the senate will allow student aid to go towards thirty academic programs that are experimenting with a range of innovative higher education academic programs that lead to degrees, many including degree-tracks grounded in competency-based education. According to sources of Inside Higher Ed,  there are nearly 350 institutions that do offer, or plan to offer a competency-based degree track (Fain, 2014).

Representative John Kline of Minnesota, the Republican who chairs the House education committee, called the legislation a “good first step” to figuring out what works and doesn’t work for competency-based education.Inside Higher Ed

The programs fall under the Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI), funded by the Department of Education. The program is still accepting applications.

Insight: The idea of experimentation with students pursuing higher education makes me uneasy. If such programs enroll students at risk for not completing a two or four-year degree, I would hope that the programs do not further jeopardize the students’ chances of success.  I think back to the Udacity and San Jose University experience with MOOCs, where one of the pilot programs was a MOOC format for remedial math.

“Another factor in the disappointing outcomes may have been the students themselves. The courses included at-risk students, high school students and San Jose State students who had already failed a remedial math course.” Inside Higher Ed

Failure rates were higher in the MOOC experiment than in the face-to-face class.  What about those students?  Granted new programs have to be piloted in some way, I would hope however, that there is a plan in place to address any negative outcomes students may experience as a result of the experimental programs.

You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI 

What Educators and Policy Makers can Learn from “The Big Fat Surprise”

New-Nina-Book-Cover-e1399064213295What can educators learn from a book on nutrition science “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet” (2014), a book that methodically debunks advice North Americans have been following for years, which is to eat a low-fat and high carbohydrate diet for optimal health? A great deal it turns out. I don’t typically feature books in this blog that stray too far from the topic of education, but “The Big Fat Surprise” is a worthy of exception. It’s a meticulously researched book that highlights how poorly designed research studies, bias, influential leaders, and the public’s unfamiliarity with the difference between causation and correlation can impact policy to the detriment of the public good.

The book is a ten-year project by author Nina Teicholz. Through analysis and extensive review of countless nutrition, medical and health studies, interviews with top nutrition scientists, and heads of government agencies responsible for nutrition and health guidelines, Teicholz uncovers the lack of credible scientific evidence that supports the link between high cholesterol associated with diet, and heart disease (p. 172 – 173)

The study that started the low-fat diet movement (accomplished by eliminating meat, butter, eggs, cheese, dairy, etc) to curb cholesterol levels, was The Seven Countries Study (1963) by Ancel Keyes. This now famous study, sought to establish a relationship between diet and coronary heart disease and stroke. However Teicholz describes in detail the deep-rooted problems and flaws of the study. Even though Keyes was careful to state in published papers, “casual relationships are not claimed” (p. 73) he was a champion for the low-fat diet throughout his career, and extremely influential with politicians and decision makers.

Long story short, populations that include children, of numerous countries have been following low-fat diets for years yet with no scientific support that suggests low-fat diets are beneficial.  Food manufacturers are heavily invested in the low-fat movement, up to one-third of product offerings feature low-fat versions. Yet heart disease rates have not declined, and worse obesity rates have risen. Which, not coincidently began to rise (1980) at the same time the United States Department of Agriculture began publishing guidelines for low-fat diets (p. 328).

How it Relates to Education
The book illustrates how flawed research, bias and misunderstanding of results led to misguided dietary recommendations by government agencies and creation of policies that were, and still are detrimental to large groups within our population. The lessons within “The Big Fat Surprise” for decision makers and influencers within any public sector, education being at the top of the list, are instructive, even enlightening. The Wall Street Journal’s review of The Big Fat Surprise written by Trevor Butterworth from George Mason University’s site stats.org puts it this way:

“… Ms. Teicholz’s book is a lacerating indictment of Big Public Health for repeatedly putting action and policy ahead of good evidence“.

Book Highlights 

  •  Misunderstandings are exacerbated when the public, the press, and even decision makers are unfamiliar with scientific studies, specifically the difference between causation and correlation.
  • Dissenters within a scientific community can be silenced, if not shunned when bringing forth contradictory evidence of the popular hypothesis. The book describes in detail the intricacy of relationships between key decision makers, members of the scientific community, funders of the studies (in this case food companies), and how individuals can manipulate outcomes of studies to serve their own agendas.
  • There is little doubt that readers, upon finishing the book will look at claims about proven programs and even raw data with a far more discerning eye.

Further Reading and Resources:

 

Need-to-Know News: #MassiveTeaching Mess, University of Texas Online Courses, Pearson’s SOOCs

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.  This post was updated on July 22, 2014 to reflect clarification on the type of online courses offered by The University of Texas at Austin.

1) Massive Teaching Mess
Much has already been written about the most bizarre MOOC on Coursera to date, “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required” (#massiveTeaching) developed by University of Zurich’s professor Paul-Oliver Dehaye. The MOOC has been labeled as a pedagogical experiment (though some say also a psychological), and the professor called  a “lunatic”, “brilliant” and/or “stupid” (via student comments within the course forum).

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“Teaching Goes Massive” (screen shot) on Cousera. Course content is no longer accessible, even to previously enrolled students  (most courses provide access to content after course is complete)

I was an enrolled student and found the course odd from day one. First, there were no course goals or focus questions provided whatsoever indicating what direction the course would take. After numerous student comments, Dehaye posted his version of course goals:

Learning Goals
– Pedagogical
– Technical
– Legal
– Business
– Societal

Brief to say the least. In fairness to Dehaye, he did state from the beginning that the entire course was an experiment, and that several experiments would be taking place within the course, “The other experiment which has been running from the start is the “Structure the Discussion Area” experiment…” and “A third experiment, which is only just starting, was initiated by courageous course participant _____ here” (excerpt from course-generated email from Dehaye on Day 2). What happened next was the catalyst for the publicity of the course, Dehaye removed all of the course content from the course site. It disappeared, no videos, announcements, no links—nothing. Then there were strange Twitter messages posted by Dehaye, and finally a of day or so later Coursera removed Dehaye from the course sending this message to enrolled students:

“We understand that the course included experimental components designed by the professor that have resulted in some course interruptions,” the statement read. “We are working with the university to make arrangements so that the course can continue to its conclusion in an appropriate manner.” Coursera

Takeaway: I agree with what appears to be the consensus, Dehaye did not do much to further constructive discussion about MOOCs, privacy or pedagogy in higher education. Though George Siemens generated quite a bit of discussion by congratulating Dehaye in his blog post. However, it was unclear what kind of statement or message Dehaye was trying to send. It had potential to be effective, but was lost.

2) University of Texas at Austin Online Courses – Correction

An earlier version of this post misrepresented the course offerings of University of Texas at Austin by suggesting the course “Topics in Globalization” would be available for credit via the edX platform.  The school is not offering college credit via its MOOC courses on edX, but is offering courses for credit on their online platform via UT Austin’s University Extension program.  Several courses are available on this platform that are for credit, that include American Government, Psychology Live and US Foreign Policy. For a full list of courses click here.

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Screen shot of University of Texas at Austin’s web page featuring information on the offerings of its online courses. Visit  online-education.la.utexas.edu

3) Pearson’s SOOCs
When reading the article on Pearson’s blog, “Will SOOCs eat MOOCs for breakfast?”, I started with a good chuckle given the cartoon featured in the opening. After reading the full post though, I wasn’t sure if the entire article was a continuation of the joke, or if it were serious. But apparently Pearson is serious. The idea of SOOCs, the article suggests, evolved during the this year’s EdTech Summit in Europe.

An evolution on the idea of MOOCs is the “selectively open online course” (or SOOC) – simply, a MOOC with an entrance requirement designed to reduce the “unwanted diversity.” This could be proven competency (e.g., pass an entrance quiz), a credential (e.g., have a degree), or membership (e.g., be in the university’s alumni network). The theory is that a more uniform student body will lead to improved peer-to-peer collaboration and higher learner outcomes.

It goes on….

Higher quality is also likely to increase learners’ willingness to pay for an online course, which in turn will increase a university’s willingness to invest in better professors, facilities, and/or pedagogy. The Harvard Business School, long a stalwart of pedagogical innovation, has taken bold steps to build its own SOOC…

Takeaway: This article (sadly) highlights the misconceptions and lack of awareness that still exists about online learning and higher education. Never mind that closed, online courses have been offered at public and private higher education institutions for well over ten years, and that the mere name SOOC, contradicts the concept of ‘open‘. Sigh.

You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI 

Three (BIG) Barriers to Student Participation in xMOOCs

This post outlines three barriers that can deter, discourage and/or intimidate students from participating in xMOOCs (MOOCs offered on platforms associated with higher education institutions, i.e. Coursera, iVersity, edX, etc).

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“Construction Barriers”  Photo by Lyn Topinka

The xMOOC model that emerged in 2012 has not changed much in 2014, with completion rates and participation rates just as low as they were when concrete data on completion rates appeared in 2013 (Parr, 2013). Though there are a variety of factors that contribute to low completion rates, I suggest that three barriers, 1) technology, 2) poor usability & course design, and 3) anonymity contribute significantly to low student participation levels and completion—barriers that deter, discourage and in some cases intimidate students. Also, in some instances, barriers one and two are potential barriers in closed, online classes (as those offered as for-credit courses at public and private institutions).

To illustrate points one, technology and two, poor usability and course design, below is a selection of screenshots featuring actual student comments and questions (names obscured) taken from several MOOCs offered on Coursera. Comments below are representative of typical experiences and frustrations of students participating in MOOCs. In some instances, the examples included are similar to frustrations students experience in closed online courses, which I’ve encountered when working with faculty in online course design, and as a lead curriculum developer for online programs at a private university. I close by discussing the third barrier, anonymity in online learning, specifically in MOOCs.

1) Technology 
Examples below feature student challenges with accessing course content and engaging in events due to bandwidth and internet access limitations.

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File size is a common problem in MOOCs and small courses

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Connectivity issues are common due to bandwidth, and even limitations of the devices used

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Restricted access to certain sites in some countries

Examples below feature students’ frustrations with applications (discussion forums, etc) within the MOOC platform itself which put up barriers to student participation and engagement, for example, i) discussion forums (volume of student posts and organization), ii) synchronous events offered via Google Hangout or other platform which often fail due to technical glitches, or because of students’ lack of technical ability, etc.

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Discussion forums often become unwieldy; though more common in MOOCs it also happens in closed, small online courses

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Discussion forums in most MOOC platforms have options for ‘subscribing’, where participants receive alerts of new posts within that particular forum, though not all students are familiar with this settings and don’t know how to turn the notification emails off (or on). It’s helpful to provide participants with the instructions of how-to do so (among other features) in an orientation or introduction to the course

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The forums with large numbers of participants can be overwhelming to the point that there is little opportunity for reflection or deep discussions. In closed online classes it helps to have focused discussion questions per thread, and if more than 20 participants to break the class into smaller groups

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Google hangouts and other platforms used for synchronous events, are not immune to technological glitches. A practice run prior to the event helps (granted even still, problems occur),  and having a back-up plan is recommended

2) Poor Usability and Course Design
Usability refers to how effectively students can navigate, interact and engage with the course interface, find the content they need, determine what they need to do to engage, etc. How user-friendly the course is (or is not) is a function of how the course content and pages are organized, what is featured on the course home page for example, or where the course announcements show up, even how the course tabs appear in the navigation menu. Usability falls under the umbrella of course design; it is a component with its own principles and guidelines that impacts the students overall course experience and learning outcomes in online spaces. Usability adds another layer of complexity to designing learning experiences mostly due to the newness of online platforms as delivery mediums for education.

Course design is a broad and deep topic, which I can’t address at all adequately in this post, but below are some examples that are representative of issues that frustrate students, and can deter learning outcomes that have to do with how an assignment’s instructions are worded, presented to the student, or even designed in the first place.

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Instructions for student assignments or activities need to be written with exceptional clarity. This means expanding on details is necessary, including examples, and reinforcing instructions and expectations via course announcements or live sessions when the course is in session. Another issue is the use of  consistent terminology throughout the course.  In this above example ‘thread’ and ‘post’ were used interchangeably, when in fact they mean different things, thus confusing the students.

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Another example of student confusion when there is inconsistency or conflicting information in the course

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Frequently, it is student assignments that generate the most confusion among students in virtual formats, often due to unclear instructions, or those that require students to use technical applications (e.g. to create a digital artifact) that they are not familiar with

3) Anonymity
A view on participants posting anonymously within a MOOC from iVersity:

“MOOCs offer an environment that may engage introverts. Online anonymity can make students comfortable expressing themselves in forums…participating in course conversations online may give students confidence to contribute in traditional classrooms and work environments.” iVersity blog post on Anonymity

I disagree with iVersity’s position, and with Coursera and edX, which both allow anonymous posting within discussion forums. Anonymity does not contribute to effective online learning communities such as MOOCs; it’s counterintuitive to the premise of a learning within a community, where the idea is that learners actively engage, and learn with, and from each together. Several papers have identified the benefits of learning communities in distributed (online) learning environments (Dede, 2004), with some emphasizing the value of communities in MOOCs especially (Kop, Fournier & Mak, 2006). What is consistent in the research is the idea of trust and a set of common values or goals among learners.

The type of support structure that would engage learners in critical learning on an open network should be based on the creation of a place or community where people feel comfortable, trusted and valued, and where people can access and interact with resources and each other. (Kop, Fournier & Mak, 2006, p. 88)

Learning in a virtual community, where students go outside of their comfort zone, are challenged to consider alternative perspectives and build a personal learning network for example, requires a level of rapport, familiarity and trust between classmates and instructors. This sense of community can and does happen in small, closed learning environments, and in cMOOC learning communities, but experiencing a sense of community in xMOOCs is far more difficult to accomplish with many of variables making it so, anonymity is just one. With this learning approach (and others) assumed by MOOC platform providers, I see xMOOCs destined to be static resources posted on the web—open courseware such as MIT OCW.

Closing Thoughts
Learning in xMOOCs is far more complex than what the MOOC platforms seem to be able to address. Low completion rates are just one metric of how students’ views of MOOCs are at odds with what the expectations of the MOOC providers. The three barriers discussed here, technology, usability and anonymity are just one piece of a bigger problem that MOOC platform providers will need to address if they are interested in creating a communities of learning where students actively engage, contribute and learn.

Further reading:

“Would you say that to me in class?” Online Disinhibition and the Effects on Learning

What are the effects of benign, inappropriate or even toxic student-to-student or student-to-instructor exchanges in online learning communities? How do such exchanges affect learning outcomes?  It’s a topic that’s had little attention from researchers and educators, but as learning continues to scale-up with online and open communities educators need to be paying attention, examining and addressing such interactions. This post shares highlights from a recent paper, Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning.

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‘Angry’ from iStock

“As Suler (2004) observes, people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly. So pervasive is the phenomenon that a term has surfaced for it: the online disinhibition effect.”  (Rose, 2014)

When reading the paper “Would you ever say that to me in class?”, I considered my experiences as an online student—having more than one exchange, though not toxic, that were strong enough to leave a sting—dampening my enthusiasm for engaging and participating with my classmates. I’ve since worked with students and faculty that have experienced similar exchanges. Though not all reach the toxic level, there have been instances where faculty encountered students using strong and offensive language, requiring the removal of offensive posts within discussion forums and other actions.

Lack of civility in online forums within learning communities is manageable in small, closed online learning communities where an instructor is in control of a class of up to thirty, or even forty students. However, as classes expand, with MOOCs, and other types of learning communities growing, in combination with platforms that allow anonymity (such as Coursera) it will become an issue for educators [and their institutions] involved in online learning at some time or another. Peers within my network have shared their experiences as students and instructors within MOOCs that involve politically charged or contentious subject matters where discussion forums are fraught with offensive, even toxic comments and vitriol discussion.  It is for this reason that I write this post; to provoke thought and discussion in order for educators to be proactive and develop appropriate strategies.

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Community of Inquiry via coi.athabscau.ca

More so because online behavior in learning communities is complex.  On one hand, a sense of presence, or “being there” is critical to deep and meaningful learning and thus needs to be encouraged. The Community of Inquiry (CoI) is a well-researched framework (Garrison, 2007) that addresses three dimensions of presence—social, instructor and cognitive that are deemed necessary for higher education students to experience deep learning in online environments.

Yet on the other, the CoI framework, due to its two-dimensional nature, does not give us insight into the type of exchanges, the tone behind the student-to-student exchanges online and how they might affect learning. Just as tone of voice, eye contact and body language affect verbal communication—word choice, characters used, even font size and type, (e.g. CAPITAL LETTERS), in text exchanges affect meaning of a message conveyed in an online space. Yet some students will exhibit online disinhibition, emboldened by lack of personal contact, distance and in some cases anonymity. Such behavior can wreak havoc within a learning community—can discourage participants, damage student confidence, stall, or impede learning.

In open learning situations that are not controlled by any one individual due to a connectivist learning approach or student-centered focus for example, dealing with such behavior is challenging, though not impossible. Swift and deliberate action is required by one or more individuals. Even in controlled settings, on a closed platform, or within a small learning community, action is required to preserve a learning climate and community.

Highlights from the Paper:

Below are highlights from “Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning.”

  • The study is qualitative in nature. Analysis of data collected from two universities, from undergraduate and graduate students revealed “instructors’ and students’ experiences of connection with, or disconnection from, each other were profoundly influenced by the phenomenon of online disinhibition.
  • Students recounted stories of class peers turning “ugly” or “abusive” in online posts, making “personal attacks” against classmates, even “swearing at people, calling them idiots and stuff like that.” One student, attributed this tendency to people’s comfort with the online environment: “something that was surprising to me was that people were comfortable enough with the environment to lose a sense of decorum…like they just lost it.”
  • In most of the students’ stories, arguments and disruptive behaviour were seen as the direct result of the kinds of miscommunications that occur in online environments, where paralinguistic cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice are not available to clarify meaning.
  • Online disinhibition is also associated with positive outcomes— In some cases, the student-to-student or student-to-instructor relationship may be enriched—for example, when a student shares an experience that personalizes and thus deepens the learning for everyone, or when a shy student opens up.
  • In other cases, the relationship may be inevitably damaged, as when a student confides something she or he later regrets, or says something that other students consider inappropriate or offensive.

Conclusions
Online disinhibition is a phenomenon that affects not only learning exchanges in online communities, but social (e.g. Twitter) and gaming platforms, etc. Yet learning environments need a special layer of protection that goes beyond a ‘report abuse’ option that exists within most online platforms, e.g. Facebook and Twitter. Learning in online communities requires a level of trust, familiarity, and has associated with it an expectation of a ‘safe’ zone. How can educators create a safe learning community in a closed, online class? What about in an open learning community, in a MOOC?  Answers to questions like these depend upon the learning community, the participants, the purpose of the learning and other factors. But it is up to us as educators to look for answers; we need to have strategies and built-in mechanisms within the different types of online learning communities that will provide [albeit wide] guard rails to foster, yet protect a climate of learning and development.

I’ll be writing more about this topic, specifically anonymity in online learning communities. Stay tuned!

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