“Spreadable Media” — How its Relevant to Education

The media industries understand that culture is becoming more participatory, that the rules are being rewritten and relationships between producers and audiences are in flux.” (page 35)

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spreadablemedia.org

I recently read “Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture”.  Its focus (not surprisingly) is social media; how people consume and engage with content via various channels of social media and its effects on business, entertainment and other sectors. It addresses how meaning and value are created from content that is spread; ‘spread’ meaning sharing of content not just between people, but within communities. Content, the authors suggest, is shaped even manipulated throughout the spreading process.

It’s a dense read. The lead author Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at USC, wrote the book with two digital strategists, Ford and Green. The book aims to “build understanding and conversation among three groups of readers: media scholars, communication professionals, and citizens who actively produce and share media content”. I’d say that there is quite a bit to discuss and not just for those involved in media studies. It’s applicable to education, more so given that social media platforms are used with greater frequency by students and instructors to connect with, consume and create education content.

Several of the book’s sub themes address topics educators and institutions are wrestling with, particularly those offering any form of online education. For instance engagement topic of chapter three—The Value of Media Engagement explores engagement from the perspective of market value, recently a topic of discussion among MOOC providers (Dodd, 2014). Building on the engagement theme, chapter four What Constitutes Meaningful Participation explores the changing relationship between producers and consumers, another parallel to education, as more students seek to be actively involved in a course’s content development—to co-create with instructors and other students. Both chapters offer insight into the issues in context of education, even though authors draw upon examples primarily from the business and entertainment sectors—the applicability is hard to miss.

Lurking
One discussion in chapter three addresses the behavior known as ‘lurking’, a topic of concern when it comes to MOOCs and online courses. Lurkers are students that typically don’t participate or contribute to asynchronous discussion forums, or engage in a real-time video conferencing sessions or other chat venues, yet are reading and/or watching—they are consuming content. Lurking is viewed negatively, or at least as a challenging behaviour by course instructors. More so in courses that require students to participate for course credit. Lurking in connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) also doesn’t go over well, particularly with other MOOC students (Milligan, Littlejohn & Margaryan, 2013). Jenkins, Ford & Green attempt to reframe lurking behaviour. They discuss barriers to online participation and suggest there might be opportunity to scaffold learning, or at scale least levels of participation (p. 158).

The authors portray “lurkers” (the bane of online communities where the vast majority of members who only consume others’ information without contributing any of their own) as only learning and biding their time until they too understand the rules and start to participate. In Chapter 5 they even describe what makes materials sharable. This will help me to completely rethink the development of content rather than just to focus on why community members are either engaged or not.”  T. Sales, Amazon Reviewer of “Spreadable Media”

Startling Parallel: Audience Fragmentation
Authors discuss engagement specific to television audiences, yet the similarity between television consumers and participants in education (particularly those engaging in open learning) is strong.  Beginning on page 116 the authors address the challenges the media industry is facing due to audiences consuming content across multiple channels e.g television, mobile devices, or DVRs. This behaviour, according to the authors, fragments the audience, an audience that traditionally consumed content via one channel—television. The audience has since splintered in response, and the result?— people consuming the same content on a variety channels creating smaller audiences. This fragmentation makes it difficult for providers to gauge the value of the different audience groups—to establish an appropriate pricing model.

Note the similarities to the education sector. Education, at one time used two distribution channels for content, 1) the instructor in a physical location delivering content to student, and 2) the textbook. It’s no longer the case. Today education content has numerous distribution channels, for example open education resources (OER) via the web, MOOC providers, textbook companies, closed, fee-based education platforms, Khan Academy and the likes. These channels suggest a fragmentation of the education sector—similar to what’s happening the media industry. It’s not surprising that MOOC providers are finding it a challenge to settle on a viable business model.

Even among those who understand that developing business models around such engagement is key, there has been little consensus on how, or even which, measures of engagement are valuable or how to agree on a model… (p. 116).

Closing Thoughts 
“Spreadable Media” puts forth several relevant and thought-provoking concepts specific to our digital culture. The book on the surface seems more applicable to business decision makers, marketers and media scholars given the numerous references to marketing and entertainment examples, however, the parallels to education though subtle are striking making it a worthwhile and interesting read.

Resources

MOOC Design Tips: Maximizing the Value of Video Lectures

“Which kinds of videos lead to the best student learning outcomes in a MOOC?”
How Video Production Affects Student Engagement: An Empirical Study of MOOC Videos (Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014)

Reel of FilmAn excellent question that design teams and instructors of MOOCs want to know—which kinds of videos lead to the best student learning outcomes in a MOOC?  According to a recent study conducted by researchers for the edX MOOC platform, this was the most pressing question posed by the course design teams working with its partner institutions. Given that most MOOCs offered through higher education institutions platforms such as edX, iVersity, or Coursera use video lectures as the primary content delivery source, it is a critical question that preoccupies many if not most MOOC instructional design teams. Adding to this need-to-know element is the fact that video production is most often the highest cost associated with MOOC production. MOOC video production can range from a few hundred dollars and run up to the thousands. This post suggests how institution can use resources effectively in the video production process with the primary goal of supporting students’ learning outcomes.

The report released by edX last week gives design teams some concrete data to examine. I’ve emphasized below the recommendations and practical application points from the paper for readers who might be part of a design team for MOOC, online course, or for those with an interest in video production for instructional videos.  There are limitations to the study outlined in the paper, though the depth of the analysis does provide data worthy of consideration. 

The report, the first of its kind according to the authors Guo, Kim & Rubin, analyzes students’ engagement* with lecture videos gathered from data extracted from over 6.9 million video watching sessions across four edX courses.  *Student engagement is defined in the study by:

  1. Engagement time: the length of time that a student spends of a video. This is the same metric used by YouTube. Though researchers acknowledged the limitation of engagement assessed from this one-dimensional perspective.
  2. Question/Problem Attempt:  Almost one-third of the videos across the four courses featured an assessment problem directly following the video, usually a multiple-choice question designed to check a student’s understanding of the video’s contents. “We record whether a student attempted the follow-up problem within 30 minutes after watching a video.”

Videos Types for MOOCs
Lectures are divided into two primary types for the study, [which mirrors most MOOCs]: 1) lecture videos for content delivery—presented via an instructor/professor (‘talking head’ is the term used in the paper), and 2) a tutorial/demonstration, a step-by-step problem solving walk-through, common in computer science courses, courses featuring mathematical concepts or science courses featuring lab demonstrations.

Video Production Format
For analysis purposes, researchers coded the videos examined in study using six primary video production formats, which I’ve summarized below, along with production styles not mentioned in the study.

1) Lecture-Style Video Formats:

  • Instructor(s) with/without Presentation Slides: Features instructor(s) lecturing, with or without PowerPoint slide presentation slides inserted throughout with instructor ‘voice over’ while slide is displayed
  • Office Setting: close-up shots of the instructor filmed at his or her office, typically instructor speaks directly to camera
  • Classroom Setting: video captured from a live classroom lecture
  • Production Studio Setting: instructor recorded in a studio with no audience, typically speaking to the camera

2) Tutorial/Demonstration Video Formats:

  • Video Screencast: of the instructor demonstrating a concept, i.e. writing code in a text editor, or command-line prompt (in the case of computer science courses), using spreadsheet or document
  • Instructor Drawing Freehand on a Digital Tablet, using a software program, which is a style popularized by Khan Academy videos (click here to view an example)

Other Formats not mentioned in the study:

  • Instructor interviewing another expert or guest speaker
  • Instructor delivering lecture in another setting related to the course (though not always), for example an ecologist giving lecture at the beach, an art historian in a museum, etc.
  • Panel Discussion of experts on specific course-related topic

Which format to use? The primary factor that determines which format to use are the objectives of the MOOC or course, and the course content. The course design team typically selects the video formats during the course design phase when the instructional strategy is created, for example: the formats of the video are chosen, the content chosen for each, related student activities or assessments selected, etc.

The second factor determining which format to employ is the amount of resources (dollars) available for video production. This determines right off the bat which tool, program or hardware will be used for the video production. Important to note, the amount of resources invested in video production does not scale to how much students’ learn or to MOOC completion rates. For example, I completed a course on Canvas Network, Statistics in Education for Mere Mortals (my course review here). The course featured video lectures and tutorials, all created by the instructor using low-budget technology. Lectures appeared to be filmed on the instructor’s laptop using a web cam, (power point slides were added, so there was some editing). Each module featured a tutorial, a screen cast where the instructor demonstrated application of various formulas to a data set. I found the professor, Lloyd Rieber, encouraging and personable; he also delivered the content concisely in lecture videos and tutorials. Interestingly, the course completion rate was over 10%, higher than typical MOOC completion rates that are usually lower than 7%.

Key Findings of Study

  • Shorter videos are more engaging. Student engagement levels drop sharply after 6 minutes
  • Engagement patterns differ between the two video formats; engagement higher with the lecture style videos (‘talking head’) which researchers suggest is due to more “intimate and personal feel”
  • Several MOOC instructors interviewed for study felt more comfortable with the classroom lecture format, however this format did not translate well online, even with much editing in production studio
  • For tutorial/demonstrations videos, the Khan-style format where instructor draws on tablet and narrates, was found to engage students more effectively than screen casts. A contributing factor—instructors ability to situate themselves “on the same level” as student
  • Video producers and edX design teams determined that pre-production planning had the largest impact on the engagement effect of the videos. Researchers used a data set within the study to test this idea

Practical Recommendations for Course Design Teams

  1. Identify type and format for each video lecture using course objectives and module breakdown as a guide, and budget. Plan each lecture for the MOOC format and its potential students. Consider copyright terms for images used in videos and slides. Plan ahead by selecting appropriate images, free from copyright during the planning phase
  2. Invest in pre-production planning phase. Segment course content into chunks, using six-minutes per video as a guideline. Identify purpose for each video lecture, and key content points to deliver within each.  Write script for each [lecture video format] and have instructor practice before filming—reduces filming and editing time

  3. For tutorial/demonstration videos introduce motion and continuous visual flow into tutorials, along with extemporaneous speaking so that students can follow along with the instructor’s thought process. Complete basic outline of video beforehand, not full script to be read word-for-word
  4. Provide more personal feel to videos. Try filming in an informal setting (such as the instructor’s  office) where he or she can make good eye contactit often costs less and might be more effective than a professional studio. Coach instructors to use humour, personal stories and convey enthusiasm where possible

Closing Thoughts
MOOCs are here to stay, which makes studies like this one valuable for helping educators be more effective through course design. This study brings us closer to finding the answer to the question which kinds of videos lead to the best student learning outcomes in a MOOC?  Yet it’s a start, there is still much more to be done in understanding how students learn in massive courses, and how institutions can be more effective with investment of its resources for increasing student learning outcomes.

Further Reading:

Need-to-Know News: White Male Cohort in Georgia Tech MOOC Degree & Surprising Data on Student Tech Use

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.  Note: This is a re-posting of a blog article published on January 18, 2014.

Cohort Begins in the First-ever Massive Online Degree Program 
Georgia Tech in conjunction with Udacity launched its first cohort of 375 students in its MOOC-inspired Masters of Computer Science 100% online degree program. Readers may remember the headlines, a computer science Master’s Degree from Georgia Institute of Technology, offered 100% online for less than $7,000. The program, inspired by MOOCs and with start-up funds from AT&T was voted as a ‘go’ by Georgia Tech faculty last year.

We now have a profile of enrolled students in the first cohort which started this week—there is little diversity; the vast majority are white males, who work and live in the United States. Yet Sebastian Thrun described the cohort in his blog post quite differently,  “This is a very big day for us. Udacity’s mission is to democratize higher education. With this program, we are making a top-notch computer science education available to a much broader group of students… I believe this is a watershed moment for students around the world. ” What exactly does Thrun mean by ‘much broader group of students’? Ironically, there is more diversity in Georgia Tech’s on-campus Master’s of Computer Science Program than in this one.

Online Degree Program Applicant Demographics:

  • 2,360 applicants: 86% male, 14% female
  • 514 applicants from AT&T
  • Over 80% resided in the United States: Most represented states:  343 from California and 336 from Georgia

There is a disconnect between the final numbers in the cohort, 375 and what a Udacity spokesperson said this past October, “450 of the applicants will start the program in January, but every qualified applicant will be accepted and may start next summer“.

Final Cohort Student Demographics:

  • 375 students: 82 work at AT&T
  • 330 or 92% are from the US, in contrast to Georgia Tech’s on-campus comparable program, of which 90% are International
  • Average age is thirty-five, eleven years older than the on-campus program

Insights: The demographic profile of the programs’ applicants, and enrolled students are worth examining as stand alone data, and in comparison to Georgia Tech’s traditional degree; it provides a window into the potential and pitfalls associated with offering a fully online, Masters degree offered at a cost that requires considerable scale.  In order for the program to be sustainable, it requires 10,000 by the third year. Is this feasible given the student profile where there are so few students from outside of the United States?

2) Report Suggests Higher Education and MOOCs like Oil and Water
This week Babson Survey Research Group released its eleventh annual report about the state of online education in the United States, Grade Change, Tracking Online Education in the United States. The report collected data from 2800 colleges and universities in the US and provides a readable summary of critical issues in online education: perceptions of online education, enrolled student data, and online as a strategy. I find the Babson reports helpful in identifying patterns and trends in online education.  This is the  second year MOOCs data is included, and this year’s data is more telling and potentially helpful for institutions and organizations involved in higher education given the comparison to last year’s numbers . Highlights:

  • The top three reasons that institutions site for offering MOOCs
    • increase the institution’s visibility: 27.2%
    • to drive student recruitment : 20.0 %
    • innovative pedagogy: 18.0%
  • How well are MOOCs meeting institution’s objectives
    • too early to tell: 65.8%
    • meeting very few:  1.3 %
    • meeting some: 17.2%
  • Only 23 percent of academic leaders believe that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses.

Insights: It’s apparent that the profile of the typical MOOC student is not the undergraduate student profile—an example is Udacity’s experience with San Jose State University, where Thrun called his course a lousy product [to explain the failure of the program], which isn’t quite accurate. MOOCs [offered through MOOC platforms, i.e. Coursera, Udacity] are not the best vehicles to serve the needs of undergraduate students. Institutions have invested considerable resources in MOOCs, it’s time to move on.

3) Students and Technology— It’s Not What You Think 
The report by EDUCAUSE about higher education students’ and their technology use as it relates to their education is enlightening. It includes their perceptions, usage patterns and needs when it comes to technology—it’s a must read. The info graphic [below] gives a good summary of the findings. Other highlights:

  • Students recognize the value of technology but still need guidance when it comes to using it more effectively for academics
  • Students prefer blended learning environments
  • Students are ready to use their mobile devices more for academics, and they look to institutions and instructors for opportunities and encouragement to do so.
  • Students value their privacy, and using technology to connect with them has its limits.

References:

Insights: Student patterns—their behaviours, and interaction with technology give institutional leaders and educators a glimpse into how to effectively provide support and make education relevant. I wrote a post about this very topic last week.

To keep up with other developments in online learning, you can follow me on Twitter, @onlinelearningi.

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

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

MP900405500

Need-to-Know-News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Takeaways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Need-to-know News: Udacity’s New Direction, a MOOCjam and Competency Learning to Get Big Boost

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. 

direction signs

direction signs (Photo credit: emreterok)

1) Udacity’s New Direction
Making headlines in education circles this week is Udacity’s about-face, its change in direction, and new reason for being. Thrun interviewed for a lengthy article in Fast Company magazine published last week, shared his new [and apparently improved] direction for Udacity—no longer is it higher education, the employment sector according to Thrun is the best market for Udacity’s MOOCs.  I shared my initial thoughts in a post earlier this week—my aim here is to share with readers the specifics of Udacity’s re-branding.

Udacity as readers will remember was heavily involved in higher education as recently as a few months ago. Udacity’s pilot program with San Jose State University was a significant investment for SJSU, however was a failure overall. Sadly, the majority of the students, including those requiring remedial support, failed the MOOC classes. In the Fast Company interview Thrun was dismissive of the pilot, and the students’ failures. Udacity apparently has found a more compliant market, (and more profitable) and is partnering with companies or what Thrun calls “industry partners”. Udacity’s partners according to Udacity’s blog:

Cloudera, the industry leader for enterprise data management software

As Mike Olson, Cloudera’s Chief Strategy Officer and Chairman of the Board, shared, “We believe in Udacity’s vision to democratize education by making professional training affordable and accessible to everyone, and believe this model will enable us to more effectively reach aspiring Big Data technologists around the world who want to expand their skills into Hadoop. Together, Cloudera and Udacity are leveling the playing field, empowering anyone with the desire to learn to get the necessary skills to succeed in the modern data economy, regardless of where they live or what their socio-economic background is.Udacity blog, November

Salesforce.com for app Development

That’s the whole premise of our Open Education Alliance and we’re really fortunate to be able to collaborate with salesforce.com and other industry leaders on this mission. Whether you’re looking to become a Salesforce developer, hoping to use Salesforce more effectively to get your work done, or just looking to build something, this course is a great first step.Udacity blog, November 18, 2013

Insights: Quite concerning is the power and influence the for-profit MOOC providers (Udacity and Coursera) hold—not only with coporations, but with some higher education institutions, state leaders, and even the Department of Education. Worrisome.

2) MOOCjam with George Siemens
This past Wednesday, George Siemens hosted a MOOCjam, an online day-long discussion about a conceptual framework consisting of “nine distinct components rooted in an underlying foundation of technology and systems support and evaluation”—developed for examining Massive Open Online Course experiences. Among the nine elements are design, learner profile and pedagogy.

The jam was part of the MOOC Research Initiative, led by Athabasca University and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal for the session was “to gain perspective and solicit ideas that inform the community”. Siemens shared that the revised framework will be introduced at the MOOC Research conference happening in early December of this year.

The main discussions focused on three areas related to the MOOC format, ‘the course’, ‘the learner’ and ‘the medium’. In the closing discussion that I participated in along with ten or so contributing participants, I discussed the Framework from the perspective that primarily it would be used as a guide for designing courses, (from my narrow instructional designer lens). Yet there are other perspectives to consider for its application which Siemens summarized into three themes, what form?, for whom? and for what purpose? [summary paragraph below]

“What purpose? There was much discussion about the Framework being used or misused to design courses, turned into a powerpoint as the “way” to MOOC, or being misconstrued. Brenda Kaulback viewed it as a conceptual framework, George Siemens as a way to reflect the experiences, Debbie Morrison as a way to help people know where to start when designing courses.”

Insights: The Framework and research coming from MOOC Research Initiative will likely evolve not just from these type of discussions, but will be influenced and shaped by external factors—debate and discussions about  MOOCs, and the institutions and organizations supporting them. The Framework has great potential, though I’m not sure what kind of  impact it will have in the MOOC community, given the mighty weight and influence of the for-profit MOOC providers. For the most part they seem to disregard much of the research about online learning that has evolved over the last few years.

3) Department of US Education’s Push For Competency Learning
The United States government is apparently gearing up to announce another push for competency based learning according to Hal Plotkin Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education (OUS), United States Department of Education. Mr. Plotkin led a keynote address, The Role of Online  and Technology-enabled Learning in Meeting Obama’s 2020 Graduation Goal at the Sloan Consortium’s annual conference on online learning going on this week in Florida.

Plotkin said the department “can waive substantial sections of existing regulations that govern access to Title IV financial aid” for programs — both residential and online — that base student progress on “demonstrated levels of mastery rather than the tick of a semester or quarter clock.” The department will formally announce the initiative in the coming days, he said.

“Competency-based stuff would fit under that umbrella, but we don’t want to dictate how people might approach it — and maybe people will have ideas for us that are innovative but in a different area,” Plotkin said.  Inside Higher Ed

Next week will likely be another interesting and eventful week. Stay tuned.

Need-to-Know-News: OERuniversity, ALISON expands open education & MOOC Camp Initiative

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.

globe_mouseThe theme in education news this week is global education. The barriers to education are coming down with ubiquitous computing providing access to learning anytime and anywhere. Three significant announcements this week:

1) U.S. State Department creates ‘MOOC Camp Initiative’ with Coursera
Who knew? Earlier this year the State Department ran pilot courses in several countries including Bolivia, South Korea and Indonesia, with Coursera and other MOOC providers. One proved most successful—programs offering internet access in ‘learning hubs’, a space where learners could access MOOC content, and meet once per week for face-to-face discussions about the course. Career counseling was also provided. The State Department officially partnered with Coursera this week following this pilot series, calling it the  “MOOC Camp Initiative“, now operating in 40 countries.

For the State Department, Ms. Curtis said, the appeal of the MOOCs is that they can be used to reach students anywhere, exposing them to American universities and college-level discussion, and perhaps spurring a desire to study in the United States.

Insight:  The purpose of the program is puzzling. Initially I thought it might be to support the US’s strategy to support global education—though the quote from the article suggests otherwise.

2) ALISON: Online Learning Platform Goes Global
ALISON is the ‘biggest education provider you’ve never heard of’, according to a recent BBC news article. I’d say so considering it started in 2007.  ALISON, an acronym for Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online, a platform that provides skills-based education will be on the radar going forward. Global education is on the agenda for numerous countries and organizations; now more than ever with the elimination of barriers to Internet and device access. ALISON was one of six organizations winning a prestigious  international award this week at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Qatar. The WISE Award selection panel awarded six prizes from a pool of thousands.

ALISON’s slant towards vocational skills and lack of Ivy League prestige is likely what kept it below the radar, though the majority of the students are from North America and the UK. Though this will change, as growing markets for online education include Nigeria, and the Philippines. ALISON also started a program this year providing online training for 12 million young people in the Arab world.

“Education underpins all social progress. If we can improve the general education level worldwide, global poverty can be dealt with profoundly and a general standard of living can be vastly improved.”  Founder, Mike Feerick

The model: As other providers struggle to find a business model, Alison has it down. Mike Feerick, ALISON’s founder, envisioned a for-profit model providing free education in basic skills available online to global audiences, yet with a social purpose. And the model is sustainable, with revenue generated by advertising on its site and from learners willing to pay more for an ad-free learning experience.

Proof of learning is also unique. Learning achievement is validated through certificate, diploma or testing—a ‘flash-test’ where anyone who holds an ALISON certificate can be tested on what they know at anytime.

Insight: As competency-based learning becomes recognized by employers, platforms offering vocational skills will expand, becoming a realistic alternative for individuals seeking free skill development with a learning record. Great potential for countries with high un-employment rates.

3)  OERuniverity Project
The OERuniverity project has been in the works for sometime, though finally launched this week with over 31 universities offering courses for free. The goal of the program is to widen access to education for learners excluded from the formal sector.  What’s different?—students gain academic credit for courses by passing a proctored exam. All students pay for is the proctoring service. Testing is done through the partner educational institutions on a cost-recovery basis. The catch though—credit will only be accepted at the 31 participating universities.

Also unique, OERu is truly open. Not just open enrollment, but course materials are licensed under Creative Commons, textbooks are open and the learning platform uses open software.

OERu will be officially launched by Sir John Daniel, former vice-chancellor of The Open University, at Thompson Rivers University in Canada on 1 November.  “I believe that radical innovations in higher education must be accompanied by particularly robust frameworks of accreditation and credentialing in order to reassure the public,” Sir John said.