Are You Ready to Learn Online? Five Need-to-Have Skills for Online Students

This post outlines five of the most essential skills students need to be successful with online course work, 1) basic computer skills, 2) digital communication, 3) Web search, 4) time management, and 5) collaboration skills, AND includes excellent resources for learning more about each. 

Success ahead sign

1) Computer Skills—The Basics
Why you need it:  At the very least you’ll need basic set of computer skills to function effectively in an online course. You’ll be communicating with the instructor and classmates either through discussion forums, email and video conference or chat platforms. You’ll also be uploading assignments, converting documents to PDF files, navigating within the course site, conducting searches, installing and updating software.

Applications/tools you’ll need: Access to a computer or laptop equipped with a webcam and microphone, an email address, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection (more so if accessing streamed lecture videos). If access to high-speed internet is a barrier, alternatives to view video content include: viewing in low definition setting, downloading video file to computer for later viewing, or reading lecture transcripts.

Access to word processing software such as Microsoft’s Word or Apple’s Pages. Some courses require use of Excel and/or presentation software such as PowerPoint. You’ll need to be able to convert a document to a PDF file format, and have up-to-date plug-ins, such as Flash, to engage with web content. The main gateway into an online course is through the course management system, also known as the learning management system (LMS)—you’ll need to be familiar with the features of the LMS specific to your course.

Resources:

2) Digital Communication
Why you need it:  As an online student you’ll be communicating and collaborating with your instructors and classmates in a variety of ways, most frequently through writing. Communication is either delayed, (asynchronous) where students post messages on discussion board for instance (similar to Facebook), or in real-time, (synchronous) during a video conferencing session, interactive classroom within the LMS, or a chat session.

What you’ll need to do:  To engage within discussion forums, which is a typical method to interact with your classmates and apply course concepts through dialogue. You’ll need to use netiquette skills when communicating online. Netiquette skills include for example, using full sentences, avoiding sarcasm, and using emoticons. These skills also apply to email communication, where you’ll want to be clear and succinct. Your instructor or institution may provide a list of netiquette skills for your class.

Tip: To make the most of learning with discussion forums, you’ll want to provide thoughtful responses that include deeper insights and/or resources (e.g. links to external content sources) that build on course concepts. Students can add value to online discussions by encouraging fellow classmates to expand on their ideas by posing thoughtful ideas and questions that will challenge classmates (and yourself) to think and reflect further about concepts.

Resources:

globe_mouse3) Web Search
Why you need it:  Knowing how to conduct searches on the Web is a skill set needed in today’s digital culture, yet students learning online need advanced Web search skills that go beyond ‘Googling it’.  We live in an age of information abundance, yet information is not knowledge. You’ll be sourcing relevant information for your studies—finding resources to share within discussion forums, references for papers and projects. Also searching for sources to learn background information within the course subject area you aren’t familiar with.

What you’ll need to do:  Use a variety of search tools to find scholarly articles, search databases, discern credible sources, locate primary and secondary sources.

Resources:  If you are studying with an institution, check with library services for online tutorials in using library databases, search skills, etc. Often local public libraries have instructional resources for conducting scholarly research—all you require is a library card.

4) Time Management
Why you need it:  Life can get in the way of studying online, more so for students taking online courses that have full-time or part-time jobs, are juggling family responsibilities, or already have a full course load at a traditional institution, all of which suggest that time management skills are critical to student success. 

What you’ll need to do: Take charge of your learning from the beginning of the course; allow no time for procrastination to set in. Research suggests that habits of successful online students include consistent and specific times set aside each week for their online studies. Other recommendations:

  • Log on to your course at least three or four times per week. For discussion forum activities, you’ll need to post an initial response to a discussion question early in the week, then log onto the course site throughout the week to read and respond to classmates’ comments and elaborate on your own.
  • Read the syllabus on the first day of the course; print off a hard copy or keep a digital copy on your mobile device to refer to throughout the course.
  • Record all dates for assignments, exams, tests for the entire course in your calendar, and add reminders.

Resources:

5)  Collaboration
Why you need it: You’ll be collaborating with your classmates for group projects and assignments. Numerous online courses require some form of interaction among students, and frequently students question the value of group work, especially in online courses. Yet it is beneficial for students. Working in small teams, in face-to-face and online classwork is a method that promotes application of core concepts, builds knowledge and provides learners with skills that allow them to view problems and situations from different perspectives.

Developing good collaboration skills will be an asset beyond the online classroom. Employers regardless of sector, seek people who are team players, can communicate across digital platforms with co-workers or clients on projects and/or research. Given the global and digital nature of current culture, digital collaboration is a competency considered an essential skill for all.

What you’ll need to do: There are three key aspects to collaborating successfully with other students online: 1) familiarity with the platforms and applications the group will use for communication, 2) effective communication skills, and 3) an understanding of factors that influence positive outcomes for team work in online settings. Below are suggestions for each aspect, with additional resources below.

  1. Determine which applications your group will use to collaborate and communicate— become familiar with how to use each. There may be more than one, e.g. a virtual meeting place specific to your group within the LMS, a real-time meeting platform, such as Google Hangouts or Appear.in.  Groups usually use a collaboration platform to work on the project, such as Google Docs, WeVideo for creating videos, or other sharing platforms. If you are not familiar with a tool or application, seek out tutorial videos to learn it, or ask for help.
  2. Communicate with group members—be present, be involved, be vocal. Don’t be that group member that doesn’t respond to group communication, shows up at the last-minute, or doesn’t pull his of her weight.  
  3. Know the dynamics of team work in an online environment  • Different time zones can pose a challenge but are workable when acknowledged up-front • Set up a schedule with deadlines  • Getting the project started is the most challenging—brainstorming sessions work well to share ideas—synchronously or asynchronously • A team leader is critical to group effectiveness—suggest early that a group member assume the role • Get to know each other as people; being social builds relationships and trust  • If a group member is not contributing, team lead should contact him or her; if non-participation persists, notify instructor asap.

Resources

Other Resources for Online Students:

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

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Applied Sustainability” Fanshawe College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Characteristics of the Learner-Centric Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selection of Comments from Thesis #8:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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.

Three Outstanding Tools to Help Online Students Be Successful

iStock_000019968011XSmallThis post reviews three stellar tools available online for free that help students [online and face-to-face] study individually or in groups, organize course notes and materials, focus on key content areas—learn more efficiently, and effectively.

1) Video No.tes [free with Google email account]
This is the very best note-taking tool for videos I’ve used. Easy to use—links to Google Drive, can be private or shared with other students.  Simple—sign into the platform with Google email [if you are already logged into Google simply click on the sign-in button], a window opens up, copy the URL from the video, whether YouTube or from a MOOC platform such as Coursera, Udacity, etc, and get started taking notes. Notes synch to the video. This is brilliant.

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Screen shot of a video from a Coursera class. I’ve made notes on key points in the right hand window ( with time stamp). To review those areas, I simply click on the time stamp and it takes me right to that section of the video.

Benefits: 

  • Saves time by allowing students to go to key points without watching entire video
  • Students can share notes with other classmates, allowing for collaboration and studying with classmates
  • Notes saved in Google Drive

More details:

  • Knowledge Base, VideoNo.tes
  • VideoNo.tes: Improving How We Learn with Online Video, YouTube

2) Evernote [free with sign-up using any email address]
Evernote is one of the most versatile, robust, and comprehensive tools that I use on a daily basis. It is more than a study-organaiztion tool, it also has features for instructors that are simple and effective for giving students’ feedback, organizing class material etc.  Below are features specific to students’ needs [in a future post I'll focus on Evernote for instructors].

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Screen shot of my notebooks in Evernote. I dedicate one notebook per course.

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Screen shot of an embedded audio file within a note.

I designate a notebook for each course (image above), with notes, images and files pertaining to the course within each. The notes created within Evernote include features allowing one to add audio notes (just click the microphone icon record and save, the file is embedded in the note), add links, insert images and screen shots with ease (drag-and-drop) and add tags so I can easily find common themes at a later date. The camera feature is another excellent tool; I take pictures of handwritten notes, add them as a document file. There is a sharing feature; I can share specific notes with other classmates, either by email, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.  There is an option to collaborate on notes, though this is for Premium members, which is at a cost of $45 per year.

Benefits:

  • Organizes course materials, notes, images etc. all in one place
  • Includes audio audio note feature for recording quick notes in class or while studying
  • Accessible and synchs across all devices: laptop, smart phone, tablet
  • Allows sharing of notes with classmates or instructor by email, Twitter, etc.
  • Evernote does so much more for students—I’ve included an article from a college student who shares 10 tips for students to de-stress about college life

More details:

  • 10 Tips for Using Evernote to De-Stress College from Student Ambassador Megan Cotte, Evernote Blog
  • Evernote for Students: The Ultimate Research Tool, Tips & Stories, Evernote
  • Making Flashcards with Study Blue [another online tool], YouTube

3) Google Docs [free with Google e-mail account]

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Screen shot of share settings on all Google Docs. Selecting ‘anyone with this link’ allows the creator to add email addresses of group members. To enable collaboration, ensure the ‘can edit’ button is selected

I have written about Google docs in previous posts—but I will again highlight the value for students, as it is no doubt one of the best online collaboration tools available for documents, presentations and spreadsheets. For groups projects, it is an essential tool that allows seamless collaboration. For example, with a group project whether for an online class or face-to-face, a Word doc in Google drive is easy to set up. To start working with a collaborative document, one person creates the document, gives it a title and clicks the share button. At this point, one’s given a choice to select one of three options for sharing (screen shot above right), and all that’s needed to share with the group are the email addresses of the teammates.

Team members can work asynchronously on the document or in real-time. Working in real-time on a Google Docs is dynamic; there is a chat function that facilitates discussions during the collaboration, one can see who is editing what, and each team member is identified by name, and a coloured icon.

Benefits:

  • Versatile—can meet the needs of numerous projects
  • Accessible from all devices
  • Google Doc features allow seamless real-time collaboration

More Details:

Conclusion
What tools do you use that don’t make the list in this post? Please share with other readers by posting a comment.  Stay tuned for a follow-up post on the top online tools for educators.

Why Educators Need to Know Learning Theory

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

800px-Theory_(Clothing)_Logo

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

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

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

Theories of Learning

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

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

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

“Network”

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

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

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

Characteristics of Instructional Methods Associated with Objectivist Theories

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

And Characteristics with Constructivist Theories

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

And Characteristics with Connectivist Theory

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

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

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

Stay tuned for part three of the Learning Design series.

References

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

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

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

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

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Need-to-Know-News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Takeaways:

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

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

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

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

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