Need-to-Know-News: An EdX MOOC as Propaganda? and Grant to ‘Accelerate’ Adoption of Personalized Learning in Higher Ed

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.

questionmark1. Is This EdX MOOC Propaganda?
An interesting development going on in the MOOC sector—whether a MOOC serves as propaganda. The MOOC in question is ‘Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought’ which some view as propaganda for the Chinese government.  Some MOOC students claim the course, delivered by professor Feng from Tsinghua University’s School of Marxism, is one-sided and glosses over events during Mao’s tenure. Significant events such as the Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong initiated. Even scholars are claiming it’s propaganda sponsored by the Chinese Government, as a professor of history from the United States Naval Academy does. He says this:

“It’s propaganda” This course is “part of a larger campaign to export a way of Chinese governance ….China wants to be part of the world, but it doesn’t want to be part of a world where Western democracy and capitalism dominate” (Logue).

An alternative perspective comes from a medical student in Tianjin who is quoted as saying, “Sure, it may be a bit like propaganda, but it’s something that’s being taught in every school in China…More Chinese universities should offer these kinds of courses because it gives the world a window into China.” (Hernandez). EdX when questioned about the course claims not to interfere with content, as long as course content is not unlawful or offensive it will allow the content on its platform.

Insight:  When reading the course description of ‘Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought’, it’s described as giving “learners around the world a rare peek into a course that millions of university students in China are required to take each year”.  This statement is telling in itself; it states how history is presented to students in China, quite a different perspective from what is presented in the West. The MOOC provides an opportunity to view Mao Zedong rule through the lens of a Chinese student, and with the knowledge of other perspectives students will gain a deeper understanding into the political process and power structure within the country.  Though the MOOC doesn’t provide other perspectives (based on student feedback), I’ve taken MOOCs that have also presented a one-sided perspective of an issue. One comes to mind—an edX course I took last year, Saving Schools: History, Politics, and Policy in U.S. Education, which presented a single perspective on public education and the reform needed. Content was drawn primarily from one source, an  organization Education Next.  Content primarily consisted of opinion essays from the Education Next publication, an expert featured in the lecture videos who also happened to be the Editor-In-Chief of Education Next, as well as a text-book chapters from a book authored by this same Editor-In-Chief of Education Next.

Stephen Downes quoted in Inside Higher Ed says it the best “There’s no such thing as a neutral course,” he said. And now, “courses that might have been offered behind closed doors are offered for everyone to see.”  He’s right.


Personalizing learning is the tailoring of pedagogy, curriculum and learning environments by learners or for learners in order to meet their different learning needs. Typically technology is used to facilitate personalized learning environments.

2. Next Trend coming to Higher Ed Institutions ‘Personalizing Learning’
There’s been much written about personalized learning in education sector—it’s the latest trend in education and it’s making its way into higher education. The idea behind personalized education is customizing learning experiences by using academic data analytics, and moving from a one-size-fits-all approach to education to adapting learning experiences, curriculum or instructional approaches to individual students. Personalized learning appears most prevalent in K-12 and online education, but now universities have funding opportunities to expand initiatives into personalizing learning using adaptive courseware. This week the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU) announced a grant available for six universities designed to help institutions ‘scale their adaptive courseware effectively’ —to improve education and help students learn (Wexler). In a nutshell adaptive courseware, is software that uses algorithms based on data generated by students to scaffold instruction.

Adaptive courseware can be used in distance education, but the university association is focused on blended learning. Faculty members will learn to use new online tools but will continue working with students in a traditional classroom setting. The group wants universities to focus their efforts in lower-level, high-enrollment courses, or in courses with high failure and withdrawal rates.

Insight: It appears ALPU’s focus is getting universities to implement adaptive courseware, and not on personalizing learning. There also seems a great emphasis on haste evidenced by the language used by ALPU—for instance in the two-page Grant Overview paper titled “Accelerating Adopting of Adaptive Courseware at Public Universties“, and in the second paragraph, “to speed post-secondary educators toward effective use of high-quality adaptive courseware.  The last statement does not lend itself to the process of a conducting a thorough needs-analysis or approaching personalized learning thoughtfully and strategically. Also of note, one of ALPU’s partners in the Personalized Learning Consortium is Acrobatiq, a provider of courseware solutions.

Need-to-Know-News: New Online Platform MasterClass, Emerging Battles over OER, & Salman Khan’s Lab School

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.MP9004055001. Classes Taught by a Master
What happens when a pop icon like Christine Aguilera meets an online learning platform? You get a ‘Masterclass’. A master—expert, one at the top of his or her field teaching a craft to others. That’s the rationale behind a new for-profit platform The concept is quite brilliant. MasterClass has taken the idea of the MOOC, leveraging a digital technology platform to bring experts to teach courses to the masses. But MasterClass courses appear more celebrity-focused rather than subject-focused.

San Francisco-based MasterClass was founded by David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen on the idea that everyone should have access to genius. MasterClass makes it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to learn from the best through immersive online classes from the world’s most esteemed authors, actors, performers, athletes and more. MasterClass pairs world-class instructors with Hollywood directors and Silicon Valley engineers to create a brand new type of learning experience. PR Newswire, August 31, 2015

The platform launched in May 2015 and currently features six classes with celebrities teaching a subject (not the other way around, e.g. a subject being taught by an expert). For example Dustin Hoffman teaches acting, James Patterson teaches writing, Serena Williams teaches tennis, etc. The classes are fully online, self-paced and priced at $90.

  Tweet Below From Masterclass’ Twitter Feed

Insight: I first scoffed at the idea primarily because of MasterClass’ overt emphasis on the celebrity over the educational aspect. But after reading an article by a writer who took a class with James Patterson, I see instructive takeaways for educators and institutions involved in online education specific to technology, pedagogy and instructor-approach. MasterClass’ platform is user-friendly, appealing and according the student mentioned earlier, “extremely well-designed” (Maynard). Active learning seems to be a cornerstone to the pedagogy—embedded exercises in each lesson. For example in Serena Williams’ course on tennis, students are encouraged to take the course to the court and to “submit videos of your forehand for feedback from other students taking the class (and possibly Serena herself!)”. Instructor approach appears remarkably personable—James Patterson for instance through the videos appears engaged in the course and interested in the students. In one video he reads from a student assignment: discusses it, compliments it and suggests how to make it better. Impressive.

5093053155_515aedf1e82. Emerging Battles over OER
In October an associate professor of mathematics at California State Fullerton University, Alain Bourget, received a reprimand for deviating from department policy by assigning a course textbook different from the department-adopted textbook for an introductory algebra course. The department textbook cost $180; Bourget’s option $75 that included a textbook and a collection of (free) online resources (OER). Bourget filed a grievance over the reprimand citing academic freedom in his defense. The reprimand was upheld, yet Bourget battles on, “I am fighting for academic freedom, lowering the cost of education and especially to give a better education to my students — I will not abandon this fight” (Jaschik, 2015).

Insight: Bourget and Cal State Fullerton’s battle may be a sign of more power struggles ahead over textbooks, though I see it more as an indicator of battles ahead over use of Open Education Resources (OER). There’s been several articles and blog posts about OER of late, and according to the most recent Campus Computing Survey project: (81 percent) of the survey participants [417 university CIOs and senior IT officers] agree that “Open Source textbooks/Open Education Resource (OER) content “will be an important source for instructional resources in five years.” Time will tell.

3. Khan Lab School
Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy has started a new school based upon the ideas put forth in his book “The One World Schoolhouse”. It’s a privately funded, tuition-free school in Mountanview California. There are no grade-levels, and it currently serves children ages 5 through 13, and has expansion plans to accommodate children up to age 18.

The lab school is a school dedicated to research-based instruction and furthering innovation in education. The school has processes and strategies for studying and sharing lessons learned regarding new educational practices.

Insight: I admire and respect Khan for his passion and commitment to education and for what he has done to move education forward by providing Khan Academy as an open platform. I do however, feel uncomfortable with the ‘lab’ concept of his school—the experimental nature of the approach using children, who due to the concept of ‘lab’, inherently become test subjects. In an article in Wired magazine about the school, it describes how companies that donate products or software are allowed to come in and observe children, “the stools and tables were donated by a furniture company, which in exchange gets to observe how the students interact with them” (Tanz). I see so many things wrong with this, besides it being just weird.

The Stories Data Can Tell: “Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking)”


Dataclysm Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) Christian Rudder, Random House

Data has this marvelous capacity to show patterns of human behavior, tell stories and even predict what we are going to do next. It’s the premise of “Dataclysm”—the stories data tells about what we value, how we think and act. I chose the book as one of my 2015 reads because of the big mountain of data that education institutions are collecting; I wanted to get a glimpse into how data predicts behavior, to learn about privacy boundaries, and was hoping to get a glimpse into how data might help us design, develop and deliver better learning experiences for students. A tall order. Not surprisingly I didn’t find answers; but I did learn about the power that data holds and discovered a  good report by EDUCAUSE that does have some of the answers I was looking for.

The biggest takeaway from “Dataclysm” is the incredible potential data holds, which can translate to education sector. On its own data has no value, but with the right software data can inform, support, predict and help. Most organizations including education institutions collect mounds of data. Some is put to good use though according to the EDUCAUSE report the majority of data is used to satisfy credentialing or reporting requirements rather than to address strategic questions. And much of the data collected is not used at all (Bichsel, 2012). Education data is of abundance. Students generate a significant chunk. Every time a student logs-on to the LMS, school portal, or uses school software, printers, e-books, etc. data is collected. Every click, key stroke, time on web pages, links clicked are recorded.

The Book

I definitely think it’s good. … All of this data — everything in the book and generally anything you read online about people’s behavior on sites — is aggregated and anonymous. Nobody’s looking at your personal account. But when you put all this stuff together, you’re able to look at people in a way that people have never been able to look at people before. — Christian Rudder, Author of “Dataclysm: Who We Are” NPR Interview

Rudder, author of the book and quote above, is also co-founder of the dating site OKCupid. He gets most of the content for his book from data on his site though he also draws from Twitter and Facebook. Rudder describes how he takes data, without identifying details such as user names, and analyzes it to create narratives that describe human behaviors. The book is full of stories the data tells about race, gender and politics, which at times was disturbing. Not the writing, which is witty and entertaining, but the results of his analyses. Rudder calls his work more of a ‘sociological experiment’, examining human behavior, values, even biases by looking at (online) actions, words, choices, link clicks, and ratings.

‘Dataclysm’ was interesting—not instructive but insightful. Since finishing the book I’ve recognized how, what many label as disruptive services, are data-driven. Uber for instance, the new taxi service. Its business model rests entirely upon big data. Uber uses complex algorithms to aggregate data into actionable info that quite literally drives the business (Marr, 2014). Another—a new email program by Google, SmartReply, can write email responses for us by using machine learning to ‘work on a data set that they cannot read’ (Corrado, 2015). Whatever that means. But the gist is, its BIG data behind it.

Big Data and Education

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 2.44.58 PM

“When you hear the word ‘analytics,’ what comes to mind?” Responses in Wordle (above) to this question posed to focus groups for ECAR 2012 study on analytics. (Bichsel, 2012)

EDUCUASE defines analytics as “a tool used in addressing strategic problems or questions”.  Analytics are typically applied to institutional data and learning or academic data. Yet it appears that the potential of big data in education is yet to be tapped. The field is broad, complex and there are numerous barriers as described by Bichsel.

One of the major barriers to analytics in higher education is cost. Many institutions view analytics as an expensive endeavor rather than as an investment. Much of the concern around affordability centers on the perceived need for expensive tools or data collection methods. What is needed most, however, is investment in analytics professionals who can contribute to the entire process, from defining the key questions to
developing data models to designing and delivering alerts, dashboards, recommendations and reports.

Though there are many institutions working extensively in learning analytics with the goal of helping students succeed and improving outcomes. One is University of Michigan who have helped create a standard that ensures third-party vendors (e.g. LMS providers) provide institutions with access to data generated by their students—not to withhold the data which can be critical for schools looking to use it to support and inform student success (Mathewson, 2015). Another is Purdue University who has done extensive work in academic analytics with its LMS program Course Signals (Research on Course Signals, n.d.).

Rudder states in his book that we are on the ‘brink of a revolution—a data revolution‘. I think he may be right. The education sector may take some time to figure it out, but for those that get it right, it will be revolutionary.

Further Reading


Need-to-know News: Universities Launch Innovative Programs – MircoMaster’s, Boot Camps that May Qualify for Financial Aid via New EQUIP Program

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.

learning_boot_campMassive open online courses (MOOCs) may soon be eligible for financial aid from the US Department of Education (DOE). So might boot camp-type programs that provide skill development and training in an area of expertise. There are conditions of course, but the pilot program, Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) launched by the DOE is a significant development in higher education. Meanwhile back at some universities like MIT, Rutgers and Northeastern, educators have been busy working on innovative, non-traditional programs that might just qualify.

The shift to embrace non-degree programs or ‘alternative credentialing’ as they are typically labeled, is significant. It indicates an expansion in thinking by government and participating education institutions about what higher education is, how it’s delivered, financed and who it serves. These programs are not a replacement for traditional higher education; they don’t compete with or undermine undergraduate education even though some view it as so. Critics view alternative credentialing as part of the ‘unbundling’ trend of higher education that they deem as undermining the traditional undergraduate degree (Craig & Williams, 2015; Newton, 2015).

Others, myself included don’t see it that way. These programs are a complement to educational offerings of an institution. Boot camps and MOOC-type programs reach a unique segment of the student market—they fill a need for flexible, accessible, just-in-time training that meet student needs for vocational education.

I’ve outlined below the key takeaways of the DOE’s EQUIP program and share three universities’ new and innovative education programs—MIT’s MicroMaster’s, Rutgers Coding Bootcamp and Northeastern’s Data Analytics Bootcamp.

US Department of Education’s Pilot Program: EQUIP
EQUIP launched (officially) on October 14 and is part of the current administrations effort to make higher education more affordable and accessible. According the DOE’s website the pilot is designed to:

“…accelerate and evaluate innovation through partnerships between colleges and universities and non-traditional providers of education in order to equip more Americans with the skills, knowledge, and training they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

It appears EQUIP was driven, at least in part, by data indicating the effectiveness of boot camp-style programs. Effectiveness, when reading between the lines means earned income. The DOE quotes data from Georgetown Center for Education and Workforce which estimates that “men with non-degree certificates in computer/information services earned $72,000 per year, which is on average more than 72% of men with more traditional associate’s degrees” (FACT SHEET).

EQUIP is in the pilot phase—it’s an experiment designed to find innovative programs that provide alternative options and pathways to post-secondary education. The criteria are rigorous as “a limited number of outstanding applicants to participate“. The criteria includes: an accredited post-secondary institution must partner with at least one non-traditional provider of education and a third-party Quality Assurance Entity (QAE) to independently review and monitor the quality of the program.

Examples of Alternative Programs
Numerous innovative programs have been launched by higher education institutions over the last few months. Some leverage digital learning vehicles such as the MOOC format, as does MIT’s MicroMaster, while others are delivered entirely face-to-face.

  • MIT_logo_black_redMIT MicroMaster’s:  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched two new programs in: A one-year Master’s Degree program in Supply Chain Management (SCM) with two pathways for completion, on-campus and the other obtained through a 50/50 mix of online and on-campus instruction. The second program is the MITx MicroMaster’s, a credential featuring graduate-level work in SCM—fully online. Read more:
  • Level: Northeastern University: The tag line for the boot camp program is “Real Skills. Real Experience. Two Months“. Northeastern created Level a program in data analytics with the help of four companies (listed as ‘industry’ partners of Northeastern’s website). The program is delivered face-to-face in four locations—Boston, Charlotte, Seattle and Silicon Valley. Though not yet eligible for financial aid, the website offers information for students seeking financial assistance. Apparently there are a host of third-party websites and resources that list lenders that offer boot camp loans.
  • rutgers-central-jersey-callout

    Rutgers Logo for its Coding Boot Camp Program

    Rutgers Coding Boot Camp: An on-campus boot camp program offered at its campus location in New Jersey designed for the working professional. It runs for six months, is a total of 250 hours of instruction, offered two evenings a week from 6:00 PM to 9:30 PM and Saturdays from 10:00 AM to 2:30 PM.

“…we offer all of our students career support and coaching and provide multiple opportunities for students to meet with prospective employers. In addition, we offer students experiential learning opportunities to further bolster their portfolio”.

Further Reading


How To Make Online Courses a ‘Place’ for Learning


‘Place On The Map’ by George Hodan

I recently listened to a lecture ‘The importance of place’ from a Great Courses series on Cultural and Human Geography.  The professor discussed the process of ‘place-making’ that occurs when humans interact with, and modify a physical space to make it their own. The result is a distinctive place with a unique culture shaped by the people within. This got me thinking about ‘place’ in terms of online education. Do  students view an online class as a ‘place’? If they do, how can educators make an online space into a place for learning?

Place in context of human geography has two elements—the physical characteristics of the natural environment and the human influences—ideas, interactions and interventions. There are several books on the concept of place including “Place: A Short Introduction” by Tim Cresswell, author and professor of human geography. Cresswell describes place not only as a location, but as a physical space where humans produce and consume meaning (2004). “Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience” by Yi-Fu Tuan, one of the first scholars in the discipline of human geography, describes place and space as a relationship, that includes the feelings and thoughts humans associate with each (2001).

Why Online Students Need a Place
When examining face-to-face education settings we get a sense of how place influences learning. Inherent to education is the idea of going to a place to learn—a place to study, to meet with classmates, to lecture, to engage in discussion, to do research, etc. And a place’s physical aspects—the decor of a room, the temperature, WiFi availability, space constraints, available resources, even furniture, can influence students motivation, their effectiveness or even willingness to learning.  As do the human aspects associated with a  learning place—interactions, discussions, institutional processes, etc.  In my experience it’s these human aspects that are most often associated with online education. Yet a sense of place that addresses the physical aspects in an online course is more elusive. Elusive—but necessary.

Community of Inquiry Framework, (Cleveland-Innes, Garrison & Vaughan)

Community of Inquiry Framework, (Cleveland-Innes, Garrison & Vaughan)

How Do Educators Make a Place Online
Few resources exist for educators wanting to learn about place-making in an online class. The closest I’ve found is the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model; a framework for describing presence online. The CoI model encompasses three dimensions of presence for online learning spaces: teaching, social and cognitive presence. The model suggests that effective education experiences occur when the three dimensions coincide. This is a good starting point for place-making. It addresses the human aspect of place-making through the three dimensions. Yet as mentioned, addressing the physical dimensions of place-making online is more challenging.

Example 1: Creating Dynamic Online Course Sites with Digital Tools
Effective use of Images and media can contribute to place-making. An experienced online educator Laura Gibbs (@onlinecrslady) maintains a dynamic course site for each of her online classes (Mythology and Folklore) using embedded images and content representing students’ course work from various digital platforms. Not only do students get to see their work featured on the course site, but the course becomes a dynamic space for learning. When students log-on to the course site, the most recent student assignment is featured (screenshot below), which students can access via an active link. Gibbs’ use of media tools (Rotate Content, inoreader widgets, etc.) and platforms (Twitter, Pinterest, Blogger) support place-making by creating a learning space that has meaning and purpose for students. Students shape the space by their contributions, interactions and involvement—making it a ‘place’ for their learning.

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 10.31.17 AM

Screenshot of a web page in one of Gibbs’ online courses.  This page features students completed writing assignment discussing Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset that uses the Blogger platform. Visit this link to view Gibbs’ assignment instructions for students:

Using Twitter as a tool to contribute to place-making in an online course.

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Screenshot of Tweet featured on one of Gibbs’ course sites. Gibbs posts Tweets featuring course updates, links to relevant resources; students also contribute.

Example 2: The Student Lounge
Some online courses feature a ‘student lounge‘, usually a discussion forum or chat room within the course site labeled as such. In my experience these lounges typically aren’t used, usually because there’s little invitation or reason to get involved—it’s just there. Yet there are ways instructors can make these spaces inviting and dynamic, to construct and lay the foundation for place-making. As we saw in the previous example, it takes a focused effort by the instructor to support place-making. Below are ideas for creating a student lounge from high school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gowan outlined in a blog post:

It is not hard to create a virtual student lounge in an online classroom. Think about what a student union provides and go from there. Make sure that students go there first, familiarize themselves with the space, and are encouraged to return to it time and again to recharge their social batteries. It should be a place where everyone can hang out and share, [by] posting, uploading and downloading. You can also create a “water cooler” thread that serves as just a fun way to build your community, introducing students to each other as members of a Virtual Learning Community (VLC.)…For instance, you might want to set up a space or thread that:

  • Links to resources or even a gift shop of materials and supplies that students can buy or access in order to supplement their learning
  • Allows students can share thoughts, writings, and videos
  • Serves as an “information desk” so students can ask questions about the classroom and/or the content
  •  Acts as an “arcade” of links to content-related games and entertainment
  •  Promotes and celebrates learners in the community for their academic or personal accomplishments both online and offline

Closing Thoughts
The idea of ‘place’ in online education is an interesting one; it’s another way thinking about and approaching online education. The idea of place-making in online courses could be one way to engage and motivate students, to make learning relevant, meaningful and effective in our digital world. If you have ideas for place-making in online courses, readers would be interested—please share!


  • Cresswell, T. (2004). Place: A short introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Robbins, P. (2014). The importance of place. Lecture presented in Understanding cultural and human geography. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses.
  • Tuan, Y. (2001). Space and place: The perspectives of experience. Minneapolis, MN. University of Minnesota Press.

If Technology is the Answer, What Was the Question?

If technology is the answer, what was the question?” was the title of the keynote of the SimpliedED15 Summit I attended at UCLA this week. A fitting session for the day-long conference that focused on the future of education and the role of technology. The Summit, part of ‘Innovation Week’ in Los Angeles, featured a diverse group of education leaders including Dr. John Moravec—session presenter and author of Knowmads and Manifesto 15. Moravec discussed several frameworks for technology integration including the idea leveraging technology as a tool to support Knowmads—knowledge workers who are ‘creative, imaginative, and innovative people who can work anytime, and anywhere’ and the model of ‘invisible learning’ (Knowmad Society). The concepts were interesting, but it’s the session title that resonated most. What was the question? could be reworded to, ‘what problem are we trying to solve with technology?

This idea of activating conversations about education technology with a jeopardy-type question is a different approach, yet it holds potential for institutions and educators considering integrating technology tools or applications across online, blended or face-to-face spaces. We’re at the point with technology where questions have shifted from ‘should we use technology?’ to probing questions that focus on education problems and needs; questions that promote dialogue about how, when, and what technology can solve learning problems and needs. This approach is similar to the needs analysis phase of the design process—either instructional design or product design

Ed-Tech Needs Analysis
The goal of a needs analysis is to find a solution to a problem by asking questions to achieve a full understanding of the nature of the problem in order to find a feasible and effective solution. Applying the needs analysis process to education technology is not a stretch. A series of questions can uncover the complexities of a problem or learning need and reveal the critical information that could include: the core issue, or root problem or need, stakeholders to include, potential barriers, etc. The goal is to get the core of the problem or need, which sets the foundation for evaluating alternatives and finding solutions.  Solutions may include technology (though not always), revised or new systems or procedures, people, among others, and likely will include a combination of solutions.

The Institute of Education Sciences (ies) website features a comprehensive article “Determining Your Technology Needs” that details each step of the needs analysis process specific to education technology.  I approach the needs analysis somewhat differently, which is by not assuming technology is a solution from the get-go. However the process ies outlines is sound and instructive.

identity-crisisBelow is a summary of my five-step process for needs analysis.

  1. Ask questions to delve into the problem/need (examples)
  2. Gather information. Compile information—data, facts, results, opinions (obtained through interviews, conversations), etc.— which should all be driven by questions from step one.
  3. Analyze information to determine the core problem(s) or need(s). This step is critical—only after analyzing information and identifying the core need(s) can effective, viable solution(s) be selected. Otherwise, patchwork solutions are chosen which can result in the wasting of money and time.
  4. Prioritize needs. Often, several needs are identified, yet a thorough analysis of needs is also required to determine the most pressing.
  5. Evaluate alternatives and select best alternative to solve/meet need(s).

Sample Questions
The above process seems straightforward enough on paper—yet the application is challenging—there are often competing priorities and needs, and barriers. Below is a selection of questions used in a (K-12) school district before implementing technology tools and software as part of its Blended Learning Initiative (Arney, 2015).

  • How can we re-mediate and accelerate the learning of students on both ends of the curve?
  • How can we create more learning time for a (particular) topic?
  • How can we identify and help struggling students more quickly and efficiently using data?
  • How can we reduce the number of our graduates who need to take remedial math upon entering college?
  • How can we leverage smart-phone or web-connected devices that students bring into the classroom?

Asking questions of our technology—beginning with questions before jumping to education technology solutions is not new. Neil Postman, professor and author of several seminal books on media and culture, posed this question in his book “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century” (pg 42):

What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?


Further Reading


  • Arney, L. (2015). Go blended! Handbook for blending technology. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Moravec, J. (2015, October). If technology is the answer, what was the question? Keynote session presented at SimplifiED Summit 2015, Los Angeles, CA
  • Postman, N. (1999). Building a bridge to the 18th century. Vintage Books.
  • US Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences. (n.d.). Part 2: Determining your technology needs. Retrieved from

How to Make Learning Matter to Online Students


“Classic Learning” by Alan Levine on Flickr

One of the core premises of “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” is to make learning matter to students (Brown, Rodediger & McDaniel, 2014). The authors emphasize that learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal. Intuitively it’s a logical premise; of course we want learning to matter to students, where learning is relevant and applicable to their contexts. Yet how do we know if students perceive course concepts as relevant and meaningful? And even if they don’t, does this matter? The consensus is that it does. Evidence indicates that when learning is relevant, students are motivated and engaged→ learning is more effective and outcomes are more likely achieved. This phenomenon is described in “Make it Stick”  and in recent research (Bernard, 2010). In practice, I’ve seen how students are more likely to engage and participate in online courses when assignments encourage them to apply course concepts and ideas by building on their existing knowledge and experience.

Framework for Relevant Learning – Andragogy
The concept of making learning relevant to students is not new. Malcolm Knowles, creator of andragogy the theory of adult learning, outlines a set of assumptions of how adults learn; relevance is a core element (1984). Andragogy suggests adults learn differently than children, and learning programs tailored to characteristics of adult students, such as work experience, existing knowledge and life situations, are more likely to motivate and engage students in the learning process. Below are core assumptions of andragogy that serve as guidelines for making learning matter to students:

1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something
2. Adults need to learn ‘experientially’
3. Adults approach learning as problem-solving
4. Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

Online Student_ThinkingStrategies for Making Learning Matter
I’ve found that by applying adult learning principles to the design of online courses, assignments and learning activities for instance, payoffs are significant in terms of student participation. I’ve seen this time and again. Online students are sensitive to busy work—activities or assignments that don’t appear to have a purpose, don’t require critical analysis, don’t appear to align with course learning objectives, or have real world application. Granted, these are students’ perceptions, yet it is beneficial to explain the purpose of an assignment, to describe how it will further learning and be of value, or be applicable later in the course. Following are practical strategies that I’ve applied when designing courses in an effort to make learning matter. Comments highlighting my experiences are in blue.

  • Describe an assignment in three parts; 1) outline the purpose of an assignment: how it fits in with objectives, what students will gain from the assignment, why they are doing the assignment, 2) describe assignment details and logistics: provide a description of assignment, format, resources, due dates, rubrics, and 3) describe technical logistics and details, e.g. any platforms or software needed for the assignment, collaboration tools for group assignments, where and how to submit the assignment e.g. within the LMS, or Turn-it-In, etc.  Frequently I’ve seen assignments that lack detail in at least one of the three mentioned here. This creates confusion for students, potential for lower-quality assignments, need for frequent reminders/clarifications, more student questions, and it delays students getting on the path to learning.
  • Provide opportunity for students to apply and share their experience and knowledge of subject matter: encourage students to draw upon work experience or existing knowledge. For example in a discussion question activity, include opportunity for students to share their experiences as applicable to the topic. Doing so can be as simple as adding another component to a discussion question where students incorporate examples from their personal or work experience.
  • Create opportunities where students research and/or share how (select) course concepts apply to real world scenarios or situations. This can be done within a discussion forum activity, a blog post assignment, written reflection activity or other type of written assignment. Alternatively, assignments can be based upon a real world challenge or problem the student is facing within their work, community or personal situation. As discussed earlier, the key is to highlight to for students why they are doing the activity—even though it may seem obvious. An example of how a question might be framed—here’s how a question from an undergraduate course in nursing might read “…to demonstrate how (concepts) apply to current situation in clinical setting, describe how this would be integrated…”.

Closing Thoughts
Making learning matter to learners does matter; where learning is relevant and applicable, especially for adult students. Considering adult learner characteristics is good practice that can lead to motivated and engaged students. Yet online learning does require a different approach than used for face-to-face settings—one that considers characteristics not only of the students, but the medium. The strategies outlined here are a starting point.