What the Internet is Doing to Our Education Culture: Book Review of “The Shallows”

Following is a book review of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains”, though I suggest it’s more aptly titled, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains Culture” and I describe why in this post.

“Culture is sustained in our synapses…It’s more than what can be reduced to binary code and uploaded onto the Net. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers.” Nicolas Carr, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” a Pulitzer Prize finalist for general non-fiction in 2011

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by Nicolas Carr, 2010

Overview
Author Nicolas Carr made a name for himself with his article featured in the Atlantic “Is Google making us Stupid” in 2008. Carr is not a proponent of the Internet as one might guess from his article and from the title of his most recent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brain (2010). Though the book’s title implies that the Internet is not good for our brains, makes us shallow, no longer capable of deep and thoughtful thinking and learning, Carr fails to provide convincing evidence that this is indeed the case. A more appropriate title might be The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Culture. Carr describes his own challenges with disconnecting with Internet-enabled devices and social media, which is more of a reflection of our current culture—the constant and often frenetic connectivity to the Internet via our mobile devices. Our behaviours as a society have deeply changed due to engagement with digital media, and it’s this behaviour research suggests, that is responsible for changing our brains. Granted the Internet is the vehicle, the catalyst to the Information Age, which impacts society, culture and global economies significantly. Though the point is moot, what I found worthy of consideration while reading Carr’s book from an education standpoint is the concept of ‘efficiency’.  Frequently mentioned throughout the book via the studies quoted, is the idea that the Internet increases efficiency—efficiency usually in the context of work, doing more with less, or in terms of finding information quickly and accurately.

The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient, automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are Internet on finding the “one best way”— the perfect algorithm—to carry out the mental movements of what we’ve come to describe as knowledge work” (p 150)

The Culture of Efficiency and Education
And is this not what we have been hearing in the last couple of years in education circles, how technological advancements can increase efficiencies in education? Efficiency is often cited in the same context as effectiveness, yet more often in terms of cost savings. I was surprised to unearth a book on this topic, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, by Raymond E. Callahan, published in 1962 no less. The author was responding to the post-industrial business model that sought efficiencies in work processes for greater costs savings and higher profits.

Raymond Callahan’s lively study exposes the alarming lengths to which school administrators went, particularly in the period from 1910 to 1930, in sacrificing educational goals to the demands of business procedures. He suggests that even today the question still asked is: “How can we operate our schools?” Society has not yet learned to ask: “How can we provide an excellent education for our children? GoodReads

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By Raymond Callahan, 1962

And though Carr references efficiency in his book, it is not necessarily in an economic context as Callahan outlines. Yet the theme of efficiency as it relates to the Internet extends to our education culture—institution leaders, politicians and administrators seeking efficiency in practices and methods (automated grading, online courses with great numbers of students, etc.) Efficiency is not a ‘bad’ outcome to strive for, yet the idea of efficiency in education is frequently referenced in terms of increasing or maintaining education outcomes, with fewer resources. A recent situation in California’s public higher education system illustrates this point beautifully. Governor Jerry Brown looked to online education (MOOCs is more accurate), as a solution to the problem of bottle neck courses, where students couldn’t graduate from public universities due to too many students and not enough general education classes. Brown and members of his team referred to efficiencies frequently:

“Gov. Jerry Brown last year said that the state’s public colleges operate on a high-cost delivery model that the state cannot sustain. The price of a college education in California is growing steadily without “adding productivity or value,” the governor said….Online education is one practical way for the state’s public universities to improve efficiency.

But online education can expand college capacity and access to courses in affordable fashion. That approach is sensible for the UC system — and a worthwhile start on the much larger task of creating a more efficient and sustainable higher education system.”  The Press Enterprise

In fact, there are numerous articles and papers describing efficiencies in education published by many prominent organizations involved in education. This article for example, Higher Education: Quality, Equity and Efficiency published by the OECD which has this to say:

All nations face the challenges of mobilising more resources and using them effectively in meeting the strategic goals of society with maximum efficiency. “

Conclusion
I’ve referenced the theme of efficiency as it relates to education here which is really not the thrust of Carr’s “The Shallows“, however his book raises several interesting points about how the Internet has affected our culture which extends to our culture within education. The book is a worthwhile read, specifically for the references to how the Internet affects our ability to educate and learn—though learning not from a scientific perspective but from a behavioural one. However, when it comes to efficiency and education, I rather like Callahan’s question posed in his book “Education and the Cult of Efficiency”, ‘how can we provide an excellent education for our children’, and I would add to this, ‘in a connected world’.  The latter is now on my to-read list.

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Institutions Opting for Progress

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

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

change_image2. Strategic Planning InitiativeBeyond Forward, Dartmouth University

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

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

3. Institutional MergersUniversity System of Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Resources for Academic Skills

Writing Help:

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

Grammar:

Math:

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

III. Resources for Study Skills

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

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

Resources/Further Reading:

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

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

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‘Jam’ by John Wardell (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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:

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ and What it Means for Education

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Macmillan Publishers

I recently finished Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics. Kahneman received the distinguished prize for his “Integrated economic analysis with fundamental insights from cognitive psychology, in particular regarding behavior under uncertainty, thereby laying the foundation for a new field of research.”

Kahneman writes extensively in Thinking, Fast and Slow about his research conducted over a period of several years with his late friend and research partner Amos Tversky. Though heavy in theory, the book is an engaging and frequently challenging read. It provides a unique perspective on the decision-making process which Kahneman demonstrates via his thesis—how we think with two systems, fast and slow. His supporting research reveals just how fallible we are. Kahneman describes the fast and slow thinking as two systems→system one which is quick, spontaneous and often inaccurate, and system two, that is slow [even lazy], methodical, yet when engaged, accesses memory for facts. Kahnemen examines how the two systems affect cognitive biases, choices, even our well-being and happiness. Going deeper, Kahneman explores how [flawed] biases and perceptions when applied to larger issues, policy decisions for example, can have significant impact on sectors such as healthcare, education and employment.

→ System 1:  fast, instinctive, is biased to believe and confirm, infers and invents          causes and intentions, exaggerates emotional consistency (halo effect)
→ System 2:  slow, deliberate, rational, logical, relies on facts and knowledge

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The image above displays the different images used in a study carried out in a kitchen in a UK university. The poster was placed above the tea/coffee area where the ‘honesty’ box was set for the payment of cups of tea or coffee consumed by employees. Above the box a different image appeared each week. The study charted the impact the image had on the value of payments into the honesty box each week (p 57).

Book Highlights
Throughout the book Kahneman incorporates numerous details and specifics of his research, describing the scenarios of his studies, even providing illustrations and images within the book. He shares the outcomes of the research in great detail along with his personal insight. The anecdotes are often humorous, providing a balance to the heaviness of the topic.

One of the writing techniques of Kahneman I enjoyed the most, was his use of summary statements at the end of each chapter representative of the concepts discussed. If I didn’t follow the logic of the statements, I had failed to grasp the concepts Kahneman presented in the chapter, which sent me back to reread it to find what I’d missed (which happened more than once). I’ve chosen a selection of statements from a few of the chapters:

Chapter 4 ‘The Associative Machine’: “They were primed to find flaws, and this is exactly what they found

Chapter 14: ‘Tom W’s Speciality’: “The start-up looks as if it could not fail, but the base rate of success in the industry is extremely low. How do we know this case is different?”

Chapter 16 ‘Causes Trump Statistics’: “No need to worry about this statistical information being ignored. On the contrary, it will immediately be used to feed a stereotype.”

Chapter 18 ‘Taming Intuitive Predictions’: Our intuitive prediction is very favorable, but it is probably too high. Let’s take into account the strength of our evidence and regress the prediction toward the mean.”

What ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ Means to Education
As mentioned, Thinking, Fast and Slow is full of concepts that challenge traditional views on human decision-making, application of choice theory, even probability. What Kahneman’s research reveals is that people, regardless of their education background are prone to cognitive biases, faulty decision-making that fail because system 1 kicks in before the more rational and logical  system 2 is engaged. Viewing the book through an educator’s lens, the results highlight the need for institutions to educate learners to be disciplined thinkers, which is quite opposite from today’s emphasis on teaching creativity and innovation skills. Our minds, according to  Kahneman don’t naturally rely upon logical, rational or critical thinking processes.  Instead system 1 thinking dominates, prompting emotional reactions, reliance on recent events and experiences, and is susceptible to the priming effect, where exposure to one stimulus influences a response to another. Kahneman’s gives examples to support his point.  One example of a study involved doctors, which revealed even medical professionals were susceptible to the priming effect (p 227). Other scholarly research supports Kahnemans’ results, described in this research paper

Notes to Educators
If one subscribes to Kahneman theory, education for high school and undergraduates should focus on teaching disciplined thinking, decision-making skills and principles of probability, choice theory and statistics.  Another skill to emphasize is to approach problems methodically, without jumping to conclusions and settling on easy answers—a challenge given the way culture has shaped expectations for answers at the speed of light.

“The most glaring deficiency of system 2, according to Kahneman, is that it is naturally very poor with probabilities and statistics. Fortunately, system 2 can be trained to improve here, and this is another major concern of the book.” News Books In Brief, 2013

When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment… You can… feel a surge of conscious attention whenever you are surprised. System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains” (2011, Kahneman).

Conclusion
Thinking, Fast and Slow highlights what is missing from education, or at least what is not emphasized across disciplines, which is the concept of disciplined thinking, logic, application of methodical processes that harness factual and theoretical knowledge one learns. As mentioned already, the trend in education today leans towards teaching creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, even the application of design thinking principles. Kahneman’s books provides solid evidence for education that includes applications of disciplined thinking, logic and methodical decision-making.

If you are interested in this book, but short on time, the resources below provide excellent highlights and descriptions of the key concepts of the book. The short YouTube video illustrates one example outlined in the book, and the link to edge.org includes an interview with Kahnamen where he discusses much of the content outlined in his book.

The video below demonstrates a scenario Kahneman describes in his book (p 186).  Note: the video uses the idea of the US grade point average (GPA).  For those not familiar with it, the top score is this instance is 4.0.

Further Reading:

Need-to-Know-News: App ‘Spritz’ Promises Speedy Reading, eLearning Manifesto is [Very] Serious, and $5 Million Prize for College Success Solution

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

1. Spritz the New Way to Read

 “Spritz’s Mission is to change the way people read and make communication faster, easier, and more effective.”

Speed reading is not new. I remember a few short years ago when my oldest son, a college junior at the time, enrolled in a Speed Reading workshop hoping it would help with his studies. The goal of the half-day session was to teach students the skill set specific to reading rapidly, yet with comprehension. Now with an innovative software program Spritz, there’s no skill required—just about anyone can speed read with technology customized for small screens, i.e. smartphones, wearable devices etc. The Spritz software, developed by a group of entrepreneurs, software engineers, and experts in reading methodologies (spritzinc.com), is apparently based upon the scientific principles of how we read. It’s gaining considerable attention from media and with headlines like this one, How To Read A 223 Page Novel In Just 77 Minutes, many readers too.

How it Works

“The structure of our visual sensors forces us to scan the page by jerking our eyes around every two or three-tenths of a second.” These eye movements take time, slowing down the rate at which we can read. But what if the words moved, instead of our eyes? That’s the innovation behind Spritz, which employs a technique called rapid sequential visual presentation, or RSVP. When using the app, words are presented one at a time, in the exact spot where our gaze is “focalized,” or primed for visual recognition. Then that word is whisked away and another appears in the same, optimal place—and quickly, quickly, others follow.

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The focal point Spritz has identified for the eye to best parse words is where the letters coloured in red appear in the above examples

There are similar programs available now based upon the RSVP method, an example is Speeder [click here to try it out]. However according to Spritz’s CEO, Spritz is different, by using new technology and ‘optimization components’ including the use of color contrast and positioning of words.

Insight: I see the technology helping when skimming information for instance, news headlines, briefs or executive summaries, when the purpose is to have a general familiarity with topic. But for deep reading I don’t see Spritz being able to support not just reading comprehension, but enjoyment.  I can’t image reading a literary classic with Spritz, or a book that requires thought and time to ponder and consider. To me, this is one of the great joys of reading.

2. The SERIOUS e-learning Manifesto

Launched this week by a group of four e-learning professionals, labeled “instigators” on the manifesto’s website, the document seeks to provide us with a set of principles for developing and implementing e-learning.  I watched the beginning part of the hour-long recorded presentation titled the ‘world premiere‘ and it was heavy, with statements such as, e-learning is doomed if we don’t get on a better path, before it’s too late, we need to turn it around why we still can, and the current situation is bad but the opportunity is so wonderful (Youtube).  How depressing. I couldn’t watch much beyond that—why bother, we may as well just throw in the towel and close up shop (a touch of sarcasm).

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“we believe that we need to go beyond typical elearning to the values and characteristics of Serious eLearning” elearningmanifesto.org

Insight: I don’t mean to make light of the effort, as I do see value in several of the supporting principles outlined on the website. But the premise for the document is weak, where is the data to support their claims that e-learning is doomed? Though the manifesto appears to have backers, or at least organizations “providing their support to draw attention to the Manifesto”, something is missing.  Stephen Downes in his daily newsletter The Olddaily, sums it up best, “The manifesto is relentlessly provider-focused, which is unfortunate. If I were writing a manifesto it would be more about making my profession unnecessary, so that people wouldn’t need specially designed materials in order to learn, but rather, could forge learning out of raw materials for themselves.

3. Robin Hood Prize: College Success Prize

I met a woman at the EDUCAUSE conference last November who described what seemed to me at the time, a fanstastical idea for a contest sponsored by New York-based Robin Hood Foundation for the development of a phone application or software program that will help at-risk students graduate with an Associate Degree in two to three years. The contest payout would be big, but the results, students graduation rates, would have to be tied directly to the innovation, in other words the app or other software be need to be directly responsible for student success. I wondered how on earth it would look. I need not wonder any longer—Robin Hood launched its College Success Prize this week with a hefty prize for the winners, $5 million. I am hopeful it will generate several innovative programs to address the low-graduation rates of students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Skepticism aside, full marks to the foundation for putting effort and significant funds into a worthy cause. Details below:

“The competition is open to individuals and teams that develop scalable solutions that will help more community college students graduate within 2-3 years.  Competitors may address whichever set of student skills they believe will produce the greatest success. These may include math, reading, or writing, as well as behavioral, non-cognitive or non-academic factors. 

The Prize will reward successful interventions – such as smartphone apps, computer applications, and web-based tools—that are aimed at the individual student and will supplement existing curricula and supportive services such as tutoring.”