Need-to-Know-News: Harvard & MIT Evaluate MOOCs, ‘Lean Forward’ the New approach to Online Collaboration & Why LinkedIn Buying Lynda.com is Good for 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.

MP9004055001)  Harvard and MIT Evaluate MOOCs’ Impact
Harvard and MIT recently released a report evaluating the impact of their MOOCs offered on edX’s platform (Ho et al., 2015). The report uses data over a two-year period across 69 MOOCs and includes analysis on participation levels, student demographics, profile of certificate seekers, completion rates and more. It’s a worthwhile read for educators involved in planning or the delivery of xMOOCs. Three key takeaways:

1.  Participation* across eleven MOOCs offered for a second time declined by 43% from the first to second version. Of five courses offered for a third time, participation numbers remained essentially the same.  The one exception was for the Introduction to Computer Science MOOC, which doubled in size from the first to second version.

*Participation determined by number of enrolled students that accessed MOOC content at least once.

2. Computer Science MOOCs attracted four times as many participants as courses in three other categories. The four categories: 1) Computer Science, 2) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, 3) Humanities, History, Religion, Design, and Education, and 4) Government, and Health and Social Sciences.

3. Demographics of participants are consistent with earlier reports of MOOC participants: educated with at least a bachelor’s degree, male, and in their late twenties to mid-thirties. The paper reported revealed a slight shift however in demographics:

“Year-over-year demographic shifts have been slight but indicate a direction toward courses with older, more educated, more US-based, and more female representation”

Insight:  As more data is compiled and shared about MOOCs, institutions will (hopefully) be able to make more prudent decisions about MOOC investments.  Investments in Massive, open online courses are significant, yet often the purpose for, or even the expected outcomes are not determined beforehand. With reports such as this one MOOC, (again—hopefully) decision-makers can make more informed decisions about MOOCs.

2)  Online Collaboration – New Methods including ‘Lean Forward’
The article “What Harvard Business School Has Learned About Online Collaboration” featured in Inside Higher Ed  this week presents innovative methods for online group collaboration, one in particular called ‘lean forward’.  Articles that focus on  pedagogical methods in online course design are scant, which is why this article tucked away within Inside Higher Ed’s blog column section is noteworthy.

It describes unique and novel methods for delivering learning experiences for students in Harvard’s three-course certificate program, Credential of Readiness (CORe). CORe is not a MOOC, but an online certificate offered for $1800 that is geared to undergraduate or graduate students with a non-business background. It’s described as “a primer on the fundamentals of business. It is designed to introduce you (students) to the language of business” (HBX CORe).

The article outlines how courses were designed to change the passive learning approach, typical of MOOCs and some online courses where learners are consumers of content, to an active approach that organizers label ‘lean forward’.  Lean forward means that students will not spend more than three to five minutes on the course site before being required to interact with content or peers.  Some of the methods use to foster learning forward include:

  • Student profiles and introductions were the focus of the first week—not course content. The course site which typically features content at the start, instead focuses on students by featuring their profile pictures and bios. At the beginning of the course students are required to upload a personal picture and create their profile before they can view any course content (quite brilliant!).
  • Collaboration needs a trigger – course organizers used grade incentives to get students started, requiring a “basic level” of participation. After that, momentum of the process itself, students interacting and collaborating, took over.
  • Desired behaviors for online collaboration and interaction where shaped at the beginning of the program. Course leaders actively encouraged desired behaviors, discouraged others, and clarified standards for online conversation. We encouraged participants to disagree with others — but to do it with respect.

Insight: HBX’s approach is worth considering. The innovative methods used for creating interaction and focusing on students and not content, is exactly what online learning needs. Though new approaches for online course design are in demand, there are few  public discussions about online education that focus on pedagogy.  We need more of this—sharing of different approaches that can improve online learning experiences for students. The article is a must-read for anyone involved in course design for MOOCs, open online courses, or for-credit, online education programs.

3)  Linked-In Buys Lynda.com – What it Means for Higher Ed
LinkedIn offered in to buy Lynda.com for $1.5 billion. Lynda.com is a subscription, video-based training platform that offers online training courses for a variety of technical subjects e.g. computer programming, photography, business skills video filming, editing and more. I view Lynda.com as a polished, searchable and sophisticated You Tube-type platform without advertising (bundled into convenient courses) for a fee.

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Screenshot of Lynda.com website

Insight:  Though The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that the transaction may affect higher ed in some way as per the headline How LinkedIn’s Latest Move May Matter to Colleges (the article is a behind a pay wall), it won’t, at least not in a competitive context. Lynda.com satisfies a need for just-in-time training, training to learn how to do something—now.  Not only does the platform offer excellent training for programs such as Excel or Photoshop, but it also offers skills-training ideal for new graduates, for example Creating an Effective Resume, Insights from a College Career Coach, or Job Hunting Online.  With LinkedIn’s recent moves to attract college students to its platform, this development will only enhance and support higher education institutions by providing their college graduates and students with tools that will make them more marketable and employable—a win-win for everyone.

How Five Web Design Principles Boost Student Learning in an Online Course

“Our team realized quickly that we needed to do a better job cross referencing material on our course site. For example if we mention syllabus, we must link to it. Some students we have learned want a great deal of guidance” MOOC instructor, Karen Head (2013)

great-designIn the quote above, without realizing it, the instructor was referring to the concept of ‘user experience’. And it’s not guidance students wanted so much as an intuitive learning experience. Creating a user-friendly course site begins with incorporating web design principles. Even the most basic of principles customized to online course design reduces barriers associated with virtual learning by minimizing distractions, highlighting concepts and making resources readily accessible. Embedding a link into the phrase ‘assignment guidelines’ for instance, when the assignment is referred to within a course page, is an example of making resources readily available (if the assignment guidelines are within the syllabus, refer students to the page number). This reduces the amount of time students spend searching and frees up time for learning.

The challenge of designing online courses is not only pedagogical, but also technical, which is the category that ‘usability’ falls under. We are at the point with online learning where pedagogy and technology are interdependent; where a well-designed, user-friendly course with a clear learning path needs to adhere to technical principles as well as pedagogical ones. Technology is a new form of pedagogy. The course site design, how content is presented, is an aspect of online pedagogy. In this post I cover five principles of web design that are essential to online course design.

Retail sites frequently adhere to best practices for web design given customers (users) are more likely to spend time and money on an attractive, intuitive website. I suggest educators use similar web design principles to support their students.

Before we examine the principles, defining user experience (UX) is in order. There are numerous definitions of user experience but the one below specific to web design, incorporates key elements of the entire experience:

“User experience (UX) is about how a person feels about using a system. User experience highlights the experiential, affective, meaningful and valuable aspects of human-computer interaction (HCI) …. It also covers a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use and efficiency of the system. User experience is subjective in nature, because it is about an individual’s performance, feelings and thoughts about the system. User experience is dynamic, because it changes over time as the circumstances change…” All About UX

Five Principles of Web Design Applicable to Online Course Design

1. Design for the user
This seems obvious—design a course from the student’s perspective, yet it’s an atypical approach. When designing a web page for a course site, always ask ‘how will this look to the student’? Anyone involved in online course design needs to take an online course as a student. Completing at least one week of course work in a MOOC for example, gives one an entirely different perspective on course design—guaranteed. Design the course from the student’s perspective—always.

2. Consistency
For online course, consistency is probably the most under-utilized principle. Specifically in terms of how resources are titled, labeled and/or placed within the course site. I’ve taken many courses where the same resource, an article for instance, is referred to by two different names—in the syllabus it’s titled one way, and in the course site another. Confusing. Same goes for assignments, calling an assignment by slightly different names, even by one word suggests there are two assignments, not one. Another, posting the same document in two different locations within the site suggests there are two different documents. The time students spend searching, checking, comparing etc. is valuable learning time that is spent on logistics. Consistency is key.

3. White Space
Effective use of white space emphasizes key concepts, improves comprehension (up to 20%) and reduces cognitive overload (Lin, 2004). White space is the part of a web page that is left blank or unmarked. It’s the (white) space between columns, text, images, and margins on the page. This space provides visual relief to the reader and improves readability. Avoid using big blocks of text. Break it up with a graphic, or block of white space or increased line space. See examples below.

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Example of text with little white space.

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Same text as above but with increased line spacing. Effective use of white space improves readability.

4. Simplicity
In keeping with the idea of white space is simplicity. A cluttered page with three or more colors of font, sizes of font and images placed sporadically throughout that are of different type and size creates a chaotic-looking virtual classroom. It’s far easier to study and focus on learning in a physical classroom that is organized with minimal distractions. The same goes for an online classroom. Keep it simple, two colors of font, same size and style throughout, organized and consistent pages creates a Zen-like classroom where students can focus on course content and application of concepts. Learning is enhanced greatly.

“The way information is organized and presented to students affects not only the usability of information, but the usability of the course itself” (Young, 2014)

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Tabs grouped by category (Coursera)

5. Use Tabs Effectively
Imagine opening a file drawer that is full of file folders with inaccurate or missing labels. The same principles of file labels apply to web sites except rather than alphabetized listing, it’s an order that makes sense to the student. For example the ‘start here’ tab should be at the top of the menu not third or fourth down the list (which happens more often than you would think). Tabs should be two words (max 3 words), and with descriptive language, ‘Start Here’, ‘Week One, or ‘Student Support’ for example.  Use sub-tabs if possible, and if not group tabs into categories (screenshot right). Also avoid CAP LETTERS for titles of tabs. CAPITAL LETTERS can appear loud and abrasive on a website (there are exceptions as the screenshot above right demonstrates).

Conclusion
Developing an online course is a multidimensional process. Usability is one dimension often neglected; understandably so given that most educators approach online course design with little expertise in web design. Yet a little goes a long way—by implementing just the basic web design principles, educators can create an intuitive learning path that gives students the boost they need to invest more time in learning, not searching.

References/Resources

Course Design and Online Group Collaboration — What’s the Connection?

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Facilitating group work in an online course for instructors is often the most challenging aspect of teaching an online class. The amount of time invested by students and the instructor in the group process can be significant; unfortunately there’s often more time spent on logistics of the assignment than on meaningful learning. But there is a solution that significantly improves the process and the outcome. It’s course design. Effective course design, which includes the timing, description and instructions for the group project, is a determining factor in the quantity, quality and type of interactivity (Swan, 2001). Facilitation skills of the instructor is another factor, more so when the instructor uses a specific skill set that supports meaningful group interaction. In this post I focus on the course design component. Though I’ve written several posts about group work, I want to share with readers findings from a journal article “Creating Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment” (Brindley, Waiti & Blaschke, 2009) that emphasizes the connection between course design and group effectiveness.

Why a Group Activity?
Before I get to the practical applications I want to examine why creating collaborative assignments is worth the effort. First, there is considerable research that identifies a relationship between participation in collaborative group experiences and deeper learning. There is also a strong relationship between students’ acquisition of communication and collaboration skills (Brindley et al, 2009). Second, creating active learning experiences, and opportunities where “learning is more like a team effort than a solo race” meets two of the seven principles outlined by Chickering and Gamson in their seminal paper “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (1987).

Five Course Design Strategies that Support Effective Group Collaboration
Effective course design not only leads to more meaningful learning, but also makes facilitating group work easier for instructors; where more time can be spent supporting students’ learning concepts and developing critical thinking skills than on administrative-type logistics. Below are five strategies to consider:

1. Make the Assignment Meaningful, Relevant and Challenging
Students taking online courses are typically juggling multiple responsibilities, work, school and/or family. Their time is valuable, therefore it’s critical that a group assignment is worthwhile, where students see its value and purpose, that it clearly links to the learning objectives, is relevant to real world scenarios and their own experience. The assignment should be complex and encourage students to work together to build knowledge and gain a perspective that they wouldn’t gain by working alone. The definition (below) is by far the best description of the principles of and reasons for group work:

“…collaborative learning situations, students are working in groups of two or more, mutually searching for understanding, solutions, or meanings, or creating a product. There is wide variability in collaborative learning activities, but most center on the students’ exploration or application of the course material, not simply the teacher’s presentation or explication of it. Questions, problems, or the challenge to create something [should] drive the group activity” (Davidson & Major, 2014)

2. Clear Instructions and Transparency of Expectations
Detailed instructions are essential for effective group work, as is a description of the activity’s purpose. If the instructor senses any degree of reluctance on the students’ part, he of she can encourage (via a news post, email, or recorded message) participation and emphasize the purpose of the exercise and the group process. By doing so, students are more likely to see the benefit of the process, and approach the assignment with a higher level of motivation. Clear instructions require details relevant to the assignment, and should include a description of behaviours associated with a contributing team member.

3. Balance Between Structure and Flexibility of Task

Performance expectations of each group member is necessary. As is structuring the assignment so that it is achievable, challenging with enough time for completion. Yet giving learners’ some control over the assignment encourages ownership, responsibility, and increases motivation. Giving control may take the form of students forming their own groups, or allowing students to have a choice of how the groups are formed. Another strategy is including flexibility in the assignment where students can choose the topic, case study or problem scenario. A well-designed course provides parameters for the project, emphasizes its purpose, yet still gives learners an element of control through choice.

4. Timing of Group Activity
Timing of the group activity—how much time the group has to work on the activity as well as the due date plays a significant role in quality of the outcomes.  Sufficient time for classmates to build rapport and establish a ‘presence’ in the class is also needed before group work can begin. Building rapport leads to developing relationships and trust, essential to a group’s effectiveness. Group’s also need adequate time to work on the project; asynchronous group work is challenging due to students’ differing schedules.  It’s also helpful if students submit the project in phases over a period of weeks, e.g. first phase the choice of topic with description, second an initial draft before the final project submission. This provides benchmarks for the group and an opportunity for the instructor to provide feedback.

5.  Provide Suggestions for Technology that Supports Collaboration

How groups communicate in an online course is another determining factor to the groups’ success. Learning and development of critical thinking is less likely to occur when technology is a barrier to communication. Guiding students to the best platforms for communicating synchronously and asynchronously is necessary, as is providing resources on how-to use the technology. Dedicating one section within the group instructions to “How to Communicate” that includes recommendations of platforms and tools is ideal. There are several good (and free) collaborative platforms: Google Docs, Mind42, and Wiggio, as well as brainstorming platforms for sharing ideas, TwiddlaPadlet for example, and synchronous tools for real-time meetings—Google HangoutsSkype or Facetime.

Conclusion
There is a strong connection between effective course design and successful group collaboration. Outcomes of a well-designed group activity result in students acquiring new knowledge, gaining different perspectives, and developing critical thinking and collaboration skills.  In a future post about I’ll write about how to handle the non-contributing group member, which is a challenge for students and the instructor.

Image courtesy of pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

References

  • Brindley, J. E., Walti, C., & Blaschke, L. M. (2009, June). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning,10(3).  Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/675/1271
  • Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education (pp. 3-7, Issue brief). Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED282491.pdf
  • Swan, K. (2001). Virtual interaction: Design factors affecting students’ satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance Education, 22(2), 306-331. Retrieved http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0158791010220208#.VQSo3BDF9so.

Five Alternatives to the Talking Head Video for MOOCs & Online Courses

VideoCameraCircleMost xMOOCs, and some for-credit online courses rely heavily upon what many refer to as the ‘talking head’ video format. The ‘talking head’ is usually the subject-matter expert delivering a lecture in his or her area of expertise. There’s great value in this format when used strategically and sparingly. Yet the effectiveness of lecture videos as a primary content source for online courses and MOOCs is difficult to determine. Thanks to a comprehensive study done via edX  we have data on student engagement patterns with videos specific to MOOCs to draw upon (Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014). Key findings include:

  • The optimal video length is six minutes or shorter
  • Videos produced with a more personal feel could be more engaging than high-fidelity studio recordings
  • Khan-style tablet drawing tutorials (screencasts) are more engaging than PowerPoint slides

Video Viewing Patterns: A Non-MOOC Perspective
There is also data on student video engagement in non-MOOC courses to consider. The School of Continuing Education at Columbia University examined video viewing patterns of students using analytics from their video hosting platform and qualitative data from student interviews (Hibbert, 2014). Results were similar to Guo’s.  A significant takeaway from this study—videos are an excellent format in online courses to establish instructor presence; supporting a sense of connectedness for students.

One of the benefits video can offer is creating faculty presence in an online environment. In the interviews, students cited faculty presence as a key factor related to their engagement and perceived learning from videos”

Alternatives to Talking Heads
The focus of this post is on alternatives to the talking head. I chose this topic because the majority of xMOOCs I’ve experienced over the last two years do not reflect good practices for educational videos described in the latest research. Most xMOOCs rely upon the lecture video format, and though they have their place, there are several unique and creative format options that I want to share with readers.

1. Podcasts. Podcasts are an excellent option for several reasons: 1) smaller file size for easier download, 2) the format uses less bandwidth when streaming and, 3) is a portable file format—allowing students to listen on the go.

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Screenshot of podcast from “Globalizing Higher Education Research for the Knowledge Economy” on Coursera

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Screen shot of collection of podcast links to interviews  with various experts sharing their definition of global competency. From “Globalizing Higher Education”.   This approach provides multiple perspectives on a topic, prompting students to analyze the topic from different viewpoints.

2.  Interviews This format is a variation of the traditional video lecture, except an interviewer poses questions to the subject-matter expert. The interviewer can be a non-expert as was the case in the “Saving our Schools” MOOC I completed recently on edX. In this MOOC graduate students interviewed the expert (the faculty member). Alternatively, the interviewer can be the MOOC instructor interviewing an expert or guest with a unique perspective on the topic.

 Another variation I’ve seen used frequently is a live interview conducted via a video conferencing platform, e.g. Google Hangout, with an interviewer and one or more experts. Students are encouraged to use Twitter as a back channel for questions and discussion.

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Screenshot of lecture video using interview-format in “Saving our Schools”.  A graduate student interviews the faculty member.  I prefer the format when the instructor interviews a guest or other subject-matter expert on a topic; it’s more interesting.

3. Simulations. Simulations, when done well are an effective method for illustrating course concepts and engaging students. A simulation can serve not only as content, but also provide an excellent topic for a discussion forum, or problem solving exercise via a structured assignment.  According to the study at Columbia University, videos that link to an assignment or learning activity receive more views than those that don’t.

The simulation presented here, “A Day in the Life of a Rural Homemaker” from the MOOC “Subsistence Marketplaces” illustrates a typical day of a homemaker in rural India and includes an interactive component.

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Screen shot from simulation from “Subsistence Marketplace” MOOC on Coursera.

4. ScreencastsA screen cast is a digital recording of the user’s screen with voice-over narration. This format allows the instructor to include power point slides, images, or motion— hand drawing on white board for instance (similar to Khan academy videos). This format requires little technical expertise, and is frequently used by instructors who prefer to record their own video content. The outcome is more informal.  The research suggests students respond well to an informal approach.  

“The most engaging videos for me [are] when the professors use wit and humor.” student(Hibbert, 2014)

A professor at UBC records all of her own content videos (screencasts and lectures) for her MOOC “Useful Genetics” even through she has access to a recording studio. She outlines her reasons in her YouTube video “How I record MOOC lecture videos“. She also describes how she films the MOOC content.

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Screenshot of a screencast created by the instructor for the MOOC, “Drugs and the Brain” on Coursera. The professor incorporates motion in his screencast. The red arrow highlights areas of focus during the narration.

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Screencasts are useful for showing a selection of images. In this screencast the professor shares images of vintage maps, from “Configuring the World: A Critical Political Economy Approach”

5.  Informal end-of-week Recorded Discussions:  In this format the instructor(s) delivers an informal end-of-week recap of the previous week’s student interactions and feedback within the MOOC or online course. I’ve experienced instructor’s using this format in three or four MOOCs; I find it effective in demonstrating the instructor’s presence, commitment and interest in the course. He or she will typically share highlights from the discussion forums, address frequently asked student questions, and encourage participation for the upcoming week.

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Screenshot features instructor in a weekly response video from “Configuring the World” MOOC on Coursera

There are other formats to the five presented here. One is not using any video content produced by the institution or instructor. Instead, content sources might include YouTube, TedTalks or even students. This approach was used in a Coursera MOOC “E-Learning and Digital Cultures”. The approach was quite controversial as described by one of the course creators in eLearn Magazine.  However, any format can be effective with a carefully planned instructional strategy that aligns with the learning outcomes and expectations for the course.

References:

On the Horizon for Education: Blended Learning, New Learning Spaces, OERs & Cross-Institutional Collaboration

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What’s on the horizon for education? What technologies and trends will drive changes in curriculum development and teaching in one, two or even three years? New Media Consortium’s latest Horizon Report (2015) written by an international team of educators, gives readers evidence and insights into how developments in education will (and are) influencing changes in teaching and learning. 

In last week’s post I discussed the report “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States” which presented data and analysis on participation trends in online education, MOOCs, as well as perceptions on the value and legitimacy of online learning. The news was rather dismal, quite depressing really. This report by New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative released this week, is not only more upbeat but is instructive and forward-thinking. It takes a different approach; it gives educators insights into trends and behaviour patterns in online and face-to-face education influenced by technology. The report is the result of a collaborative research effort where the panel worked in the ‘open’ via a public wiki where they shared, discussed and identified the education’s most pressing issues. The panel identified six trends, categorizing each by the level of challenge for implementation and time frame. (image below).

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Six trends identified in the 2015 NMC Horizon Report, pg. 2 via cdn,nmc.org

What the Blended Learning Trend Means for Educators and Institutions
I suggest the blended learning trend is the most significant and challenging. Blended learning has numerous definitions, though common to all is the concept of a student-focused education approach where learners access content, instruction/or and learning communities via the Web to augment or supplement education delivered in the classroom. Yet ten years from now, I predict that the concept of blended learning will fade away—not the learning approach but its description. The technology will become invisible. Learning won’t be classified as blended, or online, but just ‘learning‘. In the short-term however, there are barriers to overcome. Today the idea of using a web-enabled device and the web itself to replace or augment structured learning disrupts traditional practices of education— higher education and K-12. The NMC report suggests that in order for education institutions to adapt and respond effectively to educational tools and platforms, continuous visionary leadership is required. I agree. Integrating technology takes thoughtful planning, analyzing current practices, professional development and a supportive culture that embraces change.

Authors ranked blended learning into the ‘solvable’ category, as opposed to ‘difficult or ‘wicked‘; I rank blended learning as ‘difficult’ and though it is solvable, the challenge is the many dimensions of learning affected when integrating technological tools and methods that include: curriculum design, instructional delivery, professional development and training, IT services, policy development and infrastructure. Even the design of the physical classroom space and type of furnishings is impacted. The latter, ‘Redesigning Learning Spaces’ is another of the six trends identified in NMC’s report.

‘Advancing Cultures of Change and Innovation’ is another trend identified, yet it’s ranked long-term. I see a culture of change as necessary now—it’s essential to make the transitions and changes needed to deliver quality learning experiences.

All over the world, universities and colleges have been gradually rethinking how their organizations and infrastructures can be more agile. The thought is that if institutions are more flexible, they will be better able to support and promote entrepreneurial thinking — a long-term trend.  NMC Horizon Report, page 7

How Educators Can Prepare for Change
As our culture changes in response to technological innovations and economic shifts, institutions and educators (ideally) should adapt according. The NMC Horizon Report is a starting point for educators wanting to keep ahead of developments in education—to anticipate change, be proactive rather than reactive. This report is an essential read for educators, institution leaders, administrators, policymakers, and technologists who want to do just that.

References

Need-to-Know-News: Bad News for Online Learning in Annual Report & “Unsustainable” MOOCS are Full Steam Ahead

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Babson’s Report “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States” is available at onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/gradelevel.pdf

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.

Bad News for Online Learning in Research Report on Online Learning
This week Babson Research Group released “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in United States” its 12th annual report on the state of online learning in higher education (Allen & Seaman, 2015). This year’s report is not bursting with good news. Most disappointing (and disturbing) is the declining perception on the value and legitimacy of online learning by faculty. There is other valuable and important insight in the report, making it a worthy read, but the issue of faculty perception needs urgent consideration.

Only 27.6% of chief academic officers reported that their faculty accepted online instruction in 2003. This proportion showed some improvement over time, reaching a high of 33.5% in 2007. The slow increase was short-lived, however. Today, the rate is nearly back to where it began; 28.0% of academic leaders say that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.” (pg. 21).

The acceptance of online learning among faculty has declined over the past two years, “current results if anything show that the problem is getting worse“. Disturbing given the expansion and sharing of knowledge about online education, the improved technology for facilitating quality learning experiences, not to mention the millions of dollars that higher education institutions have plowed into MOOCs. Ironically, many institutions state their reason for offering MOOCs is to explore and expose faculty to innovative and new pedagogy.  When chief academic leaders were asked the primary objective for offering MOOCs at his or her institution, it’s ‘Innovative Pedagogy‘ that ranked second highest at 18.7%, behind ‘Increasing Institution Visibility’, which ranked at 26.6% (pg. 55).

Insight: It’s no coincidence that the recent decline in the acceptance of online learning among faculty coincides with expansion of MOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses put the mode of online education under the spotlight, yet the misconception that MOOCs represent all modes of online education expanded along with the MOOC phenomenon. The majority of academic leaders missed out on an opportunity to use the MOOC phenomenon as a vehicle to involve and educate faculty on new pedagogy, fundamentals of online and blended learning, and multi-modes of instruction and learning offered by technology in and out of the classroom.

Further Reading:

The “Unsustainable” MOOCs are Full-Steam Ahead
In the same Babson report, Chief Academic Officers perception that MOOCs are not financially sustainable has increased, yet the number of institutions offering a MOOC has doubled over the year from 2013 to 2014 to 5.0%.  And, the number of institutions actively planning for a MOOC has not changed (9.3%)  (pg. 33).

The portion of academic leaders saying that they do not believe MOOCs are sustainable increased from 26.2% in 2012 to 28.5% in 2013, to 50.8% in 2014.  

To recap, even though institution leaders see MOOCs as financially unsustainable (they can’t continue to pour thousands of dollars into MOOCs) the number of institutions offering MOOCs has increased. The only rationale I can see that explains this behaviour is the planning cycle, the long lead time it takes to develop and produce a MOOC. In next year’s report, in keeping with this rationale, we should see a decline in institutions offering MOOCs.

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There has been little change in the pattern of MOOC objectives from 2013 to 2014 (pg. 34)

Insight: MOOCs do offer value in many ways, enriching a learning community, expanding the reach of an institution, providing research opportunities for institutions into new pedagogical methods and student learning behaviours online. However, given that xMOOCs are expensive to produce, deliver and sustain, the trend towards turning MOOCs into money generating streams will continue— suggesting that MOOCs will no longer be open (free) and massive. Institution leaders should be re-evaluating their strategy for MOOCs —now.

Further Reading:

A New Twist to Teaching Online: Considering Learners’ Emotions

girl_thinkingThe idea of considering students’ emotions in context of online or blended learning may seem absurd. There are numerous factors instructors consider when teaching online that would seem to take priority over students’ emotional state. Yet a recently published paper “Measuring and Understanding Learner Emotions: Evidence and Prospects” reveals that feelings of learners—their emotions can impact learning in online and blended environments, specifically motivation, self-regulation and academic achievement (Rienties & Rivers, 2014).  I share with readers in this post the concept of ’emotional presence’, what it means for instructors teaching online, and how instructors can address learners’ emotions in their online courses.

The idea of emotional presence builds on the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model. The model provides educators and course designers with a framework to address factors unique to learning online within three dimensions: 1) social presence: where students project their personal characteristics within the online community that position them as ‘real’ people, 2) teaching presence: where the instructor directs the learning process such that students’ sense he or she is ‘there’, and 3) cognitive presence where learners construct meaning through sustained dialogue and communication. Developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer, the CoI model continues to evolve and is the subject of several empirical studies (The Community of Inquiry, n.d.) The three dimensions are the focus of the framework, but the idea of learner emotions and the role they play in the online environment is not addressed. Until now. Recent papers and articles address how learners feelings impact their learning online. 

Emotional Presence Defined
Emotional presence may still seem far-fetched. I like how Terry Anderson, one of the founders of the CoI model describes in a recent blog post how he responded when asked why emotions weren’t included in the original model: “The COI model was developed by 3 men from southern Alberta (Canada’s cowboy country) and that REAL men in our limited world didn’t do emotions! (2014).  But Anderson is supportive of emotional presence as a concept, and of his colleague Maria Cleveland-Innes who published a paper with P. Campbell “Emotional Presence, Learning and the Online Learning Environment (2012). In the paper the authors describe emotional presence as underpinning the broader online experience (pg. 8). They define emotional presence as:

Emotional Presence is the outward expression of emotion, affect, and feeling by individuals and among individuals in a community of inquiry, as they relate to and interact with the learning technology, course content, students, and the  instructor.

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Rienties and Rivers added the emotional circle to the original Venn diagram of Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000)

Why Bother with Emotions?
One might wonder why even bother considering how students are feeling. More so in online environment where it seems impossible to address. Yet after reviewing the research there is evidence from a variety of sources that suggests emotions play a powerful role in learners’ engagement and achievement, and that the role of emotions in online learning deserves special consideration (Artino, 2012; Rienties & Rivers, 2014).

How to Build Emotional Presence in an Online Course
In face-to-face (F2F) classes emotional presence happens seamlessly. Teachers detect emotional cues of students due to their physical proximity. I found several studies examining presence behaviors of teachers working with students in the classroom—a phenomenon labeled ‘instructor immediacy‘. Though it’s beyond the scope of the post to go deeper, several studies validate the importance of such cues and the role of emotions in facilitating learning (Andersen, 1979). If we apply these principles to learning environments without physical closeness, in an online course for instance, there needs to be a deliberate effort to include cues that support emotional presence. Cues visible in F2F settings include, smiling, making eye contact, knowing students by name, and demonstrating interest. In online classes, it’s easier-said-than-done. 

The technology and physical distance create a barrier that make is difficult for instructors to read and reach their students. There is no consensus in the research on best practices for addressing emotional presence in online classes effectively. But between the papers there are several suggestions which I summarized below.

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    The Vibe’ wellbeing word cloud from the University of New England, 2012, (Rienties & Alders, pg. 12)

    Synchronous discussions via chats or video conferences provide instructors opportunity to assess and read learners emotions that may impact their learning progress, such as uncertainty, confusion, even positive emotions, interest and enthusiasm.

  • Wordclouds implemented in Australian Universities display dynamic pictures of students emotions collectively (see image). It serves several purposes: gives the instructor insight into how students are feeling, and validates students feelings by sharing. Useful for certain phases within a course: the beginning when students might be apprehensive, or during a difficult module or week. (see www.wordle.net)
  • Analyzing written text and online discourse in discussion forums by looking for key words may provide insight into learners emotions. Such words as I feel “frustrated”, “overwhelmed”, “behind” are a few examples.
  • Examining learners’ online behaviour in terms of the frequency of logging on, clicks and time spent on certain pages within the LMS (caution, this method provides a one-dimensional perspective and may only be useful when considering other factors).

Conclusion
As online learning evolves and allows us to bring quality education to the learner, there are barriers to consider and overcome. Reading student cues and considering their feelings that may affect their progress is one area that we cannot ignore. It’s studies like those mentioned here that brings us closer to delivering personal, quality and meaningful learning to students.

References