Why Educators Need to Know Learning Theory

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

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

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

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

Theories of Learning

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

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

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

“Network”

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

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

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

Characteristics of Instructional Methods Associated with Objectivist Theories

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

And Characteristics with Constructivist Theories

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

And Characteristics with Connectivist Theory

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

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

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

Stay tuned for part three of the Learning Design series.

References

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

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

How to Create Optimal Learning Experiences with a Learning Design Framework

What drives development of new pedagogy, a new way of teaching? Changes in society, student expectations, and technology are motivating innovative university and college professors and instructors to re-think pedagogy and teaching methods. Contact North, Ontario’s Online Learning Portal for Faculty & Instructors

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“Learn”

This article is a revised version of an earlier post published on January 22. This is the first in a three-part series about Learning Design for Educators. This first post introduces the concept of learning design and a framework that educators can use to create optimal learning for students. The framework encompasses three sets of resources, content sourcesweb-collaboration and human resources. We introduce here a new approach to teaching, one that leverages resources to create learning experiences for students—a somewhat different approach from traditional instructional strategies.

Designing Learning Experiences versus Teaching
As the opening quote suggests—it’s society’s changing values and expectations, influenced heavily by advancements in technology, that are pressuring educators to change and adapt instructional practices. It may be that a different approach is needed; one that shifts perspective on how teaching is done—where an educator is not a ‘teacher’ in the sense of the traditional methods associated with it, but uses tools, resources, and different methods to achieve the same desired outcomes. Much has been written about the changing role of the teacher in today’s digital age, which often suggests that the teacher’s role has expanded—which it has, but it should not translate to more work for educators. The article at Contact North, A New Pedagogy is Emerging…And Online Learning is a Key Contributing Factor outlines reasons for new methods, what is needed to incorporate such methods, and outlines key elements to include in the alternative strategies. What the Learning Design Framework provides is a visual tool that highlights resources within three dimensions that educators can leverage to create learning experiences for students that are learning and working in a networked environment.

The Learning Design Framework
Designing effective learning experiences in a networked society involves leveraging three sets of resources, 1) content sources, 2) web-collaboration resources, and 3) human resources.

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Learning Design Framework for Educators, by Online Learning Insights

1) Content Sources
There is superabundance of resources readily accessible on the web; rich and varied resources that are not limited to open education resources. Content sources for education are web pages or sites hosted and maintained by education institutions, organizations (i.e. Wikipedia), governments, and associations. Yet the resources cannot stand alone; young learners and post-secondary students require a skilled educator to create and select existing resources, provide context to make learning meaningful. One of the challenges for undergraduate students is managing information and making sense of content sources in order to extract knowledge; to analyze, evaluate and synthesize sources. Content resources are one dimension of creating learning experiences, for the most part content resources are static, though more malleable than a textbook.

2) Web-Collaboration Resources
Another dimension to designing learning is making it dynamic by using applications and tools on the web that allow learners to interact, share and construct. Web collaboration platforms, also known as Web 2.0 tools, are sites on the web that are not static but facilitate interactivity, collaboration—connecting learners to others and allowing learners to share, communicate, and work on creating content together. The result is that meaningful learning occurs during this process of collaboration. Social platforms are also included in this dimension given the growing emphasis on social media and its role in everyday life. The boundaries between social media use in work, personal life and learning spaces, are blurring and educators that integrate social media in learning environments are in a better position to connect with learners and increase opportunities for meaningful learning.

3) Human Resources
High school and under graduate students need to learn how-to-learn. Individuals with advanced education already know-what-they-don’t-know, and can create their own learning path to learn an unfamiliar topic, typically done by accessing resources [human, content, etc.] as needed. This human element, the third dimension is critical for students without an advanced education. The majority are not equipped (yet), to know what resources to draw upon, where to find them, and how to discern what is accurate and worthy. The full responsibility of teaching though, does not need to rest with just one teacher. The educator that can leverage the human resources available i.e. teaching assistants, tutors, peers, takes pressure off him or herself and creates diverse and optimal learning for students. It’s very likely that a new category of learner support will emerge in the future—learning support specialists, which Tony Bates mentions in his article, 2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and beyond.

Conclusion
The Learning Design Framework is a starting point for educators. It’s not intended to be a prescriptive formula, but a tool to guide learning design, and help frame discussions and ideas for creating effective learning experiences for students.

Part two of this series: Why Educators Needs to Know Learning Theory

Further Reading

Image Credit:  “Learn” by roger.karlsson, Flickr

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

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

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Need-to-Know-News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Takeaways:

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

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

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

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

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

Ban the Buzzwords!

“Buzzword: a word or phrase, often sounding authoritative or technical, that has come into vogue in popular culture or a particular profession”.  Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd.

BuzzwordsEvery profession has them, buzzwords; those words used over and again until they sound trite and empty. They’re catchy at first, then annoying, and end up clouding the real issues. One journalist wrote that buzz words “get in the way of education”. He has a point.  Should buzzwords be banned from education dialogue?  The Wall Street Journal posed a similar question in its At Work section in late 2013, “What Buzzwords Would you Ban in 2014?” The follow-up article published January 1, 2014 featured words and phrases business leaders words would ban from corporate dialogue altogether, which led me to think about buzzwords in education, where there is never a shortage.

Beyond the Buzzwords
I attended a conference in Toronto last November, Rethinking Higher Ed Beyond: {the Buzzwords} put on by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. The concept is a good one, digging below the surface, discussing the issues associated with the buzz, dissecting and analyzing the terms and words applicability and relevance. Sessions in Beyond the Buzz focused on entrepreneurship in education, ed-tech in the classroom and MOOCs.  Sessions were set-up as panel discussions; panels made up of an eclectic mix of four or five individuals—faculty, business leaders, students, program chairs, and community members. A moderator for each session posed questions, and encouraged questions from audience participants. Dialogues were instructive and enlightening. Key takeaways from the conference:

  • buzzwords hold different meanings for individuals, which poses potential problems, specifically when decisions makers engage in discussion about programs or policies associated with their institutions
  • buzzwords often reflect what society values or emphasizes at a certain point in time, which means concepts may be trendy and short-lived. People are fickle, what’s ‘in’ today is ‘out’ tomorrow
  • buzzwords can mask real issues or problems; buzzwords become red herrings.

Education Buzzwords of 2013

  • Entrepreneurial or Innovation skills. Often used in the same context, ‘we need to teach students’ entrepreneurship and innovation skills‘. Both overused. Yet few people fit the profile of entrepreneurs; they have a distinct and unique set of characteristics. Granted there is value in teaching select skills inherent to entrepreneurs, but do these skills warrant the energy and time? Or would we be better off teaching other [needed] skills?
  • Flipped. Flipping the classroom is no easy task. Teaching and learning methods are  different in a flipped setting requiring a significant investment of time, skill and energy. Furthermore, flipping requires a different pedagogical approach altogether. Yet the term is used rather…flippantly.
  • 21st Century Skills. What are these skills exactly? I have a general idea, but my idea of 21st Century skills will differ from several readers, yet be similar to others. Confusion.
  • MOOCs, massive open online courses.  Do you MOOC? Have you taken a MOOC? Have you taught a MOOC? Do you know what an xMOOC is? How about a cMOOC? What about a SPOC, or a SMOC? Need I say more?

Conclusion
What buzzwords did I miss that should have made the list?  What words, (if any) would you ban from discussions within your institution if you could? Share them here in the comments, or Tweet them to @onlinelearningi.

Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

Online Learning Insights Blog: 2013 in Review

New year 2013Happy New Year!  After reading several year-in-review blog posts and two from blogs I follow closely [e-literate and Hack Education], I was motivated to write a similar post. I’m also writing this post in hopes that it will overcome my writer’s block [I’ve struggled with writing a post for three days now]. Let the words come forth!

I’ve included below the top five posts for Online Learning Insights in 2013 and close with thanks to readers and specific individuals that have commented consistently here.

Top Five Posts of 2013 on Online Learning Insights

  1. How Not to Design a MOOC: The Disaster at Coursera and How to Fix It, posted on February 1. This post generated robust discussion—heated and charged discussion occurring within 145 comments in total. The traffic on this post is a reflection of MOOC-mania that was in full swing in early 2013.
  2. Five-step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning, posted on September 28, 2012, which struck me as odd given the post generated very little traffic at all in 2012. However that’s inconsequential—all that matters is that the post provided support and help to online students in some way in 2013 [and continues to do so].
  3. The MOOC Honeymoon is Over: Three Takeaways from the Coursera Calamity posted three days after the How Not to Design a MOOC post.
  4. How to Create a Personal Learning Portfolio: Students and Professionals, posted on January 30, 2013.
  5. Why Online Courses [Really] Need an Instructional Design Strategy, posted on May 7.  Since instructional design is what I do, I’m relieved at least one of the posts I wrote on instructional design made the top five list.

Thanks to Readers, Tweeters and Commenters
Thank you readers of this blog; I am grateful for all readers whether occasional or regular. Special thanks to followers, and to readers that Tweet, link to, and share posts. I also am grateful for all those that take extra time to comment in response to posts—each furthers the dialogue by engaging, sharing resources which ultimately contributes to the learning community. Special thanks to the top commenters of Online Learning Insights listed below. I’ve also included a link to his or her blog, or Google + page.

Also thanks to Paulo Simoes [@pgsimoes] for always Tweeting my posts consistently and soon after I’ve hit the publish button! Thank you Paulo!  Paulo is a Portuguese Air Force eLearning evangelizer.  

I look forward to another year of blogging, learning and writing in 2014. Happy New Year!