How to Develop a Sense of Presence in Online and F2F Courses with Social Media

Social presence is a significant predictor of course retention and final grade in the college online environment. Two effective interventions are recommended: establishing integrated social and learning communities;… (Liu, Gomez & Len, 2009)

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Presence is considered a central concept in online learning. ‘Presence’ in the online course is understood as the ability of people “to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to other participants as ‘real people’”. (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, p. 89). One way of examining ‘presence’ online is through the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, a frequently referenced model that outlines three interdependent dimensions of presence: social, teaching and cognitive. When all three elements interact, it’s then that students are able to experience deep and meaningful learning.

COI_model_adaptedCoI–is breaking through the social barriers that exist because of the transactional distance between students and instructors (Moore, 1993)…. These human qualities, established through personal sharing, help students develop a sense of trust in and connection with an instructor…foundational for cultivating the social presence needed for a healthy and productive [learning].

Other bodies of research suggest presence is a key factor to engagement, another metric for predicting student success in online coursework. Presence in this context also considers student perceptions of instructor involvement as a central factor. High levels of engagement, studies indicate, lead to higher levels of student achievement, greater likelihood of graduation, and deeper satisfaction (Oblinger, 2014, p 14).

Presence and Social Media
But describing presence in an online course is vague, slippery—hard to describe. It’s a challenge for instructors to figure out how to make presence happen. What does one do to create social and teaching presence in an online course? This post outlines examples that describe how faculty and instructors use social media to establish presence—that feeling of connectedness among students in online and F2F courses. What’s described here, social media as a vehicle for presence-development, is different however from using social media as a pedagogical tool, which I wrote about in a previous post, How to Use Social Media Platforms to Create Meaningful Learning Assignments. Though there is some overlap. One of the aims of using social media platforms in this context is to bridge the distance gap that exists in online education, to overcome the disconnectedness student can feel when studying online.

Presence in F2F classes: Numerous educators have found that social media tools support a sense of community, or connectedness in face-to-face (F2F) courses as well. One faculty member shares his experience in the Prof Hacker column over at The Chronicle, “Twitter adds to the community spirit of the class and help to sustain student interest across the days and weeks of the semester” (Sample, 2010).

Examples of Instructors Using Social Media
Below are examples of how instructors use social media platforms to create a sense of being ‘there’.  Note: the methods described here facilitate informal learning; to foster a learning community. Social media used in structured (or formal) learning activities is used as a method to bring about targeted learning outcomes as mentioned earlier.

1) Twitter 
The paper “Tweeting the Night Away: Using Twitter to Enhance Social Presence” describes how the Twitter platform creates a sense of community among students. In 140 characters or less, learners share ideas and resources, ask and answer questions, collaborate on problems of practice, participate in discussions at conferences, webinars, or lectures.  A hashtag (a.k.a.the pound sign ‘#’) for a class aggregates all ‘Tweets’ (messages) sent on platform when the hashtag is used as a tag for all class-related messages. For example a professor at Trinity College created a tag #eng685 for his face-to-face English class (Sample, 2010). Hashtags are also used to aggregate tweets on specific topics, e.g. #onlinelearning, #highered.

“Twitter’s just-in-time design allowed students and instructors to engage in sharing, collaboration, brainstorming, problem-solving, and creating. Participants noted that using Twitter for socializing and learning purposes felt more “natural and immediate” than did using a formal learning management system.” (Dunlap & Lowenthal, n.d.)

Examples of how Twitter is used:

  • To post news and share resources relevant to the class
  • To ask questions and respond with clarifications about the readings
  • Professor Sample allows and encourages students to tweet during class, in an attempt to create a “back channel” to class discussion but admits, “This back channel idea has never worked as successfully for me in class as it has at an actual conference” (Sample, 2010).
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Screen shot of the Twitter exchanges between students and instructor for F2F class #eng685
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Screen shot of a current course, ‘Indian Epics’, #ou3043, an online course taught by Professor Gibbs at the University of Oklahoma.

2) Pinterest
Pinterest is a digital bulletin board, and holds great potential for education settings. It’s visual, flexible, customizable by using images, and text to create themed boards that can be templates for projects; individual and group—a tool to support instructional activities. Yet Pinterest also has tremendous potential for increasing presence and interactivity. Professor Gibbs is experimenting with Twitter and Pinterest as vehicles for socializing in two of her online courses this semester:

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Screen shot from Professor Gibbs’ course web page for students describing how to socialize in Indian Epics and Myth & Folklore undergraduate online courses.  Retrieved from http://onlinecourselady.pbworks.com/w/page/83588941/socialize

Gibbs shares links to students’ Pinterest boards on a webpage within the course site on the Pinterest Class Directory. Students can comment on one another’s boards, re-pin to their own board and/or ‘like’ a pin. Students do need sign up for a Pinterest account using an email address.

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Screen shot of a student’s Pinterest board ‘Epics of India Portfolio’. Retrieved from http://www.pinterest.com/catherinelesser/epics-of-india-portfolio/

3)  Google+ Hangouts/Video Conferencing
Real-time meetings, seminar discussions even watching panel discussions over video conferencing platforms are excellent methods to create a feeling being there and together. I’ve participated in several online courses (MOOCs & closed, small online courses) where the Google+ Hangout platform (or similar) has been used in a variety of ways that do create feeling of being in a learning community. Even if students can’t engage in the active discussion on the platform, Twitter is frequently used as the back channel for questions and discussion. Sessions are usually recorded, then posted for students that can’t participate live.

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Screen shot of Google Hangout of a seminar discussion around a class reading with five students and professor of a Massive Open Online Course. Other students’ watching live, asked questions and discussed via Twitter.

4) Instagram
searchInstagram is one of the most popular social media platforms used by high school and college students in North America. It’s similar to Twitter, as the platform uses hashtags, though it’s billed as a photo sharing platform. Yet it has more potential than Twitter since character limit for Instagram captions is 2200, considerably more than Twitter’s 140 limit. Instagram comments have a limit of 240 characters.

I’ve not yet come across examples of educators using Instagram to create social presence for courses, though numerous institutions use Instagram as a marketing vehicle. There is considerable potential in online courses for Instagram as a presence-building tool given its popularity with the younger set—it’s just a matter of time.

Closing
Technology is shaping culture. Alternatively, one could say that culture is shaping technology. Whichever viewpoint one takes, social media is central to the change, to the shift in how we communicate, socialize and learn. Educators have an opportunity to help students (and ourselves) blur the lines between informal and formal learning—creating life-long learners.

References:

How-to Use Social Media Platforms to Create Meaningful Learning Assignments

This post describes and provides examples of three social media platforms used as a pedagogical tool to create meaningful learning assignments in face-to-face and online courses.

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‘Social learning’ by MKHMarketing, creative commons

Social media platforms such as blogs, Wikis and Twitter hold great potential as vehicles for student learning. These tools can support meaningful, rich learning outcomes when assignments are developed to align with course objectives. Yet social media has an image problem—in education at least; it’s viewed as frivolous, a distraction, a time waster. In this post I outline how three social media platforms, when used in pedagogically sound ways support student learning and skill development in for-credit course work.

Social media is the collective of online communications channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration. Websites and applications dedicated to forums, blogging, social networking, social bookmarking, social curation, and wikis are among the different types of social media” Definition via techtarget.com

Social media In Higher Education
Social media applications are used by instructors in several contexts: 1) as a tool for communicating with students, 2) as a subject of study, e.g. UC Berkeley’s course “Analyzing Big Data with Twitter”, and 3) as a pedagogical method for instruction and learning. The latter is what we focus on in this post but it’s instructive to acknowledge the other uses. 

Most educators were first introduced to social media via Facebook, with students checking-in during class time. But some of these same educators have discovered the value of social media applications, as teaching and learning tools. Twitter for example—instructors can send Tweets to students with class updates, reminders and/or links to course-related resources as described in “Class Twitter Account”. Other options include Facebook or Google+ that can serve as a platform for a course (club, study group, etc.) where notices can be posted, messages exchanged, and resources shared. In these instances, social media applications act as supplements to a course that enhance learning.

Three Platforms—Three Instructional Strategies
Different from above however, is using a social application such as Twitter or Wikipedia as a pedagogical method to support learning objectives of a course. Below I share examples of instructor-developed assignments requiring that students’ apply course concepts using a social media application as the vehicle. The learning outcomes vary depending upon the course and assignment, but instructors find students learn not just course concepts, but develop additional skills that include critical thinking, advanced written communication and digital skills.

Wikipedia-logo-en-big1) Wikipedia: A professor of Museum Studies at the University of Memphis teaches a one-credit hour, face-to-face course “Wikipedia as a Research Tool” to freshman students. The focus of the course is less on Wikipedia, and more on the concepts of user-generated content, open authority and public access. He uses the Wikipedia platform for the primary assignment where students create a Wikipedia article or substantially edit an existing page—a process involving considerable research, edits, responding to feedback and criticism. Students seem to learn just as much from the process itself, as about their topic. You can read a selection of student comments in “My Experience in Teaching a Class on Wikipedia, Part 2“.

The professor shares his experience in a series of three articles on his blog, including resources available through Wikipedia Outreach.

blogicon2) Blogging: I share two examples of faculty using blogging platforms for assignments: 1) a professor teaching an online, under graduate course, Mythology and Folklore and, 2) a professor teaching a face-to-face, graduate level course, Communicating Science through Social Media.

In Mythology and Folklore students are required to set up their own blog the first week of class, which they use for weekly assignments throughout the course. Students ‘publish’ their writing each week, which allows the instructor to review the work, and classmates to read other’s work. Credit is given for students commenting on two or more posts in select weeks. Instructions for each assignment are detailed; the professor describes how to make each blog post clear, encouraging students to put their writing into context for potential readers (e.g. using an ‘author’s note’ as applicable).

Students are also required to add bibliographies and images. The instructor includes a detailed section on her course site describing the concepts including digital copyright, Creative Commons and public domain, along with instructions and resources for each. You can read more about this professor’s instructional methods on her blog, “Anatomy of an Online Course“. Students seem to engage at a higher level in this course, given they are writing for an audience; skills developed go beyond comprehension and writing skills.

The second example, a graduate level course takes blogging to the next level, as described on the courses’ blog site Mind the Science Gap:

“Mind the Science Gap is a science blog with a difference. For ten weeks each semester, Masters of Public Health students from the University of Michigan will be posting weekly articles as they learn how to translate complex science into something a broad audience can understand and appreciate.

Each week, ten students will take a recent scientific publication or emerging area of scientific interest, and write a post on it that is aimed at a non expert and non technical audience…And they will be evaluated in the most brutal way possible – by the audience they are writing for!  As this is a public initiative, comments and critiques on each post will be encouraged, and author responses expected…”

I followed this blog for the first semester the course was offered. I posted comments to students articles on a consistent basis. It was rewarding to watch the students’ writing develop and improve over the semester. Yet the purpose of the course was not about blogging, as the professor describes:

“This course is not designed to teach the art of science blogging (although inevitably this will be a by-product), and because of this, no previous experience with blogging and social media is needed.  Rather, through the medium of the blog, it is designed to teach participants how to collate, synthesize and translate scientific evidence into information that a non-expert audience can access, understand and act on.”

Note: This course started as an experiment, and unfortunately won’t be continuing given it is, “extremely time-consuming, dependent on feedback from readers and other science communicators” writes the professor in a recent post.

search3) Twitter
A digital humanities professor created a unique assignment using Twitter—the Twitter Essay. A challenge given Twitter is known as a micro-blogging platform due to the 140 character limit of messages, or ‘Tweets’. The instructor shares the assignment details in this article—he writes:

There is pleasure in the act of composing with these constraints, an intentional and curious engagement with how sentences, words, and letters make meaning. Composing a text-message or tweet is most certainly a literate (and sometimes even literary) act. And, interestingly, the average text-message or tweet distorts grammar much less than the naysayers would have us believe.

Student Learning Curve
Almost all of the professors mentioned the learning curve students experienced when becoming familiar with the features of the social media platform. Contrary to what we expect, young people are not always proficient in all social media platforms. Thus educators planning on using a social media application would do well to provide links to tutorials, step-by-step instructions, and build time into the course to accommodate for technical learning.

Conclusion
Though social media platforms can be a valuable learning tool, there is an upfront time commitment required on the instructor’s part. Planning for the assignment, involves not only the writing of the instructions and materials, but requires familiarity with the platform, evaluation of the alternatives and then the selection of method that fits the needs of the class. Though, the time investment on the instructor’s part appears worth it, not only for the students benefit, but for the quality of learning students experience as a result.

Need-to-Know News: A Degree-in-Three, Future of Education at MIT, & Robin Hood’s Semi-finalists

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.

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A three-year degree coming soon to an institution near you

1) Purdue’s three-year degree: “Think 3 Years!
Purdue University announced a new degree program this week that will save students time and money when pursuing a bachelor’s degree. The program is completed in three instead of four years—hence “Think 3 Years!”.  The new program is a result of a challenge put forth to all Purdue faculty and staff by Purdue President Mitchell Daniels in January of this year (2014).

To encourage such leadership, I am offering a million-dollar prize for innovation, divided between these two areas. The first department or program to fashion a three-year degree, and the first to create a competency-based degree, will each be supported with $500,000 from the presidential discretionary account. Any funds left over after costs of transition are the department’s to keep.  (Open Letter from Office of President at Purdue University, 2014)

That’s a considerable chunk of cash indeed—$500,000, and was awarded this week to Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication for their Think 3 Years! program. It’s an accelerated degree (with the same number of credit hours as a four-year program), not a competency degree which the other half of the million dollar prize will go to. Nothing has been disclosed from Purdue on this degree yet.

The estimated savings for students enrolling in the three-year program is $9,290 for Indiana state residents and $18,692 for non-residents.

Insight: It’s quite likely we will see more institutions offer similar programs in the next year or two in an effort reduce costs and reduce pressure from the Federal Government to do so. We’ll also likely see competency degree programs that could include a prior learning assessment component, and/or competency-based assessment. Though the latter programs are far more challenging to develop, the Department of Education (DOE) is fully supportive of competency-based initiatives, offering incentives to institutions to create such programs to address the cost and access issue. The DOE endorsed such programs back in 2013 (Fain, 2014). More to come.

2) MIT and The Future of Education
429px-MIT_Seal.svgPurdue is not the only institution thinking about how to save students time and money. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the same institution behind edX, launched the results from an institution-wide task force on the “Future of MIT Education”. The report is impressive; it lays out a vision for how MIT will adapt and move forward to proactively address access, cost, changes in pedagogy due to technology, reaching global students and more. What is impressive about this report is not only its depth and breadth, but the commitment to change, to be proactive and adapt in order to continue to deliver excellence—part of MIT’s mission. I realize I’m giving a hard sell here, but I read pages 1 through 30 of the report and it’s hard not to be impressed.

Quick Snapshot of the report: There are 16 recommendations in total around four themes:

  1. laying a foundation for the future, by creating a proposed Initiative for Educational Innovation
  2. transforming pedagogy, largely through “bold experiments” sponsored by the proposed new initiative
  3. extending MIT’s educational impact, to teachers and learners well beyond its own campus
  4. enabling the future of MIT education, by cultivating new revenue streams and envisioning new spaces to support learning at MIT.

I found the section on pedagogy of most interest. What’s intriguing is the idea of an “ecosystem that promotes educational connections across the Institute and provides an educational innovation hub, or a ‘sandbox,’”.

Insight: There are leaders in the education field worth watching over the next few years, such as Purdue and MIT for several reasons. Not to copy or mimic, but to be inspired by how change is handled, how visions are communicated and people engaged.

3) Robin Hood’s College Success $5 Million Contest: Semi-Finalists Announced
A few months ago in this Need-to-Know series, I wrote about a competition sponsored by the non-profit organization Robin Hood, based in New York. Robin Hood is dedicated not only to poverty-fighting but to finding, funding, and creating programs and schools that generate meaningful results.  The competition is for $5 million and awarded to individual(s) that develop a successful intervention – a smart phone app, computer application, and/or web-based tool aimed at supporting community college students that ultimately leads to their success—measured by completing a higher education program. There are more details and conditions, but that’s the gist.

This week the semi-finalists were announced—seventeen in total. Results are in the form of an app or web-based application, and they all look quite promising. Many are available now for free. Sign-up with an email account is required for most that I viewed. One that I found quite interesting is Core Skills Mastery, “Preparing people for high performance in college, work and life…”

You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI 

Need-to-Know News: Are Lectures Really Dead?, edX CEO on Perils of Unchanging Education, & Will MOOCs Replace College?

Student bored
Are Lectures Dead?

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.

1) Are Lectures Really Dead?
Tony Bates posted an excellent piece this week on his blog  “Why lectures are dead (or soon will be)”, yet contrary to the title, Bates does describe a context for when and how lectures are valuable. Though Bates gives lectures another ten years before they become obsolete, he outlines the circumstances and provides an example where lectures are effective:

  • Example: A public lecture delivered at a higher ed institution by a newly appointed research professor where he delivered an inaugural lecture summarizing his research customized to the diverse audience of lay people and subject matter experts—used excellent visuals and analogies 
  • Other contexts: Lectures delivered as supplemental events,  e.g. as a course introduction where the instructor connects with students by sharing his or her interests and enthusiasm for the course topic, interest in getting to know students and supporting their learning, thus motivating students, or midway through the course to address difficult concepts, or to summarize at course end

Bates also refers to two textbooks geared to educators that convey skills and suggestions for effective teaching methods, lectures in particular. From the text “McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers”:

McKeachie and Svinicki (2006, p. 58) believe that lecturing is best for:

  • providing up-to-date material that can’t be found in one source
  • summarizing material found in a variety of sources.
  • adapting material to the interests of a particular group.
  • initially helping students discover key concepts, principles or ideas
  • modelling expert thinking.

Bates also covers the history of the lecture, and the research that supports why traditional lectures are ineffective. Nothing educators haven’t heard before, yet it’s an excellent summary piece. Below are links to the texts Bates mentions. I’ve also included an article “The Twilight of the Lecture” featured in Harvard Magazine of a similar vein about lectures. It’s about Eric Mazur’s (professor at Harvard University) journey to transforming his classroom instruction; he is now an advocate for active learning and a reformed lecture.

2) edX CEO Gives Keynote at Campus Technology Conference, 2014

“Everything around us has changed. Communication has changed, healthcare has changed, but education hasn’t,” Agarwal said. “It is actually pretty shocking and pathetic that the way we educate learners hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.”  Anant Agarwal, CEO, edX in Keynote address at Campus Technology Conference

Anant Agarwal delivered the keynote, “Reinventing Education” at Campus Technology’s conference this week where he described how MOOCs, (edX particularly) can transform higher education. Though Agarwal acknowledged that the concepts of active learning, peer learning and instant feedback, those used in edX’s platform are not new, yet he stated that  “what is new is applying the technology and making these ideas more scalable and available.”

Not sure if I buy this. Though he’s right about how new technology scales some aspects of education, e.g. providing (short) recorded lectures and instant feedback in the form of multiple choice tests, the real issue is how do these methods transform higher ed? How does the MOOC platform address quality and access?

3) Will MOOCS Replace a Traditional College Education?
The Atlantic published an article this week “Will Free Online Courses Ever Replace a College Education?”. The answer the author (an attorney) implies is no— MOOCs he surmises are like films, almost a form of enlightening entertainment. Though I see more value to MOOCs than the author, the piece is worth a read given the insights into edX provided by two individuals interviewed, edX’s Chief Scientist Piotr Mitros and Richard Lue, edX’s faculty director. Mitros discusses automated grading with edX’s Open Response Assessment (ORA), though “carefully points out that no one—least of all edX—seriously believes that automated grading can fully replace a live instructor“.  That is some good news.

Though what I found more enlightening is what Lue shared with Wintehalter about the value of MOOCs, which appears to be how it benefits the MOOC instructors—by improving their teaching skills back in the classroom.

“The MOOC,” Lue told me, “has been a catalyst that helped us realize just how different things are. I have tried some blended-learning techniques in my own classroom and been startled by the results. The level of performance was remarkable.”

This is a common theme I’ve read about and heardinstructors find great value in MOOCs for the different perspective it provides back in the traditional classroom. They are able to adapt and view classroom teaching differently, are more ready to try new techniques and incorporate methods that leverage digital resources, including those used in the MOOC format.  Perhaps this is how MOOCs will revolutionize higher education—not for bringing access and lowering costs for students, but for supporting faculty in professional development. This is great news, albeit a very costly method of professional development.

You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI 

Need-to-Know-News: Move over edX — Make Room for Unizin, University of the Future, & Tech Lessons from Teens

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.

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unizin.org

1. Big Changes for Universities with Unizin
Launched this week, Unizin is BIG news in higher ed. Unizin is a membership-based consortium for universities that provides its members with a digital, cloud-based platform and IT services specific to higher education institutions. It moves the discussion far beyond MOOCs; and though MOOCs have sparked discussion in higher ed, they’ve not moved the direction for the traditional model of higher education very far. Yet Unizin may be the platform to bring about the positive effects of technology applied to higher education institutions that MOOCs have yet to do. The platform includes a Learning Management System (Canvas), has capabilities for learning analytics, and facilitates the sharing of resources and content between universities and faculty. For member institutions, each will have control over their own content, and have access to the tools and services to support digital learning for residential, flipped classroom, online courses/degrees, badged experiences for Alumni, or even MOOCs.

Insights: Why it’s a BIG deal. Unizin is a proactive approach to the pressures facing higher education institutions. It not only puts universities in control, but provides a vehicle for individual institutions to achieve economies of scale, by joining forces and sharing cost burdens for licenses, services for infrastructure, and leveraging input and even content and knowledge between institutions. After reading the in-depth analysis of the Unizin deal over on e-literate by Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein, I can see great amount of strategic planning, thought and expertise behind the consortium, which I won’t go into detail here, but encourage interested readers to refer to.  What I will say is that one of the founders of Unizin, Brad Wheeler, CIO for Indiana University, sees the opportunity and need for a robust digital infrastructure platform for higher education institutions of which they are in control of. He outlines a viable strategy that aims to keep institutions relevant, while preserving its values by describing four different models in the paper, Speeding Up on Curves. It’s well worth the read.

Finding Path to Scale  — take advantage of the economics to get there, (don’t go because it’s fun), strategies have focused on independence, recently dependence, but to get there, it’s interdependence that is the path to scale.  Brad Wheeler: The Path to Scale, Vimeo

2.  University of the Future? What the Students Say
Laureate International Universities, commissioned Zogby Analytics to survey students at higher education institutions within the Laureate’s network around the world, about their attitudes and visions of the university of the future. The questions focused on course design, scheduling, job preparation, placement, internships and more.  The results are surprising. The survey included 20,800 students from 37 institutions in 21 countries, making it one of the largest international survey of student attitudes.

Highlights:

  • Students see flexibility. More than 52% of the respondents believe that courses will be offered at all times of the day or night, and 44% believe that courses will be offered without fixed schedules to accommodate students who work or prefer learning at non-traditional times.
  • Collaborative learning. More than 54% of students predict that courses will be primarily collaborations between students with an emphasis on group projects. Additionally, 43% believe that students will be able to access personalized instruction or tutoring online.
  • Focus on Jobs. 61% of students believe that courses will be designed by industry experts, and 64% predict courses will be offered in multiple languages. More than 70% think career-oriented skills (not just subject matter) will be emphasized.

Insights: When considering the strategic goals of Unizin, and Brad Wheeler’s paper Speeding Up on Curves in conjunction with the visions of the university of the future, you can see a match. This as a positive sign for Unizin given it’s focus on building on infrastructure to support the models for educating students that bends the traditional one, and goes beyond the MOOC.

3. Ditch the Email: How to Use Tech Like a Teenager
The Wall Street Journal published a great article this week about tech and how we (adults) use it. Did you know that only 6% of teens exchange email daily, according to the Pew Research Center? And that many of the new apps out there do a far better job at managing clear and efficient communication? Apparently true. There’s Facebook messenger, iMessage, WhatsApp and Kik.

Also, teens are far more privacy savvy than we give them credit for—over 58% of teen social-media users say they cloak their messages, according to Pew.  Parents (adults), it seems, don’t know it all after all.

That’s it for now. You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI 

Nicolas Carr on ‘Social Physics’…The Darker Side of Reality Mining

BigDataImageIt’s this article ‘The Limits of Social Engineering that piqued my interest this week, first because of the image featured in the article which I found appealing, then it was the reference made to Marshall McLuhan, a scholar and author I admire greatly, and finally because it was by Nicolas Carr, author of the book, “The Shallows” which I reviewed this week on my blog. But it’s the article’s unusual topic that grabbed hold of me by the collar and motivated me to share it with readers—something called ‘reality mining’.  Reality mining is an advanced branch of data mining and is central to the book “Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science that Carr reviews and draws from in his article. Carr provides a good overview of not just the book, but of the science, and hints at the potential ills of reality mining, or as the book’s author calls it ‘social physics’ (or ‘mislabeled’ it as several reviewers of the book on Amazon claim). With reality mining researchers and scientists create algorithmic models using ‘big data’ generated by human movements and behaviours tracked by mobile phones, GPS, wearable tech or tracking devices to analyze and predict social and civic behaviour. Reality mining, with the expansion of mobile phone penetration globally in the past year and now wearable internet enabled devices, is likely the next big thing in data mining. Already many experts extol the virtues of reality mining and what it can do for institutions, society and the public good. As quoted on the book’s website:

John Seely Brown, Former Chief Scientist, Xerox Corporation and director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC):

“Read this book and you will look at tomorrow differently. Reality mining is just the first step on an exciting new journey. Social Physics opens up the imagination to what might now be measurable and modifiable. It also hints at what may lie beyond Adam Smith’s invisible hand in helping groups, organizations and societies reach new levels of meaning creation. This is not just social analytics. It also offers pragmatic ways forward.”  socialphysics.media.mit.edu/book

We can already catch a glimpse of reality mining in businesses and organizations taking shape. The WSJ featured an article this week by Deloitte that describes the target market for wearable devices which is not consumers, but organizations or ‘enterprise’.  It seems there is unlimited potential for fitting employees with these wearable tech devices to gather data to support better decision-making at the workplace.

Reality mining takes Big Data to a new level, and as Carr emphasizes Big Data can and likely will be used to manipulate our behavior. It’s the idea of manipulation in this context that is disturbing.  Several questions come to mind like this one—who makes the decisions on the actions to take to manipulate a society’s behaviour? And, based on what values?

Below researchers describe how behaviour can be manipulated, as excerpted from “Social Physics” within Carr’s article:

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Author of “Social Physics”, Alex Pentland will be teaching “Big Data and Social Physics” via the edX platform. Start date: May 12, 2014

“They go into a business and give each employee an electronic ID card, called a “sociometric badge,” that hangs from the neck and communicates with the badges worn by colleagues. Incorporating microphones, location sensors, and accelerometers, the badges monitor where people go and whom they talk with, taking note of their tone of voice and even their body language. The devices are able to measure not only the chains of communication and influence within an organization but also “personal energy levels” and traits such as “extraversion and empathy.” In one such study of a bank’s call center, the researchers discovered that productivity could be increased simply by tweaking the coffee-break schedule.”

Closing Thoughts
Like Carr, I too am somewhat wary of reality mining, or ‘social physics’.  Though in examining Marshall McLuhan’s works, who Carr refers to in the opening of his article, I find wisdom in McLuhan’s words that so accurately describe what is happening now—within the realm of big data for instance.  The website managed by McLuhan’s estate includes snippets of interviews, quotes and links to his works that are worthy of perusing and pondering. I found the quote below applicable and insightful when considered in context of reality mining.

In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in-depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner.”  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, (p 4)

Worth pondering, is it not?

Further Reading