How-to Integrate Collaboration Tools to Support Online Learning

I share here a five-step strategy for integrating technology tools to support meaningful learning in online courses. However I’d be misleading readers if I suggested that effective technology integration is as easy as following a five-step formula; I’m likely not sharing anything new with readers by emphasizing it’s not. A key component when creating effective online learning experiences with ed-tech tools that lead to collaborative learning (and not busy-work that students abhor), is determining why and how.

busyworkThe why and how needs to be determined well before implementing the five steps. I was inspired to delve into the strategy behind ed-tech integration after reading “10+ No-Signup Collaboration Tools You Can Use in 10 Seconds” (Couch, 2015). I tweeted the article last week (below). It got several views and likes which is not surprising since most online instructors are looking to incorporate interactivity into their courses, and the tools featured were free and easy to use. Yet despite my enthusiasm for the tools, I felt the need to share a strategy for integrating tools effectively. The tools are alluring—as the article’s headline suggests the collaborative tools ‘can be used in 10 seconds’. Yet each tool on its own is neutral, zero-sum; there’s no value-added when using technology for student learning unless integrated with a purposeful strategy, and an approach that’s grounded in the why and how.

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 2.46.22 PMThe Approach
Approaching technology integration as a multi-dimensional, strategic exercise is not the usual approach by course designers and instructors, yet is essential to creating conditions for learning. Though it sounds obvious, the first phase is exploring what, why and how. This phase determines if the tool ‘makes sense’—sense within the context of the course learning objectives, and the sense it makes to students. Both are at the core of every effective education technology strategy, yet in my work experience I’ve found that integrating tech tools into learning activities is one of the most neglected areas of course design even though it has significant impact on student learning.

WHAT and WHY
Teachers and faculty need to know why they are using the tool, which begins with what—what learning goal or objective does using a learning activity support? What kind of learning activity, e.g collaborative group project, discussing forum posting, group case study analysis, will support student learning that will lead to meeting the objective? What tool can potentially support the activity? Next is whywhy would or should I use the tech tool? Why this tool over another? It seems so simple to ask ‘why’, yet the answers can often be complex; all the more reason to begin with why.

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Students also need to know the ‘why’ behind the learning activity and the tool

But finding answers to the why for educators is not enough—students need to know the why—why are they doing this activity? The latter is often missed. Educating students about the purpose of a learning activity is an essential element that supports pedagogically sound teaching, where a tool is used not for the sake of using a tech tool, but used purposefully. Otherwise it’s becomes a busy-work assignment—using a ‘cool’ tool. So how do we let students know the why? We tell them. This means when writing a brief description of a learning activity for students to include within the course site that includes a sentence that begins with “The purpose of this activity is to….” . The activity purpose should align with one of more of the course learning objectives. Articulating the purpose makes clear that the activity is worthy of students’ time and commitment; student motivation is far higher when they know the purpose and premise.

HOW
When approaching the how, educators should consider a tool from two perspectives: 1) the technical aspects of the tool—how it works, what it does, how feasible it is to use the tool within a course, e.g. whether students will be able to access the tool easily, the learning curve for using the tool, and 2) the pedagogical aspects—how the tool will support learning and how it’s use will be described to students so that it’s becomes seamless experience so the focus is on learning and not the technology. Which is why as mentioned, there are several considerations, layers of complexity to integrating tech tools. The five-step strategy (below) addresses most of the factors that need consideration when integration educational technology, while the first phase of examining why, why and how addresses the remaining.

Five-Step Strategy for Tech Integration

  1. Consider: Will this application/tool enhance, improve instruction or motivate learners? What similar applications/tools are there to consider? I
  2. Review the learning objectives for the  course or lesson to determine what activity (with support of the tool ) will support learning. Which tool might best support meeting objective?
  3. Identify the content/concepts students need to learn – review, augment and/or update content that students may need to access during activity
  4. Assess the ed-tech application/tools – will it encourage students to apply the content and learn the material, construct knowledge and promote critical thinking?
  5. Select and implement the best application. Create concise instructions of how-to use tool. Allow time for learning of tool and learning of course content
5_step_ed_tech_model_2012
Graphic: 5-Step Strategy to Ed-Tech Integration (Morrison, 2012)

The HOW for Students
I would like to highlight for readers Step 5—the last component of step five that addresses the student—how are students going to use the tool and how will it be explained to them?. This component including in the course concise instructions for the activity and the use of the tool, is critical yet often overlooked. Students need to know why they are doing a collaborative activity, then how they are going to go about it, what tool they will use so that they can get down to business of learning. Otherwise their time is spent of figuring out what they are doing and why they are doing it.  Wasted time.

Closing
There are so many tremendous educational technology tools and applications available now, more than ever before, but unless they are integrated effectively and thoughtfully, it’s a zero-sum game—zero learning and a waste of resources.

Collaborative Tools

References

 

Need-to-Know News: Udacity’s New Nanodegree Plus with Money-Back Guarantee, Non-traditional Degree Programs Under Scrutiny & Khan Academy Seeks Patent for Teaching Methods

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.

News1. Udacity’s Nanodegree Plus Program
Udacity launched “NanoDegree Plus” this week—an enhancement available with four of their Nanodegree programs. The ‘plus’ is a guarantee that students “get hired within 6 months of graduating or receive a 100% tuition refund”.  Sebastian Thrun, founder and CEO of Udacity states that Udacity’s guarantee is a “crisper” way for his institution to persuade students to attend. He also hopes his idea of guaranteeing results (a job) is something all college presidents will consider (Ruff, 2016).

The plus program includes robust features with services that include access to career coaches, interview resources including mock interview opportunities and dedicated placement team support—at a cost of $299/ month. The programs are self-paced and typically take between 6 and 8 months to complete. Udacity’s other Nanodegree programs are $200 per month and do not offer the same services as the plus program, but do offer an incentive “graduate within 12 months and receive a 50% refund on tuition“.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 3.25.06 PM
Screen shot of Udacity’s web page promoting Nanodegree Plus

Insight: Udacity’s guarantee is bold; and not surprisingly is drawing criticism. One college president called it “gimmicky”, yet a fellow at Brookings Institute is positive, stating that guarantees like Udacity’s “are a market solution to temper the risk that students face when they choose to invest in higher education”. Though in defense of higher education programs, what Udacity offers is far different from undergraduate education. Udacity program’s are narrow in focus and vocational in nature. What is a positive of the plus programs are the support services offered. It’s these services that can make a difference—help students gain confidence, skills in how to market themselves, and be career-ready.

2. Non-Traditional Degree Programs Under Scrutiny
Non-traditional forms of higher education, including competency-based programs are under close scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). Institutions offering non-traditional degree programs may not be eligible for financial disbursements if they don’t meet the criteria of Title IV aid. The DOE’s Inspector General has conducted several audits, one  currently underway with Western Governor’s University (WGU), a non-profit who provides non-traditional education to over 64,000 enrolled students (Fain, 2016). Courses at WGU are not tied to the traditional credit-hour, but instead students take self-paced online courses, engage with mentors when help is needed, and complete assessments when confident they have mastered course material.

The investigation into these non-traditional programs’ eligibility is at odds with the current administration’s push to promote non-traditional degree pathways, apparent by the DOE’s website as well as recent grants to encourage higher education institutions to develop alternative pathways for degree-seeking students. Education leaders will be watching closely as many are developing alternative degree-programs as Purdue University is with its competency-based bachelor’s degree, or others that involve MOOCs such as ASU’s Global Freshman Academy.

Insight:  The discrepancy within the DOE demonstrates the gap between existing legislation for traditional education programs and new programs that reflect our open and digital culture. Education organizations need to implement systems that allow them to adapt more fluidly.

index3. Khan Academy Seeks Patent on its Instructional Methods
Khan academy is filing a patent application for its method of showing one of two explanatory videos based upon a student’s response to a question posed after the student watches an initial topic-specific, instructional video. Many experts are confused by Khan’s move, given Khan’s open strategy and their mission to “provide a free, world‑class education for anyone, anywhere”. Yet Khan claims it’s a defensive move, a strategy to avoid being sued in the future from potential  competitors—other online education providers who might try to sue Khan Academy claiming it is infringing on their propriety methods.

Wording from Khan’s patent application:

Systems and methods are provided for comparing different videos pertaining to a topic. Two different versions of an educational video may be compared using split comparison testing. A set of questions may be provided along with each video about the topic taught in the video. Users may view one of the videos and answer the questions. Data about the user responses may be aggregated and used to determine which video more effectively conveys information to the viewer based on the question responses. — United States Patent Application #20150310753

Insight: A prudent, strategic move.

How to choose the best Ed-Tech tools for Online Instruction

How many ‘ed-tech’ tools are out there that can enhance online learning? I’d guess hundreds if not more. It’s almost on a daily basis that I come across a new educational technology tool. Before we move on – what is educational technology or ed-tech??? Ed-tech is a term for technological applications or tools that can be used in an educational environment to enhance instruction.That’s the theoretical definition (though there are others) but

.. what ed-tech can do when used effectively is to create meaningful, engaging instruction that motivates learners and supports learning objectives of a lesson or course.

In this post I’ll share how educators can use educational technology effectively with the aid of a five-step strategy. I’m convinced that a sound integration strategy for using ed-tech tools or applications is essential for successful instruction online, and from experience I’ve found that without a thoughtful plan, the value of the tool can fall flat – not enhance, improve or engage anything or anyone.

Examples of Educational Technology
To set the context for the strategy, I’ll provide a few examples of technological applications that could be used in an online education environment, one is Jing, a screen capture and voice recording program, another is Voice Thread, a collaborative, multimedia slide show application in the cloud, and Google Hangouts, an interactive real-time communication application available though Google +.  Ed- tech tools on the other hand, are more likely to be used in a face-to-face learning environment, are items such as an iPad, Kindle Fire or an Interactive whiteboard. This list is but a fraction of what is available. Fortunately there are several websites dedicated to educators that provide excellent coverage of ed-tech tools, one is Emerging EdTech, though there are numerous other sites and blogs that give excellent advice and information, I’ve listed just a few at the bottom of this post.

For course instructors and designers it’s not so much of should I use one of these applications or tools in my course, but which one?  Often what happens is that we end up designing the course or lesson around the tool, attempting to fit the tool into the course or lesson without asking ‘does it meet my course objectives’ or ‘does it fit into the learning context of the lesson? I have been guilty of this myself. And, I have found this approach produces mixed, if not poor learning outcomes.

As mentioned, through trial and error, I’ve stumbled upon an effective strategy – a strategy for choosing and integrating the right and best ed-tech tool or application for a given course or lesson.

Why use an Ed Tech tool if the first place?
Before we discuss the strategy, I want to address the ‘why’. Why should we use a technological tool or application in an instructional setting over a traditional tool? In this post, we are assuming one wants to use an ed-tech tool, but it may not always be the best choice. I want to acknowledge this point, but this topic warrants its own discussion. For the purpose of this discussion, we are working on the premise that we do in fact want to implement such a tool or application. Below is a list of reasons that support this decision.

  • Motivation – to gain attention of learners, prompt an interest in a topic
  • Enhanced instruction – to bring content to life, communicate concepts, reach students with relevant learning tools
  • Promotion of digital literacy-develop student skills by using technological applications
  • Encouragement and collaboration –  some tools inherently encourage interaction

Integration Strategy
How do you integrate a new ed-tech tool into a course? In many cases, the course instructor, teacher or designer is working with an existing program, usually in an effort to revise, modify or update the course. Others may be starting from scratch, perhaps creating a new course for the online environment. Either way, the following strategy is adaptable. Though instructors designing a new course should have a good part of the instructional plan done up to this point – objectives established, and learner analysis complete before using following the integration strategy. Refer to the Dick, Carey and Carey Instructional Design Model or other course design model for further details.

5 Step Ed-Tech Integration Model (click to expand diagram)

The 5-steps as shown in the above diagram are listed below. (Please note: I use the word ‘tool’ and ‘application’ interchangeably, which refer to the same thing, an ed-tech tool or application).

  1. Consider – will this application/tool enhance, improve instruction or motivate learners? What similar applications/tools are there to consider?
  2. Review/revisit the learning objectives for the course or lesson
  3. Identify the content student needs to learn – review, augment and/or update content with web site, text-book, video lecture, PDF articles or other
  4. Assess the ed-tech application/tool – will it encourage students to apply the content and learn the material, construct knowledge and promote critical thinking?
  5. Select and implement the best application. Create concise instructions of how-to use tool. Allow time for learning of tool and learning of course content

The ultimate goal of the 5 step Ed-Tech Strategy is to act as a guide for educators in order that their courses are kept current and relevant by using emerging technology, yet at the same time ensuring that the instruction continues to be effective so that students are learning the content. I hope you find this tool helpful. Check back in a few days – I’ll be writing about five new ed-tech tools that we’re either currently using at my workplace, or are planning on using shortly. I’ll apply this Ed-Tech Strategy – join me and see what will work for our courses and what won’t. Thanks for reading!

Resources:
Top 100 Tools for Learning 2015, Centre for Learning and Performance Technology
EdsurgeUser community and resource site for the emerging education technology
Educational Technology Guy
Blog
Emgerging EdTech,
Blog
Smartblog on Education,
Blog