Pew Research Reveals Three Barriers to Lifelong Learning

overcoming-barriers-to-technology-assisted-reviewPew Research Center’s recent report, “Lifelong Learning and Technology” gives insight into how Americans perceive and engage in lifelong learning (Horrigan, 2016). It’s a worthy read. It contains valuable data and insights for stakeholders involved in education planning and decision-making. Yet I’ve identified three themes I consider most instructive and compelling; three significant barriers that the education sector as a whole needs to acknowledge and address in order to improve and move online education programs forward.

Three Barriers
1) Limited Access: online education has not, up to this point, democratized education—adult learners with limited education do not engage, for various reasons, in learning aided by technology, 2) Lack of familiarity with online learning options persists among all adult learning groups; for instance only 14% are “very familiar” with even the concept of distance learning, and MOOCs—only 5% are “very familiar”, and 3)  Learning gap: there’s a significant gap between how some adults view learning in general and their actual lifelong learning behaviours—the majority of Americans (87%) believe learning new things is “very important” yet only 73% of adults consider themselves lifelong learners.

1. Online Education Fails to Democratize
We’ve long heard how digital education platforms such as Coursera and edX will democratize education by overcoming barriers associated with higher education by lowering costs and reaching populations with limited education. Yet Pew’s findings suggest otherwise. It reveals that these same groups, those with low levels of education and household income, are less likely to engage in any form of online learning. One finding is particularly telling—less than half of respondents with a high school education or less have used the internet for personal (43%) or job-related learning (49%) (Horrigan, pg. 7). This suggests that education providers need to determine how to leverage and implement technology as a learning tool to serve the groups that need education most.

2. Limited Awareness of Digital Platforms for Learning
Quite surprising is the fact that the majority of adult learners are not familiar with digital learning options. While most readers of this blog are likely (very) familiar with MOOCs and for-credit online courses, it’s startling to consider that most adults, even those with higher education levels are not (see screenshot below for details). This phenomenon has implications for educators and institutions; the most pressing is the need to inform the general population about digital learning options. Going further, there’s also a need to educate adults how to learn effectively in a digital world. Accomplishing this will require a strategic and concerted effort by education institutions involving a multi-pronged approach, utilizing multiple communication channels to promote learning options. Other alternatives may require forming partnerships with unrelated institutions as Khan Academy did with Bank of America for their Better Money Habits® program. There is much work to be done.

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Lifelong Learning and Technology, John Horrigan. Pew Research Center (section 5).

3. The Learning Gap
According to the report Americans value learning greatly. It indicates that 87% of adults state that it’s “very important that people make an effort to learn new things about their jobs”. Yet the same survey finds that 73% of adults agree that “I think of myself as a lifelong learner” applies “very well”. The numbers suggest there’s a segment of the population who view learning as very important, yet they don’t engage in lifelong learning activities for their own personal or professional growth. Why? It’s worth further examination. There is an opportunity to reach a group of adults who value learning greatly but don’t engage for whatever reason. The report does identify factors that play a role in lifelong learning activities, e.g. household income, education attainment, etc (section 2). One avenue to consider is the role educators could play in closing the gap.  Possibly by instilling skills and modeling behaviors associated with lifelong learning in elementary and/or high school, granted the logistics of ‘how’ is a barrier in itself.

There is no easy solution to closing the gap, and it is closely linked barriers one and two.  Yet this gap deserves special consideration—further discussion among educators involved in all levels of education. How can we as educators encourage and develop skills and behaviors in students, young and old where learning is self-directed and lifelong—where students forge their own learning path based upon their, interests needs, and passions?

Closing
The Pew Report yields important and helpful insights that can drive meaningful dialogue about education: professional, elementary and higher education. Also the role of technology in education, it’s reach, and shortcomings. The report hopefully will serve as a catalyst for action, action by education institutions and individuals to advance and improve institutions and platforms reach and impact, to build and grow engaged communities of lifelong learners.

 

MOOC Quality Comes Down To This: Effective Course Design

“Design brings forth what would not come naturally”
                                —Klaus Krippendorff, Professor of Cybernetics, Language,and Culture

designThere’s little data to go on to determine the quality of learning outcomes in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Traditional education measures the quality of learning with a variety of assessment methods against a set of established criteria or objectives. But MOOCs don’t fit into the traditional education mold and given it’s usually unclear what the intended outcomes are for MOOCs, assessment is challenging (Gaebel, 2013). If the objective is to deliver quality learning there’s little to go on except for low completion rates and even smaller percentages of student rankings of their perceptions of learning (via end-of-MOOC surveys). A recent study attempts to address MOOC quality by assessing instructional quality of 76 MOOCs—50 xMOOCs offered on dedicated MOOC platforms and 26 cMOOCs or connectivist MOOCs (Margaryan, Bianco & Littlejohn, 2015). My aim in this post is to share results of the study and outline the framework used to evaluate the MOOCs in an effort to highlight how a course design framework is critical to developing quality learning experiences within MOOCs.

Factors Affecting Quality Course Design
Course design is a critical to delivering quality learning through online courses and MOOCs, yet it’s rarely mentioned in literature and articles discussing MOOC and online course outcomes. This study fills a gap. It determined that while most MOOCs were well-packaged, design quality was low. Out of a possible 72 points that each MOOC could score, not one MOOC scored above 28 points (p. 82).  Reasons vary, but I see it as absence of one or a combination of: skill set of course designer(s), time, and/or a structured process that includes a course design framework.

My view is that an online course takes on a persona of the instructor where the course guides and promotes part of the learning process as an instructor would. This thinking requires a different design approach—a different mindset than one used for traditional courses. A well-designed course also provides a learning path that students can follow and influence. A path that includes: quality, varied and curated resources, methods that encourage active learning whether individually or within self-selected groups, places for students to engage and share where they also act as contributors to the course. The latter is key—students should be able to shape the course through application of course concepts using their existing knowledge and experience.

Overview of the Study & “First Principles of Instruction”
The study analyzed quality through the lens of the Merrill+ model, a framework based on the “First Principles of Instruction” framework of David Merill (2002). Merill’s model is remarkably thorough, detailed and thoughtful in its inclusion and application of learning theories and approaches incorporating components of R. Gagné and H. Gardner’s theories as well as models of instructional design. First Principles also aligns closely with Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory andragogy, which I’ve discussed in previous posts. There’s significant research in support of Merrill’s theory suggesting it’s a credible, perspective tool to evaluate curriculum design of traditional, online courses and MOOCs (Frick et al. 2007; Margaryan et al., 2015).

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Merrill’s’ model is grounded in the practical as shown by figure 1 which describes how his five principles focus on problem-focused learning (Merrill, 2002).

Ten Principles of the Merrill+ Model
Margaryan and Collins added five additional principles to Merill’s First Principles to create Merrill+ Model which builds on Merrill’s philosophy and synthesizes contemporary instructional theories and practices (2014). The 10 principles of Merrill+ Model:

Learning is promoted…

  1. Problem Centered Learning: …when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems
  2. Activation: …when learners activate existing knowledge, experience or a skill set as a foundation for creating new knowledge and/or skills.
  3. Demonstration: …when learners observe a demonstration [that includes learning of new knowledge via a primary resource] of the skill [knowledge] to be learned.
  4. Application: …when learners apply their new knowledge or skill through discussion, written work, or creation of an artifact to solve a problem.
  5. Integration: …when new knowledge is integrated and into the learner’s context
  6. Collective knowledge: …when learners contribute to the collective knowledge of a subject or topic
  7. Collaboration: …when learners collaborate with others to expand knowledge of individuals and a community of practice
  8. Differentiation: …when learners are provided with different avenues of learning, according to their need, e.g. scaffolding
  9. Authentic resources: …when quality learning resources are curated from and applicable to real world problems
  10. Feedback: …when learners are given expert feedback on their performance

Closing Thoughts
There are other course design frameworks that can be used as alternatives to the Merrill+ Model, Khan’s e-Learning Framework (I’ll be writing about Khan’s Framework next month) and the Dick and Carey model for instance. Some institutions develop their own course design model as Purdue University did with its IMPACT model. The key to MOOC quality is selecting, then following a framework grounded in learning theory that supports an effective course design process that delivers quality learning experiences.

References

  • Frick, T., Chadha, R., Watson, C., Wang, Y., & Green, P. (2007). Theory-based course evaluation: Nine Scales for measuring teaching and learning quality. Retrieved from  http://www.indiana.edu/~tedfrick/TALQ.pdf
  • Gaeleb, D. (2013). MOOCs: Massive open online courses. (Tech.). European University Association. Retrieved from http://www.eua.be/Libraries/publication/EUA_Occasional_papers_MOOCs
  • Margaryan, A., Bianco, M., & Littlejohn, A. (2014). Instructional quality of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Computers & Education. 80. 77–83. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2014.08.005
  • Merrill, D. M. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59. doi:10.1057/9781137394644.0012

Need-to-Know News: Universities On Board with Micro Credentials, MOOC Report Highlights Pressing Issues & App Rewards Tech Non-Use

job-education

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.

job-education1) Group of Seven Universities Collaborating on ‘Alternative Credentialing’
“The idea is to create an “alternative credentialing process that would provide students with credentials that are much shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees” — David Schejbal, Dean of Continuing Education, Outreach and e-Learning at Wisconsin Extension.

A group of seven universities are in early stages of collaboration on a joint platform that will offer skills assessments, services including tutoring and advising to students online—though the platform’s primary purpose will be to provide ‘alternative credentialing options’. This is significant. It’s the first time a group of brand-name universities (that include Northwestern and Georgia Tech) have formed their own consortium in the micro credentialing market at this scale. Up until now it’s for-profit platforms such as Udacity with their Nano Degrees partnering with corporations such as AT&T, Coursera with their Specializations offered as a ‘pathway to expertise’, and edX (non-profit) with their xSeries programs.

These programs are vocational in nature, with a focused sequence of courses that provide students with a set of skills in a specialty area. This type of credentialing differs significantly from undergraduate education—the undergraduate degree focusing on breadth rather than depth, emphasizing critical thinking with applicability to a range of career pathways. Yet recently there’s been discussion in far-reaching media outlets including the New York Times, that micro credentials are a viable alternative to traditional higher education—“it [nano degree] may finally offer a reasonable shot at harnessing the web to provide effective schooling to the many young Americans for whom college has become a distant, unaffordable dream”.  Even Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity was quoted as saying, “It [nano degree] is like a university…built by industry” (2014).

Insight: The fact that micro credentials are viewed as an alternative to or even replacement for an undergraduate or an associate’s degree is concerning. Even more so now with universities coming on board and (potentially) promoting this option as ‘shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees’. Micro credentialing serves a different purpose than undergraduate education, targets a different and expanding student population—working adults looking for professional development and a route to enhance job-related skills. Though there is need for higher education institutions to transform and adapt to the complex challenges the higher education sector is facing, offering a ‘mini-degree’ as a replacement to the rich and diverse education that an undergraduate degree can provide is misguided and deeply troubling.  Alternative learning pathways such as micro-credentials is a positive outcome of digital innovations, yet using it as an alternative to ‘fix’ undergraduate education is not reasonable or responsible.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 12.40.46 PM2)  New MOOC Report Highlights Current Issues
This week UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for higher education released a concise, informative report “MOOCs and Quality: A Review of the Recent Literature” that highlights topical issues with useful, current references.  It’s instructive, informative and provides a summary of key areas of concern specific to MOOCs that are also applicable to higher education including non-completion rates, quality, instructional design, and data use for analysis of student engagement. What’s most instructive are the issues highlighted—it draws out for the reader the most pressing issues worthy of consideration going forward.

As with each new learning innovation, MOOCs present the possibility of new approaches to education, but the promises now need to be evaluated to see what can be delivered in the longer term, on a sustainable basis and with what implications for HEIs and for the assurance of quality  (Creelman et al, 2014).

Insight: Discussions should be moving from MOOCs as disruptors to deeper issues such as how can MOOCs help us improve teaching and learning, reach more students with quality education, and support change within the higher education sector. This report can be a catalyst for such discussions, providing a starting point with its reference list of recent research that provide a foundation for informed discussion.

3) New App Gives Points to Students for Not Using Personal Tech Device
A mobile app targeted to high school and college students called ‘Pocket Points’ gives students rewards for not using their phones during class. Students gain points by opening up the application and locking their phone. It works when the school signs on with Pocket Points and sets up the software and the rewards program.  Students can use points to get discounts at local and online businesses—primarily for food. Currently Chico State and Penn State University use the program.

Insight: A unique idea, though I see more potential for this application with younger children, for parents to use with their children ages 9 through 13—helping kids learn how to manage their screen time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Principles of Web Design Applicable to Online Course Design

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

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

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

white-space-usability-web-design-img2
Example of text with little white space.
white-space-usability-web-design-img3
Same text as above but with increased line spacing. Effective use of white space improves readability.

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-04-06 at 9.25.36 AM
Tabs grouped by category (Coursera)

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

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

References/Resources

Three Trends That Will Influence Learning and Teaching in 2015

Vector 2015 Happy New Year background

There is no shortage of predictions for the upcoming year of 2015. Micro-credentials, digital wearables and mobile learning are just a few of the many. Yet predictions are notorious for misleading and even wildly inaccurate assurances. But analyzing trends across industries in conjunction with developments within a sector—the education sector in this instance, is far more constructive and strategic than considering stand-alone predictions. There are themes and patterns worthy of educators, administrators and stakeholders investment of time and consideration. This post examines and explores three trends that meet the worthy criteria. The three: 1) Skill-specific education also known as competency-based education (CBE) is expanding to institutions and generating new education technology products and platforms, 2) Social learning facilitated by technology and the acceptance of MOOCs is a new and viable instructional method, and 3) Learning-on-the-go supported not just by mobile devices and internet connectivity, but by the availability of sophisticated applications with few barriers will expand learning to students seeking flexible access to education.

Sources for Trends Affecting Education in 2015
There’ve been several articles and reports written and shared by organizations, education entities and news agencies that highlight trends, developments, and hot topics to watch for in 2015. Not all are specific to education, but reading between the lines there are subtle implications that suggest which potential developments will affect if not change how people learn. The sources chosen for this post are few but solid. A key source and excellent resource for the education community is the NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Higher Education Edition Wiki which provides insight into educational technology trends. Its content is used for the annual NMC Horizon Project which uses the Wiki for the panel of experts to exchange ideas and engage in discourse. Another report rich in data is the 2015 Digital Trends Report created by GSW a communications agency working within the health sector. Additional sources include Innovating Pedagogy 2014 published by Open University, EDUCAUSE Review November/December 2014, among others. Collectively these sources and events over the past year (2014) in education provide a window into new developments in teaching and learning to watch for in 2015 .

comp_assessment_examples
example of how competency education works

1) Skill-Specific Education
The most significant innovations in education programs of this past year are those that focus on a specific skill set or knowledge area. These programs fall under the banner of micro-credentialing or competency-based education (CBE) and will be more disruptive to traditional education than anything we’ve seen to date. Traditional education in this context is defined as for-credit education measured by instruction time and grading of students work by teacher/instructor/faculty. Outcomes of traditional education typically are credentials in the form of a degree, diploma or certificate and are recognized by employers and institutions. On the other hand, skills education facilitates student’s learning technical skills or knowledge in a specific topic area that is measured by criteria-specific performance. Typically assessment is an observable outcome(s) that demonstrates mastery in the form of an e-portfolio or interactive transcript. Examples are competency-based degree programs such as the one offered at Purdue, or nano-degrees offered by Udacity, mirco-credential programs offered by edX or Coursera, certificates by Alison, and Mozilla’s Open Badges program. 

We can expect more institutions offering competency education programs and employer involvement in skill-specific education this year, as in the example of AT&T giving funds to Udacity and Georgia Tech for development of online programs. We’ll also see companies serving as advisors for curriculum and program development for courses of study at institutions.

Drivers of Skill-Specific Education

  • Pressure on education institutions from Department of Education and/or other government entities to offer more accessible and shorter education pathways (to a credential) to accommodate non-traditional learners. The non-traditional segment is a new and growing market of adult learners with prior skills and experience
  • Expanding non-traditional student population who seek open, flexible learning
  • Skills gap identified by employers
  • High cost associated with higher education

Developments in Skill-Specific Education

  • MOOCs on institution-affiliated platforms focusing on skill specific training in partnership with companies (edX offering Teacher PD)
  • Courses focusing on skills with input from employers who have a hand in developing curriculum, e.g. Nano-degrees (Udacity), and professional courses for a fee — targeting professionals (edX and Coursera)
  • LMS platform providers creating specific platforms that accommodate competency specific learning e.g. Helix LMS (Phil Hill on Helix LMS)
  • Digital badges, e.g. Mozilla Open Badge Project
  • Brandman University’s competency degree program incorporates digital badges for students to demonstrate skills to potential employers
Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 9.45.45 AM
Gaming is just one area of social learning that is being used as pedagogical method. Screen shot of slide 42 from “2015 Digital Trend Report”

2)  Social Learning as a Pedagogical Method
Social learning is not a new concept, but social learning as a method of instruction is. We are beginning to see social learning adopted by education institutions as a method for learning through peer collaboration for instance, and in Human Resources departments as a method for employee training. Also technological advancement in the form of applications—mobile apps that support learners not just through collaboration but by learning core concepts through innovative software design. Gaming too has become more social, as well as learning management platforms (LMSs) which are incorporating features that support and promote interactivity and social connections among students.

The aim [of social learning] is to engage thousands of people in productive discussions and the creation of shared projects, so together they share experience and build on their previous knowledge  — Innovating Pedagogy 2014, The Open University

Drivers of Social Learning

  • Advancements in technology have lowered barriers to learner connectivity
  • MOOCs uncovered a new demographic of learners—non-traditional students with a thirst for knowledge and learning
  • Dissemination of knowledge—learners can now access knowledge through networks rather than institutions
  • Companies seeking alternatives to traditional employee training and development leveraging social platforms and tools
  • Bring your own Device (BYOD) policies in education institutions

Developments in Social Learning

  • Features within Learning Management Platforms that facilitate social interactivity
  • Smart phone applications (apps) that support learning with and from peers and/or tutors, e.g. P2P Chat
  • Businesses using social media platforms for employee learning and development, e.g. Cisco introduces Project Squared a service delivered via an app or the Web that offers an online gathering place for getting work done.

3) Learning-on-the-Go
Mobile devices along with low barriers to connectivity and the choice of hundreds of new apps specific to education puts access to education in the hands of learners making learning-on-the-go a reality. Learning-on-the-go, also known as mobile learning or m-learning is also not new, yet recent advancements in network capabilities and applications makes learning exclusively from a mobile device a reality.

Mobile Learning
Ideas from Mobile Learning

Brandman University for example recently launched a competency based degree on a mobile platform where students have access to 30,000 pages of course material from a tablet or smart phone.  Other education institutions are following suit by making education accessible to students from their mobile device for un-tethered learning— students aren’t bound by a physical institution or even a desktop computer.  Numerous apps for mobile devices also support access to knowledge sources via video tutorials, lessons on topic-specific modules, or to access tutoring support, study resources etc.

Drivers of Learning-on-the-Go

  • Non-traditional students looking for flexible learning that fits their busy schedule
  • Low barriers to owning mobile devices
  • Higher quality applications and infrastructure systems that deliver user-friendly learning options

Developments in Learning-on-the-Go

  • Education institutions offering degree programs fully online with mobile friendly resources
  • Sophisticated applications available for mobile devices that provide quality education options
  • Apps that satisfy a variety of education needs including degree programs, developmental education programs, one-on-one tutoring, academic advising

Conclusion
Though we can’t predict exactly what will happen in 2015, we can make informed decisions and be strategic for the upcoming year. Nothing is certain in the future except change as the saying goes, yet being proactive rather than reactive will put educators in the best position for a successful and effective 2015.

Update: See my 2016 post: Three Trends that Will Influence Learning and Teaching in 2016

References

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)

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.

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