The Students in Your MOOC Are Teachers

It caught my attention in an article from EDUCAUSE that surveys of 11 MITx courses offered on edX in spring 2014 found that one in four (28%) of the respondents self-identified as past or present teachers.

Of course, being that it is a "massive" course, those teachers are only 4.5 percent of the nearly 250,000 enrollees. But those teachers generated 22.4 percent of all discussion forum comments.

One of the exciting things about teaching a MOOC or being a student in one is that the participants often come from the diverse backgrounds.

This look at the presence of teachers in MOOCs suggests that we might want to offer topics for teachers more often and perhaps utilize those teachers when we teach a MOOC.

The MOOC I facilitated on Canvas Network in 2013 was called "Academia and the MOOC" and was intended to attract teachers as well as others in academic roles (instructional designer, support staff, administration and student).

We critiqued some case studies of successful and "failed" MOOCs that have been offered and considered how MOOCs might impact those roles and an institution. By design, I wanted to use the participants' collective professional experience.

The article discussed a massive course that precedes the first MOOCs by about 50 years. In 1958, an introductory physics course called "Atomic-Age Physics" was offered by NBC's Continental Classroom on free broadcast TV. It was estimated that the course/program had a daily viewership of about 250,000 people. It even had 300+ institutions partnering to offer varying levels of accreditation for the course - something modern MOOCs are just starting to do.

Who was this physics on air course reaching? Most were just people with an interest in modern physics, but a good number of the participants were teachers who were upgrading their science background. There were about 5,000 participants who were certified in the first year. Continental Classroom offered more courses and it was an early use of technology, distance learning or ITV (instructional television) with teachers as a targetted audience.

If a substantial number of teachers are on MOOC rosters then we should be considering, as the article suggests, that we create "expert-novice pairings in courses, networking educators around pedagogy or reusable content, and generally tailoring courses to satisfy the needs of teachers." MOOCs offer an opportunity for teacher professional development.

Coursera has already launched a "teacher professional development" series and edX announced a professional development initiative focusing on advanced placement high school courses.

How having significant numbers of educators in a MOOC may impact the other participants and the course design sounds like a good area for future research.

Making Learning Visible to Increase Student Engagement

On March 13, I will be presenting on "Making Learning Visible to Increase Student Engagement" at the NJEDge Faculty Showcase. This "Best Practices" presentation was inspired in part by the educational research from the Project Zero group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

I will be talking about the practice of using a public forum in both undergraduate and graduate online and face-to-face classes (at NJIT and at Montclair State University) and having students publicly reflect on their learning experiences.

Requiring students to document their work in a class forum immediately changes student ownership of their work. This type of documentation makes learning visible, rather than the private 1:1 relationship that assessment and evaluation often has between a student and instructor.

I will explain the documentation and process reflection methodology and show student examples. This practice borrows on earlier use of and the pedagogy of portfolios.

The Making Learning Visible (MLV) Project was based on collaborative research between Project Zero researchers and educators from the Municipal Preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. MLV investigated how best to understand, document, and support individual and group learning for children and adults. I read about it in Making Thinking Visible and Visible Learners. The five key principles are that learning is purposeful, social, emotional, empowering, and representational.

In particular, the aspect of learning and teaching in MLV that I identify most strongly with is the role of observation and documentation in deepening and extending learning.

Documentation involves one or more specific questions that guide the process, often with an epistemological focus (questions on learning).

Documentation also involves collectively analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating individual and group observations. (It's interesting that the keynote speaker at the Showcase next month will be Etienne Wenger-Trayner who is a leader in the field of social learning theory, and coined the term "communities of practice," and their application to organizations.)

This process is strengthened by multiple perspectives and so it is necessary to make the learning visible. It becomes public when it is shared with other learners, parents, teachers or the public.

Prompting reflective thinking during learning helps learners develop strategies to apply new knowledge to the complex situations in their day-to-day activities. Reflective thinking helps learners attach new knowledge to prior understanding, and also understand their own thinking and learning strategies.

I find that this practice is also very beneficial to me as an instructor in grading student work as it reveals the hidden process that cannot be seen in only grading a final product.

Ultimately, I have found that this is another way to promote student engagement. Teachers in K-12 have known intuitively that displaying student work lets students know that their work is valued and that the classroom space is shared.


Sample student infographic by Anabel Damstrom as posted within the course LMS

with her process reflection and also on her public portfolio.


Getting a New York Times Education

MOOCs and companies partnering with MOOC providers to offer mini/microdegrees are a new approach to higher education that can be viewed as a threat, alternative or innovation. In the past decade, the entrance of for-profit colleges and universities were seen as a threat. Some of those have failed and some have succeeded. The latest news in this line is that The New York Times will be entering education in a bigger way.

The new NYT EDUcation is a collaboration with the CIG Education Group. This not the paper's first attempt to enter education. Their Knowledge Network was an online education program started in
2007 that partnered with colleges (including Stanford University and USC) that eneded in 2012.

NYT EDUcation is in the process of assembling its management and curriculum development team, planning courses and programs and expects to offer its first courses in fall 2015.  “All the options are on the table,” said Michael Chung, chief executive of CIG. Some courses could be online, others could meet face to face, or they could be hybrids."

Here Come the MOOC Degrees (and they are not from colleges)

“We’re discovering that there are a huge number of willing and eager lifelong learners that are underserved” by higher education. We’re getting to the point where we’ll be profitable as a company.”  - Sebastian Thrun. Udacity 

Are those words frightening to higher education? The quote comes from an article with a frightening title: "Meet the New, Self-Appointed MOOC Accreditors: Google and Instagram."

One issue that has been wrapped around the MOOC since they were the big story in 2012, and more so since they they became seen as an alternate route for educating employees, is whether employers will take them seriously as credentials.

Though academia has shown some interest in this, partially out of fear of lost tuition, the big MOOC producers and providers have been more interested.

Now, some of them say that they have found a way to "jump-start employer buy-in" by getting major companies to help design the course and the sequence of course that would lead to a specialization or certificate.

Coursera is an example of a MOOC platforms that has now teamed up with more than half a dozen companies to create "capstone" projects for its courses. The companies include Google, Instagram and Shazam. they are not only big tech player, but ones that carry cachet with students.

Colleges are not totally out of the game. Coursera has 19 colleges that work with them on a kind of "microdegrees." (Coursera calls them "Course Specializations.")  In these, students first take a designed series of short MOOCs, but finish with a hands-on capstone project. It's a model that colleges are used to offering in their own regular degrees.

Coursera has been running a pilot of this since summer 2014. It is a Data Science Specialization from Johns Hopkins University that also involved the company SwiftKey that builds keyboard apps for smartphones.

Then there is profit. This particular approach provides revenue to support the free courses. For students to get the certificate proving they passed the courses and the capstone, they pay around $500 in fees.

Rather than a university seal-of-approval, these MOOC/certificate programs have approval from these companies which may be more appealing to the job-seeking graduate or the employee looking to upgrade skills for job advancement.

We are talking education and profit here. Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, clearly knows and talks about that. She said that these partnerships “really drive home the value proposition that these courses are giving you a skill that is valuable in the workplace.”

Colleges may not appreciate that she also feels that Coursera is helping in “bridging the gap” between higher education and industry. But other MOOC providers would probably agree.

Udacity has already gotten a lot of attention for its project with the Georgia Institute of Technology that has backing and input from AT&T for a $7,000 master’s degree in computer science. Udacity calls their approach "nanodegrees" and has ties to Google and other companies.

The MOOC provider edX (started by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has also had Google support some course development.

And, looking ahead, I still believe that we will hear about Google offering its own free Learning Management System in the near future and that will be a huge disruptor in an arena that is a very profitable enterprise platform for schools and companies.


Will There Be A Digital Dark Age?

Vint Cerf has been talking lately about how future historians looking to study the 21st century will find an "information black hole" because the programs needed to view our digital files will soon become be obsolete. He argues that the world needs "digital vellum" – some way to preserve digital information over a long period of time so that in the future, our files will be readable. Vellum (from the Latin "vitulinum" meaning "made from calf") is the hgh quality parchment made from calf skin, that was was used to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books that were meant to last over the years.

"The emails, the tweets, and all the other things that we take for granted today may have evaporated into thin air because nobody preserved them," says Cerf.

Here is an except from a recent interview with him.

"Vint Cerf, a “father of the internet”, [and currently Vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google] says he is worried that all the images and documents we have been saving on computers will eventually be lost. 

He believes this could occur as hardware and software become obsolete. He fears that future generations will have little or no record of the 21st Century as we enter what he describes as a “digital Dark Age”. 

Mr. Cerf made his comments at a large science conference in San Jose. He arrived at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science stylishly dressed in a three-piece suit. This iconic figure, who helped define how data packets move around the net, is possibly the only Google employee who wears a tie. 

I felt obliged to thank him for the internet, and he bowed graciously. “One is glad to be of service,” he said humbly.

His focus now is to resolve a new problem that threatens to eradicate our history. Our life, our memories, our most cherished family photographs increasingly exist as bits of information - on our hard drives or in “the cloud”. But as technology moves on, they risk being lost in the wake of an accelerating digital revolution."

-- Interviewed by Pallab Ghosh Science correspondent, BBC News, San Jose via

In a talk this month, Cerf discussed his ideas about  "Digital Vellum and the Expansion of the Internet into the Solar System" and the challenge of "preserving meaning of digital objects over very long periods of time." 

"That such a capacity is needed is surely unarguable. We already have examples of the loss of digital content, not because the bits are unreadable but because they are uninterpretable. The Internet, itself, continues to evolve and is already going off the planet, albeit on the back of a new set of protocols designed to deal with the delay and disruption encountered in deep space environments. Connectivity is not continuous and delays brought about by the inadequate speed of light are inescapable. We will discuss the current state and future aspirations of this work."