Alternative Postsecondary Learning Pathways

arrowsSeveral bills that recently came before the U.S. House of Representatives that would provide funding for people to enroll in alternative postsecondary pathways. As one article on points out, this funding comes at the same time as a new study that looks at  the quality of these programs and the evidence of their efficacy.

That report, "The Complex Universe of Alternative Postsecondary Credentials and Pathways" authored by Jessie Brown and Martin Kurzweil and published by American Academy of Arts and Sciences, evaluated alternatives that I have written about here: certificate programs, market-focused training, work-based training, apprenticeships, skills-based short courses, coding bootcamps, MOOCs, online micro-credentials, competency-based education programs and credentials based on skill acquisition rather than traditional course completion.

The report is wide-ranging and worth downloading if these are educational issues that concern you. If they don't concern you and you plan to work in education for another decade, you should really pay attention.

I'm not at all surprised that the earning power for "graduates" of alternative programs varies widely depending on the subject studied. A computer science certificate program graduate, for example, can expect to earn more than twice what a health care or cosmetology certificate recipient will receive.

Who pursues these programs? Certificate programs, work-based training and competency-based programs tend to attract older, lower-income learners who have not completed a college degree. But 80% of bootcamp enrollees and 75% of MOOC participants already have a bachelor's degree.

What do the authors of this study recommend? Policy changes to collect more comprehensive data on educational and employment outcomes and to enforce quality assurance standards. Also to devote resources to investigating efficacy and return on investment. The U.S. News article also points out that 19 organizations have promoted greater federal oversight of career and technical education programs in a June letter to the House of Representatives about the Perkins Act Reauthorization.

Information Wants To Be Free - but

scihub logoThis is a brief followup to my previous article about BitTorrent. That is because this post is about SciHub, which is self-described as "the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers".

Sci-Hub is a website with over 62,000,000 academic papers and articles available for direct download, bypassing publisher paywalls by allowing access through educational institution proxies. Sci-Hub stores papers in its own repository, and additionally the papers downloaded by Sci-Hub are also stored in Library Genesis (LibGen). A Russian graduate student, Alexandra Elbakyan, founded it in 2011, as a reaction to the high cost of research papers behind paywalls.

The site has had its legal problems. In 2015 academic publisher Elsevier filed a legal complaint against Sci-Hub alleging copyright infringement and the subsequent lawsuit led to a loss of the original domain.  legal to even access 

"If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge," says founder Alexandra Elbakyan in an interview with TorrentFreak.  

Elbakyan has been called a hero and "spiritual successor to Aaron Swartz for her creation of Sci-Hub and compared to Edward Snowden, because she is hiding in Russia after having "leaked" files in violation of American law.

Is she a modern-day "Robin Hood of science?"

BitTorrent Reconsidered


This past weekend I was wearing an old BitTorrent t-shirt that has printed on the back: "Give and ye Shall receive." While waiting in a store checkout line, a man behind me said, "BitTorrent? Are you a software pirate?"

To many people, BitTorrent is still synonymous with piracy. BitTorrent was and probably used for some questionable and illegal file transfers, but it’s also being used for many legitimate tasks.

A programmer, Bram Cohen, designed the protocol and released the first available version in July 2001, and it quickly became the preferred way to share large files, especially movies. In the public mind, it is blurred together with other file sharing programs like Napster, which was used to share music (mp3) files.

animationLike HTTP, which your browser uses to communicate with websites, BitTorrent is just a protocol. People were sharing pirated files of all kinds before BitTorrent using anonymous peer-to-peer networks, but this new protocol made it much faster and more efficient. 

The BitTorrent protocol uses client computers to share individual piece of the file. After the initial pieces transfer from the seed, the pieces are individually transferred from client to client and that original seeder only needs to send out one copy of the file for all the clients to receive a copy.

BitTorrent Sync is a use that is comparable to Dropbox, a popular file sharing system. But unlike Dropbox, Sync doesn’t store your files in a centralized server online. It syncs them between computers you own or computers your friends own. It allows easy file sharing and you can sync an unlimited number of files as long as you have the space on your computers for them. (Dropbox offers that extra space, which many of us need.)

The most recent version of BitTorrent was released in 2013 and BitTorrent clients are available for a variety of computing platforms and operating systems including an official client released by BitTorrent, Inc.

What are some of the current legal uses? 

Some game companies use it for game updates and downloads. For example, Blizzard Entertainment uses its own BitTorrent client to download World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, and Diablo III. When you legally purchase one of these games and download it, you’re downloading a BitTorrent client that does it and the game’s launcher automatically downloads updates for you.

Facebook uses the BitTorrent protocol for propagating large files over a large number of different servers.

It also has educational users. Florida State University uses BitTorrent to distribute large scientific data sets to its researchers. Many universities that have BOINC distributed computing projects have used the BitTorrent functionality of the client-server system to reduce the bandwidth costs of distributing the client-side applications used to process the scientific data. The developing Human Connectome Project uses BitTorrent. 

The popular Internet Archive uses the protocol to make its public domain content downloadable.

In 2010, the UK government released several large data sets showing how public money was being spent that were offered via BitTorrent to save on bandwidth costs and speed the process.

NASA has also used BitTorrent to make a 2.9GB picture of the Earth available.

Like Napster, which rebranded and reinented itself after all the lawsuits into a "legitimate" music service, the official BitTorrent website has a list of “bundles” of music and videos. Artists make them freely available to hook fans, just as radio was once used to provide free music to large audiences in hopes that they’ll attend live shows and buy albums.

If we got rid of BitTorrent, another similar protocol would need to emerge. 

Machine Learning :: Human Learning

AI - “artificial intelligence” - was introduced at a science conference at Dartmouth University in 1956. Back then it was a theory, but in the past few decade it has become something beyond theoretical. been less theory and more in practice than decades before.

The role of AI in education is still more theory than practice.

A goal in AI is to get machines to learn. I hesitate to say "think" but that is certainly a goal too. I am reading The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution currently and in that history there is a lot of discussion of the people trying to get machines to do more than just compute (calculate) but to learn from its experiences without requiring a human to program those changes. The classic example is the chess playing computer that gets better every time it wins or loses. Is that "learning?"

But has it had an impact on how you teach or how your students learn?

It may have been a mistake in the early days of AI and computers that we viewed the machine as being like the human brain. It is - and it isn't.

But neuroscientists are now finding that they can also discover more about human learning as a result of machine learning. An article on points to several interesting insights from the machine and human learning research that may play a role in AI in education.

One thing that became clear is that physical environment is something humans learn easier than machines. After a child has started walking or opened a few doors or drawers or climbed a few stairs, she learns how to do it. Show her a different door, drawer, or a spiral staircase and it doesn't make much of a difference. A robot equipped with some AI will have a much steeper learning curve to learn these simple things. It also has a poor sense of its "body." Just watch any videos online of humanoid robots trying to do those things and you'll see how difficult it is for a machine.

Then again, it takes a lot longer for humans to learn how to drive a car on a highway safely. And even when it is learned, our attention, or lack thereof, is a huge problem. AI in vehicles is learning how to drive fairly rapidly, and its attention is superior to human attention. Currently, it is still a fall back human error in mist cases, but that will certainly change in a decade or two. I learned to parallel park a car many years ago and I am still lousy at doing it. A car can do it better than me.

Although computers can do tasks they are programmed to do without any learning curve, for AI to work they need to learn by doing - much like humans. The article points out that AI systems that traced letters with robotic arms had an easier time recognizing diverse styles of handwriting and letters than visual-only systems. 

AI means a machine gets better at a task the more it does it, and it can also apply that learning to similar but not identical situations. You can program a computer to play notes and play a series of notes as a song, but getting it to compose real music requires AI.

Humans also learn from shared experiences. A lot of the learning in a classroom comes from interactions between the teacher and students and student to student. This makes me feel pretty confident in the continued need for teachers in the learning process.

One day, I am sure that machines will communicate with each other and learn from each other. This may be part of the reason that some tech and learning luminaries like Elon Musk have fears about AI

I would prefer my smart or autonomous vehicle to "talk" to other vehicles on the roads nearby and share information on traffic, obstructions and vehicles nearby with those quirky human drivers only.

AI built into learning systems, such as an online course, could guide the learning path and even anticipate problems and offer corrections to avoid them. Is that an AI "teacher" or the often-promoted "guide on the side?"

This year on the TV show Humans, one of the human couples goes for marriage counseling with a "synth" (robot). She may be a forerunner of a synth teacher.

Humans TV
The counselor (back to us) can read the husband's body language and knows he does not like talking to a synth marriage counselor.


What Is a Modern Learning Experience?

social on mobile

Jane Hart, who I have been following online for many years, is the Director of the Centre for Modern Workplace Learning, which she set up to help organizations and learning professionals modernize their approaches to workplace learning. Reading her online Modern Workplace Learning Magazine has alerted me to trends outside academia and outside the United States.  

She recently posted an article titled "Designing, delivering and managing modern learning experiences" and that made me consider how I would define "modern learning." It would include school experiences for some of us, but for most people today it is more likely an experience that occurs in the workplace and on our own. That itself seems like a big shift from the past. Or is it?

If in 1917, someone had wanted to become a journalist, he could go to college, but he could also get a job without a degree - if he could show he was a good writer. He could do some freelance writing with or without pay to get some experience and samples. Move 50 years to 1967, and the path was more likely to be a school of journalism. What about today?

As Jane points out, the modern learning experience path for the workplace probably includes using: 

  • Google and YouTube to solve their own learning and performance problems
  • social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn to build their own professional network (aka personal learning network)
  • messaging apps on their smartphones to connect with colleagues and groups
  • Twitter to participate in conference backchannels and live chats
  • participating in online courses (or MOOCs) on platforms like Coursera, edX and FutureLearn

The modern learning experience is on demand and continuous, not intermittent, and takes place in minutes rather than hours. It occurs on mobile devices more than on desktop computers.

Jane Hart believes it is also more social with more interacting with people, and that it is more of a personally-designed experience. I don't know if that is true for educational learning. Is it true for the workplace on this side of the pond? Does the individual design the learning rather than an experience designed by someone "in charge."

Modernizing classroom learning has often been about making learning more autonomous (self-directed, self-organized and self-managed) but that model does not easily fit into the model used for the past few hundred years in classrooms.

Defining Personalized Learning

mazeThe term "personalized learning" came up recently in several articles about Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chan investing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in a new vision of “whole-child personalized learning.”

Their recently established Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) intends to support the development of software that might help teachers better recognize and respond to each student’s academic needs. But they also intend to use a holistic approach to nurturing children’s social, emotional, and physical development. That's a tall order. And not one that has not been attempted before.

In the 40 years I have been an educator, I have heard about personalized learning under terms like individualized instruction, personal learning environment, direct instruction differentiation and even adaptive learning. All refer to efforts to tailor education to meet the different needs of students.

The use of the term "personalized learning" dates back to at least the early 1960s, but definitions still vary and it is still an evolving term. In 2005, Dan Buckley defined two ends of the personalized learning spectrum: "personalization for the learner", in which the teacher tailors the learning, and "personalization by the learner", in which the learner develops skills to tailor his own learning. This spectrum was adopted by the (2006) Microsoft's Practical Guide to Envisioning and Transforming Education and has been updated by Microsoft in other publications.

CZI now has former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education James H. Shelton as the initiative’s president of education. It is encouraging to me that he said “We’ve got to dispel this notion that personalized learning is just about technology. In fact, it is about understanding students, giving them agency, and letting them do work that is engaging and exciting... Many people have a preconceived notion that ‘personalized learning’ is a kid in the corner alone with a computer. Forget about that.”

CZI will direct 99 percent of their Facebook shares (an $45 billion) to causes related to education and science, through a combination of charitable giving and investment.

Being in technology, you would expect Zuckerberg to want to put a lot of the money and efforts into that area. That's what happened with many of the efforts that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have made in education.

Adaptive learning - which I don't see as the same thing as personalized learning but some people do -  is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices. The technology allocates both the human (teachers, tutors, counselors)  and mediated resources according to the unique needs of each learner. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students' learning needs. A lot of computer-aided assessment and responses to questions, tasks and experiences direct the next step for the learner.

Adaptive learning technology encompasses aspects derived from various fields of study including computer science, education, psychology, and brain science. Although this approach is not teacher- or student-centered, it does attempt to transform the learner from passive receptor of information to collaborator in the educational process. Adaptive learning systems have been used in education and also in business training. 

CZI realize this personalized learning will extend over decades. They began in December 2015, shortly after the birth of their first child.

The Initiative has invested in BYJU’S, an India-based startup behind a popular online-learning app, and Enlearn, a Seattle-based nonprofit that has developed a new adaptive-learning platform. CZI has also partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on a $12 million “venture philanthropy” grant award. 

When I was starting my teaching career in the mid-1970s, the personalization was mostly driven by teachers and rarely used technology. 

But how does this fit into the newest version of the main federal K-12 education law, Every Student Succeeds Act. Unfortunately, our national plans usually only last for only 4 or 8 years (based on administrations), so we never see a cohort of students go through an educational lifetime. The new law does seem to push states and schools to think about more than standardized-test scores when determining what it means to help students thrive.

Do we need a clear and set definition of personalized learning in order to move forward? How does the CZI idea of educating the "whole child" fit into personalizing learning?