Distance Learning Is Getting Closer to Home

distance learnerAccording to the report from Learning House released in May, two-thirds of online undergrads were taking online classes less than 50 miles from a campus of the school where they enrolled.

This probably surprises many educators. In the early days of online learning, one of the big attractions of online courses was that it gave access to students at a distance from institutions. We called it distance learning back in the day for just that reason. At my university, we often talked about those students we had in a course who were across the country or aboard a Navy ship on the other side of the world.

That changed over the years and the trend became to offer our own commuter and residents students online courses. The convenience wasn't about the distance from campus but about the convenience of anytime learning. A generation used to time-shifting their viewing habits on TV by VHS tapes and later DVRs was primed for doing the same for education. Video-on-demand (VOD) and education-on-demand (EOD?).

In the report, they found that 45% of the students studied online within 25 miles of campus - which is not a terrible commute. 78% of the online students were enrolled at a school with a campus within 100 miles. The old distant student that lived more than 250 miles from their campus accounted for only 8% of the respondents.

Learning House is a company that partners with schools to market and manage online programs, so analytics on why students select what they select is important to their business model. Obviously, local media is more important to marketing online programs than national ads.

The reasons respondents gave for selecting an online program are not surprising: things related to ease and pace of study, such as year-round courses, frequent start dates, self-paced courses and accelerated courses. Of course, tuition and fees is always a factor.

The surprises in the report come more from the results around distance. Besides the reasons given above, why would students take online courses from a school that offered them face-to-face nearby? The survey found that 76% visit their campus at least once a year, and 45% do so three or more times per year. Why? The top reason was to meet face-to-face with a teacher (40%) but also to use a library or lab or meet with a study group. Not exactly a hybrid course, but touching upon some of those features. Students seem to want those options along with the online features.

The "anywhere, anytime" learning model still works, but the appeal of the big name university across the country may not be as appealing as we once believed. This is also something we see with MOOCs. The appeal of free courses from major universities online is still with us, but many students still feel negatively "distanced" from the instructor and their fellow students with any online learning experience. But in a course with 20 other students is not as distanced as one with 20,000 students.

 

 

Should Social Media Be in the Classroom?

appsThere's no question that social media is increasingly ubiquitous across age groups and industries. The drivers have been the rapidly increasing ubiquity of smartphones and expanding WiFi networks that gave rise to the many social media networks. many of those platforms have fallen away and a handful of them, like Instagram and Facebook, dominate.

And then there is the education world...

A 2015 Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of teens use more than one social networking site, and 24 percent are online “almost constantly.” Schools have reacted as they often do with new technology. They try to stop it from entering the classroom. Phone-off policies have been used for several decades. Students sneaking a look at their Instagram account in class are treated in the same way we would have treated a student sneaking a look at a comic book in the 1950s.

Of course, there were teachers who tried to incorporate phones and even social media into their lessons. Having students do searches, following a class hashtag, polling apps or using the photo and video capabilities to record experiments or document learning are just a few ways teachers have made the enemy mobile device more friendly.

But those teachers and classrooms are still the exception. I regularly see articles in edtech journals about a teacher using social media and it is treated as innovation when it is not. I understand the headlines though, because it is still at the fringes of classroom pedagogy.

The concerns in K-12 are understandable and that is a different world when it comes to privacy, cyberbullying and other issues. But social media in higher education classrooms is just as limited.

So, am I saying we all need to include more social media in our courses? Yes, but with the caveat that it should be limited - as with other mediums such as film/video - to true educational applications. Using social media to be trendy is stupid.

Social media can be a way to teach students to think critically and creatively about the world and their place in it. I feel that we do have an obligation to teach students about the intelligent use of their devices and apps. Successful networking, whether it be via devices or face-to-face, is always listed as a skill employers want. As mobile social media continues to dominate our culture, its intelligent use for marketing or more personal communication becomes a must-have skill.

A page at accreditedschoolsonline.org lists a number of resources and lesson plans that teachers can use. It is important to use lessons that would naturally occur in your curriculum, rather than injecting social media lesson into what is probably an already crowded curriculum. How can social media be the tool or vector to teach what you want to teach?

The way that rather than just have students read a famous speech or Shakespeare scene or poem, you can have them experience it as a video/audio, we can find new ways to experience content via social media.

Two examples from that resource page:

Flickr Gallery is a lesson using curated (in itself, an important concept) Flickr galleries to teach students about selecting useful images, critical thinking about image presentation, and ideas of intellectual property and copyright.

I know that some of my colleagues would laugh at the idea of using Twitter for Research (some still don't understand why students need to be taught to properly use Wikipedia) but it is certainly used in that way by journalists and other professional writers. 

Educators need to be more aware of the social learning aspects of websites that they might not think of as "social media." For example, Goodreads is a free site that allows people to search its literary database, annotations and reviews and curate reading lists, connect with other readers and even take quizzes about books or do a Q&A with an author. This is not limited to fiction. Non-fiction groups are there too. My own Goodreads list has connected me to readers of my reviews and led to conversations about authors and books.

And other sites are probably not familiar to many teachers. Yes, you will need to think outside the platform's probable original uses and applications and hack them for your educational needs. Kahoot! is a game-based trivia and quiz platform that obviously provides a way for teachers - and even better, students - to create and share their own quizzes within the classroom. Wakelet is a free social media curating (I do like that skill) platform that allows you to collect information from around the web, including tweets, videos and photos. These collections can be private or shared, and users can add text of their own to their stories.

Should Social Media Be in the Classroom? Yes. How might you use sites like Reddit, Snapchat, SoundCloud or Twitch in your courses? An excellent topic for professional development.

Online Learning Is Not All in English

globeAmericans are rather well known for being American-centric. President Trump's "America First" speeches make that clear. Despite what Copernicus pointed out, we tend to think we are the center of the universe. This also tends to be true when it comes to MOOCs.

MOOCs from outside the United States don't get the same amount of attention as ones from within. I started a group on LinkedIn back in 2012 when I was offering a meta-MOOC on their rising use in academia. That group over the years has been much more international and broadened the discussions to online learning in general. 

Of course, even an American MOOC taught from Stanford is international in its participants. I try to take note of international courses and efforts.

Globally about 75% of all MOOCs are offered in English. Translating MOOCs taught in English to other languages can increase participant enrollment and disperse course knowledge to non-English language learners. However, it takes a significant amount of time and resources to translate text from English into another language, and then manually replace the translated text in the targeted language.

"China's higher education is facing problems, such as traditional teaching approaches, content and the quality of teachers not meeting student demand in the new era," said Zhan Dechen, a professor at Harbin Institute of Technology. Could MOOCs could be a solution to those problems? More MOOCs in China creates its own set of challenges.

The Online Education Development Office (OEDO) in Japan has trained teaching assistants who support faculty members in all aspects of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and Small Private Online Course (SPOC) planning, production and course running as well as assistance with copyright issues. They offer a MOOC Development Toolkit which include Microsoft Excel and Python scripts to speed up the translation process in Open edX Studio. OEDO developed a Content Modification Tool that replaces English text with translated Japanese text in a localized version of Stanford University's MOOC on “Creating Effective Online and Blended Courses”, for Japanese faculty/staff development.course development in edX Studio.   

Still, that 75% of MOOCs in English have international appeal, translated or not. Google launched a MOOC to train entry-Level IT Support Staffers. It was intended for use with Americans. Before Google created its certificate program through Coursera, Google training programs designed to help low-income young adults get into the information technology industry by learning the fundamentals of tech support were being offered. Through its work with a relatively small number of learners who participated in Google internships or an IT residency program, the company discovered it could get them qualified very quickly. This is the type of course that if it was a truly MOpenOC, and translated, it could be offered for a much more global audience.

Learning How to Learn Online

learnI have been reading about some of the sessions at the International Conference on E-Learning in the Workplace (ICELW) that occurred this month at Columbia University. 

One keynoter was Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester. She is known for her course "Learning How to Learn," which is sometimes described as being "the world’s most popular MOOC." It has had more than 2 million participants. There may be MOOCs with more participants, but her course has been translated into multiple languages and had some serious media attention. It is a broader kind of course and not really aimed at a college audience alone. It fits into a workplace focused conference and lifelong learning. It is described as a course that “gives you easy access to the invaluable learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, math, science, sports, and many other disciplines” to learn.

I haven't taken this course, but I plan to this summer. From what I have read, many of the concepts are ones I know from my own teaching and education courses. For example, “how the brain uses two very different learning modes and how it encapsulates (“chunks”) information.” That is something I learning a long time ago in teaching secondary school, and also used extensively in doing instructional design on other professors' courses as they moved online.

I was more interested in knowing what her "secrets" would be for building and teaching that MOOC. I haven't seen any video from the conference, but here are some bits I have found about her session.  

She uses the "Learning How to Learn" principles of learning that are being taught in the course in the design of the course. She is not adverse to PowerPoint slides but uses simple visuals to chunk key ideas.

Oakley emphasized the impact of integrating lessons from neuroscience. One of those is neuro reuse theory. The theory was a way to explain the underlying neural processes which allow humans to acquire recently invented cognitive capacities. It attempts to explain how the brain responds to new cognitive processes - think of many of our digital encounters - which are cultural inventions too modern to be the products of evolution. Simple application is her use of metaphors (a key element of neural reuse theory) because they allow students to a quick way to encounter new ideas. 

She emphasizes paying attention to production values in creating a course. She did her course production herself at home and says the cost was $5000. I assume that was for software, video hardware etc. Many schools now have production facilities for online course development. 

Bottom-up (as opposed to top-down) attentional mechanisms are a theory from neuroscience that she uses to keep attention on the screen.  Bottom-up mechanisms are thought to operate on raw sensory input, rapidly and
involuntarily shifting attention
to salient visual features of potential importance. Think of the sudden movement that could be a predator. Top-down mechanisms implement our longer-term cognitive strategies, biasing attention toward something like a learned shape or color that signals a predator.

This is a more complex topic than can be covered in a blog post but it is easy to accept that the brain is limited in its capacity to process all sensory stimuli in our sensory-overload physical world. The brain relies on the cognitive process of attention to focus neural resources according to the contingencies of the moment. You can attention into two functions. Bottom-up attention is attention guided by externally driven factors to stimuli. That could be the bright colored popup ad on a screen. Instructional designers can make use of techniques that marketers and game designers have long used. Top-down attention refers to internal guidance of attention based on factors such as prior knowledge and current goals. The overall organizational structure of a course - weekly elements, labels, icons - can take advantage of top-down attention.

She recommended the use of "unexpected humor" to help maintain interest, which can also be a bottom-up technique.

Wherever practicable, theory is instantiated with examples drawn from personal stories.

Overall, this is all about trying harder to engage learners. Oakley pointed out that in a MOOC learners aren’t "caged up like students on campus." MOOC learners are free-range learners - free to come and go, free to stop paying attention or attending class - and if course production values are weak, students are more likely to tune out.

In designing and teaching an online course in the traditional college/tuition/credit/degree situation, we do have students caged more, but that doesn't mean their brains operate differently.

One of Oakley's earlier books is A Mind for Numbers with the subtitle How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and her new book this summer is Learning How to Learn whose subtitle is How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens. Those subtitles remind me that these book and the topics they address are lifelong learning concerns, though certainly of interest to K-20 teachers.

I am planning to take her course this summer before I embark on a new course design project. See coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn I'll follow up on this post when I finish. If I finish. If I don't finish, I guess I'll make some analysis of why - was it me or the course?



Digital Humanities and Open Pedagogy

human network

I see that the Google Science Fair is back and, though many K-12 teachers are at the end of their academic year, this summer is the time to plan for what students could do in the fall. This seems like a "science" activity, but this is where the phrase "digital humanities" should be.

Looking at the the website googlesciencefair.com, you find projects that take the science well beyond the science classroom. Closely related are the activities in Google's Applied Digital Skills curriculum. Here you can find some well-constructed lessons that can be done in as little as an hour and ones that could stretch across a week or unit.

For example, one suitable for middle and high school students is on creating a resume. It's something I did with students decades ago in a non-digital way. The skills involved here are many. Obviously, there is the writing, some research and some analysis of your own skills and ambitions. There are also the more digital forms of collaboration, document formatting and submission. I did this with undergrads a few years ago and required each of them to research and submit their resume to an internship opportunity. 

A longer activity that fits in so well with topics currently at the top of the news is about Technology, Ethics, and Security. Students research technology risks and dangers, explore solutions, and create a report to communicate their findings.

I would also note that the digital humanities must include what humanities teachers do in their work. 

Quizzes in Google Forms have been around for a few years and educators have used them for class assessments and in unintended ways as a tool. New features were recently added based on feedback from teachers' creative uses of the Quizzes. 

One example is that now, using Google’s machine learning, Forms can now predict the correct answer as a teacher types the question. It can also provide options for wrong answers. A simple example is a quiz on U.S. capitals would use this feature to "predict" the correct capitals for every state.

That doesn't mean that Google doesn't have a special interest in the computer science side of eduction. They offer special resources in those areas and professional development grants for CS educators to support those in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

I don't want to sound like an advertisement for Google - though advertising free and open resources isn't like selling something. Much of what the digital humanities can do moves teachers into an "open pedagogy." It changes the way we teach. 

This is more important than just finding resources.

David Wiley has written
"Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about open educational resources, but precious little has been written about how OER – or openness more generally – changes the practice of education. Substituting OER for expensive commercial resources definitely save money and increase access to core instructional materials. Increasing access to core instructional materials will necessarily make significant improvements in learning outcomes for students who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to the materials (e.g., couldn’t afford to purchase their textbooks). If the percentage of those students in a given population is large enough, their improvement in learning may even be detectable when comparing learning in the population before OER adoption with learning in the population after OER adoption. Saving significant amounts of money and doing no harm to learning outcomes (or even slightly improving learning outcomes) is clearly a win. However, there are much bigger victories to be won with openness."

Too much emphasis when talking about OER is on free textbooks and cost savings and not enough on the many other resources available that allow educators to customize their curriculum and even allow for individual differences. The longtime practice of curriculum designed around a commercial textbook needs to end. 

I have written here about what I called Open Everything. What I am calling now Open Pedagogy would be under that umbrella term. Others have called this pedagogy Open Educational Practices (OEP). In either case, it is the use of Open Educational Resources for teaching and learning in order to innovate the learning process.  In this, I include the open sharing of not only the resources, but also of the teaching practices.

Currently, I would say the level of openness we see is low. Others have defined the levels as: Low - teachers believe they know what learners have to learn. A focus on knowledge transfer. Medium - Predetermined Objectives (closed environment) but, using open pedagogical models and encourage dialogue and Problem-based learning. And the goal is for the highest level when Learning Objectives and pathways are highly governed by the learners.