Where Are the Learning Engineers?

Do we need learning engineers? Most people would answer that they didn't even know there was such a job. Currently, I don't think anyone does have that job (though I could imagine it being on someone's business card anyway.)

Wikipedia defines engineering as "the application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design, build, and maintain structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes. It may encompass using insights to conceive, model and scale an appropriate solution to a problem or objective. The discipline of engineering is extremely broad, and encompasses a range of more specialized fields of engineering, each with a more specific emphasis on particular areas of technology and types of application.'

From that I could imagine many teachers, instructional designers and trainers feeling like they might be "learning engineers."

I have read a few articles that suggest that we consider using the title.

One of those articles is by Bror Saxberg who is chief learning officer at Kaplan Inc. On his blog, he wrote:

The creative educator or instructional designer can and should draw inspiration for tough challenges from everywhere and anywhere, if there isn't evidence already available to guide him or her. Unlike many challenges faced by an artist or author, however, instructional designers and educators also need to be grounded in how the real world actually works. (Even artists have to battle with the chemistry and material properties of the media they choose, it should be noted – you might want glass to be strong enough to support something in a certain way, but you may have to alter your artistic vision to match the reality.) Simply imagining how learning might work is not enough to build solutions that are effective for learners at scale – whether we like it or not, whether we get it right or not, how learning works in the world is going to affect the outcomes at scale.

A few years back, I heard the term "design thinking" used frequently in education circles. The graduate program I teach in at NJIT is still called Professional and Technical Communications, but "design" has become part of many of the courses.

That is enough of a trend that you can hear others asking if  design thinking is the new liberal arts. One example is the "d.school" at Stanford University (formally, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design)  which considers itself a training ground for problem-solving for graduate students. Rather than stress the typical design path of making products, they look at  design thinking as a way "to equip our students with a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field."

Perhaps, "learning engineer" is more of a way of rethinking how teachers and academics design instruction. Maybe it is another way to look at engineering.

A few years ago, Bill Jerome wrote about the engineering side and said: "Imagine a more “traditional” engineer hired to design a bridge.  They don’t revisit first principles to design a new bridge.  They don’t investigate gravity, nor do they ignore the lessons learned from previous bridge-building efforts (both the successes and the failures).  They know about many designs and how they apply to the current bridge they’ve been asked to design.  They are drawing upon understandings of many disciplines in order to design the new bridge and, if needed, can identify where the current knowledge  doesn’t account for the problem at hand and know what particular deeper expertise is needed.  They can then inquire about this new problem and incorporate a solution."

I think that there is a place for design thinking in engineering and also an engineering approach to designing instruction.

Design thinking as an approach to problem solving is often described using some basic principles:

Show Don’t Tell

Focus on Human Values

Craft Clarity

Embrace Experimentation

Be Mindful of Process

Bias Toward Action

Radical Collaboration

Those could be viewed as five modes that fit easily into engineering and education: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.

Saxberg gives the example of needing someone to design a new biotech brewing facility. Do you want a chemist or a chemical engineer? He says the engineer - someone who "deeply understands modern chemistry... but is also conversant with health regulations, safety regulations, costs of building, and thinks in an integrated way about designing things for scale."

Do we have "learning engineers" now that understand the research about learning, test it, and apply it to help more students learn more effectively? Are they teaching or are they doing research? Do all teachers need to be learning engineers?

I somewhat fear that if the title becomes used that it will end up leaning heavily towards educational technology. That's something I see happening to many "teaching and learning" and "teaching excellence" center at colleges.

Technology can help. I have spent the past fifteen years working with that. But there is no guarantee that instructors using technology will somehow be better instructors. We know a lot about how people learn, but most of that isn't being used by those who teach.

When I started at NJIT in 2000, I was hesitant about telling seasoned instructors "how to teach" (pedagogy). But I was pleasantly surprised by two things. First, the people who came to me or to our workshops were open to learning not only about new technology but about pedagogy. I was also surprised by how many of them were willing to say that no one had ever taught them "how to teach" and that they were always a little unsure about running only on intuition and their personal experiences with learning. "I try to teach like the good teachers I had and avoid being like the bad ones," was a sentiment I heard fairly frequently.

Having come from teaching in a secondary school where everyone had a split educational background of subject matter expertise and educational pedagogy with continuing professional development in the latter, it took some transitioning for me to settle into the higher education setting.

Being that NJIT is very much an engineering (and design) institution, the idea of learning engineers might have been a good approach to take with that faculty.

This post first appeared at ronkowitz.com

Looking at the MOOC Professionally and Educationally

I have maintained since 2012 that the MOOC would be more likely to have an impact of advancing professional learning than it would in advancing students towards a degree. If you want a degree, you still need to take classes at your institution online or on the ground, get passing grades and complete the degree program, That has not really changed.

In the workplace or outside your workplace on your own, a MOOC is a good way to advance you knowledge for free or inexpensively and advance your career.

A new report, billed as “the first longitudinal study of open online learning outcomes,” suggests that many learners credit MOOCs directly for pay raises, promotions and even academic progress. ("Impact Revealed: Learner Outcomes in Open Online Courses," appears in Harvard Business Review. ) Looking at learners who complete one of Coursera’s MOOCs, a majority of learners feel they benefit professionally and sometimes educationally from completing a MOOC. This study corroborates previous findings that more learners are using MOOCs to further their careers than their education.

It also reinforces earlier findings that those who benefit the most from these courses are learners that were more likely to be employed men in developed countries who had previously earned a degree. Also, those from less-advantaged backgrounds are most likely to benefit. 

That is quite different from the heyday of 2012 MOOC madness. The two narratives that got big media attention then were that 1) the MOOC will democratize higher education around the world   2)  MOOCs would revolutionize and possibly destroy universities, tuition and degree programs.  Unfortunately, that first idea has not come true on a large scale. And as far as #2, fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) that also has not happened.

On that second point, a number of studies, including one at the University of Pennsylvania using data collected from nine MOOCs offered by the university's Wharton School, show that they did not "cannibalize" the school's programs. Researchers found 78 percent of the more than 875,000 students who took the MOOCs resided outside the United States while the M.B.A. programs generally enroll a majority of students from the U.S. A plus was that the MOOCs also attracted more underrepresented minorities.

Further Reading: chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus


This post also appeared at www.linkedin.com

Flipping Learning and Making Spaces

I did a presentation titled "Flipping the Learning Model" for the annual conference of the Connecticut Education Network in May 2015. The flipped classroom has been a hot topic in education for a number of years, but more recently, the idea of flipping professional development has been experimented at schools and in corporate training. That is a topic I did a presentation on last fall at NJEDge.Net Annual Conference. Taking the flipped classroom into the world of professional development is a relatively new step in the flipped learning model.

What I was more interested in in the CEN presentation was rethinking how learners work before and after a face-to-face training session to make it more self-directed.

That leads us into discussions of technology integration and andragogical concepts that maximize the time online and during the live group sessions.In both cases, the idea is to rethink what we want to spend our time with in face-to-face (F2F) sessions and how can we move training before and after those sessions to be self-directed.

The flipped learning model using technology, even in our personal learning, maximizes the F2F time for interaction.

I paired my session with another one on makerspaces and I asked attendees to try this flipped learning activity before coming to the conference and the plan was that we would complete it in the face-to-face session. 

As I anticipated, only a few people took up the challenge to do something prior to the session. They were asked to to experiment with one or more ways to increase the volume and sound quality of a smartphone using simple materials and no electronics or additional power. The sample provided online were simple - from just using a cup or bowl to a built object. A few people brought a result of their DIY experimentation to the live session. I would expect a bigger response from students in a course or a group involved in a class, project or makerspace. But, as my slides indicated, as with assigning students "homework" any flipped model must anticipate that some attendeees will not have done the preparation for the session.

In our face-to-face session, I tested a few samples with a decibel meter, but the presentation and my intent was to discuss how this simple exercise can be applied to classroom learning.

I asked some questions of those who did try experimenting, as I would with students.

What did you learn from your experiments? What materials made the greatest improvement in sound? What is more important: volume or sound quality? How would you define "sound quality?" What additional equipment or learning would be necessary for you to go further with this experiment? How might you use this exercise (or a similar one) in your classroom?

I recall reading EDUCAUSE's "7 Things You Should Know About Makerspaces" in 2013. They ask and answer, "What are the implications for teaching and learning?"

"The makerspace gives room and materials for physical learning. Because these spaces can easily be cross-disciplinary, students in many fields can use them, often finding technical help for work they are undertaking in their areas. At the same time, those in engineering and technology will find their work enriched by contributions from those in other fields. Makerspaces allow students to take control of their own learning as they take ownership of projects they have not just designed but defined. At the same time, students often appreciate the

hands-on use of emerging technologies and a comfortable acquaintance with the kind of experimentation that leads to a completed project. Where makerspaces exist on campus, they provide a physical laboratory for inquiry-based learning."

Whether you call your space for creative work and play a classroom or a makerspace or an innovation lab, hackerspace, tech shop or fabrication lab, what we need to focus on as educators is what goes on inside that space. More important than the name of the space is the pedagogy for its use and how it reaches out to a larger community - whether that be a school, campus or city.


The T in Teaching Centers

These centers at colleges have many different names - Teaching & Learning Center (TLC), Teaching Support Center (TSC), Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) etc. - but  "what's in a name" - or a letter?

My university is exploring starting one of these centers (tentatively to be a Teaching Excellence Center - TEC). We already have a Technology Support Center and an Instructional Resource Center and a Master Teacher Group. So what would be the mission of the new Center?

In looking at examples of centers at other colleges, I have noticed that in many of them, the "T" has more often come to mean "technology" rather than "teaching." 

No doubt there is more and more overlap with those two things these days. But what needs to be clear is that if  the focus is how to use tools, then don't call it a teaching center.

For me, a teaching center would focus on pedagogy (and andragogy). How to use the quiz tool or gradebook in the LMS is not about assessment.  How to create stronger quizzes and sharing effective grading policies is pedagogy.

About 15 years ago, my department initiated a Teaching, Learning and Technology Group at the university. I was the manager of instructional technology then and we did instructional design (primarily for online courses) and worked with faculty to use the LMS, create audio and video files and use "tools." But when we planned our training sessions during the semester, we always included sessions that were on topics like authentic assessment, learning styles, Bloom's Taxonomy and Webb's Depth of Knowledge and other teaching topics. I was at first surprised at the interest in these sessions at a college level. I had come from the K-12 world where everyone had some education courses in the undergrad and grad curriculum and pedagogy was a standard part of professional development. It pleasantly surprised me when a professor said, "I never took an education course, so I find this all very interesting. I try to imitate good teachers I had, and avoid being like the bad ones."

Our TLT group tried to be both things - tech and teaching. But with all the focus on the tools lately and much of out Technology Support Center's staff time taken with supporting tools, the teaching can easily be forgotten. This is probably more true at a school like NJIT which is a science and technology university,  I spent 5 years at a community college and the scale tipped more to teaching than technology there. 

Having and utilizing a Master Teacher group, your writing center and tutoring staffs, and librarians is one way to increase the teaching content over the tools. Of course, it would be great to see a center being able to combine the tools with the teaching, so that the session on building effective quizzes also showed faculty how to do that well in the LMS, if that's what they are using.

Training Teachers Based on Competencies

Meeting of doctors at the university of Paris.jpg

"Meeting of doctors at the University of Paris" Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

As a graduate of a teacher-preparation program, I am always interested in hearing about new approaches to that process. Lately, there has been increasing demand for educators. I suspect that is partially from a lack of supply. Teaching is not seen as being a very attractive career these days. When I entered teaching four decades ago, it was viewed as a good solid career. The pay would not be great, but the benefits were good. It was particularly attractive to women who were mothers and could arrange their days and the year on a similar schedule to that of their children. It was a profession, but seen as less professional than a lawyer or doctor, although those three were once grouped together in rank. But that was a long time ago.

I have also seen more alternative preparation options being offered. The latest I have seen is a new graduate school and research lab announced by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. It will be a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to conduct research on teacher and school leadership education. (MIT has no school of education.)

It is very research-based and it will be part of a new institute at MIT, called the MIT PK-12 Initiative. That aspect will provide support to STEM teachers.

It is also competency-based, which is not entirely new to higher education, but a new approach to teacher preparation. It will focus on competencies rather than on seat time. 

Arthur Levine (former president of Teachers College, Columbia University and now head of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation) says that "Instead of focusing on courses and credits students need to take, we're going to focus on the skills and knowledge they need to have to enter the classroom." Most education schools have such low admission standards and are of such poor quality, Levine says, it would be easier to replace them than repair them. "They're old and dated." 

The Woodrow Wilson Academy only will take in 25 students during 2017, its first year. Being selective seems to be important for success. A new report from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that the more selective the program, the more likely that graduating teachers will remain in the profession and that students will be successful in the classroom. Students in the new Academy will have an opportunity to work with partner school districts in the greater Boston area. 

Some comparisons have been made to Teach for America. That program is also selective. It trains new teachers for up to 10 weeks over the summer and then sends them into some of the poorest parts of the country. But TFA's results show that rather than training new teachers, it helps people figure out what they want to do with their future. And after Corps members complete their required two year commitment, fewer than a third stay in their positions beyond that period. 

This Academy is at the graduate level and I feel that the real problems in teacher preparation - and the best place to make change - occur in undergraduate programs. I'm not aware at any radical departures in programs at that level.