The Online Learning Perfect Storm

online learnerAwhile back, edX CEO Anant Agarwal wrote in Forbes "How Four Technologies Created The 'Perfect Storm' For Online Learning." The four technologies are cloud computing, video distribution at scale, gamification, and social networking. A commentary by Stephen Downes doesn't question the impact these four have had on online learning, but he does question Agarwal's claim that each is a part of edX.

For example, he notes that the claim that "social networking" is present is because it uses a discussion board. That is certainly a stretch. For gamification he cites "simulation-based games, virtual labs, and other interactive assignments," none of which is integral to edX.

Downes considers the article "lightweight" but though there may not be a perfect storm it is worth noting the impact of those four things beyond edX.

Cloud computing has allowed exponential scalability in many sectors including online learning. Online learning platforms (Does anyone say learning management systems anymore?) became more responsive and faster.

Scalability was certainly key to the emergence of MOOCs. When some colleges tried their own MOOC offerings they realized that they couldn't handle the jump from courses with 25 or 100 students to ones with thousands of students. Of curse, even if you are still offering smaller online courses, the cloud allows all students to benefit from faster, more responsive platforms.

Video has been a part of online learning for 40 years if you go back to ITV, videotapes, CDs and DVDs. Broadbandallowed video to stream and sharing and distribution really hit about the same time as MOOCs were starting to gain initial momentum. YouTube and Vimeo allowed some smaller institutions a way to distribute high-quality videos.

When I was at NJIT, I got the university to sign on in 2007 as one of the first of 16 universities to use Apple's iTunes U. That gave us a much larger presence in online learning. I wrote about it extensively on this blog. But iTunes U didn't grab the market share the way MOOCs and YouTube did. The interface was not friendly to universities or to users. You don't hear it mentioned much by educators now and I doubt that it will exist in 2020.

iTunes U was important for sharing university lectures and some supporting documents. It was more open than what we would expect from Apple because the content was opened up by the institutions (colleges and also educational institutions like museums). I consider it an early tool in the MOOC movement. 

Gamification has been a buzzword for a long time, but it still hasn't made its way into most learning platforms by for-profits or in colleges. There's no doubt that instant feedback and more active engagement in the learning process produces better success, but I find faculty still back off at the word gamification. Some of that fear or disdain is because they associate it with videogames and gaming sounds less "educational." This is a misconception, but one that has persisted. I always used to say that just say "simulation" instead of gamification and you'll get more buy-in from faculty. Sometimes that worked.

Simulations that use game strategies and components can be used in virtual labs and many interactive activities, knowledge checks (graded or not) and assignments in order to promote higher-order thinking tasks such as design, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The "fun factor" shouldn't be ignored although that is part of the hesitation from faculty. There is this sadly persistent idea that learning is supposed to be difficult and not fun.

Social networking came on strong in the era of Web 2.0. Today it comes in for a lot of criticism. I believe that many educators who were using Twitter, Facebook and other social sites in their teaching have backed away. part of that is the criticism and privacy issues on such sites and part of it is that there are some tools built into platforms that allow for a more private social experience. However, posting your thoughts in an LMS for the rest of the class really doesn't duplicate or approach the experience of posting it online for a large part of the world. Twitter boasts 330 million monthly active users (as of 2019 Q1) and 40 percent (134 million) use the service on a daily basis (Twitter, 2019).    The chance to interact and possibly collaborate across the globe is no small thing.

What will create the next perfect storm in online learning? Agarwal suggests that the next four high-impact technologies will be AI, big data analytics, AR/VR and robotics.

Think Globally But Learn Online Locally

online cafe

One thing that MOOCs offered was the opportunity to take courses from top universities with famous faculties for free. Then, companies like Coursera and edX decided that a business model might be to offer those prestigious faculty and schools to learners for a fee. The fee would certainly be far less than the tuition at those prestigious schools, but then again you wouldn't be getting all the benefits of being a student at that school, including getting a degree.

Certainly, there are trade-offs, but it still seems like a good deal. Colleges big and small saw the opportunities and learned some things from the MOOC experiments and it did move online learning in some new directions in higher education and even at the secondary school level.

Despite all these global opportunities to learn, I have been reading that an increasing numbers of online students choose to study locally.

The Online College Students annual study for 2019 found that 84% of current and former fully online students either strongly agreed (44%) or agreed (40%) that their "online education was worth the cost and 47% of current fully online students said they planned to take additional courses from their institution after they earn their current degree.

As stated, this comes at a time when "students, parents and politicians seem to be questioning the value of higher education."

Does online learning appear to be a solution or part of the problem?

Another annual study (from Learning House, Wiley Education & Aslanian Research) that surveyed 1500 current or soon-to-be students in fully online academic programs (for undergraduate or graduate degrees, certificates or licensure)includes a section about how online students decided where, what and how to study.

58 percent of them said they had decided what discipline to study before they decided to study online. 63 percent said they had decided to study online because that fit best with their "current work/life responsibilities." Though we sometimes hear that students use online because it is their "preferred way to learn," only 34 percent gave that response.

The convenience factor is certainly a good part of why fully online students are still staying close to home. Though the surveys did not address this, I suspect that some students, though online, want to be able to access services (such as the library and counseling), offices, faculty and perhaps some campus events so that their online life has some real life college experiences too.

In my own experience with online programs, we also discovered that a majority of our online students lived within 50 miles of a campus or service center of the college where they are studying. In the latter survey, 67 percent of respondents were withing 50 miles and that was up from 42 percent just five years ago.

Some other takeaways:

  • "The growing number of schools offering online programs provides students with more options closer to their home. Local schools have greater visibility among employers and others in the community, which is valuable to students."
  • More than 80 percent of current and former students agreed that their online program improved their mastery of various "soft skills" such as critical thinking and problem solving, time management, and attention to detail.
  • Nearly three in five students age 45 or under said they completed some or most of their course-related activities using mobile devices, while another 17 percent said they would have liked to have gone mobile. NOTE Only 27 percent of students 46 or older said they had completed course work on mobile, and 51 percent said they would not want to.

The Rules of Engagement

online courseI was reading an article with suggestions on how to get more social media engagement on the same day that I was doing a Quality Matters (QM) review of an online course. The QM rubrics ask a reviewer to consider student engagement. Social media marketing and higher education may seem very different, but the engagement objective is certainly shared.

I decided to walk through the article's suggestions with an eye to online courses to see how much crossover I would find. 

The article says there are three rules of engagement for social media: Be Consistent. Ask Specific Questions. Include an Element of Fun.  I'd have to say I would like to see all three true in online courses. 

Having come from the K-12 world before higher ed, I learned quickly that consistency in my teaching was critical. That was true about lesson presentation, grading, discipline and all the rules that are on the syllabus and that come up throughout the year. Consistency builds a kind of trust in student expectations. It helps avoid situations where you might be accused of treating some students better or worse than others. My middle school classroom had a pretty much daily routine that became so natural that when I did depart from it my students immediately noticed it. That can sound a little boring and occasional "inconsistencies" and spontaneous teachable moments are certainly also needed.

As a reviewer of online courses, I try to put myself in the place of a new student in the course and I often find that instructions for assignments and even discussion questions are just not very clear. Ask Specific Questions is very important. Teachers know that a question in a classroom such as "Are there any questions?" or "Does everyone understand that?" are terrible ways to elicit responses and a terrible way to check on learning. 

Including an "Element of Fun" sounds great and yet I know that if I suggest that to many professors I will get a doctoral stare from them. Sadly, I have learned that there are too many teachers who think that real learning should NOT be fun. In fact, they seem to associate suffering with learning, as in the equally stupid mantra of "No pain, no gain." The best learning experiences are enjoyable ones. That's why gamification became a hot topic in education. It's not that everything in a course should be like playing a video game, but what makes games on and offline engaging should certainly be considered.

Create a Club-Like Experience. "Club" isn't the right word in education, but online you will often hear that you need to build an online "community." Social media sites are very good at this. They gain followers who check sites every day, post, like, and comment. Isn't that what you want in your online class community? 

I always tell the faculty that they need to personalize their courses and that they need to have a social presence there. Video is a great way to do this with things like a syllabus and course walkthrough video using screen capture and your voice. You should also let students see you. The experience shouldn't be like hearing a voice on the radio that you can't attach to any actual human. A short (less than 5 minutes) welcome video for the course is easy to record using anything from your phone to whatever your school provides. It can be shot in your office or from your couch. But what if it is a video of you at the park with your dog, or you in your lab on campus? Either is more interesting and would also present another side of you.

Beyond the rules, there are also many tips and suggestions to increase engagement. One suggestion is to encourage conversations with audience triggers. The "trigger" term might trigger things associations like pain points. These sparks(?) for conversation have nothing to do with the topic of your content or your primary value but use the personal likes/dislikes of your audience. Of course, you first need to know those likes/dislikes. Then, you can use hobbies and other interests, such as movies, pets or sports, as a pathway to content. (This might be your entry into "fun.")

Using visuals is hardly new in presenting in face-to-face situations but it is still lacking in many online courses that are very text-based.  (BTW, putting text on PowerPoint slides is NOT visual - even when you insert some gratuitous clip art.)

There are plenty of articles on increasing engagement online ( a few below) but I am suggesting that you also look to how engagement is encouraged online by advertisers, game makers and the stars of social media.



https://www.d2l.com/blog/7-tips-for-increasing-student-engagement-in-online-courses/

https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/news_item/ten-ways-overcome-barriers-student-engagement-online/

https://www.wbtsystems.com/learning-hub/blogs/9-ways-to-increase-online-student-engagement 

https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/student-engagement-how-to-help-students-succeed-in-the-online-environment/

https://community.canvaslms.com/thread/16033-student-engagement-in-an-online-course

 

Farewell to Apple iTunes

Whether you loved or hated Apple's iTunes, it was a big step iTunes as a media player, media library, Internet radio broadcaster, and eventually as a mobile device management application. Now it is being unbundled and essentially phased out, according to press release from the latest Apple Worldwide Developer Conference.

Apple Inc. announced it as a new service and tool on January 9, 2001. It was used to play, download, and organize digital multimedia files, including music and video, on personal computers running the macOS and Windows operating systems. It forced you to purchase through the iTunes Store.

My own professional interest in it focused on iTunes U which allowed universities to offer content, including courseware (mostly lectures at first) and other "podcast" materials and even print content, in a open way. I have been writing here about iTunes since 2006.

The latest move by Apple is probably much more tied to changes in the music industry and the way consumers listen to and purchase music. Apple has been pushing users to its Apple Music subscription service, like Spotify and others. That is a better deal for them since it means a guaranteed monthly fee instead of waiting and hoping that a customer will buy songs. I have not subscribed and I have not purchased music from their store in several years, and I suspect I am not alone in that trend.

Apple is phasing out iTunes in favor of three apps called Music, TV and Podcasts. This is very much how those services are already divided on iPhones and iPads.

From what I have read, iTunes will still exist as a standalone iOS app and on Windows PCs and your previous purchases and libraries will be maintained in each new app on Mac computers.

podcasting at NJITI have not found any information on the future of iTunes U. My university, NJIT, was one of the "sweet 16" schools to be there for the launch of iTunes U in May 2007. But with iTunes version 12.7 (August 2017), iTunes U collections became a part of the Podcasts app.

NJIT stopped using their iTunes U instance several years ago. They were not alone in higher education. That is a trend that does not please me as it took away one source of open courseware. But some schools have moved that content to other MOOC platforms which offer richer environments for full course offerings.

Apple says that it will not be remotely deleting years of downloaded and purchased songs and movies, but will probably find a way to bridge, manage and access downloaded content in other ways. A clear cut-off date for iTunes has not been set.