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?



MOOCs Are Still a Solution

A recent opinion piece headlined "Moocs are a solution in search of a problem" by Chris Fellingham, who is strategy and research manager at FutureLearn, got a response from true MOOC pioneer Stephen Downes. 

Downes writes:

According to Chris Fellingham, MOOCs " arose from the boredom of Stanford University computer science professors fed up with teaching the same lectures each year. Out of idle curiosity, they wanted to see what would happen if they dumped their courses, lectures and all, online for anyone to take." According to this story, MOOCs then searched for a problem to solve - providing new skills to university graduates, say, or offering new kinds of certificates. None of that is my experience, nor is it even true outside the narrow bounds of Coursera and Udacity. MOOCs were created in order top provide access to learning using open educational resources, modeling the connectivist philosophy George Siemens and I had been working on for a number of years. The problem of access is real. It exists because the people writing in places like Times Higher Education do not consider access to be a problem at all.

MOOCFellingham's main premise is that since "A common question to start-up founders is: 'What problem does this solve?'” Then, MOOCs are a solution in want of a problem.

As Downes counters, the MOOC did not emerge initially "from the boredom of Stanford University computer science professors fed up with teaching the same lectures each year." Those Stanford courses came later, but did get a lot more attention in the media than the earlier MOOCs.

One problem that MOOCs can still help solve is access to learning. The "democratizing of knowledge" may sound lofty, but it is real. The Internet itself allowed for this in an informal learning way, but a MOOC is a much more formal approach - and an important one.

That first "O" in a Massive Open Online Course has taken a beating in the years since those first MOOCs. I would say that the majority of courses labeled as MOOCs today (such as those in Coursera and other large providers) are still massive online courses, but they are not open.

As Coursera, edX, Udacity and Fellingham's own FutureLearn make more connections and deals with universities in order to have a business model, their course become less open in the true OER sense.

Luckily, many of these courses are still free when taken without credit concerns. But free in cost is just one aspect of OPEN Educational resources.

I don't have issues with providers wanting to make a profit with their courses. But I am concerned with 1) those courses being called MOOCs when they are MOCs, and 2) that I am seeing fewer truly open courses being offered by large universities and the biggest providers.

Alternative certifications and degrees, such as MicroMasters and nanodegrees, have a place in higher ed and they owe much to the MOOC rEvolution.  

New online education companies keep appearing. No connections to a university, but possibly connections with employers also have a place in providing specific training in what employers want - which educators have sadly discovered is often not what they teach.

Many of the problems in education and in online education from a decade ago still exist. The solutions are still evolving.

Two More MOOCs I Didn't Complete. And I'm Okay With That.

MOOCThough we hear a lot less about Massive Open Online Courses now than we did five years ago, demand for online courses is still growing. In 2015, the global market for online learning was said to be about $107 billion and in 2017, this market was said to have grown to $255 billion. If those numbers are correct, that is more than 200% growth.

Those numbers certainly have attracted companies to create and sell online courses. But I still find many articles that say the completion rate for courses remains low - about 15%. HarvardX and MITx recently reported that only 5.5% of people who enroll in one of their open online courses earn a certificate.

How can we explain this disconnect between demand for courses and the number of people who actually complete the course whether it is free or for a fee? I would go back to some of my MOOC posts since 2012. People often take a MOOC with no intention to finish all the work or the course. They come into the course to get certain content. That is not a model traditional schools or instructors know. It is also a new model for learners. take what you need, and leave.

My own most recent MOOC experiences fit into the non-completion category.  I took the course from HarvardX (edX) on "Buddhism Through Its Scriptures."  I am not new to the study of religion or Buddhism, but I am not really familiar with Buddhist scriptures. I took this free course (no credit/certificate, though that is offered) because of an intellectual curiosity. The course has readings, both scriptural and informational. There are video lectures. There are discussions. There are even quizzes to check and perhaps stop you along the way to prevent you somewhat from just clicking your way through the content.

The other MOOC I enrolled in simultaneously is "Compassionate Leadership Through Service Learning with Jane Goodall and Roots & Shoots" offered through Coursera. This is an action-oriented online teacher professional development course. It is not as passive as many online courses and requires participants to identify and implement a local service-learning campaign. All of this uses the Roots & Shoots program model associated with Jane Goodall, who is one of my personal heroes.

I should not enroll in two courses at once. I just can't commit the time. Though I was interested in the service learning curriculum from an educator point of view, I did not have any plan to implement a campaign. 

I learned about the Roots and Shoots model, gathered some teacher resources, learned the differences between service-learning and community service, and understand what is meant by a compassionate leader. many of the skills apply to other projects I work on, especially in my volunteer work.I mentor young people and some of that is about try to create change in the community, so learning about using community mapping, collaborating with stakeholders, and designing practical campaigns are all useful. 

Did I learn from the two courses? Yes. Will I apply that learning to my personal and work lives? Yes. Did I complete the courses? No. Do I consider this a failure of the course or myself? No. 

One of the battle cries during the rise of the MOOC was to democratize online learning. I believe that has happened. The number of free and inexpensive online courses available to learners worldwide is massive. There might even be too many courses - part of the online information overload of blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, ebooks, webinars, and websites.

Our way of measuring student success across different platforms and educational settings need to change. A better question to ask a MOOC learner at the end of the course is whether the course met their needs. 

I don't know if the "freemium" model of the MicroMasters programs offered on edX will be part of a new way of selecting courses and a program. They allow someone to start in a lower-cost online course and then apply for an in-person semester-long graduate program if they make it through the online portion. The MOOC-that's-not-a-MOOC is a kind of test drive.

There are many interesting approaches to online learning, certification, accreditation and tuition that are changing higher education. The MOOC movement initiated many of these projects - but they are NOT MOOCs. Keep that in mind.

And What of the MOOC in 2018?

MOOCDo Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) seem like old news now? It has been more than six years since they hit learning and the early excitement and fears have certainly quieted. But the MOOC is still alive and active, though changed from its 2012 heyday.

I still see lots of headlines in my feed, but what is a MOOC is 2018? 

A report at the start of this year looked back at MOOCs in 2017 (authored by Class Central founder Dhawal Shah) that had some unsurprising and surprising findings. 

Unsurprisingly, the number of MOOCs continues to grow and more are available for enrollment throughout the year. There is more diversity in the subjects offered. The courses offered often should not be called MOOCs because they are not open in content or open in being free. Paid content has continued to increase and it seems that the number of free MOOCs is reduced.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the number of new learners decreased in 2017. There were 20 million learners taking their first MOOC in 2017. That sounds like a lot, but the number in 2016 was 23 million.

The report's analysis says that this should not be viewed so much as a drop in popularity, but as an indication that MOOC providers have "found their audience." 

The early MOOCs which very much championed "casual learning" and expected low completion rates and no profits, seem to have given a lot of ground away to re/training and professionals who are interested in certificates and are willing to pay for them.  

More than 800 universities are offering MOOCs and get about 78 million students into their online classes. Some learners pay. Most do not. Some get credit. Most do not. All the schools get exposure for their brand, and all the learners benefit.

How On-Demand Culture Affects Learning

tv viewerI wrote recently on another site about "cord-cutting" and about the rise of the group I call "The Disconnected" My Millennial son has cut the cord to his cable provider. He did it not only to save money, but because he simply doesn't have time to watch everything that is out there. Like many people, he mostly watches things on demand, either via a DVR or sites that allow on-demand viewing. He hasn't cut all his viewing bills to $0. He purchased Sling services which currently starts at $20 a month and offers streaming options. He still has his Netflix streaming account and can get movies and shows using his Amazon Prime account. He thinks I am a dinosaur for still getting Netflix DVDs in the mail. Netflix probably feels the same way and I am sure mailing DVDs will disappear entirely in the near future. I'm getting all kinds of offers (see bottom of post) to alternatives to my cable subscription.

I picked up a book in the library recently called On-Demand Culture that focuses on how this is changing the movie industry. Media is not my focus on this site, but it is a good example of on-demand culture.

It is not just about people watching films at home, but how the movie industry is changing because of digital technologies. Most people don't think about that film distributors now send films to theaters electronically. But consumers not only purchase or rent movies instantly online, but they are streaming them to high-definition televisions, their laptops and often to small mobile devices. When TV made its entrance bigtime in the 1950s, the movies reacted by going big with wide screens and color that TV couldn't compete with in quality. TV has caught up in many ways with that quality issue. (You can download parts of that book at https://muse.jhu.edu/book/24204)

Amazon is offering me an Amazon Channels Free Trial and suggests using Prime to watch thousands of movies and TV shows on demand. They even asked me to try an HBO Free Trial, which I would think is almost their competition these days.

With all these deals, why wouldn't everyone cut the cord? One reason people hang on is because many of these other services don't offer your local channels and some "basic" cable channels like CNN or sports channels.

modern HDTV antenna

A friend of mine was in that situation and started to investigate the HDTV antennas that are available. This seems like a throwback to the 1950s and 60s when every home had an antenna on the roof or a "rabbit ears" antenna on top of the TV.

The current generation of antennas allow you to pull in HDTV network programming for free - just like in the old days - with no monthly fee or subscription. It sounds ideal, but you are not going to get all that cable content, though you should get your local CBS, NBC and ABC affiliates and some other channels.

Adjusting your TV antenna 60 years ago had become a kind of art. You learned which way to turn it for channel 2 as opposed to how to get channel 7. People hooked up additional wires, tin foil and other things to them to increase the pickup. The new 360º multi-directional designs eliminate constant adjustments and they support up to 1080i HDTV broadcasts. But they have limits.

Many products say they can pull channels from towers that are within 40 miles of your TV. I live well within that range of New York City, so I probably could get all the local channels. Most of these products also have disclaimers that reception quality and channels received will depend on not only your distance from towers, but broadcast power, terrain and other factors like buildings and power lines. 

modern, old-style, outdoor antenna

I found that you can still buy rooftop TV antennas that look a lot like the ones from 50 years ago, though they are much more sophisticated and include amplifiers and other devices.

All of this media movement is part of the "on-demand" movement that started with VCRs that allowed us to "time shift" our viewing habits and terrified the TV industry. We still have some live event TV that is rarely watched at a later date. The upcoming Oscars and certainly the Super Bowl are perfect examples of "event TV" that is viewed live and that advertisers and channels love because they can easily measure the audience share.

I still like to go to a movie theater, but I go far less than I did in the past. Going to a theater has also become a kind of event. I go to films that I don't want to wait to see in a few weeks or month when they make it to my TV.

An “on-demand culture,” is shifting not only our viewing habits but many of our other expectations. When do people want to shop, or fill in an application? Any time at all is the answer. On demand. Even education, which has been my life's work, has gone on-demand with online content and online courses that allow student to time shift their education and pick and choose what content they want to view and when they want to view it. Most college professors have had to become proficient at creating digital content even if they still teach face-to-face in a classroom. Am I ready to cut the cord?  I'm watching the examples of my friend and my son. Maybe this dinosaur sees an asteroid headed his way.