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.

Transitions Are Difficult

transitionIf you read the annual Bill and Melinda Gates letter, it includes 9 trends it considers surprising. One that affects educators is the idea that "Textbooks are becoming obsolete." By that, they mean that digital content that is customized and personalized learning can better support students than a traditional textbook. 

The promise here is text online connected to engaging video along with perhaps a game that reinforces the concepts. Your learning is assessed and the software moves you forward appropriately or perhaps sends you back for more review. of the content you seem to have missed. 

We have been told that this kind of learning transition was going to happen - and it has happened,several times. We were told that the printed book would be replaced by ebooks. Some were replaced; most were not.

There has been a lot of talk about replacing the lecture with short video lectures that don't "lecture." That is somewhat the case in online courses, but the lecture in the classroom is still running strong.  

Even bigger than textbooks and lecture is the idea that online learning would replace classroom learning. Add to that the idea that MOOCs would replace online courses and even make degrees obsolete. Hasn't happened yet.

Transitions are difficult. Maintaining the status quo is so much easier. 

Maybe if I was still around in 2050, I would find that learning happens without printed books, without lectures, without classrooms and without degrees. But I doubt it.

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?