3 Questions for a Higher Ed Blogger (me) from 2006

logoBack in 2006, I was asked to do a session for a webinar series for Higher Ed Experts titled  “Podcasting Made Easy.” My session was titled “To be or not to be an iTunes U(niversity)?

At that time, I was working at NJIT and we had recently become one of the "sweet 16" universities that launched Apple's iTunes U. In the bio I used then I was the Manager of Instructional Technology at NJIT. For the previous two years, I had led the podcasting efforts at NJIT including the school’s launch that summer of our public and private use of Apple’s iTunes U. 

Looking back at that webinar, I found in my files that Higher Ed Experts owner, Karine Joly, has included me in her blog series "3 Questions to a Higher Ed Blogger" where I talked about this Serendipity35 blog. Here are those 3 Q&A's. How do they hold up more than 13 years later?

1) You’ve been blogging at Serendipity 35 since last February [2005]. Why did you decide to blog at that time? Can you tell us a bit more about your experience with blogging?

Ken Ronkowitz
Ken Ronkowitz, 2006

The Serendipity35 site originally was created as a way for Tim Kellers and me to try out open-source blogging software for our division at NJIT. This particular blog uses Serendipity software and our division at the university is #35, hence the title.

The first few entries were really just tests and I never intended to keep it going except as a demo site. I have a poetry site called Poets Online and I was already blogging for that using Blogger. I had also started a site within our department website at NJIT on Emerging Instructional Technology [EIT] where I intended to keep information on products and services we were testing. Unfortunately, I was never able to keep up with that website on a regular basis. However, blogging is easier (and I find more enjoyable) so that Serendipity35 has replaced that website as my way of keeping the NJIT community aware of new products, services, trends and the pedagogy of using them.

In addition, it has taken on a life of its own and gets many more views than the EIT site ever did and from a much wider audience than just NJIT. Getting comments from readers is an important part of the blogging experience too.

2) You blog a lot about new media (blogs, social networking websites, podcasting, etc.). What impact do you think these new technologies are going to have on higher ed?

I’m glad you ask what impact they are “going to have” because, unfortunately, I don’t think they have enough of an impact right now.

I see more penetration of Web 2.0 applications in K-12 teaching than in higher ed. It may be easier to implement some of these things at that level because you have districts, schools, grade levels and departments that can require their use through mandated curriculums. That’s rare in universities. “Required” and “faculty” are not words that go together easily at colleges. You’ll hear the much used (and abused) phrase “intellectual freedom” in response to attempts to require faculty to do many things. I’m not talking about having every faculty member have a blog, but it’s tough to get every faculty member to post syllabi online for each of their courses.

I think that students may be the drivers for the use of these applications as they have been in their desires and expectations to see course materials online, podcasting, 24/7 access, wireless campuses, etc.

I can’t see many educators being opposed in theory to the read-write version of the Web that is being called Web 2.0 and wanting to have students remain merely consumers (readers) of the web. All the tools like MySpace, blogs, video sites and other things that I write about have wide acceptance with students at all grade levels already. They won’t abandon them when they enter college, and they’ll be surprised and disappointed if they are not being used in their college classrooms and used or at least understood by their teachers.

Many faculty members were opposed to using email ten years ago, but those few who still are have to be seen as dinosaurs, and if they look up, they will see that an asteroid is headed towards them.

3) How is your blogging received by your administration and the rest of your campus community?

My director, Bill Reynolds, is always very enthusiastic and supportive of the department jumping into new technologies. For example, I wanted to pursue podcasting with faculty last fall so we jumped in and created our own podcasting site for NJIT and produced “coursecasts” for the fall and spring semesters. When we realized it was going to take off and that we needed greater support and infrastructure and heard about Apple’s iTunes U, we applied. We have been accepted and are building our site to launch this summer.

Our division’s Associate Vice President, Gale Spak, was the person who originally asked Tim and me to put together a day-long seminar on podcasting, wikis and blogs because she thought it had great potential for our academic community and for corporate clients, like those in NJIT’s own Enterprise Development Center. We did offer that day of workshops this past spring, but Tim and I actually ended up presenting the section on wikis using our own open-source wiki project.

I’ve heard nothing but positive comments from those on campus who have looked at the blog, though I’ll be first to admit that a large portion of the NJIT community still doesn’t know it exists. A number of faculty members who read it have asked to have blogs for their courses. We’re also looking at open source course management systems like Moodle which is offering blogging tools within a course itself. We have a web redesign project for the university that started this summer and they are using a private blog to keep the many team members up to date on developments and to get feedback asynchronously.

I see our blog as narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. The audience for what we write about is not the general public and that’s fine with us. I can tell by the site metrics that we have far more readers than those who actually comment on the site. In fact, just to illustrate the newness of this with educators, I have to say that I have been really surprised at the number of them who have emailed me comments about a piece rather than posting them on the blog itself. It’s not a question of being anonymous (you can do that on the blog) but more that they don’t quite get what a blog is all about.

Though blogs have been around for years, in education I think we are at a tipping point this year and that we’ll see much wider acceptance and use in 2007 and beyond. 


How do my answers hold up in 2020? Pretty well, in my humble opinion. I certainly feel the same way about where we were in 2006 and some of my concerns and predictions are still valid. 

I came to reexamine this old interview because I was looking at the Higher Ed Experts site which has been offering webinars and content for all these years. Their Higher Ed Social Media Conference has become an annual online higher ed conference.

Karine is still doing her interviews with her expert speakers. One response that caught my attention was a question posed to Emily Phillips, Social Media Coordinator at the College of William and Mary. 

Where do you think higher ed social media is heading in 2020?

Emily
Emily Phillips, 2019

Whenever I’m asked the “what’s next” question it inevitably conjures up in my mind the 1994 clip of Katie Couric & Bryant Gumbel trying to figure out the @ symbol and asking, “what is the internet, anyway?” At the risk of earning the amused derision of future readers, I’ll say that I see a lot of potential for “creator” spaces like YouTube, podcasts and even Twitch, which lend themselves well to Higher Education content. I’m also keeping an eye on VSCO and Tik Tok, which are obviously popular with a huge chunk of our audience, but I’m not yet sure enough that our current and future students are interested in seeing or engaging with our content in those spaces to warrant diverting our resources in either of those directions.

 


I remember using that Today Show clip (below) when I started at NJIT in 2000 as a way of showing how much had changed in just those 6 years since it was recorded. I agree with Emily's sense of risk in predicting the future of anything in technology and especially its use in higher education. One way to limit risk is to avoid talking about specific tools. Rereading my answers, that MySpace reference really dates the response. She may be safe mentioning YouTube, Tik Tok, and Twitch in 2020, but I suspect that if she looks back on her answers in 13 years she will chuckle at those references.

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.

Birds, Social Media and Scale-free Correlation

I wrote elsewhere about the beauty of the flocking of starlings that is called murmuration. Their murmurations that look like swirling clouds that pulsate, twist and get wider and thinner are intriguing to watch, but how do the birds do it?

I read online that this can be caused by a threat, such as a raptor nearby, but I have seen them flock while walking in a woods and in my backyard trees without any threats seen. In fact, I learned many years ago that if they were roosting in trees nearby and I clapped loudly they would usually take off. Maybe a loud clap sounds like a gun.

Beyond the beauty and wonder of the murmurations, there is interest among scientists who don't normally pay attention to birds by computer scientists and physicists. They are interested in how group behavior spontaneously arises from many individuals at once. Schools of fish are another group behavior studied.

Researchers call this "scale-free correlation." The studies indicate that, surprisingly, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. You probably have seen flocks of geese that seem to have a "leader," but flocking is actually governed by the collective actions of all of the flock members. Watching these murmurations, as opposed to the straight-ahead flight of a flock of geese flying in formation seems so fluid that it approaches magic.

 

Information moving across the flock so quickly and with nearly no degradation is something I might talk about in communication courses as a high signal-to-noise ratio. Other communication terms that enter into murmuration study include scale-free correlation and effective perceptive range. Those terms can be simply explained as the ways that allow a starling on one side of the flock to respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock.

A study on starling flocks led by George Young at Princeton determined that starlings in large flocks consistently coordinate their movements with their seven nearest neighbors. This immediately made me think of relationships online, especially in social media.

One thing that comes to mind is Dunbar's number which is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. That number was proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By studying primates and sing the average human brain size, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain 100-200 (often averaged out at 150) stable relationships. 

That number seems too high to me in real life but it might make sense with social media where words like stable, relationship and friends have other meanings.

That Princeton study also found that the shape of the flock, rather than the size, has the largest effect on the 7 number. It's like playing that game of Telephone. When one person passes a message along to the next person, who repeats it to another and so on, the message degrades as the size of the group increases. The starlings are playing telephone only with their seven nearest neighbors. They have made the shape of their group different, despite the large size of the flock.

I wonder if the studies of starlings might be extrapolated to explain social media behaviors. I may have 600 friends on Facebook, but I think that I "shape" my group of close friends much smaller, and that group connects me to other smaller groups within that 600. I use lists on Facebook, for example, one comprised of poets. (Lists is a feature that is not really promoted by Facebook these days.)  I really only have direct and active communication with about a dozen of them, but the group has almost a hundred members.

How starlings achieve such a strong correlation still remains mostly a mystery.  I suspect that social media networks are also researching these kinds of correlations.

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