Open Education is about Student Control

Lately, when people talk about “open education” they seem to be thinking mostly about the ease with which students enter an online course. MOOCs are generally free and easy to join. In this sense, they are certainly open and this kind of openness can be an important way to allow access to education opportunities to people who don’t have money or live in place without a strong educational infrastructure.

Open can also refer to the ease with which a student can interact with the course learning environment in order to carry resources in and out. The ability to access learning resources outside of the course management system is a pretty big deal.

I spend a lot of time researching and supporting the development of online learning at my college. Recently, I have been coming to this work as a student. One of the things I admire about Chuck Severance’s Internet History, Security and History MOOC is the ease with which I can download videos, export calendars to my mobile device and track conversations in Twitter.

Every video lecture resides within the course management system but is also published on YouTube and available for easy MP4 download for offline viewing. This is a strong consideration for users who may not be able to watch the lecture videos while online. The user has the option of where and how they want to engage with the lecture portion of the class. I must admit the download option worked great for my laptop but I haven’t taken the time to shift them to my iPad for viewing. The in-course streaming hasn’t been seemless due to inordinate buffering. YouTube viewing has been my favorite option. It works well.

I understand that the native Coursera-hosted video version has additional content like embedded, interactive quizzes. I haven’t seen those yet so I will reserve judgement as to whether the trade is worthwhile. The point is I have several options and can choose the one that best suits my need.

I also like being able to export the course calender into a Google calendar which I can then carry on my mobile device. There is also an iCal option for Mac users to synchronize with their device calendars. This isn’t a huge deal for this course since the calendar is pretty spare right now, but if I were a student managing several courses, I would definitely want to carry everything with me in one place.

A few days ago I wrote about my first experience with the MOOC discussion boards. The introduction board was the heaviest use since most students are posting to that board. The other boards have less traffic and, so far, are easier to monitor. That said, class conversation isn’t limited only to native discussion boards. The class chat also happens across Twitter, Facebook and GooglePlus. Given the scale, the class conversation can spread across three social platforms without much trouble. Twitter is the highest use channel and the only one I really watch at all. Again, I have choices.

This brings me to my main realization. The current course management system (CMS) at my college is designed as an environment where students visit to discover, access and use course materials, lectures and supplementary learning resources. Students who want to send a message login to the CMS. Students who want to check their class schedule login to the CMS. Students who want to watch lecture or do class readings or make notes login into the CMS. Everything is contained in the CMS and nothing really comes out. The student goes there for everything.

I know part of this is instructional design, but the default condition is to use the CMS as a destination and/or storehouse. Instructors who want their students to take resources outside of the classroom figure out hacks.

I know really good students who use this system. They sometimes carry resources, schedules and materials out in Google docs to ensure that they can access and organize those resources in the way they want, when they want without having to be online and at a computer screen. There has to be a better way.

Mobile-friendly learning design is no longer optional for online learning.

A Quick Lesson in Web-Scale Education: Email Notifications

Second full day of my participation in Dr. Chuck’s Internet History, Security, and Technology. Note to self: the M in MOOC really does stand for massive, as in super freaking huge enrollment.

As with most online courses, the first activity is a short discussion board post about yourself and your interests, experiences or expectations for learning the course material. As usual, I posted my response and set my account to receive updates via email for additional posts to that thread. Emails spilled into my inbox all night, all morning and all day long. My most recent inbox purge found 225 unread emails. There were many more before that count and many more to come, I’m sure. I quickly unsubscribed.

Discussion boards usually have a daily digest option. I can’t find a digest setting so I just unsubscribed. I’m not sure I would want to read that fifty screen digest anyway.

I will need to come back to this problem of discussion updates. I suspect there is a setting somewhere that I have missed.

For now, I feel very much like a student in a lecture hall with 10,000 other students. This time, instead of everyone quietly listening, everyone is talking and saying something interesting and everyone one of them is speaking directly to me.

I am sure there is a better way to navigate the conversation. There needs to be.

Stay tuned.

Ed Tech Academy Takeaway — Day Two

Yesterday was the second, final day of Roane State’s Ed Tech Academy. Donn King was our keynote and afternoon presenter. He spoke and presented on the role of teachers in the Internet age. His afternoon presentation offered practical advice to faculty who have flipped their class or are considering the inverted model. We also had excellent presentations on the use of iPads in the classroom (David and Ronda Blevins) and challenge-based learning (Dr. Jeff Horner and Dr. Abigail Goosie).

I don’t plan to walk through each session here. You can do that for yourself by following  #rscceta on Twitter.

My takeaway from day two is this: Teachers and librarians who believe their main responsibility is to transfer information to their students are doomed to frustration. The internet can transfer information faster, easier and better than any person can.

Mere information has become so easily shared that it is often wasteful and counterproductive to spend lots of class time transmitting information. There are exceptions, but this is true most of the time. When we lecture over content available in the textbook or review notes verbatim, we devalue the importance of those resources and undermine opportunities to connect with our students. Information transfer is not what teaching is about. Information is plentiful. Context is scarce. As Donn puts it, speaking outloud is for big picture context; writing is for detail.

I think about this often when writing an email inviting people to do something – attend an event or take a survey, for example. I have learned that most people only read short, actionable emails, and so, I often try to pare my message down to a few attention-getting sentences with a link to more information.

The same is true with teaching. Our direct instruction time with our students is limited.  Attention spans are limited. Cognitive load theory tells us that our students, no matter their age, won’t remember most of what we tell them. They will actually remember very little. Rather than play roulette with their learning, we can be more successful by focusing most of our time on helping them understand a few important ideas or concepts and then connect them with the resources to dig deeper and discover the detail. Students can’t really learn without first understanding why they need to learn. Connecting students to the “why” is the challenge and province of the teacher. This work requires creativity and persistence. This work is the connecting path to those lightbulb moments. Working with the goal of context rather than information transfer makes teaching much more meaningful. Working with the goal of context rather than information transfer makes teaching a whole lot of fun.

Ed Tech Academy Takeaway — Day 1

Today was Day 1 of my college’s annual Ed Tech Academy. Ed Tech Academy is our annual professional development conference around issues related to teaching, online education and classroom technology. I had the honor of working with a team of great people to plan, market and deliver this year’s academy.

Today’s keynote speaker was Dr. Mark Milliron, Chancellor for Western Governors University Texas. He has worked with the Gates Foundation, NISOD, Civitas and the League for Innovation in Community Colleges among other organizations. That’s not what’s important about him. What is most impressive about Dr. Milliron is his ability to talk about the changes in higher education in a way that makes sense. He connects the dots.

The past year has been a swirl of new ideas, technologies and potentially “disruptive” innovations in online and traditional instruction. My college is working with iPads, eText, textless courses, flipped classes, open education resources, and, most recently, MOOCs. It is a fascinating time to be a teacher. It is also nerve-racking.

With all the new tools and technologies, it is very easy to loose sight of our purpose. Here’s a secret. None of these technologies matter unless they can help students connect to their own sense of purpose, tenacity and engagement. Students cannot learn unless they have a clear sense of why they want to learn. Students cannot learn until they are committed to working hard and sacrificing immediate gratification for a future reward. Students cannot learn unless they actively participate in the process and can contribute to the goals of the class. Milliron talks more about this in his article “An Open Letter to Students: You’re the Game Changer in Next-Generation Learning“.

There has been an ongoing conversation about student engagement for several years. I have heard the term “student engagement” so often, I have forgotten what it means. There is, I think, a tendency to conflate engagement with entertainment and make engagement equivalent to interest. That is a lazy way to think about engagement. Engagement is about responsibility. Engaged students take responsibility for their own learning. This still feels like a magical pass phrase, something students are given or give.

My big takeaway is this: students can’t take real responsibility for their learning until educators find meaningful ways  to share real-time feedback about how students are performing. Amazon and Ebay do this with online shopping. Pandora and Spotify do this with music. Why can’t we do this with learning? The trick is gathering data about how students interact with their classes and then develop an algorithm that can offer real-time predictions about how likely a particular student is to succeed based on specific actions taken by that student. In other words, we need to figure out how to gather lots and lots of data points about student success, use that data to extrapolate predictive models of student success and then boil all of that down into a simple, easy-to-understand message to students about specific actions they might take to be more successful.

Let me put this another way: the challenge before us is to make learning very, very personal. We need to find ways to personalize the learning environment to present learning resources and challenges that are personally meaningful to the specific learner and then offer real-time advice on how students interact with that course. It would be very powerful if librarians, teachers and other learning professionals could figure out a way to curate and recommend specific learning resources for specific learners in specific situations. To offer a video, animation or infographic that best meets the learner’s needs at that exact moment in the same way that Amazon recommends a specific shirt with a pair of pants.

The technology is available. We just need to figure out how to use it.

The Crisis in Higher Ed

There is a crisis in American higher education. Surely you must  have heard about it. It is always in the news. It has something to do with tuition and textbook costs and tenured faculty and student learning assessments and competencies and marketable skills and jobs that don’t exist yet. Or it has to do with student engagement and persistence to completion. Except we aren’t exactly sure what completion means — is it a degree or a certificate or a credential of some kind? Perhaps a feeling of satisfaction or a job hire that suits a person’s skills and interests.

The fix is pretty easy. It involves just one thing. Our best people are working on deciding which one thing it is going to be. Perhaps mobile technology or accelerated courses or free textbooks or open courseware or MOOCs. Stay tuned.

I’m not usually snarky but my head is swimming lately with the sense of urgency that has seized the legislators and administrators standing outside my profession. We are moving at light speed to innovate but can’t easily define our goals. We are eager to demonstrate agility and a willingness to make tough choices but we can’t articulate the nature of those choices and why we have to choose so quickly.

I am not being retrograde. I know the world has changed and we all need to adapt. The internet has matured, and things are possible now that were not possible just a few years ago. We can build administrative processes at web scale. We can design learning systems that capture real-time data about how students learn and then return that data directly to students in real-time to improve their own understanding about their own learning. We can mitigate distance with cheap or free web conferencing tools. We have developed flipped pedagogies and hybrid course delivery modes to blend synchronous and asynchronous learning environments.

I want to adapt. I want to help improve things. I want to help figure out how to use these great new tools we have so that students can learn better, faster and more deeply than ever before. I want to help build an education system that recognizes the strengths of individual students and can offer personalized learning at the point of need so that we can prevent the waste of potential talent that, today, many accept as inevitable.

I want to help people discover what they are passionate about learning and then wrap skills and resources around that passion to create opportunities for genius.

Before I can do that, I need someone to tell me what we want the world to look like and what we need these students to be able to do. There are amazingly smart, compassionate, dedicated teachers and staff in our colleges and universities ready to do whatever it takes to get there. We just need someone to make it simple, make it clear. Give us a picture of the necessary future, give us the tools and permission to use those tools and then get out of the way.

Are eBooks for kids?

Are eBooks good for kids who are learning how to read? Said another way, are eBooks as good as print books for kids who are learning how to read?

This NY Times article has some thoughts from eReading parents on the matter. I sense a bit of ambivalence about eText in their answers. There is a sense that eBooks are great for established readers but may somehow diminish the reading experience for younger kids.

My daughter is four and a half. She is starting to read. I kind of expected this to happen sooner rather than later. Of greater surprise to me, she is also starting to exhibit a writing mania. She sits at the table for long stretches of time, sometimes an hour or so, copying words from objects near her on the table.

Today I got a drawing entitled “The Power Dad”. Yesterday’s picture was Yoplait-themed. Saturday’s was “Pink Panther Cartoon Classics”. You get the idea.

As a parent, my job is to worry about stuff I have no control over. My daughter loves books, but occasionally I worry that she isn’t spending as much time with paper books as I did when I was a kid. She reads paper books a lot but also spends a good deal of time playing iPad, watching PBS kids’ shows and playing Wii. This is in addition to hours of unstructured high imagination time. I don’t specifically worry that she isn’t loving books enough. She loves books. She treats books well and handles them as important possessions. The interesting thing is that she reads on the iPad nearly as often as she reads on the page. And the iPad apps are interactive, encouraging letter tracing, word sounds and pattern recognition.

Anecdotally, I’d say her iPad reading has contributed greatly to her early reading success and has fostered a early fondness for constructing words as well. So, no worries about eBooks or other eText experiences somehow ruining her mind. She will learn to read soon and well because her home life is supportive of reading.

And that gets me to my more specific concern. I have read studies (need to cite here…) which indicate that the greatest predictor of future academic ability is the presence of books in the home. Does that include invisible eBooks or print only?

My guess is that a home where print books are ubiquitous is more likely to be a home where reading is commonplace. Reading is in the water and gets into the DNA at an early age. This probably comes from seeing parents read. I remember growing up and watching my dad read books. I remember enjoying reading my own books while he was reading his. So here’s the thing: if most of my reading is done on the iPad or other eReading device, how can my daughter differentiate the times I am reading a novel  from the times I am reading the “news” (for me, RSS feeds) from the times I am playing Word Dash, Traffic Rush or some other frivolous thing?

Reading is a personal thing, but the image of someone reading is very public. That changes with eReaders. Wonder what the impact will be and how much that will matter?