Posted tagged ‘online’

Human enough

19 February 2013

It is with glee that the proponents of e-learning trumpet the results of studies such as the US Department of Education’s Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, which found that, on average, online instruction is as effective as classroom instruction.

And who can blame them? It is only natural for evangelists to seize upon evidence that furthers their cause.

But these results mystified me. If humans are gregarious beings and learning is social, how can face-to-face instruction possibly fail to out perform its online equivalent?

That was until I watched Professor Steve Fuller’s Humanity 2.0 TEDxWarwick talk in Week 3 of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course.

The professor explains with wonderful articulation how difficult it is to define a human.

Sure, biologists will define humanity in terms of DNA, yet they can’t even agree on whether the Neanderthals were a subspecies of Homo sapiens or a separate species all together.

If we remove our gaze from the electron microscope, we have our morphology. Perhaps a human is an organism that has five fingers on each hand? But does that mean someone who is born with four (or six) is not human?

Perhaps a human is an organism that uses tools? Well, vultures drop rocks onto eggs to break them open.

Perhaps then a human is an organism that uses language? Whales might have something to say about that.

It is an intriguing conundrum that has occupied our thoughts since anyone can remember.

Title page of the first edition of René Descartes' Discourse on Method.

In the 17th Century, René Descartes made an intellectual breakthrough. He contended that “reason…is the only thing that makes us men, and distinguishes us from the beasts”. In other words, we are the only creatures on God’s earth capable of rational thought. I think, therefore I am.

Descartes pushed his point by arguing that while a robot might one day be developed to speak words, “it is not conceivable that such a machine should…give an appropriately meaningful answer in its presence”. And despite astonishing advances in artificial intelligence, the philosophical Frenchman remains right. Even Watson, who triumphed at Jeopardy! and today mines big data to help humans make better decisions, can not reasonably be considered a human itself. It is simply a product of computer programming.

Speaking of machines, if a human were to progressively replace her body parts with robotics – hence becoming a cyborg – at what point does she cease to be a human? According to the humanist tradition of Descartes, the absolute difference between a human and a non-human is a property of the mind. So, arguably she will remain a “human” until her brain is replaced.

But that begs the question: if we flip the scenario around and place a person’s brain in a robot’s body, does that make it a human?

All this philosophy starts to do my head in after a while, and that’s before getting into Freud’s posthumanism.

Somehow I prefer Joseph Gliddon’s simpler definition of a human: something that drinks coffee.

Cup of coffee

It’s not as flippant as it sounds, for it is our artificial enhancements that paradoxically make us more human.

Riding a bicycle, for example, is a quintessentially human endeavour. No other creature does it. Yes, a monkey might do so in the circus, but the reason we find it funny (or at least unusual) is because it doesn’t normally do that. The poor thing is mimicking a human.

Similarly, digital technology is an extension of our notion of humanity. Humans are the only organisms that use computers, surf the Web, write text, film video, record audio, and engage with one another in online discussion forums.

So when we view online pedagogy through this lens, we recognise very little of it that is not human. Consequently the strong performance of online students becomes less mysterious. In fact, it becomes expected because, just as a bicycle enhances our capability for travel, digital technology enhances our capability for learning.

This expectation is supported by a further finding of the Department of Education’s research – namely, that “blends of online and face-to-face instruction, on average, had stronger learning outcomes than did face-to-face instruction alone”. In other words, students who had the technology via the blended design performed better than those who didn’t.

But it doesn’t work in reverse: “the majority of…studies that directly compared purely online and blended learning conditions found no significant differences in student learning”. In other words, those who had the face-to-face interaction via the blended design performed no better than those who didn’t. Apparently the online instruction was human enough.

OK, on that bombshell, I think I’ll ride my bike to the cafe and pick up a cup of joe…

The moot point of MOOCs

21 January 2013

Some people are head-over-heels in love with MOOCs. Or perhaps more accurately, the idea of MOOCs. They believe the new paradigm will democratise – and even revolutionise – education.

Others, however, consider MOOCs a passing fad, an unsustainable business model, yet another a buzzword destined for the scrapheap like so many before it.

I happen to stand somewhere in the middle. I believe MOOCs will democratise education to some extent, and they will revolutionise the delivery of education. Importantly though, I don’t think they will revolutionise the science of education; after all, a MOOC is arguably an extensible version of what we’ve been doing all along – albeit on a massive (and free) scale.

I also think the business model will become sustainable, as soon as the providers adopt a freemium model. By that I mean the content is free, but the formal assessment and certification attracts a premium.

And don’t forget the intangibles of marketing. Perhaps a MOOC is a loss leader, or a branding exercise, or a CSR strategy. The ROI might be more complicated than the profit-and-loss statement suggests.

Woman using computer

So I appreciate the arguments both for and against MOOCs pitched by their proponents and detractors. Nonetheless one aspect of the argument that I don’t grasp is the high dropout rate. Apparently if relatively few participants officially complete the course, then the educational experience must have been be a failure. I just don’t buy it.

Annie Murphy Paul recently blogged about this phenomenon (The Truth About MOOCs: Only 10% Of Students Actually Finish Them), in which she makes the point that…

…for all the hype about making education available for free on the web, we need to work a lot harder to create the psychological conditions that promote persistence, accountability, goal-directedness, responsiveness to instructors’ and classmates’ expectations, and whatever else it is that makes students keep going to class in the real world.

Fair call, but I think there’s more going on beneath the surface, and the post attracted some excellent comments to that effect. For example, Arthur Clarke commented…

…I wonder if we might not overstate the problem. How many unfinished books do you have lying around? If you are like me you have quite a few. Does that mean that I have wasted my time and, puritanically, should castigate myself for being a quitter? Perhaps we need to look at learning differently.

Perhaps we need to look at learning differently indeed.

My reaction to the 10% completion rate for MOOCs is:

Who cares?!

The proponents of informal learning don’t care. Nor do the proponents of constructivist learning. Nor, dare I suggest, do the proponents of social, mobile and blended learning. To these people, the completion rate of a MOOC is a moot point.

The only people who seem to care are the MOOC providers themselves (naturally), the proponents of formal learning, and the ever-present killjoys.

To the MOOC providers I say: Adopt the freemium model already! I’m no accountant, but I expect a 10% completion rate would be financially viable.

To the proponents of formal learning I say: Formal learning certainly has its place, but that doesn’t mean it meets everyone’s needs. One size does not fit all.

To the killjoys I say: Identifying an obstacle does not impress me. Explaining how to overcome it does.

The future of MOOCs

26 November 2012

MOOCs get a bad rap. Dismissed as prescriptive, or teacher-centric, or unsocial, or something else, it’s like a badge of honour to espouse why you dislike MOOCs.

Despite their pedagogical flaws, however, MOOCs provide unprecedented access to quality content for millions of learners.

It’s all very well for Apple-owning, organic-buying professionals to cast aspersions, but consider the girl in Pakistan who’s too scared to set foot in a classroom. Consider the teenager in central Australia whose school has only one teacher. Consider the young woman in Indonesia who can’t afford college. Consider the boy in San Francisco whose maths teacher simply doesn’t teach very well.

Don’t all these people deserve a better education? And isn’t content sourced from some of the world’s best providers a giant leap in that direction?

Sure, the pedagogy may not be perfect, but the alternative is much worse.

Child learning on a computer

MOOC proponent George Siemens distinguishes between two types of MOOC: the xMOOC and the cMOOC.

The former is the subject of such disdain. Involving little more than knowledge transmission and perhaps a quiz at the end, the xMOOC is widely seen as replicating old-fashioned lectures and exams.

In contrast, the latter leverages the connectedness of the participants. Seeded with content, the cMOOC empowers – read “expects” – the learner to discuss, debate, discover, share and co-create new knowledge with his or her fellow learners.

The cMOOC’s participant is active whereas the xMOOC’s participant is passive. As Siemens puts it, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication.

Despite Siemens’ evangelism though, I don’t think the cMOOC is necessarily better than the xMOOC. (I’ll explain later.)

Ethernet cable

Love them or loathe them, xMOOC or cMOOC, the fact remains: MOOCs have arrived, and they are here to stay.

Moreover, I submit they are yet to wreak their full vengeance on the education industry. When I look into my crystal ball, I foresee that MOOCs will rock our world, and they will do so in 15 ways…

Fortune teller

1. Universities will finally accept they are service providers.

As the latest edition of Educause Review indicates, universities are fee-for-service businesses. That means they are subjected to market forces such as competition.

MOOCs beg the question: If I can study at Stanford University for free, why would I pay tens of thousands of dollars to study at your dinky university and subject myself to your arcane rules?

2. The vast majority of students will be overseas.

Countries that currently attract foreign students to their shores will need to brace for the impact on their local economies, as an ever-increasing proportion of students choose to gain an international education without leaving their home country.

3. The pecking order will be reshuffled.

While the world’s most prestigious institutions will enjoy a windfall of new students, those that rely more on age than ability will ultimately fail as the target audience realises how pedestrian they are.

Conversely, some of the smaller, younger institutions will emerge from the shadows as the world sees how good they really are.

4. Research will become a competitive advantage.

There’s nowhere to hide on the global stage, and cutting-edge expertise will be one of the few aspects that a university will have to distinguish itself from the others.

No more lazy professors, no more specious journal articles. Faculty who don’t generate a flow of new knowledge for their students will have their tenure terminated.

5. Universities will flip their classrooms.

Bricks’n’mortar establishments will become expensive relics unless their owners redeploy them. One way to do that is to leverage MOOCs for content delivery and provide value-added instruction (discussion, Q&A, worked examples, role plays etc) to local students – who of course will pay a premium for the privilege.

Studying on campus will become a status symbol.

6. The role of the teacher will evolve.

There’s no point rehashing the same lectures when the world’s best authorities have already recorded them and offered them to the world as OERs. It’s how the teacher uses that content to support learning that will make the difference.

7. The pedagogy of MOOCs will be enriched.

While MOOCs typically comprise video clips and perhaps a quiz, they will inevitably include more instructional devices to assist distance learning (and remain competitive).

Over time, content providers will supplement their core offerings with live webinars, interactive exercises, discussion forums, wikis, social networks etc. Some may even organise real-life meetups at selected sites around the world.

8. Content providers will charge for assessment.

A certificate of completion is good; an official grade is better.

Assessment is one of the ways universities will monetise their MOOCs, and edX is already going one step further by offering proctored exams.

9. Universities will offer credits for MOOCs.

Again, this is already being considered by the American Council on Education.

Of course, a certificate of completion won’t suffice. Ka ching!

10. Online cheating will mushroom.

An ever-present thorn in the side of online education, cheating will be almost impossible to prevent in the MOOC space. But surely we can do better than onsite exams?

11. Academic inflation will skyrocket.

Every man and his dog will have a ream of courses listed on his CV. Employers will consider certificates of completion meaningless, while maintaining a reserved suspicion over assessment scores.

Outcomes-based activities that demonstrate the applicant’s knowledge and skills will become a component of best-practice recruitment.

12. Offshoring will become the rule, not the exception.

Deloitte’s global CLO, Nick van Dam, told me that American firms are using MOOCs to upskill accountants based in India on US accounting practices.

Dental, anyone?

13. MOOCs will target the corporate sector.

Current MOOCs are heavily geared towards school and college audiences. Over time, an increasing number of narrow, specific topics that link to corporate competencies will emerge.

Content providers will wag the long tail.

14. The corporate sector will embrace xMOOCs.

Learners in the workplace are time poor. They don’t have the luxury to explore, discover, and “make sense of the chaos”. They need the knowledge now and they are happy for the expert to transmit it to them.

15. An xcMOOC hybrid will emerge as the third variant.

Sooner or later, the powers that be will remember that an instructivist approach suits novices, while an increasingly constructivist and connectivist approach suits learners as they develop their expertise.

Hence, the MOOC of the future may resemble an xMOOC in its early stages, and morph into a cMOOC in its later stages.

Effective virtual facilitation

14 October 2009

As virtual classes rapidly become de rigueur, the need for an effective virtual facilitation framework accelerates.

I propose the 5-stage model of e-moderation developed by world-renowned networked learning guru, Gilly Salmon.

While Salmon’s model primarily supports asynchronous networked learning, I contend that it supports synchronous networked learning just as well.

The Model

Salmon’s 5-stage model of e-moderation is based on, umm, 5 stages:

Salmon's 5-stage model of e-moderation

All 5 stages contribute to the learning process.

Here’s my take on each one, based on my reading of E-Moderating: The Key to Teaching & Learning Online and of course my own two-cent’s worth…

Stage 1: Access & motivation

This stage is about getting your remote participants up and running.

Inform your participants very early that the virtual class will be happening, when and where. Book the time out in their calendar, and let them know that they will be receiving an email to provide them with the access details. Also let them know that they won’t need any special equipment, just a phone (or headset) and an internet connection.

Provide them with any documents they will need beforehand.

Encourage the participants to enter the virtual class 30 minutes early so they can iron out any technical glitches. It’s a good idea to provide them with the contact details of someone for troubleshooting, and to explain if it all goes belly up, it’s not a disaster: just let it go and you can work out something later. (You might consider running a trial session, but that might be overkill – afterall, virtual platforms are fairly straightforward these days.)

Click Me!, courtesy of wagg66, stock.xchng.

On the motivation side, it’s a good idea to explain to the participants up front why they should attend the class. As previously noted, adult learners are problem-oriented, so you need to explain how spending this hour or so will help them in their job. You should also explain why they should do it in virtual format (eg so they don’t waste time traveling into the office).

I’d also suggest encouraging the participants to text chat as soon as they enter the virtual space, to introduce themselves and get to know each other. Not only does this initiate socialisation (see Stage 2), but it also checks that they know how to use the technology. Of course, the facilitator should greet everyone as they enter.

Stage 2: Online socialisation

Smiley, courtesy of ctr, stock.xchng.Socialising would have already gotten started on an ad hoc basis as the participants entered the virtual space and waited for official kickoff.

I’d suggest following this up with some sort of ice breaker – with a lot of people, you might want to keep it reined in. For example, it could be a simple question like Have you ever met anyone famous?

Following this, the facilitator should emphasise the collaborative nature of the session, and reinforce how it’s all about sharing ideas & experiences and learning from each other. Ask them what they personally want to achieve from the session. Cultivate a warm, friendly environment.

Stage 3: Information exchange

This is where the “serious” class begins. The facilitator should define the learning outcomes of the session (and tailor them according to the audience’s expectations), then refer to the information that was previously provided.

If there’s more information to disseminate (in instructivist format), then this is where it’s done.

Real-life examples should be used wherever possible.

Stage 4: Knowledge construction

Digger, courtesy of mzacha, stock.xchng.This is arguably the most important stage for learning.

Everyone’s at the same place at the same time, the ice is broken and they’re familiar with the information that’s been provided to them. Now it’s time to figure out what it all means.

The facilitator should actively invite the participants to discuss the key concepts, raise ideas and ask questions. It’s very important to ask them to share their experiences, and to suggest how they might apply the new learnings to their own role.

At this point, the participants are actually learning from each other. The facilitator guides, prompts, prods, questions, challenges and clarifies.

Close up of The Thinker, courtesy of marttj under Creative Commons, Flickr.Stage 5: Development

This stage is all about reflection, and it can be done after the actual session. A post-session worksheet might prove useful for this purpose.

The facilitator should also raise awareness of other resources that the participants can continue to use after the session. Perhaps other courses, websites, discussion forums, podcasts, blogs etc.

Evolving e-learning in the workplace

Using Salmon’s 5-stage model of e-moderation as a framework, SMEs can transform from sage on the stage to guide on the side.

And isn’t that what adult learning is all about?