The Flipped Classroom Meets a MOOC

This feels like some sort of joke – a flipped classroom walks into a bar and starts talking to a MOOC….

Here’s the quote:

“The use of videos with quizzes puts the learning directly in students’ hands,” said Gries. “If they don’t understand a concept, they can re-watch the videos and take the quizzes again. This allows students to learn at their own pace. It is exciting.”

I’m almost positive that was taken out of context, but if not, watching a video again, or taking a quiz again, in and of itself is not learning. It’s not good learning design, it’s not good thinking, it’s just drill and repeat in another form. It’s drill and repeat, at the student’s command…

I’m purposefully ignoring the good stuff that happens in this article, like the 8% grade increase (which is being attributed to the flipped model, but could just be the students in the class are better than the previous years, maybe the class size was smaller, leading to better instructional opportunities…). I also find it curious that the University of Toronto could find no student to add their voice to this puff piece. Undoubtedly, something is here – but what it is really isn’t shared in this piece. It will be interesting to see if any research is accomplished on this over the next few years.

This isn’t the first time that people have repurposed Coursera or other xMOOC platform content as elements of a flipped classroom. It strikes me that if this approach takes hold, all education has done with these MOOCs is that they’ve created another set of publishers with a repository of content. If so, the future of MOOCs (as content repositories) is pretty grim.

What I Want in a xMOOC

Listen, I hear you – many will respond to my title and say “nothing, I want nothing from an xMOOC and I hope they all become the passing fad that they are”. I feel your sentiment, but I think there’s value in xMOOCs, as bad as the pedagogy is behind them.

1. As a training program, which most xMOOCs are, they can be incredibly useful. For base knowledge, and introductory subjects, these are appropriate tools to get learners to the next step. What I want to see from the Coursera’s and Udacity’s is that they provide more flexibility – open enrollments, work at your own pace, maybe even mini-credentials per unit (via badging?) and most importantly, multiple pathways for learning. I would love to see an online course develop multiple methods of instruction that as a student, I could opt into if I’m having trouble with a topic. That would signal to me that it’s about learning, not about profit margins – because frankly, developing multiple methods of instruction for an online course is incredibly expensive. Putting on a venture capitalist’s hat (and it’s ill fitting on me, I will admit), this could give a company an advantage in being able to leverage the data to determine which learning method is best suited to a student/learner, based on prior successes.

2. Better mechanisms for assessment. All the MOOC platforms have great testing banks, but not much else in the way of advancing assessment. Coursera’s peer evaluation is a step towards something good – but it relies on peer assessment without any repercussions – I could do a garbage job of assessing someone and it won’t affect me – there needs to be a balancing here to ensure that peer assessment is valued as important. Programatically, it’d be easy to do, make sure that feedback exists, make sure it’s longer than x characters, and make sure that there’s a mechanism for providing ways to improve (could be as simple as an explicit “ways to improve this critera”).

3. Speaking of open, for the courses that are free, I’d like to see a commitment to openness, meaning that the materials created are able to be repurposed in other contexts, easily acquired, clearly labelled and ideally in a repository. Yeah, like that will happen. The only open in xMOOC is open enrollment.

Technology Changes Everything (or How I Stopped Worrying About MOOCs)

Carleton University’s president Roseann O’Reilly Runte wrote an article today on the technological changes higher education face in the Globe and Mail (which may be behind a paywall for some of you). I’ve provided some out of context quotes to pick apart her argument.

“Technology brings additional information on learning styles and helps assess rapidly what has been retained, allowing lectures to be adapted to students’ needs and to be made more meaningful.”

While it can bring additional information – it takes some presumptive leaps to determine learning styles (if those even exist) based on how many times a person logs into an LMS or how long they spend on a piece of content. Also, assessing what has been retained, is well self-explanatory. Shouldn’t we be testing whether the knowledge gained is applied in a logical manner? Who cares if the student knows who the King of France is in 1560, shouldn’t we care about what is important about that person in a historical context? It’s useful to know if a student has basic knowledge, but with google, bing and wikipedia at our easy access, shouldn’t we care more about access to those tools and using that knowledge rather than the base fact that a student knows something?

And don’t get me started on making lectures able to be adapted to a student’s need… a lecture appeals to certain students – whether that’s in class, online or on Khan’s Academy or YouTube.

“Classes can combine Internet connections, Skyped conversation, video-teleconference and satellite hookups with videos and segments of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) produced around the world. Students can benefit from international online discussion groups. All of this enriches the learning experience and represents considerable up-front investment with intensive labour commitments from faculty and technical support.”

Actually, very few instructors do this because each University is stuck in their own silo, based on the last fifty years of in-fighting and competition for enrollments. Why collaborate with your enemy when they will take your students while you repackage their lectures? Yes, these things can be done, but often are not because of a myriad of factors – competition with other institutions (rather than collaboration), ego, discipline specific content, unique selling propositions of individual institutions, technical know how, and cost. Those costs don’t magically disappear after introducing the innovation – it takes continued effort and improvement, which is a continued cost. MOOCs (as EdX, Udacity, Coursera and the like) are used by many institutions as a loss-leader – a way to build a brand and maybe it serves the community (maybe it just serves itself as Coursera has found).

“MOOCs will soon conquer the mechanical glitches which have been highly publicized. Some have already solved the evaluation and accreditation issues. When this becomes the normal process, students across the world will have the option of taking a history class at 8:00 am on Friday or the Ivy League professor’s MOOC any time. Students will then ask for transfer credits.”

Oh, of course, evaluation is solved… well not really. Sure in math there’s a right and wrong way to do things – so a multiple choice, or fill in the blank can assess that (assuming the student has actually entered the answer and done the work). Other disciplines that require interpretation could crowd source the evaluation like Coursera does. Which is fine, but not exactly impartial or valuable (in many people’s experience). I guess my snide commentary is that it mimicks really well the higher education evaluations used. Honestly though, transfer credits are difficult enough to ascertain based on current standards in Ontario (I’ve tried to get my Athabasca University credits recognized at another institution for a prerequisite and was told I had to take it locally to get credit for it) – again this is a problem the system has to address, and not something that technology will particularly solve.

“How can this lead to cost reductions? The savings can accrue rapidly if the course is massively enrolled and subsections are taught by less well-paid individuals; or if the course lasts several years and the designers and lead professor may be paid over time.”

Clearly this is the crux of the cost-reduction argument. Reduce the pay of the experts creating these courses, and teaching these courses to massive numbers. Increase enrollment in first year and if they don’t succeed they can come back next year and try again in the same environment. The average sessional at my University is already making peanuts (on top of having paid out a lot for their PhD) – lets cut their pay too. If I were at Carelton, and a faculty member, I’d underline this and make sure it was front and centre at the next negotiation.

I’ve been fairly critical of the statements about technology being a panacea for all that ills higher education; it’s not and it never will be. To create a quality e-learning piece, it takes often 10 times the amount of time, and usually the same amount of cost to produce. So logically, you’ll have to use that item at least 10 times before it makes a return on your investment. If it’s a lecture that’s been professionally captured, captioned (as required by law in 2014), audio tweaked and perfected, slides intercut with video, title cards for the beginning and end, and you deliver that lecture once a year, you’ll have to wait 11 years for that to make any return. Think your video format will be out of date? How about the content itself?

Changing Course(ra): Ahead of the Curve?

I have to admit, I’m surprised it took this long for the knives to come out and chop away at all the mythic possibilities of MOOCs (which if done right, have a lot of promise for expanding the knowledge of those who are motivated to learn). I guess the mythic properties really belong to the Udacity, Coursera, EdX model of MOOCs – the idea of enabling learners worldwide to have access to University level education to better themselves, well really doesn’t ring true. Sure they know more, can even prove they know more in many cases, but doesn’t really move the needle in getting a better job (outside a select few from Udacity who impressed the professors so much they got jobs with Google and other tech companies).

What’s really interesting about Coursera’s shift is not that they’re adjusting their strategy (as with all startups, they need to adapt strategy or else they are unlikely to succeed) but the reasoning. According to the Chronicle article with quotes from Diane Koller “most Coursera users have degrees”. Which suggests that people who don’t have degrees don’t find this idea of education an avenue of inquiry.

The shift from sole content provider to platform for content with a credit broker situation is hopeful. Most districts and institutions have shifting values of what English 101 is constituted of – California’s values are different from, say, Alberta’s or Quebec’s. If Coursera can construct a way for a student from one institution in Bangladesh transfer credits to the University of British Columbia – at a cost of $30 per course – through Coursera’s platform of course – I think the possibilities are quite good that Coursera will make a nice tidy sum. Ivy League institutions may opt out of such setups – there’s no benefit to their image when transfer credit leads to a completion without the student stepping on campus. Where the inroads can be met is when you have a second tier institution who essentially give away their courses to Coursera, and wait for the transfer credit money to roll in.

This scenario doesn’t address what Coursera’s statements are around – making sure people get their first degree. However with immigration being a huge player in Canada’s development, and external accreditation of professionals being talked about for the last twenty years, perhaps this is a gap that’s worth filling. And that is getting people their first degree (in North America).

Power Structure in MOOCs

I’ve thought about power in it’s relationship to students a lot. When I taught I was always uncomfortable with the idea of telling someone something, and having no one question it because I stood at the  front of the room. It’s the biggest reason I left “teaching”. In the greatest irony, now I run training… anyways, it seems like that power structure is nigh impossible to subvert. I had hopes when MOOCs started to appear because it seems like the self-empowerment idea on steroids – but in most instances the students are guided/forced to learn things. At the end (and there’s always a start and end to these things), the instructor via the marking of the computer, puts a stamp on your booklet, and you’ve completed the course. These kinds of MOOCs do very little to disrupt the notion of power in a “classroom”, in fact they reinforce the existing power structure entirely. I reckon it’s because we replicate the environments we know online, we have a “semester” or course start and end dates, we have teacher telling us what to do, and in what order to do them in. We follow lockstep, because that’s the role we expect to be in.

There’s the more connectivist MOOCs, and these seem a little more freeform. I know that in the Connectivist and Connective Knowledge and DS106 models, there’s more empowerment. Still, there’s George and Stephen, or Jim, Alan and Martha at the heads of those MOOCs. Those mentioned will really balk at my idea of them being at the head of those courses and will point to the many others that make them happen (in front of the proverbial curtain and behind), and my statement isn’t intended as a slight against them. The personalities of those contributors are key in driving people to those ideas within those courses/events/happenings.  Within that structure, people will look to those who champion the idea to guide how they experience it. How does one break that implicit power structure?

I think the next step in breaking the power structure is to set up an open course on a loose subject and have people set their own objectives. Guidance should be given on how to set good objectives, and other’s objectives should be ranked/rated using the Coursera peer marking strategy (except up the number of people marking to 5 or 6 to improve the reliability of the results). So if you set up a too easy, or too difficult to manage objective, the crowd can give you feedback on how to challenge yourself or how to manage your expectations. Scalable is important… then students use the tools they have to to find and aggregate content. Using the DS106 model, they can design their own assignments and periodically submit them for peer marking.  Pull in Howard Rheingold’s work with information reliability on the Internet. Really, the whole thing becomes crowd sourced, content, marking, assessment, how to assess your own learning, setting your own goals, creating your submissions.. everything.

Of course, all this pipe dreaming is predicated on the open web staying open. As copyright lawyers seem intent on locking down information behind paywalls, this approach may not be possible. Hell, it may not be possible now…

EDCMOOC Wrap Up and Reflections

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about the EDCMOOC course that was delivered through Coursera and I want to note what I think went right and what could be improved.

Unlike many of the other students, I like messy learning. The sort of thing where you’re overwhelmed with ideas, concepts, thoughts and half-baked ideas, and you muddle through and wrestle with some of the ideas – then pick what you want to focus on, and move forward with that. I wasn’t put off by this approach – it’s a sound pedagogical approach for me, but clearly not everyone is in the same space as I am.

I really, really like Coursera’s peer marking structure (when it works). I would’ve preferred a more robust scale and rubric, as I’m a bit of an easy marker. There were areas that I was stretching for connections to the content, if I had clearer marking objectives, I probably would’ve been able to give better feedback. I don’t think I gave terrible feedback at all, but it would’ve been better had I been able to interpret how the instructors (or facilitators in this case) would’ve liked to see. Again, I know why they chose the path they went down, and I agree with their approach pedagogically, but as a user/student, I needed just a little bit more.

The course has to be considered a success due to the sheer number of resources added to the course – starting out with four videos, and then watching the discussion boards grow with other resources was wild.

I purposefully chose to use other media to contribute, and I’m not sure how successful that approach was – twitter comments I made about the course seemed to be received well; blog posts were less viewed and commented on. I do cultivate my twitter feed much better than my blog, which is a bit sad I suppose. I could’ve pimped my thoughts and ideas through the discussion board (and a good web marketer would’ve probably done that for the positive linkbait it would be) but that felt, well, like a late-night TV commercial… I’m not selling a flowbee or a slapchop, in fact I’m not selling anything.

I was motivated by the piece of paper. I never really thought about it, but I was engaged because of the carrot at the end of the stick. Despite how ultimately worthless another piece of paper is, I wanted it. What can I say? I don’t have enough trophies in my life I guess.

It was interesting to see how many of the people I follow were part of the EDCMOOC – however that didn’t seem to generate any discussion outside of the discussion boards.

I wonder what would happen if all students rejected the peer marking approach. Is that the fault-line that no one will talk about?

Tactical Media/Tactical Teaching?

I spent some time over the summer reading about Tactical Media – hit and run type events that challenge status quo or pose questions to the public. This tactic is not limited to just a political action, as we’ve seen with flash mobs or other spontaneous actions. The more I read about tactical media, the more I think about tactical teaching.

I suppose that a lot of teaching is tactical – short term events leading to a long term outcome – however a lot of current online learning doesn’t really touch on these ideas of spontaneity or in-the-moment teaching. Those are the things I remember most from my own education. Throughout my life I’ve been a bit of a questioner – in high school this tendency could lead my teachers off track so often when the lecture part of class was boring I would ask a question that would eat at an issue that was related but would be sure to railroad the teacher into a monologue that would either be a) entertaining or b) take up a lot of time.

In grade 11 history, we could get Mr. Whyte off track really quickly by mentioning Quebec, French language privilege and the Meech Lake Accord. I’ll never forget those rants – impassioned pleas of “Haven’t the French had enough accomodations from Canada?” and throwing chalk at the board. It didn’t change my view of Quebec (in fact it’s probably made my view of Quebec much more sympathetic), but it did leave a mark.  I’m sure you have those moments where teaching has left an indelible mark on you – otherwise you probably wouldn’t be in the field.

Another related event that struck me was whenever a teacher would stop the lesson mid-stream to either go off on a tangent, or to review something in the moment. It happened in my Math classes in high school (the ones where I was asked if I was planning on taking math higher than grade 12, to which I said no, and the teacher said good) often – talking about a higher algebraic concept then re-teaching the rules of some other concept. The act, stuck with me; the content, well, not so much.

More recently, in CCK08 (hard to believe it’s been four years), Stephen Downes force subscribed everyone to a discussion thread, to illustrate a power dynamic in groups and networks. While a constructed event and not serendipitous, it was brilliant teaching. I’ll remember that for a long, long time.

I often wonder if these moments in time, my personal aha! moments, could be what really are interesting about teaching and learning. More importantly, they may be what I’m missing with the whole Coursera, Udacity, Content Driven MOOT (Massive Online Open Training) thing. Those moments when learning really happens, the moments that stick, they don’t happen in these training events that are out there under the guises of MOOCs. There is no connection between myself and the instructor from Udacity (Dave? I forget his name, nor frankly do I care) for the course I took. I was just a number. There was no tactical teaching that occurred – they may argue that the weekly questions were somewhat tactical, I suppose they might be – perhaps I would feel different if one of my questions were answered. Not that I had questions, I understood the content well enough.  And for the course, that’s the measure of success.

Success shouldn’t be so simple, because success is not a simple condition – it’s complex and situational. Which brings me back to tactical media. Tactical media arises, creates an event as a response to an idea, and then leaves an artifact to ponder. Doesn’t that sound like good teaching?