Ontario Online Initiative

So, undoubtedly this announcement by the Ontario government to give $42 million dollars to develop online courses, by getting Universities to compete in some sort of race-to-the bottom/bloodsport of course development so that they get money to develop courses that can be delivered online is kinda’ quaint. I mean, I’d be impressed if this was 1997, or even 2003, but 2014 seems a bit shameful.

Let’s face it, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Ontario is a decade behind the western provinces (who easily lead innovation in this realm in Canada) and probably five or six years behind the maritime provinces, who do online learning out of necessity. The really shameful thing is that Ontario Universities should’ve been able to see this gap growing for years, and sought to address it sooner. I guess the last fifteen years of conservative government at the provincial level didn’t help as they were looking to scale back and demolish education into a private business as they are likely to do. $42 million dollars is really  a drop in the bucket – especially if you’re setting up a whole education system outside of the existing University and College system, that will allow transfer of credits to those systems. Which brings up an interesting issue, if I take a University credit, will Colleges accept that towards a diploma they offer? What about the other way?

Of course all Universities will be in on this action, and some of the more developed online schools will have a leg and hand up but it’s a nice development for someone like me who needs 4 or 5 more credits for my degree, and has had a lot of problem with either a home University accepting a credit, but the visiting University not accepting me as a student (in favour of their own); or taking the course and not having the credit accepted at all.

What worries me most though is that if this initiative is ushered in (as no doubt the government goes to election) and is a fair to midlin’ reception. What happens then? This institute and and initiative is certainly subject to a new government’s impulses and legislation. I can easily see a conservative government saying “this doesn’t work, let’s let private market run it better and cheaper.”

And we know where that will end up.

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?

New Theories

I just finished reading this post by Steve Wheeler about learning theories for a digital age. I don’t know about whether these new theories are making older theories as anachronistic as he thinks. While connectivism and other  learning theories are enhancing our understanding of how humans learn, it’s not as if the new ideas render all that old work obsolete. In fact, I think it scaffolds our understanding of education quite nicely. If we go back a mere fifty years ago, there were only a few people interested in explaining how we learn. If we go back a hundred, there were even less. What Dewey said in the 1930’s, was amplified by others throughout the 60’s and is presently augmented to reflect our current way of thinking in the modern day. Sure, Steve’s not suggesting we forget where we came from – at least I hope he’s not – but Dewey resonates as an overarching theory as much as connectivism applies to how we learn online. Perhaps that’s because the shifting of what an “experience” exists as. An experience in 1930 is different (contextually and functionally) than an experience is today. Our perspective is broader (although our focus may be narrower).

Dewey could never have anticipated YouTube, but in a way we can watch a video on YouTube, experience it, and then attempt to practice it in our own reality. Dewey certainly thought that experiential learning was doing something and learning from it. While we can draw a parallel between watching a YouTube video and listening to a lecture in the 1930’s, I wonder if there’s enough of a difference between the two (referencing R.E. Mayer’s work with multimedia learning, Innis’ work with communication theory) that they are cognitively different. Factoring in motivation (typically YouTube videos are viewed with purpose, lectures, well, we all know about them) may have a big difference in whether or not information is retained. I think it’s incredibly valuable to return to the foundations of educational theory to ground ourselves and think about what we know.

Reflections on Week 1 of Udacity’s CS101

Udacity’s CS101 is a beginner programming course, which I’m taking (even though I’m fairly well versed in programming, having done web programming for years prior to getting into e-learning). I’m not all that interested in the content, however the introduction to Python will be interesting, and the project, building a search engine, is very appealing.  Python is a language that I’ve never learned, and always felt I should – it strikes me as a handy complement to PHP (which is bloated) and Perl (which does text processing well, but suffers in other areas).

I am in the course because I’m curious how the course works. When you have a course the scale of this, what checks and balances are there? I’m sure there’s analytics behind the platform that describe how much time the viewer spends on each page. What’s really interesting is the students in the course – many of whom have professed to be excited for homework for the first time. I’m sure the vocal ones will be pumping the tires so to speak, and there will be many who are not excited for homework, or found that the first week was just a bit too much for them – those people we’ll never hear about, because they’ll just stop and do something else. The ones who are excited for homework (and no doubt will be a soundbite that Udacity uses over and over to legitimize their approach) are excited because they are motivated (some for the first time). They signed up, they chose this course because it suits their needs, and frankly, they should be excited and motivated. It’s not often higher education gives something away.

I haven’t done the homework yet, but here’s some criticisms of the videos, and general approaches to the teaching. For those not taking here’s how a week works – several topics are broken down into chunks – usually 5 to 8 minute videos interrupted by a quiz, then another video, then an example code chunk to write, which is the best part. While the videos are good, they do take up the whole screen, so YouTube in their infinite wisdom, obscures things drawn on the screen in the video with their branding, and controls (should you want to rewind). The production values for the course are par for education, which means they could be improved by a bumper at each end, with some visual written title to further accentuate what we’re watching.  As much as I like the instructors, I don’t think their two talking heads interlude, congratulating the student, is necessary. Your students should be motivated, they signed up, they are watching – wait to motivate us (and do it in an authentic way, not wooden as this video comes across). I think the course could be vastly improved if we could have the development window and the video at the same time – that way experimenting as the video explains. I understand that cognitively, it’s not ideal, but it would be useful to actually write out the code that’s being explained and run it.

My biggest peeve is that any work done in their interface is not downloadable – at least isn’t clearly downloadable. I wish I could take those example scripts and build on them. Again, this would save me time doing the homework… something I am not surprised I do not want to do. I guess it shows how much I value an essentially useless piece of paper that will be unlikely to be recognized anywhere as an accomplishment of anything. Another issue, while this isn’t a big problem, I know how to write a couple lines of Python – but shouldn’t I actually be taught early on how to write a whole python script? You know, something as a standalone file with a dot py extension? Isn’t that the point of this – and fundamental to the use of Python (and modularity in programming…)?

At best I see this as a replacement for HR training for some – so that labour costs can go down again (hiring laypeople who are just out of high school, then run them through a series of training courses over a few weeks to get them trained how you want the job to be done, with no transferability). Maybe that’s overly critical. Udacity’s model is clearly rooted in a very American approach to education, which as a whole is outdated and certainly ripe for revolution. That’s not Udacity’s fault in any way, but as long as jobs require degrees, this will not be socially transformational for the majority of the population – unless Udacity figures out the accreditation part of the deal.  Which I suspect will require some sort of money.

With all those criticisms aside, they’ve done an admirable job in developing a free course that seems to be scalable.  They do attend to ones needs, and are quick to respond to bugs and errors that are found. The community around CS101 is quite impressive for being about a week old, and that’s in part to the efforts of the Udacity community representatives.


Faculty Observations

As an LMS support person for faculty (and the occasional student) I’ve worked at a three year community college and now a university. I’ve delivered training at both institutions, and had the opportunity to talk to a lot of faculty. Here’s some interesting observations:

Most faculty have some experience with an LMS by now. They may not know it’s an LMS, but they’ve had some experience somwhere along the line.

Even those who are most resistant to the idea that they should teach somewhat online recognize the power of sharing their content (whether it be Word docs or PowerPoints or something more web friendly). Many are happy to stop here.

Very few faculty members at either institution are making use of the LMS’s capabilities fully. Most are using it as a sharing platform to augment what they do face to face.

Very few faculty feel that sharing their stuff with their students is a bad thing for class attendance. Glad that myth is over.

Faculty at the university are more comfortable and familiar with LMS’s and technology in general, when compared with faculty at the college. This might be due to the nature of college courses and diplomas being geared towards tradespeople, which have been stereotyped as lower class jobs. I’ve seen the literacy rates of incoming students first hand, and they’ve decreased significantly over the last decade. The same is true for university, but university has been traditionally for the upper and middle class. It’s interesting to note how clear the lines are drawn once you’ve worked at both places.


The Learning Self

This post is a little off-topic but relates to learning, and more specifically, my own learning online. In a previous lifetime (about 15 years ago now) I was going to school to be an audio engineer – and we learned about electronics as part of the core courses to graduate. It’s been handy to know about circuits and electrical theory, but I haven’t used it in many years so it’s not on top of my mind. I’ve been thinking about building guitar effects pedals, so I’ve been prowling around the web looking for lessons on soldering (my weakness), schematics and whatever else I could find. And I’ve found a lot! Tons of message boards, plenty of PDF schematics, lots of discussion around noise-making, adapting circuits, bent circuits and many beginners tutorials. In fact, had I known back then what I know now, I might not have given it up to do something else.

What this has to do with learning is simple, in my case, I’m motivated to learn and will spend most of my time doing so if given the freedom to do so. Much like learning in informal settings – motivated learners taking on tasks that are directed to solving their problems.

Time’s 50 Best Websites

It’s interesting to surf through the 50 best websites according to Time, not just because it’s another view about what’s good in the web, but it’s also interesting to see how they pared untold billions of sites and pages down to 50. It’s like saying name your top 3 punk 7″ EPs – there’s thousands of possible choices and lots of opinions, but narrowing it down is awful tough.

So looking at the sites Time likes for education there’s two must-haves and pretty easy choices (Ted and MIT OpenCourseware). Two other choices, Livemocha makes sense, and is a great use of the web technology, and really accentuates informal learning. As does Chegg, the textbook rental service, who accentuate the social aspect of learning.

The last one, I went “huh”. Read Print is a service that catalogs public domain books – which seem to be a lot of the same old available books in the public domain, which are available from iTunes, Amazon and a few other places where one might look for books before Read Print. Where Read Print gets it is the selection of quotes from author’s works, where it’s wrong is that these are HTML files with the companies advertising, which is also text links, at the top of the screen. Even if I wanted to read this on my Kindle or iPad (neither of which I own, but maybe I’d want to read it on my iPod Touch?) it would blow. I don’t want to bash this site too much because I love the idea, but the question isn’t top 50 website ideas you love. Is this among the best websites for education? I think Khan Academy or even Teacher Tube would be an interesting choice that would have stuff to write about rather than this ode to dead trees. I’d be interested in the number of texts that are available in the public domain. I’m sure that 1984 and Animal Farm are fairly common texts, and are apparently in the public domain, or maybe they aren’t.

Monetizing e-Learning

Odijoo is an attempt to provide a free e-learning development platform to deliver web-based learning. The instructor could then assign a monetary value for access to the course, or can give it away. The question I have is that with Open CourseWare courses cropping up from real educational institutions, will anyone pay for content from a private company? On top of that, people generally want a piece of paper or some accreditation for their work. Odijoo doesn’t provide this. I could see if Microsoft used the service to provide Microsoft certification, although chances are Microsoft would do that from their own site. I like the model for informal learning although when you formalize learning, it can get, well, weird.