Talking Teaching

October 29, 2014

reflections on e-teaching and e-learning

Dear readers – what follows is a much longer post than I would normally write (& yes, at times I write some quite extensive posts!). This is because the current post constitutes my ‘portfolio’ to support nominations from my students for an e-learning award offered by my institution. I decided to write the portfolio in this form because blogging is a medium that I feel comfortable writing in, & because it’s so easy to add hyperlinks, files etc. (Consequently many of the links lead to my own reflective writing elsewhere on this blog, and to presentations I’ve given.) Plus I would really very much value feedback & comments – I don’t regard myself as anything approaching an expert (or even a journeyman) in this field and I know that my future practice will benefit from your insights.

That said, please do read on!

Technologies such as Moodle, panopto, AdobeConnect & the like allow access to learning opportunities  in a much more flexible way than the ‘traditional’ university environment, and this is going to become more and more important in the future as student demographics change. For example, as the number of people in the  18-25 age group continues to decline while the 50+ cohort continues to grow, then we will need to offer education to ‘non-traditional’ students and in ‘non-traditional’ ways. From an institutional perspective, using learning technologies in an interactive way can also help to ensure that we enhance retention and meet graduate profiles. For example, the graduate profile for our BSc says that students can communicate using a range of methods including multi-media (which includes web-based resources and activities), can work cooperatively, and have the skills necessary for self-directed learning: acquisition of all these attributes (plus the more usual acquisition-of-knowledge outcomes) can be supported by learning technologies, particularly those that are interactive.

So then, what does this look like in the context of my own teaching practice? I know some people see me as an ‘early adopter’ of classroom technologies like these, but on reflection I think my activities in this area have grown organically – much like my teaching career, I suppose.

RELECTIONS ON APPLYING TECHNOLOGY TO TEACHING & LEARNING

Moodle and Facebook: 

Alison is constantly introducing new ways for us to learn through technology. From educational videos and other resources on Moodle to an accessible Facebook forum for students to share their own passion for biology, she has been experimenting successfully with the digital resources available to teachers at the University of Waikato.

Great at technology, innovative ideas (eg facebook page for 101)

Very helpful both during lectures and tutorials. Very active on Moodle, promptly responds to forum questions, has created a Facebook page for the paper.

(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

I’ve used Moodle ever since it became available: paper outlines, study guide notes, powerpoints of lectures, assessment materials, quizzes, discussion forums, useful links & readings  – it’s all there. Once panopto came on-stream, links to lecture recordings went up on moodle as well, thanks to the WCeL wizards. I’ve always encouraged students to ask questions, join discussions, and post materials on Moodle (I have colleagues who’d rather receive individual emails but honestly! why answer the same question multiple times?) but interestingly, it was the first-year students who were most active in doing this.

However, in the last couple of years I’ve seen this activity drop right off, and it’s been something of a concern. Being asked for feedback on Moodle as part of the University’s process of identifying a new student management system really made me reflect more closely on this, partly in light of my own use of other on-line communities (not least of them, Facebook). From talking with students I gained the impression that moodle can be very ‘clunky': it takes at least a couple of steps to arrive at a resource, whereas on FB links are right there and obvious. The students complained that they were continually having to log in to moodle during the day, in contrast to remaining logged in on FB, and that they preferred the FB notification system. This got me thinking about how best to use this as an additional way of supporting my students’ learning and increasing their engagement. (This is not to say that they don’t use Moodle: a recent survey I carried out with our 2nd-year students shows that they clearly do – but they just don’t engage to any great extent.)

There’s a lot of literature available now about using Facebook to support teaching and learning. Fittingly, I was introduced to some of it through the Ako Aotearoa Academy FB page that I administer, but I’ve since talked more widely about it with colleagues at other institutions and started delving more deeply into recent publications; for example, Dougherty & Andercheck, 2014 (my reflections on that paper are here), and Kent & Leaver’s 2014 e-book, “An education in Facebook?”. And I sounded out my students, who were extremely positive about the idea. The result: we have a Facebook page for the first-year biology class, where they regularly post material & start discussions, and where I post course information and questions or polls (all mirrored on our Moodle page), along with links to other, science-based, FB pages.

BIOL101 student post

BIOL101 2nd student post

My thoughts after a semester? Yes, it’s a bit of additional work, because notices, polls and so on must be posted in two places rather than one, and because there’s the need to interact with other posters. It would be good to see more students there – at present just over half the class is present and at least observing on FB – but (and it’s a big ‘but’), commenters are far more lively and engaged than on Moodle, which seems to be reserved for ‘serious’ questions. That engagement is important, as it contributes to enjoyment and performance. Plus there’s also evidence that engagement (or lack thereof) with study, with teachers, and with the institution – can affect student retention.

As an aside, the lack of ‘personal’ feel to many MOOCs is a shortcoming of this method of content delivery; as the author of this blog post has said,

I think most MOOCs are just textbooks for the Internet age. A brilliantly delivered lecture or a brilliantly written book are both good content delivery systems. But without interaction, feedback, and mutual accountability that is all they can be.

We have to ensure we deliver that personal touch!

Anyway, next year I’ll be more systematic about my use of Facebook in relation to my teaching, in the sense of examining whether there is any correlation between use of the page and academic outcomes. And I’ll use tools like ‘question of the week’ – on both Moodle and FB – to try to lift engagement further.

Panopto

I leaped early into the panopto pool, and I’ve been splashing around in it ever since

Incorporates technology. Records every lecture for panopto and makes good use of moodle.

regular and helpful facebook user. encourages students to get involved in various online activities.

(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

Panopto’s a tool for capturing classroom teaching and making it available on-line for students to access whenever they please. I first became aware of it when the University was gearing up for its i-TunesU presence, and decided that the technology had a lot to offer me and my students as a tool to enhance teaching and learning practices. (I am definitely not a fan of technology for technology’s sake – it needs to have a pedagogical benefit.) And I’ve been using it ever since – for lectures, for podcasts, for catching up when I’ve had to cancel a lecture due to illness. I promote it whenever I get the chance, in tearoom conversation but also at conferences and symposia (e.g. Fun with panopto). (I also use it to review and reflect on my own classroom performance; the recordings are really useful when considering whether something could have been better communicated, although they are certainly unforgiving when it comes to things like mannerisms and use of voice!)

Students certainly value this technology. It gives them the flexibility to balance workloads, manage lecture clashes, revise for tests and exams, and to be absent due to illness or family commitments. Of course, it also gives them the ability to simply skip class and promise themselves that they can catch up later, something the literature shows doesn’t necessarily happen. I believe that we (academics) need to be more forthright in communicating with students around this, but that’s not to say that we should reduce our use of lecture recordings!

Able to pause and go over things i don’t understand. Can also do them in my own time.

For me, Panopto is most valuable during study week for revisiting explanations rather than for catching up on missed lectures.

Usually if I don’t watch an entire lecture on panopto it was because I preferred the text-book or other material to the lecturer’s style of teaching, or because the lecture recording failed, or because I listened to the lecture on podcast.

(2014 student feedback via surveymonkey)

There’s a lot more to lecture recordings than this. They can be used for ‘catch-up’ snippets – recordings of the slides at the end of the lecture that you didn’t get to because there were concepts that needed additional explanations. But panopto also supports more active learning techniques such as flip teaching, where a lecturer can prepare a short recording for students to watch ahead of class, and the actual classroom time is used for group discussions and problem-solving. For a couple of years now I’ve been running ‘Design-an-animal/Design-a-plant’ classes (described in the previous link) to consolidate student learning in a fun and cooperative way, during the A semester.

(2013 student feedback: Aspects of the paper that should be maintained)

The design a plant exercise. This exercise ties the knowledge we have acquired in past weeks, producing a
comprehensive well developed understanding of the adaptations and functions of different plants

the “designing a plant” was a great activity that was very interesting and exciting

the flip class which was really fun.

And in the B semester this year we had a session on DNA technology, where the class decided they’d like to hear more about GMOs: I provided short explanatory clips on gene cloning and PCR & DNA sequencing for them to watch ahead of time, so that we could spend the ‘lecture’ on discussion (and a very wide-ranging discussion it proved to be!).

Furthermore, techniques like this have a clear and significant positive effect on student learning (eg Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011)Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, & Freeman, 2011) and we need to encourage their wider use as we reshape ourselves as a true ‘university of the future’.

 

REFLECTIONS ON SUPPORTING LEARNERS

Educators aren’t just using techniques like this simply because the technology has become available. There have to be positive outcomes for the students. I touched on some of these at the beginning of this post, in the context of ensuring that students have gained the attributes we describe in our graduate profiles.

However, another big plus for digital learning technologies is the way in which they allow us to meet the different learning needs of students. (I’m inclined to agree with the author of this post regarding different learning styles, mind you.) For example:

  • They really open up the options for students for whom work commitments, or geographical isolation, mean that they can’t attend classes in the ‘normal’ university hours.
  • For all students, the ready availability of lecture recordings means that they can review a class, or part thereof, as often as they need in order to gain understanding of concepts and information.
  • Students who are ill, or have lecture clashes, or sudden family commitments, don’t have to stress too much about missing classes (but see the following paragraph :) )
  • The fact that recordings are downloadable as mp4 files means that students can use them pretty much where & when they choose – on the bus, perhaps, or sitting in a comfy chair at home.
  • It’s easy to incorporate video clips, or even music (albeit with a scientific message) into classes. This opens up a whole new range of resources to use with our students (and breaks up the ‘lecture’ format, re-energising the classroom). This has occasioned some ‘interesting’ discussions over the use of such material from other institutions: it’s not “our” learning material, and students should be seeing our resources and ideas. This is true, but why re-invent the wheel? If an excellent resource exists, then use it! – and enhance the role of facilitator of learning, rather than simply someone delivering facts.
  • Technologies also empower students in ways that we might not always consider – for example, setting up a Moodle discussion forum for anonymous use means that someone who might be too shy to speak up in the lecture theatre can ask their questions, & make comments, in a less-threatening environment.
  • And having just attended a session on the use of AdobeConnect, I can see (& will make use of) the potential in being able to set up a ‘virtual’ pre-exam tutorial, synchronous with an actual class, for students who can’t make it onto campus for that particular session: they can see & hear what’s going on & ask questions of their own, for example. (It looks like panopto on steroids so I will admit that I’m left wondering what will happen to the latter in the future.)

I feel very strongly, however, that while we definitely need to provide learning opportunities for academic staff around learning technologies, we also need to educate students around their use. Despite the frequent use of the term ‘digital natives’ in discussion around our students and e-learning, the description really doesn’t fit our current cohort particularly well, and there’s a very interesting discussion of the term here. (It may be another story when the current crop of under-5s reach tertiary classrooms as many of them have truly grown up immersed in and using on-line technologies. And having said that, we also need to remember that there remain sectors of society who simply cannot afford to access the hardware to enable such learning. How do we enable them?) This means walking the class through what’s available on moodle, for example, or how to download an mp4 file of a panopto recording. But it also means discussing with our students – very early on in the piece – the perils and pitfalls of relying on recordings as an alternative to actually being in class eg the frightening ease with which you can fall behind in watching lectures after the event. This should be done with all first-year classes: many of this cohort have difficulty adapting to the different requirements, expectations, and learning environments of the tertiary system as it is and, lacking time management skills, can very easily fall off the wagon – something that has implications for both completion and retention.

She is very helpful and she knows her topic well. Very organised and goes beyond her duty to make sure students are getting everything in order to succeed. 
 
I think she is a really great lecturer and has used a range of different tools to help us learn in her lectures such as a drawing tool on the computer and has also created a Facebook page for BIOL102 to make it more interactive and fun to learn for everyone enrolled in the paper.
 
She is a really great lecturer, who makes a lot of effort to ensure her students get all the information they need to learn about what she is teaching. she also takes the time to make sure that students questions are answered, and always keeps in mind that because students have different learning levels, that she gives all the information required. 
Demonstrates a real passion for what she teaches. 
(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

e-LEARNING & PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

As I said earlier, I definitely don’t see myself as an expert in this field! This means that I frequently reflect on my classroom practice and the things I’ve learned (the focus of many of the posts here on Talking Teaching!), and I take advantage of professional development opportunities as often as I can. In the past I’ve attended quite a few workshops on various aspects of Moodle (and the on-line support materials are very useful too; thanks, WCeL team!). The university’s Teaching Development staff run regular Teaching Network sessions, where participants learn from each other on a whole range of teaching-related issues, & I go to these at every available opportunity. The most recent session, by Alan Levine, introduced the idea of pechaflickr as a tool for engagement and for learning, and that’s led me to think about using a pechaflickr session in tutorials, as a fun change of pace but also of a means of checking understanding of particular concepts. Definitely one for next year.

Sharing is good. And so I promote these technologies when I get the chance :) This year I facilitated a session on flip teaching at our annual WCeLfest (where I gained a lot from the participants’ feedback), but was also invited to take part as a panellist in a discussion of what our university might look like in a future where distance and blended learning make much more use of digital learning & teaching technologies. And I’ve previously shared their application at other conferences – in a 2013 discussion around how teachers’ roles are changing from disseminators of facts to facilitators of learning, for example. In addition, I led a discussion about MOOCs at a UoW Council planning day earlier this year, which also formed the basis of this particular post.

Learning technologies also have huge potential in terms of outreach to the wider community. For example, since 2005 I’ve been running Scholarship Biology preparation days for students – and their teachers – preparing for the Scholarship Biology examinations, which has involved travelling to deliver sessions in the Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Auckland and Hawkes Bay, as well as in Hamilton itself. (I also write another blog, originally intended to support these students and still containing a considerable amount of material that’s useful to them and their teachers.) But these face-to-face sessions are one-offs, as it were, so this year I decided to set up a Facebook page so that interactions and support could continue. Feedback from the teachers is very positive. Sadly,  the students have not been so engaged on the page,  although the teachers tell me their students are definitely using material from the page in class,  which is a great outcome from my perspective. I’ll leave this one up and running and hopefully, as resources build up and teachers encourage their students to use it from the beginning of the year, we’ll start to see some more active student participation. I can also see the value in using AdobeConnect to run occasional virtual tutorials for this far-flung group of students – it would be particularly valuable for those students who are the only one at their particular school sitting this exam, as they’d get the opportunity to interact with others (&, if I can work out how to set it up!) work cooperatively with them to solve problems in an on-line active-learning world.

Schol Bio FB feedback

 

 If you’ve read this far – thank you for staying with me :) I appreciate your company on what is for me a continuing journey of self-reflection and learning around my teaching practice. I’ll be grateful for your feedback – and I do so hope you don’t feel you’d have been better off sitting at home in your bunny slippers :)

best wishes, Alison

October 28, 2014

pechaflickr and other cool stuff from Alan Levine

Recently I had a blast, attending an inspirational workshop by Alan Levine (I grab professional development opportunities like these with both hands!). The workshop gave me some ideas for new things to try with my students next year, and I thought I would share the notes I made at the time (with commentary) in case there might be useful things there for others.

Alan kicked off by asking us if we knew when the internet was created (heaps of history here), by whom (I’ve never really understood why so many people think it was Al Gore), & for what. It was originally intended to allow scientists to better communicate with each other – but sometimes it feels as if the science is being swamped & lost in amongst everything else that’s posted on the web. (A friend once said to me that one day the internet could collapse under the weight of funny cat pictures. She could be right.)

The web certainly allows openness, reduces insularity, and engenders connectedness. Well, in an ideal world it does, and many parts of the internet do function in that way (eg the sub-reddit on science), but at the same time the web has also seen the development of various silos where dissent isn’t tolerated and the ban-hammer is wielded on a regular basis.

But in education openness is to be valued, because we can all – teachers & learners alike – learn from each other. Alan introduced us to one of his projects, which involves videoing teachers as they talk about what goes on in their classrooms. You’ll find these stories at True Stories of Open Sharing, and he sees them as a form of ‘paying it forward’. At this point one of the others at the session volunteered a story about how she’s using twitter to support student learning. I still haven’t got into tweeting & I found the whole thing quite fascinating- it seems an even more direct connection than Facebook.

Alan noted that people see many barriers (perceived and real) to doing this sort of sharing around teaching:

  • lack of confidence
  • not comfortable with spontaneous story-telling (and yet narratives are such a great way to engage others – the link is about working with children, but everyone loves a good story!)
  • don’t have original ideas
  • fear of being seen as mediocre, or not good enough – worried about what others think
  • the worry that it may affect how peers or employers perceive you
  • the lack of face-to-face contact, so you can’t judge your audience (& for many of us that is very important; I can’t get quite the same buzz going when I do a panopto recording in my office, for example, although that could be lack of practice, perhaps?)
  • don’t want to be seen as commonplace, repetitive, or wrong.

Which I guess may be why many of my colleagues don’t actually share a lot about what goes on in their classrooms.

Yet that sharing & feeling of the personal are important, because education is becoming less about ‘product’ and more about relationships, connections, and engagement. With information so readily available on-line at the click of a mouse (think MOOCs, for example), universities do need to re-examine, & perhaps re-invent, the way they do business. What is the ‘added value’ that we provide, that makes students want to continue to come to a bricks-&-mortar institution? And how do we make on-line learning a valuable and engaging alternative, for those who choose it?

Because the knowledge is already out there. We need to move from seeing ourselves as deliverers of content, to delivering a learning experience. And that really does require some fairly significant changes; we’re not really talking business-as-usual. (One of those changes will probably be the development of a code of ethics around how we share materials, ideas, and content with each other & between institutions.)

After this we moved on to the idea of improv(ing) ourselves – as in, improvisation: being natural, rather than forced. After all, the ability to improvise is a valuable skill as classes don’t always go as expected. Alan asked who knew about pecha kucha (usually, speaking to no more than 20 slides for no more than 20 seconds per slide – it really forces you to focus on your message!). I’ve used this presentation style several times now, & in fact had something of a baptism of fire for my first one: got roped in to do one at my first Academy symposium – except that I didn’t know the subject until just before speaking, & someone else chose the slides :)

Anyway, quite a few of us knew of pecha kucha – but what, he said about pecha flickr? He set one up for us, with each person taking a slide in turn. It was hysterically funny and we could straightaway see that Alan was right: this sort of improv changed the energy levels in the room, raised enjoyment (as if we weren’t already having fun!) and engagement, and got everyone participating. I could see how good it would be as an icebreaker at a (smallish) conference, but I also started wondering how we could use it in first-year bio classes. Maybe in tuts, as a revision tool? The students would have to be comfortable about it, but the technique would have a lot of potential for diagnosing gaps in knowledge and also for giving practice in verbal communication.

And we finished off with the idea of ‘connected courses’. (This was very brief as we’d spent so much time having fun.) There’s a need to find ways of making on-line spaces personal, welcoming, & engaging – connected. For example, MOOCs tend to have a high attrition rate, & it’s possible that’s because they’re a bit like motel rooms (Alan’s metaphor): impersonal, & with no real sense of ownership. In contrast, many blogs are the equivalent of a personal bedroom, with comfort, boundaries, & security. How can on-line courses generate that sense of connectedness? One way to find out is to experience it – at Connected Courses: an open course in how to run an open course :) I’m really hoping that next year I’ll find myself with the ‘free’ time to invest in investigating this one further!

June 3, 2014

more on moocs – go read this post!

Filed under: education — Tags: , , — alison @ 9:31 am

I wish I had more time, because then I could read even more articles and blogs and papers about the things that really interest me, like enhancing the quality of teaching and learning. And there’s some great stuff out there, including a post on Massive Open On-line Courses entitled “MOOCs, student engagement, and the value of contact.” It’s the lack of real interpersonal contact in MOOCs that’s one of their big limitations, from my perspective, and I think the post’s author nailed that concern in this comment:

I think most MOOCs are just textbooks for the Internet age. A brilliantly delivered lecture or a brilliantly written book are both good content delivery systems. But without interaction, feedback, and mutual accountability that is all they can be.

Just one reason to go over & read the full post by chemprofdave.

June 1, 2014

“If you’re going to get lectured at, you might as well be at home in bunny slippers”

This is a post I first wrote for the Bioblog.

There’s an increasing body of literature demonstrating the benefits of active learning for tertiary students taking science subjects. This is a topic I’ve written about before, but I’m always interested in reading more on the subject. And let’s face it, the more evidence the better, when you’re wanting to get lecturers in the sciences engaged in discussion around different ways of teaching. As you’ll have gathered, I find a lot of new science & education material via alerts on Facebook, as well as through the more conventional journal feeds & email alerts, and so it was with this recent paper by Scott Freeman & colleagues, which looks at the effect of active learning on student performance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) classes: I saw it first described in this post1 (whence also comes the quote I’ve used as my title).

The paper by Freeman et al (2014) is a meta-analysis of more than 200 studies of teaching methods used in STEM classes, which included “occasional group problem-solving, worksheets or tutorials completed during class, use of personal response systems with or without peer instruction, and studio or workshop course designs” (ibid.). The impact of the various methods on student learning was measured in two ways: by comparing scores on the same or similar examinations or concept inventories; and by looking at the percentage of students who failed a course.

What did their results show? FIrstly, that students’ mean scores in exams assessing work covered in active learning classes improved by around 6% over more traditional teaching-&-learning formats (& finding that matches those of earlier studies); and secondly, that students in those traditional classes “were 1.5 times more likely to fail”, compared to students given in-class opportunities for active learning (with a ‘raw failure’ rate averaging 33.8% in traditional lecturing classes and 21.8% in more active classes). These results held across all STEM subjects. The researchers also found that active-learning techniques had a stronger effect on concept inventories compared to formal exams (& here I’m wondering if that doesn’t reflect – at least in part – the nature of the exams themselves eg did they give opportunities to demonstrate deep learning?) Interestingly, while the positive impact of active learning was seen across all class sizes, it was more pronounced in classes of less than 50 students.

On the class size thing, I’m wondering if that might be because it’s easier to get everyone actively involved, in a smaller class? For example, I’ve got a colleague at another institution who runs a lot of his classes as ‘flipped’ sessions, and ensures that all students get the opportunity to present to the rest of the group – this is far easier to set up in a class of 50 than in a group with 200+ students in it. (I know! When I run ‘design-a-plant/animal’ sessions, there’s time for only a sub-set of student ‘teams’ to present their creatures to the rest of the class. Plus you really have to work at making sure you get around all teams to talk with them, answer questions, & so on, and so it’s perhaps more likely that someone can remain uninvolved.)

The research team concluded:

Finally, the data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the continued use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields. Although traditional lecturing has dominated undergraduate instruction for most of a millenium and continues to have strong advocates, current evidence suggests that a constructivist “ask, don’t tell” approach may lead to strong increases in student performance, amplifying recent calls from policy-makers and researchers to support faculty who are transforming their STEM courses.

The ‘bunny slippers’ quote from the lead author comes from the post that originally caught my eye. And I suspect there may well be bunny slippers (or the equivalent) in evidence when my own students watch lecture recordings at home :) But this does raise a question around massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), which tend to have a very high ‘fail’ rate – how much of this might be attributed to the difficulty in ensuring opportunities for active learning in these ‘distance’ classes?

And of course, we aren’t really talking a simple dichotomy between ‘traditional’ lecture classes and classes with a very high component of active-learning opportunities – something the research team also note: some of the ‘non-traditional’ methods they surveyed had only a 10-15% ‘active’ component. This is something discussed at more length by Alex Smith in a post entitled “In Defence of the Lecture”. I have to say that his approach sounds very similar to mine, with its mix of socratic questioning, pop quizzes, group discussions, and – yes – sections of ‘lecture’. As Small says:

Not every lecture is a person spending an hour talking nonstop to deliver facts. A good lecture is engaging, it naturally invites discussion and dialogue, it operates at a level much higher than raw information delivery, it is a natural setting for the expert to act as a role model, and it can be integrated with more formal activities (e.g., clicker questions, small-group discussions, etc.).

Lecture should not be the sole means of instruction, and bad lectures are a plague demanding eradication, but we err when we too strenuously inveigh against the lecture.

I couldn’t agree more. And maybe that’s a message that’s being lost in the louder discussion around active learning, and which needs to be heard more widely.

1 The comments thread for this story is also worth reading.

S.Freeman, S.L.Eddy, M.McDonough, M.K.Smith,N.Okorofor, H.Jordt & M.P.Wenderoth  (2014) Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/05/08/1319030111

February 11, 2014

musings on moocs

I’ve had a few conversations lately around the topic of Massive Open On-line Courses (or MOOCs). These fully on-line courses, which typically have very high enrolments, have become widely available from overseas providers (my own institution recently developed and ran the first such course in New Zealand, which I see is available again this year). If I had time I’d probably do the occasional one for interest (this one on epigenetics caught my eye).

Sometimes the conversations include the question of whether, and how much, MOOCs might contribute to what’s generally known as the ‘universities of the future’. This has always puzzled me a bit, as in their current incarnation most MOOCs don’t carry credit (there are exceptions), so don’t contribute to an actual degree program; they would seem to work better as ‘tasters’ – a means for people to see what a university might have to offer. Depending on their quality, they could also work to encourage young people into becoming more independent learners, regardless of whether they went on to a university – there’s an interesting essay on this issue here. So I thought it would be interesting to look a bit more closely.

Despite the fact that these courses haven’t been around all that long, there’s already quite a bit published about them, including a systematic review of the literature covering the period 2008-2012 by Liyanagunawardena, Adams, & Williams (2013), and a rather entertaining and somewhat sceptical 2013 presentation by Sir John Daniel, (based largely on this 2012 paper).

The term MOOC has only been in use since 2008, when it was first coined for a course offered by the University of Manitoba, Canada (Lianagunawardena et al, 2013). Daniel comments that the philosophy behind early courses like this was one of ‘connectiveness’, such that resources were freely available to anyone, with learning shared by all those in the course. This was underpinned by the use of RSS feeds, Moodle discussions, blogs, Second Life, & on-line meetings. He characterises ‘modern’ MOOCs as bearing little relation, in their educational philosophy, to these early programs, viewing programs offered by major US universities as

basically learning resources with some computerised feedback. In terms of pedagogy their quality varies widely, from very poor to OK.

Part of the problem here lies with the extremely large enrolments in today’s MOOCs, whereas those early courses were small enough that some semi-individualised interactions between students and educators were possible. Unfortunately the combination of variable pedagogy plus little in the way of real interpersonal interactions in these huge classes also sees them with very high drop-out rates: Liyanawardena and her colleagues note that the average completion rate is less than 10% of those beginning a course, with the highest being 19.2% for a Coursera offering.

Daniel offers some good advice to those considering setting up MOOCs of their own, given that currently – in his estimation – there are as yet no good business models available for these courses. Firstly: don’t rush into it just because others are. Secondly,

have a university-wide discussion on why you might offer a MOOC or MOOCs and use it to develop a MOOC strategy. The discussion should involve all staff members who might be involved in or affected by the offering of a MOOC.

His third point: ensure that any MOOC initiatives are fully integrated into your University’s strategy for online learning (my emphasis). To me this is an absolute imperative – sort the on-line learning strategy first, & then consider how MOOCs might contribute to this. (Having said that, I notice that the 2014 NMC Horizon report on higher education, by Johnson et al.,  sees these massive open on-line courses as in competition with the universities, rather than complementary to their on-campus and on-line for-credit offerings. And many thanks to Michael Edmonds for the heads-up on this paper.)

This is in fact true for anything to do with moving into the ‘universities of the future space (with or without MOOCs). Any strategy for online learning must surely consider resourcing: provision not only of the hardware, software, and facilities needed to properly deliver a ‘blended’ curriculum that may combine both face-to-face and on-line delivery, but also of the professional development needed to ensure that educators have the pedagogical knowledge and skills to deliver excellent learning experiences and outcomes in what for most of us is a novel environment. For there’s far more to offering a good on-line program than simply putting the usual materials up on a web page. A good blended learning (hybrid) system must be flexible, for example; it must suit

the interests and desires of students, who are able to choose how they attend lecture – from the comfort of their home, or face-to-face with their teachers. Additionally, … students [feel] the instructional technology [makes] the subject more interesting, and increase[s] their understanding, as well as encourag[ing] their participation… (Johnson et al., 2014).

This is something that is more likely to encourage the sort of critical thinking and deep learning approaches that we would all like to see in our students.

Furthermore, as part of that hybridisation, social media are increasingly likely to be used in learning experiences as well as for the more established patterns of social communication and entertainment (eg Twitter as a micro-blogging tool: Liyanagunawardena et al., 2013). In fact, ‘external’ communications (ie outside of learning management systems such as Moodle) are likely to become more significant as a means of supporting learner groups in this new environment – this is something I’m already seeing with the use of Facebook for class discussions and sharing of ideas and resources. Of course, this also places demands on educators:

Understanding how social media can be leveraged for social learning is a key skill for teachers, and teacher training programs are increasingly being expected to include this skill. Understanding how social media can be leveraged for social learning is a key skill for teachers, and teacher training programs are increasingly being expected to include this skill. (Johnson et al., 2014).

There is also a need, in any blended learning system, to ensure skilled moderation of forums and other forms of on-line engagement, along with policies to ensure privacy is maintained and bullying and other forms of unacceptable behaviour are avoided or nipped in the bud (Liyanawardena et al. 2013; Johnson et al., 2014). And of course there’s the issue of flipped classrooms, something that the use of these technologies really encourages but which very few teaching staff have any experience of.

Another issue examined by Liyanagunawardena and her colleagues, in their review of the MOOC literature, is that of digital ‘natives': are our students really able to use new learning technologies in the ways that we fondly imagine they can? This is a question that applies just as well to the hybrid learning model of ‘universities of the future’. In one recent study cited by the team, researchers found that of all the active participants in a particular MOOC, only one had never been involved in other such courses. This begs the question of “whether a learner has to learn how to learn” in the digital, on-line environment. (Certainly, I’ve found I need to show students how to download podcasts of lectures, something I’d naively believed that they would know how to do better than I!) In other words, any planning for blended delivery must allow for helping learners, as well as teachers, to become fluent in the new technologies on offer.

We live in interesting times.

And I would love to hear from any readers who have experience in this sort of learning environment.

T.R.Liyanagunawardena, A.A.Adams & S.A.Williams (2013) MOOCs: a systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 14(3): 202-227

L.Johnson, S.Adams Becker, V.Estrada, & A.Freeman (2014) NMC HOrizon Report: 2014 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas. The New Media Consortium. ISBN 978-0-9897335-5-7

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