Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Effective communication in a webinar

I have been involved in a lot of webinars over the last four years or so; as organiser, moderator, speaker and participant. It's a wonderful opportunity to gather people from all over the world and from different fields to discuss a common interest and learn new things but I wonder if we really use this arena effectively.

Many webinars are pretty well standard one-way lectures from a guest expert. There may be a chat window for participants but most prefer to sit back and listen to the lecture. That's perfectly valid as long as we don't pretend that it has any other function. Many of the webinars I've been involved in however have audiences of 100 or more and the chat window is used heavily with a constant stream of comments, links and questions. What happens is that the webinar has two threads of communication that are sometimes interlinked and sometimes go off in slightly different directions. This means that some participants choose to follow the speakers, some get deeply involved in a parallel chat discussion and some try to multitask between the two threads. I've always seen this combination of discussion channels as an exciting and stimulating feature of webinars.

However after a webinar I held yesterday one participant got in touch and explained that she found the experience messy and frustrating. The use of the chat session while someone was speaking meant that many weren't able to concentrate on the speaker and it seemed to be a multitasking free-for-all without any clear communication strategy. A fair point indeed and maybe we should think of ways to change focus during a webinar. One possibility would be to make it clear what the focus is by using visual cues. If someone is presenting we could make the chat window very small to show that it's time to focus on the speaker. After the input from the speaker the chat window could be expanded to indicate that now it's time for comments and questions. Focus on one activity at a time and make the rules clear from the start. Divide the input into short bites and then regularly open up for comments and questions.

It would of course be great to be able to let participants contribute with sound and video but once you get over 20 participants this can be very tricky from a technical perspective. Most participants have not installed their headsets correctly for the e-meeting tool and if you give someone the floor to speak it often leads to audio issues; either no sound, echo or howling feedback. So we continue with only the speakers with video and audio and the participants in the chat.

So how do we make webinars more participative and rewarding for all? Breakout groups are one possibility that I hope to try soon. It works with smaller groups but I wonder how to organize this in a webinar with 150 participants. It would mean a lot of groups and the risk of causing confusion among participants unused to suddenly finding themselves transported to another virtual meeting room. Should we try to minimize multitasking and focus one one activity at a time (attention, discussion, questions, brainstorming)? Or is the webinar a clumsy tool for real interaction and should preferably be used for lectures or panel discussions?

What do you think?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Learning to learn

Here's an excellent slide show by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano that is getting quite a lot of coverage just now. It's about the need to rethink education and although the message is not new the approach of using her little daughter as the focus of the presentation is very effective. What sort of education awaits her and will it prepare her for the challenges of 2030?

Read some background to the presentation on Silvia's blog: Take Another Look Around You- Learning to Learn in a New World.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Make hay while the sun shines

making hay by TinTrunk, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by TinTrunk

While academics discuss the pros and cons of different types of MOOCs and argue over whether they present a threat or opportunity for higher education a lot of people are busy learning from them. Whatever you think of them they are opening up new learning opportunities for millions of people and that is really the main point of it all.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, What Professors Can Learn From 'Hard Core' MOOC Students, looks at the real MOOC enthusiasts who have already worked their ways through 30-40 different courses and can't seem to stop. There are evidently over 100 people registered with Coursera who have already completed 20 courses. The format suits them perfectly and they are clearly learning a lot from the experience. Being able to earn badges and certificates (whether or not they have any academic value) adds to the addictive attraction of these courses it seems.

There is however a very revealing paragraph quoting one serial MOOCer:

One reason Mr. Lepin takes so many MOOCs at once is that he's afraid they might not last—or might not remain free—a concern shared by other students as well. "It boils down to what feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says. "I'm just afraid this thing might end sometime soon."

A rather sad observation but, given the current discussion of how to monetize MOOCs. very understandable. Make hay while the sun shines.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

MOOC assortment

Chocolate Assortment by camknows, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by camknows

An assortment of MOOC thoughts inspired by this week's news feed.

There is some concern that many MOOCs are simply repositories of content in the form of lectures, reading and automatic tests and are not even really courses at all. This is the main point behind a post by Justin Reich, Is a MOOC a Textbook or a Course? Yes there's plenty of good material there and you can certainly learn a lot but you're largely on your own and the question is whether this can be considered a coherent course. I feel that such types of MOOC are perfectly valid as long as they don't pretend to be any more. It's vital that every MOOC describes clearly and upfront exactly what type of course it is (or not) and explains what types of study the student should expect. That can be one quality criterion; a clear statement on what's in store for the learner, the type of course, pedagogy and demands. All I've seen do this well but maybe we also need to know what the MOOC doesn't offer, just to avoid any misunderstanding.

Then there's the excellent report from the University of Edinburgh on the results of their first MOOCs under the Coursera banner. As Donald Clark reports on his blog, Report on 6 MOOCs turns up 10 surprises, students were clearly satisfied with the courses on offer with only 2% responding that the course did not meet their expectations. The report also confirms that very few MOOC students are motivated by certificates or credits and that attempts to provide a social aspect to the courses via course forums seldom work. Somehow the key element of the connectivist cMOOCs, networking and collaboration, do not translate well into the xMOOC paradigm (my wish for 2014 is that we find a new terminology for all this). Forums tend to be confusing, overcrowded and not always particularly interactive and most students seem to go it alone.

Maybe the reason for the cMOOCs succeeding in creating a dynamic learning network was that the participants were usually digitally literate academics who were already used to such an environment. The xMOOCs however attract a much wider range of participants, many of whom may not be used to online learning at all. Many sign up expecting a fairly traditional course and expecting it to be largely self-study even if the organisers might wish it to be otherwise.

So how do we get learners more involved in MOOCs and how can we foster collaboration and networking? Peer review may be the best bet and already some courses are use peer assessment as a powerful teaching and empowerment tool as well as providing meaningful feedback. Students need training to be able to offer meaningful feedback to each other and this can be built into the course at an early stage. If a set of assessment criteria for a task is given to students and they can practice on a test case first they can then assess each other. Studies indicate that peer assessment often comes very close to the grades given by experienced teachers, though the feedback may not be as insightful.

There's an article on MOOC News and Reviews,Massive MOOC Grading Problem – Stanford HCI Group Tackles Peer Assessment, that describes peer assessment in MOOCs and gives examples of how this can lift the learning experience of the MOOC to new levels, without involving faculty at all.

"I recently completed a two-week video production course on the Skillshare platform that used peer reviews. While the course was not for college credit and the only rubric used was to foster positive comments even while pointing out areas for improvement, knowing I was commenting on the work of my cohorts made me dive into the course more deeply. I felt a certain sense of fairness at play: I was going to make my project live up to the standard I set for others. In the end, I put in more hours reviewing comments and working on my projects than I spent watching the instructor’s videos and engaging in other assignments. The comments I received from my peers spurred me to rethink, revise and improve my project."

Finally this is exactly the approach being offered by NovoEd, yet another new kid on the MOOC block.
They divide students into groups of up to ten, based on location or interests and those groups then support and assess each other through the course. Creating group loyalty and a small scale study environment even in the vast sea of a MOOC could well be the road to follow.

Read more about NovoEd in an article on TechCrunch,Stanford’s NovoEd Brings Collaboration And Group Learning To MOOCs To Help Fight Attrition.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Don't believe the hype 2

Hype by elizaIO, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by elizaIO

Don't get me wrong, I'm enthusiastic about the new opportunities for learning that the net and social media offer. However there is a danger that in our enthusiasm to embrace the new educational landscape we enjoy hearing what we want to believe and choose not to take conflicting opinions too seriously. Those who can express our hopes an beliefs in an inspiring manner can win a massive wave of support and attain guru status and this is of course fairly typical human behaviour. So when people like Sugata Mitra, Salman Khan or Daphne Koller so convincingly challenge the traditional educational system and offer the hope of new solutions it is easy to get swept away in a wave of enthusiasm without stopping to challenge our beliefs.

Now I too am inspired by these and many other leading figures in the educational debate and am really looking forward to hearing two of them (Robinson and Mitra) at the EDEN conference in Oslo in June. However it's worth digging around to see if there is another side to the argument. Maybe children don't really learn so effectively completely on their own, maybe flipping the classroom is not really the solution to motivating kids and maybe the growth of MOOCs is not as open and free as we would like to imagine.

Two articles in the past couple of months provide necessary wake-up calls for us all. Firstly Donald Clark's article, Sugata Mitra: Slum chic? 7 reasons for doubt, casts doubt over some of Mitra's claims about self-learning children. It's not quite as simple as it sounds and Clark presents evidence that there were commercial interests behind the famous hole-in-the-wall project and that it does not prove that schools are irrelevant. Read the article and consider.

There's also a timely article by Irene Ogrizek, Daphne Koller and the Problem with Coursera, which questions the motives behind Coursera and other commercial MOOC providers. She's not the first to question the commercial motives behind the MOOC-explosion but notes that Coursera and other MOOC consortia present a convincing case for democratising and opening up education but we forget that they are for-profit commercial operations with a duty to provide ROI to their investors.

"Coursera is a for-profit company that has joined with top universities to deliver free online courses. The “free” part sounds great until we realize that the real intent of companies like Coursera is to transition into producing monetized, for-credit university courses. To many academics this represents a conflict of interest that compromises the independence and integrity of higher education institutions."

Read these tow articles. It's worth remembering there any many sides to every story.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

It's a MOOC, Jim, but not as we know it ...

CC BY-NC-SA by jeveaux
Every week I think maybe I can avoid writing about MOOCs but it seems impossible since the phenomenon totally dominates all discussion of online learning. Sometimes you get the impression that online education has only just been invented and that the only way to do it is by aiming at a mass market. There's plenty of good online learning that isn't MOOC-shaped and some of it is far more pedagogically innovative and collaborative. The definition of a MOOC that is embedded in the name is getting increasingly blurred and it's getting very hard to see where the border goes between a MOOC and a regular university course.

This week's announcement of a whole degree program, an accredited Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS), to be offered by The Georgia Institute of Technology, Udacity and AT&T certainly blurs the definitions considerably.

"All OMS CS course content will be delivered via the massive open online course (MOOC) format, with enhanced support services for students enrolled in the degree program. Those students also will pay a fraction of the cost of traditional on-campus master’s programs; total tuition for the program is initially expected to be below $7,000. A pilot program, partly supported by a generous gift from AT&T, will begin in the next academic year. Initial enrollment will be limited to a few hundred students recruited from AT&T and Georgia Tech corporate affiliates. Enrollment is expected to expand gradually over the next three years."

They aim to offer different participation levels with different price tags so that some students will be studying online for credits and paying for it whereas others will be participating in only the courses they choose and paying a small fee for a certificate but no credits. This is a far cry from the original idea of a MOOC as an experimental educational arena where learning takes place in networks and students define their own learning objectives, creating content that is then processed and adapted within the network. OMS CS looks very much like a regular online degree but at a much lower fee. The difference is that much of the university teachers' workload is transferred to mentors at Udacity and students will probably have to be much more self-reliant than their more expensive campus colleagues. Some fear that this is the academic equivalent of low-price air travel and are concerned at how academic standards can be maintained.

The big news for some is that suddenly a MOOC has a price tag but I'm surprised it took this long. The freemium model is coming to a MOOC near you very soon. Access to the material may be free but if you want tuition, guidance, validation, examination and quality assurance you will have to pay, one way of another. However the sense of revolution and innovation that the original MOOCs created is rapidly disappearing as the new interpretations of the concept develop business models. It's all beginning to look very similar to the system it was supposed to be challenging and considering that the main drivers are the leading universities in the world that should not be any surprise either. Read more about this in an article on Inside Higher EdMassive (But Not Open).

Many fear that MOOC consortia will soon reveal their true colours once they've captured the mass student base and are fearful of the way we are being won over by the lure of "free". Bob Meister (University of California) has just written an open letter to Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera entitled Can Venture Capital Deliver on the Promise of the Public University? voicing concerns that the free education offered today is a way of gaining a customer base and a volume of data that can then be turned into for-profit services. The vast amount of investment being made into the MOOC market will be looking for some solid returns in the not too distant future and even if some of it remains free for the student it is worth remembering the adage that if you are not paying for it then you are the product.

I think we will see a development where the division between the different MOOC models will become even more pronounced. The academic innovators and researchers will continue to offer free, challenging connectivist MOOCs based on collaboration, creation and sharing whilst the institutions and consortia will find hard business models for more traditional online courses with a variety of fee options aimed at mass audiences. And the term MOOC will disappear into the buzzword junkyard.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Grabbing attention

Multitasking by williamhartz, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by williamhartz

I often return to the subject of attention, often because I have a problem with it myself. I have great difficulty switching off both digital and physical distractors when I'm working and could get much more done if I could resist the sirens' call. I don't believe this is a new phenomenon but the lure of social media has certainly exacerbated the problem. It has a lot to do with where your motivation comes from and the fact that if you want to be distracted you will be. If you have a task you are extremely committed to then it is much less likely that you'll bother checking e-mails, Facebook, Twitter or news feeds. If it's a task you have to do but are not particularly interested in then it's hard to focus and the task takes at least double the necessary time.

Online learning offers great flexibility and is often the only form of education available to people with full-time jobs as well as family and other commitments. However it demands high levels of self-discipline and the ability to focus and many are simply not good at that. Even when you sit down and try to focus on your studies, say a recorded lecture or an article to read, the distractions are always temptingly close and work that could easily be done in one concentrated hour can easily take two or three.

So when designing an online course are there methods for helping the student to focus on the task in hand? This area has been the subject of research by Daniel Schacter and Karl Szpunar of Harvard University and summarised in an article in Harvard Science, Online learning: It's different. The idea of breaking up lectures into small digestible segments is commonplace today but their research shows that it is not enough. You need to have regular tests of some sort between the chunks of information, not too challenging but tricky enough to make them focus.

“At the very least, what this says is that it’s not enough to break up lectures into smaller segments, or to fill that break with some activity,” he said. “What we really need to do is instill in students the expectation that they will need to express what they’ve learned at some later point. I think it’s going to be a very sobering thought for a lot of people to think that students aren’t paying attention almost half the time, but this is one way we can help them get more out of these online lectures.”

This approach applies just as well to classroom as online learning and although it doesn't sound particularly surprising they claim there is very little research in this area so far. It seems a rather primitive behaviourist carrot and stick method but we need only look to the world of gaming to see how motivating small rewards can be and the total concentration and immersion that gamers experience. Khan Academy for one has been built around this principle with short input films, tests and a system of badges and levels to show progress. Although these are important considerations I still think the article focuses on only one aspect of online learning and misses the big picture.

This article seems to focus too much on the need to force students to focus and see the testing as a form of stick rather than carrot. I think there is enormous potential to adapt the reward principles of gaming in an educational context but the focus in the article is on traditional knowledge transmission and does not deal with learning as an interactive process. The online learning focused on in the article is the traditional self-study linear model rather than collaborative networked learning arenas where digital skills, source criticism, networking and peer review are essential. The challenge is to move from external motivation where students are forced/encouraged to focus to instilling internal motivation where they actually want to focus and the distractions simply evaporate.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A MOOC on cheating

Online Test  = Open CHEAT! by Mr_Stein, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Mr_Stein

Cheating in online courses always attracts a good deal of media attention and is often accompanied by cries for tougher measures to counter cheating as well as criticism of online learning in general. So if we are going to deal with this issue how about organising a course on the subject? This is exactly what is now offered by Bernard Bull of Concordia University Wisconsin - a new MOOC called Understanding Cheating in Online Courses. It's a course for educators to investigate different types of academic cheating, how to spot them and especially how to design courses that make cheating either very difficult or irrelevant. Not surprisingly the course is already full (1000 students) but is most likely to be repeated given the current interest.

"Participants in this eight-week open course will examine philosophical and psychological perspectives on cheating; consider instructor, institutional, and student perspectives on cheating; learn about specific strategies and practices used by students to cheat in online courses; and develop a plan for cultivating a culture of honesty, integrity, and accountability in online courses. The end goal of the course is for participants to gain a deeper understanding of cheating in online courses."

As with most MOOCs there are no credits available for the course (not worth cheating basically) but there are a number of badges available for successful completion of the modules. However it may inspire other universities to include for-credit courses in this field since we need to investigate and understand more fully what we really mean by cheating and whether we even invite cheating by choosing certain types of instruction methods. 

In a networked world where we borrow, remix and reuse other's work in increasingly sophisticated and creative manners we really need to revise our ideas on "cheating". Copying and imitating others is a vital part of learning, as long as we clearly show that we are doing just that. When you don't know how to approach a problem at work you consult your network to see if someone has the answers or at least some assistance. At work this shows initiative whilst if you did that with an examination task it would be cheating.

Read a good overview of the course in an article in The Chronicle of Higher EducationMOOC Teaches How to Cheat in Online Courses, With Eye to Prevention.

Friday, May 3, 2013

MOOC quality project

How can we assess quality in a MOOC? Is it even possible to have quality assurance in an educational form that is constantly developing and is already split into several distinct categories?

Over the next couple of months I will be helping to run a blog called The MOOC Quality Project under the banner of EFQUEL (European Foundation for Quality in E-learning) together with colleagues Ulf-Daniel Ehlers and Ebba Ossiannilsson. The project will feature leading experts in the field of open education who will take turns in writing a weekly blog post on how they see the issue of quality in MOOCs.

- The MOOC Quality Project, an initiative of the European Foundation for Quality in E-Learning (www.efquel.org), attempts to stimulate a discourse on the issue of Quality of MOOCs. A series of blog posts of worldwide experts and entrepreneurs will address the issue from each particpant’s viewpoint. After each blog post we will allow a one week period of time to react and comment on the post made available. At the end of the week the discussion will be shortly summarized and made available to all.

We hope that the articles will stimulate discussion and we will use the findings as the basis of a session at the conference EFQUEL Innovation Forum 26-27 September in Barcelona.

This subject is extremely relevant in response to the extreme hype surrounding MOOCs and the expected skeptical reaction. How can we apply quality assurance methods in this field since MOOCs differ significantly from "regular" courses? First of all there is no clear definition of a MOOC. Many of them are not so massive, few are genuinely open and some are not really even courses in the traditional sense. Donald Clark recently listed the diversity of MOOC models in his post MOOCs: taxonomy of 8 types of MOOC. There's a huge gulf between the open connectivist learning networks of the courses run by the likes of George Siemens and Stephen Downes and the more traditional lecture-based model offered by Coursera. So it's difficult to discuss quality in MOOCs in general terms, it depends on which type of MOOC.

One key quality factor is missing in MOOCs, namely the target group. Courses normally have a clear target group and can measure success by how well the course meets the needs of that group. There is no real target group in a MOOC, everyone is welcome. The participants' aims and motivations differ widely and many have no intention of even completing the course. How do we then assess the quality of a course that will mean very different things to many different people?

At a basic level a MOOC offers free access to a collection of educational resources that together form a logically linked progression. Quality here is the value and relevance of the resources and how they are linked. Many MOOCs have little or no qualified tutoring or guidance, only offering online arenas for student communication. These arenas can be quality assessed for their functionality but little more since what goes on there is out of the control of the organisers. Maybe the real quality issues of the MOOC phenomenon lies in the "value-added" services that are on higher layers than the course material. If tutoring, guidance, validation and examination are available at a price then these add-ons can be more easily assessed and quality guidelines set up.

It'll be very interesting to read the views of the experts in weeks to come!