Week 1 of Bonk Online: Motivation

Week 1 of  Curtis Bonk’s Massively Open Online Course about teaching online is all about motivation.  The main article assigned/discussed was the chapter “Well Leave the Light on for You:  Keeping Learners Motivated in Online Courses,” which is from a book called Flexible Learning in an Information Society. It’s really more of an article about things teachers can do to try to foster motivation, which (as anyone who has lead the horse to water only to watch him not drink knows) is not the same thing as students fostering motivation in themselves.  It’s basically advice on setting an engaging tone (including “ice breaker” activities), giving feedback (which I agree is a huge deal in online teaching), making sure students are engaged in meaningful ways, fostering choice and curiosity, valuing peer interaction, etc.  Though as I typed that sentence, I’m not sure what of these things are really all that unique to online (versus face to face) teaching.

In any event, I think in a very general way, Dennen and Bonk have fine ideas here.  There is no doubt that a big part of the problem of online pedagogy is teachers not recognizing the ways in which the online experience is different from the face to face experience of teaching in some really unexpected and interesting ways.  I think what Bonk is saying here can at least get teachers to begin to think about these differences.

But I don’t think he’s really addressing student motivational problems here, or at least he’s not addressing the problems I see.  In my experience at a public “opportunity-granting” university, a lot of courses are offered online to a population of students who don’t have the maturity or the “buy-in” to higher education generally to take the next self-disciplinary motivation to succeed in an online and largely self-guided class.  Simple example:  at EMU, we don’t teach first year writing classes online because the students we have in our program– especially the traditional freshmen– need to first learn how to routinely show up in person to class, how to complete assignments independently, etc.  And given the high drop-out rate of students in online versions of these classes at other places, I think we’re right about that.

I also think that when students don’t succeed in online classes it is often because they have misguided or flat-out bad motivations, self-guided or otherwise.  In the upper-level and MA classes I teach online, I see this all the time– or maybe a better way of putting it is I see students who don’t succeed online as often having a misperception problem.  Often, when students don’t succeed online:

  • They struggle with the technology in a way that is very difficult to address (and they often grossly overestimate their technological abilities in the first place), no matter what we try to do to help;
  • They nderestimate the amount of self-discipline it takes to get to the online class and participate, complete exercises, etc. (in that sense, an online class is a lot like buying an exercise bike:  it only does you good if you can motivate yourself to ride it every day); and /or
  • They bite off more than they can chew based on other classes that they’re taking and/or their complicated lives.  Show me a student who is taking 18 credits, working 40 hours a week, tending to an ailing parent/spouse/sibling, and/or at home with a newborn baby who thinks that her or his “problems will be solved” by taking an online class and I’ll show you someone who drops out or fails.

So I don’t know if this is missing from Bonk’s essay per se and I think his basic advice to help teachers new to online teaching is sound.  The point I’m getting at is when students don’t succeed in online classes, it is more often than not largely because the student wasn’t ready for the class and/or otherwise in over their head.

As for the MOOC experience so far:  it’s so-so.  A lot of the comments/posts by others are pretty good.  There’s certainly as much worthwhile stuff there as say the WPA-L or Tech-Rhet mailing lists– which is to say there is a lot of not worthwhile stuff too, but that goes with the territory.  It doesn’t really feel like a class in any meaningful way to me– more like a mailing list or blog discussion.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing; it’s just not the same as actually taking a class.

And so far, I think the Blackboard CourseSites stuff blows chunks.  Makes me appreciate eCollege, frankly, and that’s saying something.

Getting started with Bonk’s “Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success”

I’ve been teaching at least some of my classes online since 2005 and I’ve been using various other online tools (what I’ve heard described as “blended” learning, whatever that means) for a lot longer than that.  But I’ve never taken an online class before, and I haven’t exactly done a lot of studying of online pedagogy, certainly not from the perspective of education scholars.  So when I read about Curtis Bonk’s Massively Open Online Course about teaching online, I figured what the heck?  I signed up.

It’s very very early, of course.  The class technically doesn’t start until Monday.  But there are already a couple of things that give me, well, pause.

First, there’s the introductions part of the class, which is basically 1200 or so different people posting a message that says “hi, my name is…” with not much other interaction.  How could there be, really?

Second, Bonk posted this introduction that comes across to me as, well, goofy:

I’ve been known to make a few attention-getting and goofy videos for my online classes too, but there sure seems to be a lot of props here.  But hey, who knows?  Bonk has a fist full of articles and books on online pedagogy and somebody must think he knows what he’s talking about or he wouldn’t be doing this at all.

Third, I think Bonk signals here a bit as to what Blackboard’s interest in this whole MOOC thing is all about.  As Bonk explains in this video (at about the 9 minute mark), week 5 is going to feature the folks from Blackboard coming on the site to more or less explaining all the “cool” Blackboard tools we’ve been using.  Now, I don’t know if this is what’s going to happen, but it sounds like the angle here is Blackboard is going to try to sell us on Blackboard, sort of like the way that textbook companies try to sell faculty on their textbooks and other products.   Which again makes me think that this whole MOOC thing is mostly a marketing stunt.

Skeptic that I am, we’ll press onward.

 

Learning vs. Teaching vs. Credentialing

There’s been a couple of interesting developments in higher education news in the last couple of days that has me thinking more about how the “education” part of things in colleges and universities actually works.  First, there’s the announcement that U of M and  several other universities will be offering “free courses” on a variety of different topics for anyone out there on the internets who might be interested.  This is being done through an outfit/start-up called Coursera, which I assume is making money through data mining of its users and maybe by eventually morphing into an actual credit-granting enterprise.  Here’s an interesting quote from the annarbor.com article about this:

For U-M, adapting to the platform gives faculty a unique way to communicate with alumni and prospective students.

“This is a great way for alumni or prospective Michigan students to experience a little bit of what a U-M education is like,” Scott Page, the professor teaching Model Thinking, said in a release.

Added Martha Pollack, vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs: “This is one more way for us to connect with prospective students and alumni.”

The other event– seemingly the opposite kind of thing but maybe not– comes from Inside Higher Ed in the article “Pacing Themselves.”  Here’s a long quote:

The media conglomerate Pearson today announced a partnership with Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana to provide online, self-paced courses that the company says will help Ivy Tech deal with student demand and overcrowding issues in required general education courses.

For Pearson, which already sells modules for instructor-led courses, the move represents a further step in the company’s strategy of inserting itself into virtually every area of e-learning short of full degree programs.

“We thought it was time for us to have a self-paced play that our partners could then plug into their institutions and get more students into higher education,” said Don Kilburn, the CEO of Pearson Learning Solutions.

Meanwhile, the partnership allows Ivy Tech to refer certain students to hands-off self-paced general education courses — which it does not currently offer — without building such courses itself.

“It is a way to test out that modality and see if it works for some students without taking a lot of business risk on our own,” said Kara Monroe, associate vice president for online academic programs at Ivy Tech.

Both of these events problematize in strange ways this mission of education in colleges and universities.  And by “educational mission” of the university, I basically mean three things:

  • Learning, or more accurately, extending to students the opportunity to learn.  Universities are pretty good at that, but so are lots of other things– wikipedia, the public library, about.com and other web sites, a good book, life, etc.
  • Teaching, which is when a professor (or instructor or adjunct or grad student) guides a student in learning something.  There’s really nothing I teach that students can’t learn on their own through some of the things I mentioned as sources for learning, but the advantage students get in being taught a subject by someone who knows a lot about the subject is guidance, interactions with other learners, systematic efficiency (because teaching is really good at steering learning in a way that is less likely to be counter-productive), positive (and negative) feedback, and so forth.
  • Credentialing, which means some sort of evaluation that is recognized by others as having some merit.  Practically speaking, this means a “seal of approval” (e.g., grades) given by teachers for these discreet learning units we call “courses,” which are systematically taken (a “major” which leads to a “degree”) and which are also validated by institutions (say EMU) which are in turn validated by both official evaluators (say the North Central Association) and unofficial but certainly more powerful evaluators (various “top university” rankings like US News, what employers say, word of mouth, etc., etc.).

Now, learning, teaching, and credentialing are obviously all related, though in complicated ways.  For example, teaching someone something is not the same as them learning it.  It takes a willingness to learn and to be receptive to teaching,  and everyone who has ever taught– especially something that is not considered by many “fun,” like first year composition– knows there are a surprising number of students who don’t seem able or willing to take on the learning challenge.  Another example:  a lot of professors are completely comfortable with the teaching and learning part of education, but most would just as soon avoid the credentialing/grading part of what we have to do to make this whole enterprise work.  Faculty get even more squeamish when we talk about the mean cousin of credentialing, assessment.  

Anyway, to turn back to what I think is troubling (at least to me) about both the Pearson Learning Solutions and the Coursera deal.  It seems to me that the Pearson “solution” is a rather cynical way of skipping ahead to just the credentialing leg of the stool and calling it a day.  There’s obviously no teaching involved and with only an e-textbook and “10 free hours of online tutoring support,” it doesn’t seem to me like there’s much of a chance for a lot of student learning here either. Besides that, the credential they are trying to provide here is minimal at best.  I mean, given that the unofficial value of an Ivy Tech Community College is probably pretty low to begin with (certainly relative to the institutions sponsoring Coursera courses), what does this sort of move do to the perceived market value of their degrees?

The Coursera “great minds” courses might seem at first to be a completely different and more noble venture, but it seems to me that this isn’t education.  Sure, there’s a lot of learning potential with these classes, but so what?  There are already plenty of places on the ‘net to learn about science fiction and fantasy literature, for example.   As of right now, U of M (and I suspect the other institutions associated with this) is not really thinking of this as education at all; it’s marketing, something that might connect with alumni and maybe with potential students.

Of course, this could change.  I seriously doubt that U of M would ever accept their own Coursera courses as credential-worthy credit that is the same as their more traditional courses, but that doesn’t mean that Coursera isn’t going to try to sell that credit to someone else.  Inside Higher Ed had an article on all this, and here’s a passage that made me think this idea of Coursera granting credit ala Pearson:

“There are no definite plans yet for what courses, if any, might have certificates and, if they exist, how much might be charged for them,” wrote MacCarthy via e-mail. “That said, if there were to be some monetization and revenues in the future, universities would partner with Coursera in determining any future structure or pricing for certificates.”

Ng, one of the Coursera founders, said “no firm decisions have been made yet” on how the company’s university partners might recognize the achievement of their non-enrolled students. “We’ve had informal discussions with the partner universities about different certificate options, but the final decision will be made on a per-university and per-course basis,” Ng wrote via e-mail.

These certificates wouldn’t be the same as credit– well, at least initially, and at least at a place like the University of Michigan.  I can imagine a scenario where the Ivy Techs of the world say “sure, we’ll count that as credit,” and I can also imagine a slippery slope where all kinds of institutions– maybe never U of M but places like EMU– start counting a certain number of these certificates as transfer for things like general education.

The other thing that both Pearson and Coursera are attempting here is a version of education without teaching.  This is patently obvious in the Pearson/Ivy Tech arrangement, but it is also the case with the Coursera courses.  The idea here is to have tens of thousands of students in these classes– potentially a great learning environment, but not something where you could really expect any meaningful teaching.  At best, the teaching that might take place is in the form of an army of part-timers to watch over those thousands of students participating in discussions and quizzes and the like.  That appears to be the case with their hiring.

So I really don’t think this is the future of higher education on the internet.  At least I don’t hope this is the future of higher education on the ‘net.  I’d kind of like to keep the teaching in education….