One last Bonk post for the road

I’ve pretty much reached the end of my MOOC experience in Curt Bonk’s “Empowering Learning Through Community.”  As my previous posts suggest, I haven’t exactly been wowed by the possibilities of MOOCs based on this experience.

I don’t really blame Bonk, at least not much.  His course and materials were introductory/basic, so I didn’t really get a whole out of the class.  But that’s more my own fault regarding expectations about what I might have been able to get out it.  Bonk provided some solid advice and materials that I think would be a useful place to start for someone who has never taught online before who wanted to know a bit about “best practices” and the like, and if we ever pull together a graduate course/program about teaching writing online at EMU, I can easily imagine returning to this stuff.

None of Bonk’s materials are particularly earth-shattering or innovative though.  And interestingly, as I think is pretty clear with the videos on his YouTube channel, the “production values” of these lecturers are pretty poor.  That strikes me as a bit of a problem or at least weirdly ironic.

As for the whole MOOC thing:  forget it.  Sure, it’s possible for someone to learn something from a MOOC like this or the efforts from Harvard, MIT, U of Michigan, etc., etc., but you can learn a lot from the history channel or even the food network.  Heck, I learn a lot about cooking from FoodTV– and maybe I can even earn badges for it!  And then there are these things called books.  It seems to me that those are the original massively open tool for potential learning, tools that allow “students” to interact with the material in any way they see fit and at the time of their choosing.  When you factor in the costs and technical restraints of online courses, massive and otherwise, seems to me that books are still a better deal.

It’s weird that MOOCs are getting as much press and attention as they are right now, frankly.  Just over five years ago, there was a controversy here at EMU about a faculty member in my department teaching these online classes with 100 or so students.  I blogged about it here; the problem of this made national news because the idea that you could actually have an online class worth anything with that many students was back then considered ridiculous.  Most of the best practice studies I saw back then said that online classes functioned best when enrollment was capped at around 15-20– not unlike face to face classes, by the way.  So why is it that now anyone thinks that a “class” with 1000 students– even a free class– would all of a sudden be a good idea?

Some random thoughts on the supposed collapse of the university as we know it

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but as I head into what (I think?) is the end of the Bonk MOOC and after collecting a bunch of links on this, I thought I’d offer some random thoughts on the end of higher education as we know it.

Throw a brick out a window and you’re liable to hit an article like these:

I could go on, but you see the point.  Now to my random thoughts:

  • In a global way, I think Aaron Barlow says a lot of what I would say in this post and this post on his blog One Flew East.  As far as I can tell, education has been in a state of revolution that potentially eliminates the teacher since Socrates and Phaedrus talked about the dangers of literacy.  Books, print, cheap publishing, etc. have been available for learning without teachers or interaction with others for a long time, but as Barlow points out, “Only the rare person is a true autodidact.”
  • The fact that most of us (including me) lack the ability to intensely self-direct our learning (and I for one lack the crazily internal motivations for doing almost anything) is the key in understanding why both Thiel’s foundation and these various no credit MOOCs are basically a waste of time and/or a PR stunt.  Sure, if you hold a national contest attracting the best and brightest young people in the country and offer them $100K to develop those ideas, those folks can probably get away without having a college degree.  Sure, there are people– especially in the IT world– who are more or less self-taught and could be where they are without a college degree.  Sure, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs dropped out of college.  But the fact is most of us aren’t like that, and most of us are not Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or (insert your other anomaly genius name here).  Most of us need something a lot closer to a classroom and degree experience to succeed.
  • Wasn’t it just a few years ago that the popular press was running a bunch of articles about how it turns out that lecture hall discussions were bad and it was the interaction between students and teachers that fostered learning?  Wasn’t the whole “reversed classroom” thing the main topic of discussion just a few months ago?  So why on earth is an online version of a sage on the stage now seen as the solution?
  • Show me anyone writing for mainstream media that college is a waste of time and money and I’ll show you someone– that same writer– who has a college degree, and usually a college degree from a fancy-pants institution.  It’s the same argument I have about the coming revolution in digital scholarship:   I’ll agree that publishing in fixed manuscript form is over as soon as these folks publishing books about digital scholarship and the end of print start getting recognition for their actual digital scholarship and that work alone.  I think the days of printing on paper are numbered, sure.  But words in a row– even when those words in a row are about multimodality or digital rhetoric or what have you– aren’t going anywhere.
  • A few years ago, I did a project on correspondence schools in the late 19th and early 20th century, and a number of years before that and as part of one of the last classes I took in my PhD program, I did some research on elocution and the “home learning” movements of the 19th century.  Classes conducted via the postal service were a particularly big deal in the midwest.  William Rainey Harper, who has a community college named after him in the Chicago area, said in 1885 “the day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater than that done in the classrooms of our academies and colleges.”  Makes me think I should go back to those scholarly projects.

Week 2 of Bonk Online: What color is your learning parachute?

I don’t mean to be too snarky here, but this week’s topic in Curt Bonk’s “Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success” is “Addressing Diversity and Learning Styles.”  I have little patience for “learning styles,” and someone posted to the online discussion a pretty good video from someone named Daniel T. Willingham at UVa on why “Learning Styles Don’t Exist:”

I’m not sure it is as clear as Willingham suggests here– I don’t think that is as simple as “good teaching is good teaching” for the same reason that the claim “good writing is good writing” is clearly not true.  It depends on context and purpose and audience.  Having said that, Willingham makes a good point that some things require visual learning skills and others require auditory learning skills (just to use one dichotomy here), and that’s that.  Maybe some people are better at remembering images versus words, but that isn’t about a learning skill in the sense that you can’t use audio stimulus to teach about images and vice-versa.

The other thing that struck me about Bonk’s model of learning of read/reflect/display/do (R2D2– get it?  Ah yes, of course I appreciate a good Star Wars pun!) is this has nothing to do with online pedagogy per se.  In other words, to the extent that this model of learning is true (and it frankly borders on being just common sense to me), it’s also true for face to face learning, too.  So, what’s unique about this in the online context?

More interesting for me tonight is “5 Things I’ve Learned From MOOCs About How I Learn” from Audrey Watters.   Peers do matter– and the level of conversation in Bonk’s class varies widely, as you might expect with 1200 or so people participating– lectures blow, and teachers matter.  And last but far from least, there’s this:

5: The platform matters. Last week Lisa Lane wrote about her decision to “leave an open class,” namely Curt Bonk’s “Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success.” It’s not the professor or the material that prompted her decision, she writes.

“It’s the classroom. I wanted to attend to see the new CourseSites from Blackboard, which is being touted as Bb’s “open” LMS. Maybe it would be innovative! A new LMS. I’m always very interested in learning management systems, and what they can do.

“Well, it’s the same old Blackboard, with more white space, nicer fonts and some cool icons.”

All of my online teacher has been facilitated with some combination of eCollege and my own wordpress installations of different flavors, and lately, I’ve relied on wordpress for the “meat and potato” parts of the classes– posting stuff, hosting discussions, etc.– and used eCollege for the gradebook function.  So my experience with Blackboard is quite limited.  

That said, I can say with some authority that Blackboard really really blows.  Knowing what I know now, I cannot imagine who could possibly be happy about using this set-up– well, other than instructors who have been forced to use it and who don’t know anything different.  Maybe Bb is dramatically easier on the backend for IT people to administer or something, but other than that, I cannot for the life of me figure out why any institution would voluntarily choose it as a CMS/LMS platform.

Can anyone help me out and answer the why question on this one for me?

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….