Learning to Adapt #1

– reflections on the Gates’ grantee gathering on Adaptive Learning – Seattle June 2014

Fresh off the trip to the right hand coast of the United States, brought to you courtesy of the sleep-precluding, screaming child in seat 10A, here are some reflections on the “adaptive learning providers and implementers” session hosted in Seattle June 25-27th by the Gates foundation. In a wonderfully choreographed event, open discussion was held, not into whether “adaptive learning is the golden bullet” or “How many students we have saved so far” rather along the lines of “What are we seeing? / What are the issues? and What are the next steps we might take?”
The collegiality between (supposedly) rabid, competing vendors was constructive – there is the feeling that we have moved beyond a zero-sum game and that given the massive challenges, there is no one-size-fits all solution. Being in Seattle-n-all (close to friends at BGI) I am reminded of Robert Socolow’s 2004 “wedges” that he, apparently, revisited in 2011. His work suggested that it will only be possible to avoid climate change / global warming if people combine solutions; look for more efficiency, employ renewable power sources, ban Hummers – that kind of thing.
My first meta-conclusion is that while we are lumping pretty much anything under the “Adaptive” banner, there are a variety of approaches. It appears that no two vendors are approaching this challenge in exactly the same way. There are providers whose platforms provide mnemonic cues to prompt student retention of information, virtual lab / simulation providers, personalization tools, micro-adaptive and macro-adaptive systems, elements of gamification and just plain rich content. None are without value; none will in isolation solve all issues in higher ed., online education.
It may even be counter-productive to over-define. Irrespective of how it gets there (with adaptive, without), what might be helpful would be a solid matrix or rubric that can assess course intrinsic motivation or stickiness. An engagement matrix could measure how likely a course, in and of itself, is to keep student attention. Cognitive science can provide a lot of the guidance and grounding for this. Is the text appropriately ‘chunked?’ do graphics or multimedia support the text or distract from it? And is immediate, corrective feedback being provided for the students to guide and encourage them?
The realm of gamification has the best language to frame this metric. While he will hate me for saying this, my friend Dr. Dick Clark’s work, and that of his peers, compadres and acolytes has a substantial Venn (diagram) overlap with the language of Karl Kapp, Mihalyi Cszikscentmihayi and even Jesse Schell who all talk about engagement and “hooks” to keep ‘subjects’ (gamers, athletes, employees, and (why not) students) – fixated and encouraged to keep going, keep failing, persevering to reach the next level, or to nudge ahead of your friend on the leaderboard – not one solution, one size. Implement, measure, try, tweak. Be flexible but gather data on what evidence tells us.
We might have to think about re-naming this work, given how confused and polarized people are by the term and the concept of “gamification.” Like saying “Voldemort” aloud, “Beetlejuice” three times or channeling Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name,” “Gamification” both inflates the balloon and lets the air out of the room at the same time. We need a new term; so here is a matrix that indicates parameters by which one can measure a course’s potential degree of engagement or stickiness. Insert your own Likert scale across the X-axis, here are my Y’s for engaging (gamified?) content. The course presents with:

1. (Simple) rules for student participation.
2. Clear goals.
3. Appropriate level of challenge – one requires concentration.
4. Peer engagement (cooperation or competition or both)
5. Immediate, corrective feedback.
6. A narrative of some sort – can be prescribed by instructor or developed by the students (collectively or individually)
7. An aesthetic theme – can be retro, can be fantasy, or can be personal to each student.
8. Reduced fear of failure – encouragement to “have a go” and learn as you go.
9. A sense of user control (“my choices”)
10. The game is intrinsically woven into the learning (not bolted on artificially)

These criteria are pulled from commonalities presented in the work of Karl Kapp, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Roger Callois and others in this field. Adaptive learning certainly helps with a number of these elements; depending on the platform, they can raise a score on (1), (2), (3), (5), maybe (7), definitely (8) and (9). This is the power of AL – it accentuates elements that make courses engaging or sticky, reducing my list of ten to a more achievable list of 3-4 remaining challenges that we can perhaps ask AL providers to add, or we can add on ourselves.

Analysis of what works in engaging people with game environments suggests that well-implemented adaptive learning courses can move us toward a goal of increased student engagement (with course materials) that evidence indicates will enhance their learning leading to positive outcomes (retention, completion).

Conversation developed at the Gates’ session that surfaced another major issue that I believe we are all AVOIDING. In my Part 2 reflection I will discuss an issue that is absolutely pivotal to online success as a learning medium. More to follow after I catch up on sleep deprivation. Be warned.

Taking Credit (out of the equation)

I note that my last three posts have all been about MOOCs. I think I’m MOOC-d out, although the combination of the M-word and the V-word (Virginia – as in University of) have, for me, totally confirmed that Higher Ed. change is afoot. There can be no turning back. Stuff is happening, things are changing, the only real question that remains as far as I see it, is What’s stopping us all really hitting SEND?

The UVa case brings up the G-word – Governance: more pertinently preceded with the word Shared. Shared Governance; the amazing concept that people with totally different agendas, world views and degrees of ethos, will collaborate collegially and set the course for their institutions according to their bylaws, history and mission. On that front my advice to a newcomer to an institution would be simply: work out how it works – in all its dysfunctional glory. If the real discussions happen around the water cooler or at the football field – be there. If the provost’s admin assistant is the real power broker on campus and donuts get you in her good books, go Dunkin’ on her/him. Whatever it takes…

Governance is impervious to being fixed. Somehow it works and no degree of AAU guidance will make it uniform or rational. A university’s governance works only at that university. Where one university takes 12 minutes to approve a new concept, another may take 12 years. Good concepts that genuinely benefit the institution (academically, fiscally, politically, aesthetically) all will go through. Some will lead, others will follow, a few will kick, scream and moan about how it was way better in a mythical golden age. Deal with that – you signed up to be Associate Vice President  For Innovative New Ventures and Annoying the Faculty – now make it work…

So – I think I’m saying that all change is possible while nothing is simple. Given that, let’s take on a decent challenge. Not technology, not price, not incrementally changing senior administrators, not that life isn’t fair as MIT have deeper pockets. Let’s take on Credits. In my opinion Credits are the enemy.

Credits are artificial packages of pretend competencies. They are charged at way too high a rate, they complicate transfers, they encourage academic silos and they prove nothing or worth to employers or society at large. They are a means of billing, price inflation and encapsulate all that is wrong and inefficient in higher education – Credits are evil.

Employers don’t look at credits – they look at the degree. They don’t want the pretend competencies that 3 or 4 credits supposedly represent, they want real competencies. In a traditional general ed. program the credit boundaries simply dissuade collaboration and the creation of efficiencies between departments and hence for students.

Look at Lumina, LEAP, The Institute of the Future and almost any organization that has analyzed critical skills needed in 2020 society, and you’ll see remarkable alignment around six or seven key elements.

Inquiry/Analysis, Communication, Creativity, Critical Thinking/Problem Solving, Information/ICT literacy and Quantitative Literacy.

Look carefully at academic undergraduate / associates level syllabi in terms of (when you scratch the surface) how many courses and faculty do actually have these elements addressed. If I were a student looking to master these key skills I might query why having demonstrated that I am a brilliant critical thinker in FIVE classes, do I need to keep jumping through that same hoop, again and again, in a sixth, then a seventh, often in new contexts, evaluated in incrementally different ways by first a historian, then by a mathematics instructor, then by a lit. professor?

Unbundling syllabi with their (often) poorly written learning outcomes and aligning concrete materials with focused assessments provides the context and connections for improved learning. Independent graders and/or standardized tests can confirm that students REALLY DO GET these core elements. Separating curriculum from term times would mean that students can practice then demonstrate competencies clearly and repeatedly at their own pace, building on prior learning, working in areas that provide intrinsic motivation for them personally. It is super that in a typical Gen Ed / General Studies course students will be exposed to the literary giants and will learn (some) key dates in the history of Rome? Europe? The US? (as dictated by faculty whim), but isn’t the bigger goal the competencies? What will make the student succeed in the world? If (s)he is able to develop passions for certain aspects of the general curriculum then that’s great but realistically they don’t have to be passionate about every aspect that a Gen Ed committee patches together to placate seven different departments.

Compare and contrast: as a provider of education which is a better “product”? One where you separate out essential skills, provide practice, feedback around those key competencies (the 6 listed above). And when all are done –a degree that really reflects a valuable skill-set. No more having to graduate the student who hung around for six years and wearied enough faculty members to be shuffled off with a number of credits – maybe not even enough to amount to a qualification, tens of thousands of dollars in the hole.

A focus on credits mean high charges, slow pace, and inefficiencies.
A focus on competencies allows for greater efficiency, leverage of prior learning, real support, real achievement and clear motivation (these skills will help me in my career and in my life).

Employers will still see a degree from institute X, the pleasant surprise will be that it will represent a skill-set rather than a worthless measure of endurance. Learning constant, time variable not the other way around.
Time to graduation, costs and inefficiencies all reduced, motivation, retention and actual competencies all up, registrars with less to worry about, faculty less angst-ridden having to pass students who haven’t really “got it”

Death to Credits! – makes true innovation feasible, even palatable, reduces barriers to change and heck, could even make MOOCs worth talking about (again).


A colleague of mine sent the following Inside Higher Ed article this morning,entitled Without Credit it speaks to the search for a viable model to generate revenue out of MOOCs

In response I mentioned that I’m claim the phrase “MOOC-washing” (for disruptive Education wannabes) which so reminds me of Greenwashing in the sustainability movement 10-15 years ago..

– The article merely demonstrates that there IS no real game changer until someone works out a revenue model that is neither (100,0000 enrollments  x free) nor this model of  an “Enhanced MOOC” – Emperor’s new clothes anyone – guess what ?- It’s an online class  for credit costing $300-$400-$500 per credit. Known in some circles as traditional online.

The entrenched, perceived value of the Credit as THE proxy for learning is the real brake on much of this innovation.

There are two key possibilities regarding the CREDIT and it’s centrality to all things.

  • Option 1 – Alternative to credits (Certificates / Badges etc) – these will only succeed if there is some recognized norming or development of an Industry Standard. Something tangible that employers will recognize as currency – this is a long way off in my opinion
  • Option 2 – completely decouple competencies from credits and have all students forced to “show and tell” competencies in a very Open format that proves to employers (undeniably) their employ-ability – this would likely be portfolio or third party standard testing (or a blend)

Given that Option 1 is glacial and outside of anyone’s clear control, I vote Option 2 as the viable game-changer within the next 18 months or so. There will be issues – lingering vestiges of “seat-time” although most people seem to be beyond that now, and the need for collaboration between faculty / departments to get them to agree on what ARE core competencies and how they can be demonstrated.

This model may work better at lower levels (associates rather than Graduate), but I believe that with fresh set of eyes and open rather than turf-war mindsets, we could really produce something innovative and truly disruptive. I LOVE MOOCs but they will not transform Higher Ed. “Enhanced MOOCs” sounds like an attempt to be “down with the kids” without actually doing much of anything innovative at all.

Let’s think outside the box, blow it all up and start again – just pretend you’ve never heard of CREDITS…

OERu as Game Changer

The Open Education Resource University: a game changer?

One development that could inject new life into the dual-mode model is the Open Education Resource (OER) University that is being explored by a group of public universities from several countries. Open Educational Resources may prove to be the most disruptive element of the impact of eLearning in higher education. How might they help to widen access, cut costs and give dual-mode provision new relevance?

Some institutions are already encouraging the use of OER to avoid each teacher having to re-invent the wheel for each course. For example, once academics at the Asia eUniversity have developed course curricula they do not create any original learning materials, but simply adapt good quality OER from the web to their needs. Similarly, Athabasca University will only approve development of a course once those proposing it have done a thorough search for relevant open material that can be re-purposed.

Some would go much further. In February 2011 New Zealand’s Open Education Resource Foundation convened a meeting to operationalize the concept of the Open Educational Resource University. The idea is that students find their own content as OER; get tutoring from a global network of volunteers; are assessed, for a fee, by a participating institution; and earn a credible credential. The concept has echoes of the University of London External System that innovated radically 150 years ago by declaring that all that mattered was performance in examinations, not how students acquired their knowledge.

Excerpted from Sir John Daniel of the Commonwealth of Learning’s article  in Open Learning, the journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning: special Issue on dual mode universities (Volume 27 2012, Issue 1 2012)

Angry Birds – again

Clearly I am connecting with Mindflash today on many levels. David Kelly has a great post on What Angry Birds can tell us about Instructional Design. If you only have 1 minute to skim his paragraph headings do so – I agree 100% – as evidence see my many posts and the fact that many colleagues roll their eyes as I have discussed gamification (game principles rather than simulations) one too many times over the last couple of years…

My earlier posts on this subject:
January 2011 –  Game theory applied to online
Gamification January 2012


BTW – assuming he’s not THIS David Kelly – although that would be awesome !

The instructor role in a FLIPPED class

I blogged about this a while back – how the instructor role can be reinvented, rather than threatened by effective application of technology and process.
I was, obviously, more focused on an online or hybrid class environment, but I believe the same applies to instructors who embrace, rather than run from, elements that allow them to focus on the “what’s really cool about teaching (and learning)…. insert discipline here
Ian Stewart’s post today references instructors who value class time so highly that they would not dream of doing drill and kill or lecturing to a passive audience.
He writes: “By focusing that valuable face-to-face classroom time on exercises that put the lessons learned during lectures into actual practice (doing the homework at school), instructors are supporting the part of the learning process (the “doing”) that students really retain. That is, since students learn the most by implementing theories they’ve learned into real-life work, it makes sense to use as much of your 50-minute in-person session on that as possible.”

My recent work at SNHU has been focused on what we’ve called transitional text that is going to help provide students with the guidance and hopefully some of the impetus to get them from OER resource #1 to #2 and #27, then back to take a self-check quiz or post an assignment. Interesting (flow-inducing) resources and the students’ own intrinsic motivation may get some of them down that path to success, but the main? challenge for online can, and indeed should, be how to convey that passion that a true scholar in the field has developed – how to ignite the fire, illustrate the end point, and viscerally engage the drowsing? student…

Stewart, in what is looking like a pact among Scottish-sounding ed-theorists, references Andrew Miller, who writes that a “flipped” classroom still requires instructors to demonstrate the value of their content, whether online or offline. “Just because I record something, or use a recorded material, does not mean that my students will want to watch, nor see the relevance in watching it,” he writes. ” … If the flipped classroom is truly to become innovative, then it must be paired with transparent and/or embedded reason[s] to know the content.”

Both these posts confirm for me that there is a great opportunity in “unbundling” the instructor role – allowing technology and online (peer-to-peer) communities to deal with some of the things that they can take off an instructor’s plate, allowing her/him the chance to get back to inspiring, motivating and Captain-my-captain-ing.

Stewart’s post here: In ‘Flipped’ Classroom, the Emphasis must be on support, not video”

“Gym fee” college

In this model tuition is reduced to a level that is more akin to a monthly gymclub membership (which my group at SNHU talked about as a reasonable target) or as their President calls it equivalent to a monthly “cable-fee”.

Here are the pieces that resonate with me from this Chronicle overview:
1) Self-paced, mentor (rather than faculty) led
2) Sophisticated platform – see the bit about him hiring Google developers – that allows a freemium trial period from which user data is gathered
3) Large scale data collection that allows tailoring of content / learning analytics to tailor a student’s experience
4) Integration, or at least similar user experience to, platforms that students already know (Facebook)

I’d love to get under the hood and see how the curriculum is assembled – are key skills being emphasized or is the learning focused on topics and deliverables as with a more traditional model? and are they making use of OER ? – I assume their pricing is not compromised with $200 text book fees…
Their lack of accreditation would seem to be a (current) disadvantage but, as one of my colleagues put it in our early am review: “we don’t want to depend on the accreditation bit for holding back the competition for too long.  Sooner or later; those gates will open..” – credit LR

The full article is titled No Financial Aid, No Problem and is at http://chronicle.com/article/No-Financial-Aid-No-Problem/131329/