Learning to Adapt #2

A follow-up to my recent L-to-A #1 post:

Part II

In a follow-up to my recent post, I want to discuss an often neglected element of online instruction; likely the most critical.

Let’s be honest, in the debate as to whether “online works,” MOOCs confused people. For those new to online, those (faculty) considering for the first time now that someone other than (for-profit/insignificant/not proper school) was doing it, they were the easiest online classes to access, and initially focused almost exclusively on slick content presentation. When people assessed MOOCs and then came back to assess (normal? traditional? retention-emphasized? credit-bearing) online courses they tend to ask for access to the course materials sans instructor or student activity. I’m yet to determine if this is merely an oversight, deference to the beast that is FERPA, or collegial respect for the sanctity of the classroom…

My team at Northeastern has experience gathered over more than 150 years working in and around online courses (there are 14 of us). The range of experience includes time at most of the leading online educators over the last one and a half decades. Even a quick sweep from my mental inventory brings up Drexel, Kaplan, UMass, SNHU, UNH, Capella, Boston University, Harvard / Harvard Extension and RISD. During our time together at NU, we have implemented the work of leading theorists in learning, and cognitive science, assessment, usability, self-efficacy, information architecture, multimedia design, graphics and as I write / you read, are experimenting with gamification and the challenge of intrinsically motivating underserved populations.

The work of people like Dick Clark (USC) and Bror Saxburg (Kaplan) has provided us with depth and detail on the evidence-based learning science behind a lot of our development work. We feel that we have clarity on what works in terms of content formatting (length of chunks, organization of media elements etc.) and of some behavioral elements – the importance of frequent, timely corrective feedback, the level of challenge required to keep students engaged. My team works directly with the full-time faculty trying to build in elements that approximate the type of learning that we have called Online Experiential Learning. Authentic, tangible experiences with opportunities to spiral back, reflect, abstract and re-apply case-based learning in a wider, retained for life context. We focus on, and sweat over, materials, formats, fonts, activities and assessments.

The feedback we receive includes: “I don’t care for the fonts” “or “I took a MOOC last week and their videos were really cool… can’t we do that?”
Colleagues who worked with me at smaller institutions (with even smaller budgets) will snigger at this but my budget is less than a tenth of what many MOOC providers have quoted us for production costs. That in itself may be misleading and counter to my point here (yes, I do have one…)… I have reviewed and developed courses that were superb, and superbly appreciated by demanding students who called them life altering. The reactions or conversely complaints rarely if ever center on the content. At one of my former institutions where we tracked student grievances we registered 4% of student complaints that were content-related; 96% focused on non-content concerns (read on…)

At a recent Bill and Melinda-Gates Institute hosted event I heard students respond to the ever-present question “Does online work?” or “Did it work for you?” Some replied enthusiastically and positively, others with quite definitive “No”s / “It was terrible”-type comments. This begs the key question: “What exactly did they hate?” Can you guess???? – the materials? the fonts? the quality of the videos? No, no and no. The comments fell into three consistent buckets:

“The online class was terrible because I got no feedback on my work”
“I didn’t ever really know how I was doing”
“The instructor was M.I.A.”

In other words, and either depressingly or reassuringly, depending on your perspective the juxtaposition of images and text as advocated by the learning science was not pivotal??? Hmm, OK – so here’s a question that I would pose to would-be online students: You have the choice of a great teacher with crappy materials or an absent / crappy teacher with great materials – which would you choose?

Students who self-select for an online class are in my experience, tolerant of technical glitches and they don’t really care if a video has the instructor in pajamas in front of family pictures in a poorly lit room. A responsive, attentive, responsive, empathetic, responsive, caring but challenging, responsive instructor more than offsets the fact that the video is not green screened so that (s)he appears to be in front of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, nor because Krakatoa’s not erupting right now* Their attention has gone after 6 minutes anyway, they don’t care whether “herds of Wildebeest are sweeping majestically across the plain”….

So, to summarize, we assess our collective sweat and tears in the realms of Instructional Design, Learning Science, Materials development, web usability, information architecture, Cognitive Science, Assessment specialists and Graphic art and are then judged by whether the instructor shows up for class or not? – Really?!

Imagine the same criteria for traditional classes: –

Q – “How was your face to face class today?”
A – “Well the instructor didn’t show so we all kind of read the books without direction and chatted amongst ourselves, but that’s fine, it was a great class. I love face-to-face classes.

Here’s my money-shot statement:

A class where the instructor does not devote energy and attention providing presence and guidance is not a failed class, it is a failed instructor.
It is not a rationale for concluding that a means of reaching hundreds of thousands of learners for whom face to face is not an option just doesn’t work.

To be clear, my intention in penning this is not at all to diss overstretched instructors who have themselves not self-selected to teach (see earlier comment on self-selected students). Teaching online is extremely different, not suited to all, can be learned but needs to be embraced (or at least a little bit hugged).

Who make the best online instructors?
Here’s a low-tech answer first:
• Jigsaw puzzlers who want to do 5-6 pieces at breakfast, coffee break, lunch, tea break and an hour or so before bed.
• Slightly obsessive gardeners who feel the need to check in on their tomato plants 4 times a day sometimes just to say “hi!”
A higher tech answer for 2014
• Committed e-bay-ers,
• Social media users (even moderate – parents / grandparents accessing Facebook to see progeny pics),
• Anyone who has ever felt the need to Advise TripAdvisor, then gone back to see if others rate their comments.
• Someone incentivized, by some inner passion, who gets a kick out of nudging things along incrementally. Someone who is a little compulsive and doesn’t like to think of a book misaligned on a shelf. Someone who has bought into the idea that they can have influence (on tomatoes or on travelers). Someone who gets a teeny bit jazzed at the thought that they could be just helping make the world a slightly more informed place, affecting or maybe even changing lives – sounds like a heck of a lot of the teachers I know.

It IS a transition though; teaching and changing lives in fifteen-minute increments, rather than through three-hour classroom performances between grading marathons.

Extending my not-great metaphors even further; does anyone garden in a half-assed manner so that they can prove that gardening doesn’t work? Does anyone eBay because they hate the whole system, which is an online manifestation of the capitalist marketplace, and vent when they sell (or buy) things?

I quite miss writing postcards when I travel, I was quite known for them back in the day (OK, I am old), but it is kind of cool now that I can let 20 times as many people know that I’m in a very cool (or hot) spot and also that they know before the week’s out. Change makes things different. If anyone is so wedded to the traditional that they can’t move – that’s fine. I remember hearing of an instructor at another of my former colleges who eschewed the phone as it was too new-fangled and he needed to see whites of eyes.
I get that. I miss things too. Instructors who dislike or distrust (whatever the rationale) “class” too much to show up should not be given online teaching assignments (surely). Those who are a fit and who get it in its slightly compulsive glory (eBayers, Facebookers, TripAdvisors, / Jigsawers, Tomato-growers or book-aligners) should be supported and cherished. Not every personality makes a good face-to-face instructor, not every personality makes a good online instructor. There is the choice; change, adapt, give it a genuine try, or (simply) don’t take the assignment

My job and the job of the Instructional Designers I work with should be supporting great instruction and genuine effort with appropriate spaces and backdrops for learning to happen. My job can’t be developing materials that substitute for instructors who don’t want to be there and don’t show up for class.

I know that academia is a big ship to turnaround but I wish there was a way to convince instructors that the most important thing in an online class IS STILL YOU. If people like me do our jobs well, we can automate some parts – but PLEASE work with us – we might even be able to take away the boring, dull parts that you don’t like doing. For example:
• Answering questions that you have answered 5000 times before (boom! – a FAQ),
• Reminding people that assignments are due (boom ! (again) – Calendar),
• Developing a working understanding of basic, underpinning knowledge (chunked content and Check Your Knowledge self-checks)
• Being there 24/7, answering every question (let us show you scaffolded, supported peer-to-peer interaction).
I now pronounce you FREE to only have to focus on questions that are stimulating, that allow you to demonstrate and indulge your passion for your subject and engage (disproportionately) through interactions that are significant and (could) change lives. I wrote an earlier blog post on this two years ago titled Disrupted Faculty Roles

In summary:
An online class that is poor because the instructor didn’t show up is

    a poor class led by a delinquent instructor.

If an institution does nothing about it, turns away from the data that demonstrates it or deflects blame towards materials that aren’t as cool as the latest MOOC, shame on it/them/us.

Online works for a lot of people when planets align and people work together. The instructor’s responsiveness should be close to the top, rather than near the bottom of the list of requirements.

As I said, work with us, then show up for class… in pajamas, eating tomatoes.

  • Note    * obscure scenic references courtesy of classic John Cleese – Fawlty Towers BBC

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…

Who’s MOOC-ing?

One of my new colleagues here at Northeastern (1 month in – time to blog!), sent me the following article on MOOC participation in Inside Higher Ed – Who Takes Moocs?

Here’s my interpretation (for what it’s worth):

I think (personally) that these MOOCs etc are hitting a really different demographic: the intellectually curious rather than the under served / locked-out-of-higher-ed that they aspire to

My synopsis would be

  • 10-15% complete the course or are engaged enough to complete surveys – that seems to be a developing standard
    (let’s call it 15% to be generous, of that 15%:)
  • (20%)     2-3% of the total are Grads,
  • (10%)      1-2% are Undergrads
  • (not quite) 2-3% are taking it for concrete career reasons (to get a better job) – the “keep skills sharp group I feel may just be taking a long lunch!)

In over-stressing the “employment skills / career development” aspect to 75% of participants (Stanford) – the self-justification seems palpable
This field (MOOCs) is extremely instructive, and the analytics it generates could be a huge boon to Academia, but the bringing education to the masses / opening up the marbled halls aspect seems over-stated.

The Golden bullet still looks to me to be: open course-ware, open platform, faculty (strategically) answering very high level expert questions  only, comprehensive student support, very LOW price point with TONS of intrinsic motivation – (game-theory-based?)

MOOCS – get 3 of the six 6 but illustrate very clearly to me that without at least a couple more of these important elements – support, strategic faculty and motivation, they will remain an interesting, academic, exercise.

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 !

“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/