Friday, January 31, 2014

FutureLearn Corpus Linguistics course - first thoughts

Check, check. Is this thing on?
Linguistics isn't generally considered a topic, like one of those sexy STEM courses, that everyone talks about when they talk about degrees and fields to study for job related purposes. For this reason we haven't seen a lot of linguistics related MOOCs.  Last year we had the Virtual Linguistics Campus offer three MOOCs using their own approach to teaching MOOCs which seemed more like self-paced eLearning. I didn't complain (much) because it was, after all, courses in linguistics.

This time around, the University of Lancaster is offering a course on Corpus Linguistics, which I have naturally signed up for.  There is at least one colleague from the #rhizo14 MOOC taking this course, so I am curious to see what they think of the course after all is said and done.  In the meantime, I have some initial thoughts on the course itself, as well as the mechanics of the future learn platform, as they are realized through this MOOC.

The first thing that caught my attention was the informational emails that were, and are still, sent out to learners.  They are, in my opinion, a really nice touch, leading up to the course to prepare the learners for what's in store. This also builds up some anticipation and keeps the MOOC in the forefront of people's minds.  I know that there are people who sign up for MOOCs and forget about them.  This happened to me with an edX MOOC on Alexander the Great.  It starts this week (or next week?) but I had completely forgotten that I signed up for it. This week I also got at least one email thanking me for my participation in the discussion forums and encouraged me to keep it up.  I don't know if this was sincere, or if some computer algorithm saw that I posted in a few forums and this was a way to motivate me to continue.

The introductory video by the main course instructor (Tony McEnery) indicated that the course was built for depth, so learners could engage with as much, or as little, of the material as they wanted or needed to.  This is actually pretty cool, from where I stand, because it is only the second time an xMOOC (or a MOOC on an xMOOC platform) had encouraged students to participate as much, or as little, as they want to.  The other course was EDCMOOC on coursera.  That said the future learn platform has a little progress bar under each week that indicates how much you have completed from each module. The module contains basic content, as well as "advanced" content for those who are not new to topic of Corpus Linguistics.  Since this was not new to me, I did complete all topics for the week and I got a full bar under Week 1. For introductory learners, however, if they only engage with the introductory materials, they only get a half-bar.   This is making me wonder how the idea of "completer" of a course will take shape in this course.  What are the criteria that the creators of this course will use to gauge how successful their MOOC was.  I guess one small part will be those completed progress bars.

From a participation perspective, the course facilitators seem to have a presence in the discussion forums and actively encourage people to interact there. The discussion forums on this platform seem unobtrusive, but I don't know how they will pan out in the end. Each article and video has their own forum, which makes topical discussion a bit easier.  Instructors have encouraged people to use forums, both for peer-to-peer support, but also to make issues visible to the tutors of the course so they can intervene if needed. I am curious to see how this works out in the end.  From my part, I don't have a ton of incentive to participate in the forums.  I do think that the fact that forums are immediately accessible on the course content page does encourage me to have a quick peek, and "like" or respond to something really quickly (if it's within my domain of expertise), but it doesn't really encourage me to keep track of a discussion and keep coming back to it within the weekly module.

The thing that I scribbled down yesterday, while thinking about this, is Vygotsky's ZPD, and peer scaffolding.  If my role, in the course, is that of a fellow learners, but my ZPD is perceived to be much higher compared to other course participants, what is the incentive to stick around in the forums and help out, and engage in dialogic learning? At that point, I am a bit like a course tutor, which means that I am not, potentially, getting as much out of the transactional relationship that more novice learners.  Now, if I had more time to focus on just one MOOC, and I werent' doing a whole lot of other things, I would most likely help more novice learners. But, in cases where more advanced learners are in the course, and they don't have as much time to commit, how do you encourage their participation in the course for the benefit of everyone?  This is something I don't have an answer to yet, but I am curious about exploring more.

In addition to videos each week, there are a variety of "articles" which are pages with plain text information about the topic. These serve as additional information, and preliminary information, the the included videos.  This is also where they posted study tips the beginning of the week.  It's good to see course instructors treat this as a course, and  encourage some tried and true ways of keeping track of ones own learning, like keep notes! Course designers also seem to give students a heads up of areas they should focus on if they are novices in the topic, or if they have been exposed to it before.

From a materials perspective, it is nice to have the option to download both transcript and the slides to the lectures. The only logistical issue is that the names of the PDF files are absolute garbage and not descriptive for the most part. The file names do contain some information about the title of the file, but they are fronted with some hexadecimal number that's only good for the storage systems that the file is part of.  On the plus side, they can be used to pipe through a concordancer to do some of the corpus analysis ;). 

As far as the videos are concerned, most videos are great. For instance, I got an opportunity to see, and hear, Geoff Leech, a name I've heard quite a few times as a linguistics student, but never had the opportunity to see him in action so-to-speak.  The videos are not downloadable, which is a shame. I can see these videos being good supplements to materials in our own linguistics program.  The one disappointing thing were the advanced lectures by Richard Xiao.  The lectures were obviously not made for this MOOC, and that is perfectly OK.  My big issue is that they were just voice-over-powerpoint. In cases like these, where the slides are just visual representations of what is already conveyed by the audio channel, I would prefer to have these as an audio podcast to listen to on my way to and from home.  Being stuck at a desk to just listen to something does not seem like a good use of my time.

Finally, from a mechanics perspective, the "Mark complete" marker on each page is a nice reminder to learners what they have, and have not looked at, as far as the materials go.  Reminds me a bit of the coursesites functionality for awarding badges in their MOOCs. I am wondering if there is some sort of alternative credential, like a badge, attached to this course and the "mark complete" toggles.

So, after one week, what is my game plan for this MOOC? Since I had covered the introductory stuff in my APLING 629 course (Structure of the English Language), it seems like I would be going to the more advanced material each week.  I think that I will tackle the introductions to the module on Monday, and tackle 5 sections per day to keep on top of things. I see that, unlike other platforms, the materials for weeks 2-8 are already available, so I think if I have free time, I might just start other modules early.

The final thing, from a pedagogy perspective, for this post is the notion of student centeredness. To me this term seems  to mean whatever people want it to mean.  In #rhizo14 a participant said that in the corpus linguistics MOOC, one of the facilitators said that this course was student centered, and there was obvious disagreement.  The course is very top down, in that materials have been created already, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is not student centered.  I am wondering how others are going through the course, and they are following some perceived critical path, or of they are jumping around modules and exploring as they are going along.  I honestly think we need to define what we mean by "student centered" before we can decide whether this course is, or is not, student centered.

Your thoughts on this MOOC thus far?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Embrace Uncertainty (by declaring something?)

So, we've entered the half-way point of #rhizo14.  The original  topic title had something to do with Declaring your Learning. This of course brought on memories of jokes of airports and questions like "anything to declare?" and smart-alec responses to this question.  Declaring is also Stage 3 of a success in a MOOC, so I guess it made sense in a way that this was during week 3.  That said, the topic has changed to "Embrace Uncertainty." I wonder if this was by design, one topic disappearing, and another appearing, thus epitomizing uncertainty, or if it was purely coincidental.

In any case, one of the thinking points this week is how do we embrace uncertainty in learning?  I guess, my first question is "from whose perspective?" From the perspective of the learner?  Or from that of the Instructor?  I know, from my own perspective, I have a ton of books at home on teaching, learning, and linguistics that I would LOVE to just stop everything and read and put to good use, but I don't have a ton of time. Well, I guess I could if I weren't MOOCing so damned much, but I guess at the end of the day it's a fine balance between a lot of  different factors.

From an instructor's perspective, I think it's important to embrace uncertainty  in a variety of ways.  In instructional design we want to have a completed course before it runs (or at least a completed design document!) but things can happen in any given semester that don't allow you, as an instructor and designer, to go down the path you aimed to go down when you started teaching your course.  I would say embrace the uncertainty and go with it (so long as the goals of the course are met!). This can mean a lot of  work for instructors, after all you have committed all that work ahead of time, it's a shame for it to go to waste, and to be in a position that you might have to admit your ignorance. Admitting that you don't know something is pretty hard, especially in our (western) culture.  Of course, instructors are not the fount of all knowledge, so it would be good to say, on occasion, "I don't know, and let's explore that together.  How would we go about figuring x?"

From a learner perspective, it's hard to embrace uncertainty for a variety of reasons.  Again, going back to the western mentality (and all of my own schooling, both here and in Greece), people go to school to learn certain knowledge (declarable facts) that they can then tell other people about, thus showing that they are certain that they know certain things. Of course, knowing facts and putting them to use are different skills.  Students think they are going to school to learn facts, when in reality they should be going to school (or class) to "sharpen the brain" (as the Greeks would say) in order to be able to deal with just such uncertainty. If you are comfortable with uncertainty, and the fact that there might not be clear cut answers, I think you are in a much better position to think outside of the box and think creatively about solutions.

So, the question then becomes how do we  keep people encouraged about learning if there is no finite achievable goal? I assume "we" in this question posed means educators and those in the education field.  Well, I guess at the end of the day, schools are peddlers for a certain type of intangible product. People can make tangible things with that product, but the product itself, education, is not tangible.  Part of the answer to this question, for me, goes back to internal motivation of each individual learner.  You can lead a horse to the well, but you can't make it drink. Education is the same.  We (at least in the US), are pushing for everyone to go to college, even though college is not subsidized in our country. Not everyone is motivated to go through a compulsory, yet not legally compulsory, education.  Heck, not everyone is motivated to go through legally compulsory education either :) So, at the end of the day, how do you encourage people to continue to learn if learning is not a finite deal?

Well, I would say that while learning, as an endeavor, is life-long, we do have certain waypoints in this process that help us get something out of it.  For some people it may be a badge, or a certificate, or a diploma.  If a certain cluster of learning centers around a specific topic and things connect with one another, why not motivate people with something tangible, like passing a mile marker on the highway on the way to a long journey?  I know that when I start running in the spring I am very out of shape.  The way I measure my success, and the reason I keep running my 2-3 miles a day is because I pass certain markers and I push myself to get to the next one.  If I thought of the entire distance as one whole thing, I would most likely just give up. Another possible way to motivate people is to give them something tangible that they can do having completed certain aspects of learning. So, if you can do x with what you have learned, imagine what you can do if you continue learning!

Finally (for this post anyway), how do we teach when there are no answers, but only more questions?  That is a good question.  The way I see it, there are certain plateaus that need to be reached in order to be able to grapple with certain types of questions.  I think that learners need to be scaffolded to a point where they understand certain things, know certain jargon and vocabulary, and are able to deal with certain concepts in order to grapple with those questions.  Since not all questions reside on one plateau, it is is possible to teach and coach people to get to those plateaus to be able to wrestle with those questions.  Some of it may be didactic in nature, some of it may not be. It depends on many factors.  That said, just because there are only questions doesn't mean that we throw in the towel.  Going back to my running example, the road is almost infinite (when you are running).  I wouldn't just keep running, and I certainly would just run on my first day out in the spring.  I would stretch a bit, maybe jog, take those legs and lungs out for a test drive before I go in full throttle.  Once you've identified limits, you are then able to work your way up to bursting through those limits.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Enforcing Independence

Well, this week has been particularly crazy, with a couple of days of snow making things pile up at  work, and with a presentation this past Friday on international education at NERCOMP, it means that I've been behind a bit (compared to where  I thought I would be) on blogging for #rhizo14.  I have been keeping track of the facebook discussions, so I think this week I'm consolidating both original post and blending them with things that others have written.

The question of the week (or rather, the prompt of the week) was:
Explore a model of enforced independence. How do we create a learning environment where people must be responsible? How do we assure ourselves that learners will self-assess and self-remediate?
The first thing that came to mind actually comes, second hand, from former classmates taking a course on Group Dynamics (a course that I never took during my graduate studies with this particular faculty member).  The story goes like this:  First day of class the professor comes in to this Group Dynamics class (also affectionately called "Therapy Class" by its participants) and the instructor provides them with a syllabus, the books for the class, and information on a final deliverable for the class.  From what I remember, from first hand accounts, the deliverable would be a reflection on planning something in a group. So, at the beginning of the semester everyone need to be in a group, working on something mutually agreed upon, and (I suppose) they needed to reflect on what was going on using the course theory.  The instructor was there, in class, week to week, but there were no lectures. I think, from what I've heard from some participants, that the course session time was like a social where people got to work on some project during class time.

I guess kicking students off the safety of the lecture nest was one way to create a learning environment where students felt responsible for their own learning, but I think that this approach really lacked any sort of "adult supervision."  Now, don't get me wrong, I do think that as educators we need to be working our way to enabling students to be independently interdependent.   I was thinking about learners as independent entities, in a "yes, but of course!" type of way, until I started reading some of this week's posts including Maha Bali's post on enforcing independence, Jaap's post on learner roles,   and Chiadi's post on Openness in education.

First, I'll start with Chiadi's post recounting the experience of defending a Master's Thesis. I have to say, I had a great big smile when I read that the advisor/mentor, when initially approached for advice said "revise, revise, revise" but didn't poke any holes into the thesis, but when time for the defense came, the advisor was right in there asking all the poignant questions, and trying to trip up (and really test Chiadi's knowledge).  That said, this may seem like an indecent thing to do, after all you might be that mentor, but are you doing your student's any favors by giving them all the answers and potential pitfalls before they get an opportunity to think about this on their own?  The answer, in my opinion, is no.  Then again, I would say that through coursework students need to start thinking like Lawyers, in a good way, in thinking about what potential holes their own arguments have, and how they can bolster their own arguments.  This should allow students to hold their own ground when that safety net is removed.

That said, independence is good, but it doesn't work on its own in all circumstances. This is where Jaap's post comes in.  I think that there are learner roles that come into the mix when we are talking about courses, including cMOOCs.  I don't think that any one learner takes on a specific role and sticks to that role throughout  the duration of the convened course. I think we all take on a role, and change our roles, are required.  I think those roles, and the diversity that people bring into the equation, is what makes a course interesting.  I am reminded of David Wiley's Introduction into Openness in Education (#IOE12).  Sadly, I had missed the boat in January, when the course started, and started the course in May, when it was formally done.  That said, I was added to the course list regardless and I was blogging, but I didn't see others participating in the course. As I wrote in one of the post-mortem posts, it was quite a lonely experience, in a MOOC of all places.  To me, that shows that an independent learner can do well, however independent interdependence is the mode where we probably tend to do our best.

While I was taking notes for this post, I had written down:
Need to be able to have students who are independent.  "I don't know how to do X, I am going to find out how to do it" not, "I am going to go to the professor."
I have no idea what made me think of this, but it reminded me of a former student and how she approached courses. She had stated that her goal, for any course, was to push whatever it was to the limits, be it learning about a certain topic or learning how to use a certain piece of software.  She wanted to see what was actually possible - taking any given object to the limits. This, of course, meant that invariably things broke down every now and again, but that is what the course Q&A forum is for (students helping other students), and what places like Quora are for.

Jaap, on Facebook, had started talking about MOOCs as tribes. I didn't quite follow up on this discussion given the craziness of the week, but  I was initially wondering how would a tribe mentality work in the realm of independence? One of the issues I have with tribes is the problem of groupthink.  I think that independent interdependence is a loose enough structure to have people working together without having that potential danger of groupthink.  I am wondering how others are seeing Tribes in Classrooms, and the potential affordances and trade offs of using this metaphor.

Last, but not least, for this week, was an interesting post by Cath Ellis on Theory.  I agree with her that Theory is hard, and theory does require some common understanding and some common vocabulary.  We shouldn't shy away from this challenge, and we shouldn't dismiss educational jargon as needless because something is common sense.  I've heard a few colleagues dismiss jargon, and even more students dismiss theory, wanting "practical applications" for their work.  The problem with "practical applications" is that they are someone else's practical applications.  Sure, someone else's work may work for you, but it may not.  If you understand the theory, you can fabricate your own practical applications from it, based on your own unique needs. I think that by struggling with theory, and mulling it over with others, we can get to an understanding that's useful to us.

That said, I have not rad Deleuze and Gauttari's work yet.  I plan to, it's on my "to read" list on goodreads, but since the semester starts tomorrow, I expect to be might busy with the semester. Part of me is actually also thinking about Rhizomatic Learning as a Cormier thing, so we are all one step removed from D&G's work, and getting our hands messy with what Dave came up with during the Innovate (Journal) days and continued to chew on during all the MOOCs that had Rhizomatic Learning as one of the the topics.  What do you think about this interpretation of this MOOC?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Templates are killing creativity

Cookie cutters: detriment to creativity, or fuel to the creative fire?
Last week, while I was updating something on LinkedIn, I saw one of my colleagues post a link to a post by the eLearning Brothers called The Top 10 Best eLearning Game Templates. I am generally not a fan of such list-posts, but every now and again I come across something really interesting.  I usually don't teach courses on CBT, WBT or other self-paced eLearning.  It's an interesting topic, but it really isn't my cup of tea, so I wouldn't voluntarily agree to teach an entire semester of such a course.

In any case, last semester I was peer reviewing a colleague's course (and to some extent co-teaching it because I had a hand in grading and content and assignment creation), which just so happened to be in Multimedia.  The particular spin that this course took was to use multimedia to create a self-paced course. So, with this fresh in my mind, with the discussions we had last week in #rhizo14 about cheating as learning, and this week about enforcing independence, this post from the eLearning brothers came in as the glue to tie it all together.

The thing that really came to mind is that templates for eLearning packages is really detrimental to designer creativity, or at least it can be. Many people that I could would take one of these templates and just use them, as is, as part of their own self-paced eLearning course, be it embedded into another storyline training, or as a separate game in an LMS course shell that contains a variety of smaller self-paced eLearning training.  The problem with these templates is that they lose their potency the more you use them. The learner becomes resistant to the novelty of the new the more they are exposed to such template-based eLearning, and we just go back to having point-and-click-and-click-and-click...until you get to the end.

Now, when it comes to the education, and training, of future instructional designers and educational software developers I think that templates do have their place, but not as off-the-shelf turn-key solutions, but as exemplars of what can be accomplished.  If we take those templates and reverse engineer them, to see what makes them tick, learners can build their own eLearning templates from scratch using the knowledge they gained from reverse engineering some good exemplars. Thus "cheating" in a way to fuel their creativity, and to encourage independence from the established "best" templates and go off on their own design directions.

What do you think of templates?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Cheating, Learning, Being - Week 1 summation

The cone of silence ;-)
In most cMOOCs I attempt to go back and respond to fellow participant's posts after something has provoked some thoughts.  If I am less busy, I tend to blog more, if I am more busy, I tend to leave more comments.  I guess this semester I am sort of in-between ;-)

In any case, from week 1 of the #rhizo14 MOOC here are some things that have piqued my interest:

From Jenny comes to the following quote:
For me, learning isn’t so much about what we do – cheating or otherwise – but more about who we are and who we become – and as such is associated with ethical and moral dimensions. Does living in a digitally networked world, a world of rhizomatic learners change what we commonly understand to be the basic moral principles that govern behaviour between learners?
This was quite interesting, and something that made the gears in my head turn. If I had to discuss learning, especially the learning that happens in MOOCs, I would say that learning is about transformation rather than reciting facts.  Jenny phrased it quite well!  The whole ethical and moral dimension, on the other hand I wasn't expecting and it brought me back to one of my MBA courses, business ethics to be more specific, and some previous undergraduate philosophy courses which I really didn't appreciate until I was well into my 3rd masters degree ;-) So, the big question, is this: are there basic moral principles that govern our behavior? Or is all morality and ethics something that is societal and it depends from society to society and from group to group?  This is train of thought connected with something Chadi wrote (as part of his blog):
I do not agree with Dave on the fact that cheating is weapon for succeeding and that cheating is the same thing as rule breaking. I believe that there is a great difference between cheating and rule breaking as a weapon. Cheating, in my sense, has this surreptitious aspect.. When somebody cheats, he does not want that to be known by others.. He feels that he is doing something bad, not because he is breaking the rules, but because he is doing something bad or something wrong !! When this somebody breaks some rules knowing that what he is doing is not bad, he will not be doing it secretly. Cheating is bad, because it is done clandestinely ! When you break rules for the sake of the society or the whole universe, you will do it so openly that you want every body to know about it!
Well, first I guess that I would have to disagree that someone doesn't want to be known when he cheats.  Some people just "get off" on the thrill of getting caught, so they might want some people to know in order to increase the difficulty of the task (if we think about it in game terms). But, even if we assume that they want to keep it a secret because of some sort of shame, I think it's important to keep in mind that cheating is defined by those in power, and in this case the instructor of the course, or the instructional designer(s) who designed the course. If a course A is collaborative in nature, and is designed with that affordance in mind, but Student X comes from a culture where if you don't know, you don't admit it, and you work harder at "getting it" on your own.  That cultural mind set is in opposition of the class mindset, and as such, even if the student collaborates, he may not admit to others that he collaborated because they are not part of that learning environment and they may not understand that certain behaviors are quite alright within those contexts.

As a side note to this rule-based discussion, if certain rules are preventing meaningful learning from taking place, those rules need re-examining. For instance, if we take a look at a education at a macro level, in a recent program directors meeting I went to, the issue of advanced standing came up (i.e. if you are in a doctoral program and you come into it with an MA or MS in the discipline, should you be able to way x-many credits).  There were a few who were for advanced standing, and others who were against because they felt that students were double-dipping and counting MA work toward their PhD.  That said, with many colleagues that I've discussed the issue, they seem to feel like the sanctity of any PhD or EdD program lies with the number of credits required rather than the student output.  As such, we have an arms race to show that we require more than others. 

Have a look at Harvard's new PhD in Education program (requirements here) for example. Minimum 16 courses, Lab, Structured Reading Time (as if we're not adults and can't possibly do exam prep on our own), a general comprehensive exam and a qualifying paper before you are even allowed to submit a proposal. Now, I may be naive, but I thought that people undertook doctoral students so that they could learn how to research, and be vetted independent researchers. This entire circus, seems to me, like a misunderstanding of what the doctoral degree embodies. Tying this back into our own practice at my own school, why not let doctoral students figure out their own paths and ways through this, after all, this is what they will have to do in real life. This reliance on the credit hour as validation seems wrong - and if we were being honest, we wouldn't try to "cheat" the system by counting our MA credits as part of PhD work, we would be honest about the fact that education is a continuous stream of learning, and that we ought to design learning experience and learning environments with that, and educational outcomes, in mind. No cheating - just sensible thinking.

Tying into this, in a somewhat roundabout way, I came across a post by George Siemens, on learning as vulnerability (which is odd since I subscribe to his blog), here is an excerpt:
Learning is vulnerability. When we learn, we make ourselves vulnerable. When we engage in learning, we communicate that we want to grow, to become better, to improve ourselves. When I first started blogging, I had a sense of fear with every post (“did that sound stupid?”), loss of sleep soul-searching when a critical comment was posted, and envy when peers posted something brilliant (“wow, why didn’t I think of that?”). When a student posts an opinion in a discussion forum or when someone offers a controversial opinion – these are vulnerability-inducing expressions.
This was an interesting read, I encourage you to go read the whole thing (it's only a few paragraphs). I'd also like to add that teaching is also potentially a vulnerability - the expectation that we have that our professors or instructors are all knowing is something potentially crippling. We have people who are the sage on the stage because it potentially cuts people off.  If one monopolizes (filibuster?) the airtime in any given face to face class, then they can't be shown to not know and lose face in front of the class.  Sure, that's potentially one way to look at it, but I can see the professor on a pedestal being a setup for broken expectations.  No one person is the font of knowledge for any given topic.  Everyone prepares for their lectures, and refreshes their minds of what they read. Heck, they even read new things to infuse their lectures with up-to-date materials.  That said, it's OK to say "I don't know" and figure out ways in which students and teachers can cooperate to solve issues, rather than say "let me look it up" and provide the answer neatly wrapped up.

From my own perspective (George's post was about Doctoral students), it's not the going back to school that concerns me as a potential doctoral student, after all, I don't think I've left school, after my last masters I've been neck-deep in MOOCs! What concerns me is the long process of getting there and the potential capriciousness of certain advisors.  I've heard the horror stories from colleagues about advisors.  Couple that with the example of Harvard (and schools like it that just try to pack in everything and the kitchen sink), and students feel that they've made an intellectual investment (if not also a financial one), and if they come up with such an advisor, do they stick up for their beliefs, and risk extending an already long doctoral process? Or do they see which way the wind blows and just go with it. If you've already spent 3 years preparing to get a dissertation proposal stage, do you want to give up on all that coursework.  This is why I like the European model: you have a topic, you do your literature review, and you propose your topic to potential advisors.  They like it, you're in.  Done.  Sure, there are far more limited spaces for PhDs in European schools, but this just brings us back to think about the point of the PhD.

Coming back to the idea of cheating, from Cathleen's blog, we find that TurnItIn considers remixing and mash-ups unoriginal (via Clint Lalonde).  This is a major facepalm moment.  Scare tactics from a vendor whose business model is predicated on propagating the cheating boogie man.  I saw their presentation when I was working at my library job a number of years ago and I disliked their presentation and business model, i.e. profiting from student's work in the system to check for plagiarism while they were collecting massive amounts of student data.  It's their job to look for for boogie men everywhere because that's how they peddle their wares.  This aspect of attribution is really ironic because it reminds me of my own experience with wikipedia.  I was editing the entry for the village I grew up in when I lived and Greece and the wikipedia folks removed my edits because of lack of sources. Apparently my own first hand accounts from my own lived experience were not good enough, but oral history research is still valued in our fields.

Finally, one of the things that came up in this MOOC, as well as in readings that had been accumulating in Pocket, is that MOOCs have been seen as the savior for higher education.  I think the savior of higher education is not MOOCs, and have said this for quite some time.  MOOCs were not "invented" for this reason. The reason we have a crisis in higher education is because K-16 is now seen as compulsory, even though it's not legislated as such, and it's not really funded like we have in K-12, so people go into massive amounts of debt to get their degrees to get a job. But, the truth is that not every job requires a four year degree. Our universities are (were?) set-up for mentor-mentee relationships but with the rush to make degrees pre-requisites for jobs, the amounts of students entering is outpacing the available resources, making the existing model not feasible.  Really thinking about the point of higher education and adjusting accordingly will be a way to save higher education, not MOOC and exploitative adjunct lecturer hiring practices that make for an academic elite (those tenured and doing business as usual) and the academic under-class (those adjuncts paid poorly to teach as many courses as they may be assigned).

With that, we end week 1.  Any thoughts?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cheating as Learning

Alone in the Dark (DOS, Mac System 7.5)
So I'm back to another cMOOC arena, yay!!! Just by chance I came across a Rhizomatic Learning  course offered by Dave Cormier (of MOOC fame), and the course is called Rhizomatic Learning - The Community is the curriculum. The course spans six weeks and this first week was simply an introduction, but as far as intros go, this has been quite a busy week!  It's nice to see fellow cMOOC participants from previous MOOCs like Dave, Jaap, Rebecca and Penny, but also fellow locals, from UMass Boston, Peter Taylor.

This first week we are tackling the topic of cheating as a weapon for learning. We were encouraged to think about how we can use the idea of cheating as a tool to take apart the structures that we work in; and to think about what this says about learning,  power and how we (the participants) see teaching.  There have been quite a few blogs up to this point, that I have not had an opportunity to read yet, but I thought I should commit my own thoughts onto digital paper before I go on and start branching off (no pun intended) onto other areas.

In thinking about cheating as learning, I  am reminded of an xMOOC I was part of last fall semester on coursera called Video Games and Learning, with Professors Steinkuehler and Squire of UW Wisconsin.  In one of the lectures, I think it was Steinkuehler that mentioned that she was working with a child, playing an MMORPG, and the kid was collecting stats from the game.  If I remember correctly the kid was collecting stats of various weapons and armors for his character, so that they could create the optimal build in order to beat some higher level boss.  When queried, the kid said that he wasn't playing the game, but rather cheating it to find the best possible combination. This was quite interesting to see this type of investigative effort activity, to beat a boss, as cheating from the part of the gamer.

This reminded me of my own gaming habits over the years.  Back when I was in high school, before I had access to the internet, I would play games that I could get on discount (usually as part of a 10-pack collection).  One of the games that stands out as an example is Alone in the Dark. I liked the game but the mansion that I was exploring seemed like a giant maze, and I didn't know exactly how to progress.  After lots of frustration at certain areas, I went to my public library, got onto the internet and found something called a walkthrough, which was essentially a guide to the game that was compiled by members of that game's community. These types of guides weren't new, game makers have made money in years past selling these companions to their games.  This just happened to be free and community-sources.  Armed with the walkthrough, and gaining higher levels of skill in the game I was able to complete the game without the frustration that was there before.

 In subsequent years I've used walkthroughs to see how long a particular stage is so I can make decisions like "should I save this game now, and go to bed? or am I close to the end of the stage, so I should just play-on for 10 more minutes?" and I've tried to use them to see how certain achievements (on the xbox) can be obtained.  Some achievements seem quite esoteric, and don't know if they add to the game-play, so having such walkthroughs satisfied the curiosity as to whether or not it's worthwhile to pursue a certain achievement.

Metal Gear Portable Ops
That said, I've also had some failed gaming experiences, even with walkthroughs, and the main one that sticks out to me is a game called Metal Gear Portable Ops for the PSP. Again, there were a few frustrating spots in the game that I tried to get through by using my powers of observation (see what pattern the enemies had in their patrolling of certain military bases, scope out their weapons, see if I could knock them out and stash them somewhere, or if I had to waste ammunition and kill them, and so on).  I got quite far without a walkthrough, until I came to a boss that I just couldn't eliminate.  The walkthrough did help me in showing the the boss's weakness, but then came the part that I couldn't work up to - the skill part!  No matter how much I practiced (and how frustrated I got), I just could not beat this boss (the jumping one from the image above).  I then had to make a decision: keep playing and gain the skill? Or just throw in the towel?  Why was I playing this game?  Well, the main reason was that I was interested in the story, and wanted to see how it ended. Since the PSP platform doesn't have achievements or trophies for beating certain games like the xbox 360 and the PS3, there was no external reward for continuing to play.  Furthermore, I could see all of the story of the game, for free, on YouTube (in pretty nice quality too!). So, I ended up throwing in the towel with this game because I could satisfy my goal by other means.

Now, I have seen walkthroughs with many more cheats to them that allow the player to get superhuman strength, unlimited lives, and so on. So, at the end of the day, a walkthrough could be a cheat where the player learns nothing about problem solving because they have superhuman strength.  However, by the same token, it could also be a job-aid, in a sense because it can allow a learner to get unstuck and move on in the learning process.

So, what does this have to do with teaching?  Well, quite a few things (even if you exclude the whole category of games in teaching). The first thing that this type of cheating reminds me is a term I learned when I took my first instructional design course.  This term is mastery learning. The form that this type of mastery learning took in our classroom was multiple drafts of a deliverable, going through a do, submit, receive comment, revise, resubmit cycle. Of course, in addition to this we had grading rubrics so that we knew what we were expected to do.  Oddly enough, even after completed a BA and two Master degrees, it wasn't until I started my 3rd master's degree that I had rubrics for assignments! This type of iterative assessment could be seen as cheating by some old school, "you have one try at the end" to prove you've learned things pedagogues, but I think it's a way to examine the system in which you're in, and the system you are assessed on, and have an opportunity to perform well by examining the inputs and outputs, and adjusting the inputs appropriately to get the output you need.

The second thing that to boils down to is the learner motivations for learning. This is something I've come across a lot lately, doing a literature review for an upcoming paper on MOOCs.  That said, the motivations of each and every learner in classroom, physical, virtual, traditional, non-traditional, are never all the same. Each learner is different, with different motivations. Since I was interested in the narrative of the game, more than the frustrating game-play, I was able to make a continue/discontinue decision as far as my game went.  Learners make the same decisions in class when it comes to aspects such as school work.  Some do the bare minimum for the grade they aim for, and some go above and beyond.  What is the learner's motivation to complete a module, a course, an assignment or assessment? This motivation (along with a few other things) will determine what level the learner strives to reach up to.

Finally, my video game experience, and cheating in video games connects with teaching and learning in that learners will attempt to find alternative paths through the learning materials. I know that it's generally not the practice to open up all learning modules right from the start (in online courses), but if you do open up a couple of modules at a time, learners may go sequentially or they may skip around, regardless of specific due dates for assignments. There is no one, critical, path for teaching and learning - that process is messy, but there is a start and a destination.  There may be check-points along the way (end of the learning module for instance), but how people traverse that space in the learning module will vary based on their goals, expectations, and ultimate needs from the course.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A few years worth of MOOC coverage...what does it tell us?

Back at the end of 2011 I started collecting research on MOOCs, pieces from Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle, "news items" from other popular media outlets (like and forbes) as well as blog posts from certain notable people who commented a lot on the subject of MOOCs.  The idea was to spend a year (2011 to end of 2012) and see not only what the research says, but also what the sentiment is around this phenomenon.  After all neither online education, not open education were particularly new, so it would be interesting to see what was going on.  I didn't really do much in 2012, and I continued collecting materials in 2013 with the intent to work on the project in 2013, but life intervened.

Another thing that made me not keen on continuing this project was that I also saw a lot of negativity in 2013 around MOOCs; as some people dubbed it it was the year of Anti-MOOC, but I also saw a lot of uninformed opinions about MOOCs in some really prominent places, from academics nonetheless!  It was a bit of a facepalm moment for me, so it took a back seat.  Luckily now I have  a project, that's different, that can use all this digital hoarding I've done over the past few years and I am having fun (most of the time) reading news, opinions, and blogs from a couple of years back on the subject.  It's funny how the discourse went from MOOCs (as cMOOCs, before the term was coined), to MOOCs as being equated with xMOOCs, and coursera type destinations, to how MOOCs were just plainly confused with regular online courses, as if online education was new and didn't exist before the elite schools saved us by showing us online education (sarcasm, in case you didn't catch it) ;-).

In the various critiques from blog posts and reports to institutions that I have read, one of the disheartening thing I've come across is having fellow academics be very shallow in their estimation of MOOCs, and collaborative, peer, online learning in general.  I was reading a report this weekend, written in 2012, so it was influenced by early coursera courses, where the author (a professor at their institution) used language, in a public document, that in my mind is very unprofessorial.  The author essentially heavily criticized MOOCs because this person would have peers that have English as a Second Language, that are functionally illiterate (in that author's estimation, I don't know how they arrived at that conclusion), and a host of other "deficiencies," but they are in the same course as more educated people (like the author of the report), so the implication is, more or less, "what does this person have to teach me?"

To me, this attitude seems unprofessional and elitist.  You can have such private thoughts, I am not discounting that people have these thoughts every now and again, but to put it out in such public documents seems like professional suicide to me.  The other issue that I have with this is that students take queues from their professors, who are generally in a symbolic position of power, and they see fit to have the same attitudes as they do.  I've come across students who openly dismiss the value of peer review in courses where there is also an instructor evaluating deliverables because they think that their peer reviewer's reviews are worthless because their project/paper/deliverable is obviously the best thing since sliced bread, so their peer reviewer has nothing to contribute to the process.  This is just plain wrong, both from a process perspective, and from a basic human interaction perspective.  If you cultivate an attitude that peer review don't matter because x, y, z peer is beneath your level, as an instructor, then this attitude seeps into your students who emulate you.  This is not a good way to be in life, or a way to learn.

Furthermore, it seems like there were many uninformed individuals, who had an opinion about the subject matter, who wrote in that time frame (and who probably still write), and are basing their bashing of MOOCs on a specific platform and on specific implementations of a MOOC.  It would be like me saying that I took a Theology course at College X, face to face, and because it was awful, all courses at College X stink.  That's simply not the case! What we should be arriving at is a theory and practice of how people learn in open online environments, and where courses (and subsequent credentialing) fit it.

Your thoughts of the past few years in MOOC coverage?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Pretty nifty 3D surface

I came across this in an article talking about the Stanford Remote Lab. Pretty nifty!  I wonder what this might mean for online education (of various sorts) ten years down the road.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Udacity a lousy product? Perhaps...perhaps depends.

Just before the spring semester starts and I start getting really busy with the day-job, teaching my class, working on a couple of conference presentations and working on the FutureLearn course on Corpus Linguistcs, and P2PU course with Dave Cormier, I thought I should really jump into a couple of Udacity course offerings to give the platform a real try out. In years past I stayed away, as a learner, because none of the content was interesting. While I do come from a computer science background, the things that pique my interest tend to be in the style EDCMOOC or  CCK. Now, however, that Udacity has "Introduction to the Design of Everyday Things," it was an opportunity to test that out, as well as a more technical Statistics course. If I were taking a n exit survey, I would probably say that I took "Introduction to the Design of Everyday Things" because I liked the topic and I knew the author, and I signed up for "Statistics" to see how a math course would run.

So, right off the bat, one of the things that might reverberate in your memories from late 2013 is that Sebastian Thrun claimed that they have a lousy product.  My answer to that is that they might have a lousy product.  What is (was?) Udacity's goal?  According to their about page (accessed a few seconds ago):
Our mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world. We believe that higher education is a basic human right, and we seek to empower our students to advance their education and careers.
OK, mission statements can meant to leave operational matters out of the big picture statements.  Based on this text, I would say that it's a bit early to throw in the towel just yet simply because you couldn't move a giant mountain with your sheer willpower.  Having said this, there are some definite good things I noticed, and some points of improvement on the Udacity platform and their instructional design.

In the Introduction to the Design of Everyday Things I liked that the presenters (I can't really call them instructors, there was something "off" about the presentation aspect) encouraged students in the course to post reflections at certain points in the course. The main issue here is that the  discussion forums not really appropriate place for reflection.  Most topics would probably start with some variation of "My Reflection on X" and it will quickly become a hot mess. I know others have commented on how discussions aren't always the best tool for MOOCs, at least discussions the way we have them in traditional online learning. Reflections, in a MOOC, could be better off in a blog format, something that is portable by the learner, and allows for discovery and recommendation systems (like the one I describe here) to be useful to learners, to help them find peers and develop their own study circles.

One of the things I liked in this course was the student ingenuity, as seen in the forums for the first couple of modules. in bringing up issues with design and potential fixes. The annoying thing, as was pointed out by a few learners, was that there was no "right answer" posted.  Even if there isn't a right answer, there ought to be a mechanism whereby people who have completed and assignment and have logged x-many hours in the forums (substitute with whatever metric you feel is appropriate), that there is some hidden video that comes up from the presenters of the course that show some potential answers.  Simply telling learners "go to the forums and see what your peers come up, and discuss" is not sufficient.  It is a good start, but the course facilitator needs to get their hands dirty. This is one of the elements I liked in cMOOCs, as well as EDCMOOC (I am not sure what to classify this as - we need a better typology of MOOCs).

As I progressed through this course, I did snap photos of bad designs and had potential fixes in my head (this was part of a couple of assignments), but didn't really feel compelled to participate in the exchange. Maybe because I took a course for credit on designing User Interfaces back when I was an undergraduate (and I've done this), and (or) I took a similar course on Coursera in 2012 (or at least I thought it was 2012). In either case, I was lacking a good reason to participate in a "course" instead of taking the route I took, which was something like watching a TEDtalk or Khan Academy set of videos.

As far as the statistics course goes, I made it half-way through the course. The Statistics videos reminded me a lot of high school and doing problems on an overhead projector with erasable markers. It definitely brought back a sense of nostalgia (as nostalgic as one can ever really be about high school), but I didn't really see much innovation.  Don't get me wrong, I think the videos were informative, and I liked the way they incorporated the ability to answer multiple-choice questions, or supply simple numerical answers right in the video.

The course started losing my interest around half-way though, however.  I think by module 18 (Binomial Distribution) of 34 I had grown tired of the mode of learning.  The big thing for me was the lack of some sort of "real" help when I was running into calculation issues.  Some issues were simple silliness on my part (the equivalent of forgetting to carry over the 1 in a simple calculation) which rightfully earned me a "well d'uh!" but for some more complex problems I would have liked some better way of working through issues.  The only ways of communication seemed to be the forums, which is really flat, for one thing, but I also didn't see a way to plug in mathematical formulas.  This seems like a major oversight since udacity launched with a STEM focus.

I think that the design of the videos (Khan-like it seems) is pretty interesting as a way of flipping a face to face classroom, rather than attempting to do this fully online in a MOOC format. When students are taking a MOOC, I am not sure that this is sufficient. Even in the Design of Everyday Things, elements such as projects could work better in dyads or small groups, and use the videos (which weren't that long) as part of a flipped classroom.

At the macro level, the interesting that the courseware is separated from the certificate of completion.  I have gone through coursera and I don't see previous course offerings on their system.  I can see courses I have signed up for in the past, but not other past courses.  The courseware, for all intents and purposes is gone. With Udacity it isn't so  you could treat a Udacity course as a self-paced eLearning course. This isn't a MOOC (in my book anyway), but at least there is learning material there after the course is complete.  In this fashion, I think Udacity has innovated a bit by no keeping to the existing structures of making courses inaccessible after the semester ends.

As far as certificated go, from the FAQ:
Udacity verified certificates will be awarded based on successful completion of course projects. After successfully completing your final project, your identity will be verified through a live exit interview during which you will need to show government-issued identification and chat with one of our project evaluators to verify your independent work on your final project. Upon successful completion of this process, you will receive an official Udacity verified certificate.
I find it interesting that the is a viva voce verification of who you are and what you have learned. This sounds a bit like an oral comprehensive exam to me, albeit it is for only one course.  If I had the energy this spring I would seek out a Udacity course to see if I can get certificate in it so that I can go through the process and check it out - alas, so many things to do already on my plate, it will have to wait.  What I am curious about is how this process is working for udacity. How many students do they get trying to get a verified certificate? what does it cost (to Udacity and to the learner)? What are any interesting obvious BS, or what we might consider plagiarism, that they've come across.

Finally, for the instructional designers out there, here is a nice take away from the Introduction to the Design of Everyday things that I think is applicable to ID (or any design problem for that matter):

7 Design Questions for Design
  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • What are my alternatives?
  • What can I do now?
  • How do I do it?
  • What happened?
  • What does it mean?
  • Is this OK?
  • Have I accomplished my goal? 

Monday, January 6, 2014

New Year, New Badges!

"Design Gold" badge

Happy and Prosperous 2014 to anyone who is reading this :-)

Since it's a new year, and the semester is starting in about a month's time, I've decided to spend the month-and-a-half between semesters thinking about the course that I teach: The Design and Instruction of Online Courses, a course for graduate level instructional design students.  I was first assigned the course last year, and having been familiar with it (even though I had never been the instructor of record before), I wanted to start experimenting with badges then-and-there.  Of course, things weren't ripe just yet, so I decided to focus more on the day-to-day stuff for my first semester and have a look at the reading material each week.  I decided to put my creative energies into testing out a weekly recap podcast as a way of reaching out to learners in the course.

With the course materials kinda set (still tinkering with a few learning modules), and the podcast idea sorted out (more or less), I decided to take the chance and implement some open badges in this course.  I experiemented with three platforms: credly,, and Purdue's Open Passport, and in the end I decided to go with credly. I had met Jonathan from credly a while back and I felt that I had more rapport with him for platform improvements, if I had any suggestions at the end of this trial.  One of my biggest design decisions was what sort of badges to offer; what made sense for the course, and to offer badges that don't receive a "so what?" from the learners. For example, if you receive a badge called "Online Course!" where the student earns it for successfully creating an online course, that, for me, would be a "so what?" because students need to create such a deliverable to pass the course.  If you get a passing grade for the course, it's the same as earning that badge.  In other words, there would be duplication.

So, instead of focusing on badges that are tied to the course's learning objectives, I decided to try out badges that are more attitudinal in nature, and thus mostly optional. So, if they are optional, why bother?  Well, as I have explained to some former students, I wish that there were a way to give an "A+" to some students because they really go above and beyond the requirements of the course.  This is done either by being a great classmate and helping out peers, or by delving into the additional readings and really making use of them, or going above and beyond the requirements of the final project and fine tuning their final deliverable to have a nice polish to it. Now, I could make some of these things required, but the truth is that some things you just can't assign a grading rubric to and still expect non-mechanical responses.  That said, I decided to reward students in three ways with badges.

First, a known badge is the LMS initiate badge. Now, it should be understood that by designing an online course in an LMS you should know something about that LMS, but I thought I would formalize this with a badge.  The point of the course is not to learn how to use an LMS, but it's a good by-product of the whole process, and something that is of potential interest to employers.  So the first badge, that you receive if you complete your final project, is this LMS initiate badge.  I have a few different badges for a few different LMSs.  Students will receive one of these badges based on the LMS they chose to use for their course.

Second, comes a competition. Over the past few semesters I've seen many students give their fellow students kudos for a job well done in designing and developing their course.  Since this seems to be the norm, I plan on implementing an anonymous vote where students can vote for their top 2 student-produced courses.  The top three courses will get a badge indicating the results of this vote. "Design Gold" will go to the first place course, Design Silver and Bronze, will go to the second and third place respectively.  As instructor, of course, I will vet the course (just in case there is any voting tampering ;-) ), but I expect things to go smoothly.

Finally, I have some easter egg badges.  These are badges that will be secret and will only be released to earners  after certain criteria are met. These are mostly attitudinal badges that indicate qualities that employers might value.  As I said above, you can't make everything have a grading rubric, and some of these attitudinal elements need to be genuine from the learner's side. They shouldn't be done just to just check off a box in a grading rubric.

I think that if I present my findings at JISC RHC YH this summer I will reveal what the remainder of the badges are.  If I teach the course again, I might keep the secret badges a secret for another semester.

What sort of badges do you use in your classes?  What, if any, has been the effect?