Friday, February 27, 2015

Semester half-point!

It feels a bit like I've had my nose close to the grind stone for the past few weeks.  I looked at my blog to see when was the last time I blogged about class, and it was close to 20 days ago.  In semester-terms I think that counts as "forever-ago".  To some extent it feels like a great weight has been lifted.  The first (of two) major papers is completed and delivered (awaiting marking and feedback), and the presentation on Discourse Analysis as a research method is done as well.  I suppose I could have waited until March (a couple of weeks later) to present, but nothing like a little pressure to gain the benefits of front-loading work, and enjoy the benefits of getting a leg up on subsequent assignments.

Doing a presentation on Discourse Analysis was actually quite a lot of fun.  While I had gone through materials on DA before, I have wanted to read some of Jim Gee's work on DA (considering the one degree of separation that he has with our department) for a while.  This work was a good primer on DA, so that now I can focus a bit on Critical Discourse Analysis over the summer when classes are on break.  My blackboard at home (a wall that I've painted with blackboard paint) has quite a few ideas on it for potential dissertation topics, all of them MOOC related. In thinking about the scope of the work required for a MOOC related project I am starting to wonder if my eventual Petri dish for dissertation data collection should be a MOOC, or a traditional online course.  I am interesting in MOOCs (obvious enough by looking at the popular tags on my posts), but I am wondering if the setup is a lot of work for the payout.  I don't know - something to think about over the summer. Part of me is thinking that the things I want to do might get out of hand in a MOOC (boatloads of data to go through); on the other hand if I do go ahead with a cMOOC (or heck and rMOOC!) I think there will be a substantial amount of attrition early on (given the nature of the cMOOC and what it requires of learners) that SNA, Discourse Analysis, assessment of learning outcomes, and so on would not be so different as compared to a larger section college course.  Anyway - something to mull over after the semester ends.

With half of the semester done (yesterday was the mid-point!) it's now time to focus attention on the remaining 3 assignments.  I am concurrently working on assignment 3 - a map of potential threads to pick up on from assignment 1 (which means I have to pick one of my proposed research questions and go a little more in-depth on it), and assignment 5 which deals with creating a lasting positive change in the course for future cohorts to come.  I've already completed the "resources" part, and now I just have to read and annotate 3 articles and/or dissertations on a specific paradigm. I've opted for Critical Theory since that's an area I have unread articles in that I want to tackle - so it's a kill two birds with one stone assignment.

The thing I like about this assignment is that we are building a knowledge-base. Granted Elgg is not my favorite platform, but I've often wanted to do this with the course I teach - create a knowledge base for people who are planning on designing courses to be taught online. The instructor who taught the course before the instructor before me (so two instructors ago) did use a wiki for this, but the wiki was pretty repetitive each semester.  I am thinking of re-designing that course to bring back those elements.  Perhaps reduce a little the weekly activities in favor of this.

The final paper, a 6000-9000 paper (so research article length) is due at the end of the semester.  I guess I have 40 more days to go get that done too ;-)  As one of my cohort-mates said - I am suffering from mushy brain - too much snow, lots of cognitive overload.  Looking forward to summer where I can read research articles with a side of beer :)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

You keep using that word...

Recently I read an article on Your Training Edge which aims to correct misconceptions surrounding MOOCs. The title of this particular post, and I guess myth that they tried to correct, was "MOOCs Aren’t Interactive, So There’s No Real Learning Taking Place". The basic idea in this misconception is really preposterous.  I don't know when interactive became synonymous with learning, but it is clearly a flawed concept.  Yes, interactivity can aid in learning, but just because something isn't interactive it doesn't mean that learning is taking place, and vice versa - if something is interactive it doesn't mean that learning is taking place.  I can think of a lot of cases where there isn't interactivity, but learning happens never the less. Three examples that come to mind are:
  • self-paced eLearning, while you might have some  interactivity (matching games, clicking "next" on the player, and so on), this interactivity is really token interactivity to make sure you're awake.  I have yet to come across really interesting and engaging eLearning;
  • Educational Television and videos.  These only interactive thing about them is that you can pause, rewind, and skip forward.  There is no interaction with that media that is substantive, but learning can occur nevertheless.
  • Books are probably the best example of non-interaction.  They exist, containing knowledge and information, and people read them and they attempt to apply what is locked in them.  The interaction is really turning pages. Despite this, learning can, and does, happen!
The authors of  YTE however don't bring this little fact up.  Instead they bring up some suggestions about how you can make your MOOC more interactive!  I'll list them here (without the notes), for your convenience (I would say read their entire post for your own reference though, this way you see their rationale):
  1. Make interactive video. 
  2. Use discussion boards and social media.
  3. Have a facilitator lead class discussions. 
  4. Hold virtual office hours
  5. Use surveys and polls. 
  6. Incorporate projects and other real-world problem solving. 
  7. Assign learners to groups. 
  8. Use a variety of exercise types. 
  9. Set up knowledge sharing environments. 
  10. Incorporate Simulations
  11. Gamify. 
  12. Go mobile.
Reading this list it's what comes across are someone's suggestions for making a traditional online course more interactive rather than making a MOOC more interactive.  I've been participating in MOOCs of all sorts up to this point, cMOOC, xMOOC, pMOOC, rMOOC (and whatever other MOOC you want to throw in) on a variety of platforms.  In xMOOCs video is usually interactive in some way, shape, or form. Does it allow you to choose your own adventure?  Well, no - but is that desirable?  It depends on the discipline.

Discussion forums in MOOCs don't work.  We've had a good time in Rhizo14 and other cMOOCs using  facebook as a discussion forum, but that's because there are relative few of us.  In larger MOOCs offered on coursera the discussions forums are unwieldy. It's clear that the paradigm used in implementing discussion forums is that of the traditional online course which doesn't work when you have loads of people signed up. The same was true for a cMOOC called CFHE12 which ran on Desire2Learn - I skipped the forums because they were too crazy.

Virtual office hours and facilitated discussion, again, seem like really great for traditional courses, but for MOOCs, unless you clone yourself this won't work.  The same is true about assigning people to groups.  We saw in 2012 that FOEMOOC crashed and burned, and one of the reasons was group making.  Group making doesn't need to crash and burn though.  I was in a group in a NovoEd course this past summer and it worked out well, but in doing this it missed the massiveness aspect of the course.  Furthermore we were lucky in that we had 3 out of 5 members of the team interested in sticking with it and making the group work.  What happens when you have a group formed and people decide that the course isn't for them?  Group dynamics are not the same in a MOOC as they are in a traditional course. 

 From the entire list posted only two items really seem like they are breaking away from the tradition of the campus or traditional online course: gamification and going mobile.  Gamification, and by extension alternative credentialing, is an interesting concept.  Gamification won't work for all learners, but it is something that could engage those who are looking for a way to solve puzzles to get to the next step.  Tied with micro-credentials I think this has great potential in MOOCs - albeit it might take a lot of time and effort to develop something effective.  We've seen a lot of MOOCs use micro-credentials including OLDSMOOC, Introduction to Open Education (#ioe12), BlendKit, and the Open Badges MOOC on Coursesites. There is enough raw material there to look at past practices and plan forward.  Even on Coursera, on Werbach's Gamification MOOC the first time around each lecture featured changed in the environment that the lecture took place that we significant, and it was a puzzle to solve.  That got people thinking and competing for a gift give-away.

As far as Mobile is concerned - I don't disagree that mobile has potential.  My 3rd MOOC was MobiMOOC 2011, and as it turns out a pretty fundamental MOOC in my own personal socialization into this massive participant learning environment. I really liked the ability to participate in discussions through my mobile (same is true of Rhizo14!)  I don't know if this was accidental, or planned, but it worked. Google Groups, what we used for MobiMOOC, due to its connection with email, made it easy to participate while on the go for some things. Mobile, however, is not a panacea. Making things mobile won't increase interaction.

So, my advice for interaction in MOOCs? I would advise that MOOC Organizers plan for some interactions, and plan well within those limited constraints (perhaps a weekly live webcast with twitter discussion - like the DALMOOC had, or like EDCMOOC had), and then allow - and even encourage - participants to find their own spaces to engage.  I would argue that in a MOOC we shouldn't be forcing people down prescribed paths for interaction and engagement. Learners should find their own paths.  The paradigm of the traditional online course does not map well into MOOCs and people who discuss MOOCs should have the two concepts clearly disambiguated in their minds. Otherwise someone is going to come up to you and say - You keep using that word (MOOC), I do not think it means what you think it means. :-)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How to measure connected success (for academics)

A week or so ago I had read Terry Anderson's blog post asking the question on whether it is worth it for aspiring academics to blog (and tweet, and generally be visible on the interwebs). It's an interesting post and I encourage everyone to read it and post their opinions on twitter, here, on Terry's post. I'd love to know what other newer academics think about this.

I am new, but not new, to academia.  I've been working in academia now for 17 years (man...when did the time go by!!!), but only in the past few years where I've had an article or two published and have taught a course or two do I consider myself a part-time academic. I've been blogging since around 1998 (more like monthly "updates" than blogging - but the general concept I think carries) and I've been writing on this blog, for academic purposes, since 2008.  Is it worth it? Excluding a few curve-balls that came my way, and some hot-waters I found myself into once or twice over my online social presence I would say that having an online social presence is definitely important for the aspiring academic (and the academic that's already an academic!)

Just like Terry wrote in his post, I'll write a little about my university where I am an administrator and adjunct instructor from time to time. The full time tenure faculty, just like Athabasca University, divide their work into three areas:  Teaching, Research, and Service (TRS).

The Teaching load for our tenure-track (TT) faculty is 4 courses per year: 2 in the fall, and 2 in the spring.  Summers are completely optional and some faculty teach in the summer and some do not. Our faculty teach online, on-campus, or both.  It really depends balancing the needs of the learners, the needs of the department, and the expertise of our faculty. Also, from an admin perspective, it's also a matter of human resources!  A 4-4 course-load isn't that much different from what Terry has at AU but then again we don't have doctoral candidates to mentor (at least not yet!)

Research is a little more at our college.  Being in a college where we have a variety of disciplines this means that there is wide berth with the amount of research that our faculty produce each year.  I think there is a complicated calculus taking into account articles, books, conferences, and book chapters, but at the end of the day I would estimate that 4 articles, conference presentations, and/or book chapters is probably the median of what is expected.  Keep this number in mind.

Finally, as far as Service goes, we have our standing committees in the department which all count as service, we have service to professional organizations and journals (editing and peer reviewing for instance) and we have student advising.  I would say that service is probably the biggest element in our department (at least for some faculty) because there are a lot of things that need to happen in the background in order to successfully run a department.

That said, I would expect the TRS ratio to be 33/33/33 (in an ideal world), but it seems to me that the ration is more like 40/20/40.  So where does that leave blogging, tweeting, online access, and how to account for it?  For me blogging would fall under scholarship (a broader term than Research).  As academics we do read a lot, and we engage a lot with peers and with the materials we read.  Part of that engagement is visible on our twitter streams, our G+ pages, and on our blogs.  This accounts for a though process that gets us "noticed" in some sense. 

I think being an open academic is important and I think there is a parallel here to Open (book) Publishing.   Last August I was up in Edmonton for my initiation into the Ed.D program at Athabasca.  Mohammad Ally, of mobile learning fame at AU, was telling us about publishing open access. While people did purchase his books via AU press (good reads, if you are interested in mobile learning), many more people got access to them as open books.  Both he and AU got good press from this.  Similarly, I think that (a) publishing in open access venues (or at least making pre-pub versions of your articles available through your site) and (b) discussing what you published does have positive benefits for many people involved.  The institution gets some notoriety which is, I think, proportional to the personality of the academic blogger. The blogger gets notoriety (for whatever that is worth), and more importantly the public gets access to these academic thinkers.  The medium of blogging can be used to communicate not only with fellow academics, but also to communicate findings and ideas with past students, current students, future students, and the public in general.  Making research accessible, not just in terms of open access, but in terms of more approachable language compared to that found in academic articles, is important.

Now, how do you measure your online presence?  Do you measure it in terms of blog posts?  In terms of tweets? re-tweets?  Something else?  My klout score for example is in the 60s (for whatever that is worth), but that includes both academic-related posts on here and on twitter, and posts like "what? more snow? BRING IT!" on facebook that seem to get a lot of likes on there and have little to do with academics.  Do you measure Google Scholar scores?  Thus far I've got 200 citations, an i10-index of 5, and an h-index of 6. But what does that really mean?  The odd thing is that I've looked up some former professors (people who just started on the tenure stream as I was completing my first master's degree) and they have similar i- and h- scores on google scholar. So, individuals with more years experience than I (and a lead on getting stuff published) are getting cited less?  Seems like an odd thing to me.  My ResearchGate score is really low (0.76) but I haven't bothered to really do much work on there.  Does this mean that I can partly game the scoring system by engaging with the platform more?  What about Quora?

It may seem to complicated to deal with this online reputation system, but I think it's worth pursuing.  Not because online presence is for everyone, but because the current system also doesn't make a ton of sense.  For example, in our annual faculty reviews at my institution, the online system where you input all of your productivity for the year simply enumerates how many journal articles, book chapters, books, conference proceedings you published, how many, and which, committees your were on, which courses you taught and if there were pedagogical innovations (another heavy term that needs deconstructing), and so on.  Some departments may take this as a simple list, add up the numbers in each column, and give a final score.  Other departments may go the qualitative ePortfolio route and ask their faculty to provide a narrative for each item.  Other departments may do something else.  At the end of the day the current system is inconsistent and that needs to be addressed.

That said, one must have an initial plan to evaluate a scholar's online contributions so here is my modest proposal for review and comment:

Metrics for blogs
  • How many academic blog posts did you post last academic year? Let's say that the minimum is 300 words (call it the 801-Fahy rule for lit reviews)
  • How many people visited your blog overall? (google analytics)
  • How many people visited your academic posts? (google analytics)
  • How many people left you comments and/or started discussions on your blog?
  • How many track-backs did you get?
Metrics for Twitter
  • How many of your posts were re-tweeted
  • How many of your posts were favorited
Metrics for Facebook
  • How many academic posts did you post?
  • How many of your posts were liked?
  • How many people commented and engaged with you on there?
General Information probably not measured yet:
  • How many alumni remain actively engaged with your department and college because of your online activities? (alumni relations I am looking at you!)
  • How many students applied to your program before of your online activities (something to measure in entrance essays?)

Lastly - going back to that number of research publications each year, what I asked you to put into the parking lot a few paragraphs up.  Personally, for single-author publications I am probably good for 1, or maybe 2, publications per year.  Perhaps working full time, and not being a faculty member, means that I don't have as much time to devote to this.  If academic publications were dual- or multi-author ones I could probably do the 4 a year that seems to be the average.  That said, I think this is another important reason be a public academic.  While your research contributions may not be there pound-for-pound, being a public academic means that you keep discussing important matters while research is in progress.  A great example of this is Katy Jordan and her MOOC completion rate project.  I think she's published work now, but for the longest time we go important news and initial findings (or thoughts via her blog! I think this has tremendous value.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Ethically Gray Grounds, with an aftershow featuring the work of Literature Reviews

Remember this prof?
This week has felt a bit like a slumber week in my research methods course.  I don't know if it's Old Man Winter and the snow he's dumping on us that's making me a little sleepier than usual, or if discussions on research ethics don't particularly float my boat.  I sure do understand the importance of ethics in research, but when it comes to internet research ethics (despite guidance) there seems to be an ethically gray area where depending on your Weltanschauung you might see something a bit on the lighter side of gray, or on the darker side of gray. Both this week (week 4) and next week (week 5) we are tackling issues of ethics and planning.  There is an interesting discussion brewing, so I hope that wakes me up a bit more.  It's too early for the onset of senioritis in this course (23 days into the semester, 61 left to go).

That said, this afternoon, as I was wrapping up my readings for Week 5 (I prefer to be a week ahead in readings just in case stuff hits the fan), there was sort of an educational smackdown in the articles we had for reading. This piqued my interest a bit and woke me up a bit from my educational slumber.  Hopefully more controversy will get me going ;-).  Anyway, back to the articles. First we had an article by Boote and Beile† who were writing about the short shrift that the Literature Review gets in Doctoral Dissertations and they suggest a framework for evaluating whether dissertations have a satisfactory breadth and depth.  It was an OK article, but the thing that I walked away with was a question (which I jotted down in the margins) - "how thorough is thorough?".  One person's thorough, or sufficiently in-depth, is another person's lacking - or at least it has the potential to be.  Then came Maxwell's commentary‡ on this article which really seemed to lay the smackdown on Boote & Beile.

The thing that was really useful to me is this divide that exists (apparently) over the purpose of the literature review.  Should it be a broad overview of what's been done in the field up to now? All inclusive so as to orient the reader into the new developments presented by the dissertation?  This approach would be the story so far approach used in television shows to recap major elements of past shows that have an impact on the upcoming episode.  Or, should Literature reviews be more selective?  A lot is read, but only relevant pieces of literature are discussed because they setup the current research and provide a way to frame through which to view and reference what is about to come?  Thus, in an example for me, if I am doing research into learner motivation in MOOCs, I won't discuss the entire research on MOOCs, because that also includes managerial aspects of MOOCs that would not be of value for my research, but I could look into research into motivation in non-MOOC learning contexts.

Interesting stuff!  Now I need to start reading for Week 6, and start doing some work on Discourse Analysis, a topic I am co-presenting on on 2/24. Only 2 weeks to go...and I still need to complete assignment 1.  It's not a hard assignment. Challenging a bit, yes, but hard no.  I just have issues with writing on queue. I tend to be more of a free-ranger writer.

As a side note.  One thing I read this week (in the Week 5 readings) was about the purpose of the dissertation.  I know I've written (or talked) about this before, but I still have a hard time viewing the doctoral dissertation as anything other than a culminating capstone of some sort.  Some people see it as bleeding edge research, and it might be that, but I am having a hard time seeing doctoral students being on the bleeding edge of anything. Considering how much work we have to put in to continue to learn about the field after our eventual graduation, bleeding edge doesn't seem attainable.  I suppose it all depends on how you define bleeding edge, but the way I see it my dissertation won't rock anyone's world.  It will be good and solid, and will provide new findings, but without that earth shattering AHA(!) it doesn't fulfill my criteria for what is bleeding edge.  Your thoughts?

† Boote, D., & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher, 34(6), 3-15 (freely accessible on AERA I think)

‡ Maxwell, J. A. (2006). Literature reviews of, and for, educational research: A commentary on Boote and Beile's "Scholars before Researchers". Educational Researcher, 35(9), 28-31. (Also freely accessible on AERA I think)