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Instructure took another step this past week to establish Canvas as a true learning platform, moving beyond the traditional bounds of an LMS. The company announced the upcoming release of the Canvas App Center, scheduled for availability at the same time as their annual users confer in June, which will allow end-user (read faculty and students) integration of third-party apps.
I wrote about the trend of the market moving towards learning platforms last year.
In my opinion, when we look back on market changes, 2011 will stand out as the year when the LMS market passed the point of no return and changed forever. What we are now seeing are some real signs of what the future market will look like, and the actual definition of the market is changing. We are going from an enterprise LMS market to a learning platform market.
What I mean by ‘enterprise LMS’ is the legacy model of the LMS as a smaller, academically-facing version of the ERP. This model was based on monolithic, full-featured software systems that could be hosted on-site or by a managed hosting provider. A ‘learning platform’, by contrast, does not contain all the features in itself and is based on cloud computing – multi-tenant, software as a service (SaaS). [emphasis added]
The key idea is that the platform is built to easily add and support multiple applications. The apps themselves will come from edu-apps.org, a website that launched this past week. There are already more than 100 apps available, with the apps built on top of the Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) specification from IMS global learning consortium. There are educational apps available (e.g. Khan Academy, CourseSmart, Piazza, the big publishers, Merlot) as well as general-purpose tools (e.g. YouTube, Dropbox, WordPress, Wikipedia).
The apps themselves are wrappers that pre-integrate and give structure access to each of these tools. Since LTI is the most far-reaching ed tech specification, most of the apps should work on other LMS systems. The concept is that other LMS vendors will also sign on the edu-apps site, truly making them interoperable. Whether that happens in reality remains to be seen.
What the App Center will bring once it is released is the simple ability for Canvas end-users to add the apps themselves. If a faculty adds an app, it will be available for their courses, independent of whether any other faculty use that set up. The same applies for students who might, for example, prefer to use Dropbox to organize and share files rather than native LMS capabilities.
Not a New Idea, Just Taking Concept to Application
The idea of having the ability to easily integrate multiple applications into a learning environment is not new. SUNY Learning Network (SLN) was working on the Learning Management Operation System (LMOS) concept back in the mid 2000s (where Michael was one of the key drivers behind this initiative), but the LMOS implementation did not pan out. Patrick Masson, another key player in the initiative, went on to UMassOnline after SLN and has been instrumental in creation of the Needs Identification Framework for Technology Innovation (NIFTI) to enable local adoption of learning tools. The general desire to support easy integration of apps also lead to the LTI specification.
What has not been available, however, is the empowerment of end users to make these decisions without going through the IT department or LMS system administrators.
IMS global is also talking about the need for an educational app store, as described in Rob Abel’s blog last week.
For those of us that have been attending Learning Impact the last several years (and, yes, don’t forget to sign up right now for this year’s because space is getting short!), we already know what the future of the “LMS” is (and that the term LMS is a bad name for what it has been or what it will be). We also know what the general roadmap for digital learning resources is and how this evolution is intertwined with the evolution of the LMS. That’s because the LMS is evolving into a disaggregation of features and resources that come together easily and seamlessly for the needs of teachers and students.
The post also announced the IMS plans to support development of an app store to be available in a few years.
Can universities and school districts control their own online “store” of educational content and applications for easy access and use by students and faculty? Yes they can – and they will in only a few short years. Will such an “app store” be based on Apple, Google or Amazon? No it will not.
The “take it or leave it” proprietary vertical integration strategies of consumer-oriented providers of digital books and applications, that maximizes their ability to create revenues from sales of such resources, have left educational institutions with a conundrum. Do we dare dictate to our students and teachers a “preferred platform?” Of course, the answer to that question needs to be “no.”
What is not apparent, however, is whether the Canvas App Center will be seen as friend or foe with the IMS effort. The Canvas effort will be ready years before the proposed IMS effort, it is offered for free, the apps are built on LTI, and the API for the app is itself open-source. But . . . it will be run by a vendor.
Update: Clarification provided by Rob Abel here in the comments. Short answer – IMS does not see Canvas App Center as a threat but as a very positive development; there is concern over language of “LTI compliant” apps that are not cross-platform compatible.
Who’s In Control?
The closest vendor-based effort to the Canvas App Center is probably xpLor from Blackboard, which Michael described in this post. This cloud-based platform is not technically an app store model, but it does enable standards-based content and applications to be shared with the core LMS from a cloud-based platform. xpLor appears to be focused more on packages of content, grouped learning material and communities of interest. Despite some of the similarities, xpLor focuses more on institutional decision-making and system administrator control, whereas the Canvas App Center focuses more on easy access to consumer-based tools for faculty, students or system administrators.
From the press release:
“We want to tear down the walled garden that has plagued the LMS market,” Instructure co-founder and CPO Brian Whitmer said. “Third party integrations have existed, but they’ve required the IT department to make them work. With Canvas App Center, we want to let anyone install an app with one click and begin personalizing their learning experience with these tools.”
Tired of Waiting
While the core concept is not new, and as seen by IMS plans is not unique, the significance of the Canvas App Center and the corresponding edu-apps site is in making the idea much more of a reality. Brian Whitmer created a slideshare with audio that gives more detail on the announcement, including a description of Instructure’s frustration that educational technology is still not an ecosystem. I recommend the slideshare to people wanting to get more of a UI-based explanation of the concept.
This attitude exhibited by Instructure – focus on consumer-based tools and desire to implement basic concepts in a quick fashion – matches their pedigree as a venture-capital backed company with a startup mentality.
I believe that the App Center will significantly push forward the adoption and importance of LTI, but it is not clear whether the benefits will only affect Canvas customers or actually push the LMS field further into a learning platform market. As with all pre-announcements, a great deal of the impact will depend on the actual implementation of the new software.
One other factor to watch will be whether Canvas institutions can (or should) adjust to the paradigm shift of enabling faculty and student adoption of pre-integrated tools. Concerns over data security, standardization and loss of control could cause some schools to take a cautious stance towards the app center.
And now for this week’s version of “do you notice which publications are not covering this story”:
The post Tear Down This Wall(ed Garden): Canvas App Center to Offer End User Control Over Apps appeared first on e-Literate.
Editor’s Note: I am pleased to announce that Bill has agreed to continue contributing blog posts from time to time. Therefore, he is now officially a “Featured Blogger” rather than a “Guest Blogger.”
Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at a workshop on online graduate education. At that workshop, Carnegie Mellon University Provost and Executive Vice President Dr. Mark Kamlet used the words “Learning Engineering” in his keynote which I built upon in my talk. In my previous post I referenced the need of semantic data and algorithms to support learning engineers to create and iteratively improve courses and courseware (among other things). I felt it was worth taking a little time to describe just what I believe that means.
For over 10 years, the Open Learning Initiative has been bringing together teams to develop online course materials. Carnegie Mellon is an ideal place to cultivate this work due to its multi-disciplinary programs and culture aside from its expertise in the related fields. During that time we’ve built a team of experts that are critical to the building of learning environments informed by research and capable of recording data for iterative improvement as well as creating dynamic reports for stakeholders.Discovering Learning Engineering
At OLI, we have followed a path that was outlined by CMU professor Herb Simon, Noble Laurate:
“Improvement in post secondary education will require converting teaching from a solo sport to a community based research activity.”
If you’ve seen someone from OLI speak more than once, you’ve seen this quote and might be tempted to gloss right over it. But it’s worth considering closely, particularly in this context. We have found that the best way to build effective learning environments is to regularly convene faculty, software engineers, usability specialists, learning scientists, and others.
What does it take then to be someone who can sit at the center of this kind of diverse group and produce an online learning environment that has a successful outcomes? We’ve admittedly struggled with this question as we’ve grown as a project. It turns out that part of what we were missing was trying to shoehorn people with existing skill sets into a role that is really what we’ve come to call the learning engineer.Engineering Learning? You Bet.
Starting with the source of all knowledge, I look to how Wikipedia defines engineering:
Engineering is the application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design, build, and maintain structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes. It may encompass using insights to conceive, model and scale an appropriate solution to a problem or objective. The discipline of engineering is extremely broad, and encompasses a range of more specialized fields of engineering, each with a more specific emphasis on particular areas of technology and types of application.
I can’t think of a better way to describe what it is we ask our learning engineers to do. But I work with them every day. So let me draw a rudimentary comparison: Imagine a more “traditional” engineer hired to design a bridge. They don’t revisit first principles to design a new bridge. They don’t investigate gravity, nor do they ignore the lessons learned from previous bridge-building efforts (both the successes and the failures). They know about many designs and how they apply to the current bridge they’ve been asked to design. They are drawing upon understandings of many disciplines in order to design the new bridge and, if needed, can identify where the current knowledge doesn’t account for the problem at hand and know what particular deeper expertise is needed. They can then inquire about this new problem and incorporate a solution.
In this way, a learning engineer applies learning science and what is known about other relevant disciplines (user experience, for example) and pedagogy to problems developing learning environments. When designing for platforms that collect semantic data they understand the requirements of the materials they are creating and can ensure that the data collection that will be done will provide actionable results. This does not mean a learning engineer has to understand the intricacies of the algorithms that operate on data, but they need to have a sufficient understanding of the needs of that data collection.
In one way, this type of engineering is more rapid and responsive that “traditional” engineering. We can learn from the delivery of the “built bridge” just what parts are effective and what parts need improvement. (This requires semantic data in order to discern). In the comparison I’ve made, one doesn’t usually go back and make a bridge better unless something terribly wrong comes to light. Here we can monitor and continually improve our previous work as well as apply those lessons forward to new developments.
That addresses lessons learned “in the field” (practice informing sciences). In the other direction (sciences informing practice), the comparison is harder to make. If some critical flaw is discovered one might go back and “patch” a bridge. For a learning engineer, revisiting work is not a rare occurrence but an expected iterative improvement process. Thus, a learning engineer must be aware of ongoing research in related fields and stay current with our understanding of how to teach effectively. We’ve only begun to understand teaching and learning in scientific ways and cannot rest on what we know so far. Learning engineering then, as a field, is really about developing processes and methodologies to support this work.
One good point made to me by a workshop attendee after my talk: if a bridge falls down, you know about it. In the world of online education where rich evaluation is rare, we don’t even know if our bridges are falling down.Something We’ve Needed All Along?
Although the work to advance online education has been the spark that has made obvious the need for collaborative efforts and individuals who can work in those highly interdisciplinary teams, I refer back to the quote at the opening. Simon wasn’t saying online education required the conversion of how we teach. It just so happens that it is now obvious. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, not all experts make the best teachers. This is not to say that top-tier institutions with high-caliber faculty aren’t offering a great opportunity to students by providing access to leading researchers. (“Minds rubbing against minds” as it were). But those leading researchers are not guaranteed to be the best teachers, especially when they’re often handed a course to teach as a secondary requirement to their role that they may not be interested in.
Some shared experiences of undergraduates everywhere:
These are the result of poor alignment in objectives, practice and assessment, which is already known to be important. This is the kind of insight and experience that the most brilliant minds can benefit from when it comes to teaching the novice. (See also the expert blind spot).
A learning engineer works with content experts and guides their work and brings in other points of view as needed in order to best develop learning experiences – it just so happens that now we really need them even more for the online experience.How to Find a Learning Engineer
The reality is that right now individuals with such skill sets are hard to find “in the wild” and it will be some time before that changes dramatically. What is required is to find talented people interested in the work who already have some of the skills needed. It could be someone with a strong learning science background who is interested in seeing immediate practical application of their work, or someone with a strong instructional design background interested in learning how to apply learning science and data analytics to what they do, and moving those groups together. That model does provide a way to find candidates and acknowledges the fact that some effort has to be made to develop the skill sets of a learning engineer upon hiring.
I do not believe this is a case of looking for what in the software world you’d refer to as a unicorn. It really is vital to all of us in education to develop a workforce of people who understand how the creation of learning material happens as well how to apply developments happening in the understanding of how to effectively develop and test those materials.Aren’t Learning Engineering and Instructional Design the Same?
This reminds me of when I started my career as a programmer. When I started programming, I was a software developer and not a software engineer. I knew how to write code, but I wasn’t ready to architect it or account for other disciplines in my work. A similar comparison applies here. The role of a learning engineer is not a support role, but a full contributor and participant in the process of developing an online learning environment. I asked one of our learning engineers how she viewed her role, to which she said “We want to learn about learning – what makes rich, deep, meaningful and lasting impact.” She builds environments that report data so her work can be evaluated, not to ask if she did a good job, but to learn how we might improve upon what we know to better the environment.
A learning engineer is a part of the process that improves or expands the technologies they work with. An instructional designer is often handed a suite of available technologies and content and told to make something of it. A learning engineer works both pedagogically and technologically to improve, create and make a whole experience and then evaluate the effectiveness of it with data.An Essential Field
Learning engineering is part of what drives the success at OLI and is going to drive the development of well-informed online environments going forward anywhere such work is being done in the future We believe this is an important area to define and then expand.
With that in mind, I leave you with a work in progress statement attempting to capture the key aspects of this field. (I already know it’s not easy to read, especially out loud in a talk without stopping to get your breath!) But I’m interested in hearing what others think of the content of this sentence. It doesn’t get into some of the practical implications I outline above but hopefully it captures the essence of the idea.
Learning Engineering: The development, evaluation and improvement of the processes, methodologies, and educational technologies that lead to predictable, repeatable development and improvement of learning environments which leverage learning science and the affordances of technology to address instructional challenges and create conditions that enable robust learning and effective instruction.
The post The Need For Learning Engineers (and Learning Engineering) appeared first on e-Literate.
I’ve just filed my copy for a review of Martin Weller‘s book, The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Changing Academic Practice (which, incidentally you can buy online but if I was you I would just grab the free version online because there’s less chance of that getting wet and ultimately crispy like my copy did). Hopefully it will be forthcoming in JiME fairly soon.
It’s a bit of a strange experience to review someone’s work when you work for them – normally this happens behind a veneer of relative anonymity – but I hope I’ve managed to find the golden mean between obsequiousness and being critical just for the sake of it…
Anyway, the point of this post is to capture something that I was thinking about a long time ago and in the course of writing the review I was reminded of it. It goes back to the following passage near the start of Martin’s book:
A simple definition of digital scholarship should probably be resisted, and below it is suggested that it is best interpreted as a shorthand term. As Wittgenstein argued with the definition of ‘game’ such tight definitions can end up excluding elements that should definitely be included or including ones that seem incongruous. A digital scholar need not be a recognised academic, and equally does not include anyone who posts something online. For now, a definition of someone who employs digital, networked and open approaches to demonstrate specialism in a field is probably sufficient to progress.
Weller, M. (2011:4)
A couple of years ago I was a researcher on the Digital Scholarship project and read Martin’s book in manuscript form. I recall thinking at the time that the whole idea of digital scholarship was a bit sketchy. After all, who isn’t ‘digital’ these days? The whole thing seemed to me to need much more precise definition (which Martin always resisted for reasons I’ve never been entirely clear on but seem to have to do with something traumatic in his past around learning objects). For what it’s worth, I think I understand his perspective a bit better now.
Anyway, re-reading this section got me thinking again and I had another look at the Wittgenstein. The discussion of ‘games’ comes from the later part of Wittgenstein’s work; Wittgenstein is unusual among philosophers in that he produced two distinct and original philosophies during his life, both of which are primarily concerned with our relation to language.
The so-called ‘early’ Wittgenstein – he of the forbidding Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus -argued that most philosophical confusion results from failing to respect the sense-making limits of language. Only certain kinds of propositional utterances – descriptions of states of affairs (facts) or relations of ideas (definitions) – make any sense and the rest is just confusion. I’m oversimplifying. But the general idea is expressed in the seven ‘basic’ propositions of the Tractatus.
There are of course problems with this, but the idea that philosophy is an activity which is fundamentally therapeutic (or even quietist) is one that has stuck around. But in his later (posthumously published) work, Wittgenstein attempts to make sense of linguistic meaning moved away from logic in the direction of ordinary language. I won’t go into the reasons for his development in this direction here, but trying to find absolute definitions is replaced by looking at how language is used in practical social contexts (like working on a building site, acting in a play, cracking a joke or playing a game) since “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life” (Wittgenstein, 1953:§23). Wittgenstein termed the relationship between utterances and contexts ‘language games‘ to reflect the idea that the ‘rules’ language follows are less like axioms of logic and are mostly to do with making sense in a particular situation.
If we want to resist giving final definitions of (especially new) concepts we shouldn’t talk so much about ‘games’ but instead in terms of family resemblance between uses of language. Games are just the example Wittgenstein uses to illustrate the point about family resemblances since there are lots of things we call ‘games’ but there are often lots of difference between them (competitiveness, equipment, purpose, etc.). The thing that binds them all together is our use of the same word to describe them: “what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language” (Wittgenstein, 1953:§65).
The implications of this are more significant for philosophy than they might as first appear.
But to my mind the idea is not that we should give up on the idea of tight or final definitions. Rather, we just need to be aware of the fact that ‘defining’ is also a language game and one that is often of great use (such as in taxonomy).
When it comes to a neologism like ‘digital scholarship’ we aren’t necessarily looking at a referent which already exists in common usage. Wittgenstein’s point about language use must be taken in conjunction with the idea of the impossibility of private language. Language doesn’t enable forms of life, but forms of life enable language. It isn’t through the definition of ‘game’ that Wittgenstein shows this, but through the idea of a ‘family resemblance‘ between different practical uses of the same word.
It’s understandable that we should strive not to get bogged down in trying to define things but we should also recognise that in itself this can be an incredibly valuable activity, particularly when sketching out new developments in existing fields, or indeed when identifying new domains of study.
And that’s the point I struggled to make even this concisely two years ago. But that’s philosophy for ya. Or maybe just me.
Weller, M. (2011). The Digital Scholar: How Technology is Changing Academic Practice. Bloomsbury Academic.
Wittgenstein, L. (1922). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. C.K. Ogden (trans.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. G.E.M. Anscombe and R. Rhees (eds.), G.E.M. Anscombe (trans.), Oxford: Blackwell.
The paper represents the concept map based adaptive knowledge assessment system. Advantages of concept maps are analyzed emphasizing that the approach offers a reasonable balance between requirements to assess higher levels of knowledge according to Bloom's taxonomy and complexity of a system. Concept maps allow revealing of student's knowledge structure, promote system thinking and support process oriented learning where a study course is divided into stages in each of which knowledge assessment is carried out. The developed knowledge assessment system consists from a teacher's, learner's and administrator's modules and is implemented as a multiagent system. Four prototypes of the system developed within four projects are described. The first prototype supports only fill-in-the-map tasks where a learner must put given concepts in correct places. The second prototype provides changing the degree of task difficulty, thus, performing adaptation to a learner's knowledge level. The set of tasks are also extended by construct-the-map tasks. Improvements implemented in the third prototype allow using of directed arcs and standard relationships in concept maps. The three-tier architecture used in the fourth prototype is chosen to rise the security level of the system. Besides that learner's support is considerably expanded giving help and tutoring to a learner. Results of evaluation of the developed system's prototypes in different study courses are presented. The paper concludes with the comparison of all four prototypes using all main characteristics of the developed knowledge assessment system.
I've written before about the irrelevance of looking deeply into completion rates of MOOCs. Due to the fact that MOOCs are free and (relatively) open they should not be compared to regular university courses. The typical completion rates of around 10% obviously alarm those who view MOOCs as alternatives to for-credit courses. However, given the fact that such a completion rate for a course with 50,000 students would still give more successful students than several years of campus courses, they maybe don't do so badly after all. What so many articles seem to miss is the fact that the target group for MOOCs is not traditional university students at all.
President Obama has put forth his 2014 budget, and the education portion proposes to wipe away all outstanding student loan debt, fund free preschool for all children, bring about an end to high stakes standardized testing and an end to Race to the Top, provide free health services for students, and earmark more money for arts and music programs, libraries, and school counselors. Sike!
PBS's John Merrow has uncovered "a missing memo" that suggests that former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee was fully aware that there was widespread cheating on standardized tests. Merrow's 4500-word piece, "Michelle Rhee's Reign of Error" is worth reading, and I'd add too that investigative journalism in education is worth supporting.
Mark Zuckerberg, along with other Silicon Valley tycoons, has launched a SuperPAC, Fwd.us, which will tackle immigration reform (particularly for those “most talented and hardest-working people” — that is, tech types) and education reform (that is, “higher standards and accountability in schools, support for good teachers and a much greater focus on learning about science, technology, engineering and math”). Many of those on board with the SuperPAC are investors in education technology startups and charter schools, so this should be fun to watch how they “hack” policy.
Inside Higher Ed reports on a proposed law in North Carolina that would remove the state income tax break for parents who allow their college student children to register to vote in the towns where they attend school. Because, ya know, “democracy.”
Tennessee lawmakers have tabled their proposed legislation that would cut families’ welfare benefits if students didn’t perform well in school. A shout-out here to 8-year-old Aamira Fetuga who followed the lawmaker behind the bill, Rep. Stacey Campbell, around the Capital asking him questions about his incredibly mean-spirited proposal.
A bill in California called the Textbook Relief Act is moving on to committee. The title of AB–479 sounds great, sure, but reading the fine print raises lots of questions. The bill will exempt from state sales tax just those textbooks sold by university bookstores or “textbook-only” stores in the state. (So purchases from Amazon, for example, are ineligible.) And “textbook” in this case, “does not include books on audio tape, computer disc, cd-rom, or similar storage media.” Well played, college bookstores. Well played.
Florida legislators are working on a bill, akin to one proposed in California, that would let officials in the state bypass the regional accreditation process and accredit individual courses on their own – including classes offered by unaccredited for-profit providers. I can’t imagine anything would go wrong with that. Can you?Launches and Upgrades
The learning management system Instructure unveiled its new App Center this week (although it won’t officially launch ’til InstructureCon, its annual conference, this summer). The App Center will offer teachers, students, and administrators a one-click installation of a variety of apps (100 at launch) into Canvas.
Khan Academy is teaming up with Bank of America, the good folks who helped bring about the banking/mortgage crisis, to teach us all “Better Money Habits.” I used up all my snark about this news on Twitter, which was greatly enhanced by a response from the BofA customer service, asking me to DM them with my property address and my concerns.
Amplify, the education division of News Corp, is teaming up with the education startup Clever. The latter will help integrate Amplify’s tablets with schools’ student information systems, reports Edsurge, which calls this a “huge deal” for Clever. Indeed, paying for data integration instead of just hacking phones to get what you want seems like a huge deal for News Corp too.Closures
On the heels of its acquisition of the language-learning community Livemocha and its promise to move “to the cloud,” Rosetta Stone says it’s closing down the last of its famous airport and mall kiosks.Obligatory MOOC News Section
EdX and San Jose State University announced this week that they’re collaborating on an initiative that would expand the offering of a “blended” version of the MOOC platform’s Engineering Circuits and Electronics to 11 other California university campuses. According to the press release, “San Jose State will concurrently establish a Center for Excellence in Adaptive and Blended Learning to train faculty members from other campuses interested in offering the engineering course and other blended online courses in the future.” More details from the press conference here (where my question — “is edX charging schools money for this?” was answered in the affirmative.)
Coursera is making money — $220,000 in the first quarter, reports Inside Higher Ed. That revenue comes from those in the “signature track,” who pay for a “verified certificate” in classes they complete. At a Coursera-focused conference at UPenn, the company revealed that “70 or 80 percent of paid users are finishing courses.”Other Classes and Standards
The Next Generation Science Standards were released this week. Developed by 26 states and many science organizations, the new standards aim to cover fewer ideas (including -- gasp! -- climate change) but in more depth, with an emphasis on hands-on learning and not just memorizing facts.
The Atlantic offers a look at libertarian, former Congressman, and two-time presidential candidate Ron Paul’s new homeschool curriculum, which includes info on starting a home business, building a website, defending the free market, and understanding basic science. If he’d just called it a MOOC, I bet he could’ve got VC funding.Funding and Acquisitions
The evil Elsevier has acquired the much-loved Mendeley. OK, that’s a bit of a polemical way to describe the news, but reading the responses from many academics, it’s fairly clear that the acquisition isn’t popular. As danah boyd explains in a blog post on why she’ll now abandon Mendeley’s bibliographic tool for the open source alternative Zotero, “Elsevier published fake journals until it got caught. Its parent company was involved in the arms trade until it got caught. Elsevier played an unrepentant and significant role in advancing SOPA/PIPA/RWA and continues to lobby on issues that undermine scholarship. Elsevier currently actively screws over academic libraries and scholars through its bundling practices.”
And the learn-to-code startup Tynker has raised $3.25 million in funding from 500 Startups, NEA, Felicis Ventures, NewSchools Venture Fund, Cervin Ventures, GSV Advisors, XG Ventures, and others. More details at Techcrunch.
Ashai Net International has acquired the Sakai Division (that is, the learning management system division) of rSmart. More details on the acquisition on e-Literate.From the HR Department
Education Week reports that Jim Shelton, the Department of Education’s Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement, is in line to become the department’s Deputy Secretary, replacing Tony Miller.Research and Survey Data
The National Center for Education Statistics has released a report on federal student loan debt for those who do not complete their degrees. Among the findings, “the cumulative amount borrowed per credit earned was highest for non-completers in for-profit institutions ($350 per credit, compared with $80 to $190 per credit” at public and private non-profit schools). Also “in 2009, the median cumulative federal student debt for all non-completers amounted to 35 percent of their annual income; debt burden was highest for students in 4-year private nonprofit institutions (median debt equaled 51 percent of borrowers’ annual income). Debt burden among non-completers who started in for-profit institutions increased from 20 percent to 43 percent of annual income between 2001 and 2009.”
Among the findings in a new survey (PDF) commissioned by the Association Of American Colleges And Universities, “employers recognize the importance of today’s colleges and universities providing a liberal education—one that focuses on both broad knowledge in a variety of areas and knowledge in a specific field of interest, as well as intellectual and practical skills that span all areas of study and a sense of social responsibility.” When given this description of a “liberal education,” 94% of those employers said that it was important that colleges provide students with this. I'm sure Zuckerberg's SuperPAC will lobby accordingly.
Photo credits: Harald Hoyer
As Phil mentioned in his last post, he and I had the privilege of participating in a two-day ELI webinar on MOOCs. A majority of the speakers had been involved in implementing MOOCs at their institutions in one way or another. And an interesting thing happened. Over the course of the two days, almost none of the presenters—with the exception of the ACE representative, who has a vested interest—expressed the belief that MOOCs provide equivalent learning experiences to traditional college courses. Keep in mind, these folks were believers. They were enthusiastic about MOOCs in general. But they tended to describe the value of MOOCs as reaching a different audience than the traditional matriculated college student and provide a different value. They talked about it extending the university mission. By and large, they did not talk about it as being an improvement on, or even equal to, a traditional class. Now, there were well over 400 participants, so it wouldn’t be fair of me to say that there was unanimity, about this point or any other. But the level of agreement was remarkable.
On the other hand, there was widespread enthusiasm for using MOOCs as essentially substitutions for textbooks in classes that included instructors from the local campus. Vanderbilt created what they called a course “wrapper” around a Coursera MOOC on machine learning. Folks from Stanford talked about the notion of a “distributed flip,” i.e., a group of flipped classrooms participating together in a MOOC. And SJSU talked about using an edX course in a blended course environment on one hand, and a Udacity course with Udacity-provided “course mentors” on the other.
The obvious conclusion is that MOOCs are more of a threat to textbook companies than they are to universities. I think that’s true, but I also think it’s an oversimplification. There is a deeper (and older) trend to boil down a course into a set of digital artifacts that can be “played” by the student at will. It’s worth taking a deeper look at that trend, where it’s going, what’s useful about it, and what’s pernicious about it.The Course as an Artifact: A Brief History
Course artifacts, in and of themselves, are hardly new. In fact, the textbook as a collection of catechisms (or questions and answers designed to facilitate memorization) goes back to at least the 4th Century A.D. Basically, the catechisms were the course. We tend to think of these being used in what we would call primary school today, but in fact, this sort of text-as-course was used at all levels of education. For example, check out the Catechism of the Steam Engine, published in the 1850s.
In the modern higher education context, there is a strong sense among many teaching faculty of themselves as craftspeople. In this view, they teach their courses their own way and use their unique strengths and knowledge to benefit their students. The degree to which this rhetoric matches reality varies wildly depending on the individual instructor, the level and subject of the course, and the school at which the course is being taught. There is a tendency among instructors of lower-division courses to follow the textbook pretty closely, including the homework and quizzes, and decorate that pre-packaged curriculum with lectures—particularly in courses that are easily machine-graded and tend to have very large enrolments.
This is not to say that the instructors and TAs in these classes add zero value over the textbook content. One of the most important but least valorized functions that an instructor serves in the class is providing support to students when they are stuck—answering questions, modeling good problem-solving skills, providing mentoring about study skills, and so on. Likewise, the curation that these faculty do in terms of picking the books, selecting the problem sets within the book, and so on, provides real value. (And this is a spectrum, rather than a binary distinction between faculty who just follow the book completely and faculty who make up their own curricula completely.) But the point is that much of what we refer to as the “course” is often a packaged up in a set of artifacts that come from the textbook publishers and are augmented by pre-packaged performances of lectures by the professors. The degree to which this sort of thing happens is just hidden from view because it happens behind the closed doors of individual classrooms.
When the LMS first came onto the scene in the late 1990s, the one artifact that every professor would put online if they were putting up just one would be the syllabus. Then they might add lecture notes, and then possibly some readings. None of that really changed anything, since it was still happening behind the virtual closed doors of the LMS course logins. But in 2002, when MIT announced their OpenCourseWare initiative, the conversation began to change. Even though the process of adopting OpenCourseWare wasn’t essentially different from one of adopting a textbook publisher’s book and ancillaries, MIT’s brand imprimatur carried with it a sense of superiority in some quarters. Why would you, a professor at Unremarkable College, think that your course design is better than the famous MIT professor’s? On the one hand, it felt to me at the time like there was a strong undercurrent of elitism in these conversations. On the other hand, it raised the useful question of when the instructor is crafting the course curriculum to meet the particular needs of the students in the room versus when she is crafting it in order to satisfy her own creative needs as a craftsperson. But even here, OCW ultimately didn’t do much to disrupt the Order of Things. At most, OCW courses are recipes that can be adopted either in whole or in part by the instructors, and how they are adopted is still mostly kept behind closed doors.
Meanwhile, the textbook publishers were combining their textbooks—now online—with their ancillary materials and their homework platforms into a kind of higher-end courseware that goes a few steps beyond what you can get from a typical OCW package. Whether we are talking about Cengage MindTap, Pearson CourseConnect, or WileyPLUS, these product packages basically provide the curriculum, the course materials, the assessments and, in some cases, the analytics to track student progress and make study suggestions. Yet still, these are adopted mostly behind the closed door of the classroom.Enter the MOOC
In some ways, the xMOOC in its current form is this trend to turn the course into an artifact taken to its logical conclusion (possibly ad absurdum). Course lectures are now artifacts in the form of videos. Assignment and assessment functions are packaged into machine-graded tools. Certification of knowledge is provided by the machines as well. Yes, there are still class discussions, and yes, the course instructors do participate sometimes, but they appear to be rather secondary in most of the xMOOC course designs I have looked at. In general, xMOOCs tend to explore the degree to which the pedagogical function can be fulfilled by artifacts.1
One critical difference is that, by raising the question of whether this package is worthy of being offered for credit, the MOOC also is forcing us to begin to articulate the value instructors add—both that they can in principle and what they are adding in practice today in large survey courses under the conditions that they are often taught. This is a big and complex question. It’s far too big to address fully in one post. But I think the conversations that happen in places like the ELI webinar about what MOOC instructors think is missing from MOOCs that keeps them from being credit-worthy is an interesting first approximation at an answer. The sentiment articulated by some of the ELI webinar participants, which was echoed by a presentation at this week’s MOOC colloquium at RPI, is that xMOOCs don’t tend to be able to get at deep skill acquisition because students have limited opportunities to either see those skills modeled for them or to practice them. As Jim Hendler put it during the RPI colloquium, “I don’t hear a lot of talk about using MOOCs to give students PhDs.” To be clear, I don’t believe that it is impossible to give that kind of deep skill learning in an online context; nor do I think that today’s giant lower-division survey courses do a whole lot to teach deep skills, by and large. But I do think that the gut reactions that folks in the MOOC conversations seem to be having is revealing in terms of the limits of what we think we can achieve at the moment with the course as a product—whether that product is instantiated through a MOOC or through an instructor “teaching” a traditional survey class and going through the motions as described to him by his textbook vendor. To the degree that a graduate seminar as a MOOC seems like a strange idea to you, ask yourself what would be missing and whether that missing element also belongs in our undergraduate survey courses.The “Distributed Flip” and Other Amazing Feats
Equally revealing, in my view, is the significantly higher level of enthusiasm among MOOC veterans for using MOOCs as course materials for blended learning. But not just any blended learning. Two themes have been coming up repeatedly: flipping the classroom and collaboration between professors teaching the same class. You can get a clear sense of what’s going on from this guest column on The Chronicle’s “Professor Hacker” blog by Douglas Fisher of Vanderbilt University, who used a MOOC as the basis for his flipped class:
I now view MOOCs, and the assessment and discussion infrastructure that comes with them, as invaluable resources that I embrace and to which I add value. I, and I am guessing many others, are short steps away from full-blown customizations of individual courses and even entire curricula, drawing upon resources from around the world and contributing back to those resources.
The implications of MOOCs for community between faculty and students, as well as the relationships within and between local and global learning communities, interest and excite me. In fact, it is a nuance on the theme of community that I think is most responsible for my excitement as I embrace online educational content. For the first time in 25 years of teaching, I feel as though I am in a scholarly-like community with my fellow educators. I have long regarded scholarship as the noblest aspect of academia– the scholar’s tenacity in identifying, acknowledging, addressing and building on the intellectual contributions of others. I have not experienced the same profound sense of community among my colleagues in the education realm, however – I have largely been a lone wolf. Now there has been a profound shift in my mindset – I use and build on the educational production of others; I do it openly on public sites, of which I am proud rather than embarrassed; I contribute back, and my students see and learn from this practice of scholarly appreciation, and are even encouraged to contribute to it through their own content creation and sharing. This opportunity for “scholarship” in educational practice is what, as an educator and scholar, I find most exciting about this nascent and exploding online education movement.
I think the point about the missing community around teaching is particularly critical. The aforementioned RPI professor Jim Hendler, who was recognized by Playboy Magazine as “one of the nation’s most influential and imaginative college professors” who are “reinventing the classroom,”2 talked about how he struggled to flip his classroom in a way that his students would embrace and lamented that he had no training in pedagogy. Later in his presentation, he talked about how university libraries and computer labs, which used to be places where students would go and solve problems together, are largely empty now. I wondered about how college education would be different if professors had shared problem-solving spaces for their teaching, like the study carrels and computer centers of yore, and if there were no stigma attached to sharing.
Meanwhile this week, San José State University announced the creation of the Center for Excellence in Adaptive and Blended Learning, the first project of which will be to teach faculty at 11 other CSU campuses how to use an edX course on circuits and electronics as the basis for a flipped class. It’s a short step from training faculty on how to flip a class using the MOOC to a “distributed flip,” where those faculty members are sharing best practices with each other as they teach the same class using the same class using the same materials, and having their students interact with each other on the MOOC discussion board. This is promising.
It also raises questions about the MOOC course designs. At RPI, I was able to ask edX’s Howard Lurie about whether the course design for the blended classes in the SJSU project will be the same as the fully online one. He acknowledged that there would have to be a variant. We’re going to see more of that. To the degree that MOOCs are going to used in this way, they need to (1) have the curricular wrap-around that scaffolds the classroom use, and (2) be designed to be modular so that faculty using them in their own classrooms can customize them to the local needs of their students. In other words, we need to be able to draw different and more flexible lines between where the course-as-artifact ends and human-directed course experience begins. Which, by the way, is essentially what I think Adrian Sannier was saying in his interview with me a while back when he positioned OpenClass courses in contrast to MOOCs:
“Somebody will make a math class with 6 million students around the world. But it will be offered locally with teachers at a scale of between 1 to 20 and 1 to 50. Because teachers matter.”
And this is where we get to the part of the MOOCs competing with the textbook vendors. Both MOOC producers and textbook vendors are beginning to converge on a product model of courseware that is more of a complete curriculum than a traditional textbook but less of a stand-alone, autopilot course than a current-generation xMOOC. Both groups have a lot to learn creating flexible designs that make the right compromises between completeness and ease of localization as well as facilitating communities of practice among teaching faculty. But it’s clear that’s where we’re headed.