From #change11

Are MOOCs dead yet?

or What I Learned from MOOCing…

The first MOOCs, now called cMOOCs (for connectivist or connectivity), were a breath of fresh air in academics.  George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and David Cormier created a vibrant, engaged learning community in which a variety of voices stepped forward to direct discussions.  There was no central instructional voice lecturing too the community, but colleagues discussing.  I learned more from the Change 11 MOOC than I had in over 10 years of higher education teaching.

By the end of 2011, I was experimenting with MOOC concepts in my class, and by the end of 2012, I had completely reorganized my classes and reconsidered what I do as a Teacher.  I also offered the MOOC concept to my campus administrators for some special projects they were considering, to no avail.  Of course, they would come back later and praise me being on the forefront of this type of concept.

But something happened in 2012: the MOOC bandwagon.  Suddenly everyone was offering MOOCs, but they were not the courses I had come to admire.  They were little more than repackaged online classes.  There was no engagement, no mentorship, and no community.  These xMOOCs, as they are now called, were built primarily to monetize the MOOC.  It seemed like every week there was a new “MOOC” coming on line, or worse, a new company offering MOOCs.  It was a nightmare, especially for people like me that were taking connectivist concepts that were the foundation of the MOOC, and applying them to our classes.

Connectivist MOOCs are still amazing, when you can find them.  Open, online peer learning communities that come up for a limited time for people to gather and discuss aspects of teaching and learning are amazing.  For this I’ll point to last year’s Learning Beyond the Letter Grade, which was another amazing opportunity for those ready to discuss how to deal with student assessment in the future.  Unfortunately, most of the MOOCs out there were pale imitations of these communities, or they were only automated online courses.

So, has the bandwagon left?  While I would like to see an end to poorly considered online courses, I think they will be around for a while.  It is thought time that we start to reflect on what we have learned or taken from our experiences with MOOCs.  A few years ago, I blogged about MOOCification; what can we adapt from the MOOC for our classes and learning communities?

Actually, the first thing I took away is to stop thinking in terms of classes, and instead think of my students as a learning community.  While it does not seem like much, cognitively, it was a major leap.  This one idea was a major take home message for me from Change 11.  Dialog between members in a learning community is a powerful engagement too, and really helps participants.  One thing I loved in Change11 was the daily newsletter.  Not only did it help remind me what we were discussing, it sometimes gave me more to think about, and it always showed me what other community members were discussing.  Even if I did not post or respond that day, it was a way for me to stay engaged.

I started doing this in my classes, and I love it.  Sending out a daily newsletter helps me to explore with students a topic in more depth.  It keeps our learning community connected, and I’m starting to see that it helps strengthen student engagement.

Another aspect that was amazing was the weekly guest lecture.  How amazing it was to actually hear from a person working on an innovation, instead of listening the one person each week talk about innovations.  Having new speakers, and then a chance to dialog with them and the community was an incredible opportunity.

A counter to the changing lecturer of Change11 occured in another pedagogy MOOC that I won’t name, and helped emphasize to me the importance of having multiple voices in a class.  Each week, the organizer would lecture.  These were horrible, as everything was colored by the presenters opinions.  Instead of being able to make our own determination about an innovation, or even have meaningful discussions about the innovation, the presenter gave us a packaged pseudoanalysis of the idea (and if it was not one of their ideas, it was deemed worthless).  In other words, it was an ego driven period of weeks where the presenter got to listen to their own voice.

I started working with this concept by inviting graduate students to come and speak to my freshman biology class.  Each week, a graduate student comes in and talks about their research, and puts it into perspective regarding our topic that week.  For example, someone comes and talks about a signal-receptor pathway during the week we are talking about cellular communication.  It gives students a practical outlook on the material, a new voice to hear, and it gives our graduate students an opportunity to work on their presentation skills.  For me, that’s a win-win!

The original MOOCs, and their cMOOC descendants, have a great deal to offer in the ways we approach teaching and learning.  The concept of social learning is critical, and Web 2+ and mobile media provides amazing tools to engage students.  While the cMOOC serves advanced active learners, methods from this form of learning community can be adapted for undergraduate classes.  Playing around with connectivity ideas, and adapting them to undergraduate classes has been extremely rewarding.  I would encourage others to look at some of the innovative course deliveries in the past five years, and look to see how they could be adapted for your setting.  Even if it does not work the first time around, I’m sure you will learn something about yourself as a teacher, and about your students.

Innovate Now!

In the April 8th edition of Chronicle Review, Ann Kirschner presented an article entitled Innovations in Higher Education? Hah!:College leaders need to move beyond talking about transformation before it’s too late. The message of Dr. Kirschner’s article is that we have to stop talking about innovation and actually innovate.

The idea of disruptive technologies, and how they ultimately force organizational changes is a critical message.  What is needed is not the gradual change often discussed (change one aspect of your class, and then when your comfortable, change something else), but radical change.  What surprises most people is that the change is not about the technology, but about our methods of delivery and expectations of students.

Recently, I was in a discussion with a fellow faculty member and some book reps.  My colleague’s comment was that they did not really care about the technological offerings of the book company, but instead cared more about the textbook.  My response was the complete opposite.  All of the books are essential the same from each company, and all are intimidating to the student due to unrestrained depth and complexity of presentation.  I wanted to know if the company had tutorials, managed case studies that led students through the problem, short videos on difficult topics, meaningful assignments and practices.  I wanted to know where I would need to invent and where I could count on support.  I’m not going to just give my students a book and expect that they read it, I want to give them support.  OK, so I have brought up tech when earlier I said it was not about tech.

The change is about our methods:  do we stand in front of class as the “sage on a stage” spouting off an hour or more “wisdom” that is summarily ignored, or do we become mentors engaging our students in discussions and activities?  Do we flip the class where “instruction” is handled through technology and the mentoring of the student occurs in person?  Do we leave behind the flawed idea that “the only way students learn is if I tell it too them”, or do we trust that undergraduates can become self-actualized learners?

A resistance that Dr. Kirschner brings up is the academic culture and disciplines that are woven into Higher Education.  Here is where I’m going to go on a major tangent, because this is something I have been considering for a while…

One of the greatest problems in modern academia is the false separation of individuals by the invisible walls of disciplines.  The idea of disciplines was important in the development of higher ed, but now it strangles the life blood out of innovation.  How many chemists work with biological systems, and how many biologists do chemistry?  At what point do we divide the line.  While it can help a novice, it can become a stumbling block, especially when the discipline/department divides prevent stronger collaborative efforts (usually ending when which department/college gets how much of the grant money).

What if we did away with the invisible walls of disciplines, and went to a higher order set of “school” based upon the faculty and students?  Taking the College of Arts and Sciences here, what if we had a school of applied science where people from various disciplines could come under the same roof?  Public health, biology, chemistry, geoscience, and physics, anyone who did research and wanted to collaborate in applied sciences.  As an urban campus, what if we had a school of Urban Ecology, combining biology, geoscience, policy, social science, etc… with a focus on the Urban environment.  Yes, it is a scary thought to do away with disciplines at the faculty level.  For students, we could have a school of undergraduate studies that focused on the undergraduates (instead of having them shuffled under the rug of research).  We could keep discipline specific areas for undergraduates.  Graduate degrees would be less about a name and more about showing the evidence of your work.

I’ll come back to all of this in a bit…

The Future of Learning

Today at Georgia State University, President Becker and George Pullman (Director of GSU’s Center for Instructional Innovation) held a forum on “The Future of Learning in Higher Education.”

It was a well attended forum, but as noted by one audience member, it “attracted only the converted.” Hearing some of the questions, I’m not sure if it did attract only the converted, but those of us who have been trying different techniques and technologies were in the majority.

Our President laid out three areas for us to consider:

  • Student Centered Learning
  • Active Learning
  • Controlling the rising price of higher education while maintaining quality.

The focus of the forum was really bringing everyone up to speed with current changes, and topics like KhanAcademy and the Standford University Artificial Intelligence online course were highlighted.  Mention was also made of MIT’s open courseware.

Wisely, George Pullman indicated that the goal was not to replicate what others had done, but to “Reinvent the Wheel” for our campus.  The President seemed to be on the same page, indicating that the goal was to define what the GSU undergraduate experience is all about, even if students are taking online or hybrid (blended) classes. 

The Q&A was short, but brought up some good points, including how failed attempts are handled, how to protect faculty that try innovated course ideas, and how to encourage it.  The President was quick to add that the administration would not force anyone to change their styles, but also indicated that what is innovative now is commonly used only after a few years.

Some of the audience wisely addressed the concern that while the technology is great, what really has to be done is a complete overhaul of how we deliver information.  Going further, it is how we conceive of the course and its outcomes.

I left the meeting hopeful, but with some caution and concern in my heart.  From comments, it is obvious that the President is behind forging ahead with new course design.  He even mentioned the idea of looking at what a new instructional room would look like.  George Pullman is working diligently to gather all the innovators together, and to also gather those interested in hybrid (blended) courses. 

But there was also the old caution: go slowly, ‘Don’t try too many things at once.”  When they are talking about spending years changing courses, I spoke up and added “…then you rip of the Bandaid.”  It is fine to get your feet wet by changing things around, but eventually most of us have realized we have to flip our classes.  That’s not slow!  You may have tried out a few minor things, changed some assessments, but when you finally flip your class, it is not a small endeavor.  Many things have to change simultaneously, and the students might not like it (most likely will not like it as it is more work for them).

Why does this seem to upset me?  We have people on campus who have finally started to use clicker systems.  They are so proud of themselves, but it is technology that is over a decade old.  Heck, in the 90’s, I used wired systems that ultimately became clicker systems.  We had a whole room wired for this.  Now we have Internet systems, where students can use smartphones, pads and computers to log answers.  The answers no longer have to be multiple choice! 

The common concern of my colleagues?  “I don’t want the students using computers in class.”

Heck, we have research scientists who still think they can get grants by themselves from the big federal funders (have they not been paying attention?).

People often talk about resistance to change in Universities, and this blog post was not suppose to be an addition to those discussions.  Yes, you have to show them that it works.  But another great idea is to just to mentor new hires.  Instead of letting them walk into a class, sit down with them and bring them into your course projects.  Wouldn’t that be a much better way of changing the system?

So what is the answer?  The following is a list of my “Pushes”, that is, things I would like to push for as we move forward.

1)  In my blended class, I would like to spend the “lecture period” in a biology studio environment where students could work on experiments, activities and case studies aimed at the ‘topic of the week.’
2)  I would love to build a fully integrated biology freshman learning community in which the biologists, chemists, English, history and philosophy instructors work together to build an integrated year long blended course.  While there would be some “at your own pace” activities, there would also be scheduled milestones and seminars.  Instead of set lectures, I would love for there to be forums and selected seminars for the students.  For example: if you need help in editing, there is an editing workshop sponsored by the English instructor.  If you need help in molarity calculations, the chemisty would hold a workshop.  If you wanted to learn more about bioethics, the philosophy instructor would host a forum on bioethics.  Some seminars would be planned, others would be ad hoc based on the interest of students.  The learning would be recorded in social media, blogs, and milestone assignments.  Up front, the students would have the SPECIFIC and CONCRETE learning objectives of the topics.
3)  Using the Degree Qualification Profile (DQP) of the Luminia Foundation, go through our biology curriculum and really set milestones for the students.  Publich well articulated outcomes which students know they must acheive to pass a milestone.  With the technology we have, I would love to digitally badge each milestone, so that students have Milestone Achievements as they work toward degrees.  Potential employers and internship partners could look at the badges to see the competency of the students.

There is another, but it is out of my head for now.  Anyway, that is what I would like to push for over the next year.  Some of it is already in the works, while I’ll need time for some of the other aspects.

More Cognitive Dissonance

I am starting to realize how valuable it is for me to get ideas out of my head and out into world.  Not as some grand thesis of life, but for the feedback received.  I’ve realized that even a small statement can chance my perspective, especially when confused over a concept.  So, here I am again posting about some of the thoughts running through my mind.  Some of my current thoughts are informed by the happenings in the Change 2011 MOOC, and others from the recent Biology Leadership Conference.  Add to that reading more about the Bologna accords, and the Lumina Foundations DQP process. 

The first dissonance deals with a Liberal Arts Education.  Just sit with the phrase for a moment.  What thoughts does it bring up in you?  What image does your mind create?

I asked friends on Facebook what they thought of General Education and Liberal Arts.  The responses they gave me were not unexpected, but shows a disconnect between what I see as General Education/Liberal Arts and what non-academics see.  This is especially true when you look at people still in school.  This is a question I’m going to ask my Freshmen class today, just to see what their feeling is on a Liberal Arts Education.  So, what were the comments?

  • The idea is to give freedom. But I’ve seen few liberal arts majors that don’t regret their decision and end up in grad school hoping that gets them their degree. My girlfriend wishes she had gotten something that translates better to a job than her Political Science degree.”
  • Because we assume people need to be more well rounded to be successful. This is why we are failing, every team has its players, playing the game makes you well rounded. We need more experts in my opinion.”
  • Because ‘everyone needs to go to college’ but not everyone really needs to go to college and not everyone can really hack it at college. ( I say this from the position of having more then 4 years of college and no degree) So we create a ‘ diverse spectrum of programs suited for all types of students’ Oh and because more students = more money for schools and student loan companies.
  • I think that a lot people don’t “figure out what they want to be when they grow up” until after traditional college age. Yet, most jobs require a college education.” 

I feel like an odd ball, because  when I was an undergraduate, I took classes outside of my major because I thought that they were interesting.

The comments above reflect a common thread I’ve heard about liberal arts education.  People want a degree with meaning, and they want to get through the degree.  Many see classes outside of your major as being unnecessary or even wasteful.  It is strange that for academics, we are seeing breakdown in the traditional (and abstract) concepts of disciplines, observing instead a strong increase in multidisciplinary or cross-disciplinary studies.  

The problem is we as academics have not articulated our expectation of what it means to have a liberal arts education in a why that is meaningful to the non-academic.   Most people see Liberal Arts as being history, political science, philosophy, or art.  They don’t see it as something more holistic; that liberal arts means those in the humanities have to learn science and math, as well as scientists having to experience the humanities.  

Why do we have liberal arts education?  Perspective.
The goal is to give students a diverse perspective of the world.  It can also be described as having different models to use.  A good example of this concept can be found in “Sparks of Genius” by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein.  They show how art helped informed the discoveries of great scientists.  Warren Buffet has also spoken of how diverse models, even non-financial, can inform his financial adventures.  

The goal is not just to fill your head with information, but to provide different perspectives.  So, how do we articulate this as a valuable goal to students?

Personal Reflection on Online Learning and MOOCs #change11

      I’ve been teaching at the college level for over 15 years, and I have rarely taught a class the same way twice.  I’m always looking for new ways to reach my students and help them to realize that the greatest learning comes when they take ownership of the information and the process.  My field is Microbial Ecology, and I have taught freshmen to graduate students.  Regardless of the level, I am constantly amazed at the amount of information we are expected to cram into a person during two meetings a week for fourteen weeks.  Really, the amount of information that they need to process and begin to master can not be conveyed in face to face time allotted.

      About 6 years ago, I started to do some of my learning assessments online and assignments online.  The online quizzes got the students to start reading their textbooks before class, and they came into class better prepared.  I found that I spent less time going over basic material, and that the students were up to the task of handling some of the deeper, more complex, subjects.  Over the last six years, I’ve been adding more assignments to get my students to think about the course materials.
     Two years ago, in a course on Medical Microbiology, which is taught almost exclusively using case studies, I decided to give them assignments which made them convey material in new ways.  The first was to create video casts of the immune system.  In honor of our school having a football team, the assignment was to explore the immune response of our school’s mascot, Pounce the Panther, from either the Bulldog Bacterium or the Yellow Jacket Virus.  I was stunned at how well they did!  While there were some science specific fixes I wanted them to do, their videos which went up on iTunesU were >90% accurate (and a lot of fun).
     Their second task was to create brochures, posters and talks regarding a communicable disease.  We even had a Disease Day on the Commons where they talked to their fellow students about diseases (unfortunately, turnout was bad because of the rain).  I will never forget a student yelling across the common, “Do you have Syphilis?  Well, do you know the Symptoms?”

     Currently, I am working on making a Hybrid inclass/online course for general biology.  The goal again is to help students deal with the overwhelming knowledge base of cellular and molecular biology by working independently and in small groups, on small projects (like discussions), and larger projects.

      I came across the idea of a MOOC while working on this hybrid class.  I’m intrigued with the idea, and what I’ve come across on the web.  I signed up for the Change MOOC course to learn more about this learning model, and to see if I can use some of the concepts in building a hybrid general biology class.