The Problem of Audience in MOOCs

A few weeks ago, I delivered a webinar with colleagues on the design of MOOCs as part of a series, MOOCs by Design. The basic premise of our presentation is that the sheer diversity of the audience in MOOCs creates a number of design challenges.

When designing a “traditional” online credit course, certain assumptions can be made about the learners, no matter how diverse the student body, given the homogenizing effect of the application process, the incentives and costs associated with credit, and the standards of rigor and credentialing established by the disciplines. In contrast, learners in MOOCs undergo no such homogenizing process, and enter the experience with incredibly diverse educational backgrounds, English language proficiencies, access to technologies, and motivations. The diversity of MOOC learners create, then, a number of design challenges.

We suggest several ways to navigate those challenges in the presentation, with the overall guidance that it is best to design a MOOC oriented around the institutional priorities, but that affords as many options and pathways for students as possible.

Flipped From Passive to Active Learner

I recently attended a talk, “The Promise and Perils of the Flipped Classroom” by Jennifer Ebbeler, associate professor of classics at UT Austin . She discussed the challenges and successes of flipping her large enrollment (400+ students) course.  She raised familiar discussion points about the flipped classroom model, but the point that stood out the most to me was the student reaction. Ebbeler experienced resistance among students, so much so that she re-designed her experiment to better scaffold the students to the flipped model.

It made me realize that those of us (instructional designers, education technologists) who advocate trying more active learning pedagogical approaches and experimental methods tend to assume that the biggest roadblock is often the faculty. It is a lot more work with little institutional incentive to experiment with one’s teaching. But the students can be equally resistant to more constructivist models of instruction. And with good reason. It is a lot more work for them, too.

I’ve had similar experiences while teaching. In an online capstone course I taught most recently, I designed a final project option with a high degree of flexibility that I thought would be appropriate for the mostly adult learners in the course, but not a single student selected to design their own project. They all opted for the traditional research paper, despite the required number of sources and pages. It was easier for them to comply with stated paper requirements than to construct a project idea on their own.

The student’s readiness to use technology effectively, to produce knowledge, and to be held more accountable for their own learning is an oft-overlooked constraint. But I took away a few key points from Ebbeler’s that were good reminders of best practices:

  • Scaffold the experience. Ebbeler’s approach is a great one: she begins the semester with more traditional lectures (35 minutes or so), and then slowly asks students to engage with materials outside of class, and introduces more active learning activities in class. With the right guiding questions and regular accountability, students come to class more prepared to contribute and engage. By the end of the semester, the students are leading the discussion, without fully realizing the transformation that took place.
  • Provide feedback often. There are many ways to give feedback, and all of it helps to guide the student to develop the meta-cognititve skills to navigate their education. Low-stakes, objective questions (reading quizzes, clicker questions) give automated feedback that scales easily and provides regular checks for students. Modeling is another way to provide feedback. Take opportunities to model critical questions and valuable feedback for students.
  • Provide enough structure for success. With projects, create interval opportunities to give feedback and ensure students are on track. Two misconceptions among students regarding creative projects is that they’re easier (they’re not), and that they can procrastinate just as they might for a structured paper assignment (they can’t). So have students submit a thesis or proposal for review, and a design plan, to make sure they are putting in thought and effort throughout the process.

It is a journey for students to transition from passive to active learner, and it’s important for education technologists and instructional designers to be cognizant of how difficult that journey can be. But for those of us who put in the extra work to create meaningful learning opportunities for students, it is worth it to increase student agency and ownership.

The Value of an Instructional Designer

At Learning Design Summer Camp, a panel presenter made a rather provocative statement to the audience that, paraphrased, amounted to: anyone who teaches is an instructional designer. I think many in the audience (of mostly instructional designers) were put off by this comment, but for me it raised some interesting questions: What is the difference between what one does and what one is? What is the difference between the practice of a field or discipline, and the sum of its parts as understood by the practitioner?

As an analogy, I take photos. We all do, with greater ease and better equipment than was available to consumers in the past. And sometimes I even take photos with intention, with some focus on composition or lighting. But I would not call myself a photographer. Not ever. Not even when I think I’ve taken a great photo. That’s because the field of photography encompasses much more than just the resulting product. The photographer has the knowledge of art history and theory, the practice of considering all the elements important in a shoot, the experience of taking lots of photos and making mistakes, and the benefit of being part of a community of practice.

Similarly, the instructional designer is fluent in cognitive psychology and learning theory, practiced in the systematic approach to design, experienced in designing for different learning environments across disciplines and topics, and part of a rich community of practice. The teacher indeed designs instruction, with varying degrees of intent and levels of success, but I would characterize the act of designing instruction as being distinct from being an instructional designer.

But as the tools of a field become easier to use, and the practices easier to mimic, what is the role of the trained practitioner? Technology increasingly makes it easier to use previously difficult tools, and makes available information on basic practices of any field. The lines between the amateur and the professional become increasingly blurred. But it also creates an opportunity for practitioners to identify and communicate their value proposition. So, as LMSs improve and educational technologies become more user-friendly, what is the value of the instructional designer? I’ll suggest three strengths:

  • Cross-disciplinary. Instructional designers are trained to work across disciplines and topics, which allows them to focus on the form of the learning experience rather than the content. Many subject matter experts are guilty of placing too much emphasis on covering content as opposed to teaching skills. The objectivity an instructional designer brings to a project helps to clarify learning goals and distill what content is most important to cover to meet those goals.
  • Systematic approach. Instructional design is really a process. Whether one uses backwards design or ADDIE or another model, the instructional designer employs a systematic approach to every project. The process asks us to consider important questions that may be overlooked in traditional classroom teaching: What are the needs of the learners? What should the learners be able to do at the end of the course? What resources are required to develop the course/project/product? Was the instruction effective? The process enables the instructional designer to effectively manage projects, meet deadlines, and evaluate the efficacy of the learning experience against established criteria.
  • Experienced. For most subject matter experts, teaching is a small part of what they do, often in a narrow domain of expertise. The instructional designer, in contrast, develops experience across disciplines and practices design regularly, creating opportunities to risk and learn. They also can borrow the best ideas and pedagogies from different disciplines and consider how they apply in new contexts.

The best teachers perform their craft with intention, passion, and excellence. It’s just not instructional design. Instructional design is the confluence of theory, process, and practice, and its strength is in its relevance to different contexts. So the teacher that moved desks in the classroom? Not an instructional designer. And that’s okay. She’s working to engage her students, asking them to do something a little different. And we’re here as backup, if needed.

“Intentional Pedagogy”

…an important element to consider here is that transforming one’s pedagogical approach to what some people are calling flipped requires an increased attention to how time is used inside and outside the classroom, how activities should be paced, how activities and learning should support one another, how support structures can be used inside and outside the class, and if or how various elements of work should be assessed. In other words, the transition to something new requires an attention to detail. Is anyone examining the possibility that some of the benefits currently attributed to what people call flipping are really attributable to more intentional pedagogy, and an increased focus on the craft of teaching?

How to Get to the Deep End – Engaging Activities

I remember when Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows came out in June. My blogroll teemed with posts from those in higher ed debating the book’s premise that the internet is changing the way we think. More specifically, Carr suggests that the internet is compromising our ability to think deeply and focus extensively.

I’ve heard versions of this argument (or warning, as some may interpret it) since grad school, and have experienced first-hand the compulsive Facebooking, headline-skimming, and multi-tasking it portends. Sometimes reading an article leads down a rabbit hole of endless links; other times it takes as long as hitting “Ctrl + T” to forget what to do next.

But I have not lost all hope. There are plenty of activities that I engage in that I can’t be distracted from. I don’t tweet while running; I don’t email while cooking; I don’t text while sharing a meal with friends; I don’t skip around chapters while reading a good book. These activities, meaningful and engaging to me, still encourage presence, focus, and creativity, and I gladly put down my smart phone long enough to participate.

My anec-data (sample size: me) suggests the internet hasn’t changed how we think, but how we think while we do certain tasks. My level of engagement with an activity determines how distractable I am, not my internet-addled brain. If a task is appropriately interesting and challenging, I tend to not check my phone or email or Facebook. But if a task isn’t the right mix of that cocktail, then my mind does indeed wander. Further, I would bet that my mind wanders no more than it did before the prevalence of the internet (otherwise known as my college internship years); my wanderlust simply has an easy outlet now.

I propose that most activities can be mapped on axes of easy to challenging and boring to interesting, and that those in the sweet spot of challenging and interesting are immune to “the shallows.” Here’s how I’d map a few personal tasks on a graph:

activity-graph_me.png

  • Easy & Interesting: This quadrant is truly “the shallows” for me. It doesn’t require a lot of effort, but has my attention. In this space, I watch TV while Facebooking while following links until I OD on multitasking.
  • Easy & Boring: The easy and boring quadrant holds many of those tasks that should be easy to complete, but lack of focus makes them time- and energy-consuming. I’m always trying to figure out how to talk on the phone or listen to music while cleaning, so it takes extra long to get it done, but requires minimal thought.
  • Challenging & Boring: The boring but challenging quadrant is where I do a LOT of procrastinating. I will do anything before tackling the tasks in this space. The easy and boring tasks are downright sexy compared to these (yes, cleaning is my favorite procrastinating activity).
  • Challenging & Interesting: The interesting and challenging space is comprised of tasks that require thought, creativity, and offer enough challenge so I don’t look for input elsewhere. I bet Vygotsky would love this zone.

Students in the Shallows?

For those in higher ed who are frustrated with students “in the shallows”, perhaps it’s worth evaluating what you are asking students to do, and if it really is worth their attention away from Facebook. If I were a student today, these common instructional activities would map out like this for me:

activity-graph_student.png

  • Discussion forums: Online discussions can be fruitful, but they can also very quickly be reduced to “how many times do I have to post to get credit?” Thought-provoking questions and good facilitation can help, but expect that the forum thread isn’t the only discussion the student will be participating in at one time.
  • Multiple-choice quizzes:  Multiple-choice quizzes rarely do more than serve as a reading check for the instructor, which may have a role in the course. But when you consider how challenging it is to write good, fair quiz questions, and how easy it is for students to hit a radial button, no matter their mastery of the content, you have to consider how much weight quizzes should have in assessing learning.
  • Writing essays. I say this with regret, as a former English teacher – students don’t like writing essays. And many are not good at it, despite years of “practice” with the five-paragraph essay. There’s unquestionably a need to teach and assess student communication skills, but the formal academic essay is only one tool to achieve that end, arguably one that lacks relevance in the real world.
  • Making videos. Video, like the essay, is simply another communication tool, but one that encourages students to communicate more naturally (speaking) and to think creatively. To make a good video, one has to make use of a range of skills (technical, communication, organizational and design skills, to name a few), which creates more opportunity for diverse students to excel.

If we are indeed living in the shallows of information more and more, there are still ways to get to the deep end through meaningful engagement. Educators have the chance (and the  responsibility) to be the safe vessels that carry students into deeper waters, but the old way of doing things is not going to get them there. Perhaps educators, too, need a life vest before jumping off the safe ledge of lectures and exams into the murkier depths of collaborative and project-based learning, but dive we must. Otherwise, this kiddie pool will get overcrowded, and we won’t remember how to swim.

Back to the Future with Ellen Wagner

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One of the highlights of the Sloan-C Emerging Technologies Conference was the keynote by Ellen Wagner. She pointed out the gaps we need to mind – the space between innovation and implementation, research and practice, traditional e-learning and emerging e-learning – if we are to meet the challenge of educating the next generation. With a breadth of experience and a little humor as well, she walked the audience through the history of e-learning, and showed us how far we still have to travel.

Her talk resonated with me because while she touched on the big picture issues, they parallel the day-to-day tensions instructional designers often struggle with. When developing courses, I feel like my job is to triangulate where faculty and students are to find that comfortable sweet spot where meaningful learning can happen. That spot is both the goal and the gap I need to mind.

There’s more to unpack here, but I’m still on west coast time so it’s too early in the morning for me:)  I’ll leave you with Ellen’s Big Questions for Learning Professionals:

  • How do we prepare learners for jobs and technologies that don’t exist yet?
  • How do we help prepare a workforce for a world where they will need to solve problems we don’t even know about?
  • How do we prepare ourselves to edit/modify/delete much of what we have learned about our own professional practices?
  • How do we capture and extend learning experience so that is it meaningful in the context of our augmented digital lives?
  • How to we move beyond the fascination with the latest and greatest and focus on sustainable innovation?