Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology & Associate Professor at Royal Roads University

Category: emerging technologies

ELI 2014, learner experiences, MOOC research, and the MOOC phenomenon

I was at the Educause Learning Initiative conference last week (#ELI2014), where I had some interesting conversations and discussions around online learning, MOOCs, research methods, and the future of higher education.

Amy Collier and I presented early results from our qualitative studies looking at learners’ MOOC experiences (if you have not yet responded to our call to share your lived experiences with us, please consider this invitation). Our talk was entitled “Messy Realities: Investigating Learners’ Experiences in MOOCs.” Our thinking is guided by the notion that even though surveys and big data yield insights into general behavioral patterns,  these  methods are detached and can distance us rather than help us understand the human condition. As a result, the phenomenon of “learning in a MOOC” is understudied and undiscovered. During the session, we shared what we have been finding in our studies, highlighting the messiness of learning and teaching in the open.

Karen Vignare and Amy Collier were also very kind to extend an invitation to a number of us to share our work with individuals participating in the leadership seminar they organized. It was fantastic to hear  Katie Vale (Harvard), Matt Meyer (The Pennsylvania State University), Rebecca Petersen (edX, MIT), and D. Christopher Brooks (EDUCAUSE) discuss their work, and once again, I felt grateful that we are having these conversations more openly, more frequently, and with greater intent.

Below are my rough notes from my 5-7 minute presentation. I appreciate parsimony (who doesn’t?), and in the words of D. Christopher Brooks, this is the litany of things I think:

I am a designer and researcher of education and learning. I study emerging technologies and emerging learning environments. I’m also a faculty member , and I have been teaching in higher education settings both face-to-face and online since 2005.

To contextualize my comments on MOOCs, first I want to describe my experiences with them:

– I have facilitated one week of the #change11 MOOC was organized by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2011. This MOOC had a distinctively connectivist flavor with each week being facilitated by 1 person.
– I have enrolled in a number of MOOCs, and have even completed a small number of them.
– I have repurposed MOOCs in my own courses. For example, I have asked students to enroll in MOOCs and write about them.
– I have published an e-book with my students, sharing stories of student experiences with MOOCs.
– Finally, I am actively involved in studying learners’ experiences in MOOCs in order to understand the human element in these emerging learning environments.

I have recently come to the realization that I have an ambivalent relationship with MOOCs. My relationship with MOOCs is one of the most ambivalent relationships I have had with anyone or anything. This relationship is more ambivalent than the love-ignore-hate relationship that my cat has with me!

On the one hand, I appreciate the opportunities for open learning that MOOCs provide. I also appreciate how MOOCs have brought us together to discuss issues around technology, teaching, and learning. At the same time, I cringe at the narratives around big data, I cringe at the hype, at the ignorance around what education is and should be about.

I want to talk about two topics today: MOOC research and the MOOC phenomenon.

On MOOC Research

– We don’t know much about MOOCs
– The things that we know about MOOCs are mostly the result of surveys, learning analytics, and big data research
– The existing research and the existing methods that we use are informative, BUT they simply paint an incomplete picture of MOOCs. We should be asking more in-depth questions about learner and instructor experiences in MOOCs
– Qualitative and interpretive research methods can and will help us better understand MOOCs, open learning, and open scholarship
– Descriptions of learner behaviors are helpful, but these descriptions only provide a glimpse and superficial summary of what students experience and what they do in digital learning environments. To give you an example, emerging research suggests that students may be “sampling” courses; a behavior that we don’t frequently see in traditional online courses or traditional face-to-face courses. Nonetheless, “sampling” is not how participants would describe their experiences or the ways they participate MOOCs. To illustrate, consider family-style Mediterranean meals that consist of numerous dishes, where participants sample a wide array of food. If you ask a person to describe this meal, to explain it to someone else, or to simply tell you about the meal, they will likely describe the meal as a feast, they might describe the tahini as lemony, the variety of flavors as intriguing, the whole meal as satisfying. Different people will also describe the meal differently: Tourists might describe the meal as fulfilling, heavy, or even extravagant; locals might describe the same meal as appropriate, or better than or worst than meals that they have had at other restaurants. “Sampling” may be an appropriate descriptor of the act of eating a family-style meal, or exploring a MOOC, but the descriptor does not fully capture the experience of sampling.

 

On the MOOC as a Phenomenon

MOOCs. The acronym stands for massive, open, online courses. That is not what MOOCs are though. MOOCs are a phenomenon. They represent something larger than a course and should be seen in conjunction to the rebirth and revival of educational technology. They represent symptoms, responses, and failures facing Higher Education. For instance,  MOOCs are a response to the increasing costs of Higher Education; represent the belief that the purpose of education is to prepare students for the workforce; represent the belief that technology is the solution to the problems that education is facing; are indicative of scholarly failures; seem to represent the belief that education is a product that can be packaged, automated, and delivered; and, are a response to failures by researchers, designers, administrators, and institutions to develop effective and inspiring solutions to the problems of education (alternatively, they might also represent the failure of existing systems to support creative individuals in enacting change)*.

The  MOOC is an acronym that elicits strong feelings: excitement, fear, defiance, uncertainty, hope, contempt…. To address these feelings we have to address the failures of higher education and the underlying causes that have given rise to MOOCs. For this reason, instead of talking about MOOCs at my own institution, I discuss innovations and approaches that I value, including networked scholarship, openness, flexibility, social learning, and the design and development of new technologies.

 

* NOTE: Rolin Moe and I are working on a paper refining and delineating these. If you have thoughts, concerns, or input on any of these issues, we’d love to hear form you!

On Noam Chomsky and technology’s neutrality

Posted on January 23rd, by George Veletsianos in E-learning, emerging technologies, my research, online learning, scholarship. 22 comments

In a recent interview, Noam Chomsky commented on the relationship between technology and education and one of his thoughts was the following:

As far as technology itself and education is concerned, technology is basically neutral. It’s like a hammer. The hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or whether on torture, using it to crush somebody’s skull, the hammer can do either.

Hammer – CC Photo by Birmingham Museum and Arts Gallery

I admire Noam Chomsky and his brilliance. I agree with this perspective, but this perspective does not paint the whole picture of what happens when we use technology in education. I’d like to unpack this just a little bit because there is a more accurate picture of technology use in education available to us. The broader picture I describe below helps us understand how technologies are used, why they succeed/fail, and how we can design better learning environments. From my observations of technology use in education, my research, my colleagues’ research, and my reading of the field’s research, here’s what I understand:

  • Technologies can be as neutral as described above. For example, Twitter can be used as a broadcasting medium, a conversational medium, or even a 1-1 support tool. YouTube can replace the VCR used in class. Or, it can bring together people from different locations to discuss topics of common interest. In this sense, technologies are neutral in that they can serve various needs and can be used in different ways.
  • Technologies themselves are rarely neutral. How can that be, you ask, when the bullet point above stated the opposite? Technology is not created in a vacuum. When technology is created, it is built with the developers’ worldviews, values, beliefs, and assumptions embedded into the technology and revealed through the activities supported and encouraged when individuals use the technology. For example, social networking sites (SNS) structure relationships in specific ways (e.g., followers, friends) and perceive privacy in different ways. Technologies hold particular views of the world, and in this way, they are not neutral. This is true for technologies that we repurpose for educational means (e.g., Twitter, YouTube, Ning, Elgg, Facebook, Flickr, and so on) as well as for technologies created specifically for educational purposes. For example, Learning Management Systems (LMS) espouse certain beliefs about the educational process and their default settings and suggestions may shape how they are used. Whn introduced in educational settings, said technologies tend to introduce tensions and conundrums (e.g., The way the LMS or SNS structured instructor-learner relationships vs. the way faculty envisioned instructor-learner relationships may be in conflict, leading to low uptake, rejection of the tool, etc).
  • Technologies can be put to different uses, but not all uses are productive or effective. A hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to “build a house… or crush somebody’s skull,” but it will do a poor job if you try to use it in lieu of a screwdriver. The problem arises when entrepreneurs, designers, instructors, etc treating the hammer as a tool that can help them address all needs. A recent example of this is Udacity treating its product as a solution in search of a problem.

The ways that technology is used on the ground are complex and negotiated. In preparing instructors to use technology in education and designers to envision ways that technology can support/enhance education, we need to expose them to skills and mindsets that allow them to use tools in creative and inspirational ways. We also need to help them understand the assumptions and beliefs that technologies espouse and remain cognizant of the pressures and tensions that these may introduce.

 

* References pertaining to technology being not-neutral:

Whitworth, A., & Benson, A. (2010). Learning, Design, and Emergence: Two case studies of Moodle in distance education. In G. Veletsianos (Ed.), Emerging Technologies in Distance Education (pp. 195-213). Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.

Hall, R. (2011). Revealing the transformatory moment of learning technology: the place of critical social theory. Research in Learning Technology, 19(3), 273-284.

Lane, L. (2009). Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching. First Monday, 14(10).

Crook, C. (2012). The “ digital native ” in context: tensions associated with importing Web 2.0 practices into the school setting. Oxford Review of Education, 38(1), 63-80.

HarvardX and MITx open course reports

Posted on January 22nd, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, moocs, online learning, open. 8 comments

HarvardX and MITx released a number of reports describing their open courses. The overarching paper describing these initiatives, entitled HarvardX and MITx: The first year of open online courses is really helpful in gaining a holistic understanding of HarvardX and MITx learned about their initiatives.

My (preliminary) thoughts:

  • It’s exciting to see more data
  • It’s exciting to see education researchers involved in the analysis of the data
  • The researchers should be congratulated for making these reports available in an expeditious manner via SSRN
  • We need more interpretive/qualitative research to understand participants’ and practitioners’ experiences on the ground
  • I am wondering whether the community would benefit from access to the data that HarvardX and MITx have, as other individuals/groups could run additional analyses. Granted, I imagine this might require quite a lot of effort, not least in the development of procedures for data sharing.

The course reports appear below, and these are quite helpful in helping the community understand the particulars of each course:

Journal of academic freedom CFP

Posted on December 12th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, scholarship. 6 comments

The burgeoning interest in education and educational technology is the result of a multitude of forces, pressures, and failures: demographic, political, social, technological, and economic just to mention a few. And the outcomes aren’t just technology-enhanced or better courses. Educational institutions, academic roles, academic life itself, the student experience, and so on are changing. A recent call for proposals from The American Association of University Professors’ Journal of Academic Freedom (due: January 31, 2014) calls for authors to explore the relationship between academic freedom and some of these issues:

Electronic communications and academic freedom

  • How has the growth of electronic communications facilitated and impinged on academic freedom?
  • What are the implications for academic freedom of the proliferation of open access publications?
  • Are commercial entities contributing to the commodification of knowledge through various electronic gatekeeping mechanisms?
  • How can institutions cope with hacking and other forms of electronic piracy while maintaining accessibility?
  • To what extent are social media such as Twitter and Facebook changing forms of scholarly communication and knowledge dissemination, and what is the upshot for issues of academic freedom?
  • How are the increasingly elastic and intangible walls of the electronic classroom challenging existing definitions of academic freedom, shared governance, and intellectual property?
  • In what ways can we promote faculty participation in the shared governance of various forms of electronic communications?
  • Are faculty e-mails considered the property of the institution? Can administrators read faculty e-mails without notice or permission?

The abridgement of academic freedom in instruction

  • The case of former Indiana governor Mitchell Daniels’ efforts to purge scholars’ writings from the classroom has drawn attention to renewed attacks on academic freedom in instruction. Where are such attacks coming from and how have they been resolved?
  • The Gates Foundation has devoted millions of dollars to supporting MOOCs and other experiments in online teaching. To what extent are such experiments curtailing or facilitating faculty input into course design?
  • The suspension of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan in 2012 drew attention to the increasingly tense relationship between university boards of trustees and university faculty and executives. In what ways, if any, are such institutional dynamics transforming academic freedom in instruction?
  • Federal and state assessment protocols are putting pressure on curricula in many fields. We are interested in both case studies and overviews that detail the impact of these pressures on academic freedom.

The increased use of suspensions

  • In September 2013, a professor at the University of Kansas tweeted a comment about gun control that led to a barrage of hate messages. The university suspended this faculty member in order to “avoid disruption.” To what extent are such misused suspensions proliferating, and how might faculty members be made more aware of their rights?
  • As university work has become more complex and extensive, the number of duties from which professors can be suspended has proliferated. Examples include relationships of researchers to outside funding agencies, access to email and computing services, and workplace provisions against sexual misconduct, just to name a few of the complex domains in which professors often operate today. What kinds of problems of academic freedom do partial suspensions in these and other areas represent?
  • University administrators often seek to cloak suspension in duplicitous language. Does reassignment to duties other than teaching constitute a form of suspension, for example?  What is the distinction between such a sanctioning of faculty rights and total suspension?

 

 

 

Archived talk: Academics’ and Educators’ practices and experiences with social media/networks

Posted on November 16th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, my research, scholarship. 7 comments

On Wednesday, I gave a talk to the Canadian Institute of Distance Education Research focused on scholars’ (researchers and instructors’) practices and experiences with social media/networks on the open web. The feedback from the organizers was positive: “We had about 40 attendees, which is at the high end of our usual crowd, and their activity in the chat was much greater than usual – a very good sign. It was a great session, I’m pleased, and hopefully you enjoyed it as well.”

I had a great time, though I wish we had more time for questions and answers. If you are interested in the topic, the session was recorded and it’s now available for your use/viewing.  The slides I used appear below:

COHERE 2013. Small is beautiful and MOOCs as symptoms

Posted on October 27th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, my research, online learning, open, scholarship, sharing. 19 comments

I am sitting at a coffee shop in Vancouver, BC reflecting on my time at COHERE 2013. This was my first Canadian conference since moving to Victoria, and it was a great opportunity to meet and spend time with colleagues (many of them Canadians) including Tony Bates, Rory McGreal, Martha-Cleveland Innes, David Porter, Diane Janes, Diane Salter, Jenni Hayman, Richard Pinet, Robert Clougherty, and Cindy Ives. It was also great to see Ron Owston, Frank Bulk, and Kathleen Matheos again – and my colleagues Vivian Forssman and BJ Eib were there too! The conference was relatively small and the sessions were 40 minutes long, allowing ample time and space for conversations, networking, and debates. I really appreciated the intimate atmosphere that we were afforded for spending time with each other. The organizers (Kathleen Matheos and Stacey Woods) did a fantastic job!

Cable Green from Creative Commons delivered the first keynote and David Porter from BC Campus delivered the second. I sat on a respondent panel for Cable’s keynote and argued three points: (a) we need to build on and go beyond open educational resources, and think about open practices, (b) each of us needs to take action in supporting openness (e.g., by teaching sharing as a value and literacy), and (c) by recognizing that “open” is under threat of being subverted. It was fascinating to sit on a panel with four others and see how our responses to the keynote differed, but how they all coalesced around similar messages as well.

I also gave a presentation discussing early findings from my research into learners experiences in MOOCs, open courses, and other open learning environments, and you might be interested in Tony Bates’ take on this research:

These findings are not fully refined and analyzed, yet. However, in thinking about these results, reading the literature and claims around MOOCs, and thinking about recent developments in educational technology, I am beginning to see MOOCs more and more as a symptom of chronic failures of the educational system to tackle significant issues. On the one hand, I and others have argued that MOOC creators have ignored research into how people learn and how people learn with technology. Tony Bates  in particular (see the last link), is very clear when he says “Why is MIT ignoring 25 years of research into online learning and 100 years research into how students learn in its design of online courses?”

On the other hand however, the rise of MOOCs seems to be a symptom of a series of failures and pressures. I like the argument that George Siemens makes in relation to inadequate university approaches to educational needs, “Universities have failed to recognize the pent-up demand for learning as the economy has diversified and society has become more complex and interconnected. As a consequence, the internet has contributed by creating a shadow education system where learners learn on their own and through social networks. MOOCs reflect society’s transition to a knowledge economy and reveal the inadequacy of existing university models to meet learner’s needs.” I’d like to take this argument further. As a field, we could do more to have greater impact on the design and development of educational technology solutions, including MOOCs. Steps to do that would include sharing our research more broadly and in different ways (e.g., publishing in open access venues and putting theory-to-practice), engaging in what Tom Reeves calls socially-responsible research that solves real problems, working across disciplines, reconsidering the ways that we understand, evaluate, and reward impact at our institutions, and so on. More on these issues, soon!

 

The road to SXSWedu 2014

Posted on October 17th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, my research, open, scholarship, sharing. 5 comments

In mid-August,, I posted a note asking for your vote on a panel I proposed for SXSWedu consisting of Tanya Joosten, Amy Collier, Audrey Watters, and myself. The topic was: Startups Should Talk with Researchers and Educators,

I’m uber excited to report that our proposal has been accepted. We will be headed to Austin in March to discuss how researchers and educators can contribute to the design, development, refinement, and ultimately effectiveness of learning technologies and educational technology.

SXSWedu

Tanya described why she is interested in this topic on her blog. I thought I would do the same, especially as Tanya, Amy, and I were at Educause this week discussing issues that educational institutions need to consider when piloting for technology/innovations.

A lot of you may not know this, but I have a degree in computer science, and way back when, in my undergraduate thesis I developed software enabling real-time interactions between students and instructor that emulated classroom processes by allowing students to “raise their hand” to ask questions, make comments, etc. This was nothing spectacular, unique, or groundbreaking. Yet, it was my first attempt at developing educational technology to solve a (perceived) problem. Since then, I have concurrently done design/development work and research, and I see myself as a researcher and a designer. Some of the projects I have worked on are AvenueASL (a language learning and e-assessment platform), Project Engage (a dual credit course and online learning environment introducing students to the Big Ideas relating to Computer Science), Geothentic (an online environment immersing students in Geography through situated, real-world problem-solving), and AL through Water and MOSS (an online learning environment supporting science learning via outdoor exploration). I don’t only write about learning technologies. I also build them.

How does one reconcile D&D work and research? My perspective is that it’s not enough to study what happens with educational technology. Studying, analyzing, critiquing, and questioning educational technology is very important. It’s imperative. But, we need to take the additional step to use the research to (a) design and develop educational applications, and (b) inform others on what the research says so that they can develop effective technology-based solutions based on what we know about teaching and learning. Hence the need for this panel.

I was also motivated to put together this panel after participating in SXSWedu 2013. One of the sessions I attended last year focused on business models for educational technology. One of the panelists noted that their commitment to their investors is profit, not learning outcomes. I’m not naive. Entrepreneurship is important and we should support and reward it in various ways. However, putting profits before learning outcomes is corrosive and dangerous. The biggest losers in such a setup will be learners, the idea of the university, and the idea of education.  Our panel at SXSWedu is an attempt to add some sense to the conversation, to ‘add the “edu” to “sxsxedu” ‘ (I think that’s a Laura Pasquini quote, but i might be mistaken). It is also an attempt to explain to startups and vendors how they can have their cake and eat it too, how they can make meaningful, and much needed, change in education without necessarily sacrificing other goals that they have.

Whether you are an educator, a startup company, a researcher, a reporter, or an administrator, please join us – we’d love to have you!

For your information, here is our panel’s description: Education is facing numerous challenges. Educational technology startups promise solutions. However, entrepreneurs seem to disregard the knowledge that educators and researchers have amassed that can help startups address these challenges, or, at least, help them avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. At the same time, we were astounded by the lack of educators and researchers that were sharing their knowledge at last year’s SXSWedu conference. The event felt more like a vendor gathering than what the SXSWedu website describes as “meaningful conversation and collaboration around promising practices and tools for improved learning.” If we want meaningful and transformational change in how we do education, it is imperative for entrepreneurs and educators/researchers to converse. In this interactive panel, we will discuss how educators/researchers can help startups improve their products and answer questions pertaining to education research, how people learn, and classroom practice.

Learner experiences with open online learning and MOOCs e-book

Posted on September 24th, by George Veletsianos in emerging technologies, online learning, open, scholarship, sharing. 23 comments

I’m excited to announce the publication of an open access e-book on learners’ experiences with open learning and MOOCs. The book consists of ten chapters by student authors and one introductory chapter by me. Part pedagogical experiment, part an exploratory investigation into learners’ experiences with emerging forms of learning, the aim of the book is to capture and share student stories of open online learning.

ebookcover

This publication is necessary for a number of reasons.

First, from a pedagogical perspective, whenever possible, we should be asking students to do a discipline, not just read about it. In this occasion, students were asked to do open online learning and reflect/write about their experience, instead of just reading about the field and the experience of others.

Second, in the frenzy surrounding the rise of “edtech” and MOOCs, it seems that student voices and experiences are rarely considered. This e-book is an attempt to remind designers and developers that the learning experience should be a central tenet of attempts to reform education. Let’s all remind ourselves that what we should be designing is learning experiences – not products for efficient consumption.

Third, the examination of learning experiences with open learning and MOOCs in the literature is scant. Further, recent literature tends to gravitate towards big data and analytics, and while those research endeavors are worthwhile, they tend to generate abstract descriptions of learner behaviors. A holistic understanding of learner experiences should include both investigations of patterns of how learners behave as well as in-depth qualitative descriptions of what learning in open environments is like. To illustrate, learning analytics research suggests that there are a number of ways learners typically engage with a course (e.g., completing, auditing, disengaging, sampling). Complementary to this, our book generates nuanced descriptions of some of these categories. For example, even though one of the authors would be considered as completing a MOOC he “was left with a partial sense of accomplishment and feelings of hollowness and incompleteness.”

The scholarly contributions from this book are two. They can be summarized as follows, but for in-depth descriptions, please read my full chapter, which is simultaneously published on Hybrid Pedagogy:

  • The realities of open online learning are different from the hopes of open online learning.
  • We only have small pieces of an incomplete mosaic of students’ learning experiences with open online learning.

As with the emerging technologies in distance education book that I edited in 2010 (also available as open access), please don’t hesitate to send me an email to let me know what you think about this book. I’d love your thoughts! If you are teaching a class on emerging learning environments, open education, online learning, and other related topics, and you find this book helpful as reading material, I’d love to hear about how you are using it!

P.S The book is published on Github, which means that you can effortlessly improve and expand on this work. If you want to learn more about this, Kris Shaffer, who was instrumental in making our github project happen, wrote an excellent article on Github and publishing.