Category: online learning
Athabasca University Press has just published Emergence and Innovation in Digital Learning, a book I edited that owes its existence to the insightful authors who contributed their chapters on the topic. Like other titles published by AU Press, the book is open access.
Emerging technologies (e.g., social media, serious games, adaptive software) and emerging practices (e.g., openness, user modeling) in particular, have been heralded as providing opportunities to transform education, learning, and teaching. In such conversations it is often suggested that new ideas – whether technologies or practices – will address educational problems (e.g., open textbooks may make college more affordable) or provide opportunities to rethink the ways that education is organized and enacted (e.g., the collection and analysis of big data may enable designers to develop algorithms that provide early and critical feedback to at-risk students). Yet, our understanding of emerging technologies and emerging practices is elusive. In this book, we amalgamate work associated with emergence in digital education to conceptualize, design, critique, enhance, and better understand education.
If you’ve ben following the conversations in the last two years, there will be some themes that you’ll recognize here. To mention a few: defining emerging technologies; not-yetness; data mining; technology integration models; open and social learning; and sociocultural aspects of MOOCs.
In the days that follow, I will summarize each chapter here.
Over the last year or so, we’ve interviewed more than 200 individuals who have participated in a number of open courses. We are working on a project in which we are using learner narratives and vignettes from these interviews to help administrators, faculty, researchers, and learning designers understand learners and improve their learning experience. Though there are many ways that are used to understand learners (e.g., dashboards) we believe that in-depth vignettes of typical experiences may allow for greater sensitivity of the learners’ lifeworld and realities. We will be using these stories to problematize various aspects of digital learning. Each story will be followed by a longer analysis of the issues raised in the story. For now, below is one such (DRAFT!) story. What do you think? Is there anything else that you’d like to see in this narrative? Is it interesting? If you are an administrator, faculty, researcher, or learning designer, does this story add anything valuable?
Title: Why not?
Theme: Open learning opportunities are oftentimes costless and relatively risk-free.
Mary and her demanding Pomeranian, Kylie, live deep in the heart of Texas. “I have a passion for the law!” the thirty-year-old exclaimed when we called her on her landline. She had seriously considered going to law school and had even passed her LSATS, the law school entrance exams used for US Universities. But having just finished four intense years of a bachelor’s degree, she decided to wait a bit. “Law school just didn’t seem like a good choice at the time,” she reflected. Five years later, Mary has settled into her work as a business consultant. Her interest in the law is still keen, and she’s never completely given up the dream of law school, but it’s been tempered with a bit of realism. “I don’t know if I can afford to spend another three years in the classroom,” she confided to us, “I don’t know if I still have the same passion for the legal industry as I did five years ago.”
During an afternoon enjoying frozen mango margaritas with a friend, trying to cope with the scorching sun, Mary learned about MOOCs. Shortly thereafter, she signed up for a number of courses, dabbling in some and promptly forgetting about others. One day, ContractsX, a course on contract law taught by a Harvard professor, popped up on her screen and she decided to “give it a shot”. What had she got to lose? “It’s a free class, taught at one of the more well-respected institutions. Why not?!” she laughed.
The course was flexible and fit into her busy life. On Saturday mornings she would sit in her office, with Kylie by her side and a warm cup of dark roast coffee in her hand, and use her trusted iPad to watch Harvard Law lectures. These weren’t just any lectures. Professor Fried was a masterful storyteller, a king of his trade. It was through these short, interesting, and memorable stories that Professor Fried taught concepts relating to contract law. “I can’t believe that I’m sitting here, I’m learning this material from Harvard law!” The fast pace and cramped content made the course challenging, Mary acknowledged, and she didn’t always do as well as she would have liked on the course tests. But, as she was able to go back to review the answers and re-watch the videos, this didn’t stress her too much, and she ended up passing the course with flying colours. Proud of her certificate of accomplishment, Mary enthused, “It makes me want to keep coming back for more!”
Even though it was a personal interest in the law that led her to sign up for this course, Mary has found what she learned in ContractsX helpful when she has to deal with contracts in her own job. She has enthusiastically recommended the course to co-workers and friends. She’s currently taking a number of other open courses and is anxiously awaiting the second version of the Contracts course. While Mary’s dream of attending law school, may not have changed, her confidence in herself has: “I never thought of applying to Harvard. There was no way I would be getting in. But then, five years later, I’m taking a course from Harvard. I wouldn’t say that I’m a Harvard law student, but at least now I could sit across from a Harvard law student and have a clear conversation with them. It’s very rewarding to know that.”
A number of literature reviews have been published on MOOCs. None has focused exclusively on the empirical literature. In a recent paper, we analyzed the empirical literature published on MOOCs in 2013-2015 to make greater sense of who studies what and how. We found that:
- more than 80% of this literature is published by individuals whose home institutions are in North America and Europe,
- a select few papers are widely cited while nearly half of the papers are cited zero times,
- researchers have favored a quantitative if not positivist approach to the conduct of MOOC research,
- researchers have preferred the collection of data via surveys and automated methods
- some interpretive research was conducted on MOOCs in this time period, but it was often basic and it was the minority of studies that were informed by methods traditionally associated with qualitative research (e.g., interviews, observations, and focus groups)
- there is limited research reported on instructor-related topics, and
- even though researchers have attempted to identify and classify learners into various groupings, very little research examines the experiences of learner subpopulations (e.g., those who succeed vs those who don’t; men vs women).
We believe that the implications arising from this study are important for research on educational technology in general and not jut MOOC research. For instance, given the interest on big data and automated collection/analysis of the data trails that learners leave behind on digital learning environments, a broader methodological toolkit is imperative in the study of emerging digital learning environments.
Here’s a copy of the paper:
Veletsianos, G. & Shepherdson, P. (2016). A Systematic Analysis And Synthesis of the Empirical MOOC Literature Published in 2013-2015. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(2).
The attention that education and educational technology are receiving are significant, and I feel fortunate to be able to participate in efforts to improve education. Nonetheless, for the past couple of years has been bombarded with announcement after announcement of what the latest and greatest technology can do for education. These announcements are almost always filled with claims about their potential impact. Here’s a clipping of a recent email i received:
Let’s pause. Research from ISTE “found that the use of education technology (EdTech) resulted in 35 percent of students showing higher scores on class assessments and 32 percent increased engagement?” The link pointed to this post, written by the amazing Wendy Drexel. Let’s hone in on what Wendy actually wrote:
“Nationwide, we are seeing powerful results from the effective use of technology in classrooms. For example, results of research by ISTE and the Verizon Foundation earlier this year into the use of education technology had teachers reporting that 35 percent of their students showed higher scores on classroom assessments; 32 percent showed increased engagement; and 62 percent demonstrated increased proficiency with mobile devices. In fact, 60 percent of participating teachers also reported that by using their mobile devices, they provided more one-on-one help to students, and 47 percent said they spent less time on lectures to the entire class.”
These are interesting and worthwhile results. But they are mischaracterized in the email above. From the summary of the research posted on the ISTE site and a more detailed report of the research (pdf), we can begin to see how some edtech companies purport that there is evidence of impact and use that to further their cause. Here’s a summary of two issues ignored by the ad/email:
- The email claims that use of edtech resulted in 35% and 32% more students scoring higher in classroom assessment and engagement. What the research actually reported about this particular area is the following: teachers reported that edtech use led to increased scores/engagement. In more plain language, the teachers said that their students did better. We don’t know if they did or did not.
- The email paints a direct and unequivocal relationship between edtech use and outcomes.: “use of educational technology resulted in.” That’s not actually the case. Why?
- The actual research showed that even though there were differences in math and science outcomes between schools that participated and schools that did not, the results were not statistically significant. In different words: similar results could be expected without the use of this particular technology
- How is the technology used? The research report notes: “During site visits, observers noted that edtech-using teachers used technology to efficiently
facilitate drill and practice test preparation activities.” In other words: Edtech helps with teaching to the test and that seems to work. Put differently: We have powerful technologies that empower people to be creative and allow global collaboration, but have created systems that put teachers in situations in which they have to use these tools in simplistic ways.
The British Journal of Educational Technology and BERA approached us to create an infographic for the article we (Amy Collier, Emily Schneider, and myself) published last year: Digging Deeper into Learners’ Experiences in MOOCs: Participation in social networks outside of MOOCs, Notetaking, and contexts surrounding content consumption
Below is the outcome (and a pdf version is here):
“Personalized learning” is that one area of research and practice that brings to the forefront many of the debates and issues that the field is engaging with right now. If one wanted to walk people through the field, and wanted to do so through *one* specific topic, that topic would be personalized learning.
Personalized cans? (CC-licensed image from Flickr)
Here’s are some of the questions that personalized learning raises:
- We have a problem with labels and meaning in this field. Heck, we have a problem with what to call ourselves: Learning Technologies or Educational Technology? Or perhaps instructional design? Learning Design? Learning, Design, and Technology? Or is it Learning Science? Reiser asks: What field did you say you were in? The same is true for personalized learning. Audrey Watters and Mike Caulfield ask what does “personalized learning” mean and what is the term’s history? Does it mean different pathways for each learner, one pathway with varied pacing for each learner, or something else?
- The Chan-Zuckerberg initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation endorse personalized learning. What is the role of philanthropy in education in general and educational technology in particular? Should educators and researchers “beware of big donors” or should they enthusiastically welcome the support in the current climate of declining public monies?
- Where is the locus of control? Is personalization controlled by the learner? Is the control left to the software? What of shared control? Obsolete views of personalization and adaptive learning focus on how the system can control both the content and the learning process ignoring, for the most part, the learner, even though learner control appears to be an important determinant of success in e-learning (see Singhanayok & Hooper, 1998). The important question in my mind is the following: How do we balance system and learner control? Such shared control should empower students and enable technology to support and enhance the process. Downes distinguishes between personalized learning and personal learning. I think that locus of control is the distinguishing aspect, and that the role of shared control remains an open conceptual and empirical question. Debates about xMOOCx vs cMOOCs fall in here as well as the debate regarding the value of guided vs discovery learning.
- How do big data and learning analytics improve learning and participation? What are the limitations of depending on trace data? Personalized learning often appears to depend on the creation of learner profiles. For example, if you fit a particular profile you might receive a particular worked-out example or semi-completed problem, and problems might vary as one progresses through a pathway. Or, you might get an email from Coursera about “recommended courses” (see my point above regarding definitions and meanings). Either way, the role that large datasets, analytics, and educational data science – as well as the limitations and assumptions of these approaches, as we show in our research – is central to personalization and new approaches to education.
- What assumptions do authors of personalized learning algorithms make? We can’t answer this question unless we look at the algorithms. Such algorithms are rarely transparent. They often come in “black box” form, which means that what we have no insight into the processes of how inputs are transformed to outputs. We don’t know the inner workings of the algorithms that Facebook, Twitter, and Google Scholar use, and we likely won’t know how the algorithms that EdTechCompany uses work to deliver particular content to particular groups of students. If independent researchers can’t evaluate the inner workings of personalized learning software, how can we be sure that such algorithms so what they are supposed to do without being prejudicial? Perhaps the authors of education technology algorithms need a code of conduct, and a course on social justice?
- Knewton touts its personalization engine. Does it actually work? Connecting this to broader conversations in the field: What evidence do we have about the claims made by the EdTech industry? Is there empirical evidence to support these claims? See for example, this analysis by Phil Hill on the relationship between LMS use and retention/performance and this paper by Royce Kimmons on the impact of LMS adoption on outcomes. If you’ve been in the position of making a technology purchasing in K-12/HigherEd, you have likely experienced the unending claims regarding the positive impact of technology on outcomes and retention.
- And speaking of data and outcomes, what of student privacy in this context? How long should software companies keep student data? Who has access to the data? Should the data follow students from one system (e.g., K-12) to another (e.g., Higher Ed)? Is there uniformity in place (e.g., consistent learner profiles) for this to happen? How does local legislation relate to educational technology companies’ use of student data? For example, see this analysis by BCCampus describing how British Columbia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) impacts the use of US-based cloud services. The more one looks into personalization and its dependence on student data, the more one has to explore questions pertaining to privacy, surveillance and ethics.
- Finally, what is the role of openness is personalized learning? Advocates for open frequently argue that openness and open practices enable democratization, transparency, and empowerment. For instance, open textbooks allow instructors to revise them. But, what happens when the product that publishing companies sell isn’t content? What happens, when the product is personalized learning software that uses OER? Are the goals of the open movement met when publishers use OER bundles with personalized learning software that restricts the freedoms associated with OER? What becomes of the open agenda to empower instructors, students, and institutions?
There’s lots to contemplate here, but the point is this: Personalized learning is ground zero for the field and its debates.
I’m at the Open Education 2015 conference, and I am struck by the continuing focus on costs, and the absence of theorizing openness, (and by extension OER and open textbooks). Is this a problem? Reducing costs is of course important. There’s no question about it. But whether the absence of theory is a problem depends what we believe theory does. After hearing many talks start with statements akin to “we asked faculty to use open textbooks, but…” or “we hoped the institution would embrace openness because it reduced costs, but…”, I thought that it might be worthwhile to ask more why questions:
- Why do some faculty do and others do not adopt open textbooks?
- Why do some faculty revise OER?
- Why do some faculty choose to publish their work in closed journals?
Theorizing openness can help us answer many of these questions. Because openness does not exist in a vacuum. I think that a sociocultural theoretical framing of openness can help practitioners and researchers make better sense and use of openness. Here’s a quote from a recent paper that argues for and clarifies this framing:
“A sociocultural perspective on openness, open practices and open scholarship views these practices as being socially shaped, and the technologies used to enact openness as necessarily, if not always intentionally, embedding their developers’ worldviews, values, beliefs, and assumptions into their design and the activities they support and encourage. By recognizing that open practices are shaped by social, cultural, economic, and political factors, this perspective rejects the notion that such practices are deterministic and holds that, with adequate information and evidence, learners, instructors, and researchers have the agency to accept or reject any particular technology or practice or to find alternative uses for it that will better serve their needs.” (p. 202)
Veletsianos, G. (2015). A Case Study of Scholars’ Open and Sharing practices. Open Praxis 7(3), 199-209. http://openpraxis.org/index.php/OpenPraxis/article/view/206/168
Related: See this presentation by Royce Kimmons which argues the following:
“[O]penness is more than economy. The freedoms afforded by open practices have great promise for improving the pedagogy and professionalism in our educational institutions as educators are empowered to differentiate, collaborate, and innovate in ways that were impossible under non-open paradigms.”
We recently published a special issue for Educational Media International by asking authors to submit papers focusing on the following question: What is it like to learn and participate in MOOCs? This has now been published.
We developed this special issue to enhance our collective understanding of learner experiences and participation in MOOCs because the scholarly community still has an incomplete mosaic of students’ learning experiences with open online learning.
The following papers are included:
Editorial: Contributions to the mosaic describing learners’ experiences with open online learning (pdf)
George Veletsianos and Vrasidas Charalambos
Learning from MOOCs: a qualitative case study from the learners’ perspectives
Yeonjeong Park, Insung Jung and Thomas C. Reeves
A classroom at home: children and the lived world of MOOCs
Yin Yin, Catherine Adams, Erika Goble and Luis Francisco Vargas Madriz
What makes a cMOOC community endure? Multiple participant perspectives from diverse cMOOCs
Maha Bali, Maureen Crawford, Rhonda Jessen, Paul Signorelli and Mia Zamora
Fulfilling the promise: do MOOCs reach the educationally underserved?
Lorrie Schmid, Kim Manturuk, Ian Simpkins, Molly Goldwasser and Keith E. Whitfield
Examining learners’ perspective of taking a MOOC: reasons, excitement, and perception of usefulness
M. Liu, J. Kang and E. McKelroy
- Note: While the journal is not open access, a number of the authors above have self-archived copies of their paper, like I am doing above.