This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Assessment: Our Cultural Love Affair with Standardized Tests

The Chicago Teacher's Union strike this week has brought to mind again our culture's codependent relationship with standardized tests.  I specifically chose to describe this relationship as codependent to emphasize how standardized testing controls and manipulates our educational systems.  Instead of being focused on learning, standardized tests focus students on memorizing unrelated and disparate facts in an attempt to prove knowledge and intelligence.  What's worse is that they give an illusion to the rest of the country that there is one acceptable knowledge, that which the exam creators decided to emphasize.

The desire to have some type of knowledge test is easy to understand.  American's are by cultural indoctrination pragmatists.  We want to see the "results".  We want the "evidence".  We hate nebulous answers.  The problem is...learning is not cut and dry.  People learn in different ways, and we process information in different ways.  For example, multiple choice logic problems are easy for some people, but difficult for others.  Sometimes it  is individual, and at other times you can see cultural trends at work.  Standardized tests are ultimately a HORRIBLE way of showing that students have LEARNED.  They do not show the effectiveness of teachers, unless you are looking at how well the teacher taught the test.  I often wonder, have we ever really looked (as a culture) at whether the tests reflect what we think students should be able to do?  Even most of the reading comprehension and math standardized tests seem to miss the mark when it comes to discovering what students have learned.

The prime problem with these exams:  They are easy to administer and grade.  Most of all, they provide wonder numbers which can then be turned into graphs.  Let's ignore the ability to manipulate that data.  Instead, let's just focus on the idea that it is easy for administrators.  A district can just order the tests in bulk, give them at an assigned time, then bulk process them.  The computer then shoots out lots of number....YEAH...Evidence!  But is it good evidence.

One thing I emphasize with my students is that you must look at the underlying assumptions.  What follows are two core assumptions I see in standardized testing.  There are more, but I'm going to start here.
Assumption 1:  All people of the same age (grade) have the same ability to process information.
  • This is a bold assumption, and does not hold very well.  Even adults have different abilities to process information. 
  • This goes back to the industrial model of the American public school system.  All children of age X are sorted into grade Y.
  • But do all children have the same capabilities?  NO.  Some may be better in math than others, some stronger readers, others stronger writers.
  • Core Issue:  Each human being is unique (unless you have an identical twin).  So we each have unique capabilities.
Assumption 2:  All ethnic groups have the same mental models when they enter school. 
I remember one seminar on this topic where the speaker was talking about different thought processes (models) that African American students can come to school with.  It was dealing with what would see as a simple question:  draw a line between two point.  The children's answer was:
It is a line between two points.  Of course, teachers and standardized tests would count this as a wrong answer, but it does satisfy the paramaters of the question. 
  • Children come to school with preconceived ideas (notions) based upon their familial and cultural upbringing.
  • This changes the lens though which they receive information.
  • Again, no two children are alike.

For me, the greatest problem with these exams is that they are attempting to standardize human intellect and knowledge.

In regards to teachers, it is absurd to relate the effectiveness of a teacher to standardized exams throughout primary and secondary schooling.  The exams are not giving us clean data, but instead, data based upon the illusionary concept of a human norm.

NOTE: When you get to specific knowlege (i.e., discipline specific knowlege), I can see using standardized exams a little more (such as the American Chemical Society's collegiate exit exams). I just don't think the general education exams are really giving us the evidence they say they are giving.

Monday, September 10, 2012

How do I like to teach?

Wow, what a loaded question.  It came from Week 2 tasks of  #potcert, specifically the getting started chart.  This may be one questions very few people ask themselves.

Most people are comfortable in the way they teach, but do they like it?  I was very comfortable with the lecture style, and I was good at it.  Since I love storytelling, and have an acting background, it was easy for me to stand up in front of a class and just churn out information.  But did I like it?  It was comfortable.  Was it effective? NO.  When I saw the same students as juniors and seniors, I could tell that most of them did not remember the material. 

At this point, I should differentiate students.  It is ultimately all about the audience, and with the classes I teach, I have different audiences.  First there are my college freshmen who are majoring in biology.  There are a number of challenges with them, not the least of which is deprogramming how they have learned to game the educational system, i.e., get good grades without studying. 

Then there are my pre-nursing students.  They're taking biology to satisfy the requirements to get into the nursing program.  Here you have two types, the hyper motivated who take the initiative to ready and study daily, and those who have no idea how to study.  This second group has a high tendency to fail or withdraw because the class is "too hard."  Never mind they never came to talk to their instructor, or in many cases, showed up for class.  Still, these pre-nursing classes tend to be very bimodal in grade distribution.

In both cases, I was comfortable with the lecture format.  With the majors, I saw that it was very ineffective.  The students thought all they had to do was come to class and listen.  They never sat with the concepts, never did practice problems, or anything.  They passed the exams by cramming, but they never learned.  The good pre-nursing students studied like made, but all they learned were pieces; they rarely saw the whole picture.  The unprepared pre-nursing students most of the time fell away before I could intervene (larger class sizes).  In both cases, I saw that moving to more online assignments, such as quizzes and papers, helped.

But I realized that more was needed.  That is when I moved to a more involved online presence.  One of the things that seems to be the most effective is daily newsletters, but I realize I'm on a tangent.

Back to my original thought:  How do I like to teach is an interesting question, and one that I don't think many people consider.  It gets confused with issues of comfort and ease.  The problem is, is what I like to do effective?  This is the second question we have to ask ourselves.  It may be easy to lecture, but is it effective?  It may be easy to record a lecture and distribute it, but is it effective?  I may like case studies, but are they always effective?

It is a great question to ask yourself. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

To blog or not to blog...

I was reading Vanessa Vaile's reflection on a Facebook discussion about "why blog?", and it got me thinking.  In teaching, I've used blogs and forums, as well as Facebook and twitter.  While I may have likes and dislikes among the different forms, the one thing that they have in common is that they get people talking.  That for me is the most important thing.

Life sciences are conceptually heavy.  Unlike chemistry and physics, where you are doing a fair amount of math in the introductory classes, biology focuses on having the students build conceptual models.  It helps to talk these models out.  It helps to have feedback so that you know your going in the right direction.  It's important to start communicating these.  If it starts the students talking about their discipline, then it's a good thing.

Personally I like blogs.  They are a space in the digital world that I can call my own :).  Where I can put my thoughts down, and let people come in and discuss them.  But, they can also be unwieldy for the novice.  Getting my freshmen to set up blogs and use them can be rewarding and frustrating.  Realizing that they won't use them once the semester is over; really frustrating.  The larger the class, the harder it is to get them to really make their blog a learning environment.  But the worst is getting them to visit each other's blogs.  It amazes me sometimes how resistant students can be to click on another link for class.

Even with a centralized RSS feed, I found students reluctant to go to each other's blogs and post comments.  So I started using other tools.  The first was the social framework called Oxwall.  It worked wonderfully.  Each student had a blog space that they didn't have to decorate and customize (like WordPress), and it built a Facebook like feed.  The problem was that it was hard to build other activities. 

So this year, I'm trying Moodle.  It is a great LMS platform, and highly customizable.  Instead of blogs, I'm using forums for their daily challenges.  Strangely, I'm getting them to respond to each other more though this system than I did in Oxwall.  I think this is because each daily challenge has an independent forum.  They don't have to hunt for things to comment about.  That I think is the ultimate key, novices have not learned to effectively hunt for information and learning opportunities.

OK, they have also never been taught to appreciate and take advantage of learning opportunities (i.e., the grade is all that matters mentality).

I'm not a great fan of Facebook when it comes to undergraduate learning.  There is far too much signal to noise.  Students either never go there (because it's boring) or it takes on a life different than the intended community function.

Twitter is better, especially if you want to get students to start thinking about their discipline outside of class.  I love sending students tweets asking them to think about how knowledge of X (genetics, metabolism, etc...) affects how they look at things.  I also get some great feedback from them.

Like so many things, the audience is what you have to look at first.  Having focused forums seems to help my freshmen.  They can focus on their challenges without having to try to figure out how to build and maintain a blog.  Now, if our school began emphasizing ePortfolios, I would revisit having my freshmen maintain blogs.  Until then, using forums seems to be a great middle ground.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Joining the Pedagogy First Discussion

This week, I started picking up messages on my feeds about Pedagogy First!, a year long open course dealing with online teaching (and learning).  I commented on some of the blogs I follow, and then started looking at some of the conversations that have started during this first week of the course.  Enjoying a good challenge, and looking forward to inspiring discussions, I decided to join in.

As reflection is a great way to analyze your experiences, I decided to reflect on my foray into hybrid online/face-to-face teaching.  My discipline is biology, which is a very content heavy subject.  Traditionally the introductory levels are focused on low level Bloom's objectives, mainly remembering and some understanding.  In teaching college seniors, I started to see a problem; they were not remembering foundational concepts, and they really didn't understand their supposed major.  As with so many disciplines, there is an overall picture of life science that is made up of individual jigsaw puzzle pieces.  We use to start with having students memorize the pieces, and then later they would see where the pieces fit until they saw the whole picture.

Unfortunately, our society started changing the goal of education.  A common meme is that all you need is an AWhile a good grade is important when applying to medical school, so is understanding your discipline.  "What are you going to do when you get to med school," I once asked a student who had horrible study skills and time management.  Her replay, "I'll start studying then."  My response, "when will you learn how to study?  Do you expect to miraculously change?"  Over the last few years, I've realized that my A students, the ones who I'm suppose to consider as my best students, were cramming and flushing information.  When I saw them as juniors and seniors, they could not answer simple questions that I know they had answered when they were freshmen.  I was despondent about teaching, so I decided to start at the ground floor and reconsider my teaching goals:  "what did I really want them to leave my freshmen class with?"  While content is always important, I realized that I wanted them to start putting the puzzle pieces together.  I wanted them to learn how to learn.  I wanted them to realize that they were building a mental framework, a foundation, where they could hang further, deeper information about biology.  Ultimately, I wanted them to be active learners.

So I started to transform my classes.  I originally used the term MOOC, but as Lisa Lane pointed out in her blog, the term MOOC really does not apply to what I'm doing.

For seven years, there had already been a heavy set of online activities for my students, and I had tried to get them to participate in discussions, forums, and even group papers.  I've done active learning and case study exercises.  Each had high points and low points, but I was still missing the important piece, getting the students to sit with biology, explore the concepts on their own, and really work at learning.

When I started my Biology MOOC, the goal was to have students blog daily about topics in biology.  I sent them out a daily newsletter to keep them focused, and each newsletter contained a challenge they were to blog about.  Three times during the semester, they would compile information they had been writing about, and build a Milestone paper.  At the end of the semester, the three milestone papers became a Learning Reflection paper.  At each milestone, they also had an online test, with an in class comprehensive final at the end.  As for points, very few things were high/punitive point values.  Most of the points were small, and there were variable pools of points so that students had multiple ways of earning some points.  The goal was to get student working throughout the week on biology, instead of the day before the exam.

It actually worked better than I thought it would.

I've been working on a new platform, and with the help of our University Relations department, there is now a logo and badge system.  The current open courses can be found at http://www.bologsu.us/mBOLO/ .  More information about Project BOLO (Biology Online Learning Opportunities) can be found at www.bologsu.us

Looking forward to interacting with everyone throughout Pedagogy First.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Rethinking MOOCs

Lisa M. Lane wrote a elegant post on Three Kinds of MOOCs on her blog the other day, and it has me thinking and reconsidering.  She organized current MOOCs into three categories: Network-based, Task-based, and Content-based.  The brilliant part of this classification scheme is that all three principles (network, task and content) are part of all three types of MOOCs; it is just that each type has an emphasis on one of those principles.

Why do I like this?  Because it is at the heart of my attempts to adapt MOOC elements into my courses.  As I've said before, the MOOC is just a stepping stone.  It provides us with a new educational paradigm.  Not all courses have to be massive or open to take advantage of the ideas that have been sparked for the MOOC.  I also contend that the MOOC is not for all people or learning levels.  With Lisa Lane's classification, I need to refine the last thought a little.

The network-based MOOC has an emphasis on the evolving conversation and learning networks, and is indicative of the first generation of MOOCs.  My thoughts regarding the level of the learner/student is most focused on this type of MOOC.  Last week's #MOOCMOOC seemed mainly focused on generating conversation, even though there were tasks involved.  The building of a learning network was critical.  But this type of MOOC requires some level of understanding, life experience, and intellectual maturity.  The full format does not work well with most undergraduates, especially when you are trying to help them build up the mental framework of a discipline.  Putting a Freshman into such as situation would only add disconnections (but this may well change in the future).

The task and network-based approaches are more in line with helping students build up their intellectual strengths.  This is where I'm focused.  Adapting the tools and principles of the original MOOCs to build courses that help students tackle content, build mental frameworks (content in context), and recognize the importance of the learning community/network.

Now, I would not call what I do as MASSIVE.  First, I'm really bad at publicity, so most people don't know about project BOLO.  I do want the course and materials to be open, because having other people come in adds perspective to the discussions.  My primary focus though is going to be the students I have in class (I will comment to everyone, but my commitment is to those enrolled in the campus course).  These are reasons I see what I'm doing as based on MOOCs, but not an actual MOOC.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Learning Objects and MOOCification

During #MOOCMOOC last week, someone coined a new phrase (at least for me):  MOOCify.  Basically the idea of turning a current class into a MOOC.

While I love the term, I'm not crazy about the underlying concept.  It's not that I don't think it can be done, and it is not because I "distrust" MOOCs.

The reason I'm not crazy about the word MOOCify is that it misses out on a critical point: the MOOC is not for all audiences.  Instead, I would rather talk about adapting the MOOC model.  More specifically, I talk about taking the connectivist foundation of the MOOC, and the tools commonly used in a MOOC, to build a stronger (and more distributed) learning community revolving around a class.

Let me break my thought down using my class as an example.
To start with, the class I'm talking about is a College Level Freshman Biology class.  These students are not ready for a MOOC (and yes, I'm sure about that assessment), and at most, they come in with a "NOVICE" level understanding of the topic.  The course is therefore content heavy.  None of this so far sets up a good MOOC environment.  And the concept of a mechanical MOOC being used is just frightening; this class requires that context be woven with content to build a cognitive framework for higher level biology classes.

So, you have a group of students who require some "instruction", but need more to build their own learning and frameworks.  So, taking the concept of blogs, discussions and feeds, build a learning network among members of the class.  Open this network to the outside so others who are interested can join in the discussions and activities.  Add to this a daily newsletter to keep the conversation going.  I took tools from my MOOC experiences, opened the discussion to include new perspectives, and facilitated the discussion.  It may be MOOCification, but I think of it more as adapting components that work for my goal.

Now we come to learning objects.  Since this is content heavy, and I want outside participation, I have to include learning objects.  For a little tangent...

During #MOOCMOOC I came across a common refrain of the MOOC being "organic" and needing no "central" space.  I have no idea where this idea came from.  All of the "successful" MOOCs I've either participated or lurked on have all had what I refer to as a touchstone, some virtual place where information, objects and artifacts can be found.  Perhaps a centralized feed of participant comments, but always with a calendar of activities and some general guidelines.  The connections made may be organic, but as we learn from biology, you need to have a scaffold to produce any useful form.  So I firmly believe that you need to have some central virtual location.

So, learning objects.  For some reason, I feel that this has become a dirty words.  What is wrong with a vetted learning object, something which a facilitator/mentor/instructor can use to explain a concept, or even more importantly, start a discussion?  Heck, I build learning objects, and yes, I'll open them to everyone (when they're ready).

Enough for now...

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bid a fond farewell to #MOOCMOOC

The the chaotic networking of #MOOCMOOC has come to an end.  Final reflections:  Like any MOOC, what I took away was inspiration and clarity.  Yes, sometimes I also get new skills, learn new tools, or start thinking about things in a radically different way.  This one helped to firmly establish my feelings on some things, provided some insights, and gave me some inspiration.

Like any MOOC, I also learned some things from negative examples.  The first one is organization.  I feel better in a MOOC when there is a touchstone that the community or networks can center around.  I don't mean a concept, but some point in virtual space where we can organize things.  #change11 was a good example of this.  The Canvas LMS system seems like it would be good for some things, but it didn't seem to work for #MOOCMOOC.  Part of this could have been the organizing framework, but part is also limitations in the system (I've tried building things in it, but it lacks some functions that I really like for my classes).  I think the single biggest problem I had was finding the central platform where all of our comments/blogs/tweets etc... could be collated.  Finally found that one Friday...it was under the Dashboard icon which was at the bottom of icon pool.  It also wasn't something in Canvas, but an outside link.  All that was there were the blog and twitter feeds.  I also kept getting random announcements from Canvas, but no central daily newsletter that made sense to me.

Again, I'll go back to #change11.  One thing that really helped me there, both when I was actively participating or lurking, was the daily newsletter.  It told me what was happening that day, if there was a webinar, but then it had a brief rundown of blogs posted in the last 24 hours.  I could use that to go look at what someone said.  This time, I really felt like I had to hunt for that information.

The other thing that this showed me was that twitter has a point where there are too many people using one hashtag.  There were times I could see people's tweets getting lost, and some were actually interesting points (which I either favored or replied to...I'm bad about retrweeting).

The attempt to use different tools each day to carry out discussions was novel, but sometimes I again felt that connections were missing.  For example, Google Docs doesn't work for me when you are there with people you don't know.  It works better for me when I can see their comments and have an idea of where they're coming from.  I'm sure others had better experiences with that than I, but for me it felt very disconnecting, not connecting.  I much rather get into a chat, so I can start feeling out the person's reasons, instead of getting snapshots that don't always relate. 

As I said up top, I did leave #MOOCMOOC with some new ideas, fresh inspiration, and some more solid footing.  It goes to what I've said about MOOCs here and in tweets, what you get out of a MOOC is what you put into it.  Further, no MOOC will match your expectations; each one has surprises and annoyances.  We don't all fit the same mold, so not all things will work equally well for everyone.

Friday, August 17, 2012

How to build a MOOC

This post came from discussions in #MOOCMOOC today.  There was a brainstorming session about MOOCs, and a live twitter discussion at #digped.  Among the many things that came up was a discussion as to the scale of a MOOC, and an assertion that they had to be MASSIVE.  This was followed by a concept that the only way to make a course sustainable was for it to be massive so that it could accumulate revenue.  There was also a discussion of how to keep people motivated.  So, after a little bit of reflection, I decided to tell a story.

About two years ago, I came to a realization that biology students were not learning biology.  What were they learning, no idea.  This epiphany came when I was teaching a senior level course.  I asked them to define translation, which for biologists is the genetic process where RNA is used by a ribosome to construct a protein; it is the translation of the nucleic acid code into an amino acid code.  They couldn't do it.  Well, at least not at first.  I spent nearly an hour coaxing the definition out of them.  They were all upset that I did not just tell them.  It may be the first time that I really blew up at a class.  For those who are not biologists, this is one component of the CENTRAL DOGMA of biology.  Let me say that again, CENTRAL DOGMA.  It is something taught in freshman classes, and nearly every course we teach covers it again in more depth.  They have come across this term every semester, but none of them could give me a definition of it.  One of the students actually said "well if we saw it as an answer choice I could have told you." 

This was disheartening, and was a real blow to my desire to teach.  I suffered burnout after that semester, and started looking at any alternative I could find (even different careers).  It was as bad as my first bout of teacher burnout, which occurred when a student said to me, "you can't fail me, I paid for the class."  That is when I came across MOOCs.  They were an incredible adventure.  It was not about passing a test, but instead, about actively taking part in learning.  NOT active learning, but actively taking part in your own learning.  BTW...I find most of what is called active learning little different from the instructor playing a game with the students; it rarely makes them an active part of the class.  I knew I had to find a way of doing this with my freshman students, but that was the problem.  These were not sophisticated learners, they were not actively engaged in their own learning.  How to do you get a student to actively become engaged?

My answer was to do certain things in stages, but to make them working on tasks daily a major function of the course.  Why?  If you are a biologist, then you live with biology every day.  The paradigm colors how you perceive the world, as it does with any discipline.  Becoming engaged with your discipline is ultimately the only way to master it. 

So, I built a structure I originally called a pseudo-(or petite)MOOC.  Since then, I've just started calling it Biology Open Learning Opportunities (BOLO).  What I did was adapt elements of the MOOC for my audience.  I built a structure for their learning, and provided a central virtual place for them to meet (not just the LMS).

The course content was divided into 15 week long topics.  Each day, students received a Newsletter that went into depth about an important concept linked to that week's topic.   As part of the content, there was a daily challenge for them to blog about.  These blogs became the background research for their milestone papers (about 5 weeks worth of material) that were peer reviewed.  The three milestone papers became the foundation for their semester end reflective learning paper, which I graded.  Along with that, each week had an online quiz that lead to a milestone quiz, which led to an in class final exam (multiple choice, as that is most likely what they will see later).  There were other elements as well, but these were two major components of the framework I set up.

Was there resistance?  Yes, but by the end, I could actually tell just from the questions being asked and how rapidly my questions were answered, that they were picking up more than any previous semester.  It was incredible.

Now, back to what prompted this.  An open online course does not have to be massive to use the foundations of a MOOC.  A massive class is something that happens, and it does not really work for anyone to try to engineer it.  Trying to build a MOOC from the top down, that is, from the administration, does not work.  I have yet to see an example of a mandated MOOC that actually worked.  MOOCs occur when an instructor opens their class, not when a University VP or Dean decides the school needs one.  MOOCs are built by the faculty, and only those that want to go through the effort. 

As a continuation of the story, I was invited to an Admin meeting by our Provost (it was a group of us doing "new" things in the classroom).  One of Admins said that no one on campus was doing anything with MOOCS.  When my turn came, I stood up, turned on the social network I built for my class that was entitled "BIOLOGY MOOC."  I looked at the admin and said, "some of us are working with MOOCs." 

To Sum Up:  the concept of a MOOC can be taken and reworked for your audience.  You don't have to keep everything; instead use the tools that best fit your audience.  Be courage enough to fail (because something could easily go wrong), but be ready to be surprised by a success.  Effective MOOCs can't be built from the top down.  It has to come from a faculty member that is ready to open their class.  Mandating a MOOC is sure to kill it, because it will not be based on a legitimate learning goal.  BTW  a legitimate learning goal comes from an instructor that knows their audience.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Plagiarism (Why I MOOC)

Yesterday I was mired in a project, so I didn't join in the #MOOCMOOC discussions.  Today, the facilitators have assigned everyone to work with Storify.  I'm only a marginal fan of Storify, as I haven't really gotten good submissions from students (they are overwhelmed in most of life that this was just a little too overwhelming).  In general I see it as an alternative route for people it speaks to.  Since I'm not really in that group, I'm going to hold off on this leg of the tech tour that is #MOOCMOOC.

Ultimately, the reason why I MOOC is to listen to what other people are thinking and talking about, and then reflect on that.  It is the alternative perspectives, the conflicting views, and the stray thought that leads to a revelation.  The facilitators at #MOOCMOOC have not really added to the conversation (articles and tools have been out there for a while), but what they have done is provide a time point where people interested in open learning connect.  That is ultimately the story that I want to take part in this week.

Today in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffery R. Young presented an article entitled Dozens of Plagiarism Incidents Are Reported in Coursera's Free Online Courses.  The interesting item from the article is that people will plagiarize in an online course even when it is for no credit!  The author further discusses how some view this as a teachable moment (some cultures see copying as a way of showing honor and esteem for the work's creator), cautioning people from being over zealous or flaming the offender.

The part I loved the best was when a student claimed that they did not know that copying was wrong.  I had a student tell me that recently (a senior).  I asked him if he had read my syllabus (which discusses academic honesty), or the section on plagiarism on every assignment, or the tutorial that was posted on plagiarism.  He avoided the questions, saying that he did not know copying was wrong.  This conversation kept going on and on until he finally admitted that he did not read the syllabus or take the tutorial, and only glanced at the assignment instructions.  The teachable moment here was a little more basic (read what you are assigned to read, and read instructions).

I try to make plagiarism very simple for my students.  We are in the biological sciences, and it is extremely rare for anyone to use quotes in scientific papers.  So the first thing I tell students is that they may not quote or copy from any source.  The next thing I emphasize is that they must use their own words.  That one phrase, their own words, is repeated throughout the semester.  If they come and ask, I tell them that I'll sit down and help them; I never give them the sentence, but try to help them work out what they want to say.  But, this is where the reflection begins...

Today, I started really asking myself what I consider plagiarism in the world of web 2.0.  When is it sharing, remixing or plagiarism?  There are posts in facebook, and even twitter, that I know were taken directly off of a website with no citation or hyperlink (which I'm starting to see as a form of citation).  Would I consider that plagiarism?  No, not really.  But why?

We have the distinction between formal and informal writing.  A facebook post is considered informal, as is twitter and any other form of social media.  In the informal setting, we don't use all the formal rules of English.  It is in this social setting that we can hash out our thoughts, put them out there for people to comment on, critic, or just to return to for reflection.

Back in high school, when I had to write a term paper, I had to sit there and make note cards that would be turned in for a grade.  There was a formal structure for making these note cards, and a formal structure for organizing them so that they could be linked to my formal outline.  All of the instructions were codified in my textbook and had been presented to me in lecture by my teacher.  We all had to follow that structure.  As you may be able to tell, my mind did not work in that formal structure.  I bowed under the academic pressure and did it, then threw them out before I started to write the paper.  It actually amazes me when I see colleagues using that system; my mind just does not wrap around that structure.  (Actually, let me just say that HATED writing high school term papers, mainly because they were so fragging structured).

The reason for that story is to reconsider how people can use informal settings to work out thoughts.  On those pesky note cards, you were suppose to copy "QUOTES" from the book, as well as make notes.  Well, can't those also be done in some form of digital setting (and no I don't want digital note cards).  What if you could allow others to comment?  In other words, what if informal writing assignments are used as a way to help students hash out their thoughts. 

I didn't realize it at first, but this I think was the reasoning behind the blogging leading to milestone papers I do in my classes.  The idea is simple, and now I'm seeing it as more powerful.  The blog is a tool, open to others in the class or world, where you work out a specific concept.  You then bring the blogs together in constructing your paper.  The paper is FORMAL, thus it must follow the formal rules of English, be cited, and free of plagiarism.  The blog was where you took the work of others and converted it into your own words.

I'll leave this for now, but I would love to hear your thoughts on this idea...

Reflecting on "what is learning?"

On Tuesday, George Siemens posted a #MOOCMOOC Video about his thoughts on learning and our attempts to structure learning environments.  One of the first things he brought up is that you "can't model the behavior of others."  This got me thinking as I worked to clean up some projects yesterday.

As often occurs, the thoughts are various and self-contradicting at times.  So what I was going to do is write about some of these thoughts to see what other people might think.

First:  Lectures...why do we hold onto them.
Last week, I was in a 'hybrid education' workshop here at Georgia State University.  One of the participants said that they did not feel comfortable giving up lecture.  I've heard this before, and last week, as before, the answer came out that how else do you know if they got the content if you don't lecture?  I think one reason that some instructors hold onto lecture is a perception of "doing your job".  Your suppose to instruct students, therefore you must show that you have instructed, and what better way to do this than to lecture.  Some people also consider themselves good lecturers. They make it fun, they tell jokes, tell stories, dance around in costumes, or whatever to help motivate engagement of students.  For many though, I think it comes down simply to the idea that as long as I have presented to the students the content, my job is done.  Then all they have to do is assess to see if the student got the knowledge they imparted.

I don't think we hold on to lectures because it is the best model of education, but because we have a long history of using this style to convey knowledge.  Archaeologists are now showing us that this educational style may be older than we thought.

To sum this up:  many people hold on to lecture styles because they think it is the only way to prove that they presented the information to students.

Second: Modeling behavior.  George mentioned that modeling behavior, especially in learning, is "impossible".  Still, we have done it for generations.  When all we had were experts that could present knowledge in person (no on-demand access to information), the lecture model seemed to work.  We also model social behavior from a young age, and generally teach children what society holds to be good ethical/moral behavior.  Does it always work?  NO.  But for the vast majority of us, it worked in part.  When you look at children (up to around age 6), you have to have some structure, some idea about their developmental needs.  As they grow older, their needs change.

So the question that keeps coming to mind is when and how do you start adapting to the changing developmental needs of the individual.  As I've mentioned before, most freshmen are not ready for a fully open class like the cMOOCs.  They are not intellectually inferior, but developmentally, they are not fully mature.  In situational leadership concepts, they are still in maturity stage 1: they lack the self-reflection (which comes with maturity) and self-direction (they don't know what they need to learn), as well as lacking the ability (or unwilling) to accept the responsibility of this learning model.  As such, they still require direction (structure) to learn the self-reflection and self-direction needed, as well as to gain confidence to accept the responsibility of their own education.  The question now becomes how to model something like this.  My answer is that you have to provide multiple avenues, and low stakes assignments.

One thing to note:  as we move further into the digital age, it is very possible (even likely) that students will change in what they need from different educational levels.  I'm not suggesting that the average 12 year old will be ready for college, but instead that what we need to build to assist their education will be different.

That's all for now.  Back to projects.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Perceived Problems in MOOCs (Part 4: A Degree Means Something)

I'm skipping the fourth proposition in David Youngberg's April 13th Chronicle commentary because it is very ill conceived and insulting to those who have degrees in English and the other 'Liberal Arts'.  Not only does it show a poor definition of liberal arts, but it also shows a poor model of assessment.  Instead, I'm going to focus on the fifth poposition.

David Youngberg's fifth fundamental problem with a MOOC is that "Money can substitute for ability."  It took me a couple times reading through this part of the article to figure out what he was trying to get at with this title.  So that my comments are clear, I've pasted his paragraph dealing with this proposition.  I've also highlighted some points I feel are critical.
Higher education leads to a better salary because a college degree is a signal. Yes, you gain practical skills in college, but a degree is largely about showing potential employers that you're smart and hard working. Grades function the same way. Get an A in philosophy and people will find you impressive even if what you learned isn't practical. But the signal only works if most people didn't get an A. Signaling is relative.

If your wondering, the highlight colors are akin to National Security warnings.  In this case, they are warnings about a really bad perceptual model: that getting a degree at a prestigious school is more important than learning anything, i.e., that money buys success.  Thoughout this whole part of the article, you start to see through the mask.  A degree should be reserved for the elite.  Beyond that, there are some major misconceptions that my friends in industry would really gripe at.

Let's start with "...a college degree is a signal."  That is very true.  It is a signal, but of what?  Does a college degree really show that a person is "smart and hardworking"?  NO, and many people that I meet are starting to realize that, both in academics and in industry.  What is more important is the concept of competencies.  You want to know what the person is competent at doing.  The Bolonga process is based on showing competencies, as is the Degree Qualificaiton Profile from the Lumina Foundation here in the states.  How many corporate giants have to say that they are looking for competent people before the message is heard?  David Youngberg focuses his attention on getting an A as the standard of excellence, but what does an A tell you?  Is the person smart, or could they game the system?  A colleague shared this video with me during #moocmocc.

Tom Peters is a strong voice in business management, and he is telling people that the A does not demonstrate a person who going to be good for the company.  But why?  Learning how to game an academic situation to get an A does not provide the skills needed (or desired) in a rapidly evolving global economy/society.  Do you really want a passive learner who only knows how pass an exam, but not necessarily learn and create, manning your operations?
David Youngberg is more concerned with impressing people with a good grade, instead of impressing them with skills, abilities, knowledge or even a variety of intellectual models.  Philosophy for him is not practical, though it has informed even his discipline for centuries.  The liberal arts are downplayed to business communication, instead of being the seeds for inspiration and innovation.  How many of our greatest thinkers were also accomplished artists or musicians?  (here is a good article if your interested: http://www.creativitypost.com/create/how_geniuses_think/).
"Signals are relative," and that is very true.  But what are the signals we are now looking at, and what do they tell us?

After this last problem, David Youngberg descends into a strange account of why you don't want to make education cheap.  This seems inspired by game theory, but is ultimately reductio ad absurdum, with the conclusion that if education was cheap, everyone would get an A, and thus devalue the meaning of an A.  I think he is holding a little to strongly to the supremecy of an A.

For me, the article revealed a very odd way of looking at the world and education, and the arguments presented were not well considered and out of touch with how the world is changing.

Does this mean that I view online education and MOOCs as the saviors of education?  Do I think that Udacity will ultimately doom universities and college?  NO.

What is occuring now in online education is equivalent to children playing in a sandbox.  We have new toys, and we're learning to use them to influence our world.  Will all of our play produce something that works successfully?  NO, but it will change how we play our games.

As we move into this new age, we are going to what to know the competencies of an individual, not just some grade given.  This does not mean just some sort of certificate or badge.  We are going to want to see what the person is capable of doing (the growing use of ePortfolios is a great example).  The MOOC as it stands now may not even be around in 10 years save for a historic construct.  Individuals will take this foundation and adapt, remix, and rebuild, but that is the nature of Web 2.0 and the amazing connections that we can now form in an information rich era.  David Youngberg's arguments are just a dying gasp from a comatose educational era.

Perceived Problems in MOOC (Part 3 -weird employees)

NOTE:  yes, I'm blogging multiple times today.  The April 13th chronicle commentary by David Youngberg really inspired me to put down some thoughts regarding MOOCs.  So there will be a couple more posts today.

Daivd Youngberg's third criticism of MOOCs (and I would gather all online degrees) is that "employers avoid weird people."  While repetitive from my last blog, but...WHAT?  I'm not sure what business he is talking about, but I know some mighty strange people who work in all manner or technical fields.  Come down to DragonCon here in Atlanta, GA, and I'll introduce you to some of them (even those who have high ranking positions).  In this case, we may need to have a definition about weird if we are going to accept this proposition.

What bothers me about this argument is that Youngberg is either tell those of us who participate in MOOCs that we are weird, or that companies are so stupid that they can't spot a potential problem applicant.  How many time have you had students who thought they were going to change the world?  How many of you have had young assistants or graduate students who thought they were going to lead the next revolution in your discipline?  It is plain old neurophysiology and aging at work.  They all soon realize that they are not as revolutionary as they thought, and the work environment molds them.

Most HR professionals I know can spot the non-team player fast, and coming from a college or university does not guarantee that a person will be a team player.  I don't see where the link between "unconventional degree" and "radical thinker" comes from.  There is no reference to studies, no evidence, so I left to wonder where this idea started.

Of all the arguments, this is the one that seems the most absurd and out of touch.  Most of the people I know in HR and corporations are looking for people who are competent and don't need extensive training.  They have a probation period to feel out how they will fit in.  I don't see an unconventional degree as labelling them weird, and let's face it, even the best screening practices fail.

Perceived Problems in MOOC (Part 2: Star Students)

Continuing my thoughts on the perceived problems in MOOCs as presented by David Youngberg's April 13, 2012 commentary in the Chronicle, I come to the second perceived problem: that the "star student can't shine."  WHAT?

What is a star student?  Is it the one that get's the A because they know how to take multiple choice tests?  Is it the student that has learned to cram and flush so effectively that in one night they can game the course content to get a good exam grade?  Is the student kisses up by always coming by your office to ask you a minor question (and really never gets around to asking about anything useful)?  Or is it the arch manipulator?  These are all negative stereotypes, but I've seen colleagues holding these people up as star students.  Once their in a challenging class (such as a course taught through case studies), they flounder and complain.

Both in online and face-to-face, I can spot the students that are trying.  I can spot the students that are giving it their all, even if they struggle through the whole course.  I've had students that I've said are some of the brightest and best, but they still only got a B out of my class.  Why?  Because they were great students.  They learned.  Even after years, they still remembered what they learned in my class.  They can still point to AHA moments (now in the dictionary) where they either learned something about the content or about themselves.  In my class they may not have been an A student, but they were a star student.  They were higher achieving than those that got the A.

The question is not can star students shine, but what do you consider a star student?  Ask yourself, have I given possibilities for students to shine?  How do I acknowledge a student's achievement?  The idea that a person can not shine in different media is ludicrous.  It makes me wonder if David Youngberg felt under appreciated in the Udacity course, and what he considers a star student. 

About being under appreciated, we all feel that way at some point or another, but do you participate in a MOOC or online course to feel appreciated?  When I participate in something like a MOOC  like #MOOCMOOC going on right now, I'm doing it to learn something, gain inspiration or build connections (networks).  What is strange, those students who shine for me, are the ones who are trying to learn the material in the course, those who struggle with concepts, ask good questions, and sit in my office near to tears because they don't understand something.  In short, those that are taking the challenge of the learning opportunities.

Perceived Problems in MOOCs - (part 1: cheating)

In the chronicle yesterday, David Youngberg wrote a commentary titled 'Why Online Education Won't Replace College - Yet'.  While he makes one good point, there are many other problems I have with his position.  Some are just different ways of thinking about education and assessment, while others are perspective.

Youngberg's first criticism is in cheating, namely that if a MOOC (his central concern in online education) were for credit, cheating would be rampant.  Well, cheating is already rampant in higher education, and it is sometimes very difficult to catch.  My favorite was the student who took pictures of the test, sent them to other students waiting outside, who then came in "late" for the exam (the first person showed up early).  Yes, they got caught.

For me the issue of cheating revolves around the goal of the assignment.  Youngberg does point out that in the Udacity course he enrolled in did allow collaboration on discussions, but then goes on with the idea that there would be cheating if the course was for credit.  I state again, your concept of cheating is ultimately tied up in what you view as the GOAL of the assignment.

In my classes, I use a number of online quizzes as formative assessments.  Students have unlimited attempts, and the database of questions that randomize between each quiz is large.  I encourage the students to cooperate in answering the questions.  The goal is to get them thinking, to reference their textbooks, and online sources.  I want them to work on finding the answers.  Colleagues have accused me of allowing students to cheat, because a quiz "should reflect what the student knows."  How do you argue with someone whose perception of assessment is so myopic?  Even online exams (which are not worth a killer amount of points) are not proctored.  Could the students be sitting next to each other?  Could they be comparing?  Could they be looking thing up?  Yes, and I expect that they are doing that, but they are still learning.

Let me state again, these are not punitive exams point wise.  These exams are not worth 1/3rd of their grade, like most people post exams.  If they do poorly, it doesn't stop them.  Instead, it shows them where their still struggling. 

This past semester, my students only had one in class exam: the final.  Even then, they had a second chance to take it if they did poorly (new question set though).  I had fewer suspicious students during that final exam than I've ever had before.  Fewer students with stray glances, furtive looks at what could be a crib sheet, or even the tell-tale bulge of a cellphone.  I took the pressure off the exams, and the cheating went down. 

When I asked students how much help they got when taking the exams, they said a little.  When I asked them to explain, they said they sat near someone, but that the other person wasn't that helpful (they had 50 minutes to do a 50 question multiple choice).  Some admitted that they looked up an answer they couldn't figure out.  Strangely, it didn't both me.  I still saw it as learning.  That, and I ended out with the highest average on the final exam (first round) than I've ever had. 

So, to sum up, I think cheating is predicated on the goals you have for your assessments.

Monday, August 13, 2012


When I hear the Good/Bad discussion, this is the image that comes to mind.  Have gone through a number of MOOCs over the past two years, both as lurker and active participant, there are some likes and dislikes I can identify.

1.  I like to have conversations with other participants.  If the MOOC facilitators start talking at me, then I'm not likely to stay.  When I sign up for a MOOC, I'm not neccessarily looking for a "class" in discipline X.  What I'm generally looking for is connection to an ever widening community of people interested in new models of learning.  Since I have a tendency to become a hermit when I focus on a problem, MOOCs and other discussion help provide a touchstone and a group willing to bounce around ideas (or even tell me when I'm going the wrong direction).

Being part of a MOOC where the facilitator gets in the way...well that becomes a problem.  Example:  When the facilitator becomes the dominant voice of the MOOC.

2.  A central repository of objects, such as blogs, that can be reviewed and reflected upon.  This requires some web framework or system, but provides the participant a place to go to just reflect on what is going on across the MOOC.  If I have to go to four different sites just to keep up with the main thought lines of the MOOC, then I'm going to go to take what I can and my own way. 

As a clarification:  we all make our own paths through a MOOC, and that is one of the strengths of a MOOC.  If the framework though does not support building that path, and instead it is just a jumble of various tools being used, then you're looking at building your path through a briar patch (most likely getting stuck or lost).

One very important element I've found in what I call good MOOCs is that there is a repository where I can go and scan through things looking for posts/tweets/discussion that inspire me.  I can find and follow central threads, or what I've come to call the thought lines of the MOOC.  Fishing for tought lines is a pain, as is trying to tease them out of multiple disconnected tools.  (The take home message:  you need connected tools).

3.  Time:  Change 11 was one of my favorite MOOCs, but it went on for a long time.  My life changed, the semester changes, and I started a number of projects.  As a result, I went into lurker mode in the MOOC.  While I can see why people may like a long duration MOOC, I myself like MOOCs that are about two-three months in length.  It gives you time to get your feet wet and really get involved.  It also provides more opportunities to actually build networks. 

While I like what I've seen and gotten from #MOOCMOOC, I have to say it feels like a speed dating session.  I can barely remember what I commented on today.  There are advantages to this (you see and do very quickly, and there is very little chance of burning out as the weeks drag on), but there are disadvantages (namely going so fast you're not sure what you've done). 

4.  Newsletters:  Having daily contact with the MOOC is essential and inspiring.  Having something in my email box to remind me about a topic, or better yet, showing me some important threads, is amazingly helpful.  Getting an admin note with no content, not so inspiring.  With that said, having 10+ messages every day (or every hour in one case) is not so great (I really had to change my notifications on that one).  With no newsletters, I feel a little left on my own.  With 10+ coming from the facilitator, I feel harassed. 

One thing that needs to be emphasized, is that the newsletters are most helpful when it has content or links that help you bring the previous day/week content into focus.

If you've read my previous posts, you may have seen that I feel that everyone can adapt the foundations of MOOCs to their own situations and audience.  Most of my courses are for undergraduates, and as such, they are not ready for what is seen by many as a MOOC (they are not ready to self-organize).  My comments here are a reflection of what I like when I join a MOOC.  What I do in my classes is different because my audience is different.  If I were to do an open course dealing with an audience use to self-actualized learning (what we're doing in #MOOCMOOC), then my interactions and framework would be different.

What is a MOOC?

Today's topic in #MOOCMOOC is "What is a MOOC?"  There are some collabrative documents being worked on to answer that question, to which I have commented, but I realized that I needed to take a moment to really think about the question myself.

To answer the question, a MOOC is inspiration.

Huh?  It is a learning opportunity that a person accepts, and then they are inspired to chart their own path to knowledge.  The best MOOCs I've participated in have been able to inspire me to explore, read and write (even if it notes to myself).  The worst one inspired me to leave (I hate being talked at...as opposed to having a conversation with).

The concept of the MOOC is also inspiring, and that is what I love about it.  George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier have each done an amazing job building the foundation of what we see today as MOOCs (specifically connectivist MOOCs).  These foundations are then available for us to use, reuse, remix and adapt.

Earlier today, Roy B posted a comment to #MOOCMOOC about different kinds of MOOCs.  He made a great comment: I am concerned by what I perceive to be a counter-productive "mookier than thou" theme that runs through many of these references.  The references that Roy B is referring to are the papers that have been published about MOOCs in the past year or so.  I love the idea of something being MOOKIER, and he is right that it is concerning.  It also is at the heart of why I hate questions such as: "What is a MOOC?"

Why hate the question?  First off, it sets up conditions where people try to pimp competing definitions or nitpick specific, and often irrelevant, details.  Second, it diminishes the inspiring quality of the core foundation of a MOOC.  Do we want to define it so we can credential it?  Do we want to define it so we can package it?

Answering the question in a collaborative way is a great exercise for us to ferret out our own preconceptions and ideas, but it can also lead to division and exclusion.  It is also a great cognitive exercise.  Still, much can be lost in the process, so I'm glad that the process is only lasting for a day.

Since I think it important, I'm going to repeat what I said about MOOCs:  They are inspiring, both in terms of content and framework.

I don't use the term MOOC for the courses I teach, save as in reference to the inspiration.  Why?  Because it is not a MOOC in the sense that most people use the word.  It is inspired by MOOCs, and is based on many tools used by MOOCers, but it is not a MOOC.  Why do I say that?  It deals with the audience.

Undergraduate students, for the most part, are not adult learners.  They have not made the transition from being passive learners to self-actualized active learners.  MOOCs require initative, they require active participation, and even if your just lurking, you have to go out of your way to read things.  That does not sound like most undergraduates.  My courses therefore put me in the role of both Teacher and  Facilitator, where as a MOOC needs a facilitator more than a teacher.  The goal is to have students to become more active in their learning.  Yes, I have to hold them to task at the beginning, but if Spring 2012 is any indication, many of them can then fly.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Adapting the MOOC model

Tonight I joined the Twitter intro social for #MOOCMOOC.  It got me thinking that I needed to really spell out what I did last year in my biology course.  While doing this might help some people, I realized that I needed to do it for myself.  Being somewhat absent minded, I need a little space to reflect on what I did, what worked, and what went wrong.

To start of, the course I am speaking about is Principles of Biology I here at Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA.  This is the first biology class for those majoring in biology (or pre-med), and is generally considered a Freshman level course.  Spring semester is actually when we get most of the Freshmen to take it, so it was my big course for the year. 

While in #change11 mooc, I decided to take a leap of faith and do my spring 2012 course in a new way; call it a petite mooc.  For years I've had my students do online quizzes, discussion boards, lists, and even blogs, but in my mind I never got the assignments to gel the way I wanted.  Ultimately, I wanted the students to form into one large learning community (that was the idea I got from #change11).  So, I completely restructure my course.

Now remember, these are mainly freshmen.  They are not yet adult learners.  This may change in the next 10 years, but they are not coming to college (at least not GSU) with the motivation seen in most adult learners.  They are also still very much novices when it comes to biology.  They may know some content, but they don't understand the context.  While I consider myself a mentor, I also recognize that I am still a teacher.  There is a need to explain what I mean here, and it spans pedagogy to andragogy.

The simplest way of saying it is that a teacher is one who TEACHES; meaning one who is going to provide content and context for a student in a given subject.  This does not necessarily mean a "Sage on a Stage," but it does mean that the teacher (the Master) is helping to build an information framework for the student (the Novice). 

I really like the model of situational leadership in helping to explain what I mean about the role of the teacher at this point.  I know that situational leadership has been modified for education, but I really like some of the simplicity of the original model, especially when it comes to hybrid pedagogies and MOOCs.  Put simply, there is a development curve (learning curve) when people start something new; novices need direction, then coaching.  More advanced students then need support.

So my role as a "teacher" is to help them build the mental framework they will use in their chosen discipline, BUT it is also my role to help them develop into more adult learners.  That is the part I think many people leave out.

As I work with a class, I need to provide ways to help them move from novice to journeyman; from being passive recipients of knowledge to active seekers of knowledge.  That takes us to the mentor.

A mentor then is one who takes on the Coaching and Supportive roles.  This is also where we enter the realm of andragogy.  You are not dealing with passive learners who are in it just for a grade, but with people engaged in the material.

That brings me to what I did in my last class.  First off, here is the syllabus for you to look at:  Hybrid BIOL 2107.  There are things that I have changed from this, but it will give you an idea where I started. 

Each week of the semester had a broad topic to cover (like Energy Harvesting).  Each day of the week students received a newsletter that gave them specific information on the topic and a Daily Challenge.  Here is a copy of one of the first newsletters: Daily Newsletter January 10, 2012

Students were to blog about the daily challenges.  Sometimes the challenge was content based, and at other times it dealt with context.  Students got points just for submitting a blog (minimum 100 words) that was on the topic.  I could go in and find students who were having problems with information, and correct their errors kindly without a grade being hung over their head.  I also didn't have to sit there and try to "figure" out a grade.  I could skim, read, rate.  I could also bring feedback into the classroom.

Three times during the semester, the students had to write a milestone paper.  Many students quickly realized that they could "steal" from their blogs to write the paper, and that was the idea.  To use what they had already written about, and bring it into a logical format.  These were graded by peer review, and students were told that this would be the basis of their final paper.  I got to go in again and give feedback that was not linked to a grade. 

At the end of the semester, the students combined all of their milestone papers into a learning reflection paper (and they were required to reflect on what they had learned).  This was graded by me through a rubric built from their peer review work.  It worked amazingly well.

There was one student who complained that she did not learn anything through this process, and that she felt that she wasted her time.  She said this to me the day I was putting grades in from their comprehensive final.  One thing she said is that she knew she failed the final because the blogs and writing didn't help her.  I showed her the final and her jaw hit the floor.  We went through it, and I asked her if she had know (some content point) before the class.  Jaw still on the floor, she shook her head.  Yes, she had gotten an A on one of the toughest finals I had given.  She looked at me and said "I take it all back." 

She was not alone.  Over the summer, I had students come to me and ask when they could take me again.  They all commented on how writing had helped them, and how they had built friends and study buddies through my course.  Most also said that even though other instructors didn't require it, they were still trying to write out information as if I had given them challenges.

I said I would mention failures.  The biggest one was my badge idea.  Not because it was bad, but because I could not implement it in a way that didn't distract from other things.  We'll see how it works this year.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

New Projects

It has been a while since I last posted, but it has been a productive (and frustrating) summer.  Doing the mini-MOOC with my biology class last semester taught me a great deal, and I've had to go back and reconsider/revise some of my tactics.  I also started working with our university's public relations arm to brand my new project (one day our tech people will let me use .edu with my domain...but I won't hold my breath).

The project is Biology Open Learning Opportunities, or BOLO for short.  The home for the project can be found at http://www.bologsu.us/BOLO_project/.  The BOLO Project website is ultimately a gateway to a site constructed using MOODLE.  From here, I have a platform where I can deliver open content for my courses.  Anyone who participates will have the opportunity to earn badges (I have the start of this system, but will continue to work on it), and there will be a final badge for course completion.  Since this is linked to the courses I teach at Georgia State University, the course will correspond with the GSU semester.  Hopefully though, the information, assignments and extras will be of help to anyone with an interest in biology.

If you visit the BOLO project site, you will find a message saying that it is still under construction and that the opening date will be August 10th.  That is my general timeline to open things up to the public.

Well, here's hoping it works the second time around.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Grade Focused v. Learning Focused

Currently, I am participating in the BONKOPEN MOOC.  This weeks discussion of R2D2 (Read, Reflect, Display, Do) got me thinking about some of the issues that came up with my course redesign in biology (GOALS).  My students worked through concepts, wrote about what they learned, reflected on what they learned,...they WORKED.  One of the biggest stumbling block though was getting the students to realize that their work was not about the grade at the end, but the learning opportunity. 

Apart from the grumbling, many of the students admitted that they actually learned.  Some didn't believe that they had learned anything, then they saw their comprehensive final.  After the surprise abated, they looked at me and admitted that all the writing had put something in their head (i.e., they had learned).

What is surprising is that most of these same students would spend hours learning about something that "interested" them.  They would look things up, explore, read, etc....  When I asked if they were interested in biology, many of them said, YES.  When I asked if they independently studied biology, they said....wait for it...NO.  There is a disconnect in their mind between "academic" knowledge and what they find as interesting.

Add to this that most of our students are trained that they need to achieve a certain grade in a class, and we have a problem.  It doesn't matter if you learned a subject, only that you got an A in it.  One strange thing that happened this past semester, those students who were good "test takers" (i.e, they had learned to cramp and dump) did not excel.  They became the average student.  They did not participate in the learning opportunities, and it showed.

So my question to the general audience:  Do you want your students to be grade focused or learning focused?  How will you change your class to switch them to being learning focused?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

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...

Friday, April 6, 2012

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.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Research, or why I let students start with Wikipedia...

Yes, I let my students start with Wikipedia.
Yes, there are controversies over Wikipedia, but students use it.  The general population uses it.  Heck, most of the faculty I know use it when they need to understand a new topic.

So, the goal is to help them use it as an appropriate resource, or tool.

In my last blog post, I discussed the Digital Literacy Disconnect.  The post deals with my growing realization that students don't know how to filter information and build a personal information architecture.  Where my generation learned to use card catalogs and annual abstracts, my have learned to go to Wikipedia.  Is it so horribly bad?  As long as they use it as a research tool, no.  If they think it is the end game, then yes.

At the beginning of the semester, I asked the students why Wikipedia was not an acceptable academic resource.  The answers were as expected:  too many editors, it is open for anyone to edit, not reliable, because the instructor said not to use it.  Afterward their answers, Usually someone in the class pipes up and says that it is not a "Primary Source".  This is when I get them to realize that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and as such is not a valid academic source for quotation or citation.

So, if it is not a valid academic source, why use it?

As I tell my students, when they answer my daily questions and build their blogs, Wikipedia is a fine place to start their research.  In biology, the information in Wikipedia is rather good.  Yes, there are some exceptions, but overall for general biology, it is a good starting point.  The most important aspect of the Wikipedia pages is that they have references and external links.  Both of these are an excellent resource for students.

Think about it.  How many times have you used a peer reviewed article mainly because of the references the author used?  Think about review articles; how many references did you look up after reading the review?  If you think about your own research, don't you back track from one article to another?  If an article is referenced many times, do you see it as something valuable?  Something important?  Maybe something you should know for your discipline?

We may start by doing an initial search, or maybe it was a paper recommended to us.  Sometimes we come across it from journals we read monthly, but the process is using one article to look for other "informed opinions".

Have you ever tried to teach this to students?  Did it work well?

I've found it a struggle to teach this to students, but when the student has used Wikipedia for this purpose, the transition to using journal articles is easier.  It is just a matter of back tracking references.  Gaining inspiration or methodological ideas from other authors.  What is important is the research skill.  Does it matter whether it was learned from Wikipedia or trying to instill in them our pre-digital research skills?

I'll leave you with a graphic that was sent to me.  There are parts of the graphic I don't like (including the plagiarism comments), but it is eye opening.

Via: Open-Site.org

Friday, March 16, 2012

Digital Literacy Disconnect

In the #change11 MOOC, the concept of digital literacy has appeared numerous times.  Usually as a call for an increase in digital skills among students. 

The concept of the Digital Native seems flawed.  While most of our students were born during or after the information tech revolution, most do not understand the concepts of the technology they use.  They may be highly skilled in areas such the use of social networks, email and texting, but does this show an understanding of foundational concepts of such systems?  The Digital Native is a user of technology, not necessarily a partner or innovator.

I argue that the true digital natives were not those who were born after the information revolution, but were born before it.  We lived through the transformation, and adapted to it as it changed. Those that were born after seem to have a disconnect with what we would consider Digital Literacy.

An epiphany struck me a few weeks ago.  It may be something others have considered, but it was a major shift in my perspective.  When I was growing up, I learned how to use a card catalog and the purpose of the Dewey Decimal system.  They were not abstracts, but something read to my daily life (OK, maybe not daily).  When I got to higher education, I learned to use Annual Abstracts and other research references.  By graduate school, some of the first computer based Abstract searches were starting to be used, but I knew how to use other means to find what I wanted.

What I realized is that I had built an information architecture.  I had learned not only how to search to find relevant material (and read to confirm it's relevance), but ways to filter and organize information.  I could remember most of the papers that I read (especially if they had impact), and I had a mental file system of relevant information.  I knew where I had filed the paper, so I could go back for specifics when needed.  In essence I had built a knowledge management system for my own learning.

When I talk with my students, I realize that they don't have that.  Information is at their fingertips, and there is no real reason for them to memorize the wealth of knowledge we have available today.  The problem is they are not building the information architecture to support their learning.  They don't see the difference between things that are memorized and the core concepts and perspectives that need to be mentally actualized.  If you can articulate the core concept, then you can hang any information off the structure you've built, but if you don't have a solid understanding of the core, you will be rebuilding the structure again and again.

That is what I'm seeing with my students.  Though I tell them that this something like the Translation of RNA into a protein is a foundational concept, they don't learn it.  Every semester after that, they have to relearn the concept.
*By learn, I mean understand the core concepts.  They don't need to know every fact, just the core process; when they have that, they can hang the facts off of it.

Digital Literacy falls into the same problem.  Students use the systems, but do they understand the concepts underlying the systems?  This is not about being able to replicate the systems, or even innovate new ones (though it is hoped that could occur).  Instead, it is about building different perspectives, different models for how to view and interact with the world.

So, the question I'm now faced with is how to help students build these informational architectures?  You can't tell them to do it, they'll just balk at you while they roll their eyes (an extreme, but powerful image that many can relate too).  This is something that has to be woven into the class as a hidden Learning Objective (you can tell them after the fact).  But how do you do it?  One thing that comes to my mind is I have to first clearly understand what I mean by an informational architecture.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

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?