Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Google + for Educators

The prolific tweet-master Steven W. Anderson has created a LiveBinder called "Google+ for Educators" which collects all the important links introducing Google's new beta social networking site. It's worth checking out. Google+ appears tailor made for use in education in a way that Facebook will never be. (As an aside, Anderson is an amazing human resource himself. I've been following him on Twitter for some time.)

So What?

From Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, page 64:

When building the content of your presentation, you should always put yourself in the shoes of the audience and ask, "so what?"

Same goes for essays, stories, or any form of writing. I'm fond of this Stephen King quote: "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open."

In step 1, be concerned with what you want to say. Block out everything else. Ignore convention. Ignore the rules. Ignore trends and styles and advice. The best writing is driven by self-interested exploration.

However, in step 2, it's time to consider the audience. Who are they? How will your message be received? How can it be shaped for maximum effect? How can you make your ideas appealing without sacrificing your core content?

A good way to start: look yourself in the mirror and ask, "so what?"

Why College?

This article from the New Yorker is an extended book review that gives the author an opportunity to explore his two-pronged idea of what college is for. He writes that most people think of college as one of the following:

1) a place to certify students for the job market, essentially sorting them out for potential employers. If you can jump through the hoop, then employers will assume you can jump through their hoops, too, and will accept you as worthy.

2) a place of higher learning where members of society are enlightened, refined, introduced to higher forms of knowledge, and made to be more engaged citizens who will, in turn, improve society.

Theory 1 depends on tough standards, reliable testing, and on the college degree having economic value (all of which, according to the article, are on the decline).

Theory 2 depends on a free exchange of ideas, students motivated to grow and improve, and professors committed to teaching and engaging with students (also on the decline, according to the article).

The article is a bit of downer in places, but it's also a call for action.

Marshall McLuhan: Teach the Problem, not the Answer

Marshall McLuhan: Advice for Universities of the Future from SiG @ MaRS on Vimeo.

The Flipped Classroom

Here is an infographic exploring the idea of the "Flipped Classroom" I mentioned in my last post.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Creating your Academic Playlist with iTunes University

Right now I'm listening to a series of lectures on Shakespeare's plays, called "Approaching Shakespeare," delivered at Oxford University and uploaded as mp3 files to iTunes University. You can find a preview page here.

iTunes University currently houses over 350,000 lectures, videos, and other educational material. Most of the content is free and available to the public. More than 800 colleges and universities participate, including Oxford, MIT, Stanford, Yale, and Harvard, but also a few institutions closer to home, such as the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and Luther College.

Ever since MIT began making their course material available to the public (the so-called Open Content movement), access to free, high-quality lectures has undergone exponential growth. However, this is just the first stage in what could be a major transformation in how institutions deliver lectures and structure their courses.

With a massive library of course material to choose from, there are more options for guest lecturers, collaboration between instructors, and free supplemental content. While an audio or video file can't replace a live person, resources like iTunes University should allow for more dynamic online courses, or for lecture-based "homework" following the "flipped" model advocated by Khan Academy.

Stage 1: Create a comprehensive library of open content from around the world.
Stage 2: Now what do we do with it?

Your Guide to Open Content

Overwhelmed by the amount of free educational content online? Open Culture will help. In addition to a daily blog, the site catalogs and categorizes content that other instructors and institutions are dying to share with you: ebooks, audio, video, entire courses. MIT, Harvard, Stanford, etc. It's your one-stop-shop for open source education.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Are Online Students Only Virtually Educated?

Via the Chronicle of Higher Education, a new survey shows the public to be much more skeptical of online education than college presidents are:

Just over half of the 1,055 college presidents queried believe that online courses offer a value to students that equals a traditional classroom's. By contrast, only 29 percent of 2,142 adult Americans thought online education measured up to traditional teaching.

This seems about right to me. While that latest research continues to show that college students perform equally well in online and "real" courses (in fact, the a U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis from 2010 showed that students in blended courses performed better than anyone), the general perception of online courses as repositories for slackers and students seeking hassle-free degrees still remains. I've been asked many times, "Do you get paid the same for online courses?"

Online education has an image problem, and it's partly deserved. Mostly this is because institutions neglect online courses. Experienced educators tend to avoid them. Colleges and universities see them as revenue streams (this was precisely The University of California's strategy. They didn't even hide it.) and often fail to develop consistent course frameworks, pedagogy, and training (beyond the usual "how to use Blackboard" kind).

The research shows that online courses are not inferior. Instead, they are a different medium in need of a different approach that has yet to fully form. Of course, given the increase in online enrollment and the reality of budget shortfalls, the time has arrived for online education. At least five states now feature online courses as part of their required high school curriculum.

Like most revolutions, the we'll be standing in rubble before we have a clear picture of what the next government will look like.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Are Podcasts Better than Professors?

I guess that depends on the professor.
I guess that depends on the podcast.
Certainly, it depends on the student.

New Scientist reports on a study of 64 students given a lecture on visual perception. Half of the students attended a live lecture. Half of the students listened to a podcast. They were then given a test.

The results? The podcast students scored much higher. By a margin of 71% compared to 62%. Almost 10 percentage points higher.

The article also notes:

But that difference vanished among students who watched the podcast but did not take notes.Students who listened to the podcast one or more times and took notes had an average score of 77, McKinney says.

These results aren't all that surprising. If you could pause, rewind, and re-listen to a professor, you would be able to absorb more knowledge.

Furthermore, as education researcher Sugata Mitra has said, if a teacher can be replaced by a computer, he should be. That is, if all you're doing is lecturing, you can easily replicate your performance on a video or audio file. Then, why should students bother showing up on site?

However, they haven't yet invented a podcast that can replicate an interactive experience, a one-on-one session, or a group activity. (I guess that's why Skype is for.)

Lectures can be great, but given the time constraints of students and the availabiilty of podcast, mp3, and audio recording software, why not issue them to be listened to at home, in the car, while jogging, or while sitting in a home office taking notes?

This is, of course, the "flipped" model, where lectures are listened to as homework and in-class time is used for more hands-on, interactive, or one-on-one time. It is, essentially, the set-up of DMACC's web blended courses, which could feature one hour of lectures listened to or watched online and two hours of "live" collaboration, lecture follow-up, or one-on-one work.

So the real question is, when do we start recording ourselves?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Narrate, Curate, Share"

Here's a shortened version of his concept of Narrate, Curate, and Share:
At least two things interest me about the above:

1) Campbell succeeds at describing blogs as something other than journals, diaries, essays, or free-writing. It's a different medium, a different function, and a different message. Certainly many people use blogs as journals, diaries, essays, and free-writing. But their best use is something closer to the communal anthology of the present moment described above.

2) I'm a big fan of developing simple schemes for presenting complex topics, usually presented in lists of three or four. I'm reading Brain Rules right now by John Medina, who argues in a chapter called "Attention" that experts become experts not by memorizing details, but instead by creating mental frameworks based on big ideas that serve as a kind of conceptual filing cabinet. Open the drawer and the details coming pouring out.

Lately I've been telling my students that I only want to teach them three or four things in a semester. If these "things" are wide enough and deep enough, they can store a lot. Remembering the details is hard, but remembering the general categories is not.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Touch of Reality or Just Out of Touch?

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bruce Krajewski has written a response to the Class of 2015 Mindset List released by Beloit College. We've all seen those lists, the intended-to-be-humbling reminders that incoming freshman are actually from another planet. Things like, "To the class of 2015, Amazon has never been just a river in South America" and "There has never been an official Communist Party in Russia."

Krajewski's response takes the opposite approach. His list is meant to introduce the incoming class of 2015 to old fogey faculty members born before 1980. Many of his entries are amusing, such as:

8. Faculty members born before 1980 said "Wii" to express the euphoria they felt as children when sledding down a hill.


13. Faculty members born before 1980 grew up during a time when "like" represented the beginning of a simile, rather than a piece of verbal confetti.

However, there is an underlying bitterness to his writing, as several in the Chronicle comment section have pointed out. There's also a fair amount of condescension, such as the following:

20. We [....] never used libraries as restaurants or coffee shops. We faced books; we did not facebook.

As a non-member of Facebook (I think I'm the only one left) and a teacher born before 1980, I guess I'm supposed to nod along in silent indignation, recalling a time when kids didn't engage in disruptive technologies and demonstrated conventional literacy.

When was that again?

I think Krajewski risks repeating the same mistake that established thinkers always make in the face of emerging technologies (probably since the first cave paintings), which is to assume that society is eroding. Instead, it could merely be rebuilding itself.

Movable type and the printing press were, of course, disruptive technologies. The authorities (namely the Church) resented the loss of power and feared what the spread of literacy might do. (They were right. It led to the Reformation.) The quality of new books was uneven. Many pulp novels and works considered smut were printed. The scribe industry (mainly monks) lost a lot of work and authority. The transfer of cultural authority from oral culture to the printed page was greatly accelerated. Trouble-makers, rabble-rousers, and snake-oil salesmen took full advantage of new methods of distribution. You can bet that non-book readers complained about people being distracted from reality with their noses stuck in books.

All of this sounds familiar to me. It sounds like our present moment.

What was once a threat to society has become, in today's world, a marker of the status quo. Owning a private library in the late 15th century might have made you a radical (albeit a wealthy one) with access to texts not authorized by the Church, books that contained the seeds of the Renaissance and the eventual European Enlightenment. Now it makes you that guy who introduces Masterpiece Theater, pipe and jacket in tow. Today, owning a telescope makes you a science geek. Back then, you would have been a heretic threatening to explode accepted human knowledge.

Could it be we're at another one of those moments in history when new technologies have left us in limbo? Certain aspects of culture are being torn down, and quickly, without a clear replacement. What will our schools and offices look like in fifteen years? Or even five? How will we read? Kindle books are already outselling "real" books on Amazon. Online newspapers are outperforming paper versions.

Even the vocabulary has changed. Everything is networked, online, on the cloud, the web streaming, wired....Maybe Krajewski is right: the scholar is no longer just facing a book, living the life of the solitary mind. Instead, he or she is also facing others, constantly connected, and hopefully working in collaboration to create the foundations of change.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What's on the Horizon?

The Horizon Report, released earlier this year by The New Media Consortium, and available for free online, outlines six technologies most likely to become mainstream fixtures in education. The six are Mobile Computing, Open Content, Electronic Books, Simple Augmented Reality, Gesture-Based Computing, Visual Data Analysis. The first two are considered to be on the "near-horizon," which means they will be considered mainstream within 12 months. Here they are in detail:
Mobile computing, by which we mean use of the network-capable devices students are already carrying, is already established on many campuses, although before we see widespread use, concerns about privacy, classroom management, and access will need to be addressed. At the same time, the opportunity is great; virtually all higher education students carry some form of mobile device, and the cellular network that supports their connectivity continues to grow. An increasing number of faculty and instructional technology staff are experimenting with the possibilities for collaboration and communication offered by mobile computing. Devices from smart phones to netbooks are portable tools for productivity, learning, and communication, offering an increasing range of activities fully supported by applications designed especially for mobiles.

Open content, also expected to reach mainstream use in the next twelve months, is the current form of a movement that began nearly a decade ago, when schools like MIT began to make their course content freely available. Today, there is a tremendous variety of open content, and in many parts of the world, open content represents a profound shift in the way students study and learn. Far more than a collection of free online course materials, the open content movement is a response to the rising costs of education, the desire for access to learning in areas where such access is difficult, and an expression of student choice about when and how to learn.

How can we begin to explore the possibilities of these trends?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Adding Your Voice (Literally) to Online Courses

For the past five years I have taught for the Alamo Community College District in---you guessed it---San Antonio, Texas. I used to teach there as a human being, but after I returned to Iowa, I couldn't quite swing a 1000-mile commute. Fortunately, my avatar beams across the inter-tubes almost instantly (it slows down a tad through Oklahoma). I have been teaching online courses for them since 2006, and exclusively from Iowa since 2008.

The video above is an example of a screencast I created to introduce students to the Blackboard site for British Literature 2. I used CamStudio 2.0 (which is available to download for free) to record my screen and a plug-in microphone to record my voice. The course also includes audio lectures I have recorded as mp3 files. For that I use free software called MyPodcast Recorder. Mp3 files convert to QuickTime on Blackboard, or can be downloaded and played on an iPod, etc. My dream is to be included in some student's playlist alongside Jay-Z.

My main goal is to bridge the digital divide, so to speak, and to make online courses feel a bit more like live courses. But also to take advantage of new technology and create something that traditional courses lack: a sense of connectivity to a world beyond the classroom walls.

The possibilities for this have existed for awhile. UC Berkeley has been steadily uploading video lectures to their YouTube channel since 2006. Academic Earth might be the best collection of video lectures around, featuring courses from Yale, Harvard, and M.I.T. All of this is free, of course. I'm currently "taking" a course on by Paul Bloom, Yale Professor and author of the wonderful Descartes' Baby.

Perhaps online courses are not as intimate as live ones, but the internet has facilitated unprecedented access to information like nothing else. A random person in Iowa can listen in on a course at Harvard for free. This suggests a new model for collaboration and course delivery that hasn't fully emerged yet. We could also mention Skype, wikis, blogs, social networking, and Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOC. (Yes, that exists, see below.)

All I know is that in order to match the effectiveness of traditional courses, online courses must adapt and become their own entities. I'm not sure anyone knows what that will look like.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The State of Digital Education Infographic

Behold, a staggering infographic on The State of Digital Education Infographic.

Just one excerpt of note: Online course enrollment tripled from 2002 to 2009.

This infographic also echoes key buzz terms that will likely be driving changes in education over the next decade: cloud-computing, learning analytics, open content, game-based learning, personalized learning, and mobile learning. All of these topics, as they relate to education, seem to be growing miniature industries of their own.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Google's Business Strategy: Have No Business Strategy

I just read this article about Google, a company with a lot to teach us about classroom management:

Google might be the world's most innovative company. They accomplish this, in part, by allowing their employees to do 2 things most companies discourage: slacking off and failing.

Okay, not slack off, exactly. But from the outside, Google's 20% Rule, which allows employees to spend one day per week working on whatever project they think has value, seems like a waste of valuable company resources. However, the 20% Rule has led to more than half of Google's successful products.

These successes emerge out of a string of failures, but as any inventor will tell you, failure is just as valuable as success.

In the classroom, we could take some lessons from Google by allowing students to work on projects they deem valuable. And also by encouraging smart failure. (Not on the report card, of course, but that's certainly part of the problem....if everything they do is graded, they will be afraid to fail.)

Curiosity, experiment, trail and error....if it works for scientists and innovative companies, it can certainly work for the classroom.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Blogging in the Classroom

I have been assigning blogs instead of discussion board in my online and web blended courses. It a bit of a hybrid of journals and discussion. Blackboard's blogging tool works just fine. While it's not as flashy as blogs out on the open web, you can post pictures and add hyperlinks.

The comment section can also function just like a discussion board. I assign a range of topics related to course work and readings, and allow a certain number of "random" topics so they can write about anything they'd like, including their personal lives if they so choose.

Once we begin working on research papers, I ask them to use their blogs as way to build content by referencing an article, quoting from it, and then adding their response/interpretation. The following is from my syllabus:

During the semester you will maintain a blog. I will ask you to reflect on a range of subjects related to writing, assigned readings, and topics of your choosing.

“Blog” is short for “weblog,” which is a relatively new coinage meaning, in a sense, “a log of activity on the web” in much the same way that a ship’s log records activity on a ship or a diary records activity in one’s life. In that sense, you will be writing both about yourself and external topics from the web.

You will post 2-3 entries per week, sometimes more or less, as assigned, until you reach 30 entries some time in the last two weeks of the course. Blogging will count as three hundred points out of 1000 for the semester. You score will be based on completing 30 entries and on being active in the comment section of your classmates' blogs.

Think of these blogs as writing practice. I will not be grading them based on their grammatical correctness or their polish, just scoring them based on your rate of completion. Basically, I want you to do them. In so doing, you will be generating text and ideas for the essays, practicing your writing, and hopefully expanding your capacity for reflection and critical thinking.

For each blog post, you will be asked to:
1) Post an entry based on course material, either in response to an article or a discussion topic.
2) Comment on other students’ blogs.
3) Respond to comments left on your blog.

Here are some guidelines to help you earn maximum points for your blog score at the end of the semester:

1) Write a minimum of 250 words per entry. (Writing more is welcome and may actually put you at an advantage when searching for material for the essays.)
2) Reference one or more of the following in each entry: a topic from class, an article on the Web, another student’s blog, another student’s blog comments, or anything else you have read (please include the hyperlink when appropriate or possible).
3) Write comments in response to the blog entries of your group members. Comments need not adhere to the criteria for posts established in #’s 1-3 immediately above. Try to post 2-3 comments on the blogs of other students per assigned topic.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Classic TED video....

....if something five years old can be considered "classic." Anyway, Sir Ken Robinson gives a witty and insightful talk about the need for more creativity in education: