Friday, April 26, 2013

Open Textbooks and the Student Debt Crisis

Loans (Photo credit: zingbot)
Daniel De Vise at The Washington Post reported that student loan debt is now at "$870 billion nationally, surpassing the nation’s outstanding balance on auto loans ($730 billion) and credit cards ($693 billion)." This is according to the report "Grading Student Loans," a source  that De Vise refers to as "a scholarly blog post published by the economists at the New York Fed." The cost of education has far outstripped the rise in the cost of living and the rising cost of healthcare. And yet, despite the fact that there are free solutions to the textbook part of the equation, educators are slow to adopt them. Open textbooks are free, openly licensed textbooks that are electronically available to students at no cost, and available to students in hard-copy for the cost of printing. They are also editable by the instructors.

There are major implementations of open education resources and textbooks, organizations dedicated to their creation, grants and initiatives for hosting and support, but there are still many educators out there who do not know about open textbooks. Many of the common questions about open education resources and open textbooks have been answered, but apparently not widely publicized. Some of the perceptions of OERs - that they are hard to find, of low quality, not peer-reviewed, etc. are out-dated views. Lets take a quick look at some of these questions

Where do I find them?
There are many sources of open textbooks. I really like the high quality collection of open textbooks that are being hosted by the Saylor Foundation.  One can also go to College Open Textbooks which is a good portal to other sites. There are many other sites that are hubs to open textbook sites.

What kind of quality?
Before we discuss quality, I would urge you to read my posting on "The Myth of Commercial Textbook Reliability." I don't think that open textbooks should be held the same scrutiny as commercial textbooks - it needs to be more. We can do better as an academic community than the commercial businesses are doing now. We do not have to wait through a two year publication cycle to make corrections or amendments to open textbooks. We don't have to produce or have the students buy "supplemental materials" because we can customize open textbooks for the needs of our particular students in our community.There are some very high quality open textbooks out there including the ones mentioned above from the Saylor Foundation.

But are they peer-reviewed?
There is a peer review process for open textbooks and it is evolving all the time. OpenStax is one provider of free, open source, peer reviewed text books, and there are organizations like College Open Textbooks are sponsoring peer review processes as well. And why can't we develop a process for this on our campuses?

The rising cost of education is fueling innovation in education such as open eduction resources, open textbooks, and to some extent, MOOCs (massive online open courses). As educators, we have a moral obligation to remove barriers to education and to open up the opportunities that education can provide to everyone. Now is not the time to balk at change; change is coming whether we want it to or not. Innovation does not have to be in the hands of the corporations. MOOCs were not invented by corporations but by innovative educators. We can decide if we want that change to come from forward thinking educators who can shape innovation, or we can wait for crushing debts to make the changes for us.

Note: I have more links to OER and open textbook resources on my OER page
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Monday, April 22, 2013

Girl Scouts Offer New Coding Badge

Starfleet Engineering Insignia
I hope this is the new badge!
The Girl Scouts have a gaming and coding badge! I am thrilled with the Girl Scouts lately - their leadership is forward-thinking and politically and socially inclusive. As our society becomes more diverse, we need our organizations for youth to embrace that inclusiveness as well. That extends to affording young people the same opportunities regardless of gender. What I am excited about today is the story in Salon by Katie McDonough: "Girl Scouts Introduce Game Design and Coding Curriculum." The Girl Scouts have partnered with Gamestar Mechanic. If you are not familiar with them they are "a game and community designed to teach kids the principles of game design and systems thinking in a highly engaging environment. It is designed for 7- to 14-year-olds but is open to everyone." They teach kids how to design and create games, and code. And just as importantly, they are teaching the students in a collaborative community which is the workplace of the future (and today for the most part). Teaching students how to learn in networks is just as important as what they are learning (see Connectivism). There are a lot of good reasons to learn programming. Programming is the language of the network - understanding how webpages and databases talk to one another, how all of the technology interacts with one another and us (your phone, TV, internet, computers, etc.) is important in understanding what those systems are doing with our information and identities. Being comfortable and knowledgeable about technology shouldn't be left to men or "techies" - we all have a stake in this. I think tech literacy is as important as financial literacy or know how your government is supposed to work. There are opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math that are missed because things like programming are not promoted to women. Programming is a literacy - I once took a logic class at Sonoma State that was taught using programming. This class argued for a connection between programming, language, and symbolic logic. I had fooled around with programming before but never in a really serious way: all of my programming had to do with making and altering games (usually in BASIC). Programming has helped me work on creative projects and work. I can fix problems in webpages and minor scripting. I also know, for the most part, when a vendor is gas-lighting me on a project or a problem. The long and the short of it is that I am not afraid to look under the hood and get my hands dirty. Even the mayor of New York has gone to Code Academy!

I wonder if this means that the Girl Scouts will also be selling Redbull and Skittles?

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

MOOCs, Group Work, and Instructional Design

English: Debate Chamber of the Oxford Union So...
Debate Chamber of the Oxford Union Society (Wikipedia)
Everything Old is New Again
In my last post I pointed out that all the arguments about MOOCs sound so much like the old arguments against online education in the 90s. One of the main arguments for authentic online learning in the 90s was the possibility of making online classes social environments. This fit well with the pedagogy of Constructivism. Constructivism says that knowledge is constructed when new information comes into contact with previous knowledge and evaluated against experience. Social Constructivism is an outgrowth of Constructivism that "extends constructivism into social settings, wherein groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings" (Moodle). The instructors goal then was to facilitate these connections. In the 90s, this learning theory seemed to fit what was happening with effective teaching online. The goal of online assignments was to give students the opportunity to receive new information, hold it up to previous knowledge and experience, share that with a group, and then together, coming to new conclusions or new knowledge. Educators and researchers like Palloff and Pratt with their emphasis on learning communities, promoted group work and discussion forums as the solution to the badly performing classes that were basically online repositories of documents and maybe multimedia files. Over and over again, from the early days of online learning, the research shows that the greater the engagement in an online class, the higher the success and retention rates. Engagement does not mean clicking a link, widget or consuming media - it means actual interaction with students and instructors as well as content.

English: George Siemens at TEDxNYED.
George Siemens
Everything New is Old Again
Today, we have learning theories that are evolving towards a more complete accounting of how we learn online. I am thinking here of George Siemens and Stephen Downes' theory of Connectivism. I am not ready to throw out the Constructivist baby with the pedagogical bath because Connectivism is still in the Copernicus vs. Relativity explanation for gravity stage - I believe logically and experientially that the theory is right, but I am not ready to use it to put a satellite in orbit. This doesn't make the theory wrong. We need to be doing more research; it is just a matter of time. For myself, I am satisfied that this new theory accounts for much of what is going on with Constructivism. I am going to let the Phd's battle out the details: instructional designers have courses to create, assignments to design, and faculty to work with. A good working theory is a good working theory. A lot of what we are doing with online classes and MOOCs is testing the viability of Connectivism.

What Then Should We Do?
So this preamble is really a way to point out that everything that makes authentic learning work in a brick-and-mortar classroom are the same things that make online learning work. And as a teacher and instructional designer, I have a really practical end in mind. To my way of thinking, there is no difference between an online discussion forum and the Debate Chamber of the Oxford Union Society except one is more expensive and acoustically louder than the other. They are just different platforms. A MOOC is just another platform. George Siemens wrote back in March that MOOC providers were going to have to rely more on group work to be successful. I find this sentence especially funny and pertinent here: "The 'new pedagogical models' (A Silicon Valley term meaning: we didn’t read the literature and still don’t realize that these findings are two, three, or more decades old)...." But what kind of group work should we use and how can we ensure that it is successful? Siemens points out that there is a high dropout rate in MOOCs that could make group work a problem, but I believe that group work is one of the engagement pieces that is missing from many of these MOOCs (especially those using content delivery model rather than the content creation model).

Ensuring the Success of Group Work
Faculty and students have often told me about problems with group work. What do you do about the alpha student who needs to be the leader and do all the work? How should instructors handle the student who has little motivation? I have a blog post coming about this but essentially there are eight things needed for a successful group work project:
  1. Clear objectives
    Students need to know the exact purpose of the assignment. Let the students know where they are going.
  2. Detailed instructions
    This is particularly important in a MOOC because students tend to have less contact with the instructor. A detailed instruction document accompanied with a video and some examples are very useful here.
  3. Give each student a specific role
    This prevents one person from taking over the process and helps with assessment too.
  4. Communicate expectations in advance
  5. Use collaborative tools
    Model the means for useful collaboration. Give students instructions for setting up a wiki or a Google site for collaborating
  6. Facilitate and model leadershipSometimes good leadership is not getting in the way of good work. Leadership in MOOCs means that you live the model: you are connected and engaged in your course. You cannot disappear for two weeks and expect this to work. 
  7. Encourage networks
    Having the students using social media tools allows them to bring other subject matter experts into the project.
  8. Provide assessment and closure
    You would not want to participate in a MOOC with an endless series of unconnected assignments with no sense of closure. Assessment in group work gets interesting. I liked to use a blank form for the students to divide up participation points.
I will be posting a short article on how these components work here on this blog.

Kinds of Assignments:
The ubiquity of internet access and the proliferation of collaborative tools and platforms makes collaborative learning more available than it has ever been. This allows us to design a wide variety of assignments that are ideal for MOOCs or standard online classes. These are just a few ideas here:
  1. Group Research Project
    Group research projects are opportunities for students to get together and literally construct knowledge. Having students work on a research project and publish their results together on a wiki or a group blog benefits the students and the class. 
  2. Group PresentationsStudents can work on presentations with one another remotely and create slide presentations with audio or even a film and work on the 
  3. Media Projects
    Students learn a lot from content creation. Jim Groom's DS 106, a class that some would call a "task based MOOC" is an excellent example of students working together to create media. Students can create videos or podcasts. When they graduate from college, no one is going to ask them to write a 20 page paper; they will be asked to work in groups, use technology, and create media.
  4. Debates
    One of our instructional designers here at Humboldt State University is using online debates in discussion forums.The debates are carefully structured and each participant has a role. This kind of prior attention to details is essential to online group work.
  5. Role Playing and Simulations Role playing and simulations have never been easier because there is so much data online now that can be used to build simulations (I am thinking here of epidemiological data, for instance). 
  6. Concept MapsTypically these are solitary projects but having a group negotiate what should be in a concept map and how concepts relate to one another are a good way to allow the students to clarify those concepts with and for one another rather than having the instructor spoon-feed "meaning" to them.
  7. Infographics This is a good project for groups because the roles can cover a wide-variety of learning modalities and abilities: some students can gather data, others develop art work, and others can write interpretive materials.
Any of these assignments can be created in advance and given to small groups. The students benefit not just from following the steps of the projects, but through sharing the end results with other groups. 

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Friday, April 12, 2013

MOOCs: Lets Do The Timewarp Again!

The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Lets Do The Timewarp Again
I love all the arguments from the 1990s that were leveled at online teaching and learning that are now being leveled at MOOCs. I re-read all of my favorite straw-man hits from the 90s including the digital divide, lack of credibility, perception by the establishment, lack of interaction, etc. all remixed for the MOOC era.

Currently, educators and journalists struggle to write about MOOCs because the term MOOCs covers a broad category of online courses. When they are writing about MOOCs, they tend to only be thinking of the latest wave of entrepreneurial colleges like Corsera - they do not understand that MOOCs have been successfully working in places like the University of Manitoba and Canada's open university, Athabasca. Those are referred to as the "Connectivist MOOCs" or cMOOCs originally founded by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. And that folks like Jim Groom have been successfully running task-based MOOCs like DS 106 for years before MOOC became the latest scary innovation.

The current jeremiads are being written by journalists and educators who can't distinguish a collection of videos (such as Khan Academy) in YouTube from an online course, have little experience with online learning and no experience with MOOCs (or a single experience with a particular kind of MOOC with which they try to define the whole phenomena).

I am amazed at how few educators get the money issue. There is a lot of hand-wringing out there around questions like "why would the students pay for my class when they can go to MIT or Stanford for free?" The answer is usually something as smug as John Marks' conclusion "they are for self-improvement, we are for self-formation." There are students out there who need the information that MOOCs are providing because they may not live near a college or have the time and money for the "self-formation" experience that Marks is promising.

The criticisms against MOOCs generally fall along the same lines as the arguments they were using against online education - MOOCs are bad because students won't be able to socialize, make connections, join clubs and fraternal organizations, participate in sports, see the instructor talk, and they will be reading on computers instead of sipping sherry in a big leather chair reading a first edition of Keats. How could a MOOC replicate that? Never mind the fact that many students do not have the opportunity of socializing and making connections in college. Some students 20 hours a week and commuted to college.

This points to some fundamental misconceptions about online learning and why students take online classes. Typically, they are not taking them to replicate the "college experience" - they are taking them because they cannot get to the college experience. I have been excited about MOOCs as I have been about online eduction, open education resources, and open textbooks because they are opportunities open up education to more people who would otherwise not get it.
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