ELTM3B: Some Jargon Demystified (Words with Power)

In my line of work I encounter many eLearning terms on a daily basis and have learned some of the good and the bad that is associated with them. Let me share some of it.

Blended learning refers to the practice of using at least some forms of electronic communications and computing tools (desktop PCs, laptops, pads mobiles and such. The list is long so for the sake of simplicity I’ll just use the catch-all “computers”) to access and interact with content online and, hopefully to some degree, at a pace set by the learner. Simply put, some of the work is done in the traditional classroom and some of the work is done online.

Why you should be careful: Despite the high-sounding talk this is part of a normal process whereby educators draw on the best of what emerging tools can do. To students, after all, there’s nothing very innovative about using new technologies. It’s what they do in their spare time! Sometimes “blended learning” is just used so that the talker can sound important.

Why it should not be dismissed: There’s a tendency to treat each new gadget as the one greatest thing to ever happen to education. Look at the many advocates for IWBs and tablets who insist that’s the case for those devices. The reality, though, is much more complex. New devices can be adapted to work effectively in learning situations but the real work is in the details; determining the applications for which the new devices are well suited and working out all of the logistics. That is precisely what the best blended learning research is all about—learning to draw on the best of what the “old” and the “new” have to offer.

Flipped Classrooms Replace live lectures and presentations of content from the teacher with recordings that do it instead. While Kahn Academy is the most-often cited source for examples of this I take some pride in having led several projects that did this several years before any of those lectures were recorded. You can find some examples here. In most cases the teacher will record their own content using tools like Techsmith’s Camtasia™ or Adobe’s Captivate™ or will link to already-done content such as that featured at Kahn Academy or CDLI. In most cases also the intention is for the students to view these videos outside of class time and, thus, ensure that the time spent with the teacher offers more opportunities for individual diagnosis/remediation or hands-on activities.

Why you should be careful: Notice that there is an assumption that parents/guardians will accept the fact that time spent at home is now required time. As an educator I have come to accept that this needs to be an individual decision. While some parents are adamantly in favour of doing whatever is necessary for their children to succeed at the highest levels, including devoting specified time at home for school work, an equal number (including myself, by the way) are not. It’s my opinion that my children’s time at home has ample bits carved out for the pursuit of other valuable things not necessarily related to school; things like: music, dance and art lessons, sports, reading and, of course, unstructured time. It should also be pointed out that the connection between homework and achievement is not as clear-cut as some might assert. It seems, rather that other things are at play and that homework time is a symptom of other things working well rather than the determining cause. In other words, family lives and situations that are associated with school success happen to also to be associated with time spent for homework; it’s not just the homework

Not all students can learn from videos and not all material is well suited to this medium. Not all of the content is of good quality either; it is seldom peer-reviewed, for example. Watching videos tends to be a rather passive thing and for most students, effective learning requires considerable effort, not just passive watching.

I would also like to point out that the term ‘flipped’ is such a poorly-chosen one for so many reasons: it assumes that all classrooms ‘normally’ do lectures and, besides, the term is…flippant. I hate it.

Why it should not be dismissed: While one can mount objections to the possibility of unwanted intrusions into home time one can certainly not take exception to the existence of those videos. They can, after all, be viewed during class time, by those who will learn from them! While videos only work for some students and only to a degree they are still another effective tool to be placed in the teaching and learning toolkit. Besides anything that puts the teacher in a better position to deal with the many individual differences that exist is a welcome addition.

MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses are, without doubt, the one ‘thing’ (or, perhaps ‘things’ fits better here) that’s generated the most hype in the education literature over the past year. A MOOC is a course that you can self-register for, proceed through at your own pace and, if you have played your cards right, and want to do it, get credit for at the end of the process. MOOCS have the potential for being what students have wanted all along: low cost, high quality courses that can be accessed in a way that works for each person’s particular situation. Students can, for example, schedule MOOCS to run alongside other courses and thus resolve scheduling conflicts, and, perhaps more importantly can also schedule them so that they can deal with personal situations that would otherwise be too hard to resolve for face-to-face courses.

Why you should be careful: It is an understatement that completion rates of MOOCs are not great. Estimates range between 5% and 10%. Not everyone appreciates the freedom that MOOCs offer—many would rather have some of the discipline imposed from an external agent. Finally since many MOOCs are offered on a for-profit basis there’s always the danger that the course administrators will put profit ahead of quality. Worse—it does not take much imagination to see how MOOCs are the best thing ever to happen to diploma mills.

Why it should not be dismissed: The major players behind the MOOC movement are in it for the long haul. They are, for the most part, well-financed and intelligently managed. The quality of the learning materials contained in many course offerings is high and most sponsoring institutions are working on solutions to the most common complaints: ‘distant’ instructors, lack of collegiality between students and, of course, the necessity of not lettings slide. In all likelihood MOOCs will evolve in such a way to correct the current limitations and will continue to grow in both popularity and effectiveness. That said, on a personal note, I continue to believe that MOOCs will not make the role of teachers redundant. They serve an important purpose and will, in time, be an accepted part of the system. That is, some courses will be run as MOOCs and others will be more like the blended learning model already mentioned. Most students will likely take some of each, and the proportion of each will depend on students’ circumstances and preferences. In short, there’s room for both.

But then again, I already did say a few posts back that one should be skeptical of anyone who tries to predict the future. That applies here too, of course!

Gamification refers to incorporating the motivational and reward systems found in games into work-related activities. As used here it refers specifically to the incorporation of the systems into eLearning content. Rather than just ‘experiencing’ the content passively the students must level up or collect the correct amounts of points in order to proceed through the material. You can have do-overs! Game-based systems are already known to be tremendously powerful motivators in commercially available software (games, of course) and indications are that they show promise with course related materials too.

Why you should be careful: There is an overriding assumption that people need to be externally motivated to learn. In this way, then, gamification leads to the pursuit of artificial, meaningless rewards. The reward system is also low-level; essentially behavioristic in nature. It assumes that people are machine-like; predictable. Experienced teachers know, however, that people are not simple at all. Besides, one of the tasks we face as instructors is in instilling higher motivation and better decision-making in our students. A reliance on gamification has the potential for short-circuiting these efforts.

Why it should not be dismissed: First and foremost, because it can be effective if done in moderation. While, yes, we do want to create self-motivated individuals, we would be a lot less than truthful if we were to state that we always succeed. If that’s not working it’s nice to know there’s a plan B. Besides, it should be said that some of the criticisms against gamification take things too far. Just because we offer game-based rewards it does not necessarily follow that students will always expect them. Part of the maturation process is learning to distinguish reality from fiction and students should be expected to move with some degree of ease between lessons where the rewards are artificial and larger systems—courses—in which the rewards, namely success, are real.

The best reason of all why it should not be dismissed is that recent work in the area is bringing a whole new level of maturity to the enterprise. Take a look at Jane McGonigal’s site here and notice that the whole ‘point’ :>) is not to rack up points but, rather to solve real-world problems. This video by Katie Salem expands more on good game design and offers clues on how it will likely come into its own in the near future.

BYOD, “Bring Your Own Device” refers to students (and teachers) bringing their own electronic equipment to the school. Many—most—students have pods and/or pads machines. Laptops are increasingly affordable and it’s becoming the norm for many students beyond grade 7 to also carry smartphones. While these were primarily purchased for entertainment and general use there can be no doubt that the devices have powerful applications in any learning environment.

Why you should be careful: Public schools take the concept of equality of opportunity very seriously. While many students do have adequate devices, institutional adoption of activities and applications that require the devices cannot happen until it can be assured that all students have access to adequate technology. There’s also the issue of connecting to the Internet. Not everyone can afford a data package for their mobile device and, so, most depend on wireless Internet. Schools are wary of providing WiFi to the students are there are god reasons for this. First, unfortunately, bandwidth is still very expensive for public institutions. While this does seem counter-productive, if not immoral, on the service providers’ behalf (I will spare you, for now, the stream of anger and frustration that I like to spew whenever I start thinking on how the providers have been gouging public institutions since…forever) the fact remains that schools can only afford as much bandwidth as is absolutely necessary. Students with Internet devices tend to consume a lot of it—and most of THAT is not school related! Besides this there’s also the issue of security. The school’s data systems contain a lot of sensitive information and no administrator should provide any level of access to Internet through the school until there is a high degree of confidence that safeguards are in place to prevent either malicious actions on behalf of students or, more likely, virus and/or malware attacks emanating from computers that have been brought in through a BYOD machine. Finally there is the issue of ensuring that the appropriate software and content is made available to those student-owned machines in a way that is both easy to do and in-keeping with the terms of use. If, for example, the student needs access to, say, PowerPoint then the teachers and schools cannot be expected to simply hand over the installer for the institutional copy of MS Office and, thus, let the student use the software for free for anything they wish. That’s just not sensible.

Why it should not be dismissed: The issues noted above are well known to both district administrators and IT professionals and are receiving constant attention. Schools know that by enabling students’ own devices that they will, in turn, have to devote less taxpayers’ money toward the provisioning of equipment. In addition, as school data networks become more sophisticated it is becoming easier to segment off a portion of the available bandwidth and offer it to students in a way that (a) does not compromise the integrity of student information systems and (b) does not result in the available bandwidth being hogged by non-educational applications. Simply put the problems are fairly well understood and are being solved, bit by bit, as this is written.

All this aside it should be noted that the field of ICLT is one that is in a state of constant flux; change (and not necessarily improvement) is the rule. As fast as existing problems get solved some new innovation comes along that brings with it a whole new set of challenges. It is reasonable to assume that this is likely to continue. As educators and parents the sensible response is to attempt to keep abreast of it to some degree and to try and ensure that the appropriate research is done and that the appropriate problems get solved. We can’t implement everything. We can, though, implement enough and finding out exactly what constitutes ‘enough’ is one of the serious tasks that needs constant attention from all levels—students, parents/guardians, and educational professionals.

Next: People sometimes conflate curriculum development and instructional development. While the processes dove-tail they are rather different and it’s best to keep them somewhat separate.

ELTM3A: Some Jargon Demystified (Bullshit!)

Do an Internet search using just the word eLearning or e-learning and you’ll get tens of millions of different results. You’ll also encounter a whole lexicon of new words and acronyms. It can be very overwhelming; confusing. Worse, you just know that somewhere buried among the intelligence is the usual dose of hyperbole and just plain deception that tends to accompany trendy ideas.

So, what’s with all these names? Some would like to suggest that the excessive jargon found in fields such as education serves to separate the professionals from the peasants. Besides affording the practitioners a smug sense of superiority the opaque terms also offer a shield for the guru to hide behind.

There are others who suggest that the jargon is there to help with the Bullshit process.

Henry Frankfurt’s thoroughly entertaining “On Bullshit” distinguishes BS from downright lying. The bullshitter’s (henceforth referred to as the ‘perp’) intention is not primarily to deceive. It is, rather, to impress; to make a point; to win, and the BS is used a vehicle for achieving just that. The perp is aware that much of the argument used is likely false but does not care. (S)he has a goal in mind that, to that person, justify the means. In Education the perp generally does have some personal goal such as:

  • Financial gain. A product or service needs to be sold and the perp’s financial future depends on it. You’ll be told whatever you want to hear just so sales will result. “Our product leverages the power of BYOD so as to achieve a constructivist approach to blended learning.”
  • Prestige. The perp wishes to get more respect from colleagues, nail some speaking engagements, secure tenure or otherwise ‘move up the company ladder.’ Dropping the right phrases is one way to impress the ones you need to.  “I’ve been making use of a flipped classroom approach coupled with gamification techniques and have seen my classes’ standardized scores significantly increase.”
  • Power. Some just like getting their way, and, more importantly, being seen as getting their way. Again, the right words do tend to intimidate when needed. “The increasing ubiquity of MOOCs means that you will have to increase your pupil/teacher ratio or find some other way to remain competitive if you want to retain your provincial/state funding.”

Next (part B will be posted tomorrow evening): While there’s more than a small bit of truth in all of this, especially as it applies to some practitioners, it is perhaps better to note that a common set of terms enables people to work together across distance and time. A common language means better transfer of ideas and less opportunity for miscommunication. The italicized terms do come with caveats but they also represent powerful ideas so let’s look at them in more depth.

eLearning: That & More 2: What’s the Good of It?

When the Internet began to increase in popularity in the mid-1990s it wasn’t hard to hear two loud, polarized groups within the education community. The non-adopters were stuck firmly in the past, tenaciously holding on to a correspondence-school model. In fairness to them, they had spent significant parts of their career in developing an effective correspondence model of education—carefully-constructed handbooks, mailing lists and distribution centres—and could not see how the Internet was going to make things any better. When suggestions would arise regarding the need to “move to the digital world” reasons like these would be brought forth to justify inaction:

  • The Internet is too slow and unreliable.
  • We have to provide equal access to all and the Internet is only something that a few people have.
  • We have excellent content available for print; much better than that amateurish-looking, hastily-constructed stuff on the web.
  • People won’t understand how to use it.
  • It’s too expensive.

Then there were the zealots. To them the Internet was the answer for everything and, thanks to it, education was about to change fundamentally. In a few years, schools as we knew them would be no more. The digital world would set us all free!

We can see now that neither group was right. In time, as the Internet grew in speed, reliability and, most importantly, popularity, correspondence courses were phased out everywhere in favour of web-based ones. As time passed hose clever but amateurish digital developers and teachers became seasoned, skillful and disciplined professionals.

Despite the zealots’ predictions schools were not left abandoned, and while homeschooling continues to be on the rise among some parts of the population, there are no serious efforts underway to eliminate so-called “bricks and mortar” (we use concrete, steel and wood in NL) schools as institutions.

Networked devices, though, are everywhere. Most students from grade 7 onward carry their own mobile devices (smartphones, tablets and “pods”) and even more have computers at home with Internet access. Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) are present in a large fraction of our classrooms and most of them depend on the Internet for content. The use of multimedia sites such as YouTube is common. Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard™, Desire2learn™ and Moodle are, thankfully, finally starting to take root in our face-to-face classrooms (although not fast enough for my liking I might point out). Even some groups are coming around to the notion that social networking is not all bad.

That said, though, the question still remains: Has the widespread existence of electronic communication tools really transformed education or are current uses just extensions of methods that are really centuries old?

Think about it. Here are sentiments often expressed by many parents, educators and students:

  • IWBs are a waste of time and money. Many IWBs are not used in an interactive way. After all you can only hold the attention of a class for a few minutes when only one or two gets to participate at a time. Besides, truly interactive content is not as pervasive as you might think. As such they are little more than expensive projection screens that lie dormant most of the time.
  • Class time is boring spoon feeding. Much class work is done through PowerPoint-style presentations. While these are clearly superior to similar work done on chaulkboards or regular whiteboards, the methodology and philosophy are really not much different—specifically show students the ideas and expect that learning will take place as a consequence. Note that’s not to suggest for a minute that teachers don’t take advantage of more interactive methods—they do, but these don’t involve the IWB.
  • iPads and such are useless toys. iPads and related devices, while no doubt fun to use, are not often put to good use. They are expensive to obtain as class sets and, at the moment, rather hard to manage. That is, ensuring that the appropriate apps are installed is rather laborious. Besides they also offer the student an immediate on-ramp to distraction: unwanted social networking (again note that this is not to suggest that all social networking is bad. It most certainly is not! It’s only bad when it gets in the way of learning.) and irrelevant content. Besides, as was pointed out earlier, the content for pad devices is still in its infancy. Additionally while pads and pods are great tools for consuming content they are not always a great choice for creating it. In the end, at this moment, pad type devices are little more than easily-broken and rather expensive books and bad paper substitutes.
  • PCs are a waste of money. Finally we come to PCs. While there is no doubt of the power and usefulness of these devices, once again, much of that potential has gone untapped. While the tools for creating content, whether it be text, audio, video or some hybrid are powerful and affordable, the tools for interacting with content are still not great. Much of the available educational content amounts to little more than automated book page turners and videos—again a throwback to the sixties. Besides most of the computers found in schools are just donated leftover junk and rarely work properly when needed. When they do it’s really only at great taxpayer expense.

Well now, isn’t that a pile of negativity! Now, lest you walk away with the notion that I am anti-technology, let me state that those sentiments do not reflect my own experiences and opinions. How about letting me go back through the four bullet points, this time with opinions that are closer to my own:

  • IWBs are a waste of time and money. While they certainly can be a waste if misused or under-used the fact remains that a huge quantity of useful content exists and is freely-available if one takes the time to find it. Furthermore when given good content, students love interacting with IWBs. It’s important to realize that the IWB is only one of many useful tools that exist in modern classrooms so you should not expect them to be the only tool used. That’s the problem—too many make a fuss about them as if there are to replace whet was there before. No!  They are an addition, one that will take time to learn how to use effectively.
  • Class time is boring spoon feeding. Now that is just nonsense! While there are no doubt that there are teachers who insist on spending all of class time droning on, subjecting the students to “Death by PowerPoint,” these individuals are very much the minority! Besides, a well-designed presentation (clear and logical, containing good visuals and of the appropriate length) is a very effective teaching tool…one more in a large toolbox!
  • iPads and such are useless toys. Students love interacting with these devices and the amount of quality content out there is growing. Besides, class sets do not have to be purchased. Many students are happy to bring their own, so only partial class sets need to be available, and management software for this (which loads the apps as needed) is becoming more and more widely available. Some examples are here and here. Like them or not the fact is that for the modern child these are the books and magazines.  …and so much more so suck it up!
  • PCs are a waste of money. Nonsense! While, yes, there is a dearth of truly immersive courseware the composition and research tools freely available already justify the purchase. While there is some truth to the notion that many schools are technologically backward the overwhelming trend across the developed world is toward increased professionalization around the acquisition and support of classroom ICLT.

So what is it I’m trying to say? Yes, it looks like this is just a bunch of waffling. In one group of bullets one point of view was presented and in another set of bullets basically the opposite was presented. So am I just wasting your time? No.

Here’s what I’m saying: those who claim that computer hardware and software is (a) useless or (b) the one best thing are equally wrong. The whole issue of Information, Communication and Learning Technology (ICLT) is far more complicated than all of that. While modern day electronic computing and communications equipment has had a profoundly positive effect on all parts of society including, yes, education the fact remains that there has been widespread wastage of money and effort and, as of now, there remains much unexplored and unrealized potential.

But the work continues.

And as long as the focus is on teaching and learning and as long as people are willing to do the hard work required to get the procedures down there will continue to be real improvements.

Just be wary of the snake oil sales force—it’s out there.

Next: There’s a lot of jargon surrounding eLearning. Besides the expected BS there’s some good ideas wrapped up in many of the the new terms.

eLearning: That & More 1: Predicting the Future

Why is it that when we talk about the future we assume we are talking about the same thing?

Looking ahead in time can be such fun, though. Start with your world as it is and then imagine how it could be. Yes! That must be the future. But—what is your world? Is it something you see objectively; items neatly categorized, facts all checked and with foundational ideas have been agreed upon? Is it instead something seen only by you, interpreted through your own biases, experiences and cultural background? Is it the network of relationships, personal and professional, that you have built or is it a construct that you have assembled from numerous sources including experience and research?

Look back on previous attempts to divine the future. Read some science fiction written in earlier times. Look at some of the fanciful pictures drawn by artists who, long ago, turned their pens and brushes to the task of looking far ahead. Read some of the more scholarly works along the same lines.

No matter the source, here’s what you find: While some of the predictions were more-or-less correct (radio and flight are fairly common now, as was predicted) most of the things that define our future were not predicted at all. Not even all that close. After all, 100 years ago who could have predicted the massive wars, the rise of petroleum as fuel and the explosion of communications technology, birth control, the communist-capitalist struggle, the increased focus on women’s rights, human rights and on the person as individual. These unforeseen but world-changing things, among many others which Nassim Nicholas Taleb has termed “Black Swans,” in the end gave us a world that few, if any, even had the slightest hint of.

And yet here we are, well into the 21st century and with hardly a clue at all it seems. I read a lot and, as such, find myself inundated with pieces from those claiming to be experts. They confidently talk about our modern times and then go on to make equally confident predictions about the future. As a group they leave me with just one thought: yes, they do have a superpower, an ability that just plain transcends description…or even belief.

The superpower? The ability to see the future? So, silly, they’re generally wrong but, despite that they always bounce back with an explanation of why they were simply misinterpreted and then go on to make yet another equally stupid prediction that people still seem to buy into.

No, that’s not the superpower. So what is it? Self-promotion, of course!

That said it makes no sense at all to just sit back and wait for the world to unfold; to allow ourselves to be tossed to and fro as if a cork on the waves, bounced about by whatever educational approach, theory or tool seems trendy at the moment. That sort of strategic inaction not only wastes valuable resources on things that are un-proven but also puts the future of our students, and, by extension, society, in the hands of whoever is best able to market educational products at a profit.

What, then should one do? Given that futures are so unpredictable it makes little sense in planning too far ahead. Perhaps the best approach is one that acknowledges two important things:

First, there are some features of education that we can safely assume will remain in relatively steady state. Enrollments tend to remain fairly steady and, at any rate, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy. Legislation, funding sources and core values tend not to be changed much over time.

Second it is important to acknowledges some limitations up front and abide by them. In some areas, particularly electronic technology, it is only possible to foresee changes three to five years in advance with any degree of accuracy. Perhaps more importantly, there is always the possibility that the aforementioned black swan can create unanticipated but profound changes and leaders need to be always on the lookout for them. When encountered, most long term plans need to be extensively revised if not abandoned completely.

With these two items agreed upon it is possible to make some predictions and statements about the future of learning and particularly of learning content.

Next: What’s the good of it?