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.


20 thoughts on “ELTM3B: Some Jargon Demystified (Words with Power)

  1. Already running on low battery today (me, not the laptop), but I needed to read this! I am really impressed by this balanced and detailed review. So BYOD is not only used in a corporate context 😉
    I am repeating myself – go write your book!
    Thanks for mentioning bandwidth – often silently discarded as if this weren’t an issue ‘nowadays’. E.g. I learned from fellow blogger Michelle that dial-up connections are still common in the Saskachewan prairie. I use an ADSL ‘business’ connection but if I am online for hours I notice the quality is varying – which causes annoying glitches in online sessions… and each of the tools (VPNs, Lync, Skype…) handles disconnects or poor quality in a different way.

    1. I have a fibre connection at my house and can typically sustain around 50 megs down and about half that back up. The price is not too bad. It translates to about 100 euros but includes three digital TV connections (that I don’t use) and a landline (that nobody uses)–everyone in the house has a smartphone so why have a landline? I digress… Here’s the thing: out of the schools that I work with 42 (LOOK–there’s that number again) of them DO NOT have fibre connections. Some have ADSL but only at 1.5/0.5 and the remainder still use a connection based on frame relay and for which we pay–get this–approximately 500 euros per month!!!! This is the 21st century and we’re still using 1960s tech–and only 1/3 capacity at that–for 42 schools. Get me my towel, I need it! It makes me so angry to think that people have to live out their school days with such poor connectivity :>(

  2. Interesting and informative, as always, Maurice. I’m so pleased you mention that ‘home’ time should be for things other than exclusively academic pursuit. I’m mentoring a couple of our GCSE students at the moment, helping get their revision timetables sorted. The first thing I suggested was to put their leisure half hours in. One of my lads (anxious – parents with high expectations), was first, shocked, then second, relieved that someone with apparent authority was telling him it was ok to relax. He’ll be fine. The other student, complete opposite circumstances and character filled his timetable in diligently, both of us knowing he won’t even look at it. Thing is, he’ll probably be fine too. The results in August will be interesting.

  3. Interesting! It’s good to be educated on this jargon. My own experience of an executive certificate of 6 courses I took online from eCornell last year (just for fun!) was much more positive than I had expected. They had created a really good learning environment.

  4. At risk of repercussions at work I will reveal that the word ‘assessment’ sends chills up and down my spine. There is a word that is part of that process which I am sure you’ve heard. It is a word which rules over me. It is a word which has, from time-to-time, had absolute control over me. It is a word I fear and bow down to. It is a word administrators and colleagues enjoy holding over my head. I know that it is only tangentially related to your current post but the lexicon you have presented gave me flashbacks. The word … it is …. RUBRIC. I hate that word. Don’t get me started. D

    1. LOL! At work I’m still trying to make sense of the Learning Management System’s Rubric tool. Still can’t get it to do what it needs to do. I don’t hate rubrics–as long as the instructor has a hand in creating it, the thing can be useful. BUT–it needs to work together with other tools.
      Oh–and it doesn’t have to be used. It just codifies that which a skilled, experienced teacher has learned to do anyway. For those new to the craft of teaching, learning and using some instills a sense of discipline. For those who are already ‘there’ it’s rather like practicing musical scales long after they have been learned…

    2. I can relate to your assessment of “assessment”. This word – and the connotation I attach to it – capture anything (negative) I wanted to say about gamification … er…. evaluation and assessment by strange systems. I have said on a different blog in one of those many related discussions that I left academia and the global corporate world for the same reasons – silly rules imposed on me. I was extremely successful to meet the numbers in any system and hack the assessment game, so I feel entitled to do so 🙂

    1. I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that what’s really the irritant is NOT the idea of using rubrics but, rather, the stupidly arrogant way changes are often imposed on faculties.

      Among a certain class of (mostly ‘freshly pressed’) administrators is the sense that they know what’s best for the faculty; that they, in effect, need to lead those doddery old farts off to the new promised land. Anticipating resistance to the shiny new approach they instead choose not to consult but, instead ram the whole thing through.

      That’s not the way to effect positive change, to say the least. Sadly, though, people rarely see their approach as being at least partially at fault. Instead they grow ever more distant, ever more authoritarian and, sadly, ever more out of touch. The result–a potentially poisoned situation.

  5. Pingback: Creepy Game of Life | Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything

  6. Thanks, Maurice for showing two sides of these coins! Educators have to use their good judgment when deciding whether to use or not use these technologies…all in the interest of student learning.
    Interesting piece!

  7. Mary

    As a school librarian – not always as aware as teachers are of these educational innovations , I appreciate an overview of these new concepts !!

  8. Pingback: OTR Links 06/07/2013 | doug --- off the record

  9. At which point I am nostalgically looking back to learning Virgil’s Aenead out of real live (or possibly dead as it was Latin) books.

    It doesn’t help that when I meet younger people or read their blogs/internet comments that they don’t seem very aware of much really. Apart from themselves.

    I wrote a post about GMO and a woman who looks about half my age says how interesting it is, and even retweets it! I mean, all I said was GMO is not a good thing and here a few facts/stories about it.

    I am genuinely concerned that I don’t think young people are learning enough about reflection, research and thinking. One of your earlier posts mentioned social networking. I seriously think it is garbage. I see no added value. It is like watching a permanent soap opera which is why companies are in there and people faff around on there. I know, I’ve done it. I’ve also chucked it.

    But anyway, we’ll see what Generation whatever throws up.

    1. About two years ago I finally gave in and signed up for Facebook and Twitter. I knew I would not like either but decided that since my chosen area is eLearning then I would have to jump in and learn it to see what applications I could find to teaching and learning. I also got into blogging (but for a different reason). Now I am more convinced than ever that I dislike facebook and twitter but do love blogging (which includes reading others’ blogs–the best part). An article I read a few months back did shed a bit of light on the whole thing. The researchers looked into tweeting habits of a large group of people and classified the tweets into several areas. One was the lowbrow stuff you are referring to and the findings showed that at least 40% of what’s out there is exactly that. Now, here’s where things get interesting. Another group of researchers looked that that crappy stuff and found that it was something–they called it “social grooming.” You know when you see videos of monkeys removing one another’s lice and such? That’s exactly what that nonsense is. The researchers concluded that it was to some extent serving a purpose but, no doubt, a purpose that could just as easily be met in countless other ways. The really big problem, as I see it, is around the amount of time that young people spend doing this. Instead of reading and responding to nonsense they could be doing so many truly useful and/or enjoyable things. What a foolish shame!

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