Another attempt at Flexible Provision of courses

Our friends from the Open University of the Netherlands (OUNL) have just had published a very interesting article that seems to be a first step towards helping education and training institutions re purpose their content for multiple audiences.  This is an important, yet very challenging task that requires that courses be created without a single audience in mind. Besides the targeting and language challenges of multiple audiences, the technical challenges are also many and this paper presents a possible  solution.

Just to back up a bit, you may remember the excitement of educational Modeling Languages which evolved into IMS Learning Design. The promise of these efforts was to provide specifications and tools that allowed instructional sequences to be formally described and tagged, thus setting the stage for repurposing, search filter etc.  I was particularly enamoured with the idea that Learning Design would do for education what standard notation from the 11 century did for music. I experimented with some hand coding of content. But the standard had too major problems, notably  lack of markup tools and runtime engines and a very fine level of granularity that required far too much effort to code.  This effort was led by Rob Koper from UNL. Continue reading

Differences between students using PLE and LMS systems

I don’t usually comment on articles in “closed” journals, but making an exception in this case. I hope you can find it in a library data base, or one of the authors uploads it to a public site or you can “rent ” it from Wiley for 48 hours for $6! The article:

Casquero, O., Ovelar, R., Romo, J., & Benito, M. (2015). Reviewing the differences in size, composition and structure between the personal networks of high- and low-performing students. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(1), 16-31.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12110.

This is one of the few studies that use a quasi-experimental design to measure differences in network formation and structure between low and high achievers in two types of online learning contexts. The first context was based on traditional LMS (Moodle) activities and design with the the usual content display and threaded discussions.  The second used a variety of tools including iGoogle, Google Groups and FriendFeed and an array of  digital resource repositories such as Delicious, Flickr, YouTube, Scribd and SlideShare. The instructor and learning activities were the same in both contexts. Coincidently, this second model is similar to my own courses in which I use the LMS for grade management and some static content display. However, unlike the mix of tools used in this PLE, I use our in-house Elgg environment (Athabasca Landing) which enhances privacy and student control of data.

As has been found in very much studies of interaction in formal courses,  the students who are most active (highest participation levels), score higher marks. This correlation is often used by researchers to justify their interaction interventions. However, as always correlation doesn’t imply causation. Involved, motivated students always both participate and score higher than those who don’t – no matter what learning activities are designed.

In this study  social network analysis tools were used to measure the individual networks developed as evidenced by comments and contributions. As expected higher performing students had more highly developed, denser and more extensive  social networks – again demonstrating motivation and participation. However, more interesting was that the PLE students interacted more and also built more expensive personal networks. The authors note:

 in public spaces, such as open forums, all the individuals are equally exposed and equally positioned to access the information flow. As a result, the present study demonstrates that when public spaces based on indirect interactions are set up in online courses, students’ selection procedures for interaction are not focused on the individuals, but rather on those shared resources and the will to collaborate

Obviously, the information flow in Moodle forums can be rich, but the more extensive opportunities to contribute, and as importantly to browse and consume information produced by others, increases with heterogeneity and richness of sources of that flow.

One problem in this and other networking studies is the sample selection. As in far too many studies of online learning, in this study the 120 participants were all taking a course on Networking and Web 2.0. I have never seen data on how many online research studies use students studying some component of online learning as the subject matter.  This is sort of like studying people’s reaction to smoking indoors, but only reporting the attitudes of smokers.

In any case this is an interesting study and provides further evidence for expanding the learning contexts beyond the confines of a teacher constructed LMS. Network growth, social capital accumulation, transparency, persistence and network literacy are all enhanced when these ‘connectivist’ learning outcomes are aimed for, and instantiated in a course that grows beyond the LMS.

Accreditation – for Learning Accomplishment or for Presence and Persistence?

Offering degrees and certificates is the currency of higher education. Degree and certificates are very highly valued by students, parents, employers and postsecondary institutions. Despite occasional challenges to the authenticity of this form of learning recognition, attaining this final parchment is seen by both institutions and students as the culminating and arguably the only important manifestation of accomplishment, after years of study in higher education.  The problem is that learning itself, much less wisdom, is not measured very well by these large scale certificates of generalized accomplishment.

One concern is that the degree as a unit of accreditation is much too large- does a four year BA in economics reflect the same amount of learning as a three year BA in classics? Does a BA obtained at a distance equate to the same learning as a BA delivered on a campus? These are very challenging questions to answer. Institutions are clear to set the number of courses required, the degree of specialization and the minimal grade scores for a degree, but these are, at best, very rough indicators of learning.

Efforts by the Mozilla Foundation to support institutional awarding of much smaller credentials (known as badges) certainly addresses part of the problem. The creation of a badge-full portfolio that details a student’s individual skills and knowledge accomplishments potentially provides a much more articulate and public record of accomplishment than a degree. However, these have (to date) been only sporadically adopted by higher education institutions despite student interest (see Santos, C., Almeida, S., Pedro, L., Aresta, M., & Koch-Grunberg, T. (2013).

The credential crisis has been exacerbated by the arrival of vast numbers of open educational resources (OERs) and more recently by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which provide a host of opportunities for learning- but to date only very limited opportunity for credentialing and public acknowledgement of that learning.  MOOCs and OERs allow learners to participate in learning, either alone or in groups, from teachers and institutions around the globe.  After watching an excellent Ted Talk, brushing up on your statistics skills by reviewing a Khan Academy video or enrolling in a 10 week MOOC, there is little doubt that learning can occur. But measuring and accrediting that learning is today, all but impossible. A few pioneering institutions are developing “challenge for credit” or credentialing examinations, but for most institutions this alternate (and potentially competitive) form of accreditation strikes too near to the heart of the current business model for comfortable adoption.

The OERu (http://wikieducator.org/OER_university/), a non profit collaboration of over 35 public universities, colleges and networks from around the globe is attempting to develop a better or at least an alternative model for teaching and credentialing.  Each of the collaborating partners commits to providing a small number of courses, for free and independent study on the open net. Students are free to select and study any of these courses and if they choose to do so, they may apply to the delivering institution to write an examination or to do other work demonstrating accomplishment and in return they receive full course credit for that accomplishment. The content is available free of charge and efforts are made to allow for and encourage students to work cooperatively to locate and help each learn.  The credential process requires examiner time and institutional effort to assess and to register this learning- thus the OERu partners can charge whatever fee for this service that they require. To date, the Open University of Catalonia is the only Spanish institution to join the OERu.

It is yet too early to measure how well this free learning opportunity, but paid for accreditation will be accepted- by students and employers and likely the most challenging, by postsecondary institutions themselves. But it is clear that we need credentials that are meaningful, that reflect real learning accomplishments, and that can be obtained at affordable cost by all students and life-long learners on our globe.

How Green is Your Course?

In my recent talks, I’ve been reminding audiences of the green effect and the potential for reducing carbon emissions and energy consumption by choosing distance as opposed to campus based education. Ironically, I’ve often had to fly on a carbon footprint expanding airplane, to get to these conferences, but that is another irony that escapes few- especially my wife.

Although it seems obvious that studying at home will reduce transportation costs, there are many other ways in which participation in courses requires energy expenditure – from the extra costs of heating the house while you stay up late doing online work, to the cost of running the computer versus reading a book.  It can become very complicated and challenging to quantify the differences. Thus, I was delighted to read the 2005 report from the Open University of the UK, that quantitatively addressed this issue. The report Towards Sustainable Higher Education: Environmental impacts of campus-based and distance higher education systems by R Roy, S Potter, K Yarrow, & M Smith is extensive (56 pages) and covers detail down to how many sheets of paper are consumed by both teachers and learners in a typical course delivered full or part time on campus or via learning or print based distance. The results are “that the distance learning courses examined on average involved nearly 90% (87%) less energy consumption and produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions per student per 10 CAT points than the conventional campus based university courses”  The summary chart below illustrates the savings in energy consumption per 10 CATs (a British course unit – 360 CATs required for a degree).

The graph and commentary in the text notes that e-learning has a slightly lower impact on the environment than print based courses. “E-learning courses appear to offer only a small reduction in energy consumption and CO2 emissions (20% and 12% respectively) when compared to mainly print-based distance learning courses.” This was not a big surprise as I think the benefits of e-learning over print based relate more to pedgagogical flexibility, access to additional resources, groups, networks and collectives and access to multi-media than to energy savings alone.

I look forward to a follow up study that looks at blended learning models in which increases of online learning are paired with potential reduction in campus based activities. This will likely result in energy efficiencies, but if the students are forced to travel to campus everyday anyways for some ‘blended component” the energy or CO2 costs may actually increase as compared to straight campus based programming.

Congratulations to the the authors and the Open University for taking the time and effort to quantify the important envrionmental impacts of our choices of learning modality.

On Open, distance, e-learning and other name confusion

Defining terms like Open and Distance Education has consumed the interest, and resulted in many publications for vocabulary squabblers and some noted educational academics over the years. The rapid evolution of technologies and their adaptation and adoption within the learning and education communities provides opportunities for yet more of this discourse and this post, will likely be yet one more. It is intriguing to note that recent posts on the history of open education have completely neglected the earlier debate and begin with the relatively recent Open Educational resource movement. Continue reading

Creating Personal Networks as Learning Outcome

Thanks to Stephen and Graham Atwell, I discovered a fascinating development in the Personal learning Environment development. To date most of the PLE implementations I have seen have been aggregators of RSS feeds, with not much more functionality than a iGoogle or Pageflake portal. The paper “Designing for Change: Mash-Up Personal Learning Environments” by Fridolin Wild, Felix Mödritscher and Steinn Sigurdarson introduces (to me) a markup language by which designers or learners create scripts of learning activities that in room time mashup a host of Web 2.0 tools that allow individual or groups of learners to create their own learning context and content. In the process, of course, they gain skills of media production, increase their social capital by expanding and deepening personal networks and create archives of artifacts available for retrieval by themselves and others.

The background to the paper overviews the importance of the creation of an adaptable context that the learner creates to support and retain their own learning. They note ” It is not about learning design it is all about learning environment design”. By letting learning emerge from rich inquiry, collaboration and publication tools, learners are able to play active roles in the creation and sustenance of their own learning contexts. These skills, the contexts and the products of course do not end when the course LMS site is closed, but rather become life long learning attributes and capacity. Thus the creation of a rich learning environment that the student creates, owns and continuous to build with is the major learning outcome, the specific knowledge domain outcomes are useful but less important outcomes in a life long learning context.

Wild, Mödritscher & Sigurdarson Iintroduce the Learner Interaction Scripting Language (LISL) which they argue is less cumbersome and more easily configured by users to create and exchange learning activities. The model derives from activity theory with roles for tools, actors, activities and actors and grows from a bottom up perspective as opposed to the top down perscriptions associated with IMS Learning Design. These are scripted and supposedly a run time engine mashes various applications (such as Wikis, schedulers, link aggregators, mindmap tools etc in real time. The activities can saved and edited in chunks the size of patterns.

While the article is not detailed on the availability of a run time engine to execute the scripts, the work seems very promising. Beyond the pedagogical insights of environmental development, is the promise of learning activities that can EASILY be created, shared, contextualized and exchanged.

New tool to mine the collective knowledge

Thanks to the DownLoad Squad I bumped into a very interesting tool to mine collective knowledge. Avanoo is a social software tool that allows members to query others through simple Likert like scale items. Nothing too new here except that everyone gets to view and segment the results according to demographic criteria including gender, nationality, age, income level etc. For example I can create a questions and then determine if Canadians answered that question differently than non-Canadians, men differently than women or the wealthy differently from the poor. If I want I can augment my response to any question with a comment or explanation. Again nothing too new here, except that this type of analysis and results are usually costly to gather and remain the property of the survey owner, not the recipients.

Continue reading