burden or opportunity (on leadership … and transition)

Twenty years ago, as a new graduate student, one of the things I didn’t really expect to think about much in this career was leadership. Then I discovered that there are so many things to lead. Faculty members lead classes, research projects, committees, academic units, journals, and professional organizations, to name a few.

Leadership is necessary for work to get done, and I’ve come to see how in higher education leadership needs to be communal and distributed. If everyone just leads in their own spaces, the system and infrastructure that support us all will flounder.

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Eek! A MOOC! (The why and how of it)

So, I’m about to embark on a MOOC adventure on the instructor side of the fence. It’s not unexpected. I’ve been thinking about doing a MOOC for a while, and I have a really important reason why: my students.

(An aside — to find out more about the MOOC, click here. Or to enroll in the MOOC, which is on Social Media for Active Learning and which will be active from March 24 – April 20, click here.)

My graduate students in Instructional Systems at FSU kept asking why no one from FSU was doing a MOOC. They indicated an interest in being involved in the design and development of a MOOC. They were interested, plain and simple. And while I couldn’t answer for the university or other faculty regarding other MOOC initiatives, I could decide to offer a MOOC … with their assistance. 🙂

Thus the idea for the Social Media for Active Learning MOOC — which we’ve been affectionately calling SMOOC — was born. I offered a seminar during the Spring 2014 term on Open Learning and MOOCs. I determined the topic for my MOOC (gee, it conveniently aligns with my own scholarly interests and expertise). I began to design the MOOC. And then, as the Spring 2014 term began, the students began to work with me on developing the MOOC. When it begins in two weeks, they’ll be the instructional support team.

The process of developing a MOOC as a course project has been an interesting one, and I’m sure to write more on that later. In the meantime, I’m busy with finishing touches on the MOOC itself and opening it up to enrollments. Everyone keeps asking if it will really get massive. I honestly have no idea — either how we might define “massive” or whether it will reach that level of enrollment. I’m not sure that it matters. It’s been a great experience for us so far, and I’m confident it will be for our MOOC participants as well.

So, if you’re reading this post feel free to join us, and feel free to spread the word:
Social Media for Active Learning (web site — or enroll here)
Course Dates: March 24 – April 20, 2014
Brief Description: A 4-week professional development course designed to help instructors, trainers, and instructional designers learn how to better use social media to support learning, whether in an informal networking sense or by embedding social media into more formal learning contexts. Designed in a modular format for maximum flexibility — each week a new topic.

Thoughts on online course design, teaching, and learning

I was recently notified — appropriately enough while at the e-Learn conference — that I have been selected to receive an award from my university’s Office of Distance Learning. This award, for Excellence in Online Course Design, will be made during National Distance Learning Week.

One of the award’s criteria involves being evaluated against the Quality Matters rubric. I’m proud to say that I met the criteria despite having designed the course without ever having reviewed them. But then again I teach instructional design, so that would (ideally) be the case, right?

As part of the award experience, I was asked to come in for a video shoot and answer some questions about my experiences with online learning. I believe there will be a video of the awards winners (and perhaps others?) playing at some point during the award ceremony.

I was provided with the questions the week before the video was shot. To prepare for the video, I sat down and typed out my answers to the questions. I enjoyed the process, which gave me a chance to really reflect on my own experiences. I’m not sure how effectively I hit these points on the video itself (I wasn’t reading my answers, but rather giving a live, unscripted response), but since I actually had my responses typed up I figured I might as well post them here:

How did you utilize the online course environment to engage your online students?

I focus heavily on communication and interaction in my online courses.

Although I don’t think the online and face-to-face classrooms should really be compared – they’re like apples and oranges – for me the essence of the face-to-face classroom has always been that it’s a space to work through ideas and engage with others. I want my online course environment to be the same kind of space.

I require students to interact with me and with each other through discussion. Together, we work through core concepts related to the course. We construct and deconstruct examples. We clarify muddy points, and intentionally muddy points that on the surface seemed clear. I require students to share work and provide each other with feedback. I communicate with them on the discussion board, taking the role of an expert co-learner. I share, I probe, and when necessary I provide extra bits of instruction.

I use bi-weekly synchronous sessions, which are recorded for those who can’t make it live, to give students the chance to interact with me in real time. Rather than giving a standard lecture during those sessions, I tend to speak about relevant current events, work through examples, or address misunderstandings or interesting tangents that pop up on the discussion board.

Note that I’ve not yet mentioned course materials. That’s intentional. In my view, course materials are just that – materials. They provide information, and give us a starting baseline for learning. They provide fodder for discussion. Some texts, graphics, or videos may communicate concepts better than others, and ideally I’d like to think that I choose or design (whatever the case may be) the best of them to incorporate into my classes. However, sometimes there is no “best” or “ideal” that is readily accessible. Also, “best” can, itself, be rather subjective and context-specific, and “not great” can often provide a superb launching point for discussion. So, whether the materials used in a class are the best or the worst, what matters most to me is the way that we use those materials in the class.

What is the most challenging aspect of teaching online? What is the most rewarding?

For me, the most challenging aspect is the silent students. I am, by nature, a communicator. In a face-to-face class, the students who do not speak much at least provide visual cues – body positions, glances, and gestures – that show how they feel and whether they’re paying attention, struggling to understand a concept, etc. Online, it’s much more difficult to differentiate the quiet student who understands the course material quite well from the disengaged student from the student who is struggling but fearful of saying something.

The other challenging aspect – and this may be magnified by teaching instructional design students – is what I call design laid bare. In other words, your course design is visibly posted from the start of the class in front of the students, where it can readily be critiqued and questioned. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It pushes me to plan my courses thoroughly and at times raises some interesting discussions of alternate ways in which a course topic might be taught online.

The most rewarding part of teaching online is getting to know my students so well and see their learning process unfold week after week, documented via our course interaction and communication tools. The discussion board is like a window into their minds in some ways. I get to know the students so well by reading their ideas in the discussion, and I believe strongly that the process of writing out their ideas – as opposed to speaking off the cuff in a synchronous setting – really pushes a deeper understanding of the course material for some students.

I also find that I’m more readily able to individualize courses for online students, or track them in groups with like interests. So, a class with 30 students who have interests in K-12, higher ed, and corporate learning can be split into conference-like tracks and have more focused discussions each week.

Finally, the biggest reward is when an online learning skeptic tells me that after taking my course he or she understands the value of online learning.

Please describe the project or course that was recognized for the award you’ve received (Excellence in Online Course Design)

The course is Mobile Learning, EME5077. In this course, student learn about the basic definitions, pedagogies, and technologies used to support mobile learning and the process to design mobile learning activities. Through the assignments, they get to design ebooks and QR-code based learning activities and create prototypes of a learning app.

Discuss some of your methods for designing your online course. How did organization and design impact the quality of your course?

When I design a course I focus on four main things:

  1. Alignment of objectives, course content, learning activities and assessments
  2. Opportunities for peer feedback and interaction
  3. Opportunities to interact with the instructor
  4. Consistency from week to week and assignment to assignment

Typically I create both a content roadmap and communications plan for the course.

The content roadmap helps me get an overview of how the content, learning activities, and assignments fit together and helps me determine the best sequencing for the course.

The communications plan helps me visualize the overall participation workload, the points at which students become interdependent for completing assignments, and the ways in which I plan to interact with the students.

In the Mobile Learning course, for example, I included:

  • weekly announcements
  • weekly discussions for most weeks of the course
  • bi-weekly synchronous sessions
  • student contributed “tech smackdowns” during some of the bi-weekly sessions
  • personalized pulse-check emails at the 1/3 and 2/3 points
  • peer critiques using VoiceThread

The key is to find the right amount of interaction and communication, knowing that students will desire and take advantage of it to varying extents and that it has be manageable or it cannot be sustained.

There’s also a small bit of my courses that I consider to be designed for serendipity or intentionally undesigned. I find this to be particularly important when teaching adult learners. In other words, I want to be prepared to incorporate my students’ interests and experiences, events and opportunities that arise, and current events into the class experience to keep it as up-to-date and relevant as possible. That intentionally undersigned element also keeps the course really interesting for me each time I teach it.

Did the design process cause you to rethink any strategies in your other classes?

Every course design and teaching experience influences the subsequent ones, whether face-to-face or online.

One thing I’ve clearly learned in the context of teaching online is the value of planning personal pulse-checks with the students. In a campus class, just as in an online class, students can feel isolated or as if they lack a connection to the professor. They may be shy about articulating the challenges or struggles they’re experiencing. My pulse-check emails invite students to share with me what’s working and not working for them personally. It takes far less time to do this than you might think. Most students indicate they’re doing fine and the conversation goes no further. The others, who say more, either provide me with positive feedback, which motivates me to keep going, or indicate areas where they need help or the course might be improved. Those messages open dialogues through which I can help students identify strategies that will improve their course performance or explain why the course is designed in a particular way. Sometimes they give me ideas for ways in which I might change course materials, activities, assessments or policies. I get far more useful feedback in this format than I do on end-of-course evaluations.

Why is everyone so flipped out over flipped classrooms?

In 1997 I taught my first undergraduate class. It was a technology course for preservice teachers, and my cohort of graduate student instructors was mentored by a wonderful faculty member who provided just enough support, but also let us design our own classes. As I looked at the course objectives that my students had to meet in that class, I saw a combination of technical skills and technology-related concepts.

Consider the year. 1997. The class met in a computer lab. Some students had their own computers, but not all of them. Those who had computers didn’t necessarily have the same software that we used in class. I quickly sized up the situation and realized:

  1. Our scheduled time in the classroom was precious. It was the time when students had access to both the software and me.
  2. It was difficult to have a discussion in the computer lab, or even to give a lecture and see engaged faces. The equipment hum was loud, students spoke in low voices from behind large monitors, and when I looked out over the classroom I mostly saw hair rising above those monitors.

My solution was to spend our in-class time focused on working through the software-based assignments. Then, to address the other learning objectives and discuss course readings, I posted materials on a web site and we used an online discussion forum. It worked.

I guess that was my flipped classroom? I just called it wise use of time and resources.

Flash forward 15 years and the”flipped” classroom has become a hot topic. The basic gist is to move the lecture component of class online (record a video) and then have students do homework with instructor supervision and assistance during the class session. My reaction has basically been: meh.

This whole movement supposes that in-class time is entirely occupied by lectures, and that those lectures can just be videotaped and will be just as good. Although that may be the reality for some instructors, many of us already use our in-class time differently. We give micro-lectures on a just-in-time basis or heavily intersperse brief lectures with other activities and discussion.

I also have two concerns about the trend:

  1. The flipped model simply adds to the students’ workload unless the class already had a lot homework problems to be completed on a regular basis. If the previous system involved readings (on own) + lecture (in class), in the flipped version students have readings (on own) + lecture (on own) + the class period. Is it a surprise that this would be better? Students are spending more time working on the class. However, it’s also more work.
  2. Simply recording the lectures with a tool like Tegrity isn’t going to cut it. Instructors who lecture for a full 50 or 90 minute period will need to really reconsider their lectures and chunk them up differently. Why? Because watching a videotaped lecture, particularly from a single camera, back of classroom view, can be deadly boring. No one wants to sit through 100+ minutes of that video each week. Really.Oh, wait. I have one more concern:
  3. Classes aren’t comprised of just readings, lectures, and homework. They also (ideally) involve discussion and activities. I don’t see the space for those activities in this model. I suppose the answer is that the classroom part could be working homework problems and/or discussion and other activities. But that brings us right back to the idea that students should be engaged rather than just talked at, which is a bit different from the flipped classroom concept of doing homework with supervision/assistance.

So while I think the idea of pushing instructors to consider how in-class time is being spent is a great one and encouraging instructors to devote less of that in-class time to information dissemination and more to hands-on student application of concepts is also great, I can’t entirely get behind the idea that lectures should be videotaped and put online and that homework should be done in class, at least not as an absolute.

A videotaped lecture is static. It’s like a class reading, just in a different form.

An in-class lecture is a live event, which can be interspersed with live interactions (questions, activities, etc.). There is some real pedagogical value to interspersing explanation with application and practice. It’s not quite the same when the students view the explanation a few days earlier and no longer have it fresh in mind during class — not to mention that any number of students might run out of time or interest and not watch the lecture video before class.

So why is everyone so flipped out over this idea? Clearly the technology is readily accessible. And many institutions have been tasked with being more effective and more efficient all while using fewer resources. However, rather than jumping on the flipped  bandwagon and picking the solution before analyzing the problem, I’d suggest that maybe this is a good time for instructors to determine if their face-to-face classes, as currently taught, might just as readily be videotaped and shared online. If there would be no real differences, then maybe those instructors need to reconsider their methods a bit. However, the change they need may not be the flipped model.

FSU COE Dean’s Symposium – October 7

I’ve put in plenty of time organizing this event, may as well spread the word.

On October 7 the College of Education at FSU will be hosting the Dean’s Symposium, and this year’s theme is Quality in Online Learning. Our two keynotes are Deb Adair of Quality Matters and Andrew Ng of Coursera. We have panelists from Florida institutions as well. It’s sure to be an interesting day, full of ideas. (And lucky me, I’m on the agenda, too — I get to introduce the topic at the beginning of the day).

All are welcome, and registration is free. The link with more info and a registration form is here: http://bit.ly/fsudeanssymp

We will be streaming and live tweeting as well. More details to come next week on those options. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments.

Quality in higher education: MOOCs highlight the symptoms, are not the cure

[This post will be cross-posted at From the Dean’s Desk, the blog of my Dean, Marcy Driscoll. The theme of this post fits is with the topic of our upcoming FSU College of Education Dean’s Symposium, on October 7.]

Public higher education faces a variety of challenges. Funding has been cut in many states, and tuition has increased. Budgets are tight, and many would argue insufficient. Quality of education is a focal point for many, but how to achieve and measure that quality has been debated. Time to degree and attrition both remain concerns, as does access to and affordability of degree programs. These issues are highly interrelated (e.g., tuition increases prevent students from accessing a public education; budget cuts harm quality through larger class sizes, reduced services and resources, and brain drain and inability to hire faculty) and are nothing new.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – essentially, extremely large online classes in which anyone might enroll – have been offered as one part of the solution to these problems. In the last year, some universities have begun exploring how they might partner with MOOC platforms such as Coursera and Udacity, to allow their students to take MOOCs for course credit, with mixed results (see this story about MOOC completion and pass rates when San Jose State University took this approach, as well as this follow up story).

Still, the interest in MOOCs for college credit remains. The advantages of MOOCs in this context are clear and are related to economies of scale. To accommodate the potentially “massive” course enrollment, the courses are designed to require minimal student-instructor interaction. Similarly, the production values and technology used to support these courses may be more sophisticated than what would be used in a smaller, closed course. Automated assessments can provide instant feedback with no labor. Indeed, once designed some of these courses may only need administrators and technical support, and not instructional teams.

In this way, MOOCs highlight how technology can be used to deliver course materials at a large scale, and how computer-based tools, including simulations in the case of select MOOCs, can assess learning and provide students with interactions and feedback. These ideas are not new – corporations have been doing large-scale Web-based training in a similar manner for years – but these features (content delivered via packaged materials, automated assessments) become desirable if not necessary if institutions of higher education seek to increase class size.

As these highly designed courses become available to higher education, with potentially limitless capacity for student enrollment, it’s not unreasonable to have the discussion about how many “Introduction to Whatever” courses need to be designed. After all, most instructors select from among a relatively small pool of textbooks when designing their courses. Why not simply apply the same concept at the whole course level, with either students or universities choosing from among a pool of designed and approved MOOCs? Yet this approach neglects a key element of higher education: human interaction.

Online students, regardless of course size, may feel isolated and unsupported in their learning process without human interaction. The larger the class, the less feasible it is for individual students to interact with the instructor. Peer interaction may meet some of the learning interaction needs – but learners don’t always trust their peers, peers may not be able to diagnose their fellow learners’ problems as ably as an instructor, and peer networks often need instructor support and encouragement in order to develop.

Although it is costly to support and not easily scaled, the importance of the instructor-student connection should not be minimized. Learning is not just about content delivery, and assessment is not just about test scores. Many students struggle in large courses because they lack motivation, metacognitive skills, note-taking skills, or time management skills. Often these students need to feel that an instructor is their partner in the learning process, available to help as needed and monitoring their achievements in the course. True, most of us have achieved learning outcomes in courses where we had little or no instructor contact. However, if you ask someone to recall their best course experiences or the classes in which they learned the most, odds are there was a highly engaged instructor at the helm.

As someone who holds four degrees from three traditional universities, I have experienced some of the best and worst of classroom-based instruction. And as a researcher of online learning for the last fifteen years, I have observed some of the best and worst in that realm. Regardless of modality, the best classes consistently have involved solid pedagogy and instructional design, expert instructors, and a high degree of interaction and engagement among the members of the class community. The worst have suffered due to a lack of one or more of these elements.

Based on these experiences, I can understand how well-designed MOOCs look like an attractive solution to some of higher education’s problems. Frankly, I cannot argue that an impersonal course held in a large lecture hall with a “live” professor and multiple choice tests is any better than a MOOC. In fact, the MOOC’s recorded lectures, if well done, may be of greater pedagogical value than the live lecture since students can start, stop, and replay them at will. However, given the choice between the MOOC and a well-designed campus-based or online course with an accessible and knowledgeable professor who interacts with students, I’d pick the latter every time. I doubt I’m unique in that regard.

In short, I believe that MOOCs could have a transformative effect on quality higher education, but not in the same ways that many of the MOOC evangelists claim. It is my hope that we will use MOOCs to help us reflect on what quality higher education should be, to develop a greater appreciation for the interaction that occurs between students and instructors, and to strive for excellence in pedagogy and instructional design. Although this will not solve their financial woes, if higher education institutions can increase the quality of instruction where needed and better articulate and demonstrate this quality to their constituents, they will be taking a step in the right direction.

Note: The types of MOOCs to which I refer in this post are xMOOCs, and reflect the typical MOOC offered via the major platforms. cMOOCs, which support connectivist learning, are a bit different. For an explanation of the difference, I recommend this chapter by George Siemens.