Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ten revelations re: the 3D instructor

It's early, and I'm new at it, and we're just in beta. But still, teaching in a 3D virtual world has provided me with a few revelations, some large, some small. Here are ten of them, in no particular order.

1. Social norms make the cut. Not all of them, maybe, but polite introductions, the usual patterns of respect in dialog, even adjusting stance and position for personal space... all things that are so ingrained they come very naturally. It is hard, in fact, to imagine that you are not in the room with these people.

2. Self-consciousness is limited. This is a pleasant surprise. The usual level of anticipation before speaking to a crowd is lessened by a few significant factors, namely: any concerns whatever about appearance, dress, posture. My zipper will never be down, my nose will never run. I can concentrate on content and presentation.

3. The back row is back. I feared this would be so, and it seems to be. In an online, asynchronous environment no one can hide. Everyone is equal. In 3D, people can hide in the back, not speak up, avoid participation. The introduction of an interactive notebook in our world has made it possible to check everyone's work, but still, it's not easy to get everyone involved equally in discussion. Oh yes, and it's also possible for someone to try to dominate (muting them is possible, but see revelation 1 above).

4. Nonverbal is nonexistent. Yes, it's possible to nod, shake your head, raise your hand. You can even jump up and down. But the mood of the room comes through audio only, much like a conference call. I'm still concerned that impressions may even be misleading. A group of people looking at you intently, appearing engrossed... ah, all must be well.

5. Small groups that know each other work best. Anyone who has spent time in a 3D world with a few pals knows this, but it's true in a classroom. It's quite easy, quite fun, when you're all in it together.

6. Many souls in one body is weird, on a sci-fi scale. Okay, this is likely quite rare, but I had the experience of doing a demo when a group of people were participating through one avatar, projected on a screen in a conference room. I could hear them all speak. Because the environment generally feels real otherwise, this was actually somewhat unnerving. Threw off my groove. Not recommended.

7. Live is live. In spite of the fact that some of the pressure is off (see revelation 2 above), it's still a live environment. When something goes wrong, it goes wrong for all to see. Technology has to work for everyone, all at the same time. Given the nature of technology, there's always going to be something.

8. Instructions must be clear, but not as clear. One of the cardinal rules of online learning has been, make your instructions painfully clear. In fact, most written online directions get revised and revised and revised, so that eventually the most complex of instructions are written so well no one even notices they are complex. In a live environment, there's opportunity for backing up, starting over. Plus...

9. Help is at hand. People respond to their fellow classmates, helping them adjust audio or figure out how to change their point of view. This is a very good thing.

10. Skills transfer. This is true almost any way you want to define a skill or its transfer, whether it's the platform skills of presenters that work in-world and out, or whether it's learning something new in-world and using it out.

Try it when you can. I think you'll like it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Confessions of a Twitter Prof

Further to the Twitterization of Higher Education... Terri Main is one of the 10% of faculty who use Twitter for instruction. She is an 8-year veteran of online teaching, and teaches about online technologies. I asked her a few questions, and found her answers thought-provoking. Among other things, she believes social networking is on a track to change the culture of education....

BP: What differences have you seen in the 8 years you've been teaching online, with regard to student readiness and acceptance of online technologies?

TM: When I started nearly all students were first time students. They usually needed extensive orientation on the use of BlackBoard (our course management software). Now, the majority of my students have taken online classes before or at least attempted them. They rarely need help with the basics of the technology. I wish our software was more accessible from mobile devices like smart phones. I suspect that if it was, many of our students would be accessing from their phones.

BP: You're preparing to teach a class on Computer Mediated Communication, which focuses on communication in relationships. What sort of technologies will you explore?

TM: The primary focus will be the Web 2.0 technologies. We will emphasize social networking in it's various forms. We will also make excursions into the worlds of the 3-D web like Second Life and World of Warcraft as well. But much of the course will focus on how computer mediated communication is shaping all of our relationships. For instance, I was out sick a week earlier this year. Nevertheless, even though my dean and coworkers knew I was sick, they still included me in work related email discussions. Being instantly accessible shifts the concept of “time off.” We will look at such phenomenon as online dating. Two women I know in my age bracket who recently married, both met their husbands through E-harmony. Email and IM has replaced much of my face time with students. I have a daily office hour, yet I probably don't have over 10 actual visits a year. All these are changing the nature of our relationships.

BP: You use web 2.0 technologies yourself in teaching. How, and how do they help?

TM: Right now, I use them as an auxiliary to my regular contact with students through email and BlackBoard. I use Twitter mostly for my online classes. I post reminders of due dates and on campus meeting dates. I also post study tips, research and writing suggestions. I occasionally post an inspirational quote or joke. It's a quick way to post a link from the web.

With online students, I find fewer have Twitter than I expected. Many sign up just to get my updates. But then online students tend to be older. They take online classes because they have work and family commitments. They are still more email oriented than Twitter or text oriented. But a couple of years ago, I had to explain what a blog was and the words social networking would draw blank stares.

Things move so fast in cyberspace by the time anything gets printed in a traditional way, it's out of date.

BP: You're a content expert and an experienced online instructor. Where do you see technologies like Twitter and Social Networking taking online learning?

TM: Well, just to give you a hint our college is using various instant messaging and social networking technologies for emergency alerts. Following the Virginia Tech experience, authorities discovered that students were finding out more about the shootings from their Facebook pages than from the school.

Beyond that, though, I believe we will see the emergence of new ways to use these venues of communication. Right now, many instructors use them for announcements. Some are developing Facebook pages for their courses where they can post course information and get feedback from students. I can see a growing use of specialized social networks being used for educational purposes. For instance, a literature professor might require her students to keep a reading and critique list on Goodreads or a Writing instructor encourage students to network using Writer's Den.

Social networks can also change the culture of education. The interactive and informal nature of these social networks can blur the line between teacher and student. Online education already does that to a great extent. The online instructor is not the sage on the stage, but the guide by the side. Online education is primarily student driven instruction. A social network filled with “friends” does have a leveling effect.

One of the dangers of this blurring occurs when students and faculty become friends on personal networks. This is considered to be something to be avoided with current students. However, some argue it makes the instructor more accessible. Whether there is such a thing as being too accessible is the question.

BP: Can you comment on the overall effect of these technologies on relationships? Do they help or hurt, and why?

TM: I think it is a bit overly simplistic to say do they help or hurt. The answer is both. It's like saying did the telephone help or hurt relationships. Well, it eliminated the need for face to face communication and as such encouraged fewer face to face visits. However, it made it possible to sustain long distance relationships with friends and family. Many people today are reconnecting through social networks. There are several people I hadn't talked to in years that I now have as friends on Facebook and honestly know more about them now than when I knew them in a face to face setting.

Here's a good example. The advent of the automobile changed life as much as that of the internet if not more. Church is an example. Before the car, you basically went to the closest church of your denomination. That meant you went to church with your neighbors. You didn't only see them at church, but in the store, the post office and at the community events. With the car, neighborhoods became less important and “third places” like churches, clubs, bars, etc become more important. Called “Third Places” by sociologists designating a place other than work or home. You now drove to church which likely was not in your own neighborhood. You saw people on Sunday morning, maybe Sunday night or at a church function. However, that daily contact had been lost. Now, with Facebook, Twitter, Shoutlife and other social networking sites, I stay in touch with fellow church members daily. Facebook has become the General Store of the 21st century where people meet and chat.

On the other hand, relationships can develop very rapidly online. This is called hyperpersonal communication. We often find ourselves revealing quite significant personal material to people we only “met” a few days or weeks ago. We can feel a close personal connection with people on the basis of very little information. Lonely people, the elderly and teenagers are especially vulnerable to those who would take advantage of such fast track intimacy. Many people use the anonymity of the internet to become bullies saying things online they would never say in a face to face setting.

So, yes, I'd say it's a mixed bag, but on balance we have gained more than we have lost.

BP: How can someone sign up for your upcoming class?

TM: If anyone lives in California and is interested in taking my Computer Mediated Communication course (probably the only one of its kind offered by a community college), they can apply through . Applications for spring semester are being taken now with general registration commencing in late October. Those outside of California can also apply, but the cost is significantly higher. This will be a fully online class. No on campus meetings will be required.

BP: Thanks, Terri!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Almost 10% of faculty use Twitter for instruction

That's a huge number. The source is a good one, Campus Technology, although (perhaps predictably) they spin it in the negative. The headline points out that "most faculty don't use" the service. But one in ten? Quick, tell me the obvious instructional uses.

Can't come up a good one? Neither could I. That's what makes the number so fascinating to me. Here's the article:

On further reflection, here's a very short list of possibilities...
  • Announcements and reminders
  • Heads-up for current events
  • Posting links to new/different content
  • Praise and commendations
  • Improving class cohesiveness
I could see how an engaged instructor could help keep students thinking about his or her course, and keep the momentum of a good class session going by simply plinking away with little comments and asides of interest, particularly using the last two ideas on my list. Just keeping their head in the game could pay off in big way.

But it's hard for me to imagine it as a serious part of instructional design. What am I missing? I'm very interested to learn what's really going on, and to hear any other ideas for uses.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Autopsy results of Illinois Global Campus: It wasn't all three?

If there was a coroner's office for the deceased of the elearning world, a medical examiner could pore through file after file and find only three main causes of death: Poor academics, poor business model, or bad technology. The post-mortem on the University of Illinois' "Global Campus," one of the largest online efforts by a major state university, continues. I'm not that medical examiner, and I have yet to absorb all the details, but the following link below provides a good, fairly short description from one insider:

To risk being overly simplistic, the effort seems to have run aground on the rocks of distrust... faculty vs. business, bricks-and-mortar vs. online, even campus vs. campus. In the end, it may be safe to say that the Illinois Global Campus wasn't Global, it wasn't a Campus, and it wasn't really even Illinois. The three major university campuses could not agree, and some may have worked actively against it.

I played a role in the development and growth of another major online effort, building the product development engine of a for-profit online university that went from 2,500 students at acquisition to 25,000 students in less than seven years. I clearly understand all the pitfalls mentioned by Mr. Kantz, and can commiserate. But I had a warning fresh in mind when we started back in 2001... I had seen the recent demise of the California Virtual University, along with many startups in the online learning space, and so I brought to that effort my own heartfelt conviction: to be successful, an online entity needs to attach equal importance to three things: Education, Business, and Technology. The key to success then, is that everyone involved must understand that all three have a moral equivalency in determining the ultimate success of the project. Until this is fully understood, and those involved have insight into one another's areas of expertise, the foundation is shaky.

California Virtual University crashed because of poor business planning. "With no money for its operations, [CVU] folded up its tent, leaving only the directory," was the summation of Stephen Downs in 1999.* The IGC is not so cut and dried, but were I a CSI officer on the case, I would take a very close look at the business model here as well. I think I can eliminate education as the culprit. According to Lee Kantz, "Our programs were developed with faculty, and their admissions requirements were set by our academic partners on the campuses." It also does not seem to have been the technology. I would have to take a hard look at the product to be sure it wasn't just really, really bad, but I assume it was probably as good as many. There are standards out there now, albeit fairly low (in the future, growth will demand raising this bar).

And then there's this statement from Mr. Kantz: "I think the first challenge is to get the politics straight, and set up an environment where the entire university is on-board with the initiative. That clearly didn’t happen at U of I." Is politics business? In this case, I would say yes. Part of the business model is the structure of the entity. It must be set up in such a way as to guarantee it the authority, and freedom, and the charge to do what is required. If the enterprise is by definition beholden to other interests (like, say, faculty?), those key interests must be lined up and eager--not just acquiescent--in order to make it work. In this case, a serious misstep seems to have made in the initial decision to set up a separate company, without clear buy-in from the academic community.

Again, without full access to the all the details, it's impossible to know the whole truth. But based on what I've gleaned so far, it seems to be another case of an educational enterprise falling down on the business front. This is not a predestined outcome, as many successful online ventures in the non-profit, traditional university world prove. Business, after all, really just means assuring that the income matches or exceeds the expenditures, and that the path has been cleared for this to happen for the foreseeable future.

When I was a kid, my mother used to express her opinion of drivers who sped past her by saying, "He's in a hurry to get to his own funeral." Elearning entities that can't or won't put equal weight on their business, education, and technology underpinnings are in the fast lane on that same trajectory.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Welcome to the era of the "Interchange Environment"

So where does one begin when one wants to to pilot some high quality, high powered learning experiences and products using the wide array of new technologies now at our fingertips? eLearning as an industry (and here I mean to encompass formal education, informal learning, and training), has in the past used a strategy that I would call 'run and gun.' Grab something new, try it, then if it doesn't work, drop it like a rock. And if it does work, use it until it wears out. And maybe beyond. We have not been very inventive, when it comes down to it. But the times they are a' changin.'

Let me explain how. When online learning first made its debut in the late 80's and early 90's, it was confined to the corporate training space, and it was all self-paced. We just moved CD's online. But what we were really doing was taking one portion of the learning process, the absorption of new knowledge, pulling it out of context, and putting it on the web for learners to consume. It worked pretty well for some concrete subjects, notably IT training. But sadly, many thought it was the whole answer, and a lot of complex soft skills went that way, too. I remember even Harvard launched an MBA in a box, full of high-dollar video-based simulations for complex business situations. (It failed, though multimedia cases and simulations continue.)

In the mid to late 1990's, Blackboard, eCollege, and other CMS's roiled through the higher education space like a tsunami. They had a very different model, all about communication. There wasn't a self-paced "next" button to be found. But again, we pulled one aspect of the learning process out, this time dialog and discussion, and assumed it was the whole thing. This model also worked very well for some subjects (business, psychology), but suffered greatly when applied to education (that is, teaching teachers to teach), and nursing, and other areas that required high-touch, highly visual content.

So where are we now, one tenth of the way through a new century? The technology landscape is literally littered with cheap, easy technologies that provide both communication and content. Some examples in communication: social networks, blogs, micro-blogs, virtual worlds, wikis, chat, video chat. Some examples of self-paced content: podcasts (audio and video), user-generated media, high-def video, streaming audio and video, downloading almost anything, screen-capture with audio, serious games, personal homepages, and all the associated information widgets and gadgets.

And now the edges are becoming seriously blurred. Is video chat a communication tool or a content generation tool? Is it one thing when it's happening, and another when it's recorded and played back? Is an online textbook still content when it connects learners to other learners in a social network? Is a 3D virtual classroom a communication option, or is it another way to house content? Or is it something new entirely?

Personally, I think it's something new. In fact, I think it's new enough that I'm going to coin a term for it (because there has been a noticeable dearth of obscure new terms in our field lately): the "Interchange Environment," defined as an online space that allows both free exchange of content and high levels of communication, and is controlled by individual users and leaders of groups. The typical LMS or CMS, like Blackboard or Moodle, is an Interchange Environment. But so are a lot of other spaces. We need this term because when a technology fits that definition... you can teach a class there.

Second Life is an Interchange Environment. So is Facebook, and so is any private social network built on So is PageFlakes, by virtue of its PageCast function. So is Google Groups. If a group leader can limit access, if members can exchange content (think assignments and papers as well as lectures or articles or videos), and if all members can communicate with all group members while limiting access so non-members can be kept out, then you have everything you need to conduct a class.

What don't you have with one of these web 2.0 Interchange Environments that you do have with a typical CMS? You don't have all the back-end authentication and security functions that can integrate with an SIS or HR system, for scale, and for ease of use (don't laugh). You don't have a gradebook, or a quiz function. But some of these technologies are so API-friendly that you can use your own security, or a third party single-sign-on service. And gradebooks? Those are easy and cheap, sometimes free, online.

What else is missing from these non-LMS Interchange Environments? Hosting and maintenance costs. Oh yes, and license fees. You don't have those.

It's almost 2010. Come January, we will have put our 10% deposit down on the 21st century. When those of us in elearning actually take possession of it, I believe we'll be moving into one of these highly effective, highly cost-effective Interchange Environments. And I don't think we'll be moving back out again.

Why Gen Y learners won't demand better educational technology

A lot of us in online higher education have been talking for years now about the coming of the Gen Y student, and how we better get into web 2.0, or we'll lose these people. Conventional wisdom says those who grew up on X-Box and Facebook won't stand for the flat, 1990's learning systems that are so deeply entrenched in education. But I've lately come to realize that there's something odd going on. The Gen Y students are not clamoring for the Twitterization of education. They aren't wondering why their online courses are so deadly boring. They are going along with whatever we hand them. Why?

I fear I know the answer. You probably do too, if you think about it. We've taught them too well. Along with Bio and Chem and Spanish and Algebra II, we've taught them that they aren't to make demands like that. Their appointed role is to roll their eyes, let the heavy wave of dull duty sweep over them, and do what they're told.

For years their classroom teachers have been telling them to turn off their phones, put away their laptops, unplug their iPods, sit down, open their books to page 226, and listen to me while I talk. We have driven a wedge between their real world, which is online, plugged in, constantly in contact, moving, changing, interacting... and their education. We have sent the same strong message class after class, year after year, and their academic success has depended on them hearing that message, understanding it, and accepting it. We have demanded they learn this one truth:

Education = Out of Touch

You can't be plugged in and be a good student. It's what all our actions are telling them. Education does not play by the rules of the rest of the world. So why would they even blink when they find our educational technologies gray and drab? The answer is, they won't.

Is this acceptable? I suspect that many educators' response to such news might actually be relief. "Whew. So now we don't have to use all those tricky technologies after all." But that is a self-defeating, self-destructive attitude. That is the attitude of Lemming Number 289 as it follows Lemming Number 288 off the cliff. Because the wedge we have driven between our students' world and their education is actually a wedge between education and learning.

Learning, that's not boring. That's the excitement of something new that can be put to use. That's the kid coming home talking endlessly about a "good teacher," one who makes history come alive. One who makes history seem like what it actually is, useful and applicable to what's happening around us right now. Learning, that's the physics teacher who makes projectile behaviors and the characteristics of light appear to be what they actually are, truths that give us control of our world, that open doors to what is possible on earth. Good teachers take hold of anything and everything that makes learning exciting.

But that's not the right phrasing. The very vocabulary of "making learning exciting" reveals the assumption that learning is a dull, lifeless thing that has to be jazzed up, or candy-coated, to appear to be anything other than boring. In fact, learning is just the opposite of boring. Learning is a natural stimulant. We need to get out of its way, rather than shoving it into, or shoveling it onto, learners. Good teachers understand this in their bones. Good instructional designers, too. And good learning technologists.

And that's exactly why this current generation of Web 2.0 technologies is so powerful. There are thousands of ways to make use of them, to get in the flow, to keep students engaged with the truths that will change them, that will open doors for them, that will give them control of their lives and the ability to affect their world for good. Innovations are just waiting, begging, for the light of day.

Take text messaging. Why has texting not replaced hand-raising in class? Why is it not the standard approach to question and answer sessions? Set up a website to receive text messages, list them on a page, compile them for the teacher, and block out the name of the sender so it's anonymous. Suddenly, every cell phone becomes a clicker, a polling device, a way to get at what students are really thinking. Students will communicate in their preferred manner. They won't shut down when they enter class, they will power up. And their teachers will get the real deal, the actual thoughts and ideas of students. The back row will vanish. Is this a good idea? I think so. And so do these people:

The technology is already available. And guess what... for a class of up to 30 people, it's free. And that's just one example. There are hundreds of these. There are hundreds of creative ways to make use of technologies, big and small. But if we wait for Gen Y to clamor for them, it will be too late. That wedge we've been driving all these years will turn into a coffin nail. And that coffin will be buried under a headstone bearing the name of Lemming Number 289.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Innovation in educational technology. Why not?

The size of the global education industry, defined as all the money spent by governments, individuals, and corporations on education and training, is almost three times the size of the global entertainment industry, and double the size of the global telecommunications industry.* Education is bigger, in fact, than entertainment and telecom combined.

So why do education's technical innovations feel like hand-me-downs? If a college professor uses some video clips and regularly podcasts, he's way up near the top of the technical scale. A new technology on the order of the iPod or Twitter? We don't expect that from education. What is it about education, or educators, that makes this industry so relatively sparse of innovation? There are obvious answers, like, it's hard to sell new technologies when they're being bought by non-profits and government entities. Or, educators' grip on traditional methods is too tight. Or, investors don't like the education market because they don't understand it. But I've never bought into those arguments. I think the answers lie elsewhere.

Like, here:

1. Innovative geeks are in the habit of avoiding education, not contributing to it. Shawn Fanning didn't build Napster as a class project at Northeastern University. He "rarely attended class... pushing himself to get the Napster system finished" (according to his authoritative bio on Wikipedia). It doesn't seem logical to expect innovators of his ilk to skip class in order to create cool ways to attend class.

2. Educators tend to focus on educational outcomes to the exclusion of customer satisfaction. Something about the master-apprentice relationship that implies, to a greater or lesser degree, that an instructor can order learning (use any definition of 'order' you choose) and all that matters is whether the apprentice obeyed. Why not order up the most comfortable approach for the master?

3. Historically slow adoption rates of new technologies in education discourage innovation. Even the early adopters are a ponderously thoughtful bunch. (Hey, I'm teaching my class with PowerPoint slides; I'm digital, leave me alone.) If it takes years to saturate a market with even a really obvious product, why waste your time on something exotic? Go somewhere people will be a little quicker on the uptake.

But I think the final, all-encompassing reason there's so little technical innovation in education is that education is more complex than either entertainment or communications. If you're educating well, you are both communicating and entertaining as you go. So it follows that education would borrow from those two heavily.

It also follows that new educational technologies would essentially be an integration of components that communicate and entertain. You can go back to the mid-90's and look at the original CourseInfo and Real Education software (which became Blackboard and eCollege, respectively). They were novel, exciting environments made up of what? Web pages, threaded discussion boards, and file transfer. Entertainment and communications technologies stitched together. That's still the approach for LMS companies: sew together as many other technologies as you can, and harness them for learning. The only really educationally-focused new software is the test engine. (Yeehah.)

And that leads to my final point. Even sewing together other technologies requires the seamstress (or seamster) to understand the learning process and the teaching process inside out. Why have Blackboard and eCollege and even Moodle done so little with web 2.0 tools like blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networking, micro-blogging, user-generated content, video, gaming, 3D virtual worlds? They're still stuck on 1990's technologies, relatively speaking.

I'll tell you why. Education as an industry is full of people who are content experts, and severely lacking people who are learning experts. Or more specifically, learner experts. I don't mean people who know and adhere to theories about learning. I mean people who really get the whole process, and are passionate about it, from the learner's perspective. People who love the thrill of learning, the way kids in kindergarten love it, and want everyone to have that sort of joy again. People who want to learn, and want others to learn, and want everyone to apply that learning, with the same exuberance that hobbyists do. What makes learning work and why? What makes learning exciting, interesting, rewarding? We need more people who are experts in those things, because whatever products they create will reflect it.

The sad thing is, the Shawn Fannings of the world are a whole lot like that. They do love learning. They love discovery. They love finding out about things they don't know, and putting that knowledge to use. They just don't like the education process. And you know what? That makes them the best people on earth to come up with cool stuff for teaching and learning.

But I think we may be on the verge now of a serious revolution. The set of technologies now available for stitching together is incredibly rich. The potential for truly jaw-dropping new learning experiences is here. It's at our fingertips. It's just awaiting the right seamstress. Or seamster.

* Sources: PriceWatershouse Coopers, Gartner Newsroom, UNESCO, World Bank Grp, European Training & Dev.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Penn elearning retreats from the crowd-sourcing frontier

It appears that those pioneering souls at the University of Pennsylvania who did some amazing work with crowdsourcing the online learning experience last fall have circled the wagons, and are back to keeping savages like you and me at bay. If you haven't seen the experiment they pulled off a year ago, you should take a look. Here's the description from their course website back then:

"The Penn LPS Commons is a new social learning platform dedicated to supporting online learning at the College of Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Its design sets new benchmarks at the intersection of online learning and the social web, allowing participants from both inside and outside of the classroom to interact in engaged communities of inquiry."

Check it out... it's a very cool attempt to get a global dialogue going for the benefit of the enrolled participants. They picked a good subject, one with lots of energy around it. And they clearly spent time and energy combining a true LMS with a true social network. They then devised an instructional design whereby the input and interests and passions of anyone online could be harnessed for the benefit of the paid course-takers. Crowd-sourced learning.

And now here's the retreat, as evidenced in their FAQ for their fall 2009 course offering:

Q: What aspects of the course are only available to those enrolled (vs. the general public)?
A: All blogs, discussions, lectures, and live Q&A's will only be available to enrolled students.

Well, it was a noble effort, and I applaud it loud and long. Perhaps it was just a bit too far out there. Perhaps it trusted a little too much in its ability to draw an interested, intelligent crowd to play the game from home. Even if it didn't work in this instance, though, I think the idea is a powerful one and will return.

Global dialogs, as we know from Twitter (#iranelections, #nomaschavez), can be messy. Harnessing them for the intellectual and academic benefit of a course may be a bit like trying ride the wind. Either you don't have enough to fill a kite, or you're hammering plywood over the windows.

But learning to harness the wind is a worthy end. Eventually, we'll figure out how to sail the seven seas and fill the skies with airplanes.

Good backgrounder on crowdsourcing:

Friday, September 4, 2009

Online learning works better because...?

"Study finds that Online Learning Beats the Classroom." That's the headline, and if the New York Times says it, then it's got to be so. And especially if it's coming from one of the Gray Lady's bloggers. We're talking credibility to spare here.

All right, stop laughing and read on.

There's the link, so you can take a look for yourself. The study in question was conducted for the US Department of Education by an independent firm. That firm studied a whole lot of other studies, and drew the conclusion that students who study in online classes do better, to a small but statistically significant degree, than students in traditional classrooms. That's where the Gray Lady's facts end, and the opinions begin. The rest of the article is conjecture as to how this could be so. The arguments are sound, but they are just opinions.

So in the spirit of blogging, I'll add my own. Online learning gives you the room you need to pay attention. The way standard online classes are currently run, you have the time to digest before you ask, to ask before you answer, to interact as much or as little as you want, to look up what you need. Even in the most standard of online formats, where 20 students are asked on Monday to read a bunch by Wednesday, then are told on Wednesday to post to a discussion board three times by Friday, then are asked on Friday to write and submit a paper by Sunday... it's still completely okay that Mark takes a lot longer to ponder the discussion postings or write his own thoughts than Mary takes. Not the case in a standard classroom, where if you don't keep up with the main body of the group (or in the worst case, with the professor's chosen pace), sorry, you just don't keep up.

There are other factors. There's motivation. People who choose online learning may be leaning into the work just a little more heavily, willing to work a little bit harder. If I'm the sort who doesn't require social approval for my new hair style or my sharp new shoes, maybe I'm also the sort who would just as soon dive into the meat of the content. No offense meant to Elle Woods wannabe's, but online, a whole lot of the superficial social gets stripped away, and those who like it like pared down may be those who are also just a tad more focused on their work.

And while we're speculating, let me add one more. And this, to me, is the big one most people miss. Online learning is a product. Classroom learning is a service. There is a huge difference between the two, and those of us who have labored long and hard in this field have had to come to grips with it early and often. In the classroom, about the only thing that could be called a product is the textbook. The rest is a service offered by the instructor to teach the students. (Or the servitude demanded of students by the instructor, depending on the particular academician in question).

Online, though, everything's a product, and it feels that way to students. There are layouts and font sizes. There are graphics and profile pictures and videos. There's even a voice, in the literary sense, that comes across as product. Because of this, those who create and provide online courses spend more time thinking about them. They worry over the order of instruction, about what goes where, about how exactly to pose the questions or write the assignment instructions for maximum clarity, about whether this diagram is better than that one. Even an off-the-cuff video lecture, once it's recorded, is no longer off-the-cuff. It gets edited. And sometimes it gets replaced by a better one.

Does the product nature of an online course make it better? Think of it this way.... Are you more likely or less likely to have a good dining experience when the chefs and waiters and the maitre'd are all focused on things like how the tables are arranged, and what the lighting and the linens look like, and how best to arrange the chicken on the china, and the china on the cotton cloth--rather than a single cook showing up for work and figuring he can wing it? Just so, are you more or less likely to have a quality learning experience when an instructor and an instructional designer and maybe a graphic designer or media developer are paying close attention to the product details of layout, visuals, and wordsmithing, rather than one faculty member scanning last semester's notes on the way to the lecture hall while balancing a latte?

I'd bet on the paying-close-attention scenario.