Online Learning: To Do is To Be

Frank Sinatra

Chairman of the Board

There is an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that declares “In Online Courses, Students Learn More by Doing Than by Watching.” Never mind how incredibly obvious this is – but the article completely ignores any distinction between online classes and MOOCs, not to mention cMOOCs and xMOOCs. And guess what? There supposedly is something called “Traditional MOOCs” which from the description, they mean the passive learning mass firehoses from MIT and Stanford. Those MOOCs are not traditional unless it is the tradition of technocrats mistakingly thinking that providing opportunities to watch videos is the same thing as education. cMOOCs provide for student-student interaction. xMOOCs tend to be recorded videos and tests – the latest version of the correspondence course.

The article’s big claim that “just watching videos — without also engaging interactively — is an ineffective way to learn” is true in all modes of education delivery, not just online. I wish the Comical of Higher Ed was just as vigilant in posting articles about the dangers of passive classroom lectures. It is as if the last 35 years of research into active learning had never taken place.

It is amazing that some of the same educators that insist on using the lecture method to teach will attack the xMOOCs as passive learning. Lectures can be interactive and engaging, but not “traditional lectures.” The lecture method is basically a modern anachronism that has no real place in learning. It was meant as a way for the lecturer that is the “reader” to read from an original source so the students could take notes. We have invented moveable type, we do not need to do that any more. When I was teaching writing, I converted all of my classes into workshops.

So to recap: xMOOCs say to be is to do, online classes say to do is to be, and Sinatra says do be do be doo…

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George Siemens and the Evolution of Ed Tech

English: Homo habilis KNMR 1813 discovered at ...

English: Homo habilis KNMR 1813 discovered at Koobi Fora (replica) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Siemens wrote a very thoughtful post on his current thinking about education technology called “Adios Ed Tech. Hola something else.”  Siemens has been very important in shaping my own thought on education technology and online learning. His work has not just shaped my thinking but how I work. The 2008 MOOC “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” was a seminal turning point in the field of education. I think my career has paralleled his in many ways: I too have been involved in education technology since the late 90s. I worked on online writing labs, MOOs, MUDs, early online tutor training sites, etc. on up to my work today. All the while I think I would also share his motivation when he writes:

Most of my career has involved using technology to help people get better access to learning resources and materials, to better connect with each other, to better access formal education, and to improve their teaching practices and pedagogies.

That is why I do what I do – to provide increased access for others to education. It is a simple mission. I think that is the most important thing that I can do – it is why I am also involved in open eduction, open education resources, and open textbooks.

George’s “Adios” seems to come from a pessimism about the current state of education technology which he feels “is not becoming more human; it is making the human a technology. Instead of improving teaching and learning, today’s technology re-writes teaching and learning to function according to a very narrow spectrum of single, de-contextualized skills.” I don’t see this happening in technology – I see this in the implementation of technology. He gives examples of bad implementations when he writes about Udacity:

So much of learning involves decision making, developing meta-cognitive skills, exploring, finding passion, taking peripheral paths. Automation treats the person as an object to which things are done. There is no reason to think, no reason to go through the valuable confusion process of learning, no need to be a human. Simply consume. Simply consume. Click and be knowledgeable.

I appreciate his frustration with this kind of “education” – Udacity and xMOOCs have set online education back 20 years. It is difficult to watch all of this money and effort go into projects that we who have been involved in ed tech for so long know will fail. I think the claims and hype are the disturbing part. We need to evolve past that hype and the promise of education automation and industrialization which has been the bane of education for the last 150 years.

Technology can do a lot of things. Some of those things are nonsensical or harmful. Some of those things are very useful. Technology can improve education and make it more human only to the extent that it facilitates our humanity. If technology is being used to create community, enable communication and engagement with one another, then it helps education. These are the kinds of connections that I found meaningful about Connectivism. And interestingly enough, communication and engagement are not on George’s framework list:

  • Does the technology foster creativity and personal expression?
  • Does the technology develop the learner and contribute to her formation as a person?
  • Is the technology fun and engaging?
  • Does the technology have the human teacher and/or peer learners at the centre?
  • Does the technology consider the whole learner?

That list of his five elements are important but the list seems to be missing the student-student engagement, the community, where real learning takes place. From what I know of his previous work, I know that he does not intentionally leave this out, but it is interesting that the main reasons that the xMOOCs failed were from a lack of that level of engagement and student support. And all of that failure was completely predictable by anyone who had even a casual eye on the research that has been going on for the last 20 years around online education and what makes it successful. My frustration as a teacher and practitioner is that I have participated in successful courses and programs, developed successful programs and courses, and there is little interest in that work because what it takes is old-fashioned hard work, talking to people, and creating community. It is terribly old-fashioned. I first came across the ideas around online learning as community if the work of Palloff and Pratt, Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace from 1999. The act of building those kinds of connections as education was reinforced by the work of George Siemens and Stephen Downes around Connectivism, which ironically, the one Article of Faith I had the hardest time getting around is “knowledge may reside in non-human appliances.”

We have been tool users for at least 2 million years when Homo Habilis started using simple flints. Using tools is part of the fabric of who we are. Learning to use them thoughtfully, purposefully, and with considered intention is what will take us to the next level. I look forward to following George’s evolution because I think it will, as always, invigorate and inform the discussions about what we are doing.

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Frontier of Physics: Interactive Map | Quanta Magazine

This interactive map is an extremely useful overview of what is happening in physics right now. This is where I am hoping concept maps can eventually go: it is dynamic and effortless. It allows the user to stay on the surface for the big picture or to drill down deep.

Explore the deepest mysteries at the frontier of fundamental physics, and the most promising ideas put forth to solve them.

This is a fascinating resource. One of the many things that this does right is graphically represent the connections between the theories:

The map provides concise descriptions of highly complex theories; learn more by exploring the links to dozens of articles and videos, and vote for the ideas you find most elegant or promising. Finally, the map is extensive, but hardly exhaustive; proposed additions are welcome below.

Source: Frontier of Physics: Interactive Map | Quanta Magazine

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Time Saving Tips for Teaching Online

English: Pierre_Le_Roy_chronometer 1766

Pierre Le Roy’s Chronometer, 1766 (Wikipedia)

I often hear that online learning takes a lot of time for instructors. I have found that it can, but when a course is set up in advance, using the appropriate tools, a lot of time can be saved. There are tools that can help save time as well. A little work and planning in advance can save teachers a lot of time when it will really count. Also many of these techniques make for a more engaging experience for the students and make teaching online less stressful for instructors.

1. Create a “Welcome Letter” that not only introduces the instructor and the course but gives detailed instructions on how to access the course and where to get help.

2. Use a “Week Zero” that opens up before your class. Create a module in your online class that is always open that tells students how to use the online tools for your course. This module would be a good place for links to online student services that may be available to your studnets.

3. Create a comprehensive syllabus.  Use the syllabus to let students know how to find tech support, tutoring, and a librarian. If your college does not provide online tutoring for students, be sure to check out OpenStudy which provides free, facilitated, online peer tutoring.

4. Use a syllabus quiz. Creating a quiz or syllabus scavenger hunt will help students understand how your course is organized and where to find help. I found this to be even more effective if it were worth a few points.

5. Make your course easy to navigate. Keep as much content as you can no more than two clicks away. Use a consistent format week-to-week or module-to-module. Remove buttons or tools you are not using.

6. Schedule your time. Do not work on your online course because you can; work on it because you have scheduled the time. Let the students know your schedule. Access your course consistently (e.g. three times a week) and respond to email promptly (with-in 48 hours).

7. Be consistent about forms of communication. Let students know how you want to be contacted and be strict about only using that method. If you give students multiple email and messaging accounts to contact you, be prepared for students to use them. Some instructors do not receive class related email but take course related questions only through the learning management system. Some will only use email. Some only take assignments in drop box. Make sure you are clear about how you want to be contacted.

8. Automate your course as much as possible. Take advantage of the time-release feature of announcements and other content in the tools that you are using like your learning management system. Record and reuse lectures. Let online tools handle as much of the grading as you can.

9. Distributing and exchanging documents. Use the assignment feature of your LMS instead of e-mail. Encourage students to share documents using Google Docs or Dropbox.

10. Centralize question and answers. Use a discussion forum for “Frequently Asked Questions.” Create a FAQ page. Ask students to ask questions in the forum rather than e-mail so everyone benefits from the answer.

11. Use online groups with a deliverable. Let the students do the work. Do not respond to every posting, respond to the group deliverable.

12. Use a “common responses” file to quickly paste in answers to common questions. This file can be a Google Docs file that you can open on any computer.

13. Allow students to facilitate online discussions. Giving students an opportunity to discuss what they have learned in their own voice can really help students learn.

14. Use a detailed grading rubric to help answer questions in advance.  Teachers can create rubrics online using tools like RubiStar.

15. Encourage student-student interaction and study groups. Give them the space to solve problems.

16. Communicate to the entire class regularly. Use audio and/or video each week. Try to anticipate problems or sticking points in a class and record a video to address these issues. We like to suggest tools like Screencast-o-Matic. A YouTube account is also very handy.

17. Save a tree. If you are still printing out papers, learn to use the “Insert comments” feature in your word processor. Downloading papers, printing, then scanning and re-uploading is an enormous time sink. Find out if your college uses “TurnItIn” or some other such service with quick grading tools for documents. If you have not learned how to do this, it will make a huge difference. (And yes, we still have teachers doing this.)

18. Link to Tech Support. Make sure that there are clear links to your school’s help desk or IT support in your syllabus and in your LMS or course web page. Make it clear that you do not provide tech support. Also, if you are using an LMS or specialized software, find links to “how-to” videos. Let the tech experts provide the support.

What about you? How do you streamline your online teaching process? Leave a comment below if you have any time saving tips.

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Information Management in 1912

One of the reasons I just hate the internet is that while searching for something that no longer interests me now, I accidentally clicked on something that I found so mesmerising and intriguing, and yet I really didn’t know why. It is not a subject I am in the least interested in. I wound up downloading it to read it in my Google Book account.

The Official Railway Equipment Register: Volume 27, Issue 5 has been added to your library.

I was searching for something, (actually looking at some equations in Google) and in the results was “The Official Railway Equipment Register” of 1912. I had no idea why that would show up, apart from the fact that there were a lot of numbers in it, and clicked on it, of course. It is basically contains reports from every railroad company in North America in 1912 on what kinds of railroad cars they have, what they are doing, and who are the people making them run.

Long Island's entry for  Official Railway Register of Equipment

A selection from the Official Railway Register of Equipment

It looks like each railway company sent in reports and they were collected into a annual digest. It boggles the mind to imagine how this huge amount of data was actually used. What I was immediately interested in, was the fact that even though there was some sort of template that all of the information was collected in, the choice of fonts, additional logos and illustrations of the cars they handled or manufactured that seem to come from the individual company’s corporate letterhead – they are all different. The rest of the annual contains tariff, fees, and toll tables; railroad car demurrage charges; lists of traffic representatives of mercantile, manufacturing, and industrial interests; the Master Car Builders Association Definitions and Designating Letters; the Code of Rules Governing the Condition of, and Repairs to Freight Cars for the Interchange of Traffic; and even more tables and lists that go on for over a thousand pages – tables, lists, digests, illustrations, and maps.

Chicago Railway

Dig the Chicago style font!

So if you are still reading this posting, and I congratulate you for that, you might be wondering if I have gone totally around the bend. What could this possibly have to do with academic technology? But the reason I am posting this is because the existence of this journal is proof that information over-load is not really a new thing. A large group of people decided that this information was important enough to collect, analyse and share. They sent this huge journal out via post on a regular basis. They used this information to make decisions of every kind. Such information would have been the subject of broader conversations across greater networks via mail, telegraph, and ticker tape, and when I look at it now, I can’t possibly imagine how such huge amounts of information could possibly be used in any useful way. But it was used – the railroads were the machines of the empires of the robber barons. This information was an important node in a vast network that ran the North American continent.underwood It was the job of thousands to put this information together and it was the job of a few hundred to actually use and implement this information. Railroad employees and business men were trained and mentored in how to use this information and how to leverage the networks that kept everything running. It is as if they had all the components of an internet. It was an internet, but one of a different kind in a different era. We have always been doing this, but this is the first time in history that so many have access to the information and the knowledge about how to use it. The information management equation of the last century is now inverse: there are millions providing the information but there are now equally millions who have the ability and the means to access and use that information. Teaching students how to negotiate those networks, how to manage that information (and their own) is one of the single most important things that educators can now be doing. The economic consequences are just as great. Wabash


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#prisoner106: Better Philately Than Never

Talky Tina Stamp

Q. What did the envelope say to the stamp? A. Stick with me and we’ll go places

Spent an amazingly productive evening at home: made bread, yogurt, put away laundry, watched the episode “Living in Harmony,” AND learned how to really use layers in GIMP. I thought I was going to be cute and make actual postage stamps at a number of sites that allow you to actually upload art and make real postage. That was funny. Zazzle sent me an email and asked “What does ‘Questions are a burden to others’ mean and why would you want it on a stamp?” I tried to play cute and said that it was ironically satyrical or something like that. In the end, they decided that it was a copyright issue, but I was impressed that it was a philosophical or political issue first. So that means I am making my own based on my experiences in the course. I have been using GIMP for years (Gnu Image Manipulation Program) but only for quick edits and resizes – I rarely go under the hood for anything which is why I am in this class. I like GIMP because it is open source. I also can’t stand what a resource hog everything Adobe is.

I found a vintage postage stamp that I liked and removed the text from it by cutting and pasting a selection from the stamp. I used the Village font and made that layer 40% opaque to pick up the texture in the layer beneath. I yoinked a picture of Talky Tina from her blog, resized it, drag and dropped it into a layer and applied the “Canvas” filter to it, and made it black and white. In the future, I will try to match the dark purple I think. Any way, I learned a lot about GIMP tonight.

The first stamp is a “Talky Tina” stamp (first issue, exceedingly rare). It costs only one work-unit, and as with all the postage stamps I will be issuing in the Village, they are for local delivery only. Collect them all. Be seeing you.

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#prisoner106: The Stanislavsky Hangover

The Russian actor and director Constantin Stan...

The Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski in a production of Goldoni’s Locandiera in 1898 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am still working on the opening scene that occurs at the beginning of each episode. Again, I like that The Prisoner begins with some basic questions that we should all be asking ourselves, much like Stanislavskyi’s questions for the actor. Stanislavskyi says that there are seven questions any actor should ask when approaching a new part. These are useful for readers as well as writers: and I sometimes think that they are just good life questions. These are good questions to ask on your birthday or if you are ever gassed and wake up in a strange Village. Each character has different answers to the questions and drama begins when those answers are at odds with one another. Here are the questions:

1. Who am I?
No. 6 in this scene looks like he is recovering from an epic hangover, but the scene covers Stanislavsky’s three aspects of character: physical, psychology, and sociological. We get a sense of his physicality (what an odd scholars hunch No. 2 seems to have), his willfulness in resigning, and how he positions himself in the world (car choice, driving habits, fist banging, etc.).

2. Where am I?
There is the jarring shock in this scene when he expects to see his London neighborhood and he is in a holiday resort instead.

3. When?
The Village has elements that are a hundred years in the past and a hundred years in the future (Rover and universal health care). The behavior of his fellow prisoners and the society that they are building create a sense of disassociation with time. And there are some episodes where time is everything (e.g. Chimes of Big Ben)

4. What do I want?
No. 6 is always making No. 2 aware of exactly what he wants and vice-versa: escape and information.

5. Why do I want this?
“I am not a number, I am a free man!”

6. How will I achieve my goal?
These are the basic actions of the play – the stage blocking and what the actor is doing. No. 6 is in the position of plotting escape 24/7. No. 2 is stuck administering The Village and monitoring on top of that – this is a high-turnover job!

7. What must I overcome?
This is a complicated question for No. 6 because he has issues with himself, authority, and his society. The various No.s 2 seem to be struggling with limitations of their “science” – human behavior (and will) is not so easily measured and computed.

Finally, I have made a brief film that hints of where I think I would like to go in further examining The Village:

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#prisoner106: Once More, with Feeling!

Each episode of The Prisoner begins with the story of the arrival. I think that it is important because it is the central myth that informs what ever happens next. No matter how wild or ludicrous what might happen next, it is informed by the intensity of the arrival and nothing speaks more to that for me than this moment captured in an animated GIF:


For me, this mood of focused intensity and purpose are captured in these few seconds that are in each episode. I think I once disliked the repetition of the opening but I now see it as a central informing myth or ritual that must accompany each episode much like the Eucharist in the mass. I have been using GifGrabber to make animated GIFs is this course. I like the program: it captures GIFs easily and allows one to fine tune exactly which frame one wishes to start or end with. It also has a great window that allows the user to center the frame on the subject which has been very effective with the GIFs that I have submitted to this course. I really don’t know why I would use commercial video software to do this – some of the participants seem to go through a lot of steps to make an animated GIF. I would love to hear in the comments what programs you use and why.

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ds106: Open Pedagogy or Personality Cult?

English: Jim Groom as Edupunk

Jim Groom.   God he must be tired of that picture. He looks like he is about to be led away in handcuffs.

I think it is important to talk about why DS 106 is successful as a class. In some online conversations, the question has come up over whether or not the course can be reproduced elsewhere or not. As an instructional designer, I disagree with the idea that success of DS 106 is driven by Jim Groom‘s personality. I disagree with that idea as much as I disagree with the notion that courses succeed through indefinables like “magic” or “secret sauce.” I believe that courses succeed for a set of reasons and that they fail for another set of reasons. Now I happen to love Chairman Groom and a lot of what he has done in education, and his personality is obviously part of that. And that his how it should be. Instructors who are engaged in their courses, for good or ill, will stamp the course with their personality. But I have seen great people teach badly and faculty who were very not known for their sparkly personalities shine online. If students can actually describe their teacher in an online class, that teacher is doing something right, something interesting, something engaging. I was a quasi-lurker/student in one iteration of DS 106 where Jim was very present. And I am in a current iteration with another faculty member who is as deeply engaged, leading to a similar success – but definitely a different kind of personality – both classes are successful. But I would argue that there are three things built into DS 106 that significantly contribute to its success that can be separated from personality: instructor presence, student support, and student engagement.

It is not the personality that creates the success; it is the engagement of the instructor. I know that some personalities are more “engaging” than others. But instructors who make regular videos, podcasts, send weekly emails, and comment frequently on student blogs are experienced by the students as an instructor who is present in the course. That is not “personality cult” that is “instructor presence” and there is a lot of research out there that shows that instructor presence is essential for student success in online learning. Instructor presence occurs not only when an instructor responds to an assignment, but when an instructor utilizes a wide-variety of social media to connect with the students who may be using a wide-variety of devices and social networking platforms to connect with one another. In other words, many students are already using this media – one can be present by showing up where the students are already at. An instructor can connect their networks together (upload once, send out to many), and create an effective level of presence. Some of this can be automated; RSS feeds can be gathered to a page, a posting in WordPress might go out as a Twitter as well, but the automation is purposeful – it is always done with connecting others in mind. DS 106 encourages this through the Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting intitiatives: students and instructors are using WordPress and other tools in their own domains to connect with one another.

Student support is critical to online success, and this support should be built into the course. DS106 provides a detailed, extensively annotated syllabus as well as a “DS106 Handbook” that tells students not only about policies and assignments, but also the kinds of tools they will need, links to information about how to use the tools, and where to go to get help. In fact, getting help is the first item. Other so-called innovative xMOOCs just figured out that student support is essential to online student success and are slowly backing away from the table. Student support is built into this course in many ways. If a student has questions about an assignment, there are multiple social networks (e.g. Twitter) where a student has immediate access to students who have either finished that assignment or one quite like it. Good documentation is critical to student support. The documentation for ds106 works so well that the course could be run by the students based on it. It is a different course, but it is definitely ds106. Good documentation or a well-thought out syllabus can be just as useful as any textbook. When I think of good documentation for leaderless organizations, I like to think of the AA big book or even the Little Red Book of Mao. People have used these successfully as organizational guides (see “The Starfish and the Spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations.”)

The third thing that ensures the success of DS 106 is student engagement. Student engagement does not mean “attention grabbing” or “entertaining” as you might suppose from the way xMOOCs are written about. Student engagement is the interactions between the student and the teacher, the students with one another, and with the content of the course. Student engagement is one of the leading factors in online student success. Other MOOCs are basically places where one watches a video of a certified master and then takes a test. There is little to no student-student engagement. DS 106 defaults to open and is highly collaborative. The assignments are meant not only to be shared but they invite the participation of others. The assignments are written with collaboration and engagement in mind. The course only works if you share what you are doing with your fellow students. And because many of the assignments are written by the students, they speak to the students. The students have a great sense of ownership to their work because it is not just another disposable paper. I love Wiley’s term “disposable assignments” – assignments where the students are all doing to the same thing, the teacher is the only one that reads them, and then they go in the trash. This is not that class.

I will grant that it was Jim Groom’s anarchic, edu punk, DYI spirit that encourages students to roll their own. But there were others attached to University of Mary Washington and beyond that shaped DS 106 in significant ways. The kind of synergy that the students experience is not an accident – it is the by product of a truly open course. The course could conceivably be run by students, with assignments generated by students, and assessed by students (and something like this happened with one iteration of the course). A course with an open pedagogy benefits from everything that the students bring to the table (which includes their networks apart from the class). The course becomes unique to those students in some very profound ways.

I have been looking at cMOOCs for a while now with the idea that there must be a Connectivist model of instructional design. I think I am almost there and DS 106 is certainly a model of that along with CCKo8-12, and Cormier’s Rhizomatic Learning. I have written elsewhere here on Connectivist instructional design – principles that I think are reflected in DS 106. The questions I asked there are answered by DS 106:

So given these experiences, what should Connectivist instructional design look like? Based on the principles of Connectivism, learning should:

  • Provide for a diversity of opinions
  • Allow students to create connections between specialized nodes and learning sources
  • Foster their capacity to learn (teach metacognitive learning skills)
  • Increase their ability see connections between fields, concepts, and ideas
  • Teach students to build networks that will allow students to keep current in their field
  • Allow students to choose what to learn and how

All of these principles are attended to in DS 106 and because of that, this course and courses like it, will be going long after the personalities fade. I think the point that participants are trying to make when they say that “it can’t be reproduced” is their sense of connection and their relationships that the course facilitated, but what can be reproduced through a Connectivist instructional design, is just that: the facilitation of instructor presence, student support, and engagement.

NB: This posting grew out of conversations online about whether or not DS 106 could be reproduced, a few of those participants, interestingly enough, wrote a paper “A DS 106 Thing Happened on the Way to the 3M Tech Forum” that talks about utilizing a DS 106 experience to promote an open corporation. This is a very interesting read with a great bibliography.

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prisoner106: Book Cover Assignment

Although my favorite writer of books about TV shows is the inimitable Peggy Herz of “All About Rhoda” and “The Truth About Fonzie” fame, Paul W. Fairman, of the Partridge Family novels, is a close second. He also wrote pulp Science Fiction and novelizations of the “That Girl” TV series. We would order such books from the Scholastic Bookclub at school. I read three Partridge Family novels in a row one summer in the 5th grade, and afterwards, I think I was the youngest person in my grammar school to be filled with a sense of existential dread and a horrible fore-boding about the fate of humanity. Later that year, they re-elected Nixon. I was upset. I was sent home from school for writing his name on my desk in pencil with the “x” in his name drawn as a swastika. I dedicate this assignment to Mr. Fairman and the gang at Miller Street School.


I used the GIMP editor and matched fonts and colors as closely as a could to the period.

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