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Sunday, June 29, 2014

More Online nonsense: Starbucks and Arizona State agree to do nothing useful

In a deal that was announced with great fanfare last week, Arizona State and Starbucks agreed to let Baristas get on line degrees at ASU. The facts were a little different from the way they were first perceived. This is from Huffington Post:

Arizona State University President Michael Crow told The Chronicle of Higher Education that Starbucks is not contributing any money toward the scholarship portion. Instead, Arizona State will essentially charge workers less than the sticker price for online tuition.

Still this is certainly wonderful because now Starbucks employees can finish their degrees. Oh. Wait. This is online education, which as I have declared previously as being now officially dead.  

Let’s hear from ASU itself about their online degrees.
The original video is here:

My favorite part:

“In this course, the activities for the week include discussion posts, readings, audio narrated slide lectures,
e-text content, a work sheet activity, and web links, a podcast, and videos.”

The video says that all ASU online courses are like this. In other words, students get listen to lectures, read, and get to post their points of view.  After this exciting educational experience, they will have earned credits and after enough credits a degree. As for getting an education, well, not so much.  They will probably be qualified to be Baristas.

We continue to fail to recognize that online programs are typically unimportant and deceitful. Online programs that will get you a degree where you have never actually done anything but read and listen, and post to a discussion board, and then take a test are simply not actual education.

So ASU has joined as another player in the “we don’t take learning seriously" market.

Learning, I will mention one more time, involves doing, which involves trying and failing, and which is best done under the guidance of something called a teacher (who helps you improve your work.)

If a computer and the web are to be involved we need to build Mentored Simulated Experiences, where doing actually takes place (and where there are no lectures.)

I can understand why Starbucks doesn’t care about actual education for its employees, but I know Michael Crow and I thought he did care about education. Guess I was wrong.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Stanford decides to be Wal-Mart; doesn't anyone care about quality education any more?

Yesterday I needed a program that my team had written 20 years ago to show to a potential client who needed something similar. The program was done at the Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS) that I started and ran at Northwestern University 25 years ago. The program was built for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was about how to run a public meeting. The EPA runs them all the time but they didn’t know how to train people to run them. So we created a fictional town with a fictional crisis and then had the user meet the players (via some very well done video, acting, and script writing) and eventually start and run a virtual fictional meeting. People they antagonized when they met them individually (virtually) were difficult to deal with in the virtual meeting, which looked, from the user’s perspective, a lot like a real meeting.

After I looked at that program that we had built so many years ago, I thought we haven’t improved on what was then called “virtual learning”  since (video on line wasn’t so easy back then.)

I frequently criticize MOOCs in this column, but this is not my target here. My target is me. Well not me exactly, but the circumstances that have caused our recent work to not be as good, as exciting, as real-feeling, as the old ILS work.

The reason is, of course, money. The EPA program cost a lot of money to build and nowadays cheap is the watch word of online education. No matter whether you are sticking a camera on a professor who is lecturing, which was always (even back then) a bad idea or putting a test on line (which was always a bad idea) or simply using the watch word of the day “massive.” The reason for massive is money.

Universities have become Wal-Mart. “We put our courses on line” is a translation of “maybe now thousands of people will hear our professor’s lectures and imagine how much more money that can bring in.” Think of how we can lower prices and sell an even worse product. That is what universities are doing, although they couch it in other terms.

Why Stanford feels the need to become Wal-Mart beats me. But I am sure, that Stanford itself won’t give the stuff they produce to it’s own students. No one calls this racism (or classism), but it is education for poor people, just as Wal-Mart is focused on poor people. Stanford students won’t eat what Stanford sells to others, but it is selling it like mad to those folks who will never see Palo Alto and will never access a real Stanford education.

Except what they are selling isn’t very good. And, it isn’t as good as what we could do 20 years ago on a computer when there was money available to invent new kinds of education that was meant to teach real skills. The money spent by venture capitalists out to build the next Facebook or Twitter of Education is meant to make money, nothing more and nothing less. Why Stanford isn’t ashamed of itself I don’t know.

Wal-Mart isn’t ashamed of itself because it provides low cost stuff to people who can afford only that. Stanford provides high cost stuff to the elite of the elite. So, one can only guess why they want to become Wal-Mart.

As for me, I would love to go back to the old days (at ILS) when money wasn’t the issue, quality was. My people still produce quality. We have learned how to improve on what we did before (more mentoring, less multiple choice;  more teamwork, less one on one with the computer) and how to get by on less money by inventing powerful tools.

Still, I long for the days when we weren't competing with Wal-Mart. (Actually, I apologize for the analogy. Wal-Mart was my client in those days and they wanted real high quality training in a virtual world for their employees too.)

Monday, June 9, 2014

What does it mean for education to be interactive? an examination of the creation of a meaningless term

One problem that keeps coming up when I look at what is happening today in online education is the notion of “interactivity.”  Every course online is advertised as being “interactive.” So, I began to wonder what the word meant.
The word has been used with respect to toys for a long time. A toy helicopter that a kid can fly is described as interactive. LEGO has an interactive division which means it is producing video games. Why aren’t LEGOs themselves interactive? Kids certainly interact with them. The Smithsonian has an interactive dinosaur dig.
In fact, according to Timeout Magazine, New York City has nine good interactive museums:
These include the Museum of Sex which certainly leaves one wondering even more about interactivity.
Interactivity is a term used in education constantly. Here is a you tube from a German company on interactive learning via interactive whiteboards:

So interactive must be pretty good stuff. Everyone wants what they produce to be interactive and education should certainly be interactive. 
Here is Wikipedia’s definition of Interactive courses:

The term interactive course typically describes material of an educational nature delivered in a format which allows the user to directly impact the materials' content, pace, and out-come. Interactive, as defined by Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is "involving the actions or input of a user"[1]
An example of such material would be a computer based presentation requiring a user to select the correct answer to a give question before proceeding to the next topic.
These types of courses are almost always computer based and most likely to be delivered to the user thru the internet. Due to their convenient delivery, availability and almost endless subject matter, interactive courses have become a major tool for those seeking to provide as well as those seeking to obtain education, training or certification in a given area of study.
With growing access and availability to computers and the internet, many schools, universities, businesses and government agencies are turning to interactive courses to train and educate their students and staff.

So, if you get to determine which page comes next, your course is interactive apparently. Harvard and MIT seem to agree with that definition but they have added some new kinds of interaction:

Harvard and MIT have just announced a $60 million partnership that will put many of their classes online for free starting this fall. The EdX program is an expansion of MITx, which began teaching its first interactive online course in March. MIT has long offered material online through the OpenCourseWare project, but it describes EdX as a more interactive experience, with online discussion groups, collaborative course wikis, and other tools that move beyond simply reading or watching video. As with MITx, students who complete EdX courses can receive a certificate, albeit not one from Harvard or MIT.

Online discussion is also interaction, but with whom exactly? Not the teacher for EdX.

I like this advice I found on how to Create Interactive E-Learning from:

In this first example, we could just create four screens and have the learner go through them in order. But instead we give them the freedom to select a tab. This does two things: it lets them touch the screen and they get to choose what they want to review. It’s simple, but it’s an easy way to convert your click-and-read content to something more interactive.    

Interactivity then, in online education, seems to mean that the student does something other than sit quietly, maybe pushing a button every now and again.

Now lets think about what interactivity actually means in education.

1.           Lectures: there isn’t any. You might get to ask a question. That’s it.
2.           Small classrooms: there can be. A good teacher allows students to argue and debate ideas. But typically, there is lesson to be gotten through and these debates, while fun, rarely deter the teacher from the intended lesson.
3.           Seminars: good seminars are highly interactive, but it does depend on the teacher’s goals. If the goal is to get students to think clearly and defend their arguments, then a case can be made for the idea that not only is this actual interactivity but it is the interaction that is actually the point of the lesson.
4.           Projects: it seems kind of silly to call a project (maybe worked on by a group of students) interactive, because what else could it be? The students are doing something and producing that something is the goal. No one is faking interactivity.

My conclusion from all this is that when you hear the word interactive  -- run. Interactive has become a meaningless word meant to convey its exact opposite. Interactive means the lesson will proceed as it usually does with the teacher teaching the lesson. But there will be the pretense that the student is doing something when he or she is, in fact, yet again an unwilling cog in the education machine, but this time the student may get to press a button.

As I have said many times: Learning is a conversation. The goal of one of the participants in this conversation may or may not be to teach. But at least one of the participants needs to have learning as their goal. A conversation which is just meant to pass the time is interactive as well but learning is not its intended consequence.

Interactivity in education should mean something, but its doesn’t anymore. What interactivity should mean is that a student in pursuit of a goal has someone or something that can help him or her achieve that goal. That is the definition of interactivity.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Harvard screws up online education again; This is not disruption, it is just dumb (and greedy)

The New York Times ran one their nuttier articles about online education yesterday, this time about Harvard Business School’s new online plans.

Universities across the country are wrestling with the same question — call it the educator’s quandary — of whether to plunge into the rapidly growing realm of online teaching, at the risk of devaluing the on-campus education for which students pay tens of thousands of dollars, or to stand pat at the risk of being left behind.
The truth is somewhat different however. Universities are certainly putting their courses online. The question is “why?” I talked last week with a University President whom I have known for many years and asked him why he was building online courses. His answer, unsurprisingly, was “fear.”  
Then, a few days later I met with the online division of a very well known university and asked them the same question. Their answer was that test scores improved in courses where students had access to the lectures online. The real answer, I think, was that they were also afraid and some Foundation had given them money to do it, so they did it.
The Times goes on to quote Clayton Christensen, a well known HBS professor:
He said he remembered listening to an edX presentation at an all-university meeting. “I must confess I was unsure what we’d be really hoping to gain from it,” he said. “My own early imagination was: ‘This is for people who do lectures. We don’t do lectures, so this is not for us.’ ” In the case method, concepts aren’t taught directly, but induced through student discussion of real-world business problems that professors guide with carefully chosen questions.
This, is of course, the actual problem. If HBS or anyone else wants to build online curricula, the question they should be asking is: what exactly they are putting online? Courses, followed by tests? Really? This, according to the Times, is what HBS is doing:

Students have nine weeks to complete all three courses, and tuition is $1,500. Only those with a high level of class participation will be invited to take a three-hour final exam at a testing center.

If this is what they are doing, then they should be ashamed. People go to HBS to be able to say they have a Harvard MBA. I was a professor for way too long to believe that students are there primarily to learn. They want credentials. HBS, to its credit has typically offered courses that involve argument and discussion, not tests. Online lectures, followed by tests, are a parody of what real learning looks like.

The university world has lost its collective mind. Fear (and greed) has driven them to take their worst educational devices, lectures and tests, and try to make that the cornerstone of the future.

So, let me say it one more time:

We learn by doing, not by listening.
We learn by mutual story exchange in a conversation.
We learn when we have goal, something we are trying to accomplish, and by that I do not mean gaining a credit towards a degree.
We learn when we have peers and mentors with whom to discuss the things we are working on.

MOOCs (and lectures in general) pervert what it means to teach. Teaching isn’t telling, it actually involves listening, helping, suggesting, and so on. Universities know how to do this. That is how most PhD programs work. Massive education is not about learning and it never was. Yes, professors like lecturing. I like lecturing. I just don’t delude myself that my lecturing is teaching anybody anything. When I want to teach somebody something it involves constant interaction. By interaction I do not mean stopping a video lecture and guessing what comes next (which is what the Wharton Business School seems to be doing.)

It would be nice if all the universities really did want to build online courses because they were trying to be disruptive (to use Christensen’s word.) But universities are very afraid and have never seen disruption as their goal.

Some will however, and those that do will succeed by providing something other than lectures and tests.

The system will change soon enough. I doubt HBS will lead the way, but there are universities out there who intend to do just that.

The computer is a powerful device for doing. Time to get busy and use This, it that way folks.