Human Beings Could Be the Largest Untapped Resource in Online Learning

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Posted 7/28/15 at 10:17am; updated 11:46am

In the discussion on “MOOCs and Traditional Online Courses Are on a Collision Path,” Ray Rose (onlinelearningevangelist) and Harry Keller are having a fascinating exchange on the problem of captioning in MOOC videos. A cost-effective solution is autocaptioning, but the outlook at this time for developing an effective tool isn’t very good.

Their discussion fascinates in more ways than one. For example, it raises the issue of problem-solving in the online environment. What is the best approach?

For problems in technology, we naturally gravitate toward technological solutions, for example, a program that automatically translates speech to text and displays it as captions.

The cost for developing such a program, however, may be prohibitive, and the wide variation in human speech even within a single dialect makes the task extremely difficult.

But high tech problems don’t necessarily exclude low-tech solutions that are leveraged by technology. Put another way, the latest technology could generate innovative approaches that rely on old-fashioned human power, creating cost-effective solutions that blend the old with the new.

For example, Duke’s Sally Kornbluth,1 discussing the problem of formative evaluations in MOOCs, says, “If you’re wondering how you can possibly read 400,000 essays, you can have 400,000 students read one another’s essays.” Her point is that “there’s a lot of unexplored power that can be harnessed.” We just need to open our eyes to a much wider range of possibilities — and the possibilities could easily include human resources such as classmates empowered by networking technology.

The rap against peer feedback models, however, is that they’re unreliable, but ongoing research is proving that they can be and are being improved.

We have to keep in mind, though, that peer feedback is really just one of many other forms of evaluation provided by people other than teachers. For example, Sebastian Thrun,2 for his Udacity nanodegree on Android programming, takes the idea of peer evaluators and leverages it to include experts who aren’t part of the formal instructional staff. He has created a “network of 300 global code reviewers” who provide feedback to students.

The genius of this business model is that it’s self-sustaining while providing a profit for Udacity. Students pay $200 a month, reviewers’ pay is covered by this amount, students rate the quality of the feedback they receive, and reviewer income is determined by the evaluations they receive from students.

According to Thrun, “The best-earning global code reviewer makes more than 17,000 bucks a month. I compare this to the typical part-time teacher in the U.S. who teaches at a college — they make about $2,000 a month.”

This model could be applied to other problems (see Harry Keller’s comment) such as captioning. For example, MOOC developers could put out an international call for transcribers who are willing to provide captioning services. Since captions are aimed primarily at learners with disabilities, candidates could be volunteers or paid through philanthropic and public funds. A rating system could be attached to the videos, providing both student feedback on the quality of the captions and a means to control for quality.

The pool for captioners, when geographic location is factored out, is potentially huge. It could include high school and college students earning service credits, retirees, homebound adults, military personnel, and select prisoners.

We tend to think of technology as cold and impersonal, but it really doesn’t have to be. Technology could easily be a means to expand and deepen human interaction, providing a way for people to collaborate, one-on-one, with others.

1George Anders, “The Believer: Duke’s Sally Kornbluth,” MIT Technology Review, 27 July 2015.
2Nanette Byrnes, “Uber for Education,” MIT Technology Review, 27 July 2015.

MOOCs and Traditional Online Courses Are on a Collision Path

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Updated 27 July 2015

In everyone’s bucket list, under the heading “Education,” is “Attend an elite college.” Until recently, however, this item has remained unchecked for the vast majority. According to Jonathan Wai, “Only about 2% to 5% of all US undergraduates went to … elite schools.”1

Thanks to MOOCs, the economic and scholastic barriers are going down. And thanks to Natalie Morin,2 students in the U.S. and the world over don’t have to look far for elite offerings. Among the 31 in her list are:

Harvard (“Science and Cooking; Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens; Poetry in America: The Civil War and Its Aftermath”); MIT (“Introduction to Computer Science and Programming; Circuits and Electronics; Molecular Biology; User Innovation: A Path to Entrepreneurship; Introductory Physics: Classical Mechanics”); Princeton (“Computer Architecture; Effective Altruism; Imagining Other Earths; Paradoxes of War; Reinventing the Piano; Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technology”);

Yale (“America’s Unwritten Constitution; Capital Punishment: Race, Poverty, & Disadvantage; Introduction to Classical Music; Moral Foundations of Politics”); Stanford (“Planning for a Sustainable Future with Wind, Water and the Sun; Behind and Beyond Big Data; Careers in Media Technology; Environmental Risk and Resilience; Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing; Adventures in Writing”); Columbia (“The Civil War and Reconstruction 1850-1861; The Civil War and Reconstruction 1861-1865; The Civil War and Reconstruction 1865-1890″); University of Pennsylvania (“An Introduction to Corporate Finance; The Global Business of Sports; Modern & Contemporary American Poetry; Introduction to Key Constitutional Concepts and Supreme Court Cases”);

University of Chicago (“Asset Pricing; Internet Giants; Global Warming; Understanding the Brain; Critical Issues in Urban Education”); Dartmouth (“Introduction to Italian Opera; Introduction to Environmental Science; The Engineering Structures Around Us”); Cornell (“The Ethics of Eating; American Capitalism: A History; The Computing Technology: Inside Your Smartphone; Introduction to Global Hospitality Management”);

Johns Hopkins (“Psychological First Aid; Confronting Gender Based Violence: Global Lessons with Case Studies from India; Major Depression in the Population: A Public Health Approach”); Northwestern (“Teaching the Violin and Viola: Creating a Healthy Foundation; Career 911: Your Future Job in Medicine and Healthcare; Understanding Media by Understanding Google”); Berkeley (“The Science of Happiness; Biology for Voters; Electronic Interfaces: Bridging the Physical and Digital Worlds”);

Wellesley (“Shakespeare: On the Page and in Performance; Introduction to Global Sociology; Was Alexander Great? The Life, Leadership and Legacies of History’s Greatest Warrior; Introduction to Human Evolution”); Georgetown (“The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Journey to Freedom; Globalization’s Winners and Losers: Challenges for Developed and Developing Countries; Terrorism and Counterterrorism”).

MOOCs are free and completely online, they’re open to everyone, and the registration process is simple. You’re free to plug in when and where you want for as long as you want, and if you decide to complete the course, you could earn a certificate. In some cases, a certificate requires a small fee.

Developers are beginning to design a second generation of MOOCs, or MOOC2, that can be taken for credit toward college degrees. For example, see “edX-ASU Global Freshman Academy: Will It Work?” As these evolve, the distinction between online courses locked into traditional structures and MOOCs will gradually disappear.

A key obstacle to the growth of MOOC2 has been pricing. MOOCs that cost as much as traditional onground courses are simply out of reach for nontraditional students who make up the bulk of participants. However, a recent trend toward drastically lowering the cost of traditional courses in completely online degree programs is underway at Texas Tech and other universities. A critical element in this business model is the removal of out-of-state tuition, the final barrier to the expansion of online programs.

MOOCs and traditional online courses are on a collision path, and the impact will change the face of higher education forever, obliterating the class and geographic barriers that have limited access to elite colleges. The promise of online, from the very beginning, has always been access, and here, in the middle of 2015, the promise is gaining traction.

Addendum 7/27/15: Read Ray Rose’s comment re learners with disabilities and the accessibility challenges they pose for MOOCs and online courses. Also see his Access and Equity for All Learners in Blended and Online Education, INACOL, Oct. 2014.

1Frank Bruni Is Wrong About Ivy League Schools,” Quartz, 22 Mar. 2015.
231 Elite Colleges That Offer Free Online Learning,”, 23 July 2015.

Wearable Tech on Your Preschooler? Technology Education and Innovation for Children

By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

Updated 7/29/15

Catherine Cook School just hosted the first annual IDEA:TE (Innovation, Design, Engineering and Art: Transforming Education) conference June 23-26. The School’s Director of Innovation, JD Pirtle, talks about best practices for encouraging teachers to integrate technology into everyday classroom practices.

Please explain the purpose and some of the highlights of the IDEA:TE conference.

JD Pirtle, Director of Innovation, Catherine Cook School

JD Pirtle, Director of Innovation, Catherine Cook School

The impetus behind the IDEA:TE Conference came after having dozens of conversations with educators at many other schools here in Chicago, and with educators nationwide. Many of these teachers, librarians, technology coordinators, and administrators had been tapped by their heads of school to create and staff “Maker” labs or innovation hubs. Not only did these educators lack the expertise necessary to run and maintain the many machines and opportunities that an innovation lab necessarily includes, they were struggling with creating engaging and effective curriculum utilizing emerging and traditional technology. In response to this, I initiated the IDEA:TE conference to provide hands-on workshops led by experts in a variety of disciplines, such as 3D printing, computer programming, and textile arts, who come from teaching backgrounds ranging from elementary schools to graduate school.

It was enthralling to see such a diverse group of educators learning together. Rather than sitting through days packed with lectures, attendees were actively involved. From making interactive, laser-cut Arduino powered tea-lights to hand-sewn laptop cases, these educators had intense, hands-on experiences that are replicable in their own classrooms.

Attendees at IDEA:TE create hand-sewn laptop cases in the textile arts workshop.

Attendees at IDEA:TE create hand-sewn laptop cases in the textile arts workshop.

Workshop presenter and Catherine Cook 1st grade teacher Kate Herron demos ScratchJr for an IDEA:TE attendee.
Workshop presenter and Catherine Cook 1st grade teacher Kate Herron demos ScratchJr for an IDEA:TE attendee.

A 3D printed ring designed by an IDEA:TE attendee.

A 3D printed ring designed by an IDEA:TE attendee.

From recording and editing music and audio, to sewing wearable technologies, and even creating furniture using laser cutters and 3D printers, Catherine Cook School integrates a diverse set of technologies. Can you share some best practices from different classrooms?

In our innovative work with students and faculty, we engage almost exclusively in project-based learning. There is no “tech time” or pulling students out of the classroom for tech class. Each aspect of Catherine Cook’s IDEA (Innovation, Design, Engineering, and Art) program, which begins in preschool, is woven into the curriculum and is cross-disciplinary.  Continue reading

MOOCs Experiencing an Identity Crisis

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

The University of Hong Kong,1 following the popular flip trend, is taking tentative first steps toward incorporating MOOCs into their on-campus courses. (See my earlier article on blended MOOCs.) Like its counterparts in the U.S., HKU’s MOOCs are closed for their on-campus students but simultaneously open for outsiders. In other words, they remain tethered to traditional courses for F2F students and free for distant students.

Noteworthy is HKU’s discovery that MOOC forums, unlike online forums attached to onground classes, “are extremely lively.” One of the professors attributes this disparity to the comfort of anonymity and is looking into extending the anonymity option to on-campus students.

Another explanation may be that F2F meetings simply render online forums moot. Off-campus MOOC students, lacking this option, turn to the forums for their sole means of interaction.

Yet another explanation is that the open end of MOOCs is disruptive, attracting a completely different population of students. For example, HKU MOOCs — dubbed HKUx to reflect its association with edX — attracted 10,000 to 12,000 “students from 173 countries,” and “more than 10 per cent were over 50 years old, and the median age was 29.” This population, although varying widely in characteristics, shares a common problem that sets them apart: They’re unable, for whatever reason, to attend F2F classes. For want of a better term, they are nontraditional students.

The implication is that HKUx and similar MOOCs are both closed and open at the same time, serving two distinct populations with very different purposes.

In the coming months and years, it’ll be interesting to see if HKUx professors will realize that, from the perspective of on-campus students, their MOOCs are essentially blended courses. It is only from the perspective of distant students that they appear to be MOOCs.

The fact that two very different populations can coexist in MOOCs opens up a lot of possibilities. First and foremost is that the success of MOOC practices for nontraditionals could gradually loosen the tether to F2F classes for traditionals, transforming blended courses into true MOOCs or, at the least, completely online courses. The primary obstacle to this scenario is the fear that interactions inevitably suffer in online forums. The success of HKU’s MOOC forums, however, belies this fear.

Another possibility is that tradition will outweigh the potential advantages of MOOCs and keep them anchored to on-campus classrooms, sustaining the blended model for who knows how long.

In the end, traditional students will probably tip the scale away from blended to MOOC when they realize that online learning is just as if not better than F2F for a number of reasons, including the freedom of anytime-anywhere engagement. When — and not if — this happens, the longstanding policy of withholding college credit for MOOC courses will be on the line.

1Victor Wang, “How MOOCs helped University of Hong Kong apply e-learning tools on campus,” South China Morning Post, 20 July 2015.

International Students and the Need for LMS Orientations

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

You may be familiar with US News & World Report’s (USNWR) best college rankings, a resource that many people use for basic information about universities and colleges in the US. Like many media outlets, USNWR has established a presence on the Internet and features a number of blogs for matters related to education. Among these is one that focuses on education and the international student, the International Student Counsel. This blog is aimed at international students and their parents and provides advice about many aspects of education in the US, such as things to look for when researching universities, choosing a major, passing the TOEFL, and how to pay for college.

A July 7, 2015, post on the International Student Counsel blog, “4 Academic Surprises for New International College Students,” discussed some of the adjustments that international students have to make when attending universities in the US. The first item suggests that students must get familiar with the university’s online system to help manage homework and course material. International students and technology is a topic that I covered on June 10, 2015 (“Technology Advice for First Year International Students in US Colleges“), and again on July 9, 2015 (“Technology Advice for First Year International Students in US Colleges“).

I think the topic of international students in the US is worth revisiting for two reasons. First, the fact that there is a blog devoted to these issues in a major media outlet demonstrates that there is an audience for this type of information. According to a November 17, 2014, post, the Number of International College Students Continues to Climb in the US, and they and their parents have a need to know what kinds of issues may arise. Second, I think this blog is a resource that educators in the US should be aware of. If you haven’t had any international students yet, you probably will at some point.

Many articles about international students focus on what the student needs to do to adjust, but as important is for American educators to think about how they can help make the transition easier for their students. Does the international relations orientation include information about the university’s Learning Management System (LMS) — not just instructions on how to log on but demonstrations on how most professors and students use it? Does the professor assume all the students will know where to find class information or does he or she inform students of the class expectations regarding LMS use?

A few simple steps taken by educators at the beginning of the semester can alert international students to questions that they may need to ask and prevent issues from arising.

Chat Rooms, Emoji, ELLs, ABCmouse

Chat rooms can boost success in learning English as a foreign language research shows” from, 7 July 2015.

This article reviews a newly published book1 which focuses on a research project conducted in the UAE. Ten female students were tracked for one semester as they engaged in conversations with native speakers of English in a chat room setting. The researchers found that the students developed speaking, writing and vocabulary skills. They identified one cause as “the relatively risk-free context of real time but not face-to-face interaction” provided by the technology.

Who needs words when you have an emoji?” by Finnian Curran in The Irish Times, 2 July 2015.

Curran asks: With clear evidence that more and more people are using the minuscule symbols, what does it mean for the future of the English language and should we be worried?

He cites several research studies and scholars who have examined the use of emojis, research which supports how they accompany language and also cultural differences in their usage. He also confirms that he sees no cause for worry.

Effectively incorporating technology with English learners” by Erick Hermann in Multibriefs: Exclusive, 11 June 2015.

Hermann identifies issues that arise when schools and school districts make decisions about expenditures for technology for the upcoming school year and the impact technology has on English Language Learners (ELLs). He points out that while good practice should be behind all such choices and purchases, the specific needs of ELLs who require additional instructional supports, such as various visual aids and redundant information, must be addressed.

Mobile app helps Chinese kids learn English” from, 23 June 2015.

Many parents in China want their children to start learning English as early as possible. The ABCmouse English Language Learning app, designed for 3-8 year olds, was developed with very young language learners in mind.

1Rahma Al-Mahrooqi & Salah Troudi, eds., Using Technology in Foreign Language Teaching, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 10 Jan. 2014.


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