Learnings from a MOOC

By Jan Schwartz

In fall 2008, I participated in a semester long MOOC — Massive Open Online Course — through the University of Manitoba. The name of the course was Connectivism and Connected Knowledge; Stephen Downes and George Seimens facilitated it. Of the over 2000 enrollees from all over the world, I think fewer than 30 took it for credit. It was one of the most fascinating educational experiences I’ve ever had, and by the way it was free. For those interested, there is a short explanatory slide deck.

I admit to being primarily a lurker in the early part of this course because I had no idea what connectivism and connected knowledge meant, but by the end of the course I had a pretty good idea. A lurker in this instance is similar to an auditor in a face-to-face class; she is there to soak it all up, but not really to participate. There were published readings each week, but most of the learning came from other participants. We posted on Twitter, blogs, wikis, social bookmarks, and Moodle, which was the “home” platform for the course. There were even some discussions happening in Second Life. (Yes, eventually I started to participate.) In addition there was a once a week synchronous discussion on Elluminate. Continue reading

Learning Styles and the Online Student: Moving Beyond Reading

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

In his January 30, 2010 article, Reading Ability As a ‘New’ Challenge for Online Students, Jim Shimabukuro focused on the connection between reading skills and the online environment. As a teacher educator, this issue is one of my concerns about online education.  In today’s online environment those who communicate and process well by reading and writing are at a definite advantage, while students who learn and process in other ways may not adapt as easily. As Jim pointed out – reading is more than being able to decode and comprehend words. Therefore, if we want to meet the learning needs of all students, we have to take different ways of learning and processing into account, and use a variety of strategies and techniques to promote learning (see Howard Gardner’s webs site about Multiple Intelligences http://www.howardgardner.com/MI/mi.html or the Illinois Online Network’s page called Learning Styles and the Online Environment at http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/id/learningStyles.asp )

Part of the answer is having technology that will handle audio and video, which can be a challenge. For example, this semester I am teaching a class online that I usually teach as a hybrid. There is a video clip that I usually show my students and after determining that I would not be infringing copyright, I enlisted the aid of our AV people to put the clip into a format that my online students could view. It works great if you are using one of the computers in their computer lab. However, for some reason that no one can pinpoint, the link will not work properly everywhere. On the computer in my office on campus, I get audio only. At home, I get nothing. My students are supposed to watch this clip next week and I have no idea how many of them will actually be able to view it, despite the best efforts of our AV people to make it available in a variety of formats.

On a more positive note, I did have success using Adobe Presenter to record audio onto the PowerPoint presentations that the students will view. In this way, those who prefer to listen can do that and those who prefer to read can read the notes that are part of the presentation. I also located some YouTube videos that I assigned instead of readings on a couple of topics.

However, I have not yet come up with a plan for the students’ being able to produce audio or video clips instead of writing. There are options, of course, but again access to technology can be an issue. I considered asking students to upload an audio or video file as one assignment, but rejected that idea because of the possible problems with technology. I want the students to spend time on the content, not on learning new technology. The best scenario, as far as I’m concerned, would be to have one or two synchronous online discussions using Skype, or similar technology so that students could talk to one another. Maybe next, I can develop something along that line.

To be most effective as a learning tool, online technology has to evolve to the point that students can readily use the skills they already have in addition to (perhaps, while learning) these new skills.

While I agree with Jim,  that “the reading tasks online are therefore a significant departure from the traditional, and they require a whole new set of skills,” I think we need to look at the issue from another direction, too. To be most effective as a learning tool, online technology has to evolve to the point that students can readily use the skills they already have in addition to (perhaps, while learning) these new skills. Otherwise, rather than being an educational equalizer, the online environment will be just another way that we sift and sort students. We will lose those who can’t adapt easily, and we will be educating only those who can.

Computers in the Classroom Can Be Boring

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

The headline of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week caught my attention: “‘Teach Naked’ Effort Strips Computers from Classrooms.” The article, posted on July 20, 2009, is written by Jeffrey Young and is actually called “When Computers Leave the Classroom, So Does Boredom.”

Young writes that, according to studies, students think lectures and labs depending on computer technology are less interesting than those relying on discussion and interaction. PowerPoint presentations (one of the main areas of complaint), for example, are often used as a replacement for transparencies shown on an overhead projector and make no substantive difference in lesson delivery. An effective use of video technology should be to spark discussion and not be a replacement for a lecture.

Young says students also complain that these interactive classes require more effort than lectures. He says that students who are used to the lecture model are often resistant to this type of participatory learning. I can attest to this from my own computer lab with 1990's computers round a central tableexperience. I teach my face-to-face classes seminar-style with small group and large group activities and discussion. I will never forget one student telling me, “Instead of all this group stuff, why don’t you just tell us what you want us to know.” (Unfortunately, that student is now a teacher who probably lectures to his students.)

Despite its title, the article is not insisting that all technology and all computers should be thrown out of the classroom. It is making the point that the way technology is used in the classroom needs to be reassessed and changed so that it is not just being used to replicate the traditional modes of delivery.

Many of the authors in this journal have advocated just such changes (most recently, Judith Sotir in Two Steps Forward . . . Several Back and Judith McDaniel in What Students Want and How to Design for It: A Reflection on Online Teaching). As McDaniel pointed out, we need to “design for a structure that challenges and rewards.”

I agree that this attention to design is important not only in the online environment McDaniel was referring to but also in the face-to-face classroom with or without technology. As Young says, with stiff competition from online courses, face-to-face courses need to engage students so that they see a reason for being in the classroom.

Online Hybrid as Asynchronous, Co-present, and Remote

heeter80By Carrie Heeter
Editor, Games Development

[Editor’s note: The following article was submitted as a reply to a comment by Steve Eskow, which appeared in “The Campus: The Old Imperialism?” Eskow asked, “I wonder how Carrie Heeter feels about hybrid learning.”]

“It depends” is a cop out but also usually true. A major factor in deciding whether or not to be together in the same room is how motivated students are not to have to come to campus every week to be in class. I have found that full-time students who are enrolled in an on-campus program are most resistant to fully online classes. They are used to and enjoy the presence of fellow students, and they have organized their lives to be able to go to classes. The familiarity of in-person togetherness overshadows potential benefits of fully online learning. Those exact same individuals welcome a fully online summer section, enabling them to go home (or anywhere else) for the summer but still complete requirements toward their degree.

Students who live a long distance from campus, those with full-time jobs, and parents of young children are much more likely to welcome a class that they can attend from home. Here, too, the convenience of fully online outweighs perceived and actual limitations of technology.

I would like to add a distinction regarding online class sessions. They take three different forms: asynchronous, synchronous-physically present (co-present), and synchronous-but-online (remote). Each has different teaching affordances. Physically present requires a building.

As a teacher, quality of teaching and learning is another critical factor. I live in San Francisco and teach at Michigan State University. So it is a given that my students are going to have a distant professor. I get to decide whether to teach fully online, to require them all to go to an on-campus classroom almost like a “normal” in-person class, or to do something hybrid (asynchronous, co-present, or remote).

For eight years I exclusively taught fully online. Then I started adding an hour of optional “in-person” time huddled around a conference phone in a conference room. I didn’t know exactly what to do with that hour, but it seemed to add something the students had been missing. Then I had some students who didn’t want to go to campus so about a third attended via free conference.com audio and Breeze for PowerPoint, and two-thirds were physically together in the conference room, also linked by Breeze and an audio conference call. This mixed mode is a bit bizarre but meets both the co-present and remote students’ needs.

This fall I taught an in-person class that met in a classroom, live, three hours every Wednesday night. The only reason this happened is that I stepped in to teach this already scheduled class at the last minute. But I learned a huge amount trying to figure out how to make three hours of live class vitally interesting with a Skyped in virtual professor. It helped me better understand what to do with my live student time.

My current best practice thinking is a hybrid solution. When I am providing linear information, I can offer a much better learning experience if I write documents, craft PowerPoint presentations, and record audio. I do that for mini-lectures, content modules, and introducing assignments. I also package guest interviews with industry professionals. If I want every student to participate, we do it asynchronously (via blogs or uploading project reports).

I use synchronous time for:

  • Any questions? (clarifying assignments and concepts works better when everyone is live)
  • Breakout small group discussion or activity during class period, followed by synthesis and full class discussion
  • Quick review (Q&A – with me doing the Q)
  • Thought provoking questions (students volunteer answers, and I sometimes call on random people)
  • Student presentations to the class

Because my class this semester turns out to be entirely comprised of on-campus students, everyone  – except for me  – is in the classroom. Technologically, everything I am doing right now could immediately accommodate remote students. But I don’t have any who want that. At the beginning of a semester, I start with a student survey, to help me decide how to offer the class.

Adventures in Hybrid Teaching: The First Day Is the Hardest

heeter_upside80By Carrie Heeter
Guest Author

Monday was the first day of the semester, and Monday night, 6:30 to 7:20, is the live component of hybrid TC841, my graduate design research class. Hybrid means a third of class time happens in person, and two-thirds online at the students’ convenience.

This is the first year my department (Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University) actually scheduled a class meeting time (yay!), meaning I did not have to begin by finding a time when every enrolled student was available to come to class. In prior years after I found a day and time every student could attend, we would squeeze into the GEL (Games for Entertainment and Learning) Lab conference room.

In spring 2009, we had an actual scheduled time AND place. Room 161 Comm Arts. The room has a projector. What luxury.

My department very generously lets me telecommute, but they do not consider it their responsibility to support my lack of physical presence in Michigan. So, as of Monday morning, I did not yet know how I was going to get to class from my office in San Francisco.

I saw that two students enrolled in TC841 had been my students in a class I taught in fall. Both had been gone over break so I waited to contact them until they returned. At 12:32 Sunday night, I emailed them to ask, “Do either of you have a laptop you would be willing to bring to class tomorrow night, to Skype me in?”

heeter01There was no answer when I got to the office at 8am California time. By 9am, I received a “sure!” email from YoungKim. I proposed we start trying to connect at 6, before the 6:30 class.

At 6:08pm Michigan time, I received an incoming Skype call. (Yay!) With some fumbling, my audio worked. He figured out how to connect to the classroom projector, and logged in to and opened Breeze, the TC841 blog, and ANGEL in separate browser windows. I got video of the class via YoungKim’s Skype.

My tablet PC was running Breeze for video (not audio). My desktop PC was running Skype for audio but no video (using a handheld mic) and a second Breeze connection as well as the blog and ANGEL.

Five minutes before class started, Breeze failed on the tablet PC, meaning they lost my video. Reconnecting never worked. My only connected camera was the laptop. But the Skype connection was to my desktop. Video of me was not going to happen.

I had forgotten that the last time I used Skype was showing it to Sheldon on his new laptop, and that while playing around I had turned my image upside down. So most of the class only saw me as a small upside down still image in the Skype window. I’m afraid to go check what I might have been wearing.

Students were still arriving, so some never saw me on video at all. I joked that I hadn’t had time to brush my hair but would be ready for video next week. It is unusual to be able to see the class when they can’t see me. Much better than not seeing them, that’s for sure. When one student walked into the classroom 10 minutes late, he entered a room with 13 students sitting at tables, looking at a projection screen. A disembodied voice (me) said, “Welcome to TC841! The students here are pretending there is a professor.”

Half an hour into class, one of my cats pried the office door open (which I had closed to keep them out). After meowing disruptively for a bit, she jumped onto my keyboard, switching the Breeze window to a mode I’ve never seen before, one where I could not control Breeze or change to any other windows on my computer. (Why would there be a “switch to larger than full screen and freeze all controls” special keystroke command? Just to give cats disruptive power, I think.) At that same moment a student who had logged in to Breeze (as I had proposed they do) took over Breeze and was playing around, resizing his video window, eliminating the class’ and my view of the PowerPoint.

After fumbling for a minute, I quit Breeze (command Q), went to the blog, and opened the PDF handout I had posted of the PowerPoint so I could know what else to talk about. Class moved into a lively discussion about “sampling” methods used in research about media design, and ended on time.

A good time was had by all.