Two Steps Forward . . . Several Back

Judith SotirBy Judith Sotir

I absolutely agree with Judith McDaniel (What Students Want and How to Design for It: A Reflection on Online Teaching, posted on July 19, 2009) that online learning of any sort requires a different dynamic than traditional teaching techniques. Although technology has moved from an interesting idea in the latter part of the last century to a defining role in this century, I don’t see schools necessarily following suit.

A good example is a recent workshop I did for staff from a local school district. The instructors specifically requested a workshop on “Using Blogs and Wikis in the Classroom” and were willing to give up some summer sun hours to attend. The tech coordinator (or facilitator, since the position of technology coordinator was eliminated and a principal stepped in to fill the gap) was more than willing to set up the workshop. However, when I got to the school (and remember, the TOPIC was blogs and wikis), I found that the firewalls blocked all access to any form of social websites, including blogs and wikis. I spent a good amount of time with the IT department getting access to a limited number of blogs and had to verify the content of those (even my own, by the way) I was given access to.

laptop with the words The Internet crossed out by a red St Andrew's Cross

Even after gaining access, throughout the workshop, that access was spotty, as links were sometimes allowed and sometimes blocked. From the instructor viewpoint, wanting to bring these tools into the classroom was questionable, given that experience. While filtering websites is important to schools, better dialogue is needed to allow instructors the access they need to teaching tools while still maintaining control of questionable content.

As a former school board member, I recall similar issues in the late’ 80s and ’90s with the IT department, administrators, and even board colleagues regarding having access to the Internet itself from the classrooms. While they saw the value of administrators and staff using the Internet, they balked at allowing the same access in the classrooms. I understand well the frustration of instructors who want to use these tools with their students but run into brick walls when they try.

While not identical, limiting access to Internet resources strikes me as similar to banning books. Instead of allowing instructors to develop educational content as needed, a concern from a limited group blocks all access to these sites. A better dialogue needs to be developed, including perhaps even a faculty liaison committee to bring these concerns to the proper channels. Simply assuming that teaching with computers is the same as traditional teaching keeps students from the tools they need to succeed in the real world.

‘At-Risk’ – Concerns About Its Effectiveness

Judith_McDaniel2_80By Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

[Note: Judith McDaniel originally posted this as a comment to Carrie Heeter’s “Review of ‘At-Risk’: A Simulation Training Program for College Staff.” We’ve decided to publish it as an article to stimulate further discussion on this and similar simulation programs. -js]

Carrie – thanks for the interesting summary and analysis of At Risk. I had several responses myself after trying out the same “free” sample interaction that you did. Let me see if I can summarize some of my discomfort with this product.

First, I don’t think I have had a class at the university level with only 20 students in it since the 1980s. So for me, one necessary assumption is that most instructors are going to be dealing with far larger classes than the one represented here – at least double, probably triple or more. That makes this entire process problematic for me since it assumes that I will be talking to these students about their work outside of class – and in very large classes that seldom happens.

I am concerned too that my role as an instructor, not a therapist or counselor, not be confused – by me or by my students.

a frontal lecture where all the students are using laptops

Further, the self-reporting of changed attitudes is interesting. I did not have the same experience that you did with feeling more comfortable. But that aside, self-reporting, no matter how well-meaning, is not evidence that the program works. Changed behavior in terms of frequency of reporting would be more relevant, but of course that takes years and $ investment.

I also found the “flags” for what we should notice in our students to border on the ludicrous. Does a student come to class looking tired and with messy hair? Yes, that describes about half of a freshman class in early November. Is a student anxious or withdrawn or sullen or non-participative? Yes, inevitably when there are 100 or more students in a class, that describes some of them. I have never found that to correlate to a need for referral . . . that I would have known.

And, finally, that is my last discomfort. I did have a student who disappeared last semester two-thirds of the way through class. She had been doing really well. Emails did not get a response. Finally, the last week of the class, she reappeared. She had been hospitalized after a suicide attempt and was back. I am still working with her to finish her Incomplete. But could I have referred her sooner? I honestly can’t imagine how. Would having taken this training have let me identify her? Not from what I have seen of it.

Review of ‘At-Risk’: A Simulation Training Program for College Staff

heeter80By Carrie Heeter
Editor, Games Development

I vividly remember the day I received email from a graduate student who had gone missing from my online class, announcing that he had “just gotten back from the loony bin.” He wrote that he had checked himself in to a mental hospital and was now back and ready to start making up late assignments (with one week left in the semester). Over the years as professors each of us comes to realize our students are enrolled in classes other than just the ones we are teaching, and beyond that they have real lives, jobs, and families. Our official job is to teach well, to inspire, and to grade fairly while juggling our own impossible to meet demands of work and life. Unofficially, the unfolding joys and concerns experienced by everyone’s whole self may enrich or undermine teaching and learning.

At-Risk is a simulation training program designed to addresses one specific, potentially lifesaving dimension of this complex milieu.

At-Risk was created by Kognito, in partnership with the Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA-NYC). MHA-NYC programs help raise awareness about mental health problems and encourage people to seek treatment. The At-Risk training simulation teaches college faculty to identify mental health problems among their students and to refer mentally distressed students to the college counseling office for assistance.

poster with 3 small people in front of 1 taller person and the words: at-risk - identify students in mental distress - refer them to the campus counselling center

In the simulated 20 person class, 6 students have been flagged as potentially experiencing mental distress. As the instructor, your goal is to talk with each of those students and, if appropriate, refer them to the counseling center. You can review each student’s grades, behavior in the class, and appearance. You are told at the beginning that three of the six are at-risk, but you are not told which three. The training simulation lasts approximately 45 minutes. It is 2D web based and includes many lengthy narrated explanations before and after the interactivity.

At-Risk uses “conversation menus” organized by category to offer choices of what to say next. The animated student responds, choices of what the instructor says next are presented, and the simulation offers encouragement or criticism about the conversation choices.

I played through the free online demo of one of the six students. Wendy’s problems were exaggerated and extreme. She is a 4.0 student who is so nervous she comes in to talk about every assignment. Heart palpitations caused her to go to the health clinic, causing her to skip the class presentation. As I played through the simulation, I argued with myself about whether it is reasonable for professors to call a meeting with 4.0 students who are nervous about speaking in class, even if the student is very nervous. I made a note to myself to check whether my university counseling center still exists, after the latest round of budget cuts, and what services they offer.

I also found that experiencing the simulated conversation was helpful and informative, even though I was trying to figure out what the simulation expected me to choose. It was useful to choose and hear spoken exactly how to bring up the counseling center. If sending students there has a chance of helping them cope better with life and with school, that’s something I would be willing to do. And now I have a better sense of how it’s done. The simulation was more useful in convincing me of the importance of identifying mental health problems and in showing me how to refer people than reading a brochure would have been.

clip-art-like image of a class where students at risk are marked by a white triangle above their heads

I also naively expect socially useful serious games to be free. At-Risk is definitely not free. Licensing fees are way beyond what any individual faculty member would consider paying. I am not familiar with how universities prioritize nontrivial expenses like this for 45 minutes of online simulation, especially in times of deep budget cuts. The online free demo for one of the six students was informative and useful. Playing the other five conversations would not add five times more value — just playing one was enough to get the most important message: referring students is not hard to do and could help them a lot.

Serious game design needs to be accompanied by research to determine whether the serious goals have been met. Kognito has taken this important step. They are studying their own product and using the findings in marketing. And yet, product specific efficacy studies are not an expected domain for academic scientific research. The research findings offer a window onto desired and achieved impacts of the At-Risk simulation. I contacted the company for details about the sample size that I didn’t see online. They responded that 42 colleges and universities (who were not paying customers) were invited to use a trial subscription. The first 35 individuals who completed the training at each institution were automatically invited to complete an anonymous online survey. Respondents who were full time practicing psychologists were excluded from study results which, instead, focus on faculty and staff reactions. A total of 375 respondents are represented in the results. No response rate percentage is known.

Key findings from the Kognito.com online research report:

  • Over 80% reported that At-Risk increased their awareness that identifying and referring students is part of their job role and that At-Risk made them more likely to engage in identifying and referring at-risk students.
  • 87% of respondents indicated they were better prepared to identify, refer, and approach at-risk students, and 82% felt better prepared to help a suicidal student.
  • 99% of respondents said the simulated conversations were realistic representations of conversations they were likely to have with at-risk students.

If I had been a respondent, I would have answered the way the majority of respondents did, based only upon playing the demo.

For more information about the simulation see http://www.kognito.com/atrisk/

Computers – The End of an Era

kimura80By Bert Kimura
Editor, Ed Tech in Japan

[Note: Bert Kimura posted the following as a comment on 19 June 2009, in response to “‘The College of 2020: Students’ – A Chronicle Report.” We’ve decided to publish Kimura’s comment as an article to facilitate further discussion. The original comment has been expanded to include a note from his email message to me on 6.20.09. -JS]

Jim, thanks for posting the summary. From my own experiences teaching online classes at UH-Manoa in Educational Technology and also having tried such classes with Japanese students, the items summarized certainly make a lot of sense.

There are three items that I believe will become important by then, if not, perhaps passé by then:

1. The 2020 students may not have had any familiarity at all with desktop computers and traditional operating systems. Instead, all of the communications, creation, and retrieval of info will be done with mobile devices. I also believe that, as may of us have two or mobile notebook computers today, 2020 students will have multiple devices to accomplish their online tasks. The proverbial “toaster” could still be one of them. :-)

The idea of the end of the desktops should also be attributed to Alan Levine, CTO of the New Media Consortium. He also does a very informative (with a unique perspective) blog: http://cogdogblog.com/. Alan was formerly the instructional technologist for the Maricopa CC system and was tremendously influential in getting faculty in the system to adopt technology in teaching and learning.

2. Texting such as this comment will be replaced by or, at least, on par with verbal, visual or multimedia communication modes. Consequently, faculty need to be able to reach visual learners in an effective pedagogical manner as well.

3. Internationalization will enable many more distance learners to participate in online courses, and thus the online student community will be more multicultural than the current group. I believe that this will result in a much richer student experience.

‘The College of 2020: Students’ – A Chronicle Report

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

In the the first of a three-part series in the Chronicle of Higher Education (6.19.09), Chronicle Research Services reports on what higher education will look like in the year 2020. Click here to view a copy of the free executive summary. The first report focuses on students. Here are some quotes from the summary:

  • More students will attend classes online, study part time, take courses from multiple universities, and jump in and out of colleges.
  • By 2020, almost a third of respondents [121 institutions that responded to a survey] said, students will be taking up to 60 percent of their courses entirely online. Now almost no students at those colleges take courses only online.
  • Colleges that have resisted putting some of their courses online will almost certainly have to expand their online programs quickly.
  • Many colleges are learning from the for-profit college industry that they must start courses and certificate programs at multiple times throughout the year.
  • Students will increasingly expect access to classes from cellular phones and other portable computing devices.
  • Classroom discussions, office hours with a professor, lectures, study groups, and papers will all be online.
  • The faculty member . . . may become less an oracle and more an organizer and guide, someone who adds perspective and context, finds the best articles and research, and sweeps away misconceptions and bad information.
  • The average age of students will keep trending higher as expectations shift in favor of people going back to college again and again to get additional credentials to advance their careers or change to new ones. The colleges that are doing the best right now at capturing that demographic are community colleges and for-profit institutions.
  • At some point, probably just after 2020, minority students will outnumber whites on college campuses for the first time.

How Is the Recession Affecting Online Higher Education?

John SenerBy John Sener

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched the 11 o’clock news on television. My recollection is that it consists of an endless series of deaths, accidents, and other disasters, relieved only by the commercials and an occasional human interest story. Ray Schroeder’s blog “New Realities in Higher Education” is the 11 o’clock news for higher education — except without the heartwarming human interest stories or commercials. The stories are pretty much one hair-raising signal of impending doom after another — make sure you’re in a reasonably good mood before tackling this one.

Once the train wreck/auto crash voyeuristic feeling wears off, inevitably when reading New Realities I find myself wondering: Is the recession helping speed the adoption of online higher education, or slowing it down, or some of both? On the one hand, many community colleges are reporting the increases in enrollment demand that economic downturns typically bring, North Carolina being one example. On the other hand, many (often the same) community colleges are also reporting budget cuts which force them to cancel classes and otherwise reduce offerings, North Carolina also being one example.

One school of thought is that the recession will drive adoption of online learning as a cost-saving measure or as a way to provide access to education for cost-conscious students. A counter-argument is that initial implementation of online education requires investment in infrastructure, faculty development, culture change, etc. and that such funds are not available, hence online education adoption is being slowed down.

So far, I haven’t been able to find anything other than speculation about this topic. By contrast, one of Ray Schroeder’s previous blog efforts, Fueling Online Learning, showed pretty clearly that last year’s astronomical gasoline prices had a strong correlation with increased enrollments in online higher education. (The causal connection is less clear, but a case can be made that there was one.)

Anyone have any concrete evidence on the recession’s effect on online education?

It Depends ­– On the Economics of Education

By Steve Eskow
Editor, Hybrid vs. Virtual Issues

Lynn (“Hybrid, Online, or F2F – It Depends“), as you and Carrie (“Online Hybrid as Asynchronous, Co-present, and Remote“) and all of us agree: it depends. And perhaps it depends on some matters you haven’t mentioned.

For example, it depends on whether your students can get to campus, have the auto or the bus fare, have the baby sitter or husband who will babysit. Those who can’t may take their graduate study in an all online program.

You’re a researcher, Lynn, so I can ask this: Is it possible that the agreement you report – your students and you having similar opinions in favor of hybridity – is a result of their clear awareness of what you’d like them to think? Would they give me the same opinions you get if you weren’t in the room? If I were your student and clearly aware of your views, I don’t think I’d want to risk offending you by suggesting that I’d just as soon have all the sessions online.

eskow_feb09I’m a bit troubled by your frequent references to students who are better at expressing themselves orally than in writing. I’m not sure the best pedagogic response to that common feeling among students is to go with it. Perhaps those students weak in writing are those most in need of more practice.

Increasingly we hear of students resisting buying the required textbooks and, crucially, resisting reading them. And I hear of teachers in this age of student evaluations who react to this resistance by respecting it: less reading and writing, in an age where the new technologies put a premium on the reader (of blogs, if nothing else) and the writer (of blogs, if of nothing else). Might we as a profession need to take a stand on more writing in academic instruction?

As I’ve indicated, my own work is in the poor countries and is influenced by the economics of building-based education as well such other social impacts as the disruption of communities. I’d be willing to bet with you, Lynn, that as the economic situation in the US worsens we’ll experience lots less resistance to technology-mediated education by taxpayers, teachers, and students. Those buildings your students come to are a technology that costs millions to construct and maintain.

It does indeed depend.