If You Plant It, They Will Come

oranges on a treeI’ve recently been asked to provide recommendations to a statewide advisory committee on the use of e-textbooks and open educational resources (OER) in online courses at public colleges and universities around Florida. While I focused on OER and open access textbooks such as those available from projects such as OpenStax College, Connexions, Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, OER Commons, and Project Gutenberg, the rest of the committee was focused on resources from commercial publishers and the ancillary materials they provide. Somehow they took e-textbooks and OER to mean the same thing, and they are decidedly not. I’m choosing here to focus on the state of OER and open access materials in Florida.

Florida Statute 1004.085 (2012) and Florida Board of Governors policy 8.003 provide guidelines for the adoption of textbooks and course materials that are affordable to students in Florida public colleges and universities. Past initiatives have sought to encourage the use of e-textbooks and open educational resources but the availability of materials and available technologies were extremely limited. Florida’s Orange Grove (TOG) is a digital repository for OER, including open textbooks and learning objects, for educators to search, use, remix, contribute to, comment on, and rate. The repository can be integrated with a variety of learning management systems, and enables users to search from directly within The Orange Grove for resources located in other repositories or harvested resources found within the repository. TOG is a model resource that is recognized around the country and includes resources for both K-12 and higher education learning. Several institutions in Florida have developed their own repositories for reusable learning objects that can be shared, including the University of Central Florida’s Obojobo.

The problem with The Orange Grove is that it is not funded or formally staffed. Reusable learning objects and resources in TOG are difficult to find and vary widely in quality, making it difficult for users to identify meaningful resources for their courses. Florida needs a statewide repository for quality, reusable electronic learning objects for open use across institutions. This effort would promote cross-institution collaboration and sharing. The management, updating and maintenance, and funding of TOG repository should be a priority or another repository should be adopted/developed in its place. TOG needs updating technologically, and issues such as funding, quality assurance of included resources, accessibility and usability, and how to promote its use by instructors statewide should be discussed. Implementing some system for both instructors and students to rate resources, akin to the MERLOT approach. MERLOT, or Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching, started in 1997, has tools for instructors and students to create their own digital resources and also supports its own open textbook initiative that includes a quality peer review process.

If Florida wants to get serious about promoting OER and open access materials to make learning more affordable to students in Florida colleges and universities, then it needs to look at planting the next generation of The Orange Grove, one that is funded and properly farmed, focusing on promoting collaboration and sharing across institutions.

Dev Ed MOOCs & the Elephant in the Room

elephant-in-the-roomThe state of Florida, in all of its (or lack thereof) wisdom, has decided to revamp the way it handles developmental education. Developmental education, or Dev Ed, is the name given to entry-level remedial skills courses meant to help students prepare for the rigor of regular college level courses. In 2010-2011, 176,286 students in Florida were enrolled in at least one Dev Ed course. There’s no denying the fact that there are problems with students lingering semester after semester in Dev Ed courses. The state’s solution to the problem was simply to make Dev Ed optional – recent high school graduates will be exempt from placement tests as will active duty military personnel, older students will still have to take the placement tests and may be counseled to enroll in Dev Ed courses, but the decision to enroll in Dev Ed, or not, is entirely up to students. Students may enroll in regular courses with co-requisite courses meant to give students extra help. Putting students with remedial needs into regular courses is surely setting many of them up for failure, as much a problem as having them repeat Dev Ed courses over multiple semesters.

As if all of this wasn’t a deep enough stab to the heart of Dev Ed in Florida, the Department of Education has decided that MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Course, are the best way to deliver Dev Ed content. In reading the RFP, it is clear that the DOE has little understanding of what a MOOC is, how they’ve been delivered, and the issues surrounding them. For just $300,00, in seven months, the DOE wants this:

The intended purpose of the grant is to fund a MOOC(s) developed by strong faculty members and validated by their corresponding institutions, i.e. meet the learning standards set by the relevant academic department with the intent of significantly increasing the number of underrepresented students who enter and remain in postsecondary education. High school and entering college students will complete these courses and the data that underlies the courses will be captured by the course platform to enable academic research on how different students learn. The MOOC(s) will improve secondary school students’ preparedness for postsecondary entrance examinations and facilitate an increase students’ ability to successfully complete the coursework required for a postsecondary degree. Ultimately, MOOCs may provide institutions, through either individual or packaged modules, a way to blend MOOC content into formal courses with more intensive faculty, advising, and peer support and provide students an alternative and direct path to credit and credentials.  

MOOCs are likely to provide value to a broader range of learners than is currently served by existing traditional developmental education courses and the availability of MOOC developmental education courses would help at least three types of students:
1)    Learners who are already studying the subject matter and enroll in the MOOC as a study aid for the placement test or developmental education course;
2)    Learners who enroll in a MOOC and wish to complete required math, reading, and/or writing developmental education course(s) in support of their pursuit of a certificate or credential; and
3)    Institutions that integrate the MOOC module content and functionality with classroom courses in order to increase quality and blend the student learning experience.

In addition, the new MOOCs may ultimately save on the cost of instructional materials for high schools and colleges who chose to utilize the coursework.  

This is a prime example of a buzz phrase gone out of control. Where MOOCs have been successful has been with highly motivated, independent learners with an interest in the topic and some foundational knowledge to build on, in other words, the complete opposite of most Dev Ed students. Instead of a MOOC as a course, as a platform for education, as described by MOOC pioneer Stephen Downes, what they’re really looking for are packaged content modules for math, reading, and writing that could be delivered by high schools, community and state colleges, placed online for free, or used as a supplemental resources to traditional courses. I have had the opportunity to participate in some statewide meetings to discuss the changes in the law and the RFP itself. What everyone could agree on is that no one could agree on a definition of MOOC or what should be created, or if it would be better if purchased, how the modules or courses would be delivered, if they would be free or fee-based, facilitated or not. The one thing that everyone could agree on is that it is questionable to experiment on this vulnerable population, who may no longer linger in Dev Ed because they will simply drop out. There’s a big fat elephant in the room – the question of whether Dev Ed can be delivered effectively in this format and if we’re sacrificing these students at the altar of budget cutting and buzz words. It remains to be seen.

Update: Broward College has been awarded the grant. We shall see what they make of it when the “Dev Ed MOOC” is deployed in August, 2014.

image credit: http://bit.ly/17C6yH1

Tooting the Horn

I consider myself extremely fortunate to work with a really talented team of designers and developers, particularly Graphic Designer Eddie Rodriguez, Software Engineer Ian Vanhoof, Instructional Designer Piti (Golf) Kanjanapongpaisal, and Instructional Designer Inez Whipple. A few months ago we started to haggle with the issue of how to present “lecture” content in our courses. We knew from the start that it had to work on every browser and be mobile-friendly. Most of the faculty content developers we work with are used to posting Word documents or PowerPoint slides and calling it good. A few even go so far as to identify a YouTube link. We’ve been working as a team to break that mold and encourage our SMEs to really focus on original content and then to present it in a way that is both sustainable and accessible to all users on all platforms. 57% of our users access the LMS from a mobile device so, whatever the design, it had to be responsive in design and Flash-free. While the whole team had input, I have to give mad props to our developer, Ian (who describes the process in a post of his own), and our graphic designer, Eddie, who developed our Learning Object container using HTML, CSS, and JS. I have to say it’s one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time and even makes Blackboard a bit hipper. It’s truly a pleasure to work on such a team in that we have been able to do something that is reshaping how “lecture” material is presented in a way that is responsive, sustainable and accessible to all.

A Course By Any Other Name

red rose with white rosesI’ve been thinking lately about what makes a course. Part of my job is to take “bad” courses, look at the curriculum and the student learning outcomes, and decide what is needed to make them “better”. I also work with subject matter experts to design new courses. What is a course? The traditional paradigm is “read this, watch that, take the quiz”. Many of the courses I look at consist mainly of reading assignments, chapter quizzes, and a longer assignment or two thrown in. Maybe they have a PowerPoint slideshow in them. The more progressive ones have links to YouTube videos in them. Many of the courses are built around the textbook publisher’s platform such as WileyPlus or Pearson’s MyLab, with very little content, resources, or activities in the college’s LMS. With resistance to developing original content, I wonder why we even bother building anything in the LMS at all. And that’s the rub.

Part of our model for new courses is to create shells with as much original content as possible to make them as independent of the publishers as possible and to do so in a sustainable way. This is a new concept for faculty who have always envisioned courses as a series of textbook chapters. To transition from a F2F course to an online one is simply a matter of posting the PowerPoint slides (mostly from the publisher’s instructor resource files) and voila! you have an online course. The LMS is just a tool for transmission of information. To me, there are all kinds of problems with this. Most PowerPoint presentations are merely outlines of a chapter in bullet points, and not actually a “lecture” at all. Using YouTube is at least more engaging, but it also creates a sustainability problem as links break and accessibility problems as most aren’t captioned. Who checks them each semester? Who is responsible for finding alternate content when the links do break? When I pushed for original content, I had an instructor tell me that the book was written by experts and was therefore smarter than she.

Read this. Watch that. Take the quiz. We talk a lot about being a “guide on the side, not a sage on the stage” but most of our courses are still run in a very 20th century manner. I am the instructor. I tell you what to read and what questions to answer and then you take a quiz that the LMS will happily grade for me. Where is the teaching in this? The college actually employs a full-time person to go through courses and make sure that the “instructors” are logging in and participating. Yes, that’s right. I said logging in.

All of this troubles me. Too many faculty course developers see online courses as little more than good old-fashioned correspondence courses and use resources that are neither engaging nor sustainable. When I meet with them to talk about developing a course, I generally start with student learning outcomes and what students should be able to do when they complete the course, what they want students to know and how they will have students show that they’ve mastered the objectives. This is mind-blowing to a surprising number of them. Then we talk about content development, supplemental resources or “lecture” material that builds on the readings, how to craft meaningful and engaging discussion prompts, and what students will do in the course beyond reading chapters and taking quizzes. With lots of hand holding and hair pulling we eventually get to something that is closer to what I consider an online course should be. A textbook is not a course. A YouTube video is not a course. Bulleted PowerPoint slides certainly aren’t a course.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, or so Mr. Shakespeare says. So what is a course? Where do we draw the line between “bad” courses and “good” ones? How do we quantify, or qualify, the sweetness of the rose, or the course? I think a good course is like the rose. One petal does not a whole flower make. A good course needs more than just readings or just lecture slides or just discussion or just projects. Unfortunately, I’ve seen lots of courses with just one petal. Like the rose, a good course has depth of colour and scent. A good course has an active gardener tending it and helping it grow. I don’t have the definitive answer but I do my best to fertilize the courses I work on and hope that they bloom. Okay, so it’s a cheesy metaphor. I’d love to hear more thoughts. What do you think makes a course? What is a “good” course or a “bad” course?

Design. Do. Learn.

paints mixed colorsRecently I’ve been at loggerheads with an administrator at the college over projects, especially <gasp> group projects, in online courses. The projects at issue are not your garden-variety dead tree library research projects – they are authentic tasks embedded in courses with a project/problem-based learning approach. For example, an IT planning course has groups of students develop a strategic plan for an actual client. In an education course, students work in groups to create a multidisciplinary unit plan. Learning by doing rather than by lecture? “Blasphemy!” according to the aforementioned administrator.

Feeling war-torn and weary, I was happy to see a piece by Melanie Kahl on the Mind/Shift blog about a project in Berkeley, California and another in rural Bertie, North Carolina in which students collaborated in community-based, real-world active learning. Emily Pilloton, who has chronicled her experience in a pretty awesome TED Talk says of the projects, “The biggest thing that design gives students is this amazing sense of possibility.” Teachers and students are recast as designers, learning through the process of designing structures for their communities. As students’ eyes open to the possibilities and they realize the difference they can make and all that they can achieve, they become empowered, take ownership, and learning is made personal. Are they all going to become designers? Not likely. But these students will walk away from these experiences with more critical thinking skills, be more willing to take risks, and with a better sense of connection between the content in their courses and the application of it in their community.

When I think about the group projects that the administrator dislikes so vehemently, I see possibilities for students to collaborate in authentic tasks using the tools of today’s workplace, challenged to design a product for real-world use, connecting course content to the task, become agents of their own learning. For these [primarily] nontraditional, adult learners to meet and work together on a face-to-face project would seem more difficult than to share an online workspace with multiple modes of communication at their disposal. Many of these students are enrolled in online courses because they wouldn’t otherwise be able to pursue a certificate or degree. Some of them have struggled throughout their brick-and-mortar school careers. Imagine how we can empower them through the process of design, engaged in active learning, using real-world tools…online. Maybe the administrator doesn’t get it, but I’m encouraged that there are instructors in our college who come to me with these ideas and believe in the power of process.

So close, yet so far

Isaac Asimov“Once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference materials, be something you’re interested in knowing, from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else… that’s what YOU are interested in, and you can ask, and you can find out, and you can do it in your own home, at your own speed, in your own direction, in your own time… Then, everyone would enjoy learning. Nowadays, what people call learning is forced on you, and everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class, and everyone is different.” ~ Isaac Asimov, 1988

The ever-wise Isaac Asimov put these words forward in a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers. I have a computer outlet in my home that hooks up to enormous libraries which I use to educate myself at my own pace about whatever grabs my attention at the moment. I’m not alone. According to a U.S. government report, approximately 80% of American homes have at least one Internet user, 68% of homes use broadband access, and 77% of households had a computer. We have the tools for everyone to learn what they want, when they want, at their own pace. So why are schools still forcing everyone to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed? The number of online courses has exploded since the mid 1990s, but the majority of them are pretty much structured to run like a traditional course. The 2000s saw the development of wholly-online degree programs from reputable brick-and-mortar schools and universities. And the last couple of years have seen the advent of MOOCs, seemingly the kind of learning opportunity Asimov described. The traditional universities are jumping on the free and open learning bandwagon to appear competitive in the education marketplace, but only by tokens and these courses aren’t generally viewed as “serious” or “real”.

So here we are, nearly 25 years later. The majority of schools (and courses) today don’t look so different from those of 1988. We dangle the carrot of personalized learning only allowing little tastes, pulling the string further away. So close, yet so far.