Letting go of the horse

horse drawn carriage early automobile that was referred to as a horseless carriage

For many years after the invention of the automobile the predominant design thinking was influenced by the preceding age of horse-drawn transportation. In fact, early automobiles were referred to as horseless carriages. It took a number of decades for auto design to break out of this confine and evolve into the many automobile variants we see today -none of which look like a carriage. We have moved from the age of the horseless carriage toward the age of the driverless car.

Google car

The world-wide web is a break-out technology for education in the same way the automobile was for transportation. However, the predominant design thinking in education is still confined by the pre-internet age. In many ways we are in a horseless carriage phase of addressing technology in education although there are a number of areas, such as active learning space design and assessment, where this is beginning to change.

One institution that has made a large-scale commitment to breaking out of the traditional thinking in educational design is Arizona State University, which bills itself as the “New American University”. It tries not to be constrained by such academic traditions as high entrance requirements, 15-week semesters or fixed academic disciplines. As a result, some interesting ideas have developed and the university has been able to thrive and grow even in the face of substantial cuts in state support. In this video, ASU president Michael Crow outlines the concept and the design thinking behind it:

This is a good example of the educational equivalent of letting go of the horse. It involves truly embracing the new world created by the Internet and rethinking what an educational institution is and how it should operate. I have noted in a previous Blog what history tells us about organizations that cannot break out of previous paradigms.

What does an A mean?

In US education student achievement is measured primarily by assigning letter grades at the end of a course and averaging all the grades to come up with an overall measure of how “good” a student is relative to their peers. There are several flaws in this system.

• Although failure is part of the learning process, in this system every failure can have a cost to the student.

• Because there are no standards, the determination of what a letter grade means can vary greatly between different instructors.

• Grade inflation has been introduced into this system to the extent that what used to be considered average (a C grade) is often seen as equivalent to failing.

At the same time as grades have been increasing in both high school and college [1,2], college entrants are being required to do more remedial course work [3] and employers have been complaining about the abilities of graduates [4]. If grades are going up and quality is going down, there is something wrong with the system.

I remember being made acutely aware of this situation many years ago when a new graduate student applied to work in my lab. His GPA was 4.0 and because I was looking to employ someone to do object-oriented programming, I was glad to see he had taken two courses in this area. During the interview I asked him to explain object orientated programming in his own words. He was unable to do so even after some prompting. I then showed him some code containing a number of basic errors and he was unable to see anything wrong with it. His grades had been largely based on multiple-choice tests. He had passed his courses with high grades but had failed to acquire even the basic skills needed by an employer.

Just as some advocate completely changing the way we educate in the Internet age, there are many who would advocate changing the way educational attainment is measured. The GPA is no longer useful.

A new approach that is gaining prominence is competency-based education [5]. Basically, this is breaking down assessment into specific skills or competencies. So rather than a student’s receiving an arbitrary grade for an entire course, they receive a certification for each learning outcome that has been defined. In the example above, a student would have to be certified in the component skills of program error detection and key concept explanation before graduating with a qualification in object oriented programming.

Competency-based education requires more instructional design effort to define the competencies and create reliable measures of student performance. Measures may require gradations, e.g. an acceptable level of performance versus an exceptional or expert level. Course completion and graduation are based on a demonstration of competence instead of a prescribed number of credit hours and knowledge recognition memory through multiple-choice tests. In this system, an instructor’s time is likely to be spent more on coaching and assessing competency performance and less on presenting information. The Internet can be employed for online skills demonstrations and instruction via video. Competency-based education is a perfect complement to active learning and flipping the classroom discussed in prior blogs (Sept, 2012, Dec, 2014).

REFERENCES

[1] Rising GPAs making it harder to get into college. Justin Pope.

[2] GPAs have steadily risen over decades. Jessica Lichter.

[3] High School Graduates Still Struggle With College Readiness. Allie Bidwell.

[4] Are they really ready to work? Joint report of the Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management.

[5] What is competency-based education? Dr. Robert Mendenhall, President, Western Governors University.

FURTHER READING

Competency-Based Education as a Potential Strategy to Increase Learning and Lower Costs. Stephen R. Porter and Kevin Reilly

Doomed to Repeat

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
― Edmund Burke

This well-known quote is certainly true when it comes to the history of educational technology. I recently participated in a NERCOMP event that considered the use of tablet computers in education. The opening presentation touched on some failures, specifically a spectacular failure of a $1B iPad program for Los Angeles schools (see this LA Times article). This is not the only example.

The iPad is one in a long series of technologies to be promoted as something that would revolutionize education. For example, Thomas Edison once said in 1922, “I believe the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks”. Since then, many technologies have been hyped and adopted without a revolution occurring (see October, 2012 post).

The problem with this and similar initiatives is that it concentrates on getting the new technology into the learning environment without first creating a strategic plan for how the technology will be used and how the users (particularly the teachers) will be supported. The assumption is made that all that is needed is the new technology and everything will work by some sort of magic. Prior to the recent focus on tablets, many schools and colleges adopted policies requiring students to obtain a laptop but had no strategies for how they were to be used in classes. As a result some instructors have banned laptops from classes, seeing them as more of a distraction than a help (e.g. Laptops vs. Learning – Washington Post)

Fortunately, the NERCOMP event did include some success stories. A professor from Baypath University described how he was initially a skeptical and unwilling participant with little technical experience but now is an enthusiastic supporter of the use of tablets in the classroom. The key ingredient of the success story was the training provided alongside the adoption of tablets. The extensive training, provided by edtechteacher, focused on what students can do with the tablets in class instead of providing details about the technology or all the apps available. Seven guiding principles aimed at promoting active learning with the technology were adopted:

1. Exploration, not planning
2. Activities, not Apps
3. Flexible tools (e.g. video creation), not discipline specific apps
4. Creation not consumption (by students)
5. Student uses, not Faculty uses
6. Task challenges (to students), not step-by-step instructions
7. Student choice of tools, not instructor-assigned apps

The initially skeptical professor said the experience has transformed his perspective on teaching and sees the changes as a dramatic improvement. He is often amazed by what his students do with the technology.

diagram of SAMR

Key to this approach is focusing on the higher levels of the Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition Model, which defines levels of technology use in teaching and learning. The most basic and most used level is substitution, where technology is used to perform the same task as was done before the use of computers. Thus, the instructor uses PowerPoint to replace acetate slides and chalkboards and the students use laptops to replace paper notebooks. The highest level is redefinition, where technology results in new learning tasks that were previously inconceivable.

The approach to learning, not the type of technology, is the key. Training should be focused on facilitating learning outcomes not merely technology features and operation. This is the way to change history not repeat it.

Further Reading:

The Human Touch by Lowell Monke, Education Next, Fall 2004.

Research on in class use of laptops and other devices. The Teaching Center Journal, Washington University in St.Louis, Sept, 2014.

Active Learning

One problem in education is that there are constant waves of interest–some might say hype–around fashionable terms. Very often the core concepts behind the terms are not new and the important new concepts are not made clear.

One good example is “active learning”. There may be a false sense that all of education is mainly made up of students sitting passively listening to instructors providing lectures and that a few brave innovators have recently started to change this. In a sense, all learning is active. Students sitting passively in a lecture theatre are learning if they are actively processing what they see and hear. Quiet contemplation can be considered active learning, if a student is cognitively active.

The true value in the modern sense of active learning is making the active part of learning explicit. There needs to be analysis, synthesis and evaluation evident in the learning tasks as they occur, not just in exams many months later. For example, reading a chapter for an assignment is a learning task in which active learning (analysis, synthesis and evaluation) is implicit in the act of reading. If students are asked to highlight what they think are the key passages in the reading assignment and compare their selections with their peers, this task makes explicit the active learning. It also exposes potential flaws in their cognitive approach that can be corrected thereby enhancing their future learning.

active learning class scene 2

Bonwell and Eison, 1991, define active learning this way: “Active learning engages students in two aspects–-doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” Active learning in this sense relates to the concept of “reflective practice” (see: May, 2013 entry), which theorists identify as a key skill of effective professionals. Active learning begins to develop this important skill in aspiring professionals.

Active learning exists on a continuum rather than as an absolute. Thus, if student time is spent reading and listening without verification of their being cognitively active in these tasks, the learning is relatively passive. If the time is spent solving problems and creating tangible outputs (e.g. a concept map), it is relatively active. The concept is also very much related to flipping the classroom–another fashionable term covered in a previous blog entry. It should be immediately apparent upon walking into a classroom where active learning is taking place that students are fully engaged in learning. The pictures above and below provide an illustration of this:

active learning class scene

There now are a range of tools that instructors can use to help facilitate more active learning. Low-tech ones include highlighting, drawing and using Post-it notes. High-tech tools include the advanced learning spaces discussed in the last blog entry or apps for iPads and other such devices. Aurasma is one example of this as illustrated in this video:

Reference:
Bonwell, C.; Eison, J. (1991). Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom AEHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, D.C.: Jossey-Bass.

Innovative Learning Spaces

I participated in the annual EDUCAUSE conference earlier this month. EDUCAUSE is one of the biggest events showcasing technology in education. Two years ago at the same conference I noticed an interesting addition to the exhibition floor: vendors of furniture. The furniture vendors were mainly promoting innovative classroom designs.

This year, innovative classrooms were a prominent topic at the conference. One of the keynote speakers, State University of New York (SUNY) Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher described how SUNY is encouraging more interactive forms of learning and redesigning classrooms to support this. She highlighted FLEXspace, an online community for sharing ideas about novel learning space design.

A traditional classroom design primarily facilitates a lecture-based mode of education and conforms to this basic layout:
Abstract diagram of typical classroom

A more modern approach to education employs the Internet for presentations and in the classroom creates a more interactive experience for students. This can be done in a traditional classroom but this is not an ideal setup, as this picture illustrates:
students collaborating in a traditional class

A layout supporting such an approach looks more like this:
Abstract diagram of an interactive classroom

This video from George Mason University illustrates such a class in action:

In one of the EDUCAUSE sessions I attended, we were polled to determine the percentage of us at colleges with interactive classrooms. Of 51 respondents, 26% reported between 5 percent and 50 percent nontraditional classrooms,  49% reported less than 5 percent and 16% had none. It is clear that the development of classrooms to support interactive learning has a long way to go.

In another session, participants brainstormed issues involved in designing and using such classrooms and came up with this list:

DESIGN ISSUES
Collaboration/communication among stakeholders
Whose job is it to do needs assessment?
Including the student voice
How do you get involved early enough to make a difference?
Achieving multi-use reconfigurable spaces
Balancing what you spend your money on: What’s the biggest bang for your buck?

USE ISSUES
Scheduling: How to pair redesigned classrooms with the right faculty
Proving a return on investment
New spaces vs. old teaching

The last issue is particularly important. I continually emphasize in this blog that changing technology alone is not sufficient to change learning. A newly designed space will not automatically result in an instructor abandoning passive lecturing. New methods are required to engender an interactive learning environment. If an instructor is committed to making the classroom experience more interactive, such a space may transform the experience.

The change in the space illustrated in the video is more about the psychology than it is about the technology. Indeed, one presenter noted how students loved the low tech, i.e. round tables and all around white boards, but did not like the high tech, the wall-mounted flat screens that display their laptops. Students considered their laptop screens a private space not to be shared publicly.

It is important to recognize that every space on campus has the potential to transform learning. It is not just traditional classrooms that need to be redesigned for the Internet age. Click on the graphic below to see a slide show of more innovative learning spaces:

Abstract diagram of an interactive classroom

Have You Tried Turning It Off And On Again

Any system is a collection of different sub-systems and components that must work together well to be effective. Systems are less effective or not effective if too much emphasis is placed on certain prominent components and others that are less prominent but no less important to overall system success are neglected.

In the world of technology this often is seen in a focus on the technology itself (selection, purchase and installation) and neglect of the human element–the needs of the people using it and the technical support provided. Humorists have found a rich source of material in this. One of my favorite examples suggests this issue is not confined to the modern age:

Support does not always go so smoothly. This example from the British sitcom “The IT Crowd” is described as the “truest moment ever”:

Two types of poor support are demonstrated by the actors in this video clip. The first is frustration that the person needing support does not have the same level of knowledge as the person providing it. This ultimately results in conflict. The second is the IT specialist’s inability to explain things in non-technical terms. He is so absorbed in technical jargon that he does not recognize others’ need for explanations in plain English. Acronyms and Jargon can foster efficient communication within a group of specialists but it also can create barriers to communicating with non-specialists.

This problem is not confined to the IT world. Instructors potentially can interact with students in similar ways. Denial of climate change and evolution, for example, suggests scientists are not always effective in communicating with the general public. Educators need to help specialists communicate effectively with all audiences. This is particularly important for those who will be employed by organizations that provide customer service or who will become educators themselves.

Sticking with Blackboard

Over the last year, our college underwent a thorough review of its learning management system. After considering all the options and running a trial of Instructure’s Canvas, we decided to stick with Blackboard Learn. Blackboard has established a dominant position in the market over the years often by buying out its rivals. Canvas, our trial system, has mounted a substantial challenge to Blackboard mainly by employing a fresh approach to this category of software. It adopted a truly cloud-based platform and focused the design on the user experience. The LMS market has been both fluid and complex as illustrated by this infographic created by Phil Hill.

LMS msrket trends
It has been interesting to see the changes that have taken place.

The reasons our college decided to remain with Blackboard, despite having some problems with it over the years, are varied. Partly, it may have been a feeling of better the devil you know but also there was undoubtedly the influence of positive change at Blackboard under the new management (see A new Blackboard? ). In particular, there seems to be a reaction to competition from Canvas in the area of user experience.

Last month I attended Blackboard’s world conference for the first time to get a sense of its path forward. I was impressed with the scale of the event and the new emphasis on the user experience. A user experience lab was accessible throughout the conference so participants could test forthcoming improvements that will make the system “friendlier”. It is a substantial and real change over Blackboard’s previously clunky approach to interface design when doing something simple could take multiple clicks. The recent hiring of Jon Kolko, who is well known within the human-computer interaction and design communities, illustrates Blackboard’s new approach. Jon will be focused on improving the company’s mobile apps.

Blackboard’s move to the cloud was a major announcement (see this video for a short non-technical explanation of the cloud). During our review of Canvas vs Blackboard there was some confusion over what was meant by a cloud-based system. Blackboard was thought to be on the cloud because it was hosted on Blackboard’s servers and not on a College server. A hosted service gives each user its own copy of the Blackboard product (often different versions) running on dedicated resources. A true cloud system is one in which users have separate data and custom views but everyone shares the same version of the product. Blackboard will run its new cloud version on Amazon Web Services just as Canvas does.

Blackboard has a number of products (57 in all). In addition to being an LMS vendor, it offers a leading tool for synchronous learning (Collaborate) and tools for analytics. These tools have been sold separately and operated under separate business units but will in the future be merged and integrated. The next versions of Blackboard products will be sold under four levels of integrated services:

Learning Core: The Learn LMS (with some added tools)
Learning Essentials: Learn plus Collaborate
Learning Insight: Adds Analytics for Learn to track learning outcomes
Learning Insight & Student Retention: Basically everything Blackboard offers.

In addition to the many presentations on Blackboards products and how they are being used, the conference featured two very inspiring key note speakers. One is posted online.

A shorter version of the other can be found in this TED talk.

For another perspective on the conference see:
Blackboard’s Big News that Nobody Noticed
Posted on July 18, 2014 by Michael Feldstein