Collaboration and community are beautiful

There are many lessons to be learned from what is going on in the MOOC sector. The first is that we have a lot to learn, even for those of us who are committed to doing it ‘properly’ whatever that means. I’m not trying to convince you of “MOOC yes” or “MOOC no”. We can have that argument some other time. I’m talking about we already know from using these tools.

We’ve learned (again) that producing a broadcast video set of boring people reading the book at you in a monotone is, amazingly, not effective, no matter how fancy the platform. We know that MOOCs are predominantly taken by people who have already ‘succeeded’ at learning, often despite our educational system, and are thus not as likely to have an impact in traditionally disadvantaged areas, especially without an existing learning community and culture. (No references, you can Google all of this easily.)

We know that online communities can and do form. Ok, it’s not the same as twenty people in a room with you but our own work in this space confirms that you can have students experiencing a genuine feeling of belonging, facilitated through course design and forum interaction.

“Really?” you ask.

In a MOOC we ran with over 25,000 students, a student wrote a thank you note to us at the top of his code, for the final assignment. He had moved from non-coder to coder with us and had created some beautiful things. He left a note in his code because he thought that someone would read it. And we did. There is evidence of this everywhere in the forums and their code. No, we don’t have a face-to-face relationship. But we made them feel something and, from what we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t appear to be a bad something.

But we, as in the wider on-line community, have learned something else that is very important. Students in MOOCs often set their own expectations of achievement. They come in, find what they’re after, and leave, much like they are asking a question on Quora or StackExchange. Much like you check out reviews on-line before you start watching a show or you download one or two episodes to check it out. You know, 21st Century life.

Once you see that self-defined achievement and engagement, a lot of things about MOOCs, including drop rates and strange progression, suddenly make sense. As does the realisation that this is a total change from what we have accepted for centuries as desirable behaviour. This is something that we are going to have a lot of trouble fitting into our existing system. It also indicates how much work we’re going to have to do in order to bring in traditionally disadvantaged communities, first-in-family and any other under-represented group. Because they may still believe that we’re offering Perry’s nightmare in on-line form: serried ranks with computers screaming facts at you.

We offer our students a lot of choice but, as Universities, we mostly work on the idea of ‘follow this program to achieve this qualification’. Despite notionally being in the business of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, our non-award and ‘not for credit’ courses are dwarfed in enrolments by the ‘follow the track, get a prize’ streams. And that, of course, is where the diminishing bags of dollars come from. That’s why retention is such a hot-button issue at Universities because even 1% more retained students is worth millions to most Universities. A hunt and peck community? We don’t even know what retention looks like in that context.

Pretending that this isn’t happening is ignoring evidence. It’s self-deceptive, disingenuous, hypocritical (for we are supposed to be the evidence junkies) and, once again, we have a failure of educational aesthetics. Giving people what they don’t want isn’t good. Pretending that they just don’t know what’s good for them is really not being truthful. That’s three Socratic strikes: you’re out.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris, at night being struck at the apex by three bolts of lightning simultaneously.

We had better be ready to redirect that energy or explode.

We have a message from our learning community. They want some control. We have to be aware that, if we really want them to do something, they have to feel that it’s necessary. (So much research supports this.) By letting them run around in the MOOC space, artificial and heavily instrumented, we can finally see what they’re up to without having to follow them around with clipboards. We see them on the massive scale, individuals and aggregates. Remember, on average these are graduates; these are students who have already been through our machine and come out. These are the last people, if we’ve convinced them of the rightness of our structure, who should be rocking the boat and wanting to try something different. Unless, of course, we haven’t quite been meeting their true needs all these years.

I often say that the problem we have with MOOC enrolments is that we can see all of them. There is no ‘peeking around the door’ in a MOOC. You’re in or you’re out, in order to be signed up for access or updates.

If we were collaborating with all of our students to produce learning materials and structures, not just the subset who go into MOOC, I wonder what we would end up turning out? We still need to apply our knowledge of pedagogy and psychology, of course, to temper desire with what works but I suspect that we should be collaborating with our learner community in a far more open way. Everywhere else, technology is changing the relationship between supplier and consumer. Name any other industry and we can probably find a new model where consumers get more choice, more knowledge and more power.

No-one (sensible) is saying we should raze the Universities overnight. I keep being told that allowing more student control is going to lead to terrible things but, frankly, I don’t believe it and I don’t think we have enough evidence to stop us from at least exploring this path. I think it’s scary, yes. I think it’s going to challenge how we think about tertiary education, absolutely. I also think that we need to work out how we can bring together the best of face-to-face with the best of on-line, for the most people, in the most educationally beautiful way. Because anything else just isn’t that beautiful.


ITiCSE 2014: Monday, Keynote 1, “New Technology, New Learning?” #ITiCSE2014 #ITiCSE

This keynote was presented by Professor Yvonne Rogers, from University College of London. The talk was discussing how we could make learning more accessible and exciting for everyone and encourage students to think, to create and share our view. Professor Rogers started by sharing a tweet by Conor Gearty on a guerrilla lecture, with tickets to be issued at 6:45pm, for LSE students. (You can read about what happened here.) They went to the crypt of Westminster Cathedral and the group, split into three smaller groups, ended up discussing the nature of Hell and what it entailed. This was a discussion on religion but, because of the way that it was put together, it was more successful than a standard approach – context shift, suspense driving excitement and engagement. (I wonder how much suspense I could get with a guerrilla lecture on polymorphism… )

Professor Rogers says that suspense matters, as the students will be wondering what is coming next, and this will hopefully make them more inquisitive and thus drive them along the path to scientific enquiry. The Ambient Wood was a woodland full of various technologies for student pairs, with technology and probes, an explorative activity. You can read about the Ambient Wood here. The periscope idea ties videos into the direction that you are looking – a bit like Google Glass without a surveillance society aspect (a Woodopticon?). (We worked on similar ideas at Adelaide for an early project in the Arts Precinct to allow student exploration to drive the experience in arts, culture and botanical science areas.) All of the probes were recorded in the virtual spatial environment matching the wood so that, after the activity, the students could then look at what they did. Thus, a group of 10-12 year olds had an amazing day exploring and discovering, but in a way that was strongly personalised, with an ability to see it from the bird’s eye view above them.

And, unsurprisingly, we moved on to MOOCs, with an excellent slide on MOOC HYSTERIA. Can we make these as engaging as the guerrilla lecture or the ambient wood?

hysertia

MOOCs, as we know, are supposed to increase our reach and access to education but, as Professor Rogers noted, it is also a technology that can make the lecturer a “bit of a star”. This is one of the most honest assessments of some of the cachet that I’ve heard – bravo, Professor Rogers. What’s involved in a MOOC? Well, watching things, doing quizzes, and there’s probability a lot of passive, rather than active, learning. Over 60% of the people who sign up to do a MOOC, from the Stanford experience, have a degree – doing Stanford for free is a draw for the already-degreed. How can we make MOOCs fulfil their promise, give us good learning, give us active learning and so on? Learning analytics give us some ideas and we can data mine to try and personalise the course to the student. But this has shifted what our learning experience is and do we have any research to show the learning value of MOOCs?

In 2014, 400 students taking a Harvard course:

  1. Learned in a passive way
  2. Just want to complete
  3. Take the easy option
  4. Were unable to apply what they learned
  5. Don’t reflect on or talk to their colleagues about it.

Which is not what we want? What about the Flipped Classroom? Professor Rogers attributed this to Khan but I’m not sure I agree with this as there were people, Mazur for example, who were doing this in Peer Instruction well before Khan – or at least I thought so. Corrections in the questions please! The idea of the flip is that we don’t have content delivery in lectures with the odd question – we have content beforehand and questions in class. What is the reality?

  1. Still based on chalk and talk.
  2. Is it simply a better version of a bad thing?
  3. Are students more motivated and more active?
  4. Very labour-intensive for the teacher.

So where’s the evidence? Well, it does increase interaction in class between instructors and students. It does allow for earlier identification of misconceptions. Pierce and Fox, 2012, found that it increased exam results for pharmacology students. It also fostered critical thinking in case scenarios. Maybe this will work for 10s-100s – what about classes of thousands? Can we flip to this? (Should we even have classes of this size is another good question)

Then there’s PeerWise, Paul Denny (NZ), where there is active learning in which students create questions, answer them and get feedback. Students create the questions and then they get to try other student’s questions and can then rate the question and rate the answer. (We see approaches like this, although not as advanced, in other technologies such as Piazza.)

How effective is this? Performance in PeerWise correlated with exam marks (Anyadi, Green and Tang, 2013), with active student engagement. It’s used for revision before the exams, and you get hihg-quality questions and answers, while supporting peer interaction. Professor Rogers then showed the Learning Pyramid, from the National Training Laboratories, Bethel, Maine. The PeerWise system plays into the very high retention area.

pyramid

Professor Rogers then moved on to her own work, showing us a picture of the serried rank nightmare of a computer-based classroom: students in rows, isolated and focused on their screens. Instead of ‘designing for one’, why don’t we design to orchestrate shared activities, with devices that link to public displays and can actively foster collaboration. One of Professor Rogers’ students is looking at ways to share simulations across tablets and screens. This included “4Decades“, a a simulation of climate management, with groups representing the different stakeholders to loo at global climate economics. We then saw a video that I won’t transcribe. The idea is that group work encourages discussion, however we facilitate it, and this tends to leading to teaching others in the sharing of ideas. Another technology that Professor Rogers’ group have developed in this space is UniPad: orchestrating collaborate activities across multiple types of devices, with one device per 6-7 students, and used in classes without many researchers present. Applications of this technology include budgeting for students (MyBank), with groups interacting and seeing the results on a public display. Given how many students operate in share houses collaboratively, this is quite an interesting approach to the problem. From studies on this, all group members participated and used the tablet as a token for discussion, taking ownership of a part of the problem. This also extended to reflection on other’s activities, including identifying selfish behaviour on the part of other people. (Everyone who has had flatmates is probably groaning at the moment. Curse you, Love Tarot Pay-By-The-Minute Telephone Number, which cost me and my flatmates a lot of dollars after a flatmate skipped out on us.)

The next aspect Professor Rogers discussed was physical creation toolkits, such as MaKey MaKey, where you can build alternative input for a computer, based on a simple printed circuit board with alligator clips and USB cables. The idea is simple: you can turn anything you like into a keyboard key. Demonstrations included a banana space bar, a play dough MarioKart gamepad, and many other things (a water bowl in front of the machine became a cat-triggered photo booth). This highlights one of the most important aspects of thinking about learning: learning for life. How can we keep people interested in learning in the face of busy, often overfull, lives when many people still think about learning as something that had to be endured on their pathway into the workforce? (Paging my climbing friends with their own climbing wall: you could make the wall play music if you wanted to. Just saying.)

One of the computers stopped working during a trial of the MaKey MaKey system with adult learners and the collaboration that ensued changed the direction of the work and more people were assigned to a single kit. Professor Rogers showed a small video of a four-person fruit orchestra of older people playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. (MORE KIWI!) This elicited a lot of ideas, including for their grandchildren and own parent, transforming exercise to be more fun, to help people learn fundamental knowledge skills and give good feedback. We often heavily intervene in the learning experience and the reflection of the Fruit Orchestra was that intervening less in self-driven activities such as MaKey MaKey might be a better way to go, to increase autonomy and thus drive engagement.

Next was the important question: How can we gets to create and code, where coding is just part of the creating? Can we learn to code differently beyond just choosing a particular language? We have many fascinating technologies but what is the suite of tools over the top that will drive creativity and engagement in this area, to produce effective learning? The short video shown demonstrated a pop-out prefabricated system, where physical interfaces and gestures across those represented coding instructions: coding without any typing at all. (Previous readers will remember my fascination with pre-literate programming.) This early work, electronics on a sheet, is designed to be given away because the production cost is less than 3 Euros. The project is called “code me” from University College London and is designed to teach logic without people realising it: the fundamental building block of computational thinking. Future work includes larger blocks with Bluetooth input and sensors. (I can’t find a web page for this.)

What role should technology play in learning? Professor Rogers mentioned thinking about this in two ways. The inside learning using technology to think about the levels students to reach to foster attainment: personalise, monitor, motivate, flexible, adaptive. The outside learning approach is to work with other people away from the screen: collaborate, create, connect, reflect and play. Professor Rogers believes that the choice is ours but that technology should transform learning to make it active, creative, collaborative, exciting (some other things I didn’t catch) and to recognise the role of suspense in making people think.

An interesting and thought-provoking keynote.