Is It Really Rude to Use Your Smartphone in a Restaurant?

A couple of days ago we had a brief interesting conversation at the LINK Lab about people’s addiction to mobile devices in public spaces. You have probably heard this before: “people need to put down their cellphones at the restaurant (or other public spaces) and actually interact with the people around them.” For some, this is a clear cut case of people losing manners, but sometimes I wonder if it is so simple.

I think that the Clark/Kozma debate gives us some interesting insight into these conversations. I know that Clark’s point was more about instructional design, but it’s application can go beyond those limitations. When you really think about it, Clark’s point that “media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition” also applies to communication in some ways, because we have to communicate to deliver instruction.

But what is the impact of communication? A recent Facebook discussion I was a part of centered around how people felt bad when they found out they had been defriended by someone. Many people in the conversation tried to say that this is just digital communication, that Facebook is just a website, that these things really aren’t real and don’t matter, and other points along those lines. But I disagreed. If someone was to come along and write a really nice, long compliment on your Facebook wall, you wouldn’t just ignore it and say its not real. You would feel pretty good about it. Therefore, since you would feel good about a digital compliment, its not wrong to feel bad when negative things happen digitally (and not to mention all of the studies that have found that cyber-bullying really hurts people in real life). You could probably therefore say that “media are mere vehicles that deliver communicative actions but do not influence the impact of those actions any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition.” We assign importance or meaning to various forms of communication regardless of whether the communication is in person or digital.

But let’s go back to the “cellphone in the restaurant” issue. Is it really rude to look at your cellphone in public? I would say we have not yet socially constructed a standard for that, mainly because we don’t have a clear historical standard to tie into.

First of all, let’s talk about what people really do in restaurants. I waited tables for about 7 years in the 1990s (before smartphones for you young-uns out there). This idea that everyone was having great conversations around the table for every meal they ate out is a weird glamorization of the past, at best. I would say that on any given shift, maybe half the tables were engaged in conversation over a meal… on a good day. You would be surprised how many people sit in silence after ordering. Even more so after the meal comes.

Now then, think about what happens when you are eating at a restaurant and someone you know walks by your table. Do you ignore them because social convention says it is rude to not talk to the people at the table with you? What you probably do is stop the table conversation (if it is even happening) and greet your acquaintance. Maybe you make plans to talk later, or they ask you a quick question about a previous conversation. But when that type of communication opportunity arises, we usually don’t see it as rude to stop one conversation, engage in another, and then come back to the original. Does it make the situation any different just because those communication opportunities are digital instead of in person? Does the medium of communication change the social rules or keep them the same?

I’m not sure either way, to be honest. I would say that we don’t have a clear historical construct to guide us and we will be deciding this issue as we move forward. Does a text on the phone equal running into an acquaintance in person? Maybe or maybe not – I’m not sure. If my neighbor texts me that my house is on fire, I would place a pretty high importance on that text over any other conversation that is happening in person.

I am also reminded of how home phones relate to this issue. When I was a kid, before answering machines and telemarketers became a big thing, you would pretty much stop whatever was happening in your house and answer the phone. Then, of course, telemarketers came along and we started thinking twice. If you were busy, you would say “if it’s important, they will call back.” We all knew that if there wasn’t an answer but you needed to talk to someone, you would call back a minute later. Then we all got answering machines and were able to screen calls. But we would often stop conversations to hear who was on the answering machine.

So, in other words, we filtered communications that came to us to engage with the important ones and put the less important ones off until later. The media or timing of the communication didn’t matter – the importance we placed on it determined how we engaged with it. Think also about call waiting and the debate that people had about when it was appropriate to switch over and check the new call. There really wasn’t one standard that applied to every time that little beep happened while you were on the line.

So now that all kinds of communication media can follow us where ever we go – what rules of social etiquette apply? Do we treat texts / Tweets / Facebook notifications / etc like we would a situation where we running into someone we know in person… or do we treat digital avenues like second-class communications that must be ignored until the “right” time? What if there really is something life-changing in one of those tweets? Is there really any difference between you responding to a Facebook conversation and two people starting a side conversation in a larger group of people at the same table? Either way you have a smaller subsection of the larger group in a different conversation, so why is it okay if both of them are at the table but not okay when one of them is at the table and another is miles away?

I don’t have any definitive answers to these issues, but we need to think about what this issue tells us about our attitudes towards digital communications. If you automatically hate that people are on their phones in restaurants, does that mean that maybe you have relegated digital communications to a lesser status? Does that reveal a personal bias against digital communications on your part? Does a text or Tweet automatically make something less important, or should we look at the actual content of the communication as the important part?

Then there is, of course, the whole debate over whether constantly looking at our phones is causing more harm than good. If that is the case, then I have been in trouble since before there were even affordable home computers. I always had a book or comic or magazine with me to read when I was bored in line somewhere or stuck without anything to do. Does looking at skateboard articles on a phone make a distraction any different than reading through Thrasher magazine?

edugeek-journal-avatarWhen you really look at it, smartphones have just enabled us to do the same things we always did in the past, just in a smaller more portable format. Is our problem really with what people do with them or the devices themselves? I don’t think the answers are as simple as many make them out to be, but if receiving communication on a mobile device is so much different than face-to-face communication that we automatically relegate it to second-class communication, what does that say about online learning in general (which uses a lot of communication)? Nothing positive I would say. Or maybe is it time to take a more nuanced view at how we engage with mobile devices in public than “all bad” or “all okay.”

The Mirage of Measurable Success

The last post that I wrote on measuring success in MOOCs created some good, interesting conversation around the idea of measurable success. The most important questions that were asked had to deal with “why even offer dalmooc if you don’t know what measurable success would look like?”

That’s a good question and one that I think can be answered in many ways. Honestly, the best answer to that question is “because four world-renowned experts wanted to teach it and a lot of people signed up to take it.” To me, especially in the informal realm of education where dalmooc existed, that is one of the biggest measurable signs of success. We live in a world that is so full of compulsory education and set degree plans that we forget that choosing to sign up for an informal voluntary learning experience is measurable success in itself. Over 19,000 people initially said “that sounds interesting, sign me up,” with over 10,000 signing in at one point or another to view the materials. Hundreds of participants were active on Twitter, Facebook, EdX forums, ProSolo, Google Hangouts, and other parts of the course. All voluntarily.  To me, that is measurable success.

Another area of measurable success, although definitely more on the qualitative side, is what I covered in the last post:

So maybe when the participants use words like “blended” or “straddled” or “combined,” those statements in themselves are actually signs of success. In the beginning, some claimed that DALMOOC was more cMOOC than xMOOC, but by the end others were claiming it was more xMOOC than cMOOC. Maybe all of these various, different views of the course are proof that the original design intention of truly self-determined learning was realized

To clarify this a bit more, there are those that thought that dalmooc was more instructivist / xMOOC:

And then there were those that thought it was much more connectivist / cMOOC (myself included)

So to me, that is another realm of measurable success – learners came out of the experience with vastly different views on what happened. That was a goal we had.

However, I know that when people talk about “measurable success,” they are usually referring more to standardized test results, student satisfaction, completion rates, and – the holy grail of education – grades! The elephant in the room that many people won’t deal with, but we all know is true, is that these measures of success are often a mirage.

Standardized tests are probably the biggest mirage of all. The problem is that a score of 90% on a test really only means that a learner was able to mark 90% of the questions correctly, but not necessarily that they actually understood 90% of the material. They may have only understood 60% of it and guessed the next 30% correctly. The fact that the right answer is somewhere in a list of multiple choice answers should negate their usefulness as a way to measure success, but our society still chooses to ignore this problem. Then you can add into this mix that most multiple choice questions are poorly written in ways that give away the answers to people that are taught how to game them (like I was).

Then there is the problem of coming up with questions for tests. Some tests contain, say, two questions about the core knowledge that learners should have gained and then a whole lot of related trivia that they could just Google if needed. Yet they could still get the two essential questions wrong and all the rest correct and will be labeled as “mastering” the concept. Rubrics for papers or projects often do the same thing – giving most points to grammar and following instructions and few to actual content mastery. Someone could write a great paper that shows no knowledge of the topic at hand but still pass because they got all other areas perfect.

Add to this that we would compare two children to each other based on this false sense of “success.” One child could have tanked a test based on the trivia but got all of the core content correct and still be labeled as less successful than the one that got the trivia right and core knowledge wrong…. just because its all on the same test. Oh, and let’s not forget the practice of giving similar or equal weights to all questions on a test when not all questions are really equal. Again, two learners could get the same score, but one only answered the easy questions correctly while the other answered all of the challenging ones correctly.

And speaking of different learners, there is always the oft-ignored problems of cultural bias in testing and learning.  Are learners not testing well because they didn’t learn, or were there cultural references on the test they didn’t get? Did a learner really learn the content, or were they just able to quickly memorize some factoids because of some weird thing Aunt Ida said about planets that helped them connect the new information to this weird family quirk? Are they being labeled as smarter because they are or because their weird Aunt Ida gave them a memory that helped them memorize?

Most of what we call “measurable success” in education is really just a mirage of numbers games. For those like me that fell on the privileged side of those games, it was a great system that we probably want to fight to keep. And we are probably most likely the ones now in control, so….

Now, of course, this is not to say that learning isn’t happening. This is more about how most institutions measure learning and success. I believe people are always learning formally and informally, even if its not always what they had intended to learn. It just takes a lot of time, effort, and money (yes – money!) to truly assess learning, and the educational field in general is being tasked with the opposite. “Do better assessment with less money, less time, and less effort (ie people power)!” No real easy answers, but there is a problem with the system and the culture that drives that system that needs to be addressed before “measurable success” becomes a trustworthy idea.

Measuring Success in MOOCs (or More Specifically, DALMOOC)

I was asked last week how we knew whether or not DALMOOC was successful. Seems a fair question since “success” in MOOCs seems to be measured by everything from completion rates to enrollment numbers to certificate numbers to alignment of the stars on the Wednesday of the first week the MOOC is offered. I had to be honest about that question and say that since everyone that work on DALMOOC lived and are still on speaking terms (at least as far as I know), then we were successful. Running a MOOC can be far more intensive and stressful than many people realize. We almost didn’t make it out the other side with everyone still happy.

In some ways, when I see people saying that we were blending xMOOCs and cMOOCs, or combining the two, I think we might have failed in the communication of what we were doing. Maybe I can blame that somewhat on our current educational system that only thinks in linear ways; therefore any course with more than one layer is not scene as complex, but “blended” or “combined.” Words like “straddled” seem closer, but to be honest we didn’t feel the need to straddle. We just had two layers that were not walled in, allowing learners to choose one or the other or both or to move back and forth as they felt. Infinite possibilities. A Multiverse Open Online Course maybe even. But not really a linear mix of the two from the design side.

Of course, the learner experience was linear even if they skipping back and forth between both layers. So maybe when the participants use words like “blended” or “straddled” or “combined,” those statements in themselves are actually signs of success. In the beginning, some claimed that DALMOOC was more cMOOC than xMOOC, but by the end others were claiming it was more xMOOC than cMOOC. Maybe all of these various, different views of the course are proof that the original design intention of truly self-determined learning was realized. At the very least, DALMOOC feedback was an interesting study in how bias and ontologies and epistemologies and all those -ologies affect participant perception of design. Maybe it doesn’t matter than participants can’t articulate the basics of dual layer architecture because the point all along should have been to hide the architecture and let learners learn how to learn.

So, at the end of the day, I will be able to come up with some philosophical jargon to “prove” that DALMOOC was a success to the powers-that-be who ask – all of which will be true. But to be honest, the only thing I really want to do is shrug my shoulders and say “beats me – go look the participant output itself and see if that looks like success to you.”

Looks like success to me.

The Underlying Barrier to Education Reform

The last few weeks Dave Cormier has been on a roll addressing some of the bigger issues in education (the system of education, as opposed to “learning” that is always happening because of life). When Cormier writes about the need for learners to care about learning, this idea is at the core of why I support heutagogy (learning how to learn) so much. One of the foundations of learning how to learn is to care about learning. But then Cormier asks some questions that I think highlight a glaring problem that is hindering education reform today:

How do we make a minister of education happy about that idea? How do we convince parents that the way a kid feels about learning is more important than what they learned? How would we teach learning? Oh my gosh… how would we assess it? How, inevitably, do we bureaucratize it?

Do you see the big fear-driven problem glaring at us all from behind these questions? Let me take a look at this from another angle then. Often we hear education critics say that “students make it out of a degree without learning anything” or that we have to “prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet.” But when I hear these statements, I feel they show that we are still not fully understanding what is happening with education right now. What we really mean by these statements is that students graduate without being able to score the same passing scores on tests that they scored while in school, or that we did not fill their heads with the factoids that will only exist in the future once new job titles are created. We really have no idea if they learned or were prepared or not – we just know they don’t test as well as we want them to.

In other words, we’re still critiquing education based on the problem of education in 1870 that Cormier explains in his post linked above… but not based on where the world is today. We say that our schools are not modern, but then we say that our educational systems are failing because “students can’t regurgitate factoids on a test or in a paper.”

I still remember when I fired up my first blog and the first blog post rolled out with ease. And then another, and another. No one taught me how to write a blog post, and I certainly don’t remember ever being tested on this kind of writing… so where did it come from? Then I remembered a high school English teacher that had us write hundreds of words daily on each chapter we read in each book we read. Then I got it – that tedious lesson was not about those books, but practicing how to write freely about whatever came to mind. I was never tested on that skill…. so I never counted it as “learning” since it was never on the test or final paper.

Then there was the first time I tried PHP. I cruised through the basic and intermediate lessons with ease, realizing that all that time digging into Algebra problems solving for X was not about finding a number, but digging through problems mathematically to figure out what was missing. They just had to give me the Algebra tests to prove that I had that skill because they needed numbers to prove it.

However, I could also give you pages worth of educational activities that did not work well at all for me – I don’t want to pretend like there are no problems or that our systems are mostly okay. The point I am getting at here is that learning may or may not occurring in formal education… but we would never really know either way because our extreme focus on standardized testing is making us lose focus on what is really happening. What is driving this extreme focus?

I would submit that one major factor is fear of failure. “Failure is not an option!” Well, actually its a part of life, and a great learning experience on top of that. But we are decades into a system that breeds a fear of failure at all levels.

This fear starts with the classroom level, where good lessons on self reflection are just side activities to build writing skills (in order reach a level of passing a standardized test on parts of language, of course) rather than solid activities in and of themselves. Because we so fear failure as a culture, we have to let all learners know how they measure up against the norm. We have to grade everything. And we rarely stop to ask if these grades really mean anything. Of course, why a 70 is passing and a 69 is failing is as much a mystery as anything else. I would like to say standard deviations and all of that, but seeing that we try to get all learners to cross that passing line – so much for that.

Let’s not even go into how one child scoring a 95 on one test might actually not know the content as well as one scoring an 89. They could have just gotten lucky that day.

But here’s where it gets worse: we have to prove that a failing student is really failing to the student, the student’s parents, and the school system in general. We are so afraid of failure that we have to get who passes and who fails right… so more standardization. Not only that, we identify the quality of teachers based on pass/fail scores. Oh, and we also compare school to school, state to state, and country to country with these numbers… all because we are so afraid of failing that we have to have good enough numbers to prove that we aren’t.

So, back to Cormier’s questions: how do we get the system on board with true education reform? We have to end this fear of failure and the ensuing drive that creates a system where everything is compared against a standard of failure. At some point I would love to see a system of personalized learning that embraces failures as just another learning opportunity (and only considers failures based on personal learning goals and not the ability to get a certain score on an assignment). But this fear of failure that creates the need to set up a system that unfairly pushes all learners into the same mold (or one of six variations on this mold that we currently label “personalization”) is going to be a significant barrier. How do we undo decades and centuries worth of ingrained “grades” and “failures” and “top ten percents” and all of that kind of stuff that our systems are built on? There’s an inherent power structure there that favors the quick and early bloomers… who might not want to give up the power that this system affords them.

I have no answers there, but I do foresee some messy fights as the old system erodes and the new one raises. I don’t believe in disruption of systems as much as I believe in evolution, so here is hoping that the new system that evolves is not a regurgitated 1870s system that we got back when the system of the 1980s started evolving in the late 1990s.

DALMOOC Design and Scaffolding

Returning again to the design of DALMOOC and more specifically the visual syllabus, I wanted to take a look at the scaffolding decisions that were made. In some ways, this course was a unique challenge because we had to do some true scaffolding that could possible span several different levels of experience, from complete newbie to seasoned expert. This is different than most instances of scaffolding, because typically college curses are really more along the lines of linear constructivism than scaffolding. What I mean is this: for most courses on the college level, you assume that your learners have a prerequisite level of knowledge from either high school or earlier pre-req courses. You aren’t introducing, say, physics for the first time ever – but instead you are building on the Intro to Physics course in order to help students learn how to build rockets and predict launch patterns. So you don’t scaffold as much as take chunks of knowledge and skills and plug them into (linear constructivism) existing knowledge. This is scaffolding at the basic level, but you may or may not go beyond one level of scaffolding.

With DALMOOC, we knew that learning analytics is still new for many, but old news for some that may just want to learn some different tools. Additionally, we were adding in new technology that we knew for a fact that no one had ever used. Throw in that mix an international crowd that won’t all be speaking English and then even add the idea to create a visual syllabus (which few are familiar with). This is a tall order covering a huge range that most courses don’t have to consider.

So where to start? Well, with the first page of the syllabus. It needed to be visual, with minimal text, but clear where to start. A wall of text that basically says “start here” kind of violates a lot of what it needed to be. But if you look at anything from OLC to Quality Matters, most online course evaluation tools recommend having a clear and simple indication of where to start. What is more simple and easy to understand than a basic “1, 2, 3, etc”? I have traveled to Asia and Europe and Africa and even people who don’t know English still understand enough about our number system to know that a web page with those numbers on them would indicate you start with number 1.

Of course, a small number of people felt that this was still too confusing. I’m not sure what to say to that. You are presented with a page that says “Welcome to the Class” and then some big buttons that are labeled 1, 2, 3, etc. I’m not sure what is simpler than that.

Of course, I realize that there are those that really, really need the text because they have been programmed to look for it their whole lives. The buttons were given a rollover effect that gives a more detailed description of what they are leading to. This serves two purposes. One, it gives detailed descriptions that are there when you need them, but aren’t filling the screen and overwhelming people that are completely new. Two, they make you actually do something with the syllabus instead of just passively reading a wall of text. You have to mouse over or click on various items to get more details. This moves you from passive to (slightly) active. This was on purpose to get learners engaging more with the content on the very first page. Additionally, this idea was continued on the other various visuals.

For those that are not new to all of this, links were provided on the upper right hand corner – where they usually are on most websites. We don’t expect people to follow the path laid out for them. In fact, we encouraged learners to skip around and make their own path as needed. And that was also possible from the design.

As expected, there was some push back from a few learners (about 5-10 out of the 6,000 that were active at some point) on the design. The basic feedback was that they didn’t like the roll over effects. They wanted the text to be there without rolling over. This probably tells me that the right decision was made, because that was exactly what the rollover effects were designed to do: make the learner do something instead of passively absorbing text. Of course, there are other ways to accomplish the same goal, so other ideas might be used in the future.

The biggest challenge in describing the structure was how to explain the nature of the dual layer course. Course themes are always helpful, as the many versions of ds106 have proven. Of course, it would have been nice to have enough time to have carried out the theme for the whole class. Many of the problems with understanding the structure can probably be traced to the fact that we were not able to inject this theme throughout the entire course (of course, those problems could also come from the fact that we initially designed the daily email to be the central anchor for the course (and therefore, the place were scaffolding and structure sense-making would happen)). It seems like that aspect fell short. However, I think that a consistent theme that is carried throughout the course as a true sensemaking/guidance tool would alleviate many of these issues. Of course, scaffolding in general is a problematic concept in this dual layer approach, but that will have to be a topic for another blog post.

The theme itself was chosen early as an initial idea that ended up sticking. I think the Matrix “blue pill/red pill” theme was a good place to start, but gets a little murky once people start mixing the two and bringing in their own ideas (which is, of course, what we want). My first idea was actually a table full of play-dough – all kinds of colors just waiting for learners to pick and choose and make into whatever they like. Ultimately, this leaned too much towards my connectivism bias and was probably too unstructured for new learners who wanted instructivism. I think that a mixture of the two ideas might work as a better theme in the future: learners are initially given the choice of blue or red play-dough, but they can choose one or the other or mix together to make their own shade of purple – or bring in their own colors to create what they want.

Of course, some of the more complex ideas that were thrown around earlier, like creating scaffolding out of objectives or dynamic group formation and changing, never made it into the course. Interestingly enough, some learners (around 10-15) asked for various versions of these ideas, so they may bear exploration in the future.

Underlying these design decisions were some different theoretical perspectives that go beyond Connectivism and Instructivism (LTCA Theory, Heutagogy, Metamodernism, etc) that will need to be explored in a future blog post.

Ed Tech Retro-Futurism

Every time I read someone’s tag line or bio that self-describes themselves as an “ed tech futurist”, I chuckle a little inside. Since time only seems to move forward (as far as we can tell), aren’t we all a little bit of a futurist inside? I mean, besides thinking about what we will eat next or if we will be at the same job next year, don’t we all pay some attention to the future of technology? Whether its the next phone we want or what we want to our apps do in the future, I think we all have a futurist in us. Might as well say “I’m an oxygen-breathing human.”

Maybe its a way to say that you are trying to shape the future, or predict the future, or something along those lines. But wouldn’t that make you more of an ed tech fortune teller?

Maybe it’s just me, but every time I read about the future of ed tech, I seem to just see a newer, fancier way of getting dogs to drool when a bell rings. And I admit, I’ll be the first dog in line to drool over the Occulus Rift or anything else, but has anyone else noticed that all of the coolest tech toys are really just finding more and more realistic ways to recreate this thing we already have called “reality”? Can we just be honest about Occulus Rift and call it “Your Own Eyes 2.0″, or call 3-D printing “Stuff 2.0″?

In many ways, we haven’t as much come up with new ways to teach as much as new toys to make Pavolov’s dog happy. Its like we want to completely ignore the Clark/Kozma debate and say “Google Education will revolutionize education more than MOOCs ever did!” or something along those lines.

That’s why I tend to focus on ideas and philosophy more than gadgets and websites these days. We still haven’t gotten to a point that we are implementing some of the last truly new ideas we had from Skinner to Vygotsky to even people like Foucault and Habermas in education in transformative ways…. even though we know that they often work better than behaviorism does in many instances. No wonder we are still resistant to ideas like connectivism and heutagogy – we never got past cognitivism and pedagogy.

So, yeah – I still look more towards the ideas of the past as holding the best promise for the future, because while people are right that there really isn’t anything new per se about connectivism or heutagogy, it is an idea that takes what we’ve known really does work from the past and marries it to the way the world is today. These retro-futurist ideas give us an idea of where we need to head in the future of education by being grounded in the ideas that we never really got at any one point as a field as a whole (notable exceptions withstanding, of course).

Some would say “well, why don’t we just bring back social constructivism?” Well, for one it didn’t catch on the first time around, and two, the world has changed some since then. So we need to take the parts that worked and mix them with a healthy dose of reality. Don’t like connectivism? Well,then come up with your own idea. I would bet you will mix together a lot of the same source ideas of chaos and networked learning and so on and so forth and come to a crossroads of going idealistic (which is where the proponents of social constructivism messed up in the past), or realistic. An idealistic route is one that says “we need a lot of money and small classroom sizes and large numbers of well-trained teachers to pull this off!” While it is true that this will work, it would also work for behaviorism just as well. And guess what? Your never going to get that. So if you go the practical route of scaling learning with less resources and less money and less instructors and what do you get? Open learning, connectivism, heutagogy, etc.

All roads in education are leading to the same place no matter how much new technology we throw at them. But sometimes it seems like the new technology is actually slowing down the real progress as we focus more and more on how to get the puppies to drool faster and faster with fewer and fewer bell ringings. Maybe someday when we actually gain the ability to download factoids straight to the human brain via the Matrix, we will finally wake up and say “oh, I think we finally have this one corner of the educational experience down. What else is out there?”

In Memory of Bennie Tschoerner

One of the reasons I have been in a bad mood the past few days is that I found out a mentor of mine passed away from cancer over the weekend. Probably most of you reading this don’t know Bennie Tschoerner. He’s one of the unsung heroes of the Ed Tech world in my book. Without Benny, I probably wouldn’t have started this blog, or stuck with Ed Tech long enough to become part of the LINK Lab and therefore the dalmooc would have been very different. He was one of the first people to inspire me to go beyond the boundaries that academia imposes upon instructional designers and other non-faculty positions.

Probably most people reading this blog now come from dalmooc and may not understand what it is like being an instructional designer. You definitely do it for the enjoyment of the work and not the fame or recognition. Generally, you are relegated to being a glorified tech support position despite being trained in theory, academic writing, public speaking, team building, and many other skills. Faculty come to you 24/7 to fix every issue in their course, but rarely ask you for input on how to improve their course (and then usually ignore your advice when given). Then when you go back to them and ask for collaboration on papers or presentations, they ignore your emails, or worse yet agree and then stop replying. And of course, you lose count of how many awards are scattered across campus that were given to the instructor for the design of their class.

I still remember the day when I was quite depressed about yet another academic snub by someone when Bennie walked into my session at TxDLA. He told me he saw my presentation elsewhere and had made sure he would sign up as moderator for the rest of my sessions. Here was this guy from the Board of Directors that was taking an interest in my weird theoretical emerging technology sessions. Not only that, he was rallying people to attend them. I saw him telling people everywhere to come to my session (and many other people’s sessions, too). I went from crickets one year to standing room only the next. It was his interest in my stuff despite my lack of Ph.D. that made me think that maybe I could possibly reach others out there. So that very year I grabbed Darren and Katrina at the closing session and proposed the idea for this blog (which believe it or not, was a group blog at the beginning… and still is if the prodigal bloggers ever choose to return to open arms :).

Those of you that knew Benny also knew that he was always an a fun person to be around. And you never would have guessed by the way he acted that he was also an ASP.NET expert. I’ll miss never getting to have a faux debate over PHP vs. ASP.NET with him again. But he would never bat an eye at any new idea no matter how crazy. I’ll always remember him saying over and over again “let’s go for it – it’ll piss off the people that don’t want to change, but that probably means they need it.” If you can’t tell, he also wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was.

The biggest lesson I learned from Benny was to look past the big names and political rules in your field to see the people that are toiling away in obscurity. Out of all the people that were in line to take over from him as CIO of TxDLA, he pestered me into doing it. And I mean that – he was pretty relentless about it. But he didn’t care about who was the biggest name person in TxDLA to take over, or the person with the most political clout. He chose who he thought was best and then pushed to make it happen. And ultimately, he was wrong on that front :) My falling out with TxDLA was a direct result of following his advice… which I would still follow if I had a chance to do it again. Right advice, right person, wrong time is all. Many people don’t realize how ahead of his time he was.

One of the frustrating things about Ed Tech is how political it is. You are constantly told that its not about your abilities or intellect, but who you know, how many publications you have, how many millions or billions of dollars you get in grants, how prestigious of a university you work for, and other things like that. Things that are only options for a select group of people (mostly white males) that get the fewer and fewer opportunities to go down that path. In a lot of ways, Benny was the Ratatouille of Ed Tech, believing that a great idea could come from any sector. People like that are few and far between, and his can-do attitude will be sorely missed.

Who MOOCed My Cheese?

Conversations behind the scenes with the DALMOOC have turned to looking at the kind of feedback we have been getting on the course. George Siemens shared some of the things that he learned the first week. His post also deals with some of the feedback we have received.

The hard part with dealing with feedback is that most of us end up with a skewed view of it after a while. Positive feedback is usually pretty general and therefore easy to forget because its not very specific. Everything from “this looks great!” to “I am loving this!” to “I really like what you are doing here” serves as great feedback, but because of the general nature and lack of specifics tend to be easily forgotten. Negative feedback tends to be specific and direct. This makes it a lot easier to remember. People will tell you exactly what they don’t like and a dozen reasons why they don’t like it.

Because of this skew, the negative feedback tends to stick in our mind more easily and we also tend to get the impression that there is more negative than positive. This becomes a problem when we begin to make design decisions based on gut feelings rather than hard numbers. If you count up the positive and negative feedback, which one is higher? If you take a qualitative look at what was said, is there anything helpful either way? Saying “I love this” really just indicates a personal preference more than an actual analysis that a designer should take into consideration. In the same way, “I don’t like this” is also really just a personal preference that really doesn’t tell us much about design. Learning is not all puppy dogs and fairy tales – sometimes you have to create situations where learners have to choose to stretch and grow in order to learn. There is nothing wrong with some struggle in learning. Often, complaints about learners not liking something are actually good indicators that your design is successful.

If you disagree, that is fine. But don’t design anything that involves group work. A lot of people hate group work and if you create a lesson that requires group work, you have just acknowledged that sometimes you have to struggle through group dynamics in order to learn whether you like it or not :)

But sometimes when someone says “I don’t know what to do with this tool!” what they are really saying is “I am not sure what to do and I don’t want to try because in the past there have been huge penalties for trying and getting it wrong on the first try!” This is a sad indication of our educational systems in general. We don’t make it okay to experiment, fail, and learn from failure.  The reason so many people demand more tutorials, more hand-holding, more guidance is not because they afraid of chaos as much as they are afraid that they will get their hand slapped for not getting it right the first time. This is likely due to it almost always happening in the past.

So in something like DALMOOC, where you are free to get in and experiment and fail as much as you want to, most of us have been conditioned to panic in that kind of scenario. That’s what our excessive focus on instructivism does to us as a society. People are afraid to play around and possibly fail for a while. They want to know the one right way to do something, with 10 easy steps for doing it right the first time.

So, in a lot of ways, much of the feedback we are getting is along the lines of “who moved my cheese?” And that was expected. We are trying to jump in and explain things to those who are confused as much as possible. We are hoping that those who are bringing up personal preferences as negatives will see that we had to design for the widest range of learners. Or maybe to see that if they still figured something out, that this thing actually worked as designed (because its not always about personal preferences as much as learning).

But, to be quite honest, an objective examination of all feedback would seem to indicate that most of it is positive. Many of you like the challenges and the struggles. That is great – you get it. Most of the positive and negative feedback is along the lines of personal preferences – you don’t like rollover effects, you love Bazaar, this optional assignment is too hard, this required one is too easy. I’ll continue blogging on design decisions to clarify why they were made – not to justify them as right (instructional design is rarely about black and white, right and wrong decisions anyways), but to explain why they were made. And there are some genuine complaints about confusion that we are addressing.

Just as us instructors and designers can develop a negative skew, so can the learners. They can see a few specific negative tweets in a sea of general positive tweets and start to think “wow – maybe I should be having more problems?” Don’t worry – most people are doing just fine. Problems, praises, issues, suggestions, and complaints are welcome, but just remember they don’t necessarily apply to you as a learner. You are free to love or hate any part of the course you wish. You are also free to pick and choose the parts of the course you participate in, so don’t waste time with something that isn’t working for you. But also be careful not to label something as “not working for you” just because you don’t like it or are struggling with it. Sometimes the struggle is the exact thing that you need in order to learn.

MOOCs and Codes of Conduct

Even before the whole GamerGate thing blew up, I had been considering adding a Code of Conduct to the DALMOOC. UTA has always required an Honor Code in all course syllabuses, so to me this issue was a no-brainer (even though we aren’t treating DALMOOC as a specific UTA-only course). But I know others don’t see the need for Codes in general, so I wanted to dig more into the reasoning behind a Code of Conduct for online courses – especially MOOCs.

I know some feel that you can’t really stop bad people with just a statement, and that usually the community will rise up to get rid of the abusers and trolls anyways. Sometimes both of those are true. But not always.

I have been a part of Facebook groups that did not have a code and ended up leaving. You would think the group would have risen up to stop people from being abusive, but that was not the case. And when I spoke up? Well, it quickly became time to leave. I have also been in some groups that did have a code in them and witnessed first hand seeing someone asked to comply with the code and – believe it or not – they stopped, apologized, and changed. It does work sometimes.

But other times it doesn’t. So you can’t just say “be cool to everyone” and leave it at that. There has to be a threat of consequences from the people in charge for the Code to have teeth. The problem with using the UTA Honor Code in a MOOC was that it was designed for a small group of people in a closed system where you can ultimately with one click boot out people that don’t comply. And then send the police after them if they don’t get the message. Open online courses, though? A lot trickier to enforce.

So, I turned to the work of Ashe Dryden and her recommendations for conference codes of conduct. Since conferences are a bit more open than closed online courses, I thought that would be a good place to start. I also decided to add links to the privacy statements of all services we recommend, as well as links to reporting abuse on those services. I felt people needed to be aware of these issues, as well as know what one place to go to access the, all. If I should add anything else, please let me know.

So you might wonder why the language is so specific on the Code. Just tell people to be cool or else your out, right? The problem is that this is too vague. Some people can be very abusive in a way that flies under the radar of most gatekeepers, because they are looking for obvious hateful words and actions. True abusers have found ways to go under the radar. So we need to be as specific as possible in these codes as a way to empower our learning communities to know what to look for in the first place. You can’t just expect the community to rise up and fight abusers – you have to give them the tools and words to use in order to fight. And one of those tools needs to be an appeal to authority. You see, its one thing to say “I think you are being abusive, stop” and another to say “the rules say this: _____.” Trust me from experience: abusers rarely care when you come in and say “stop treating this person that way because I think you are wrong.” If we want our communities to rise up and stop abuse, we have to empower them with the tools and words they need from us as the leaders. Yes, they are able to come up with their own words; however, it is much more powerful when their words match ours instead of fill in our blanks.

And I know what many say: “this will never happen – I have never seen abuse happening in classes.” I hope that is true. But I would encourage you to look into recent cyber bullying research. Many people that experience abuse do not speak up because they feel no one will listen. So is the fact that you have never heard of abuse online a sign that there is none, or that no one thinks you are a safe person to discuss the issues with? An important difference there.

Think of it this way. The DALMOOC has over 18,000 people signed up last I heard. That is more people than thousands of small towns in America. Thousands of towns that also have a crime rate and an abuse rate. If even small towns can’t escape from attracting criminals and abusers, how sure are we that our MOOCs will?

And oh yeah: #stopgamergate. Call me a SJW or whatever you want. I wear it proudly.

Social Learning, Blending xMOOCs & cMOOCs, and Dual Layer MOOCs

For those who missed it, the Data, Analytics, and Learning MOOC (DALMOOC) kicked off orientation this week with two hang-outs – one as a course introduction and one as a discussion over course design. Also, the visual syllabus, the precursor of which you saw here in various blog posts, is now live. The main course kicks off on Monday – so brace yourselves for impact!

The orientation sessions generated some great discussion, as well as raised a few questions that I want to dive into here. The first question is one that came about from my initial blog posts (but continued into the orientation discussion), the second is related to the visual syllabus, and the third is in relation to the Hangout orientation sessions themselves:

  • Don’t most MOOCs blend elements of xMOOCs and cMOOCs together? The xMOOC/cMOOC distinction is too simple and DALMOOC is not really doing anything different.
  • Are the colors on the Tool flow chart mixed up? Blue is supposed to represent traditional instructivist instruction, but there are social tools in blue.
  • Isn’t it ironic to have a Google Hangout to discuss an interactive social learning course but not allow questions or interaction?

All great points, and I hope to explain a bit more behind the course design mindset that influenced these issues.

The first question goes back to the current debate over whether there are really any differences between xMOOCs or cMOOCs or whether this is a false binary (or not). I have blogged about that before, and continued by pointing out that the xMOOC/cMOOC distinction is not really about “binary” at all as much as where certain factors cluster (more specifically, power). I submitted a paper to AREA this year (that I hope gets accepted) with my major professor Dr. Lin that was basically a content analysis of the syllabuses from 30 MOOCs. I noticed that there were clusters of factors around xMOOCs and xMOOCs that didn’t really cluster in other ways. I am now working on some other studies that look at power issues and student factors like motivation and satisfaction. It seems like not matter what factor I look at, there still appears to be clusters around two basic concepts – xMOOCs and cMOOCs. But we will see if the research ends up supporting that.

So from my viewpoint (and I have no problem if you disagree – we still need research here), there are no hard fast lines between xMOOCs and cMOOCs. The real distinction between the xMOOCs and cMOOCs is where various forms of power (expert, institutional, oneself, etc) reside. For example, was any particular course designed around the students as source of expert power, or the instructor? You can have content in a course that has the student at the center. You can also have social tools in a course that sets the instructor as the center.

Our guiding principle with the DALMOOC was that there is nothing wrong with either instructivism / instructor-centered or connectivism / student-centered as long as the learner has the ability to choose which one they desire at any given moment.

That is also the key difference between our goal with course design and how most other blended xMOOC/cMOOCs are designed. Most blended MOOCs (bMOOCs? Sounds like something from the 80s) usually still have one option / one strand for learning. The content and the social aspects are part of the same strand that all learners are required to go through. Remember, just adding social elements to a course does not make it a social learning, student-centered, connectivist course (especially if you add 20 rules for the forum, 10 rules for blog entries, and then don’t allow other avenues beyond that). In the same manner, just adding some content or videos or one-way Hangout sessions does not make a cMOOC an instructor-centered, instructivist course.

Our design goal was to provide two distinct, separate layers that allow the learner to choose either one or the other, or both for the whole class, or mix the two in any manner they want. But the choice is up to the learner.

And to be clear, I don’t think there is anything wrong with blendedMOOCs. Some are brilliantly designed. Our goal with DALMOOC was just different from the blended approach.

So this goal led to the creation of a visual syllabus to help myself and others visualize how the course works. One comment that arose is that the colors on the tool flow page (explained here) are mixed up: the Quick Helper and Bazaar tools (explained here by George Siemens) are in blue and should be in red. I get that concern, but I think it goes back to my view of the distinction between xMOOCs and cMOOCs. The red color is not “social only” and the blue color is not “content only,” as some would classify the difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs. The colors are about where the expert power lies. Quick Helper might have social aspects to it, but the main goal is to basically crowd-source course help when learners are trying to understand content or activities. And it is a really cool tool – I love both Quick Helper and Bazaar (and ProSolo, but the orientation Hangout for that one is coming up). But the focus of Quick Helper is to help learners understand the content and instructor-focused activities (again, nothing wrong with that since the choice is up to the learner to give that expert power to the instructor). In the same way, the Bazaar tool is social, but has a set of prompts that are written by the instructor for learners to follow.

I hope that clears that up a bit – the colors indicate where the expert power resides in the design – neither of which are bad in our design. Of course, you as the learner might use these tools differently than that and we are okay with that, too.

The third question is about the irony of using a Google Hangout to explain a student-centered course and then not allow any interaction. I kind of snickered at that one because I usually say the same thing at conference keynotes that talk about interactive learning but then don’t allow for interaction. So it sounds exactly like something I would say. Of course, at keynotes, you usually have the totality of the examination of that topic at that one keynote and then the speaker is gone. A course is different, obviously. But in explaining our reasoning for this issue I would point back to the differences between cMOOCs and xMOOCs and again bring up the point that being student-centered and connectivist does not mean that there are never any times of broadcast from the instructor. A 30 minute Hangout with no interaction fits into a student-centered mindset just fine as long as you don’t see hard fast lines between paradigms.

But I would also point out that the Google Hangout format is too limited for interaction at scale. You are only allowed 10 people in the actual Hang-out. In addition to that, going over 30 minutes gets a bit tedious, and you can’t really do much interaction with learners in 30 minutes even when using the Q&A feature. Not to mention that 30 minute window is set in stone – if a learner misses it because of work or different time zone or whatever: “no interaction for you!” Using a Google Hangout for a global course would be like being the ultimate “Interaction Nazi.” We also noticed a 30-60 second lag between live and broadcast, so that also hampers interaction. Howver, the biggest reason was that we were really looking at ProSolo, Twitter, our Facebook Page, and our Google+ Page as the true avenues for interaction with these Hangouts. Those avenues were active before, during, and after the Hangout for people in any time zone. So the interactivity was there during the orientation sessions, and you actually did see us responding to things from the social channels in both Hangouts. This may change in future Hangouts. The instructors may open up the Q&A function of Hangout. We’ll see.

So, if you have questions about DALMOOC content or design, be sure to post them to social avenues. Or comment here about this post. I am behind on comments (and blogging) due to the looming course launch, but I will get caught up :)