Ed Tech Skeuomorphs and Dual Layer MOOCs

Have you ever wondered where those tiny handles come from on some maple syrup bottles? The ones that are too little for most fingers that are strong enough to lift the bottle? This is a specific example of a skeuomorph – something that retains design elements from structures that were only necessary in the original design. Recently I read a random article about maple syrup bottles that reminded me of this word, and made me think how we have so many of these in ed tech.

Many LMSs are full of skeuomorphs. The LMS itself might be in danger of becoming a skeuomorph. We have tools online that host content much better. We have better tools for facilitating interaction. We certainly have tools that are more ADA compliant. We have better tools for creating social presence. We have better methods for protecting privacy online. And so on.

Of course, what might be a skeuomorph to one may not be a skeuomorph to another. Those that have some experience in a topic might find a linear instructivist path through course content to be a skeuomorphic design paradigm that hinders their ability to determine their own learning. A person that is new to the topic might find it a perfect fit.

Maybe I am stretching the analogy of skeuomorphs in Ed Tech a bit too far. But the reason I love the dual layer design that we have been working on with various LINK lab MOOCs is that it allows those that need certain design elements to still utilize them, while others that find them to be left over design structures from when they needed more instructivism (and now don’t) can skip them and dig into a more relevant learning designs.

The problem with our first stab at the dual-layer model was that the interface was too complex and difficult for many participants to find what they needed in the moment. So the next set of MOOCs to utilize a dual-layer design will focus on simplification of that user interface. What is needed is a system that will direct learners who need guidance and instruction to that instruction, while those that already know the content to some degree – who might find an instructivist path to be skeuomorphic – are led to the more connectivist, sense-making, chaotic side.

On one level – this is pretty easy. Find a clean, minimalist WordPress theme, remove a few elements that still might be distracting, and set it to only display the most recent post. That post will contain the basic outline of what needs to be accomplished that week, links to the the place where the two layers will occur, and links to previous posts for those that are behind. The other level that is more difficult is working behind the scenes to make sure that all of the tools that support the various layers integrate in a seamless way for a smooth end user experience. Well, not necessarily difficult as much as time consuming to map out logically and then program. Anyone that knows programming knows that is can happen as long as the tools that are used are willing to co-operate (and many are).

Looking at the graphic used in the previous dual-layer DALMOOC, this simplified interface would be in place of the “Main Weekly Email” at the top. There would also need to be some work to make sure that all of the tools in the rest of the diagram work seamlessly. This structure would probably also mean running a lot of the main registration and log-ins through this simplified interface (which may or may not be okay with some entities involved). Instructional design would also need some tweaking to make sure that the design also flows smoothly.

edugeek-journal-avatarThe basic idea is to simplify the end user experience as much as possible to let each participant decide how much complexity to add, what path to take, what is skeuomorphic to them in their context, and how to connect with others in the course.

(image credit: Sara Karges, obtained from


Structuring the Initial Week of a MOOC (or An Online Course)

One of the topics that we get asked frequently about MOOCS is how to structure the initial / first / orientation week (including everything from the design of the syllabus to the “on-boarding” / scaffolding process to introductory content). And for good reason – that first series of interactions can seriously influence large numbers of learners to keep going or give up. Obviously, since you created the course, you want people to continue going and not give up. I can go through what we did with dalmooc and then offer some ideas that arose from that process.

Our general strategy was to have an orientation week (or “week 0″) before the first week of class officially started that was dedicated to on-boarding people with the course design and structure. This is generally when people would be looking at the syllabus anyways. But the reason that we didn’t make that Week 1 was that many people who take MOOCs are so self-directed that they are ready to jump in an figure it out as they go along (or advanced enough with MOOCs that there is nothing to figure out). We knew that we had to balance the needs of the new learners with the desires of experienced learners, without alienating either group or those in between. Having to sit through a bunch of orientation videos the first week would just chase off several advanced learners. They might intend to come back later, but that break in momentum would mean that many won’t. So the orientation was shifted to pre-course.

This orientation was basically a series of videos and Google Hangouts that covered course structure, introductions, a design, and assessments. I know that many courses do not cover the design process, but I am glad we did. In my opinion, part of creating an open course means that you also cover the design process. This way people can easily replicate your work at a later date. Here are the videos and Hangout archives for those that are curious:





The week 1 video was moved up to week 0 because we felt that it fit better in that spot, and the assessment video was created to answer some FAQs about that topic. These videos mainly served as ways to introduce the instructors and basic topics to the participants as well as to expand on the visual syllabus.

I have discussed the visual syllabus in this blog in several places. Some of the relevant posts to this topic are listed here:

Other posts in that series might also be of interest for other reasons depending on where you are in the design process. George Siemens’ reflection on the first week of DALMOOC also covers many issues that affected our design decisions and highly recommend reading his reflections.

A couple of quick notes about the technical side of creating the visual syllabus (which you can skip if you are not interested). It was built utilizing a self-hosted WordPress installation using the incredible services of Reclaim Hosting. We used the Pictorico theme, but I customized / hacked the front page that you see. I basically copied the source code from the original theme home page to a new file (index.html), cut out the distracting elements, and added the parts you see. Those are technically square images on the front page, but I used Fireworks to add a circle overlay to make them easier to distinguish. I also added the numbers in Fireworks, and found the background/header images on The diagrams throughout the syllabus were also built in Fireworks (PhotoShop, GIMP, or other graphics programs would also work – probably even better) and sliced into squares to add the pop-up links. Those pop-ups are a WordPress plug-in called Fancybox that works well..

So, enough of the technical side. The actual instructional design of the syllabus is the important factor. George Siemens really wanted the visual syllabus aspect for dalmooc. He wanted to avoid the wall of text. I also went for scaffolding the syllabus in a way that should be easy for completely new learners to tell where to start, but had enough there to guide more experienced MOOC participants to the parts they wanted. Too much text on the first page would still mean “wall of text.” So the roll-over effect for those first page images (they came as part of the theme we picked) were perfect – you get the info when you need it, but its not there to stress you out when you don’t need it.

The visual diagram might seem to be a necessity for a complex course design like the dual-layer design, but in reality I would say that every course really needs one. Don’t assume that your learners can visualize your course flow just because it seems simple to you. What you see as simple might be due to a cultural norm that doesn’t translate to other cultures (not only your social/geographical culture but also your institution’s institutional culture).

I’m also a fan or roll overs and pop-ups that expand the content (as you can tell). That really helps with not only the new learners that need scaffolding, but also with non-linear thinkers that want to remix your intended order on the spot. With Federated Wikis gaining momentum, I think this ability to reorganize content as the learner sees fit will be a big deal. While pop-ups aren’t truly “remixable” content, they do allow a pick-and-choose method that comes close.

The general idea for the design of the syllabus was to scaffold participants into the overall structure of the course: start with “basic” and go deeper and deeper into various levels. Additionally, I took a cue from Jim Groom and DS106 and utilized a visual metaphor for the course. DS106 uses these metaphors (ds106zone, thewire106, etc) to add personality and presence to courses. Yes, even a course itself can have presence. Time constraints kept us from carrying this metaphor through the rest of the course, but I would suggest any course take this idea and fully implement it.

So to wrap up with some final thoughts on design and the first week of a MOOC (which could also apply to any course, really):

  • Never assume that something makes sense to everyone just because they signed up for your course. Keep the complete newbies in mind as much as the self-directed learners. Too many college courses are designed more on the self-directed learner end. Which means you probably end up explaining a lot of the same basic stuff over and over and over again, right? Think about it.
  • At the same time, don’t force the self-directed learners to go through everything that the newbies need to. Consider non-linear learning paths, dual-layer approaches, connectivism, etc. If you don’t have access to something like Ning or ProSolo to accomplish the connectivist layer, you can always use something like the BuddyPress plug-in for WordPress or a self-hosted installation of Known to accomplish the same structure.
  • While visual and video elements are important for breaking up content, don’t forget that not everyone has perfect sight. Keep accessibility mandatory.

edugeek-journal-avatarI think I am leaving out a few ideas that I had on this issue, but this post is already long enough. If you have any questions on specific design decisions or technical details, I would be glad to answer them. With access to a good instructional designer, knowledge of basic html, and basic experiences with a graphics program you should be able to accomplish much of what we did in your MOOC orientation/syllabus.

(image credit: Flavio Takemoto, obtained from


Why Your Institution Needs Open Online Courses

I will be the first to admit that there are some good reasons to hate MOOCs. The problem that I run into, however, is that when I talk to people that don’t like MOOCs, none of those good reasons are on their list. You usually hear default arguments about drop-out rates, lack of feedback, cost, etc. Not that those aren’t valid issues, its just that the way most people look at those issues are flawed. Most of those flaws have been effectively addressed in research papers and blog posts.

What I would generally say in response to the people that don’t like MOOCs is 1) forget the term MOOC and 2) just focus on the idea of open online courses and why you need them. No matter what your institution is, if you are in education, I would say you need to be doing at least some experimenting with open online courses… and I mean fully open courses, not just ones that are an extension of a college course (i.e. some of your learners are earning credit).

The “killer value” (in my opinion) from a design standpoint with open online courses is that all of the learning is voluntary. No one is holding a carrot of “grades” or “passing for credit” in front of the learners. By investigating what happens in your own open online course, you can see first hand what works and what doesn’t when learners have to be purely intrinsically motivated. This research into practical application can then directly influence the design of your traditional classes. What do the successful parts of open online courses tell you about learners in your institution’s courses? What does learning look like when threats of institutional punishment are removed from the equation? If something doesn’t work in an open online course, should you really consider that a “good” learning design in a traditional course? Sure, you can force them to do whatever you want with the threat of failure – but how effective is that for authentic learning?

Faculty – think about this: what does it tell you about your abilities as an instructor when you are teaching an open course and can no longer rely on graded discussion boards to connect with learners? What does it tell you about your ability to foster community when you can’t force learners to reply to at least two other threads? Think of all that you can learn about yourself and teaching in general from teaching in an open online course.

Sure, you can read the research about these issues and glean some insights from the literature. But those papers are not written in your unique context. Some factors are going to be different in some major way. You really need to know these issues within the context of your institution, your faculty, your class, your instructional designers, your students (and potential students), etc.

edugeek-journal-avatarI would even go so far as to say that every instructor that teaches online should be required to teach at least one open online course every other year or so – maybe even more often. It really is an eye-opening experience.

(Quick note: I realize that there are many, many other killer values out there for open online courses – I am just highlighting one that has been on my mind for a while.)

(image credit: Sanja Gjenero, obtained from


Rant Up, Rant Down, or Learn To Rant Better?

Interesting post recently from Jesse Stommel that basically takes The Chronicle to task for allowing people to mock students in an open, official section of their website. I have never really been to the “Dear Student” column, and I am glad that I haven’t. Student shaming really isn’t any better than any other form of cyber bullying.

However, I do have another concern about the post, or I guess I should say with some of the responses to the post. When Stommel says “rant up, not down”, he clarifies it later in a comment that probably gets buried in the long list: “I agree that we need to have open discussion about real concerns, but there are better ways to have those conversations than stereotyping, mocking, and belittling.” The point is not to tell instructors to just stop discussing their concerns, but to learn how to discuss them in a productive way without ranting. And if you have to rant, do what most professionals do and keep it private.

A lot of the response that I have seen to the blog post really focus on that “rant up, not down” part. This is where I would be careful – I was at a University in the 90s that had a leadership change that took this approach. While I generally liked the new president that came in, he did go too far into shutting down faculty concerns…. and the students knew it. The campus went from having a fairly challenging learning experience to one that barely pushed us at all.

Education needs to be challenging sometimes. We need to struggle and be pushed at times. When students know they can complain in the right way and get the faculty in trouble, it creates a weird power dynamic. I remember other students plotting how to get their instructors in trouble when they decided an assignment was too hard. For people like me that really wanted to learn, being stuck in a group assignment with these bums was horrible.

The things is, I know that when you put all of the power in the instructor”s court, you usually create a high stakes system where learners become afraid of failing. Failure usually has dire consequences in power imbalanced systems, so cheating is usually rampant and students rarely take chances. They just want to know what exactly they have to do to pass. Sound familiar?

But if you swing the other way, and imbalance the power towards the students, this creates a system that makes the instructors afraid to push and challenge learners. Learning becomes stale and watered down, taught in way that makes everyone happy with their grades. That probably sounds familiar, too.

The reason these two sides sound familiar is because our educational systems often swing like a pendulum between the two. There is always a power imbalance in some direction, causing major issues.

edugeek-journal-avatarThe goal for education should be a fairly balanced share of power for all involved. This balance of power would actually be empowering for all involved. So, please make sure that in reading articles like Stommels (and I agree with his demands that The Chronicle pull the column and apologize) that you don’t advocate for a swing in power that will cause imbalances in education.

(image credit: Gozde Otman, obtained from


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.”

(image credit: Mirjana Novakovic, obtained from

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?”