AI at the Crossroads

If you pay attention to all of the hype and criticism of AI – well, you are super human. But if you try to get a good sampling of what is actually out there, you probably noticed that there are growing concerns (and even some surprising abandonments) of AI. This is just part of what always happens with Ed-Tech trends – I won’t get into various hype models or claims of “it is different this time.” Trying to prove that a trend is “different this time” is actually just part of regular trend cycle anyways.

But like all trends before it, AI is quickly approaching a crossroads that all trends faced. This crossroads really has nothing to do with which way the usage numbers are going or who can prove what. Like MOOCs, Second Life, Google Wave, and other trends before it – AI is seeing a growing criticism movement that has made many people doubt its future. Where will AI go once it does hit this crossroad? Well, only time will tell – but there are three general possibilities.

The first option is to follow the MOOC path – a slight fall from popularity (even though many numbers didn’t ever show a decrease in usage) that results in a soft landing as a background tool used by many – but far from the popular trend that gets all of the grant money. Companies like edX and Coursera saw the dwindling MOOC hype coupled with rising criticism, They were able to spin off something that is still used by millions every day – but essentially is not driving really much of anything in education anymore. Their companies are there, they are growing – but most people don’t pay much attention to them really.

The second option is to follow the Second Life path of virtual worlds – a pretty hard fall from grace, with a pretty hard landing… but one they still survived and were able to keep going (to this day). Will VR revive virtual worlds? Probably not – but many will try. This option means the trend is kind of still there, but few seem to notice or care any more.

The third option is the Google Wave route – the company just ignore the signs and keep going full speed until suddenly it all falls apart one day. Go out in a whimper of not-too much glory… suddenly.

Where will AI fall? Its hard to say really. My guess is that it will be somewhere between option one and two, but closer to option one. There are some places where AI is useful – but no where near as many places as the AI enthusiasts think it is. Like MOOCs, I think the numbers will still grow despite people moving on to the next “innovative trend” – as people always do. But there is enough momentum to avoid option two, while just enough caution and critics out there to avoid option three. But I could be wrong.

How do I know this is happening with AI? Well, you really can’t know for sure – but it has happened with every educational technology trend. Even the ones that barely became a trend like learning analytics. Some of it just comes from paying attention to Twitter or whatever its called now. Even though that is dying as well. Listening to what people are saying – both good and bad – is something that you won’t get from news releases or hype.

But still, you can look at publications, blogs, and even the news to see that the criticism of AI is growing. People are noticing the problems with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc in the outputs. People are noticing that the quality of output isn’t as great as some claim once you move past the simplistic examples utilized in demos and start using it in real life. Yes, people are getting harmed and killed by it (not just referring to the Tesla self-driving AI running over people here, but that one should have been enough). Companies are starting to turn against it – some are doing so quietly after disappointing results, just so they can avoid public embarrassment. Students are starting to talk about starting lawsuits against schools that use AI – they were promised a real-world education and don’t feel AI generated content (especially case studies) counts as “real world.” Even when the output is reviewed by real humans… they do have a point.

Of course, there is always the promise that AI will get better – and I guess, it is true that the weird third hands and mystery body parts that keep appearing in AI art are becoming mostly photo realistic. Never mind that they just can’t seem to correct the core problem of extra body parts despite decades of “improvements” in image generation. Content generation still makes the same mistakes it did decades ago with getting the idea correct, but at least it doesn’t make typos any more I guess?

A major part of the problem is that AI developers are often not connected to the real world contexts their tools need to be used in. When you see headlines about “AI is better that humans at creativity” or “AI just passed this course,” you are usually assaulted by a head-desk inducing barrage of how AI developers misunderstanding core concepts of education. Courses were designed for humans without “photographic memory” as well as those that are not imbued with The Flash-level speed to search through the entire Internet. AI by definition is cheating at any course or test it takes because it has instant access to every bit of information it has been trained on. Saying it ever “passed” a test or course is silliness on the level of academic fraud.

I could also go off on the “tests” they use to see if AI is “creative.” These tests are complete misunderstandings of what creativity is or how you use it. It is kind of true that there is nothing new under the sun, so human tests of creativity are actually testing an individual’s novelty at coming up with a solution that they have never seen before for the rope, box, pencil, and candle they give them for the test.  AI by definition can never pass a creativity test because it is just not able to come up with novel ideas when it has seen them all and can instantly pull them up.

Don’t listen to anyone that claims AI can “pass” a test or “do better than humans” at a test or course – that is a fraudulent claim disconnect from reality.

There is also the issue of OpenAI/ChatGPT running out of funding pretty soon. Maybe they will get more, but they also might not. It is actually a slight possible that one day ChatGPT just won’t be there (and suddenly all kinds of AI services secretly running ChatGPT in the background will also be exposed). If I had a job that depended on ChatGPT completely – I would begin to look elsewhere possibly.

Even Instructional Design is showing some concerning signs that AI is fast approaching this inevitable crossroad. So many demonstrations of “AI in ID” just come down to using AI to create a basic level course in AI. We are told that this can reduce creation of a draft of a course to something wildly short like 36 hours.

However – when you are talking about Intro to Chemistry classes, or Economics 101 type courses – there are already thousands of those classes out there. Most new or adjunct instructors are given an existing course that they have to teach. Even if not – why take 36 hours to create a draft when you can usually copy an existing course shell from the publisher in a minute or less? Most IDs know that the bulk of design work comes from revising the first draft. Plus, most instructors reject pre-designed templates because they want to customize it the way they want. If they have been rejecting pre-designed textbook resource materials for decades, they aren’t going to accept AI generated materials. And I haven’t even touched on the fact that so much ID work is on more specific courses that don’t have a ton of material out there because they are so specific. AI won’t be able to do much for those because they don’t have near as much material to train on.

And don’t get me started on all of those “correct the AI output” assignments. Fields that have never had a “correct the text” assignments are suddenly utilizing these… for what? Their field doesn’t even need people to correct text now. It’s just a way to shoehorn new tech into courses to look “innovative.” If your field actually will need to correct AI output, then you are one of the few that need to be training people to do this. Most fields will not.

All of this technology-first focus just emphasizes the problems that have existed for decades with technology-worship. Wouldn’t things like a “Blog-First University” or a “Google-First Hospital” have sounded ridiculous back when those tools were trends? Putting any technology first generally is a bad idea no matter what that technology is.

But ultimately, the problem here is not the technology itself. AI (for the most part) just sits on computers somewhere until someone tells it what to do. Even those AI projects that are coming up with their own usage where first told to do that by someone. The problem – especially in education – is just who that someone is. Because in the world of education, it will be the same people it always has been making the calls.

The same people that have been gatekeeping and cannibalizing and surveilling education for decades will be the ones to call the shots with what we do with AI in schools. They will still cause the same problems with AI – only faster and more accurate I guess. The same inequalities will be perpetrated. It will more of the same, probably just intensified and sped up. I mean, a well-worshipped grant foundation researched their own impact and found no positive impact, but the education world just yawned and kept their hands extended for more of that sweet, sweet grant funding.

As many problems as there are with AI itself, even if someone figures out how to fix them… the people in charge will still continue to cause the same problems they always have. And there are some good people working on many of the problems with AI. Unfortunately, they aren’t the ones that get to make the call as to how AI is utilized in education. It will be the same people that hold the power now, causing the same problems they always have. But too few care as long as they get their funding.

Are We in the Upside Down? Course Hero, Lumen Learning, and All Kinds of Strange Things are Afoot in Ed-Tech

In my last post on The Quick(ish) Guide to Why Some People Don’t Like Course Hero, I stated that I really didn’t want to get into the controversy surrounding recent hirings at Course Hero. That was easy to say when it was just one head-scratching hire, but other things have happened since then that make it hard not to dive in somewhat. But just somewhat!

Part of the problem is that I have been waiting to see what big announcements Course Hero might make about upcoming changes. That hasn’t happened – but surely they have something up their sleeve? They make the claim that empowering students is in their DNA – but that isn’t true in it’s current form. Students can upload content – but its almost always content that others (usually instructors or content companies) have created. There is no real power in that – the students really have no say what is contained in that content. The instructor or company does. When students can upload something of their own creation that then becomes part of a class – that would be empowerment.

But why would they need Course Hero for that? They can already upload content to blogs, Google Drive, Dropbox, Discord, you name any one of hundreds of services. There is nothing special about yet another file hosting service – so either Course Hero has no idea what they are talking about, or there is a big change planned to their core model in the near future.

Even their core product – offering answers to assessments/assignments/etc – is not truly empowering for students. Students just take the answers and turn their course work in without learning the content… so at best Course Hero is extractive for students, not empowering.

Sadly, it has been difficult to get Course Hero to address this issue without deflecting to systemic issues. Of course the systemic issues are real and need to be dealt with – but Ed-Tech critics should know better than to deflect to systemic issues when they work for a company that quite literally drives the adversarial relationship between students and teachers. Giving away answers to anything and everything just adds more pressure to students to cheat. Not to mention that Course Hero’s access model creates even more pressure for students to steal content. Well… or to at least do something like that….

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Additionally, Course Hero is also looking to work with instructors. But to do what? Host files? Instructors already have an LMS for that, along with all of the above-mentioned file hosting services. As it stands right now, instructors don’t really need anything new for hosting files or content. So surely they have something else planned, right?

As many have pointed out, there is a need for “reputation-washing” for a company like Course Hero. They are seen as a cheating site that pays little attention to following the law. There probably is something to this – many people have privately expressed irritation at several well-known educators that have defended Course Hero. But they are friends with these people, and don’t want to harm the friendship. I get that. It makes the world feel upside down, and its hard to know how to navigate this weird new situation.

So this leads to the reputation-washing whether Course Hero is wanting it or not. If you look at something like UngradingCon, many of the Session Leaders would probably boycott the conference if they were listed along with the CEO of Course Hero. But when listed with a friend or personal hero that has also aggressively defended Course Hero? Its a lot harder to know what to do when that person is a friend/mentor. Most would still question whether Course Hero and ungrading are a good mix. Like I said in my other post: “I really don’t see a way that Course Hero could co-exist with ungrading, or if students would even bother to use it if grades were low-stakes in any way.”

Certainly there is a lot of value into getting your company into spaces that they wouldn’t be welcome other wise. Even though Course Hero isn’t a strong match for the ungrading world, they are now a part of that community (like it or not).

But surely that is not the whole game plan, right?

Several people recently started to notice that some links to OER resources hosted on the Lumen Learning website started to redirect to the same content on Course Hero. It doesn’t seem like there was an announcement – it just happened. And yes, it was a weird change – Course Hero doesn’t always follow open licenses very well (according to some – the company disagrees). Steel Wagstaff of PressBooks seems to have uncovered the most information about what is going on here.

As several people have noted – Course Hero is blocked on many campuses. It doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to then realize what could happen here:

Another factor to consider – some of central figures at Lumen Learning have been laying the ground work for a partnership with for-profit Ed-Tech companies:

And yes, it is problematic to imply that people who might disagree with partnering with for-profits are “close-minded.” I risk the wrath of some of DW’s fervent defenders by pointing this out, but its not an attack to point out that less problematic language could have been chosen here.

Of course, since Course Hero does not have a reputation in some circles for protecting students very well, some instructors are not happy about having their content moved to Course Hero (and especially with out ever being told that the content was being moved). Other services are stepping up to offer alternatives, again proving that Course Hero is not offering a service that is unique in itself.

And then there are other wild, strange things going on as well that I am not sure exactly where they fit in the post, but they still do somehow:

So far, it seems that Course Hero is working on getting access to conferences, school servers, and circles of respect that they didn’t have in the past. But the questions still remains… for what purpose? Course Hero does not empower students, they don’t offer a service that instructors can’t get elsewhere, and they aren’t the best place to host OER content. But this is how they are starting to promote their services – even though we know their employees and spokespeople know better. But they also know what is discussed behind closed doors, so you have to wonder what is coming down the pipe to make them start saying these things? Until we find out what that is, the current situation is one of the stranger things happening in the already odd Ed-Tech space.

Video Content or Audio-Only Content For Online Courses: Which is Better?

Like many of you, I saw this Tweet about audio-only lectures making the rounds on Twitter:

Now, of course, many questioned “why lectures?” (which is a good question to ask), but the main discussion seemed to focus on the content of courses more than lectures specifically. Video content (often micro-content) is common in online courses. There were many points raised about accessibility (both of videos and audio-only lectures). Many seem to feel strongly that you should do either video content or audio-only content. My main thought was: instead of asking “either/or”… why not think “both/and”?

From certain points of view, audio-only content addresses some accessibility issues many rarely consider. When creating video content, the speaker will sometimes rely on visual-only clues and images without much narration, leaving those that are listening with gaps in their understanding. So while it is easy to say “if you don’t want video, then just play the video in the background and don’t watch,” sometimes the audio portion of a video leaves out key pieces of information. This is usually because when the content gets to a visual part, the speakers often assumes everyone playing the video can see.

“Look at what the red line does here…”

“When you see this, what do you think of?…”

And so on. People that record podcasts often know they have to describe any visuals they want to use so people listening know what they are talking about. For accessibility purposes, we really should be doing this in videos as well. Not to mention that it helps the information make more sense for every one regardless of disability.

There are other advantages to audio-only content as well, such as being able to download the audio file to various devices and take it with you where you go. Some devices do this with video files – but how often do we offer videos for download? And what if someone had limited access or storage capacity for massive video files? Auio-only mp3 files work for a wider variety of people on the technical level.

On the other hand, there are times when video is preferred. The deaf or hard of hearing often come to mind. Additionally, some people think that the focus that video requires helps them understand better. Video can also help increase teacher presence. Plus, video content is not the same as a Zoom call (or even a video lecture broadcast live), so its not really fair to throw both in the same bucket.

I would also point out that just because learners like audio-only one semester, that doesn’t mean the next semester of learners will. And I would guarantee that there are those in Vaidhyanathan’s course that didn’t really like the audio-only, but didn’t want to speak up and be the outlier.

Remember: Outliers ALWAYS exist in your courses. Never underestimate the silencing power of consensus.

But again, I don’t think it takes much extra time to give learners the option to choose for themselves what they want.

First of all, every video you post in a course should be transcribed and closed-captioned as aground rule – not only for accessibility, but also for Universal Design for Learning. But I also know that this is the ideal that often not supported financially at many institutions. For the sake of this article, I am not going to repeat the need to be proactive in making courses accessible.

So with that in mind, the main step that you will need to add into your course design process is to think through your video content (which is hopefully focused micro-content) and add in descriptions of any visual-only content. Don’t forget intro, transition, and ending graphics – speak out everything that will be on screen.

Then, while you are editing or finalizing the video, export to mp3 in addition to your preferred video format. Or use a tool that can extract the audio from the video (this is also helpful if you already have existing videos with no visual-only aspects). Offer that mp3 as a download on the page with the video (or even create a podcast with it). Now your students have the option to choose video or audio-only (or to switch as they like).

Also, once you get the video closed captioned, take the transcript and spend a few minutes collecting it into paragraphs to make it more readable. Maybe even add the images from the video in the document (you already would have full alt descriptions in the text). Then also put this file on the page with video as a downloadable file. You could even consider maybe collecting your transcripts into PressBooks and make your own OER. However you want to do it, just make it another option for learners to get the content.

Anyways… the idea here is that students can choose for themselves to watch the video, listen to the audio file, or read the transcript – all in the manner they want to on the device they want.

One of the questions that always comes up here is how to make the video content sound natural. Spontaneous/off-the-cuff recordings can miss material or go down a rabbit-hole. Plus you might forget to describe some visual content. But reading pre-written scripts sounds wooden and boring. One of my co-authors for Creating Online Learning Experiences (Brett Benham), wrote about how to approach this issue in Chapter 10: Creating Quality Videos. You can read more at the link, but the basic idea is to quickly record a spontaneous take on your content and have that transcribed (maybe even by an automatic service to save some money). Then take that transcript, edit out the side-trails, mistakes, and missteps, and use your edited document to record the final video. It will then be your spontaneous voice, but cleaned-up where needed and read for closed-captioning.

To recap the basics points:

  1. Think about which parts of your video content will have visual aspects, and come up with a description for those parts in words.
  2. Record your video content with the visual aspects, but make sure to cover those descriptions you came up with.
  3. Create mp3 files from your videos and add that to the course page with the video embed/link and transcription file.

If you want to go to the next level with this:

  1. Enable downloading of your videos (or store them in a service that allows downloads if that option is not possible in your LMS).
  2. Turn your mp3 files into a podcast so that learners can subscribe and automatically download to devices when you post new files.
  3. Take your transcriptions and re-format them (don’t change any words or add/delete anything) into readable text, along with the visuals from the video. Save this as an accessible PDF and let learners download if they like.
  4. Collect your PDF transcripts into a PressBook, where you can add the audio and video files/links/embeds as well.
  5. Maybe even add some H5P activities to your PressBooks chapters to make them interactive lessons.

The Learning Styles™ Industry Versus Learning Preferences

Learning Styles are a contentious issue in education. Just read the room at any conference when some presenter brings them up as a good idea. Hostility and argument are sure to ensue in the Q&A time (if not sooner). Some people love Learning Styles, while others hate them.

Add to this this that too many people like to frame this debate as being between people who believe learning styles exist, and those that believe that learning styles do not exist. Unfortunately, this is not really true (even though there are many debates that seem to devolve into this argument).

Learning Style skeptics do not contend that “there are no learning styles.” We believe that there is no proof of the pre-dominant Learning Styles™ Industry claim that people learn better mostly or only in their preferred learning style. This is a huge difference.

But first, I want to back up and clarify why I say Learning Styles™ Industry. Some people like to clarify the difference between the Learning Styles™ Industry and the general idea of learning styles by calling the general idea things like “learning preferences” and “styles of learning.” If you haven’t ever been a teacher subjected to days of professional development seminars on Learning Styles™ and then unfairly reviewed based on your ability to implement Learning Styles™, let me explain what it is like for a minute.

Yes, in many schools across the nation, teachers are taught that there are three/four/six Learning Styles™ that all learners fall into, and the research proves they learn “best” in this style (visual, kinesthetic, etc.). Therefore, you must administer certain tests to help learners figure out which Style they are and create four-six different lessons for each class topic (the number of learning styles seems to vary from time to time; usually when sales slow, companies have to add or subtract some so they can go back and re-sell the training to everyone again). Then during evaluations, you would be rated based on how well you accomplished the implementation of your Learning Styles™ plan.

Of course when I was in school, learning styles were presented much, much differently. At most, there was a poster on the wall that told you to try different ways of learning beyond the regular “read and memorize” method. It was about exploring variety and find preferences for helping you to learn, not about re-writing lessons over and over again for each style. Somewhere between when I was teenager and when I went into teaching myself, there was a huge shift in what it looked like to implement learning styles in the classroom as Learning Styles™.

For people like me that always come out as different “styles” on different days – which one lesson Style does your instructor pick for you? Do they need to rate percentages of each and then make sure you get that exact mix throughout the year? Or does that mix need to happen daily? Do we keep re-testing kids for Learning Styles™ to see if they change?

Speaking of change, what about students that test as “auditory” learners and then suffer hearing damage? Will their grades suffer for the rest of their life because they can no longer hear?

How do we test learners with disabilities for Learning Styles™? (heaven forbid that we should recognize the ablest nature of Learning Styles™ to begin with….)

How do we know there are only three/four/five styles? Why can’t there be all kinds of weird and random styles?

The whole idea of Learning Styles™ really kind of falls apart when you really start examining the practical ways to implement them as an instructivist instructor (which is the context for many attempts). As I have learned from experience, you quickly run into situations like learners with sight issues that test as visual learners (it really did happen once). You start to wonder what kind of weird research went into this idea… until you find out that there was little research into the idea that students learn better in their Learning Style™. Opps.

Then there is the irony that so many “Learning Style™ Assessments” are completely text based…

FYI – I came out as a visual learner by the test above. Most of my answers to the questions were “it depends,” but because I am an artist and I do like to draw, I got Visual. But I hate most of the study tips they gave me.

Like many people, I like to do different things for learning different content at different times. If you wanted to say that there are learning preferences that 1) don’t follow rigid categories (Auditory, Tactile, etc), and 2) change for each learner depending on what/when/how they study – I would agree with that concept. The idea that there is one main Learning Style™ that each learner must figure out and then have every lesson tailored for them or by them to that style in order for them to learn best? I don’t see much evidence for that.

In order to become a self-determined learner, we all need to learn how the content is presented to us, and then tailor it to what we need at that moment. Learning Styles™ are just too rigid for that to happen – at least in the way they are most often implemented.

So if, you were to ask “what is the difference between Learning Styles and something like Universal Design for Learning?” For me, even when taking into account the less rigid version of learning styles from my youth, it is:

Learning Styles: People are different, so here are some easy boxes to keep them in and contain the complexity.

Universal Design for Learning: People are different, but its complicated, so let’s design something to release that complexity. Even if we don’t fully get it.

The idea of complex and changing learner preferences is why I continue work on self-mapped learning pathways (also known as “dual-layer” and “customizable pathways”). Getting locked into one “style” and then having that one style handed to you as a “personalized” lesson each day is just another form of instructivism that removes much of the need for self-regulation and all of the need for self-determination.

The Artificial Component of Artificial Intelligence and the C-3P0 Rule

There have been many think pieces and twitter threads examining how the “intelligence” component of “Artificial Intelligence” is not real intelligence, or at least not anything like human intelligence. I don’t really want to jump into the debate about what counts as real intelligence, but I think the point about AI not being like human intelligence should be obvious in the “artificial” component of the term. To most, people it probably is – when discussing the concept of AI in an overall sense at least.

Nobody thinks you have to mow artificial grass. No one would take artificial sweetener and use it in all of the same cooking/baking applications that they would with sugar. By calling something “artificial,” we acknowledge that there are significant differences between the real thing and the artificial thing.

But like I said, most people would probably recognize that as true for AI. The problem usually comes when companies or researchers try to make it hard to tell if their AI tool/process/etc is human or artificial. Of course, some are researching if people can tell the difference between a human and their specific AI application (that they created without any attempt to specifically make it deceptively human), and that is a different process.

Which, of course, brings up some of the blurry lines in human/machine interface. Any time you have a process or tool or application that is designed for people to interface with, you want to make sure it is as user-friendly as possible. But where is the line between “user-friendly” and “tricking people into thinking they are working with a human”? Of course there is a facet of intent in that question, but beyond intent there are also unintended consequences of not thinking through these issues fully.

Take C-3P0 from Star Wars. I am sure that the technology exists in the Star Trek universe to create robots that look like real humans (just look at Luke’s new hand in The Empire Strikes Back). But the makers of protocol droids like C-3P0 still made them look like robots even though they were protocol droids that needed to have near perfect human traits for their interface. They mad e a choice to make their AI tool still look artificial. Yes, I know that ultimately these are movies and the film makers made C-3P0 look the way it did just because they thought it was cool and futuristic looking. But they also unintentionally created something I would call a “C-P30 Rule” that everyone working with AI should consider: make sure that your AI, no matter how smoothly it needs to interface with humans, has something about it that quickly and easily communicates to those that utilize it that it is artificial.

“Creating Online Learning Experiences” Book is Now Available as an OER

Well, big news in the EduGeek Journal world. I have been heading up a team of people to work on new book that was released as an OER through PressBooks today:

Creating Online Learning Experiences: A Brief Guide to Online Courses, from Small and Private to Massive and Open

Book Description: The goal of this book is to provide an updated look at many of the issues that comprise the online learning experience creation process. As online learning evolves, the lines and distinctions between the various classifications of courses has blurred and often vanished. Classic elements of instructional design remain relevant at the same time that newer concepts of learning experience are growing in importance. However, problematic issues new and old still have to be addressed. This book aims to be a handbook that explores as many of these issues and concepts as possible for new and experienced designers alike, whether creating traditional online courses, open learning experiences, or anything in between.

We have been working on this book on and off for three or more years now, so I am glad to finally get it out to the world. In addition to me, there were several great contributing writers: Brett Benham, Justin Dellinger, Amber Patterson, Peggy Semingson, Catherine Spann, Brittany Usman, and Harriet Watkins.

Also, on top of that, we recruited a great group of reviewers that dug through various parts and gave all kinds of helpful suggestions and edits: Maha Al-Freih, Maha Bali, Autumm Caines, Justin Dellinger, Chris Gilliard, Rebecca Heiser, Rebecca Hogue, Whitney Kilgore, Michelle Reed, Katerina Riviou, Sarah Saraj, George Siemens, Brittany Usman, and Harriet Watkins.

Still skeptical? How about an outline of topics, most of which we did try to filter through a critical lens to some degree:

  1. Overview of Online Courses
  2. Basic Philosophies
  3. Institutional Courses
  4. Production Timelines and Processes
  5. Effective Practices
  6. Creating Effective Course Activities
  7. Creating Effective Course Content
  8. Open Educational Resources
  9. Assessment and Grading Issues
  10. Creating Quality Videos
  11. Utilizing Social Learning in Online Courses
  12. Mindfulness in Online Courses
  13. Advanced Course Design
  14. Marketing of an Online Course

So, please download and read the book here if you like: Creating Online Learning Experiences

There is also a blog post from UTA libraries about the release: Libraries Launch Authoring Platform, Publish First OER

And if you don’t like something you read, or find something that is wrong, or think of something that should have been added – let me know! I would love to see an expanded second edition with more reviewers and contributing authors. There were so many more people I wanted to ask to contribute, but I just ran out of time. I intentionally avoided the “one author/one chapter” structure so that you can add as much or as little as you like.

Working With Resistant Faculty as an Instructional Designer

One of the questions I get most often from people new to instructional design is how to work with faculty that are resistant to making changes to their course ideas (or maybe even resistant to working with an instructional designer all together). To be honest, once you have gotten to the place of resistance, you can generally find all kinds of advice for dealing with disagreements that will work. There really isn’t anything special or different about your interactions with people that you don’t see eye to eye with even when you are an instructional designer.

However, I have found that there are ways to start off the working relationship in an instructional design context that can set a tone for collaboration or disagreement on down the line. There are a few things that I try to do with the first contact with faculty to get off on the right foot. So my biggest piece of advice is always to set up the relationship the right way from the beginning, and then you should have a smoother relationship with faculty to begin with (and if disagreements arise, a good foundation to work towards agreement).

The first thing I tell people to do is to get your view of the faculty members in the right context in your mind. Of course, this includes setting aside an pre-conceived notions you might have gained about them from other people – but it is more than that. I try to keep in mind what the work flow of the faculty actually looks like, especially how they are very busy. Not necessarily more or less busy than you are, but just on an entirely different context of busy. They are having to deal with hundreds of student emails, and then all kinds of research-related emails, and then all kinds of department-related issues, and so on. When you send them that initial contact email, you can probably guarantee that it will be filed away until there is a lull in their work flow – later that day, later that week, or even later that month. That filing system might be anything from a folder system in outlook to a paper notebook next to their computer (I have seen it all). But the key thing is that they are likely to put it aside without a whole lot of thought about it at first.

This is an important factor to remember. Some faculty might respond right away, but others will file and get back to you once the dozen or so urgent requests in front of them are taken care of. At this point, while you are waiting for a response, don’t make things more complex by having other people contacting them as well. Many instructional design groups will do this differently: the manager will contact the faculty to “introduce” the ID, then if there is no response from the faculty after a few days, the ID will then email again… possibly introducing more team members as they do so. By the time the faculty gets to that lull to respond, they have all these people contacting them and they have to figure out if they are all working on the same project, or different people working on similar projects. Then they have to figure out who specifically to reply to, who was just adding extra information to the discussion, and so on.

And right there is a place where you can start to get off on the wrong foot with faculty. Instead of responding to one person, they have to take extra time to read through these emails from different people to figure out what is going on. Again, some will be fine with that, but others will feel that you and your department are “piling it on” to try and pressure them to respond faster.

So, for the sake of focus, make sure to only have one person contacting the faculty member or members until they respond. If you need to send multiple emails to follow up and nudge the faculty, respond to your last message so those that use threaded email system will just end up with one email thread rather than several. Since the goal of having the first meeting is usually to set up a first meeting, you can make sure that the other people they need to meet are at the first meeting.  And if at all possible, wait to bring those people into the conversation at the first meeting. If you really have to bring them in earlier, then at least wait until after the faculty has first responded to the initial emails.

Quite often, a manager or other person like to make the first email to connect the ID and faculty, and then step out of the picture. If you can avoid that, I would. If the faculty doesn’t respond right away, then the manager will have to nudge. If the ID nudges, it introduces that complexity that I have found best to avoid at this stage. So if you are a manager, get used to letting your people do the initial contact. If you are an ID, get used to doing the initial contact. It just saves time and avoid miscommunication down the line.

Remember: that first response from faculty is usually the signal that they have the open head space to deal with course design – or that they are at least ready to free up some head space for the design. So feel free to nudge them if needed, but don’t add anything else to that nudge beyond your initial “let’s meet” message.

Also, I should mention this “let’s meet” message. Be careful how you phrase that request. So many people jump out of the gate with suggestions, like “we can meet once a month” or “once a week” or some other frequency based on what they think the course needs. And they are probably right about this suggestion. But remember that the faculty you are meeting with have already possibly thought about how many meetings they need with you as well. They may be flexible, but they also may have a specific need for meetings. If you come out right away and suggest a specific schedule, you may stress them out by not suggesting enough meetings compared to what they want, or maybe by suggesting more meetings than they thought they needed.

Of course, you might get lucky and suggest the exact frequency they were thinking of, the heavens will open, collaboration glitter will float down, and every one rejoices.

But you might also set up a foundation of frustration if you get it wrong. My suggestion? I always like to say that I want to “discuss a method and frequency for consistent communication to keep the course design process moving forward” or something to that effect. When you say something like this, what ever method or frequency they were thinking of will fit into that description, and they will feel like you are there to help their course, not impose deadlines.

Which, of course, you usually are… but you don’t want to default to that position from the beginning.

However, make sure you don’t jump out first with “how about meeting twice a week” or some other specific suggestion. From this point on in interacting with faculty, always lead with questions intending to draw out what the faculty thinks. I have found that leading with questions is a good way to collaborate more than disagree. Don’t just say “well, what we need to instead….” But also, don’t beat around the bush, either. Just ask them directly: how often do you want to meet, and in what context?

Of course, there is a good chance they will suggest something that is more often or less often than you thought, or they will suggest face-to-face meetings when you thought email would work, and so on. When this happens, try to find out (by asking questions) why they want their suggested frequency instead of going into “correction” mode.

  • “That seems to be a high frequency of meetings, and you are pretty experienced in online course design. How are you feeling about working on this specific course?”
  • “Do you think you will be able to meet the deadlines for the course design? Would it maybe help to have more frequent check-ins with me to meet deadlines?”
  • “I know you are used to face-to-face meetings with our organization. How do you feel about email check-ins? We could possibly meet less frequently if you think it will work for you to email me questions as needed.”

A quick note: multiple meetings per week is probably going to send the wrong message to faculty. They usually have multiple meetings only with students that are struggling the most in their class, or with colleagues that can’t stay on track when working on research projects. There is kind of this stigma against being asked to meet multiple times per week in many academic circles. Don’t be against that if they are the ones that say they need it, but don’t be the one to suggest it first. Not all faculty think this way, but I have learned the hard way to not be the one to bring it up with the ones that do have a preconceived notion about it.

So, really, from this point out, I would say if you stick to asking questions first rather than jumping into correction mode, and then follow other methods and guidelines for dealing with workplace conflict or disagreements, you will know how to deal with most situations. By taking into account how you start off the working relationship with faculty, you are getting started on a better foundation for future interactions. There is a lot more that I could cover, but this post is getting too long. If you have any suggestions for dealing with resistant faculty, let me know in the comments – there is still a lot I can learn in this area as well!

Hybrid MOOCs and Dual-Layer/Self-Mapped Learning Pathways MOOCs: My Perspective on the Differences

A recent tweet from Aras Bozkurt highlights a question we often get about the work we do with dual-layer/self-mapped learning pathways courses (most often in MOOCs, but also starting to bleed over into traditional courses as well):

As soon as we started using the term “dual-layer MOOC” in 2014, people pointed out the similarities between that idea and “Hybrid MOOCs.” These are important points because they do share many concepts. However, there were some key differences as well. In my mind at least, there are some differences that exist along various continuums rather than hard divisions into two distinct ideas.

The original distinction between layers into “instructivist layer” and “connectivist layer” proved to be problematic, as many courses have aspects of both, and learners tend to mix both at different times (if given the choice) instead of choosing one or the other. So I think it is better to look at the distinction as one that focuses on who does most of the decisions of what to mix together in the course. If most of the decisions to mix together/hybridize the course content and activities lies with the instructor, I tend to look at those as “Hybrid MOOCs” because it is the MOOC itself that is a hybrid. Even if there are choices (“write a paper or create a blog post or Tweet a thread”) and some of those are connectivist in nature, if those choices are more restricted and designed into the course, I see it more as a Hybrid MOOC. If the learner is more in control of those choices and how they mix the hybrid layers together, I see it more as the dual-layer concept we tried with DALMOOC. Of course, the layer idea focuses on the design too much, so that is why I like to refer to those courses now as “self-mapped learning pathways” because the focus should be on the pathway that the learner maps instead of the layers.

This is a continuum, of course – with a completely instructor controlled course on one side (all possible activities, even social/connectivist ones, chosen by the instructor) and a completely learner-driven course (like RhizoMOOC) on the other end. The DALMOOC and HumanMOOC courses I worked with/co-taught lean heavily towards the learner driven side, for example, while YogaMOOC leaned slightly more towards the instructor-driven side. All of those mix elements of xMOOCs and cMOOCs together in different ways (with RhizoMOOC most likely technically existing off the spectrum because it was all community driven – but it makes a good frame of reference. In contrast, typical xMOOCs exist off the other side of the spectrum because they are all instructor controlled and usually not that complex).

Additionally, I think an important dimension to look at with these courses is one that would exist on a perpendicular axis that measures the complexity with which the course organizes or scaffolds the choice for learners. For example, courses like DALMOOC were highly organized and complex – with maps of course structure, activity banks, course metaphors for descriptions of what that structure looks like, etc. Other courses like the EngageMOOC were less complex in that aspect of the structure, with the linear content in place – but learners were told they could do various other activities as they liked. There was some structure there as well, so it was not as far down that continuum as the RhizoMOOC would be.

So you would probably end up with a grid like this for explaining where courses fell on these continuums – some courses would probably shift from place to place as the course progresses:

Note: there was no scientific method for where I placed the example courses above – I just took a guess where they seemed to fall by my estimation. Feel free to disagree. The basic idea is that courses that mix various epistemologies tend to exist more on a continuum than at defined poles. Hybrid MOOCs are what I see as courses that lean towards the instructor deciding what this mixture is, and/or what the specific choices for the mixing are. Dual-layer/learning pathways courses are those that lean towards the learner deciding what this mixture is, and/or what the specific choices for mixing are. Either type can do so in more complex or less complex ways depending on the needs of the course.

Is It Really Possible to Re-do Ed Tech From Scratch?

Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris asked an interesting question at Hybrid Pedagogy a couple of days ago: “Imagine that no educational technologies had yet been invented — no chalkboards, no clickers, no textbooks, no Learning Management Systems, no Coursera MOOCs. If we could start from scratch, what would we build?”

I’m a bit perplexed as to where to start. Its a great question. But would it even be possible to surgically remove educational technology from the larger world around them? So much of our technology is connected to external contexts that it may be impossible to even consider. Can we really imagine a world without books? The line between textbook and book is so blurred… probably not.

My concern though is that our field focuses too much on “how technology is shaping us” and not enough on how much we shape our technology. All technology tools have underlying (and often times not so underlying) ontologies, epistemologies, and so on. We could start from scratch, but if we don’t get rid of the dominant mindset of “instructivism/behaviorism as the one-size-fits-all solutionism” that is so prevalent in Ed Tech – we will end up with the same tools all over again.

However, I wouldn’t start over from scratch with technology as much as I would with theory. I would put active learning as the dominant narrative over passive learning. I would pull ideas like connectivism and communal constructivism up to the same level as (or higher than) instructivism. I would dump one size-fits-all positivism and replace it with context-morphing metamodernism. I would make heutagogy/life-long learning the ending hand-off point of formal education, as opposed to having formal education with a pedagogical “end goal.” I would get rid of the standardization of solutions and replace this ideology with one of different contexts and different solutions for different learners. I would go back in time and make people see the learner as the learning management system instead of a system or program. I would switch from instructor-centered to student-centered at every juncture. And so on.

edugeek-journal-avatarIf we don’t get the right theories and ideas in place in the first place, we will just continue evangelizing people to the same tech problems we have always had, even if we are able to somehow start over from scratch. In other words, the problem is not in our technologies, but our beliefs and theories. Our Ed Tech follows our theory, not the other way around.

(image credit: Gustavo Fiori Galli, obtained from

Non-Linear Instructional Design

A great Twitter conversation recently got me thinking about non-linear instructional design. Now, of course, we often look at instructional design itself as a non-linear process, but that is not what I am referring to here. Most of the instruction we see in formal education is almost always designed as a linear road-map to be followed in exact order from beginning to end. And for some topics, this is great – I don’t want engineers skipping steps when designing solid bridges. But in many other topics, there aren’t really ultimate steps that have to be taught in a certain order as much as there is really just a preferred order that many in the field lean towards that becomes a default “sequence” for all learners. Which, unfortunately, leads to very little room for improvisation, flexibility, emergence, etc. A lot of this can be attributed to our formal education systems that often encourage behaviorism and pedagogy over connectivism and heutagogy. Too many times the education system looks at “planning” as a linear week by week script.

We often end up with two problems in this kind of system. One is that people come up with an outline that they stick with even if the course isn’t flowing that way. And when the course isn’t flowing well, instructors get bored or distracted and they put off planning specifics until the last minute. They tell learners that they are improvising, but learners can often tell the difference between lack of planning and planned improvisation.

The other problem is that instructors do plan well, but then think of something better at the last minute and change plans. Which usually ends up being a great lesson, but also means they wasted a lot of time on a plan that wasn’t used and might not ever get used.

However, designing a course in a non-linear manner can allow for courses to be well-planned as well as being emergent, flexible, and student-centered.

The first step is to actually make space in your course plan for flexibility, rabbit trails, new ideas, and extended time on more interesting ideas. What I mean by this is cut back on the number of weeks of content overall. If you have a 15 week course, only create 10 weeks of content. Just flat-out force space into the schedule and leave it there.

The second step is to stop looking at your topic in a linear fashion. Make a list of ten topics you want to cover, but don’t number the list. Intentionally shuffle that list. Think of it more as a jigsaw puzzle, with each piece being a topic / week. Once all of the pieces are together, then you have a full picture of the topic of your course.

The idea would be that you would sit down and talk with your class to socially negotiate an order to go through the topics. As a course, you could come up with the order that your learners want to go through. Or even more advanced – don’t even have a pre-defined list, but take time each week to figure out where to go next week.

Finally, you need to do the instructional design. I know that seems weird to say that right after I just said let the learner choose the topics, but you as the instructor still need to be prepared for what ever topic could be chosen next. You can still create something akin to an assignment bank that you choose from depending on what topic is being covered that week. In fact, you would probably need to design a large ranges of fairly open-ended activities that could fit in with a wide-range of topics within your field. Instead of a jigsaw puzzle, you are really looking at your class like a Lego project or play-dough sculpture that is being built by several people at once. You have several specific pieces (activities) that you add at certain moments when the learners choose to pull out certain other pieces (topic).

Another way to a look at this idea is like this. Most courses are already designed in pieces, but these pieces are part of a specific path that has one way in and one way out. They generally look like this:


One way in, one way out – linear in design. Which works well in many situations, but not in others. To accomplish non-linear instructional design, the pieces of the course have to take on different structures:



edugeek-journal-avatarA play-dough design would be a more malleable design where the different pieces have the ability to shape into different directions and even blend with other pieces. The Lego design would be made of smaller more defined pieces that connect easily with other pieces to form changing designs and pathways as the learners define the path. There is really not a major distinction between the two – just different ways of looking at the design theory. If you look at the different assignments in the ds106 assignment bank, you can see hundreds of activities that are designed in either Lego or Play Dough fashion to connect with or plug in to any part of the ds106 course.

(header image credit: Dima V, obtained from