How Would You Use Innovation to Save Education?

Too often it seems like educators define innovation as “change for the sake of changing something.” Innovation becomes the default context that they start with: if you have a problem, then fix it by innovating. For a while now, various outlets have been asking various questions that all boil down to: How would you use innovation to save education?

This is part of what Audrey Watters refers to as the “Innovation Gospel,” which became overwhelming in education and business a long time ago. One goal of the Innovation Gospel, of course, is to “fix” education… but always by starting with innovation rather than solutions. Watters response to what she would do to fix education is not “innovative” according to many, but it is something that would be a huge change:

This is also a question I have often pondered – what would I do if I had massive money to fix education? “Reparations” being one of the best answers, I will have to go for some runner-up answers. To be honest, nothing really innovative comes to mind at first. What I first think of are things that we all have heard from research as far back as the 80s or 90s (probably earlier) – stuff that we are pretty sure would help education, but that we never really hear mentioned in the Innovation Gospel:

  • Care for students: make sure they are fed, clothed, cared for – and not just with the small (but impactful nonetheless) efforts we currently have.
  • Train teachers to be more empathetic and caring for their students.
  • Pay to make facilities and tools safe and inclusive.
  • For that matter, make our schools and curriculum inclusive and empathetic for all learners. Even the newer ones.
  • Re-vamp curriculum to move away from pedagogy to heutagogy (teaching learners how to learn rather than what to learn).
  • Fund and pay teachers and staff.
  • Remove grades and standardized testing.

The list could probably go on, but the important thing to emphasize here is that this is all old research. None of it is “innovative” in the way many use the term today.  You will even find these ideas mentioned or even explored in depth in older Instructional Design textbooks as “established ideas” (even though I would still use “established” cautiously at best) or some other term that implies they are not new.

So why do we hear more about learning analytics and virtual reality and innovation “fixing” education these days than these “established” ideas?

Maybe it is our worship of the Innovation Gospel. Maybe it is difficult to quantify care, inclusion, heutagogy, and grade-less classrooms. Maybe it exposes education’s long fascination with increasing surveillance of learners in various ways. Maybe it means we lose the ability to “weed out” less desirable students in the name of standardization and averages. Maybe we are afraid that these are never-ending rabbit holes of problems that we don’t want to know how deep they go. Maybe these are just too hard and complex and overwhelming to know where to start. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Whatever the reason, the people that have the money and means to work on these issues are usually not interested in the fixes that have already been discovered (but poorly implemented or never implemented). They are interested in data policies and future trends and fancy shiny virtual things – all things that might in some way impact education (or they might not). Our challenge is to pull that interest away from the shiny new toy of innovation and focus it on the nitty gritty work of making the hard changes at the classroom level of education. To be honest… that is a pretty daunting dragon to slay.

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

Can Instructors Also Be Victims of Cyber-Bullying?

If you have worked in education long enough, chances are that you have had to deal with student threats. A typical scenario in online courses usually unfolds like this: a student disappears from class for a while and misses several assignments. This student appears again after the last day of class and begs to be allowed to make up the missed assignments to bring up their score. The instructor sticks with class policy and the student’s grade stays the same.

The student then proceeds to write an intense email letter that threatens to give the professor a very bad course review if he or she doesn’t raise the grade. Or the student goes to another site like Facebook to start a group to spread stories about how “bad” their professor was.

Instructors in this situation are justified in being a bit concerned because student evaluations affect pay and eventually tenure. Anything from evaluations to could be used to get back at a professor for just doing their job.  Not to mention the fear that some student might get mad enough to come back with a gun.

Of course, student reactions are not the only concern here. Their parents can be just as threatening – especially at the grade school level. The scary truth about cyberbullying is that anyone can bully or be bullied.

Most schools have policies that somewhat deal with physical threats to instructors. These policies need to be expanded to deal with electronic means of communication and the cyberbullying that can occur through those. Now, I don’t think that these policies should be so strict that students are afraid to respectfully disagree with their professors. The goal should be to create a system that deals with malicious libel, slander, or misrepresentation of events through any electronic means, whether these actions are actually carried out or just threatened.

I would also then suggest that schools create an anonymous web page where anyone (students, instructors, or community members) can submit links to specific instances that they think are inappropriate. We shouldn’t just make instructors or students responsible for self-reporting these incidences. Empower students and even people that have no connection to your school with the ability to stop threatening activities. Whether it is students witnessing other students bullying each other on Facebook, or a random web surfer finding malicious threats against a professor in a discussion forum – give these people the power to do something about it and report it to officials at your school.

Shame On Those Pesky, Distracting Laptops

“Recent studies suggest that laptops in class detract from lecture-based learning”

Lecture-based learning?  Isn’t that an oxymoron?  How much can you really learn by sitting and soaking?  :)

Okay, so I’m showing my constructivism bias here.  The article I am reading, Can I have your half-attention, please?, actually is an interesting read about how instructors are getting over their technophobia (and themselves in the process) and finding ways to integrate laptops into learning.  It also shows how other instructors misunderstood what is going on in their class before laptops.  I was one of those students that zoned out and started doodling on my notes to pass time until lecture was over.  If I had a laptop, I bet I would have paid more attention, because I could have double checked the instructor’s facts while he/she was talking.

Educators like Don Krug and Richard Smith are really getting the idea about laptops (even though they both seem to come at the issue from two different angles), while others like Jean Boivin are just missing it.  Too bad the ones that miss it have some questionable research to back them up.  I hope we get some better designed research studies on this in the future.

Recent Problems With Facebook Highlight Misunderstandings of the Web

Educators are grappling with how to deal with some of the problems that arise when students and teachers use online social networks such as FaceBook. No one is going to get it perfect to start with. So, while we are shaking these tools out and trying to learn what is good and what is wrong, we should appeal for cool heads and open minds, not suspensions and lawsuits.

Sadly, cooler heads are not prevailing on either side. The New York Times profiled a case today of a high school student that was suspended for posting a rant on FaceBook against a teacher.

The problem really stems from the fact that this student encouraged other people to “express your feelings of hatred” in that post.  Luckily, some people did post comments that pointed out this student’s immaturity in the situation.  Others unwisely followed suit and posted hate messages.

Just so we are clear here… generally, in most civilized countries, it is not legal to encourage hate in any form.

The student is now suing the school to get the suspension off of her record so that it won’t hinder her later in life.  Maybe the punishment was too harsh, but on the other side – don’t post something if you aren’t willing to take the heat for it.  The posting and punishment are not that surprising to be honest – although, I wouldn’t have put it on her permanent record if it was her first offense.  To me, the really jaw-dropping part of this story are the responses from the lawyers and other people involved.

The lawyer representing the student compared this case to one in 1969 involving student protests against Vietnam.  Really?  Encouraging hatred is comparable to protesting Vietnam?  Those are not even close – there is a huge difference between wearing a sign of protest against the government (which is not likely to face direct retaliation as a result of said protest) and encouraging others to post messages that could be seen as threatening (especially when the teacher in question could face retaliation of some kind as a result of the posting).  To compare those two issues is shameful if you ask me.

Even more shocking are the comments from Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.  I’m no fan of the ACLU half of the time myself.  But I’m not even sure how supporters of the ACLU can agree with this statement:

“Since when did criticism of a teacher morph into assault?” Mr. Simon said. “If Katie Evans said what she said over burgers with her friends at the mall, there is no question it would be protected by free speech.”

What? Posting a comment on FaceBook is comparable to a discussion over burgers?  For one, once the conversation is over, it’s history.  People can’t come back later and read the comments hovering over the table the next day.  They can’t encourage others to add comments a week later.  And only the people that are the friends hanging out will hear the comments – not the extended community of FaceBook “friends” (which generally includes people that aren’t close friends).

By the way, Mr. Simon – this is not just a case of criticism.  It is a case of encouraging others to join in the hate.  Usually, the ACLU is against these kind of things… or so I thought.  My main problem with the ACLU stems from their inconsistent stance on some issues, especially where religion is involved.  But that is another issue.

People, especially in education, just don’t seem to understand that the Internet is not the same as having a conversation with friends.  It is a printed medium, one that has to follow the same rules that a news paper or book would.  You have to be careful what you print in any medium, no matter how temporary you think it is.

And for crying out loud – getting in trouble over something that you write or post is not an infringement of free speech.  It is a part of life.  Any blogger can tell you that :)  People need to understand that free speech has always had limits, and need to quit taking the cheap road by pulling out the First Amendment every time something like this happens.

Teaching a Class Entirely Through YouTube

I read an interesting article on Wired Campus today called “What Happens When a Course Is Taught Entirely via YouTube?” The basic idea was that a class was taught entirely through YouTube – class interactions were filmed and posted, discussions happened through comments, etc. Of course, this design does violate just about every Instructional Design standard in the world. Not surprisingly, the instructor felt like it was a failure.

I have to say – of course it was. Why design a course entirely in YouTube, only about YouTube? Here are some of my thoughts on this:

  • Why not make it on something more interesting than just YouTube? Why not try to do something on art, history, culture, or a hundred other topics more suited for the medium?
  • Why not use Google Videos in the first place – and keep the videos private?
  • Why not use Google Groups to discuss the videos, and upload other assignments?
  • When you use a site that was not built for social presence, of course you are going to lose social presence and immediacy. Try using some tools that can increase social presence, like maybe Google Sites?

Just taking these suggestions in to account would have negated most of the criticisms on the accompanying blog post. Most of these reflections I would have predicted before the class even happened, but I think this was still an interesting experiment. I am interested to hear if anyone has used Google Sites to teach a course? I am setting something up in there now, and it is an interesting free tool.

The World is Not Flat – It is a Plateau

Yes, I am referring to The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman… and I must admit that I have not (yet) read it. I have been to a large number of conferences and blogs that discuss this book – some praising it, and some disagreeing with it. I think the book sounds interesting, and I will read it soon and probably agree with many of the ideas covered in it. But, I have to say that I do tend to fall on the side that disagrees with the basic thought that globalization has leveled the playing field for all countries.

Friedman apparently went to India and had a revelation that globalization had changed core economic concepts there. The funny thing is, I have also traveled to India. My experience there tended to reveal to me how wide the gap is between countries that have wide-spread access to electricity, technology, and the Internet – and those that do not. Most people in India (a large percentage, actually) do not have access to all of three of these.

My theory is that the world is not flat – but it does have one large plateau surrounded by badlands. When I was in school, they taught us that plateaus are mountains with flat tops. On a family trip I discovered that this example was kind of an over simplification. I was following our trip on a map and noticed it said we were on a plateau at that moment. I looked out of the car and thought “we’re not on some flat mountain – we are just in the middle of a flat desert!” The thing about plateaus is that they are relatively flat – but while you are on them, you can usually only see the plateau itself for as far as the eye can see. Until you come up on the edge and see how high up you are.

Those that see the world as flat are on the plateau – all they can see is the flatness. So, they think the world is flat because they haven’t explored around enough to see otherwise. Leave the plateau and you will find a virtual badlands of rough terrain, pot holes, difficult terrain, and dead ends.

If we try to teach people in the badlands how to work in a flat world, they will fail. Because it is not flat for them. We could try to teach them how to climb up to the plateau, but what if they are not able to? What if they don’t want to? Why should we force them to do things our way? The badlands are a beautiful area of rugged scenery that don’t necessarily need to be abandoned. They really aren’t “bad” at all – that just happens to be the name for them.

Those of us in the technology world need to think how we can adjust our strategies to include those that are not constantly connected to a high speed internet connection through multiple devices 24 hours a day… because the edge of the plateau is not just dividing us from people on the other side of the world. It is separating us from people just down the road from us.

The Death of the Learning Management System? (part 3)

This is the third post in a series examining this topic. See the first two posts for background and a brief disclaimer that sets the stage for this discussion.

So, I’ve been going on about how we need to save the Learning Management System. I gave a list of things that need to happen with current LMS programs for this to happen. But – we’re not there yet. What can one do with the current LMS programs to integrate global communication, ongoing class communication, and active learning?

To be honest with you, if the LMS can’t add this kind of stuff in someday, then it should die. For now, all you can do is link to other sites from inside of your LMS.

Since we are not there yet (Blackboard, Moodle, and a few other companies have shown signs of promise in this area), here are some ideas of what schools and universities can do in the mean time. I will start with the most radical one first.

Install and use an LMS that has already integrated social networking tools. I only know of one that exists so far, but there may be others out there. As reported here last year, DrupalEd mixes parts of Moodle, Drupal, Elgg, OpenID, and MediaWiki together. It is still new, and some people tend to be squeamish when going with solutions this new, but it is open-source and available for use.

Install tools school-wide on your servers. Want to use blogs or wikis in learning? Then get together others that also want to and petition your IT department to install them on your school server. This has proven successful at UT Arlington. Blogs, wikis, and other tools have been opened up to faculty, students, groups, or anyone else employed with the university to use. The log in for these are also tied to the University’s NetID system, so everyone uses one password for everything… including the existing WebCT LMS.

Decide as a school or university to officially use a specific website for a specific tool. This is sometimes easier said than done. Maybe you can’t install a certain tool on your school servers, or it makes more sense to use another site (like in social networking). Then why not make it easier on everyone and decide on an official one to use – maybe even setting up an official presence on that site?

Decide as a program to use a set of websites. Setting up your own blog or choosing an official social networking site really sets up extra areas for students and teachers to bring people in to your school’s online presence. But you also want to get students out on the web, interacting with others outside of your school (like on discussion boards or blogs). If students have to go to one site for one class, and then another site for another class – they will end up with too many sites to track and will eventually dump some. Why not work together with other instructors in, say, a specific program to choose two or three good sites for your program. Sites that students will use in all classes. Give teachers the freedom to have class-specific sites, but also create a school presence on forums, wikis, blogs, and other sites related to your subject that can keep students connected after the class is over.

Create one instance of a tool per class for all students to use each semester. Sometimes, you might just have to go at this active learning thing alone. Consider having students contribute to a group project – say a blog or wiki – instead of creating individual projects. For example, create a class blog and put students in groups. Each group posts with a tag that identifies the group they are in. When a new semester starts, keep the same blog going, with the same tags, but with new students in the groups. Old students can come back to the same blog, and people from around the world can visit the blog to contribute to the conversation. If you have every student create their own blog every semester, you and the students will have a hard time keeping track of each other’s blogs, and outside people will be less likely to join the conversation.

No matter what you do with any tool, try to keep four goals in mind: keep it manageable (especially over the long haul or for future adopters), create a place where the world will want to come join with you and contribute, get students out on the web contributing to the global conversation, and create methods to continue the class’s global conversation after the class is over.

Have any other ideas? Share them in the comments.

The Death of the Learning Management System? (part 2)

This is the second post in a series examining this topic. See the first post for background and a brief disclaimer that sets the stage for this discussion.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there are several concepts in the “Death to the LMS” campaign that I agree with. Here is a list of some the ideas that I think all online instructors should use when designing an online course:

  • To truly learn, students need to get out of their LMS shells. They need to engage the world around them – publishing content for people other than classmates to read, and participating in the global discussion that surrounds the topics covered in class.
  • Students need to think critically and blog their experiences for others to read.
  • Students need to work collaboratively with other students in their class.
  • Students need to socialize with other students that aren’t in the same classes they are in.
  • Students need to continue learning on a particular subject beyond the last class date.

These ideas I agree with – mainly because they are all forms of active learning. But I don’t feel that these are necessarily reasons that we should kill the LMS. I feel that that these are reasons that we should push LMS companies to add some features and functionality to their programs, rather than dumping the LMS and using websites that offer these tools.

The main reason I fell this way is future scale. Dumping the LMS and doing stuff from the list above in a set of free Web 2.0 sites is great for one class. Your students will probably learn a lot and love the class. But what happens when more classes at your school or university begin adopting this? At some point, it will become too scattered and unmanageable for your students… and for your school. Social interactions will suffer. The web landscape will be littered with the shells of dead blogs and wikis, abandoned because students had too many to keep up with.

I think a better approach that can sustain a manageable future scale for active learning is to push LMS companies to add functionality to their programs that will allow educators to move students outside of the LMS when needed. Some of the things we could push companies to do:

  • Add a multilevel blog system. One that gives each user a blog, as well as course blogs, teacher blogs, group blogs, etc. Give users the ability to publish one entry to multiple sources. Give each blog the ability to be seen by the outside world with a short, simple url (but keep the ability to hide it behind the LMS password system for users that are still learning or need to limit access for whatever reason. And, yes, there are good reasons for that.)
  • Add a social network to your program. They are not that complex. Just look at the popular ones (MySpace, Facebook) for ideas. Even go so far as to give your networks the ability to interface across colleges, or even with existing social networking sites.
  • Create extension tools for classes that allow certain activities to continue beyond the course cut-off date.

However, once you get all of these tools in to an LMS, you could still run into problems. As long as courses are trying to interface with the global idea-exchange marketplace, while still operating as a lone ranger class – separate and not connected to other courses at their own school or university – you are going to end up with a different set of problems. Instructors will actually need to get together with other instructors at their school or in their program and map out what students will learn, as well as what tools and techniques they will use in those classes. Think about it: what if five classes in the same Spanish program all went to five random discussion boards over five different semesters to participate in the global discussion on Spanish culture? There would be a ton or repetition and scattered-ness. But what if all the Spanish instructors got together and picked two or three discussion boards that all students would participate on across all five classes? I hate to use a cliché word – but that would be synergy.

Next time I will look at specific suggestions that classes and programs can use to actually accomplish this kind of synergy and active learning, even if their LMS does not support it.

The Death of the Learning Management System? (part 1)

First of all, I want to preface this with a reality check: I am only talking about ideal situations here. I realize that many educators are hampered from realizing the ideal due to budgetary constraints. I am a huge supporter of doing the best with what you can get. I love creative solutions. But I also love discussing what the best ideal is. This discussion will be in that realm.

I have been noticing a slight under-current theme at a few conferences and on a few blogs recently: people calling for the death of the learning management system (or the course management system or the virtual learning environment, depending on your favorite term for this tool). What is usually meant by this is dumping a centralized program – such as Moodle, Desire2Lean, Blackboard/ WebCt, etc – and using some free online tool such as a blog to administer your online course. The “free” part of this is gaining the approval of many educators on limited budgets, but the idea is also gaining traction with people that do have the budget for an LMS.

I love free tools online. I have to resist blogging daily about the free, great tools available at But I personally feel that, instead of calling for the death of the LMS, we (the EdTech community) should be calling for specific changes to the LMS that fits our needs.

I get the attraction of sites like Facebook, Blogger, WordPress, pbWiki, etc in online learning. They are all social constructionist sites, and social constructionism is proving to be very effective in online learning. Even LMS providers like Moodle that are based on social constructionist pedagogy are slow to adopt social networking in to their program system (even though I suspect future releases of Moodle will change that).

But we need to consider that there are serious pitfalls to killing the LMS.

First, lets look at the issue that has caused the largest headache for people that have already killed their LMS: they are storing their content on someone else’s site, without the safety of a contract in their favor. If those sites go bankrupt, their course could disappear overnight without warning. Even though this is unlikely to happen, it has. Or, if the company decides to change their business model – they could start charging for usage per user, and now you and your students have to fork over money mid-semester just to get what was already yours. Once again: unlikely, but has happened.

Not to mention that some sites reserve the copyright for all content loaded on to their site. Yep – it’s not yours. It’s theirs. And that can lead to a whole host of legal problems – especially if you are storing any thing resembling a student record (like grades or feedback on why a student was given a certain grade) on a server that is not owned by your school or university. Yep – even a blog comment that communicates why you graded a student the way you did on a blog assignment could violate federal laws.

You also need to consider the fact that the decentralized nature of a course built after the death of an LMS can complicate the educational process. There is just more overhead in organizing the different pieces of the class at the beginning. Time is spent learning how to get to the pieces of the class instead of actually learning the content itself.

One of the arguments of using a blog for course content delivery is that students need to learn to engage the world instead of hiding in class. They need to get their course content out of the LMS and in to the world. They might also keep the blog going after the course is over – which is a good thing. I agree with all of this. But what if every course were like this? Students would have 50 blogs, wikis, or other sites to keep track of before they graduate. They would possibly even get burned out on it and just stop engaging the world at large online altogether. Clearly not a feasible system.

Course designers need to really think why they need students to do something – don’t just have students create another blog for your class because you want to look cool as an instructor. Is there a sound pedagogical reason within your discipline for having students publish to the world? If not, maybe look for other alternatives.

Many of the concepts behind the death of the LMS I do agree with. I just think we need to go about them in a different manner. Part 2 will look at how I think we should be taking a different approach to this issue.