Fighting Predicatability in Online Learning

Over the weekend I had a conversation with a friend about online learning.  It turns out he has taken several online courses over the past few years.  He had an interesting statement that I think many in online education need to pay attention to:

“I have gotten to where I don’t need to read the syllabus anymore in online learning.  All the courses are the same”

I asked him if he was referring to the cycle of “read this, answer a discussion question, respond to other students, take a quiz, rinse, repeat.” He said that was exactly the case.

I see this a lot in online education, but to be fair it started in face-to-face courses.  So many classes you only had to find out what the dates of tests were and the rest was easy to figure out.  Some call it laziness, but it probably actually had a huge helping of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” throw in the mix.

Are discussion boards becoming the new scan-tron tests?  I realize that there is some active learning in having students answer discussion questions, but so many times the questions become so stale that what little “active” was in there gets washed away in staleness.

If you have an introductory online learning class (in other words – it is the first online course that students will take) – then I say give them something tried and true to help them get used to it.  To a degree.  For the rest of us – we need to infuse our online courses with personality and a little originality.  Try to think outside the box.  Try some new tools. or at least try to get your students to create assignments using tools they don’t normally use.

But above all, give them a reason to read the syllabus.  Oh – and then at least try to not put them to sleep while they are reading it.  Remember the K.I.S.S. method.

Style vs. Substance in Instructional Design

I’m pretty sure that if you care about actual learning, you have run in to the same problem I have: going to check out the latest award-winning course, program, idea, etc and then coming to the inevitable conclusion that it is pretty much junk.  Some educational awards and accolades do go to great projects… but it seems so many times the attention goes to the slickest, shiniest object in the room and  not necessarily the best.

Clark Quinn has a great blog post about his experiences in this area, which also examines the difficulty in teaching others the difference between what has true quality and what is really just whitewashing a dead, boring lesson to make it look (as we say in Texas) purty.

Sometimes it feels like people think that a good online course only involves the following steps:

  1. Take your lecture notes and edit them well to make them flow beautifully when read
  2. Transfer these edited notes to html and break it all up into decent sized chunks
  3. Slap on a discussion question and a multiple choice quiz at the end
  4. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

Never mind that all these skills (editing, copy/paste, chunking, pushing buttons on a website to create things) are all things that your average high school-er can do – this is now considered high level ed tech pedagogy, right?

Um… yeah….

I wish I was only describing some neophyte professor just creating their first online course, but sadly this list pretty much describes what I have seen labeled as “high quality” instructional design by many people with graduate degrees in this stuff.  I have even heard it labeled “active learning.” (!) (?)

I guess since the student does have to read and respond to discussion posts… that counts as active?  I guess as long as they don’t fall asleep….

Now, I realize that the format listed above can work in some situations, especially if a lot of thought is put in to it. But what usually happens is that it is treated like an online course design template used for every course with components rapidly plugged in. Which in some cases might not even be bad – just not the best option that exists out there.

Will The Internet Start Looking More Like the World, or the World Like the Internet?

I was pondering future trends last week while watching the evening weather forecast.  Forecasting while watching a forecast?  Anyways… We were in for a possible round of severe weather that week. The news anchor put up a map of “storm spotters” – a network of people that would call in from their homes and tell what is happening in their area.

In other words, forecasting the weather is starting to incorporate crowd sourcing.

We have seen a giant push to get websites to work intuitively… and to even start thinking for us.  So on one hand – the Internet is starting to look more like the real world.  But I think even more often we are starting to see the world around us looking more and more like the Internet.  The powers that be are starting to see that there is power in crowd sourcing and social networking.  I wonder what real-life social networks we will see spring up next?

The real question for us is – can we use these ideas in education?  What if we took this weather stations ideas and applied them to a class? What if, instead of one large class, we broke that class down into smaller units based on geographic location.  Each smaller group forms a study group of sorts that watches issues related to the class subject in their area.  The small groups are loosely tied to one another in a way to share what they are learning about the subject.  The small groups would study local events or places. In this situation, the LMS would become more like the newscast – aggregating all of the input in one spot for everyone to benefit.

What if time and location became irrelevant for synchronous classes? What if you were grouped with a small group of people that lived near you when you sign up for a class, and then that group decided what day and time to meet for class?  The instructor would then send out assignments each week or maybe record a video for the group to work through. Maybe the instructor even met with each group.  then the groups send in their work to the class and the instructor aggregates all of the information coming in from each group and summarizes them for the entire class (which would essentially include all small groups no matter where they meet in the world).

Potentially, you could ave hundreds of students all meeting in a synchronous fashion, but all still in a way that fits their schedule.  This is, of course, another area where there is technology to do this… but we need one that is more specifically geared for educators.