The Underlying Barrier to Education Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Tech Retro-Futurism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Out of Body Experiences

Ever get crazy ideas about the future of technology? I was pondering some of the new technology that different groups/companies are working on, and had a crazy thought about the future of computer interfaces. It all started with thinking about computers in the 1990s. For those that remember the 1990s, there was something magical about the computers that were coming out then. It was like the displays suddenly leapt well beyond what we saw even in Science Fiction movies. I mean, you could get a decent desktop computer that looked fancier than anything on Star Wars or Star Trek, and they could play CDs, store files (remember having to save everything on a disc? How quaint), connect to other people, play rough videos, etc. You didn’t see a whole lot of that in the movies.

Today we have people working on amazing stuff. Sensors that follow your moves well enough to let you play video games. Using WiFi to see through walls. Immersive heads-up displays. We see some cool stuff in movies today, but I wonder if reality will actually move beyond our current Sci-Fi paradigms of future interfaces into something totally different.

As we increase the ability to quickly detect and map the immediate world around us through cameras, sensors, WiFi signals, sounds, etc – we will soon have the ability to create a photo-realistic digital 3-D recreation in real time. Which sounds cool in itself for, say, recording important events and then re-living them later. Throw those recordings into an immersive Occulus Rift-like helmet and its like you are back there again. But what if you had the helmet on while recording? Since your sensors probably extend a good 100 feet or more, you could realistically “pull away” and rotate the display from your body the same way you spread your fingers across a map on a smart phone to pull out. What this means is that we will probably see the ability to have realistic digital out of body experiences in our life time.

Sounds creepy, but also think of the safety implications. What if you drove this way, and since you can pull back and see around corners, you get in less accidents? You could even start driving your car like a video game with a video game joystick. Same could go for fighter pilots in battle – think of the advantage you could have to see the whole battlefield like a realistic game. Also, imagine public safety – the ability to look through a building for a bomb threat without stepping a foot inside, for instance.

Of course, there are huge privacy concerns with this idea. Would we have to invent a new paint and window films that can block these technologies in order to secure not only government buildings but our own houses? I am sure some solution will present itself.

Of course, we don’t always have to go big. Doctors could use this technology to guide miniature robots all over the human body, or even perform routine work on contagious patients from a safe distance.

Of course, I have been talking about co-located events here, but since we are talking about transferring digital information to a display, that display could technically be anywhere in the world and this “out of body” experience could be transferred over the Internet. Educationally, think of the ways we could change teaching if we could send learners anywhere we want with little physical danger. Historical sites could set up tours online – just create a protocol for streaming your sensors online and people could go all over the place in the middle of class. And not just international trips that are cost-prohibitive in real life – also think trips that are dangerous like inside a volcano or hurricane or to the bottom of the ocean.

Of course, all of this is kind of akin to floating around someplace like a digital ghost that no one can see – which is good in some situations, but not others. But what if we can combine these sensors with holographic projectors to project the virtual visitor as if they were actually there? Collaboration pretty much reaches the level of holodecks. What will that mean for classes when we have this ability? What could we learn about ourselves if we have the ability to re-watch ourselves later from an outsider’s perspective? For all of the fields that involve interaction, what would that mean to be able to replay a whole interaction? What would this mean for role play?

Its kind of creepy and interesting at the same time. But then again, back in the 90s, the idea of sharing personal pictures and personal random thoughts on Facebook was creepy and interesting also. We will see where all of this goes, but I hope people that are working on these technologies are dreaming big enough to work through the creepy and into the interesting.

2014: The Make or Break Year for MOOCs and Big Data?

So I know in the past that I have tried everything from serious predictions of the immediate future to crazy futurist predictions of the next decade to mocking the whole idea of predicting the future (how long can gaming be 1-2 years from emerging anyways?). I debated whether I should do anything for 2014, especially since there were several good predictions out there already.

Being a bit pf a pragmatist myself, I think the future of online learning is a bit less predictable than it has been in the past. Online learning is certainly on the radars of a lot more people than it was a few years ago, but many of those people are not happy at all with what they are seeing in MOOCs. I would point out that many of the problems that people are seeing with MOOCs deals more with administrative mismanagement of implementation and funding than with the actual idea. If you are really dropping $150,000-300,000 per class to develop a MOOC, then you missed the whole point of the idea in the first place.

For me, I am not really convinced that MOOCs are going to bounce back OR die completely. What I really think is that, as a field, Ed Tech is in uncharted waters here and we really don’t know where we are heading next. So it is hard to say what will happen. I think 2014-2015 will be make or break years for open learning (and big data for that matter). Will we emerge from the valley of disillusionment? I don’t think we really have any clue to know for sure or not. Will MOOCs fade off into the Google Wave sunset, with a promise that the good core ideas will survive… but then they really don’t? I don’t know if we know that for certain, either.

I do think we have a good break with all of this dissatisfaction to jump into the conversation and say “yes, this whole idea of business ideas and MOOCs is horrible, but here are the things about open learning that are good (and have been good since ancient times)”. But let’s face it, too many people sat on their rears trying to play nice with the new xMOOCs for the last few years, and if that happens again we’ll all continue to get lumped in the same category with capitalist ventures that are declared failures by their own creators.

For me, I am still going to be championing the less popular ideas that need more attention, like Heutagogy, Sociocultural theory, Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions, taking control of your Digital Identity, and rethinking learning design to be truly online and not just digitized classrooms. My main prediction for 2014 is that these ideas will continue to be ignored while other fancier, shinier ideas get championed by the cool Ed Tech kids :)

Getting to There From Here in The Education Revolution

So I like to write a lot about where all of these big ideas in education are heading and what learning might look like in the future. Often I skip ahead by a good bit and seem to leave out several important steps. But that does not mean that I don’t think about these steps that we as a field need to take to get to this glorious revolutionary future. In reality, I think these steps are more fascinating. But I tend to focus on some of these steps in my work and studies so much that they rarely make it onto this blog. So, here it is – the steps I think we need to take (in broad strokes) to get from where we are now to this awesome future of educational bliss.

Assuming, of course, that Universities don’t die before all of this happens.

  1. Expand Student Community Options. If we want a student-centered educational future, then we need to build in support systems for students. Especially as education becomes more distance-oriented. We used to rely on dorms rooms and libraries and social events to allow students the opportunity to form support and mentor-ship relationships. With those physical spaces being non-existent for online students and irrelevant for non-traditional students, we need to build more opportunities for informal interaction using social media, online tools, and even formal course structures that push students to build portfolios and online presences more than just grades. This is something that I have started working on in a small-scale form with a peer mentor-ship program for a doctoral program (and there are many others out there). But I think we still need to see a greater movement around this idea, more on the level of MOOC-hype than “oh, yeah, I think I know some  people that are working on this” kind of reaction.
  2. Give Students Control Over their Online Identity. One barrier to student community is the disconnected nature of social media due to the existence of so many options. Why create a portfolio when you have Facebook and LinkedIn, right? But owning your identity online protects learners in many ways, not the least of which is the ability to take your identity with you rather than start over with every new social service that forms. Jim Groom covers a lot of the reasons why this step is important in this blog post. I’m glad there is major work happening on this front at the University of Mary Washington. Just wish more of the world was paying attention.
  3. Incorporate Informal Learning. Personal Learning Networks and Lifelong learning are not new ideas, so this is an area that we already see growing at many universities. But at some point it has to go beyond a “cool idea” with some loose administrative support to an actual, integral part of the learning experience. Sounds kind of weird to make informal learning a part of the formal learning process, so I’m not really thinking of that as much as finding ways to acknowledge the informal sphere and utilize it in the formal sphere. As students gain more control over their online identity, this will become more feasible and practical.
  4. Build a Course Taxonomy System. Ever noticed that most course descriptions and even syllabuses don’t really tell you much about how a course really ends up working out? Wish you could easily know how student-centered (or not) a course is rather than paper due dates? Ever want to know what percentage of time will be spent on group assignments across all of the courses you take so that you won’t get burdened down carrying dead weight in too many classes? With course types diversifying and changing more and more rapidly, we are in more need than ever of a way to classify courses according to what students will really, actually get when they take the course. This would tie into the development and evaluation of courses in order to ensure accuracy. This is another area that I have started work on, and hope to have some more concrete answers and ideas over the next couple of years.
  5. Deconstructing Courses.  This is already happening with what is sometimes referred to as cMOOCs – open courses that rely on connectivism and open learning. “Open” has basically devolved into another word for “free” in many circles, so I tend to refer to true”open” courses as ones that have deconstructed the learning experience into something beyond the typical “sit and soak” learning method. Yes, you do see that still prevalent in many xMOOCs. What I would like to see as a further evolution of open courses are courses that allow for multiple entry points through out the semester, or even courses that allow students to skip past what they already know. Different entities have experimented with this through the years, but for the most part they seem to still focus on the course level (aka, you can test out of a whole course rather than part of it). At some point I think this will have to go more mainstream to allow for true educational revolution.
  6. Re-focus Big Data. Love or hate it, Big Data is here to stay. I’m always a fan of more knowledge, and Big Data does give us more knowledge.  If schools want to use it to take a big picture look at statistics, that is great. If programs want to use it to identify student problems, great. But I am more interested in the projects that help students learn more about themselves beyond “hey, I’m about to start failing this course.” I briefly spoke to Dr. Kinshuk at CELDA a few weeks ago about a dynamic profile system they are developing for helping student determine their learning preferences. This is important because if students fill out their own questionnaire for learning preferences, they will skew the data to what they think looks good. But what if we could just gather data from their every day school work to determine that? Or to determine what course types they prefer (connecting back to taxonomies above)? If our schools become more student-centered, then why not give students the data to understand who they are?
  7. Deconstructing Degree Plans. Once we have all of these other ways to deconstruct learning and use data and websites to support student learning, the next thing we can do is go big and really mess with things.  If we have deconstructed courses to the point that they allow for students to take what they need as well as mix and match course components, why not take that idea to the degree level? This is not a new idea, but for the most part custom degree plans are given an anonymous sounding name like “University Scholar” and then are basically still a succession of courses that have to be taken as courses – even if students know some of the material already. What if we allow students to create self-selected paths through through the material for specific degrees? What if a chemistry major could put together a truly customized degree that allows them to skip what they got in high school and dig into advanced topics and research? What if the student was creating stream of study through basic topics, with new topics/courses starting and stopping based on what the student’s data tells them about their learning needs?
  8. Return to Deconstructing Courses More. I think once you deconstruct the degree plan, you can then return to deconstruct courses even more. In fact, it could be that the two would go in cycles – deconstruct the course some, then deconstruct the degree plans around them, then repeat. Eventually you would want to see cyclical course paths that allows students to circle back to concepts they didn’t get, or maybe even back to stuff they were really interested in in order to dig in deeper. On top of that, you could to see students of different levels in “courses” at the same time, so that students that have been taking a “course” for a few weeks could mentor those that just entered. I use the term “course” loosely now because, well, we would need a word for whatever this is… but it would not really resemble a “course” as much as a learning community or personal learning network.
  9. Open Up Research and Practicum/Internship Opportunities. Seems like this goes back to what we are doing today with learning, but often it seems like there is still a distinction between “academic” courses and “practicum” courses. For students that are more interested in a topic, there should be natural extensions into the world beyond the Ivory Tower – through participating in research projects with professors to working with professionals in the field. Or, for the non-traditional learner that is working and studying, why does the time spent on the clock at a job have to be separate from when they are “learning” in a classroom? Why not find ways to connect the two? Well, we don’t do that great of a job with it now because all of the previous steps have not fully come to fruition. But we still see places like Antioch College that are doing interesting things in this area, so I think that eventually we will see that happening more often.

I know that I had 11-12 steps in my mind when I first thought of this idea late last night.. so I apologize if I have left anything important out. I know there is nothing in here about certain technologies like gaming, mobile devices, and 3-D printers. All of those are important, of course, but they are still tools that support the larger view of education and this post is meant to try and start to put some structure around this emerging idea of the “future of education” in my head.

So what we have is a student-centered, open, deconstructed, unschooled, cyclical, connectivist, sociocultural customized learning structure for students to work with peer mentors, faculty, more knowledgeable others, other students, and industry experts to learn in ways that utilize informal learning, life experience, contextual learning, personal analytics, and personal learning networks. Man… how many buzzwords can I cram into one sentence?

The Future of Education Doesn’t Get Announced. It Just Happens.

“The future of education is now here!” If I had a nickel for every time I have heard that, well… I would probably have more money than every company that made that declaration.

It seems that the best way to kill an educational innovation is to proclaim that it is the next big thing. Before it actually becomes the next big thing, that is. Web 2.0 was a big deal before most realized it. But then everything that was declared Web 3.0 fizzled out, followed by the term Web 3.0 itself.

With the announcement today that Harvard and MIT are creating edX, many are proclaiming the future of education is here. To me, the names behind an idea and the money they put into it are irrelevant. Are they going to do something that actually uses good learning design, or are they going to just give away the same old “multiple choice test, online video lecture, write a paper” approach that has been used forever?

Passive learning is just passive learning, no matter how free, open, or massive it is.

I don’t care how many people you get in your free class. If all they do is pick the right answer on a multiple choice test – so what? I can train a monkey to do that.

We really need to ask ourselves: “is this good for the future of education?”

The work of Jim Groom, Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Dave Cormier, and many others of their type are good for education, not because they are doing open education (which is important, but not for the point being made here), but because they are using educational designs that are engaging and beneficial to the learner. They are using community-based designs that encourage out-of-the-box thinking (for both students and instructors). They are avoiding rote memorization. They are creating classes where students actually have to pay attention to the syllabus to know what is going on (how many online classes could actually just skip having a syllabus because they are so cookie-cutter?). They are making students participate in the actual creation of the course assignments. All kinds of crazy things that you don’t see in most things labeled as “the next big thing in education.”

Or then again, maybe I just have a problem with the name “edX.” Did someone ever bother telling them that creating brands with the “x” signifier got way over-used about 10 years ago… and never recovered? Guess not…

I hope that Harvard and MIT come up with something great here. I really do. But the honest truth is,  when I hear Jim Groom talking about innovation as a communal act, I get really excited about the future of education. When I hear Harvard and MIT talk about edX, I just shrug a bit and say “hope they don’t mess it up.”

The Future of Education Doesn’t Get Announced. It Just Happens.

More Useless 2012 Predictions

  • Everything from email to libraries to blogs to universities will be declared dead. Again. For the 10th year in a row.
  • People will continue to call for educational reform. Ignoring, of course, the fact that education is constantly reforming and changing and that there are people out there exploring new ideas and concepts.
  • “Experts” will continue to claim that the lecture model is still dominant at universities, even if they can’t quote any evidence to back this claim up. I counted up all of the courses I took in college in the early 1990s that were lecture based it came out to be less than half. I have heard from current students that, at least at this college, that number has gone way down even since then.
  • Several new LMS options will be labeled “Blackboard killers.” But none will make a dent because labeling any tech a “killer” usually dooms its existence.
  • Even more “experts” will claim that colleges are now irrelevant, despite the numerous studies showing that everyone from employers to future students still think they are highly relevant and necessary. Who needs facts and figures when you just want to grind an ax with a society that won’t pay English majors a seven figure salary right after graduation?
  • Despite overwhelming evidence of the educational value of hybrid or fully online courses, many organizations will develop a case of amnesia and claim there isn’t any evidence. I’m looking at you, Idaho.
  • All of us will suddenly remember that we haven’t logged in to Second Life in over a year and then collectedly feel guilty for letting such a great tool slip away.
  • The American people will get so tired of hearing about new technology lawsuits every day that they will write really extra terse Tweets about the big companies. But of course not do anything to stop the insanity of this whole patent lawsuit mess. Really Google, Apple, Motorolla, and others… its getting old.

What Could The Next Big Thing In Technology Be?

One larger thread in the conversations I have been in about the future of Apple without Steve Jobs centers on “what will the next big thing in technology be?” Jobs was responsible for so many game changers through the years that it is hard to imagine the technology world without him. But to be honest, there have been many game changers through the years from many non-Apple companies.

Will the next big thing be a fundamental re-design of a the phone as we know it? Tech crunch has an interesting article on a bendable phone that is controlled by kinetic movements as much as touch. An interesting concept even if you hate the shape (which some seem to – I kind of like it). Some think the phone will also become implanted in a pair pf glasses, with an interface that virtually floats in front of your eyes.

The bigger concept to realize is that the iPhone is not going to be the last major re-think of cell phones as we know them. Computers themselves may one day “disappear” as they become so small that we no longer notice their presence – just their interface.

I’m still thinking that 3-D printing will be a major game changer in ways that we can’t image yet. Think of how it could change online learning if you can email actual physical objects. Even face-to-face learning could be greatly enhanced by the ability to print objects. A spontaneous question from a student could be examined in a matter of minutes rather than waiting until the next day (after the teacher has had time to go home and find what is needed to answer the question).

Or will the mysterious Google X lab come up with something so crazy that we can’t even imagine the possibilities?

I still think there is also great potential in virtual worlds. At some point in the near future, some one will crack the interface issues and steep learning curve that Second Life is infamous for and we’ll have Star Trek holodecks before you know it.

The times they are a-changin’…

If We Ditch The LMS, How Then Could We Change Colleges?

Up until now, as I have pondered the future of LMS, I have been mainly focusing on the basic level of courses.  In the back of my head has been this swirling idea of how colleges could change if we had a better system for delivering courses.  This idea is very incomplete and I can already see a large number of “yeah, buts…” in it.  But I want to throw it out there and see how it shakes out.

First of all, I have to start by saying that this model will be based primarily on courses that have moved away from standardized testing and rigid assessment-based outcomes.  I know that there are some uses for multiple choice tests in some cases… but those are very few.  Definitely not in proportion to what we see used currently.  I also believe that many courses benefit when the instructors release some control (maybe even a lot of control) and let the students be more active and even chaotic in their learning.  This system is based on these assumptions.  If you don’t agree… you might want to look elsewhere.  It could get scary here in a minute.

Okay – so let us say that you adopt a social learning environment for your college.  This would basically mean that your students are now following instructors as they share resources rather than just enrolling in a course for lectures.  These resources could be lectures, research, or current events.  The idea is that students would now follow instructors as they research their topics rather than just get a set of preplanned lectures. Instructors would get to research more and get a larger set of eyes to help them keep an eye on the world as it constantly evolves.  Students would get current, up-to-date information with real world usage.

The next part is personalized projects or assignments instead of standardized testing. If you are now using personalized projects to evaluate how well students have learned the material, students could really take as long as they needed in a course and work through at their pace.  It also wouldn’t matter if new students were mixed with veterans, because the projects would be personal and the veterans could be a source of help. It would also save the instructor from having to read 100 essay papers that all say basically the same thing over and over.

When a student wants to take a course, they would sign up to “follow” an instructor in that instructor’s personal teaching environment (which could also even be a classroom in the real world for all it matters).  They would work through the material and assignments at their pace, moving quickly through what they already know and slowing down on the stuff that they need more time on.  Once they have completed the projects, the instructor could look at them and say “great job – you are finished and ready to move on.”  Or the instructor could say “you are not quite there – spend a few more weeks in class and see how that will change your project.”  Or maybe even “that is something I have never though of – you pass, but could you stay on a few more weeks and teach us what you have found here?”

So this would be a little bit chaotic.  Students would be moving through the material at their own pace, following the research that instructors add, adding their own research, and creating projects.  New students would be joining each week and interacting with students that are half way through and maybe even about to finish.  But since the projects are personalized and application-based – this is okay.  Students could probably even help each other – which is more like real life operates anyways. When students have finished the course, they move on to the next one.

Now this sounds workable for one course at a time – but most college students take more than that.  In a new system like this, students would probably have several “streams” of courses – they lay out a couple of different paths through all the courses they want to take, and then work through each path at the pace that is best for them.  Each stream could be moving at different paces, but you as a student would be in several streams at once.  The number of streams may even determine if you are half or full time.  A student could have, say, a “basics” stream, a language stream, an art stream, etc.

There are several things that could provide difficult in this system.  Vacations and holidays would not be that big of a problem – just like in real life, you pause for the time off and then pick up when you come back.  But what happens when a professor quits? Theoretically, you could have students following professors from all over the world and their “college” is the local place for them to interact, socialize, and do things like Science labs.  The logistics behind that is kind of crazy, but interesting.  However, there are times when professors just retire or quit teaching.  With no real end point for courses – what happens to the students that aren’t finished yet?  Or what about smaller courses that only happen once a year because only 6 students take them?  A lot of things to think about, but you get the idea of where this is heading. True personalized any time, any where learning.

Predicting the Future is a Risky Business

Part of my day job involves following trends and predicting what might happen in the future of online education.  Pretty risky business – I remember ten years ago when one article predicted that all colleges would one day have at least one class delivered online through AOL.  A-O-Who? Do they still exist?

But despite the potential for immense embarrassment, I still find looking to possible futures fascinating (can you guess what my favorite genre of entertainment is?).  I enjoy it so much that I wrote an article on what education could look like in 10 years, based on predictions of where technology is heading. The article is called “When the Future Finally Arrives: Web 2.0 Becomes Web 3.0” and it will be a chapter in a book called Web 2.0-based E-learning: Applying Social Informatics for Tertiary Teaching

The great news is that chapter will be published next month. The bad news is that it took two years to get published, so a lot of what I say about Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 sounds pretty dated.  This situation in itself exposes the weakness of publishing in traditional media. All of your cool, hip terms will become over-used cliches before your article gets printed.

I wish that I could just post the whole article here – I just proof-read it and I got pretty excited thinking about what the future could be like.  Some of the topics covered are:

  • Affordable media centers that have wide-screen, high definition, holographic, three-dimensional, multi-touch screen monitors, with cameras that can follow your movement to manipulate the display (like Minority Report) or respond to voice commands
  • Classes that easily transfer back and forth from synchronous to asynchronous.
  • Integrated systems – virtual worlds integrated with the web and each other, smart-phones integrated with desktops, etc.
  • Greater use of tags to organize information with more accuracy.
  • Better interaction between students and between the student and instructors.
  • And finally, of course, really cool technology like three dimensional printers and scanners.

Much of what I wrote on is technology-focused.  I realize that good pedagogy needs to come first in all educational situations… but if you think enough when you read it, you will see how I snuck a bunch of good pedagogy in there. If you do get to read it, I would recommend just skipping down to the section called “An Example of Online Learning 10 Years in the Future.” The rest of the stuff before that was just my attempt to sound scholarly and all that :)

That is to say – if you get to read it.  This is the other problem with traditional media: this booked is pretty darn expensive.  And I had to sign all my rights away to get it published, so I can put it on my blogs.  I can always let people that live near me read the “draft” version that I printed up for proof-reading.