Opinion Polls and the Continuing Mission of Ed Tech

So the news today is that opinion polls found that the general population still finds traditional classes to be better than online ones in a few key areas. I find polls like these fascinating, but not because I think they spell trouble for online learning. These are opinion polls and therefore don’t necessarily spell out fact. What they do reflect is what message is most often heard. And what is currently dominating the message? xMOOCs. So you are probably dealing with some misunderstood terms here.

Anyone in online learning knows that online courses can be just as good or bad at things like “instruction tailored to each individual,” providing “high-quality instruction from well-qualified instructors,” or offering “rigorous testing and grading that can be trusted.” The reality is that those are all factors that depend more on design and instructors than whether something is online or not. Personally I have never been in a face-to-face class that allowed for “instruction tailored to each individual.” But I know many online programs that do. So I am making a case that individual perception is biased – so what?

The so what part is that we still need the evangelists out there, spread the good news of online learning. Not as the only method of learning for the future, but as one that is every bit as equal to face-to-face learning. I think many of us just sit back and think the case has been made and the battle has been won, when polls like this one still show some ground to be gained.

And did anyone else notice that this poll found a much higher satisfaction rate with college in general than the “death of the university” crowd has been preaching? I may to hold off my early retirement plans if this whole university thing survives….

Make Your Brain Happy by Learning Something Online

All I can say is that I knew it all along. Jacqueline Barnes of Litmos LMS says that “our brains love learning online.” Or I guess it would be more accurate to say that research is possibly indicating that certain aspects of the online experience help us to enjoy the learning process a bit more.

A closer look at the research shows that it is not really just anything and everything about online learning that help us learn better, but specific concepts and ideas focused primarily on engagement, social presence, encouragement, and immediacy. What I don’t see in the research is any mention of long lecture capture videos, digitizing standardized tests and uploading them online, 500-slide death by PowerPoint modules, or any of the other standards that we typically see in online courses.

In other words, the bad, boring teaching concepts that have been bad, boring teaching concepts for centuries will continue to be bad, boring teaching concepts no matter how much technology we wrap around them. [ahem…. iBooks 2?]

So many times when I read about certain colleges putting “free courses” online I cringe – when all they are really doing is putting popular lecture captures online. I have tried to watch these free videos and no matter how well spoken or humorous the professor is, I just can’t sit there and watch to the end without my attention wandering.

What these recent studies don’t necessarily say directly – but they still possibly prove – is that our brains are happy when we are actively engaged in the learning process. Passively sitting there and staring at the screen for a long time? Not so much. I hate to admit it, but that is why I have never been able to get into the Khan Academy that much. If you love it – great. I just need more engagement and less “sit and stare.”

College Professors Striking Back at Technology – With Technology?

You just can’t make this stuff up.  Here is the name of a recent article on The Chronicle:

College 2.0: Teachers Without Technology Strike Back

The first thing that any decent intro to educational technology course teaches you is that technology is not just a computer.  Chalk boards are technology.  Books are technology.  “Technology can refer to material objects of use to humanity.” This also includes over head projectors and calculators.

In fact, we have probably all read the quotes from people that were opposed to books way back in the day.  I even remember once reading a quote that talked about how writing on bark was better than chalkboards or something like that.

So how did the professor strike back at technology? But forcing students to use a blue book.  Which is technically also technology.  Confused? So are the students in these courses I would bet. The professor also used an overhead at some point I would be willing to bet, or at least turned on the air conditioning if it got hot.

Worst quote of the article?

“tech-based learning feels more like IKEA—a lower-price, build-it-yourself option.”

Sad. Really sad.  Just taking out technology and talking at students doesn’t make a class high quality.  In fact, I have been in many face-to-face courses that would be a K-mart Blue Light Special if this metaphor is continued.

“In that way, some professors see emphasizing the benefits of chalk-and-talk methods as defending their craft against pressures to cheapen it.”

That is great – I see great value in face-to-face learning.  Just don’t defend your side by cheapening technology-based learning.  Lower-price, do-it-yourself? Give me a break.

For the One Millionth Time, This is NOT Online Learning…

The Chronicle boldly proclaimed today that “Online Learning May Slightly Hurt Student Performance.” How do they know this? A “study found that students who watched lectures online instead of attending in-person classes performed slightly worse in the course over all.”

That sound you hear is the collective world of EduGeeks around the world firmly planting their palm to their fore head. Online lectures are ten times as boring as the face-to-face version, so no wonder they performed so bad.

(that last statement is based on the results of my scientific study of the volume of snores originating from a few online lecture video based courses I know of)

One of the authors even had this to say: “It’s limited evidence, but I think it’s the highest-quality evidence that’s available.”

Sorry, but it is not anywhere near as good as the other evidence out there.  The previous analysis of online learning by the U.S. Department of Education (that this article mentions) actually looked at many different actual forms of online learning. Not the wanna-be online learning beast called video lectures.

UPDATE: just as a note, The Chronicle did edit the original article and title to “more accurately characterize the research.”  The original title is in the link above. Also, the quote from the authors above was also removed, but it was originally there.

The Best Place To Learn IS On The Web

Much has been said recently about how the Web is making us more stupid. I blame Bing really – they said that humans are basically so dumb that we go on search overload if we can’t figure out a simple page of links.  I don’t feel “stupider” than I did before the Internet :)  Maybe I am just so ignorant that I don’t realize how dumb I am.

Finally, however, the New York Times brings some reality… and some actual science… into the debate with “The Defense of Computers, the Internet and Our Brains.”  My two favorite quotes:

“Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how ‘experience can change the brain.’ But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk.”


“It could be argued that the Web, which is the ultimate library of words, video, images, interactivity, sharing and conversation, is the quintessential place to learn.”

And thousands of EduGeek around the world then said… “amen”…

Edit: made some changes, just in case people didn’t get my use of humor with the word “stupider.”