Depressing Confessions of a “Newly Minted” Ph.D.

I have been struggling with this blog post for much longer today than I probably should admit. Lots of people ask you what you are going to do “now that you have a Ph.D.” And the truth is, I really don’t know. I currently work in a nice position that requires Ph.D. level work, so its not like I am in a hurry to change things. But it is also a position that requires me to determine what I want to research, so staying put or looking elsewhere leaves me with the same confusion over “what’s next?” either way.

But why do I feel so confused over the future? This line from Jim Groom’s recent post seemed to finally clarify my hang-up:

“a bunch of folks who have been, for the most part, marginalized by the ed-tech gold rush for MOOCs, big data, analytics, etc—a push for the last four years that dominated the field’s time, energy, and precious few resources.”

There are interesting things happening in those “gold rush” areas, and also some concerning things. But our field, overall, does have a “cool” crowd and a “not so cool” crowd. If you are not currently into analytics, wearables, and a few other hot topics… you are usually left in the margins. I’m not sure if marginalized is the best word, but maybe… toiling in obscurity? For example, even bad ideas in analytics get more attention, more funding, more awards, etc, than great ideas in more obscure fields like instructional design, learning theory, etc.

That is not to slam analytics or wearables or whatever as a whole. There are some great ideas there. As Vitomir Kovanovic stated today:

The “gold rush” is often focusing on the “bad ones” at times because they can get something out there quicker. As George Siemens wisely pointed out:

So for a lot of these “hot topics,” I don’t hate them as much as see them having a long waiting period to mature into something practical. In the meantime, the instructional designer in me knows of practical ideas that can be used right now to make a dent in things.

But, the depressing truth is that these ideas will mostly always be kicking around on the fringes. When people like Mike Caufield complain about feeling obscure, and his ideas are a hundred times more popular than the ones I am interested in… it doesn’t make one want to sign up for years and years of fringe work.

Personally, I think the idea of “thought leader” is a bit along the lines of “rock star.” Others see differently, that is fine with me. But “thought leaders” are still part of the cool crowd, where as “thought synthesizers” tend to get left out of the conversation frequently. Most of the really interesting things that I like to work on, like customizable pathways design, are not really the result of “thought leaders” as much as “thought synthesizers.”

So the problem is, should I throw my lot in with the cool kids and do things that I am maybe-kind of interested in, or follow my passions into obscurity?

To be honest, I don’t really know. I am technically already in obscurity, so no where to go but up, right? A lot of this is not really about me, but the ideas that I think have great potential. They are also, unfortunately, ill-defined, poorly worded (too many syllables, which I say in all seriousness and not flippantly), not sexy, not flashy, not cool. I could very easily hitch my wagon to some ideas that are cool sounding and sexy. Someone sent me a link to a university that was looking for a Professor of Game-Based Learning that they thought I would be a good fit for. Sounds fun, flashy, hip, etc. But it was also in Texas, and let’s face it: Texas is not a great place to live (sorry if you think it is). And they pay academics poorly. I just found out this week I could get a raise if I went to teach high school down the street. Not interested in that at all, but…. ouch.

Also don’t know if I could spend all day teaching game-based learning. Not my passion. You see, I went to get a Ph.D. as a frustrated instructional designer that couldn’t get a foot in the research door because I wasn’t a professor. I wanted to follow my passions into researching ideas that made a practical difference (like many other Ph.D. students I am sure). That was five years ago, and the general state of academia has declined rapidly since then. I’m hardly enthusiastic to jump on the tenure track when that is such a minefield. If I can even get on the tenure track – that is difficult at best in the current university climate.

Oh, and now in many states students could be packing heat. So, yay safety.

edugeek-journal-avatarSo now that my pity party has been dragging on forever and will probably cost me the 6 readers I get for any post (WordPress stats are depressing as well), I leave anyone still reading this my depressing confession: if you get a Ph.D., you may end up finding yourself at a crossroads to choose between your passions and what will actually get you somewhere. If your passions line up with the cool crowd, you are lucky; if they don’t, you have a hard choice to make. I can’t tell you which one I will make. Obviously, I will be choosing very soon. But do I really want to push off in the opposite direction of the stream of hip ideas that have “dominated the field’s time, energy, and precious few resources”? It’s hard to say. But an important question to ask oneself.

Research Says: Online or Face to Face Is Better?

You know what they say about getting into an argument with an instructional designer over learning design? Oh… they don’t? Well, they should. Anyway… if they did say anything about it, they would say not to do it because instructional designers pretty much shoot holes in everything.

People argue all the time over whether online learning is better or worse than face-to-face. But you ask an instructional designer which is better? Well, neither, both, and… it kinda depends.

Confusing? Yeah, well blame the research. Research is important. Research tells us a lot. Research raises a lot of good questions. But it seems like we as the educational community are misusing and over simplifying the results of the research.

A lot of research is based on numbers. And those numbers might tell us that, say, there is a statistically significant difference between the number of learners that passed the test in the face-to-face version of a course and the number of those that passed in the online version. Or substitute “test” with whatever metric you are using to determine which is better. And so face-to-face is declared the winner and online is the loser that has to slink off and die because it *lost*!

The problem is – online learning obviously worked great for those students that passed – even if there were statistically significantly fewer of them (did I just butcher the English there?). Research is not a contest to show which option is the one right one. We are not in a giant game of Highlander: Education. There can be more than one right way. It can be online and blended and face-to-face. We are not waiting to see which one beheads all the others to become the clear champion of the universe.

So when the Department of Education came out and declared blended learning the best, that did not mean that online and face-to-face were horrible or ineffective. They just found a higher number for blended. That’s all. That doesn’t invalidate the other two. They are  a national entity that has to look at what works for millions of students.

One way that we know that online learning is working is by learner testimonials. There are thousands and thousands of learners all over the nets saying how online learning worked for them. And guess what – some of them actually failed their courses! Wait – am I telling you that scores don’t matter? Well, of course they matter if you want to earn a piece of paper. But many learners don’t look at a passed test or course as a sign of “working.” Earning an “F” in a course could mean they don’t take tests well, or they had a death in the family during the semester, or they went off on a tangent and forgot to take the final because they were too busy learning informally.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum, where students get annoyed at classes and give them bad satisfaction ratings because they were required to do actual work and they thought they should get an A just for paying for the class.

So ultimately, if a student says an online course worked for them because it challenged them to think and learn, that is good evidence that it worked. Test scores and completion rates and satisfaction surveys might also tell us something, but typically those are ranking systems and not a “winner takes all” cage matches.

But another huge problem – one that instructional designers would point out to you – is that even the best research studies cannot really tell you if online or face-to-face is better. They can compare how the learners in one type of online learning design for a specific time period performed against another group of learners in one type of face-to-face learning design for that same period. There are so many different ways to design for learning online, and there are so many different ways to design for face-to-face, and so many ways that different instructors can affect their classes, and so many ways the learner population can affect the mood of the class, and so on. Research gives us a snap shot of what is going on in specific set of classes at a specific time – but the goal should be to ponder what this means for our personal situation and adapt and experiment ourselves. Not “this works! This doesn’t” and move on.

So the instructional designer will tell you that, yes we know a whole lot about what “works” in the macro sense of education, but in a lot of ways we also know very little of what “works” also. We can tell you want generally works in online or face-to-face and what doesn’t… but it ends up being a long vague list that you still have to take a stab at to see what does and doesn’t work for you specifically.

And the kicker is – despite all the research and facts I knew when I started as an instructional designer… I didn’t really get all of this until I started teaching online. Once you start teaching yourself, and trying to actually do what the research says… you begin to realize that it’s not so black and white. There are no champions of the universe, no best practices, no learning styles, no easy categories for everything to fit in. Oh, sure – you “know” that before you start teaching, but it’s kind of like you “know” parenting is tough until you have a kid and see how tough (and wonderful) it can be for yourself. First-hand knowledge changes your perspective radically. And simplistic answers from research goes out the window. The research itself (or at least the good research) doesn’t really ever give easy answers – people just misread it and think it does. Once you start teaching yourself, you begin to realize that you will use research to inform your practice instead of dictate it.

Some day soon I hope we move beyond this pointless rhetoric about online or face-to-face or blended learning being better or a good way to learn or whatever. All education is distributed over a distance anyways. Learners have declared that all work for them. Its better to start looking at what worked or didn’t work for the learners and go from there. That might call for some – gasp – qualitative research!

“So okay, Matt, stop with the whole ‘there is no spoon BS’ and tell me straight – does online learning work or not” you might say. Online learning works – for certain students. What all of the research is really telling us is that what doesn’t work is forcing all students into one-size fits all learning designs. Therefore, that leads me back to why I like working with the dual layer MOOC group – how can we offer students options to determine for themselves what works best? How can we create multiple paths that are truly multiple paths and not just “five different version of the same silo”? How can we create learning designs that emphasize diversity, experience, and autonomy in learning? Especially when so many students are used to instructivist learning?

Second Thoughts on Online Education (Or At Least The People Reporting On It)

Been out for a bit to help welcome a new EduGeek in the world.  I come back hoping to find a great new world of Ed Tech, grown and matured since I last left it.  Instead, I find the same silliness, like this article in the New York Times:

Second Thoughts on Online Education

You probably don’t even need to read it to know what happened.  A large university did a study where they compared the outcomes of a large lecture hall class to the outcomes from an “online” course with taped lectures.

Bad pedagogy vs. bad pedagogy – guess who won?  Oh, come on and say it with me – whining can help you feel better.  Ready?

Who won? No one.

Oh, the author talks about what the results possibly tell us, because certain groups (men, minorities, etc) performed worse in the online version than their counterparts in the face-to-face version.  Some crazy theories about why this is so are also posted: men like to procrastinate (and online videos help that), people that can’t speak English can’t pick up as well on non-verbal clues online, etc.

Could it possibly be that taped online lectures – no matter how well produced – are boring? No one likes to watch a talking head on a screen for hours.  Certain groups probably performed poorer just because they got bored faster.

Guess that brave new world of educational utopia is still down the road a bit….

The Real Problem With Social Networking is That Academics Just Don’t Get It

I have been chewing over the brief article at The Chronicle about how a study found “No Link Between Social-Networking Sites and Academic Performance.”

Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies and sociology at Northwestern, suggests that the benefits of social-networking sites may cancel out the distractions they pose.

Here is a newsflash people: the benefits of reading can also cancel out the distractions it poses. Do you really think spending hours each day devouring the National Enquirer improves academic performance? Nope.  Spending time on a social network is about as broad a category as reading now – with good and bad examples of both existing out there.

Someday… just maybe academics will figure out it is not the tool itself that matters but how it is used.  Until then we will have to continue performing studies that tell us the obvious.

But I fully recommend that you bookmark the study – it will save you time and energy the next time you have to respond to “I heard that students are failing because of Facebook” for the millionth time.

M.I.T.’s Technology Enhanced Active Learning

M.I.T. has been debating whether they should ditch the traditional lecture format of introductory physics and go with something better for a while.  Seems like the debate is over: “The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning.”  The result?  Attendance is up and the failure rate is down nearly 50 percent.  The New York Times has an article with more details about the project.

Online educators have championed this kind of learning for… ummmm… ever?  Even though some subjects like physics might not be able to easily make the transition to an online environment, most courses that go online do so with the goal of being hands-on, interactive, and collaborative.

The New York Times article also points out some other interesting facts.  For example, no matter how interesting an instructor is, students still lose interest in long lectures.  I would bet that you could find the same is said about online lecture videos, pod casts, or lecture-based video conference sessions.  I know I don’t find those very engaging for very long.

Another fact that teachers really need to pay attention to is that the human brain has been found to only be able to hold a maximum of maybe seven different items in its short-term memory, and that it can not process more than four ideas at once.  So – watch what all you cram in to those lessons – online or face-to-face.

Although none of this really promotes online education specifically, good distance courses are usually designed the way these M.I.T. courses are.  And, overall, this is a plus for technology in learning in general.