Archive for Online learning

Supporting Student Curiosity Through Online Learning


“The Face of Poetry” exhibit (Minneapolis, 2008)

What does the future hold for online learning in schools? Will schools of the future offer a mixture of fully online, face-to-face, and blended courses, or will e-learning instead largely live within online providers that compete with schools? While predictions abound (and conflict), we deepen our understanding of online learning by participating in it.

Global Online Academy enrolls students from over 60 leading independent schools across the country and abroad. Classes are fully online—students never meet in person. Teachers from member schools assign both individual and group work and get to know their students well. The courses are at least as challenging and time-intensive as U Prep courses.

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Students in one class mark their locations on a map.

15 U Prep students are taking GOA courses this semester, exceeding our expectations for this new opportunity. Why did so many students elect to take online courses? For one, GOA offers subjects designed to extend and enrich our curriculum. With the addition of GOA, our elective catalog instantly expanded from 60 to 100 courses. Second, online courses have gone mainstream—the choice no longer seems unusual or risky. Finally, offering Global Online Academy courses as part of the U Prep program increases the expectations for independent school culture and student support.

We also reduced barriers to entry as much as possible. GOA courses were included in every step of our course requests process, from new course announcements to course signup and approval. Even though the school pays student enrollment fees to GOA, students take the courses without additional charge.

Our students are very clear: they take GOA courses in order to study contemporary topics that interest them. Ancillary benefits include experience taking a fully online course and meeting students and teachers from other states and countries. U Prep students are currently enrolled in eight of GOA’s 40 courses:

  • Applying Philosophy to Modern Global Issues
  • Arabic: Language through Culture
  • Contest Mathematics
  • Genocide and Human Rights
  • Global Health
  • Graphic Design
  • Medical Problem Solving I
  • Poetry Writing

The courses exemplify interdisciplinary study of contemporary issues in a global society. Students take courses that reflect their intellectual curiosities and have obvious relevance to their lives.

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Some anecdotes:

Annie and Matan are paired up with online buddies at King’s Academy in Jordan. Twice a month, they chat online via Skype to get to know each other and practice Arabic.

When Tseion’s Genocide and Human Rights class was asked, “what human right is most important to you,” she gained a new appreciation for political diversity as classmates from around the world shared their responses.

Kei wanted to take an additional semester of math in the fall, but none fit into his schedule. Having participated in math contests before, Contest Mathematics was a great fit.

Claire took Global Health because she had always been interested in social justice and wanted to learn how she could apply that interest in an academic setting.

Grace and Michelle share an advisory, a free period, and an interest in medicine. In Medical Problem Solving, they work with classmates from different schools to propose a diagnosis from a set of symptoms.

Katherine found a GOA that perfectly matched her passion for writing poetry. Each week, she submits her writing to the course’s discussion forum and both receives and gives feedback to her classmates.

Zack reports that Graphic Design is his favorite course. Why take a course online that we offer on campus? It can be hard to get a spot in our spring semester course, and GOA places more emphasis on digital work.

Rwandan Hutu refugees with as many possesions as they can carry trudge along the tarmac near Benaco Junction after being turned back by Tanzania soldiers after they tried to flee deeper into Tanzania. Several of the refugees said they would walk all thw way to Kenya or Malawi just so they could avoid returning to Rwanda. PG Photo by Martha Rial Dec. 1996

Rwandan Hutu refugees, PG Photo by Martha Rial Dec. 1996

The Future of Digital Cultures

It’s week 3 of E-Learning and Digital Cultures, which of course means that I am ready to write about week 2! Thankfully, this MOOC is designed to allow for some time flexibility. Here are a few ideas and reflections from the week 2 videos and readings.

During week 2, the instructional team shared some utopian and dystopian views of what future culture might be like in a highly technological age. Interestingly, the two utopian views were both from technology companies, Corning and Microsoft. While both showed a variety of scenes from daily life, they placed a heavy emphasis on business life, particularly business travel. Curiously, the imagined future devices were themselves technically very advanced, but the social applications were very familiar from present-day life. People were shown going to business meetings, attending school, and making their way around the house in a way not at all different from the present day. My favorite: the kids’ school uniforms were straight out of San Francisco Catholic schools!

The two dystopian videos were alarming views of company or state control of society, in which technology is used to keep people captive. Sight is worth a view if you have a spare eight minutes. Wearable computing, video game culture, dating sites, corporate control, and personal greed all come together in this detailed, entertaining and frightening view of the future.

While I fully agree with the need for vigilance against political and corporate totalitarianism, I have too much faith in humanity to believe that these dystopian views will in fact become reality. I am reminded of the historical analysis in Hamlet’s Blackberry, in which William Powers demonstrates that humanity has not only survived but also shaped cultural change in response to past eras of rapid technological change. My favorite example: according to Powers, the telephone was first envisioned as a mass broadcast device. We would all pick up the phone to listen to messages sent from a central agency. Instead, people’s unstoppable desire to connect with each other transformed the telephone into a personal communication technology. Returning to the week 1 theme of determinism, personal agency is alive and well and shapes technologies at least as much as technologies shape people.

In the week 2 readings, Johnston addresses how the Internet is characterized by metaphors to help people understand it. However, metaphors such as “superhighway” oversimplify the true nature of the Internet, limiting people’s ability to fully appreciate its potential. While I appreciate this point of view, I equally feel that innovators constantly invent new Internet applications and thus stretch our collective understanding of what one can accomplish there. While the superhighway metaphor was all about transcending space and time, we have more recently developed new metaphors to reflect more recent applications of the Internet for social connectedness and knowledge creation.

In a self-referential moment, the course brings in two articles about the relevance of MOOCs, Shirky’s “Napster, Udacity and the Academy,” and Bady’s “Questioning Clay Shirky.” I lean toward the less revolutionary Bady, reminded that the more things appear to change in education, the more they stay the same. Channeling Cuban and Tyack, public education in the U.S. has proven remarkably resistant to change, the basic model surviving intact despite repeated waves of educational innovation. I don’t see much evidence to conclude that the most recent set of innovations will break this trend. Our society has a very firmly-held conception of what Cuban and Tyack call the “grammar of schooling,” or what people recognize as school-based education. As long as most MOOCs faithfully reproduce this grammar, they are likely to remain a pale echo of place-based schooling rather than a viable replacement. That people are taking free online classes does not mean that physical schools are now obsolete. At the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful if prestigious universities were offer a number of free courses to the world indefinitely, as an expression of some small measure of public purpose from these giant institutions?

I look forward to the week 3 content. Given the upcoming long weekend, I even have some hope that I will be able to get through it before the week is out!


E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC

I am excited to start work on the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, offered by the University of Edinburgh through Coursera. This is my second MOOC, and already I feel that this experience will match my expectations better than my first. The course structure is easy to understand, divided into three “blocks,” Utopias and Dystopias, Being Human, and the final assessment. The approach to teaching is more familiar, starting with taking in information through articles and videos, engaging in discussions through a variety of electronic media, and then producing an individual, final product. The path to a rich learning experience seems both in my control and well-informed by the instructors.

The social sciences have for a long time appealed to me as a means to better understand student and teacher engagement with learning. Studies such as Hanging Out, Messing Around, And Geeking Out have helped provide insight and understanding regarding new student behaviors that we did not experience when we were young. Sociology, anthropology, psychology, and other fields help us navigate our changing world and adjust our educational systems to keep up.

E-learning and Digital Cultures promises to use selected artifacts from contemporary culture to illustrate deeply-held feelings about technology and self that underly passionate opinions about technology in education. For example, the opening topic, utopias and dystopias, will explore dominant, deterministic dialogues about education technologies. Not only will this help me navigate the landscape that I experience at work, but it will also help our community members better understand their own conceptions about education technologies. As our school strives to increase its use of computing in the service of learning, I plan to share selected pieces to help people think about their own thinking.

My current position is academic dean at an independent, grades 6-12 day school in Seattle, Washington, USA. I am responsible for oversight of curriculum and professional development, primarily working with administrators and teachers to coordinate the instructional program, facilitate a culture of professional sharing and growth, and help the school grow in new directions.

I look forward to participating in the social aspects of this course, connecting with other course participants through Twitter, discussion forums, Google+ circles, and other vehicles. I hope you will feel free to post comments on my writings here. Thank you in advance to the instructors for planning to hold a Google Hangout to offer some live interaction with participants.


My First MOOC: Not So Hot

MOOCs are hot, the latest educational technology trend to capture people’s imagination and energy. Major universities and start-up companies are offering free courses to the public, leading many to question the viability of the standard model for university-level instruction.

I decided to get a personal MOOC experience by enrolling in Designing a New Learning Environment, offered by Paul Kim, CTO and Assistant Dean of the Stanford University School of Education. You may be interested in checking out the detailed syllabus. Having attended SUSE for my master’s in education degree in 1998-99, I was truly excited to relive the rich educational experience that I had during that nine-month period. I would gain knowledge and skills that would help me better lead innovation in educational programs at my school. The course would challenge my preconceptions, provide new insights in how to design educational innovations, and expand my network of education practitioners.

Overall, I was sorely disappointed. Designing a New Learning Environment did not substantially meet any of my goals for my participation in the course. DNLE is completely different from the graduate courses that I took at Stanford. This MOOC is an experiment in a new mode of teaching that (I assume) deliberately abandons most of the hallmarks of a graduate-level course to develop new methods of instruction.

Perhaps we should not call it a “course.” This feels more to me like the thoughtful establishment of a temporary social network for small groups of participants to connect, imagine, design, experiment, and potentially innovate new educational activities or products. DNLE provided very little course content: one or two short videos each week that explain a high-level perspective on 21st century education and activity design. The principal course expectation was that one would build or join a team of other participants and then design a new educational system (a.k.a., “learning environment”) together.

It won’t surprise you that my favorite week featured seven articles from Dr. Kim that were published in academic journals. This felt like graduate-level education to me. The articles broadened my perspectives, cast new light on issues I had been considering, and provided detailed supporting information that I didn’t have before. I bemoaned the fact that this only happened once during the 10-week course. The assignment connected to the articles was also insufficient: students were instructed only to indicate the “three most interesting or surprising things you learned” and apply the article “to the design or implementation of educational environments or tools.” What a vague expectation for student work.

Good instruction includes the study of content, creation of content, comparing of ideas with peers, and reflection on one’s process. This course has three of the four in abundance. Students are regularly expected to produce work, both individually and in the group project. The course frequently asks students to provide feedback to other students, both within and beyond one’s project group. Self-reflection is emphasized numerous times.

Study of content is the weakest component of the course. Beyond the short videos, seven articles, and occasional web site links, the only other content that the course explicitly provides is the ideas and experiences of one’s peers, particularly in the project team. This could be a rich source of content for one if you really luck out, but for the vast majority of participants, it’s certainly not graduate-level expertise in education design and technology.

I would love to know the reasons that the course team shied away from graduate-level content and assignment expectations. I would imagine that thousands of participants could handle high expectations if they only had the opportunity to do so.

At least the course made it transparent that we are the participants in a research experiment. Chris Dede said as much in his video thanking students for their participation in the course. The Stanford team has surveyed participants several times, and they will also undoubtedly analyze the vast quantities of participation data that their custom online education platform collects. Taking the speculation one step further, perhaps the course title refers to itself. Perhaps DNLE is itself the new learning environment project of the Stanford team, guided by the same principles of culture, environment, and technology that they have passed on to their students.

Did other students better like the course experience? Of the 20 or so BAISNet members who enrolled, I did not find one who completed it. On the other hand, a colleague here at U Prep not only completed the course but also joined a team actively working on a mobile app for classroom management. I noticed that many course teams were organized around one member’s pre-existing product or idea. The course did attract entrepreneurs looking to educators to provide feedback on new product ideas.

Perhaps satisfaction with the course depended largely on one’s prior expectations. If I want a graduate-level course, better to take Calculus I or Intro to Philosophy instead of a course intended to chart new ground both in terms of content and pedagogy.

What role will MOOCs play in education in the future? Perhaps they will fill a space between interest-based social networks, which tend to lack momentum, and university-based learning, which may be difficult to access. Perhaps MOOCs will facilitate connections among people with like interests and create organized spaces and a timeline for them to engage in self-directed learning together. By that standard, Designing a New Learning Environment did a good job for the participants who stuck with the program.

I have already selected my next course, not Calculus I but rather E-learning and Digital Cultures. I have really enjoyed the additional understanding that the fields of sociology and anthropology bring to the fields of education and technology. We will see whether this course will provide substantial content for learning or be another experiment in online instruction.


Taking an Online Course Together

Yesterday, Lori Hébert from College Prep (Oakland) invited BAISNet subscribers to take an online course with her, and as of this morning, 14 BAISNet members have signed up! This is the first online offering from an education school that I have seen in any of the new generation of social, free online courses from major universities.

Stanford Online: Designing a New Learning Environment
Chief Technology Officer and Assistant Dean, School of Education, Stanford University
October 15 – December 20, 2012

The Course

What constitutes learning in the 21st century? Should reading, watching, memorizing facts, and then taking exams be the only way to learn? Or could technology (used effectively) make learning more interactive, collaborative, and constructive? Could learning be more engaging and fun?
We construct, access, visualize, and share information and knowledge in very different ways than we did decades ago. The amount and types of information created, shared, and critiqued every day is growing exponentially, and many skills required in today’s working environment are not taught in formal school systems. In this more complex and highly-connected world, we need new training and competency development—we need to design a new learning environment.

The ultimate goal of this project-based course is to promote systematic design thinking that will cause a paradigm shift in the learning environments of today and tomorrow. Participants are not required to have computer programming skills, but must have 1) a commitment to working in a virtual team and 2) the motivation to help people learn better. All of us have been involved in the learning process at some point in our lives; in this course we invite educators, school leaders, researchers, students, parents, entrepreneurs, computer programmers, illustrators, interface designers, and all those who are interested in working together, to create a new learning environment.

After the completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Identify advantages, disadvantages, limitations, and potentials of at least 10 interactive learning models and solutions.
  • Describe how online communication, collaboration, and visualization technology play a role in the behavioral, cognitive, constructivist, and social dimensions of learning.
  • Describe the major components and processes involved in development of interactive education systems.
  • Communicate rationales of learning technology design approaches through team-oriented collaborations.
  • Evaluate the value of ideas, principles, and techniques used in educational media or systems.

As a Final Team Project, students will design a new learning model catering to 21st century environments and learners. Each self-formed team will design and develop an application or system that combines team interaction activities and learning support features in ways that are effective and appropriate for today’s computing and communication devices. Students must consider potential idiosyncrasies with various learning devices (e.g., tablet, phone, PC), infrastructure requirements (e.g., cellular network, wi-fi, Bluetooth), and any special hypothetical circumstances if relevant. In addition, each team must create and defend a business model (non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid) for the launch and scale up their solution.

Additional consideration will be given to teams that come up with system feature ideas presenting meaningful learning interaction and performance analytics.

More online offerings than ever before

In related news, I sent the following list of online course offerings to our faculty yesterday, and one colleague added to the list.

198 courses from 33 universities, including Stanford, UW, Princeton, Berklee, and U. Michigan.

Stanford Online
Some courses offered via Venture Lab, a new online learning platform designed specifically for group collaboration [3]

7 courses from MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley in science, programming, and public health

Started by the former director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
14 courses, mostly in programming and math.

OpenCulture: 530 Free Online Courses from Top Universities

iTunes U

Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative