Thursday, February 21, 2013

OER: Neuro-Cloud: a new model of textbooks

I am really excited about Neuro-Cloud. I heard about it in a tweet from Creative Commons this morning and went to take a look. This is a textbook that is being created by a community of neuroscientists who first began the project as an open journal. It is free for anyone to use because they are using the CC-by license instead of traditional copyright. It is still a work in progress: they want to have a finished textbook by July of 2013.

I have been very interested in textbooks that are created by a community of scholars rather than the traditional subject matter expert model of the traditional publishers. The math textbooks at my previous college are an example of this. I think it is particulary fitting that this is how a textbook on neuroscience is written and supported because neuroscience is a rapidly changing field. Every advance in technology gives us more ways to look at the brain and like astronomy or physics, the deeper in we look, the more we find. What is fascinating about this project is that students will be reading a text written by this current generation of neuroscientists and then will go on to do research and work that will contribute to the later editions of this book. This is a living community of scholarship as much as it is a textbook:
"The goal of the Neuro-Cloud Textbook Project is to provide a free, accurate and comprehensive introduction to neuroscience for both educators and students. This is to be accomplished through an online collaborative environment where the next generation of neuroscientists will have the opportunity to work with colleagues from all over the world. By providing students experience, connections and a chance to showcase their knowledge, all while providing a needed service to the community, the Neuro-Cloud Textbook Project creates a situation where the whole world can benefit."
There has been a lot of hand wringing about "sustainability" over open education resources and open textbooks. As soon as we move away from the education-as-a-product model and move towards education as community (I am thinking here of the Connectivist model), questions about money become less relevant.
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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Trouble with College, Online or Off

English: This is Juniper Hall at Humboldt Stat...
There is an editorial in the New York Times entitled "The Trouble with Online College" this morning about online education. It argues that online education has high attrition rates and that students who are unprepared for college will not do very well. The "therefore" is that we should think twice before seeking to attempt the MOOC model (Massive Open Online Courses). The article makes no distinction between "traditional" online classes or MOOCs. It makes no distinction between the different kinds of learning platforms and designs that are going under the name of MOOC. None of this confusion of terms really helps the opinion. All of the research cited in the piece is from Washington State's tracking students in their online classes, not from any research related to MOOCs. With that in mind, I think it is important to look at the success and retention rates of any online class, even MOOCs, and look at what makes for a successful online class.

To begin with, I generally agree with this article but disagree with the take-away. There are problems with online classes but they have the same issues as face-to-face. I recently worked at a college that had a graduation rate of less than 13%, a retention rate of 52%, and a transfer rate of only 15% with tuition at $5600. Not high by national standards but a considerable amount of money to the local population, especially considering the price of textbooks. If a student's classes are not using free, openly licensed textbooks, they can expect to add another $900-$1200 a year to that price tag. No one sounded any alarms; no one suggested that the model is suspect or broken. No one has warned that face-to-face learning may not be cost effective or sustainable. No one has suggested that teachers need special training or that the orientation to college needs to be redesigned - none of that is really possible is it because the face-to-face, brick and mortar model is the best possible systems of education. I would like to see the editorial pages of the New York Times or the Chronicle of Higher Ed hold face-to-face colleges up to the same standards as they do online colleges. But the interesting thing is that online colleges can meet that challenge.

There is a large body of research in online learning that shows that there is no significant difference between face-to-face and online learning that has been going on for decades and is routinely ignored by many educators and columnists. Despite the findings of that research, in the distance education department at the previous college where I worked, we saw in increasing difference between the success and retention rates of our online college versus our face-to-face college. We did some research and decided to do three things to close the gap:
  1. Student Orientation
    We designed a free, fully online student orientation that used all the tools that the school's learning management system used. It operated like a "real" online class over two weeks. It included not only the technology the students were going to use but the learning skills needed to succeed online (time management, communication, etc.).
  2. Faculty Training
    We increased our faculty training efforts. We kept a weekly schedule of workshops that were either presented in-house or we participated in free online workshops from other colleges. Our dream was to create a network of colleges that were already presenting online workshops to their faculty and keep them all in a central calendar.
  3. Online Student Advising
    We had a dedicated academic advisor who was completely focused on online students. This advisor was very good at his job. He made himself available to be enrolled in any online class and could do things like subscribe to the help forums in classes and call students on the phone who had not logged-in in two weeks.
The results were that we closed the gap between the success and retention rates in the online college first meeting the California community college average and then beating that and passing the national average. I wrote about that here and also presented on it at conferences.

I have also taught developmental English in a hybrid online course and have seen full-online developmental English courses beat the retention and success rates of face-to-face classes. This can happen with good instructional design that incorporates the skills that students need to be successful online and the connections to the same services that all students need to succeed (online librarians, advisors, etc.). 

One of the reasons why online teaching and learning has problems is because college's and instructors continue to believe that the same model that "works" in the face-to-face classroom is the same model needed for the online classroom. We need a different model and a different system of support. Colleges are not getting the same students they did 20 years ago. Students need to learn how to learn online. They have spent 12 years in the face-to-face classroom learning how to be face-to-face students (in the best of all possible worlds), and we can't just assume they will have the skills needed to be successful online - we need to teach them.
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Saturday, February 09, 2013

A Bus of One's Own

Greyhound, Black and White
Greyhound, (Photo credit: djupp)
My personal learning network (PLE) includes blogs, twitter, Facebook, journals, co-workers, classes and other communities. My PLE now includes Redwood Transit. I sometimes complain that I do not have enough time to read (physical books) and write (in a physical notebook). It is important for me because that is where I am inspired and it is a source of my own creativity. I obviously do a lot of writing on computers but it is too easy to just focus on "work related" reading and research. The printed word has not been at the fore-front of this learning network in a long time. I still read books and a couple of paper journals, but not on the scale that I used to in my pre-network literacy years. The primary reason is time. This is now changing. My new job at Humboldt State has me commuting. I was at first hesitant at the thought of taking the bus - I have spent a good deal of my early life on busses - school busses, Greyhound busses, the Green Tortoise, county and city busses. I have spent days on busses traveling to jobs, going to school, or visiting family. I never considered them luxurious by any means: they usually had no air conditioning or heat, you are stuck with others who are traveling for days. Their cleanliness was highly variable. I once rode a bus from Portland to Los Angeles with another passenger who was pregnant and had the flu. There has to be special circle in hell like that. I have also spent a day traveling with newly released prisoners they were traveling from San Luis to Los Angeles and some didn't make it as far as Nipomo.

It seems busses have changed some. People can no longer smoke on the bus. The Redwoods Transit busses are clean, well-lit, heated and have wifi. I realized that I have a great opportunity here. I can start reading novels again on a regular basis. I am forced to spend time on the bus and now I have that luxury that is missing from so many of our lives right now - time. Time to read, write, and process. This is only my first week and I am half-way through Machado de Asis' "Epitaph of a Small Winner." I have had a stack of books on my night stand that I have not been able to get to and now I finally have the time and space.

I have a novel that I have been chipping away at for the last few years - my 3rd or 4th one depending on how you want to define the novel. It is a glacially slow process because of work. This is not the artistic medium for the bus! Short stories and poetry lend themselves well to the short bursts of reverie and 15 to 20 minutes periods of focus that the bus may allow. Despite all of my work in online learning last year, I managed to get a short story published and the editors of the journal, Border Crossing, nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. I was thrilled about all of this - I understand that being nominated is a modest acknowledgement, but I am still thrilled. It also has me thinking about writing more short stories, "flash fiction" even because, with apologies to Woolf, I actually have the time and space to do that; a bus of my own.

A chart of Geoff Cain's PLE (personal learning network).
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Friday, February 08, 2013

MOOCs and Other Four-Legged Chickens

I have just moved to Humboldt State University. The college is fairly rural but we get a lot of folks from urban areas. I over heard a very interesting conversation between some students in the cafeteria.  One of them was freaking out because there was a rat in the garden outside that they could see outside through the window.
She yelled "what is that hopping around?"
One of her friends said "that has to be a bird."
She said "but it has four legs and a tail."
"But chickens have four legs," said the other, "at least, that's what you get in the bucket." They went back and forth. The wood rat hopped away and her three friends went on debating the nature of birds and mammals.
You might wonder how someone could make such a mistake. But imagine if the only time you have ever really thought about chicken was when it was in a soup,  a sandwich or already in a bucket. If you order fried chicken, you can get a whole assortment of parts but it would be difficult to piece back together a whole bird.

MOOCs are going through what I am thinking of here as a "four-legged chicken" stage. There are a lot of educational experiences and platforms that are being described as MOOCs: there is the original "Connectivist" or networked based MOOCs, task-based MOOCs, and content-based MOOCs. Some even describe collections of videos as MOOCs. There are many variations. Because the MOOC acronym has the word "class" in it, many educators are expecting to see their own definition of a class which is often a face-to-face class or a "traditional" online class where they have the most control. When the description of the MOOC does not meet the definition of a class, the conclusion is that it will fail as an educational experience. Many of the arguments I have read against MOOCs will latch on to one aspect of the course or only look at one kind of MOOC and then condemn the whole idea. Many of the arguments are re-hashes of arguments against online learning that were already fought and won 15 years ago (i.e. "No Significant Difference," student identity issues, etc.). Online learning was the four-legged chicken of the 90s.

My take on MOOCs is that there needs to be more focus on how they work - this is the instructional design component. On one hand, we are early in the research, but MOOCs have been around since 2008. Most educators are just now hearing about them because, as Stephen Downes has also pointed out, they were only recently picked up by the big name universities which then attracts the attention of the Chronicle of Higher Ed, the Horizon Report, etc.

Recently an instructor created a MOOC that, for a number of reasons, failed. Of course that happened - this is a new teaching and learning environment. We are still learning how all the pieces fit together. Face-to-face and online classes have also failed. There are face-to-face colleges with worse retention and student success rates than some online colleges. This is not the "I told you so moment" that some think it is. I feel very strongly that we can't dismiss MOOCs because, in my experience, some of them work very well (George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and Jim Groom). The current state of the research is thin, we need more data, we need to work out the best practices. And in the end, you cannot assemble a chicken from a bucket of KFC.

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