Instructional technology / distance education

For Stanford U. MOOC instructors, trial and error breeds success

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Two years and twice as many iterations later, MOOC instructors at Stanford U. say they are finally seeing results.

Flipping the classroom isn't the answer -- let's scramble it (essay)

The “flipped classroom” is the idea of the moment, advocated by everyone from Bill Gates to Eric Mazur, the pioneering science educator. This educational innovation is exciting and promising – but I’d argue for a slight revision to the discourse to make sure we don’t replace one rigid format with another. My suggestion: let’s scramble, not flip, the classroom.

Educause, a leading organization for advancing the effective use of instructional technology, defines the flipped classroom “as a model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed." In the well-known Khan Academy model, students view short video lectures at home, freeing up class time for heads on and hands on engagement with course content, guided by the instructor. Proponents are definitely on to something – why did practice so often happen as “homework”?

Isn’t it better for a student who is stuck on a problem to have access to an instructor who can ask the right questions, offer feedback or explain difficult concepts or processes? Isn’t it better for students to analyze texts and images together in a community of learners, taking in new perspectives as they build understanding, rather than going it alone and then coming to class to hear what the professor thinks? 

The “flipped” classroom seeks to be an antidote to the traditional model in which content is delivered in class by a lecturer, and homework becomes the site for students to practice. Some of the excitement is due to recognition of the power of active learning, and suspicion about the effectiveness of long lectures. Lecture can be a useful teaching tool, but we now know that lecturing for 50 to 90 minutes straight is money into an incinerator, so to speak. Given limits to students’ attention spans, there is a law of diminishing returns when lecturers persist in “covering the material” past the 20 minute mark. The flipped classroom model uses short, more digestible, lectures.

"If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity."

Yet I believe the lexicon for this change – flipping, reversing, inverting or overturning -- is problematic, and might encourage some to stop short of conceptualizing a more promising transformation.  Manifestations of the “flipped” could become as rigid as the 19th century “all lecture, all the time” mode being critiqued.   

Faculty should not stop lecturing to assembled students in favor of “all active learning, all the time” in classrooms. In the 21st century, the lecture plays an important role in helping students find a path in the avalanche of text and information.  How does a disciplinary expert organize and evaluate this information? What ideas rise to the top and what are the relationships among them?

The best lecturers clarify key concepts with concrete, relevant and sometimes timely examples. They also inspire students, by investing their delivery with passion and enthusiasm.  The bottom line: lecture has persisted because students need to hear from teachers. When trimmed down substantially and used intentionally in combination with other methods, lecture need not be relegated to video clips.

While not all proponents are advocating for a simple inversion that places all lecture online and all active learning in class, this reversal is the dominant way of discussing the phenomenon. If we name this innovation more precisely, we could lead some faculty to adopt it in more nuanced and effective ways.

Words matter. If we enact truly flipped or reversed classrooms, we have missed an opportunity. I think it is time to update our vocabulary, guiding the dominant conceptualization toward a more nuanced practice for the good of our students. What is good for our students is a scramble or mix of direct instruction and practice and feedback. The beauty is that technology affords us opportunities to provide for both needs in both online and face-to-face contexts. We need to use these two teaching approaches -- direct instruction versus facilitated practice -- intentionally to help students meet our learning goals.

What does this look like? Students in a scrambled class might start in the online environment by watching a short lecture or reading a course text, before engaging in an online discussion with fellow students.  After engaging in these learning activities (which entail direct instruction and practice with the course material) they might complete an assessment that would enable the instructor to evaluate student learning and identify areas of difficulty or misconception.

This model of regular assessment before face-to-face class meetings is a key component of Eric Mazur’s version of the flipped classroom, known as “Peer Instruction.” (Indeed, Mazur has been experimenting and writing about his own robust and flexible version since the early 1990s.)  Assessment activities online might include inviting students to submit questions, take a quiz or write a response to a targeted question.   

Instead of coming into a “flipped” classroom for the engagement and practice, the mix of content transmission, practice and assessment has already begun.

The scrambled classroom enables a variety of approaches for the face-to-face environment as well. Class meetings in this model could include short lectures which introduce new concepts or address misconceptions that were revealed by online assessment. Direct instruction can then be mixed with active engagement, giving students the opportunity to practice new skills like applying, evaluating or synthesizing course concepts. Ideally, students will have opportunities to collaborate with each other. Students can also take advantage of the instructor’s presence as a responsive facilitator, as they wrestle with new ideas or skills. 

The instructor might end face-to-face class sessions by assessing for understanding, using low-tech classroom assessment techniques like the “one-minute paper” or “the muddiest point” or with technological tools like classroom response systems, better known as “clickers.” If questions or misconceptions are revealed, the professor might use that knowledge to build his/her next lecture, to be delivered in either the virtual or face-to-face environment.   

We are at an exciting moment in education, with an abundance of technological tools to use for delivering content and engaging students. Wherever we teach on the continuum from face-to-face to hybrid to fully online instruction, we can and should be using technology in accordance with best practices. 

With the scrambled classroom model, we are challenged to learn new possibilities, but also to design instruction based on principles we have known about for some time.  In the scrambled classroom model, the innovation is not so much “online learning,” but “human learning” supported by all that the 21st century brings to the table.

Pamela E. Barnett is associate vice provost and director of the Teaching & Learning Center at Temple University.

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U. of North Carolina Wilmington

Moodle tops Blackboard among small colleges, analysis says

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A study shows the open-source platform, not Blackboard, is the top learning software pick among small colleges.

UT-Austin and Cornell U. students question their institutions' investments in MOOCs

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In similar editorials, student journalists at UT-Austin and Cornell U. ask why MOOCs aren't yet benefiting residential students.

Essay on how MOOCs can work in a range of countries

A consortium of small colleges and universities in developing nations around the world is collaborating on a multidisciplinary course that delivers many of the merits of MOOCs but also provides experiential education directed at pressing local needs.  The desired result of this pilot is a powerful blend of multidisciplinary scholarly perspectives, global insights from direct interactions with academics around the world, and applied experience such as comes from helping host communities confront barriers to their sustainable development.

Massive open online courses are invaluable sources of knowledge delivered to every corner of every continent. One can hardly overstate the revolutionary and potentially empowering contribution of MOOCs toward human development as they stream information across recently bridged digital divides. However, what’s missing from this Internet-delivered treasure trove is the focused insight and skill that comes from analyzing, understanding, and working on issues of local importance.

MOOCs from major universities in the United States or Britain are necessarily sweeping in scope – and often laced with informative case studies – but they rarely if ever speak to the specific conditions and challenges that a given student experiences every day.  In this respect, MOOCs are geographically generic, lacking the capacity to drill down to the granular details and nuanced elements of a regional issue. So while institutions of higher learning will do well to tap MOOCs for their powerhouse instructors and insightfully articulated content, they should also look to the development needs of their host communities for learning opportunities that provide direct experience, not to mention the rewards that come from confronting, analyzing, understanding, and surmounting a local challenge.

American University of Nigeria (AUN) is trying to reconcile the efficiency of MOOCs in knowledge-sharing with the skill-building experience that comes from community service that is directly tied to local needs. In the pilot course described here, we are introducing a third element, which has an intimate connection with local issues in other parts of the world, not just in reading or videos, but through the receipt of tailored content from and interaction with participating faculty from around the globe.

The subject matter for the pilot course is water; the venues are Africa, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Lebanon, and the United States.  The course, entitled Global Explorations of Water,  is multidisciplinary, exquisitely relevant, and locally originated, albeit from multiple communities. Water is of course supremely important in all the venues, but in different ways that call for a breadth of understanding and versatility of analysis. 

The course grew out of the work of the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA), a Great Lakes Colleges Association-based initiative dedicated to supporting liberal arts in higher education and fostering global connections among faculty members in both teaching and research.  For several years, GLAA has hosted workshops that convene professors from many disciplines and countries for training and facilitated interactions.  Last summer’s three-day workshop at the College of Wooster focused on water in the fullest spirit of the liberal arts tradition, with a rich potpourri of lectures, exhibitions, performances and field trips in art, faith, science, policy, technology, and management.  The attendees from the countries listed above spoke to their region’s most pressing issues surrounding water. For instance AUN’s representative described desertification and flooding that arises from deforestation; Forman Christian College’s (Pakistan) attendees discussed agriculture and biofuels.

The faculty member from Earlham College addressed environmental justice in the Great Lakes region. Other colleges brought forth similarly diverse and pertinent issues and perspectives.

The course’s design and delivery is straightforward, requiring no special software. Faculty members select, develop and post their content in one of a number of places on the web, sometimes videotaping classroom lectures and other times simply speaking into their computers and referencing accompanying presentation slides. The online materials are available to students and faculty members at any of the participating institutions.  Several faculty members have taken themselves or their classes into the field, videotaping hilltop mini-lectures, discussions, and interviews with stakeholders on local water issues.

The switchboard for the course is a website that provides basic information and points to the pertinent content on the web, be it faculty-posted materials, TED Talks, or literary readings.

Videoconferencing is another, powerful element of the course. The interactions between African students and faculty from abroad add a dimension that reading or videos never could. For instance, we at AUN have had students briefly describe their assignments to faculty from widely varying disciplines and geographies to receive feedback and perspective that a single local instructor could scarcely offer.

As mentioned above, this fall’s pilot offering is driven by AUN, whose faculty and students post the lion’s share of content. Faculty from other countries and disciplines who participated in the GLAA workshop are also posting content on regional water issues that speaks to their expertise, addresses their local challenges, and tailors itself to the overall themes of the course.

Although AUN students are the only ones participating in this pilot course, the content and lessons learned will be available next spring to the faculty in Pakistan, Lebanon, Bulgaria, and the U.S., as well as a possible sequel at AUN.  It will be the instructors’ prerogative to select among the already available web-posted content, to develop and post their own, and to assign their students the appropriate community-based learning experience. To access this content, the instructor may choose to develop his or her own switchboard website. The instructors will also have the chance to arrange video conferences with their colleagues from afar. Looking forward, Global Explorations of Water will likely become a “cumulative course,” updated each semester with new content while drawing retrospectively on content from earlier offerings. The richer and more diverse this content – and the greater the selection available to a given instructor – the more the course will assume the merits of a MOOC, although never at the expense of local relevance and experiential learning.

Charles C Reith is interim provost and director of sustainability at American University of Nigeria.

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Insructors meet for Global Explorations of Water Management, Culture, Policy and Technology

State Dept. blocks access to MOOCs in countries with economic sanctions

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Want to enroll Iranian students in your MOOC? Get a waiver.

 

AACU conference shows plenty of uses for e-portfolios, but also the pitfalls of hype

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Presenters at the Association of American Colleges and Universities' annual meeting see plenty of uses for e-portfolios -- as long as institutions look beyond the hype.

U. of Copenhagen MOOC instructor searches for the right amount of online moderation

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A Coursera MOOC instructor strives to find the right balance between open discussion and moderation after his course turns into "a snakepit of personal venom."

Harvard U. experiments with three versions of the same course

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Students in Harvard University's introductory computer science course face a choice of what they earn upon completion: a certificate, a $350 voucher or academic credit.

Brazilian MOOC seeks to focus on Portuguese market

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Boosting skills and access are the aims of a new Portuguese-medium platform.

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