Apple recently unveiled its digital book-authoring program, iBooks Author, and I’m scared.
The last three years that I have dedicated to pursuing my Ph.D. in instructional design & technology, which centers on interactive digital text, have given me a new perspective on the delicate balance that is necessary for classroom technologies to be productive and fruitful rather than novel and superficial. The seemingly endless hours that I have spent reading journal articles, writing papers, reading book chapters, taking in lectures, reading conference proceedings, and reading some more, have left me feeling as though I have earned some sort of badge that licenses me to make qualified observations about new educational technologies.
But that’s just the problem; you don’t need to be qualified. iBooks Author allows any Apple user to design and develop an interactive, multitouch textbook. No design experience necessary.
I should be ecstatic that a layperson is able to design instructional products with applications that, until recently, required a personal computer programmer to develop. The digital revolution is finally upon us!
Not exactly. I’m concerned that the act of creating a digital book for students will impede the learning benchmarks that are expected of them. Let me put it this way: When was the last time you saw a well-designed, engaging PowerPoint presentation, where the speaker did not read the words directly off of the slide, verbatim? This is my point. We have allowed everyone to become an instructional designer.
This phenomenon is occurring much more broadly. We are encouraging everyone to become an expert on everything. When I feel a swollen lymph node on my 3-year-old daughter’s neck, I don’t immediately call her pediatrician. I consult WebMD. I’m convinced it is a severe case of lymphoma until the pediatrician assures me that her body is just fighting off a cold. He prescribes more vitamin C.
When I hear that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has once again dipped below 10,000, and it is only going to get worse, I jump on to my eTrade account and start selling. I’m not a stock trader. I don’t know anything about the stock market. Nor am I a physician. So why am I acting like one? Because anyone can be an expert, and instructional design is no exception.
I teach at a small university and an even smaller community college in the Southeast. Every semester during my brief five years’ experience, I have been assigned course sections accompanied by a blank Blackboard (or Moodle) shell and told to design a course. Not once have any of my Blackboard (or Moodle) course sites been evaluated, and most have never been viewed by anyone but my students.
The idea that instructors are somehow incapable of violating basic instructional design principles is naive. What percentage of our nationwide faculty has heard of the split-attention effect, redundancy principle, contiguity principle, cognitive flexibility, or even cognitive load? Now, instructors are expected to be subject matter experts and instructional designers. The two are not synonymous, and the results can be detrimental to learning. iBooks Author is giving creative license to everyone, with or without instructional design experience.
For instance, iBooks Author touts the ability to embed multiple-choice quizzes into the text, yet the research on inserting lower-level, recall-type adjunct questions in text has been mostly inconclusive since the 1960s. Its effect on comprehension is minimal at best, but its impact on extraneous cognitive load is more likely. A more desirable widget would be to allow the user to interact with the text generatively, that is, by generating unique paraphrases, summaries or analogies.
Be aware of another thing: if you are going to use iBooks Author to design and develop that bestseller that you have always wanted to write, be prepared to sell it only in the iBookstore. That’s right. By creating your book in the iBooks Author output format, you are entering an exclusive licensing agreement with Apple. Check the fine print.
Let me be clear: I love Apple. I love admire its pursuit of innovations in educational technology. In fact, I composed this rant on an iPad. So, I suppose iBooks Author is not completely negative. It opens the discourse on interactive text in education. But the thought of anyone being able to develop entire textbooks for class use on his or her MacBook worries me. Interactive, customized, and adaptive text should be the next educational technology milestone, but not like this.
We are all going to continue to embrace and applaud Apple’s newest, sleekest application, because Apple is masterful at luring educators to its sexy designs and technology clique. But we should recognize that iBooks author is not an instructional tool that supports proven ID theory. And as a result, we will continue to build an increasingly accessible virtual world where we can act as professional instructional designers, physicians, and stock traders: with no experience necessary.
So I will leave you with something to think about: Technology doesn’t make us experts. Let’s recognize that a teacher is not inherently an instructional designer. Let the designers design, and teachers teach. Besides, teachers don’t get paid enough to do both.
Alan J. Reid is a Ph.D. student in instructional design and teaches English courses at Brunswick Community College and Coastal Carolina University.
Submitted by Ryan Craig on February 3, 2012 - 3:02am
Over the past few weeks, the news media has been abuzz over two developments in higher education that some in the chattering class foretell as the beginning of the end of degree programs.
First, MIT announced that it would extend its successful OpenCourseWare initiative and offer certificates to students who complete courses. Like OpenCourseWare, which has provided free access to learning materials from 2,100 courses since 2002 (and which, with more than 100 million unique visitors, has helped launch the open education movement), MITx will allow students to access content for free. But students who wish to receive a certificate will be charged a modest fee for the requisite assessments. The kicker is that the certificate will not be issued under the name MIT. According to the University: “MIT plans to create a not-for-profit body within the institute that will offer certificate for online learners of MIT coursework. That body will carry a distinct name to avoid confusion.”
Then, Sebastian Thrun, an adjunct professor of computer science at Stanford who invited the world to attend his fall semester artificial intelligence course and who ended up with 160,000 online students, announced he had decided to stop teaching at Stanford and direct all his teaching activities through Udacity, a start-up he co-founded that will offer online courses from leading professors to millions of students. Udacity’s first course is on building a search engine and will teach students with no programming experience how to build their own Google in seven weeks. Thrun hopes 500,000 students will enroll. He called the experience of reaching so many students life-changing: “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again. I feel there’s a red pill and a blue pill. And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”
Just as the Web 2.0 boom is recapitulating much of the excitement and extravagance of the dot-com boom, we get the funny sense we’ve seen this movie before. Take a look at this excerpt from a dot-com era New York Times article with the headline “Boola Boola, E-Commerce Comes to The Quad,” which anticipates Professor Thrun’s announcement by 12 years:
"We always thought our new competition was going to be 'Microsoft University,' " the president of an elite eastern university ruefully remarked to a visitor over dinner recently. ''We were wrong. Our competition is our own faculty.'' Welcome to the ivory tower in the dot.com age, where commerce and competition have set up shop… Distance learning sells the knowledge inside a professor's head directly to a global on-line audience. That means that, just by doing what he does every day, a teacher potentially could grow rich instructing a class consisting of a million students signed up by the Internet-based educational firm that marketed the course and handles the payments. ''Faculty are dreaming of returns that are probably multiples of their lifetime net worth,'' said Kim Clark, dean of the Harvard Business School. ''They are doing things like saying, 'This technology allows someone who is used to teaching 100 students to teach a million students.' And they are running numbers and imagining, 'Gee, what if everyone paid $10 to listen to my lecture?' ''
It was a heady time, and many in higher education really believed the hype that brand-name institutions would grow to hundreds of thousands of students and that “rock star” faculty would get rich teaching millions of students online. Twelve years later, the only universities with hundreds of thousands of students are private-sector institutions whose brands were dreamed up by marketers in the past 30 years, and the only educator who has become a rock star through the Internet is in K-12, not higher education (more on him in a moment). So what happened?
The currency of higher education is degrees because degrees are the sine qua non of professional, white-collar, high-paying jobs. The difference between not having a degree and having a degree is hundreds of thousands of dollars in lifetime earnings. So what happened is that Professor Thrun’s antecedents like Arthur Miller, the Harvard Law professor, found that while they might offer courses, faculty cannot offer degrees. And their brand-name institutions have continued to prioritize avoiding “confusion” over extending access. Even MIT, the most forward-thinking of the lot, will ensure its new offering cannot possibly be construed as an MIT degree.
The noise emanating from these recent announcements boils down to this: when the chattering class meets Professor Thrun, it’s love at first sight. The notion that they might take a Stanford course for free recalls their youthful days at similar elite universities. But of course, these educational romantics already have degrees. And when Udacity begins charging even modest fees for its courses, Professor Thrun may find this group resistant to paying for lifelong learning.
On the other hand, you have the much, much larger group of non-elites who need a degree. The United States, once the global leader in the number of 25-34 year-olds with college degrees, now ranks 12th, while more than half of U.S. employers have trouble filling job openings because they cannot find qualified workers. The outsized importance of the degree itself over the university granting the degree or the faculty member teaching the course is the simplest explanation for the explosion in enrollment at private-sector universities.
As a result, the notion that certificates or “badges” might displace degrees in any meaningful timeframe is incorrect. Even in developing economies, where there is truly a hunger for knowledge in any form and where the degree may not yet be as central to the evaluation of prospective employees, the wage premium from a bachelor’s degree is even higher: 124 percent in Mexico, 171 percent in Brazil and 200 percent in China, compared with a mere 62 percent in the U.S. Degrees are definitely not disappearing; they’re not even in decline.
There are two important respects, however, in which this movie is different. The first must be credited to the first online “rock star” educator: Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching a Khan video, you haven’t missed much in the way of the simulations, animations and expensive special effects many dot-com pundits predicted would dominate online learning. A Khan video is short, just a few minutes, and teaches a single concept. It does so by showing Khan’s hand on the whiteboard while you hear his narration – an approach that is especially effective for math. Professor Thrun’s online course builds on Khan’s innovation, and the resulting andragogy is remarkable.
With regard to the more important innovation, here’s what Professor Thrun had to say in his announcement:
We really set up our students for failure. We don’t help students to become smart. I started realizing that grades are the failure of the education system. [When students don’t earn good grades, it means] educators have failed to bring students to A+ levels. So rather than grading students, my task was to make students successful. So it couldn’t be about harsh, difficult questions. We changed the course so the questions were still hard, but students could attempt them multiple times. And when they finally got them right, they would get their A+. And it was much better. That really made me think about the education system as a whole. Salman Khan has this wonderful story. When you learn to ride a bicycle, and you fail to learn to ride a bicycle, you don’t stop learning to ride the bicycle, give the person a D, and then move on to a unicycle. You keep training them as long as it takes. And then they can ride a bicycle. Today, when someone fails, we don’t take time to make them a strong student. We give them a C or a D, move them to the next class. Then they’re branded a loser, and they’re set up for failure. This medium has the potential to change all that.
So when Anant Agarwal, one of the leaders of the MITx effort, notes that “human productivity has gone up dramatically in the past several decades due to the Internet and computing technologies, but amazingly enough the way we do education is not very different from the way we did it a thousand years ago,” the major advance he has in mind is not rock star professors lecturing to millions, but rather that the online medium lends itself perfectly to a competency-based approach.
The shift from “clock hours” or “seat time” to competency-based learning is just around the corner and much more fundamental to higher education than the explosion of online delivery itself. Awarding credits and degrees based on assessed competencies will significantly reduce time to completion and therefore increase completion rates and return on investment. More important, it ensures that students actually have mastered the set of competencies represented by the degree they have earned. Though not without significant challenges, this approach has the potential to revolutionize degree programs and all of higher education from within. That’s the real Wonderland adventure. And we don’t need to take a pill to find it.
So have we seen this movie before? Turns out this one’s a sequel. But this is that very rare occasion when the sequel is much better than the original.