Silicon-Valley Tinted Glasses (and MOOCs)

A great deal of Ed Tech (and the VC money that supports the industry) seems to be viewing the world through lenses that are quite different than those of us who have taught students at public institutions. They are building ed tech in their own image, and many of them either dropped out of school and self-taught or attended ivy-league institutions.  The Silicon-Valley view of the problem of education reminds me of Lake Wobegon (where all the children are above average) and is based on something like this:

Higher Education: Where all the learners are motivated, everyone has Internet, and the only thing standing between a student and their success is affordable access.

But this isn’t reality. For example, the students we teach at community colleges (4 in 10 college students in the U.S.) were busy with school, work, and family responsibilities. Learning for most was a means to an end, not a side-project or hobby built through self-motivation. Even with daily in-person coaching from instructors, free access to tutoring, and personal encouragement through email, phone calls, and hallway conversations the instructor and institution can rarely coach out motivation where there was none to begin with and the magic MOOC is not likely to either (see San Jose experiment in developmental math as a case in point).  A detailed reading of the CCSSE survey might be worthwhile for Ed Tech companies seeking to build apps to serve the population of “self-motivated” learners.

Let’s tackle Internet next. According to the latest PewResearch study on broadband, only 70% of adults in the U.S. have broadband Internet. Some of those folks are certainly seniors that do not wish to participate on the Internet, but there are two other groups to consider: (1) those with incomes less than $30,000 a year and (2) those who cannot get Broadband even if they want it (mostly rural students who have to live off of very-expensive satellite access if they can even get that).  The FCC’s Eighth Broadband Progress report pegs the number of Americans without Broadband access at 19 million. This does not translate to just an area here and there, but involves large swaths of the country that are rural. For example, this map (2011) shows all the rural areas without access in light orange (ignore the beige areas – those are unpopulated). These rural areas are places where families (and students) live, but can’t get Broadband.

Finally, let’s take a look at affordable access. If it were true that the only thing stopping students from learning was the cost, we would have seen a large movement of Freshmen and Sophomores from public 4-year institutions back to community colleges (where the tuition is, on average, half the cost). While community colleges did see an uptick in enrollment during the recession, so did most other public institutions  (see Figure 4 of the NCES enrollment data here). In other words, community colleges were not stealing enrollment back from 4-year colleges because they were more affordable.

The truth is that for many families and students, going away to college is and will continue to be a coming-of-age ritual that is a gateway to adulthood. No MOOC or online learning experience can duplicate the experience of being away from home and being “on your own” for the first time. If we had some alternative to this experience that rose in popularity (GAP years, public service years, etc) then I could see these online experiences becoming a viable alternative. However, the away-from-home college experience is very much a part of our culture and cannot easily be replaced.

With all of that said, I do think that massive online experiences (like MOOCs) can play a valuable role in the education ecosystem, they just need to be redirected:

Alumni Degree Updates: Suppose you graduate with a Biology degree and wish to stay up-to-date in the field. As a non-student non-faculty member, you do not have easy access to journal articles, and the media provides only questionable interpretations of the data. I think most college graduates recognize the benefit of staying up-to-date in their chosen subject area, but doing so on your own is quite difficult. Enter the MOOC and higher education. On every campus in the country, there are professors updating their lectures every year to incorporate the latest research in their field (at least, we hope they are). If the institutions gave the professors additional class release to also teach a MOOC on just the updated material (for a nominal fee), they could provide a great service to their alumni (who would, of course, get it for a discount) and give a super-fun experience to the professor (who would get to teach a bunch of super-motivated students for a change).

Cultural Enrichment Layer: Let’s face it, no matter how hard colleges try, some of them are just not very culturally diverse. To have students experience the perspectives of those from other backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic standings, MOOC providers should consider providing short 4-week courses that add a layer on top of commonly taught courses (like survey psychology, sociology, biology, or nutrition). Students from all over the world could participate together in the 4-week MOOCs with their classmates on campus and gain the perspectives they may not easily have access to otherwise.  I don’t think a small fee (maybe $10) would be unreasonable for students to participate. Kudos to the MOOC providers if they can kick out some of the enrolled student data back to the home-campus professors. That would be worth the $10pp cost to be able to track this participation for a grade contribution.

Subject Area Deep Dive: Professors that teach survey courses (like Majors or Non-Majors Biology) may often wish they had more time to really go in depth on the couple topics that they know students are really interested in, for example: maybe that’s nanotechnology or genetic modification. Deep dives into topics of interest may spark interest (and majors) from students who might not otherwise see the relevance, but alas, there is no time in these courses. Again, I see this as an opportunity for MOOC providers to jump in at opportune times in the school year with “layered on” MOOCs. Perhaps students in the campus-based course could choose from one of three topics to “add-on” during the semester, and get credit in the course for their participation. Again, this requires a data-passback and a sign-up method that connects the student to the right course, but I’ll assume that this is a minor obstacle, especially if it comes with a small fee to participate attached.

Giving students a guided experience in a MOOC (with the social aspect of their on-campus experience) may help to graduate students who are more likely to participate in lifelong learning with MOOCs after college. I think that everyone wins if this is the case.

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Canvas Guides for Math and Chemistry

For those of you gearing up for the Fall Semester, I want to make sure that you know that (1) Canvas upgraded the math editor recently and there is a lot of new functionality available and (2) there are print-friendly guides for using the Canvas Equation Editor. You can include these in your syllabus or as handouts if you are planning to do some intensive Canvas stuff with equations in the fall.

Basic Equation Tips (simple 1-page PDF)

Advanced Equation Tips (for using the new LaTeX feature to do matrices, tables of values, piecewise functions, and more)

Chemistry Tips (writing formulas, scientific notation, and chemical equations/reactions)

You can always find these links on the top of the How do I use the Math Editor? Canvas Guide.

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My New Work Colleagues

Last month, I took a new position as Director of Learning and Innovation for Area9 - they build personalized learning software and learning simulations (e.g. LearnSmart, SmartBook, and SmartLabs). In this new position I am something of a learning software ninja. I propose, improve, design, spec, manage, test, and document new software features. I get to follow features and improvements from conception to completion and it is super fun!  I even write a little code here and there, which I haven’t done seriously since I was a chemist (a long long time ago when I was just out of college). I think the most rewarding thing is that in this job, I’m using almost every domain of expertise that I’ve accumulated over the years: math, science, social media, eLearning, student learning, research, higher education, game design, analytics, and personalized learning.

Since Area9 is based in Denmark, I am now a remote worker (a daily commute to Denmark seemed a little much). I get up super early (5am … my choice) in order to have some overlap in work hours with the Denmark office. While 5am may sound awful to you, the bonus is that my work day is half over by 9am (see, that part doesn’t sound so bad, does it?). Also, my commute time from bed to work is approximately 2 minutes (I have to stop in the kitchen for coffee). I do remember to take showers and get dressed properly, but sometimes not until lunchtime.

It’s a bit strange to think that I used to work in an environment (a College) where I interacted with hundreds of people every week in person. Now my in-person world is much smaller.  I actually take a couple-hour break in the late morning to exercise and go out to lunch with friends just to get out of the house and make sure that I have some human contact!  But I do have some company at the little home office – here are two of my colleagues:

So far, I’ve found that this new remote worker lifestyle is giving me greater flexibility (duh) to actually place some emphasis on having more balance in my life. I’ve gone back to taking karate and yoga classes. I have time to learn some of the things I’ve been meaning to (like programming in Python). And I’m really looking forward to winter because I can easily put in my work hours and then go snowboarding any afternoon I want!

Back in 2011, when I finished my Ph.D., I’m not sure what I imagined myself doing (I probably didn’t imagine myself as a remote worker living in Utah), but this new position seems like a particularly good fit!

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NPS and Gamification

Last weekend I visited Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument for a 3-day digital detox. [Yes, believe it or not, I can put away the Interwebs for 3 whole days.]

While hiking in Bryce Canyon, I stumbled across a bit of gamification of the hiking trails called Hike the Hoodoos Challenge.

With all the hype about digital badges and gamification lately, I can’t help but wonder why the NPS doesn’t take this a step further and develop a digital mobile game where you can earn activity badges in all the National Parks and Monuments by hiking the trails. It seems that you could just as easily use QR codes on the signage to “check in” to various trailheads via a mobile app. Better yet, let state parks get in on the action.

Maybe you’d rather just see the pictures though … here’s Bryce Canyon and our hike to the Queen’s Garden.

And here’s Cedar Breaks National Monument (we took the 2-mile hike to Spectra Point/Ramparts Overlook Trail)

Of course, if the NPS did create a mobile app game for hiking (Hiking the National Parks with Zombies?), then I suppose I would have to carry my phone with me, huh? Here I am, sans Internet-enabled digital devices.

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Board Games that Change Attitudes

Two weeks ago I attended the APF ProDev Gathering in Orlando on the future of Games and Simulations. A great time was had by all, and we had an enlightening time thinking about what games and simulations would be used for 10-15 years from now. Several games I learned about are worthy of mention here:

Buffalo (by tiltfactor) is a game that has been shown to change your attitude about stereotyping careers based on gender and ethnicity. You wouldn’t really know that from playing it, but players walk away being more aware of how much they know (or didn’t know) about women and minorities holding non-traditional positions (CEOs, programmers, scientists, etc.).

Cards Against Humanity is really an “Apples to Apples” style game that should only be played by adults (and possibly only by adults that are consuming alcoholic beverages). This is a game that is interesting in many ways – one is that the game was originally a kickstarter, and the designers have made a small fortune on the game.  But secondarily, I’m pretty sure that playing this game lowers your moral standards (so yes, it changes your attitudes). I don’t have any research to back that up, but trust me on this one. Don’t play this game with your parents.

Pox: Save the People (and, of course, ZombiePox) is about stopping the spread of a deadly disease. You can choose to vaccinate against the disease or cure the disease. Curing takes more resources than vaccination.

One more game that I think is worthy of mention (though it is one I’ve known about for a while) is Train, by Brenda Brathwaite. This is a game that explores the “devastation and tragedy of the Holocaust.” Read more in the WSJ article: Can you Make a Board Game about the Holocaust?

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