What have I learned from Blogging?

Prior to the beginning of this semester, I had never written or posted a blog.  In the absence of course requirements to do so, I doubt that I would have started blogging on my own – in fact, I can say with absolute certainty that I would not have.  Here are my observations on my own blogging experience:

  • Blogging takes me a long time – I don’t think I ever spent less than 2-3 hours on a blog; 
  • I’m not sure I ever got into the swing of what blogging should be – I’m fairly certain that my posts were pretty low on the technical creativity side;
  • I tried to find topics that were interesting and useful to me – they weren’t always exploding with innovation, but I went with what I felt I could respond to;
  • I think I gained something from the experience – if nothing else, I did something that I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise, and I did think about my writing;
  • I probably won’t continue blogging in the immediate future unless it’s directly related to something that I need to do – I basically need to focus on my dissertation research and other work at this point.

So, I’m not an immediate convert.  That said, I probably will blog again in the future when it contributes to my work and priorities.  The past few months have gotten me over the initial fear of blogging, and I can also see how it can be very useful.  In closing, this is the last blog I will be posting for a while, but it certainly won’t be the last one I ever post.  Who knows, I may end up blogging again sooner than I think.

Teaching philosophy – a first attempt

This is the first time I have ever tried to put my own teaching philosophy into words.  Over the years, I’ve developed thoughts and opinions on what I believe it means to be a teacher and on what I think works and doesn’t work in the classroom.  I’ve actively observed “good” and “bad” examples of teaching, and those experiences have definitely influenced my thoughts and actions when in a teaching or mentoring role.  Unfortunately, I’ve probably learned more about my own style from observing poor role models and deciding what not to do, than from having great role models that I can emulate or borrow from.  (I have had some really good ones, but they seem to be the exception rather the norm.)  Until now, I’ve never really tried to spell out my personal philosophy on the subject.  Just so we’re all on the same page, the philosophy below is really about what I intend to do, as opposed to what I am currently doing (I’m not currently teaching).  So, it’s a little bit of forecasting into the future, and, of course, subject to change as my own experiences change.  While it may be incomplete and certainly not the final word, I thought I’d share it.

I believe that teaching is a collaborative exchange of knowledge, experience, and passion that can alter the course of an individual’s life and change the future.  As a teacher, it is my responsibility to introduce and connect students to new learning opportunities that actively challenge, inspire, and ultimately lead learners to a lifelong pursuit of inquiry, analysis, innovation, and dynamic problem solving.  I adhere to an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates engineering, construction, environmental management, planning, and connection to people and communities.

Team-based learning is essential to my teaching philosophy.  I believe in instilling and promoting team-building skills and the ability to work in diverse groups to expand upon individual skills and enhance the overall learning process.  Through use of case studies, current events, and interaction with academic and professional experts and project sponsors, my students learn to self-organize, manage, and make decisions within a relevant and meaningful context.  My courses are typically student-centered, allowing me to maximize student-led activities and to integrate unique student experience into each class and each semester.  I strive to incorporate differing cultures and settings into comprehensive, project-based applications within class.  I will typically engage foreign students and students with international backgrounds and experience to help shape the context of projects and assignments.  I believe that each student is a leader and a professional, and I use the classroom to increase student confidence, expand personal boundaries, and refine skills.

While my courses are not completely flipped in format, I am making more frequent use of video lecture material to increase the ratio of active versus inactive learning within my classroom.  I am also currently engaged in developing content for an online course that I frequently integrate into my face-to-face classroom setting.  I enjoy finding new ways to introduce students to emerging research, materials, technologies, and real-world applications in construction and engineering.  My students are introduced to each new generation of digital research and collaborative media tools.  I take pride in creating an environment that encourages exploration of new techniques and applications in pedagogy, while increasingly engaging students in active participation in all aspects of the learning process.

While I expect a lot from my students, I absolutely believe that they should expect nothing short of excellence from me.  I constantly seek new approaches from other faculty and industry professionals.  Every class should present new opportunities and fresh approaches to both the fundamentals and to emerging areas within the field.  I genuinely enjoy demonstrating the process of collaborative learning, and maintaining a high degree of accessibility to my students and fellow colleagues.  Ultimately, I end up with best of both worlds – I learn as I teach, and teach as I learn.  I strive to constantly instill pride, commitment, and integrity in scholarship.  My greatest aspiration is to promote and inspire a new generation of fellow life-long learners and practitioners.  If I can achieve that, I have made a meaningful contribution.

What it means to be faculty – a personal interpretation

Below is my personal attempt to describe what it means to be a faculty member/teacher. Since it’s a personal reflection, I wouldn’t expect it to align perfectly with anyone else’s views.  It’s likely that my own views may change over time as I gain new insights and experiences in teaching.  At any rate, I thought I’d share it in this forum.

I believe that higher education is a public good.  The decision to become a faculty member is tantamount to entering into a trust.  In this case, faculty are entrusted with the care and holding of the students’ academic development. As such, they are vested with specific duties and responsibilities to both exercise and protect this development for the benefit of both the student and the public.  In my mind, teaching and mentoring are inextricably linked to being a faculty member.  The term ‘care and holding of the students’ academic development’ encompasses and imparts not only knowledge, skill, critical thinking, and problem solving, but also the ability to translate these elements into practice within a societal context.  The faculty member not only provides academic information, but also demonstrates how to apply and use this information for the benefit of the public good.

Whether teaching occurs at a public or privately funded institution, the decision to become a faculty member is coupled with a commitment to the following:

  • Continuous demonstration of professional conduct and demeanor;
  • Unwavering integrity and pursuit of ethical standards;
  • Loyalty in all aspects of conduct toward the student, colleagues, and the institution;
  • Consistent excellence in communication and the ability to both lead and facilitate in the classroom;
  • Mentoring and guiding students with honesty and candor;
  • Maintaining expertise in the academic and professional field;
  • Remaining current and relevant in teaching methods, techniques, tools, and applications;
  • Displaying passion, enthusiasm, curiosity, and determination to effectively apply the art of teaching to all students.

In every way, the faculty member serves as a model for the student.  While some institutions may place more or less weight on the individual components of teaching, service, and research, I believe that teaching and service are far more profound than research.  I do not discount the importance of research, but I believe that all faculty members should possess the ability and desire to interact with students.  The ability and desire to teach, when coupled with a true willingness and commitment to serve, create a rare combination that is, at least in my mind, essential to being a faculty member.  Those who do not have the ability and desire to teach, and who cannot truly internalize the commitment to serve, have no place in a classroom or as members of a faculty.  I believe that institutions of higher education serve as the guardians and garantors for society’s future.  It’s a huge responsibility and a great honor.  Being a faculty member means living up to that responsibility and being worthy of the honor.

The Ability to Turn Off

Six years ago, I was working in the Pentagon and feeling particularly excited about the fact that I had recently received a promotion that required me to carry a government-issued blackberry.  Back then, it was sort of a right of passage.  It meant that you were plugged in, and that at any moment, night or day, someone may require your immediate input.  It took about a month for me to hate that blackberry, maybe less.  In my line of work, people who had government-issued blackberries tended to use them in a ruthlessly competitive way.  It was literally a competition to see who was “on” at all times, who responded first, who was on top of every situation at every moment, and who was still actively working between the hours of 10pm to 6am.  There was no “off.”  If, for some reason, it came to other’s attention that you were not monitoring your “crackberry,” as it was lovingly referred to, you would be reminded by your boss, colleagues, and anyone else who felt like letting you know that your “digital pause” had not gone unnoticed.  I ran at the front of the pack for a couple of months, and then, I decided that I was no longer racing and changed the rules.

I found that I did not make the best decisions when attempting to respond in less than 30 seconds.  I also found that regular email, phone calls, and various types of meetings were sufficient to keep me informed.  I did not need to cover the 30-second gap between meetings, or the 5-minute walk to my car, or any of the intervening periods from one activity to another, by constantly monitoring a digital device.  I found constant monitoring to be distracting, distressing, and quite frankly detrimental to a well thought out response.  I created a new policy – the blackberry only came out for travel, or when an urgent issue came up and required additional attention and monitoring.  Other than that, there would be no more “crackberry.”  I felt calmer, the quality of my work was probably better, and as long as people knew how and when to contact me, most of them realized that they really didn’t need (or want) me to respond to them in less than 30 seconds.  The experience taught me a few important lessons about myself.  1) I prefer to think things over before committing to a response or decision in writing (email is writing); 2) I do not gain focus or energy from constant access to information; and 3) I tend to question anyone who responds to complex issues immediately, and who can’t put down a digital device long enough to have a 1-hour conversation.

While I believe that digital tools are great, and I want them to work fast when I need them, I do not believe that I always need them, and I do not always want them.  That’s why I get excited and very interested when I see others moving toward greater focus and contemplation without the use of digital devices.  Case in point, a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses a course taught by David Levy at the University of Washington titled, “Information and Contemplation.”  In the course, “students scrutinize their use of technology: how much time they spend with it, how it affects their emotions, how it fragments their attention. They watch videos of themselves multitasking and write guidelines for improving their habits. They also practice meditation—during class—to sharpen their attention.” I would love to take this course, and I wish there were more like it. I do not think that focus and reflection are enhanced by constant use of multiple devices and constant bombardment by information and fragmented soundbites.  There is something to be gained by uninterrupted thought and unity of mental effort.  There is value in picking up a book and reading it from cover to cover.  While I value the ability to multi-task, I also wonder about the evolution of human attention span and long-term effects associated with the frequency of today’s mental channel surfing and the inability to disconnect.  I understand how these issues impact me because I have points of comparison.  But, what if you have nothing to compare your “on” status to – no way to benchmark the state of “on” from the state of “off?”  Then, I guess you need guys like Levy to teach the lost art of mental quiet and focus.  If you’re at all interested or intrigued, you should check out the reading list for Levy’s course.  I’m adding several items from it to my own personal reading list…

MOOCs: Widening or narrowing the education gap

Will MOOCs help to close the gap on affordability and availability of higher education for the masses, or will it actually result in greater stratification between the elite and everyone else?

In a recent survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, over 100 university instructors currently teaching MOOCs responded to questions geared toward assessing the potential impact of MOOCs, both on faculty and on higher education.  Those responses provided some new insight into what the future may hold.  Most of those who responded claimed to have invested at least 100 hours in the preparation and production of online course, and also admitted that other aspects of their teaching suffered as a result of the time invested.  There is still quite a lot of controversy and question regarding college credit for MOOCs (only 28% of respondents felt that credit should be given by their institution for successful completion of the MOOC they taught).  The American Council on Education (ACE) has already endorsed five MOOCs from Coursera for credit, and it is currently reviewing three more from Udacity.  [Incidentally – If Senate Bill 520 is passed in CA, the dialogue may get a lot more interesting.  The bill would effectively require state colleges and universities to accept credit for MOOCs in an attempt to increase availability of classes and drive down costs.]  Those instructors who felt that students should receive credit for online courses included faculty members at the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Duke, and Stanford, whose MOOCs focus on math, science, and engineering. The majority of those who responded also felt strongly that, “MOOCs will drive down the cost of earning a degree from their home institutions, and an overwhelming majority believe that the free online courses will make college less expensive in general.”

While the findings from the survey above appear to lean toward the case for narrowing the education gap, there is also a growing sentiment that the opposite may be true.  In 2012, when Sebastian Thrun made the decisive move from Stanford to his start-up, Udacity, the Chronicle published an article that cast MOOCs as the harbinger of greater class division between students who can afford to attend elite universities, and the rest of the masses who cannot.  According to the author, Greg Graham, “although the move toward online education is being advanced by some of the nation’s most elite universities, in the end it will be the lower half of the student population that will be forced out of the traditional classroom, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”  Two studies conducted by the Columbia University’s Community College Research Center (CCRC) reported findings that indicate potential for widening achievement gaps in educational performance between demographic groups.  The second, and more recent, of the two studies found that all types of students suffered a decrease in performance when comparing online courses to face-to-face courses, but this appeared especially true for students with lower demographic profiles.  The validity of the findings prompts two questions: 1) how can we ensure that the quality of online courses is equal to that of face-to-face instruction; and 2) what, if anything, can be done to improve student performance for those students who may be challenged regardless of class format (if a student is already and under-performer in a face-to-face setting, an online setting isn’t likely to improve the outcome…).  It may be a pre-determined outcome that students who are strong, self-motivated learners, and who already know how to navigate online technologies and tools, stand the greatest chance of benefitting from MOOCs.

In a largely closed-door meeting that took place earlier this month, Harvard, Princeton, and MIT gathered with MOOC founders and executives to discuss some of these very issues. The elite institutions made it clear that they intend for MOOCs to enhance, not replace, residential learning.  Interestingly, instructors at these institutions said that attempts to integrate participation between students taking MOOC versions of classes with students taking face-to-face versions of classes resulted in resistance from the residential learners. Complaints from in-class students were related to their desire to receive “more” for their experience since they were paying.  During the meeting, the former President of Princeton, William Bowen, made what appeared to be an incredibly elitist statement regarding the use of MOOCs at the nation’s top universities, “I would humbly suggest that the kinds of assessment and standards and all the rest that I’m sure are appropriate at MIT and Harvard and so forth, have very little relevance for the large parts of American higher education, particularly in the state systems, that are under genuine siege.”  While I hope that the statement was somehow taken out of context, this kind of statement certainly does nothing to address broader issues regarding quality and availability in higher education.

Notwithstanding the challenges that lie ahead in ensuring quality assurance, assessing MOOCs for credit, and engaging the wider audience of students and potential students across all demographic sectors, I tend to believe that MOOCs are a positive and significant addition to higher education.  I also think they will only get better with time as new tools are developed to help instructors determine what materials are most used in online courses, and how students are learning (Coursera and Udacity are developing new diagnostic tools at a rapid pace).  Whether or not MOOCs widen or narrow the education gap or the cost of higher education, is largely left in the hands of college and university administrators and the faculty who prepare and teach the courses.  Careful consideration and design is warranted from both.  I believe that there is enough room on the table, and enough potential in the offering, that the institution and the student can both benefit while realizing a potential decrease in the average cost of earning a degree.  I don’t believe that quality needs to be sacrificed in the process.  On the contrary, I think it will increase – but only through use of sound judgement and decision making on the part of faculty and their students.  I see tremendous opportunity, but as with all things, the outcome is what we choose to make of it.



Team-Based Learning: Addressing “fairness” in the grading process

For anyone who’s ever been assigned to a project team, there’s always the nagging question, “will everyone pull their weight?”  Invariably, it seems that there are one or two who don’t.  The responsibility for bringing the team grade across the finish line falls on the shoulders of the students who always assume the Atlas role, taking on more than their fair share.  There are solutions for addressing these issues and increasing the sense of fair play where groups and grades are concerned.  The best solutions require increased effort on the part of the instructor to ensure that a sound process is in place, offering students the ability to manage team performance at multiple points in the learning experience.

There are well established processes within the current pedagogy for integrating individual and group grades into team performance through assignments and peer evaluations.  I found that Fellenz offers a useful and informative article on peer evaluation protocol (Groupwork Peer Evaluation Protocol (GPEP)). [To access the entire article, you can summon it by title through the Newman Library online system].

If peer evaluations are to be used, there are a few things that the instructor should keep in mind:

  • Students may need some instruction on how to provide evaluation and receive feedback effectively.  
  • Multiple evaluations may be the best solution since students become more comfortable with the process over time (mid-course and end-of-course evaluations will likely provide better results than a single evaluation offered only at the end of the course).
  • Students tend to be more comfortable providing qualitative feedback as opposed to quantitative feedback in evaluations (this is especially true if they are forced to provide a set number of points to each student in the team – the results in these cases tend to be inflated).
  • Nevertheless, the evaluations need to have “teeth” in order to be effective in preventing non-performers within the team.  Evaluations, individual, and group assignments need to be well structured to identify “fairness” issues early and offer the opportunity for correction prior to assigning the final grade.

There are also a few recent approaches that may be useful to consider when conducting team-based learning exercises.  Some studies suggest that peer evaluations are not an effective means of dealing with team equity and grading.  This is based on the fact that most students are not trained on how to evaluate one another, many are uncomfortable providing negative feedback on a fellow student, and when peer evaluation are used only at the end of the semester, students tend to regard them as a means of retribution rather than a management tool that helps to address equity throughout the team-based learning process.  This doesn’t mean that peer and self evaluations shouldn’t be used.  They should.  It’s just good to be aware of other options that can also be used to promote fairness in grading, decrease conflict within teams, and improve the overall team experience for students.

The Segment Manager Method (SMM) is option that can also be employed.  Here, assignments are broken into segments with specified point totals for each segment.  Each student in on the team is assigned the role of a segment manager.  Student grades are a combination of the group grade and their individual grade as a segment manager.  This method may provide a more consistent process for tracking individual contribution and assessment throughout the exercise.  While it can’t completely prevent a team member from slacking, it may offer other team members and instructors a better way of documenting individual performance and ultimate grading outcomes.  For more information on this method, see: The Segment Manager Method.

The challenge of creating a fair atmosphere in team-based learning is ever-present.  Since most professionals will experience team-based work in the real world, it’s very important to learn how to manage team dynamics and performance as early as possible.  The ability to lead, manage, or contribute to the team environment will likely impact most people’s career and earning potential (whether you’re in academia or working in the public or private sectors).  The more you know, the better off you’ll be.



Sequestration: Perspective from a former Fed senior analyst and manager

As of last Friday, March 1, we are now experiencing “fiscal sequestration”.  For most of us, this isn’t an intuitively obvious term.  The discussion around it isn’t intuitively obvious either. I thought I’d take a few minutes to offer some explanation of the term and why there’s so much confusion surrounding it.  (Note: my observations are based only only on my experience with the Federal budget process.  I have not worked the process at the State level.)

The Process: First, it’s important to understand that the Federal budget process is an ongoing cycle.  At any given time, we are dealing with the prior fiscal year (program evaluation), current fiscal year (program execution), and next fiscal year (program planning).  It typically takes about 18 months from the time an agency begins to build it budget to the time it is actually able to execute it.  The hoped for objective in any given year is to have the President’s Budget in-hand and ready to execute prior to the start of the new fiscal year (Oct 1).  The figure below provides a generalized illustration of the process (for the purposes of this discussion, think of “Before FY” as 2012; “Fiscal Year” as 2013; and “After FY” as 2014):

Graphical Timeline for the Federal Budget Process

Continued Delays Breed Uncertainty: When the process is delayed, and agencies do not receive the President’s Budget in time to begin execution for the new fiscal year, Congress will typically pass temporary (stop-gap) appropriations known as a continuing resolution so that federal dollars continue to flow and programs are not forced to halt.  The current continuing resolution is set to expire on March 27.  The truth is that any interruption in the process can, and usually does, create a snowball effect – a cumulative set of impacts that give program managers less time, less money, and less flexibility to carry out programs.  For the past several years, we’ve been piling interruption on top of interruption, and now, we’ve added sequestration spending cuts on top of that.  Under these circumstances, agencies can’t actually plan.  They can only react.

The “S” Word: Sequestration is essentially a set of automatic spending cuts that will take place across the U.S. Government in order to meet the spending cap set by the budget resolution process.  Congress created the automatic cuts (totaling $1.2 trillion) in August 2011 as part of an agreement to raise the U.S. debt ceiling (currently set at $16.4 trillion).  While a few programs will be exempt from the cuts, most discretionary programs will take a hit.  The world of higher education will also be impacted.  The Department of Education anticipates cuts in funding for student financial aid, and agencies that fund research (NSF, NIH, and others) estimate a 5% reduction in funding along with continued uncertainty.  In an article recently published by the Chronicle, “Fears about sequestration have been compounded by the fact that federal research agencies still don’t know what their budgets are for the coming fiscal year.”

Cumulative Strain: The Federal Government has been operating under a series of continuing resolutions for some time (almost continuously for the past few years).  This is bad business.  As we move from one continuing resolution to another, agencies never have a chance to execute the full range of their budget and program plans.  Under a continuing resolution, agencies are given a pro-rated funding amount on a quarterly basis and they exist hand-to-mouth until budget resolution occurs.  As a result, agency program managers are forced to take a very conservative approach that is essentially zero risk and zero tolerance.  New project starts are typically shelved, existing projects are cancelled or slowed down, and a great deal of uncertainty and nervousness pervades the system.  At this point, it is unlikely that the President will have a Fiscal Year 2014 Budget ready to send forward to Congress before the end of March.

What Should we be Watching for? We’ve got a fairly sticky fiscal situation at the moment.  The finalization of the 2014 President’s Budget was delayed in part by the Fiscal Cliff tax deal that occurred on Jan 1 this year.  It is likely that additional changes to the Budget were required last Friday when the deadline passed for addressing the sequestration spending cuts.  With the current resolution set to expire on March 27 (and looming threat of a government shutdown), and very low likelihood that the 2014 Budget will be sent to Congress before that, the delays and uncertainty are certain to continue.  So, what can we expect?

  • We’ll likely see another set of continuing resolutions that allow the Federal Government to limp along after March 27.  (Federal employees have been notified that they may be furloughed [laid off] in the coming months as a result of the lack of resolution on the budget, spending, and debt.  This is as tense as I’ve seen it get in the last 10 years within the Federal Government.)  
  • Don’t be surprised if you see delays in announcements, reviews, award payments, and ultimately in total award amounts for Federally funded research contracts and grant programs.  The last thing that any agency wants to do is rescind or cancel funds to grantees and awardees.  (Believe me – I’ve been responsible for grant programs and large budgets that support Federally funded research).  In some cases, they don’t have a choice.  Make sure you watch websites closely for announcements and changes.
  • Be vigilant and patient.  The mess will go on for some time.  It takes a lot longer to rebuild manpower and programs than it does to cut them.  Also, try to remember that the folks on the other end of research contracts, grants, and other efforts (Federal employees) are also impacted on a personal level.

Let’s all hope that reason prevails at some point and we can get things back on a predictable path.  For now, we’re relegated to the spectator seats.  Even though this seems tedious and ridiculous, it really does pay to watch and understand.



MOOCs: Pedagogy, Success, and Failure in the Advancing Market

In my last post on MOOCs, we looked at the recent timeline and marveled at how fast things are moving.  This time, we’re going to consider the rapidly developing learning curve on MOOC development, pedagogy, and the growing body of “lessons learned” as MOOCs continue to make the transition from novel to mainstream and stratify in terms of quality. MOOCs are entrepreneurial territory, and as such, have undeniable potential for those hoping to cash in and for those hoping to add a new tool to their teaching repertoire.  The real catch is that you have to know what you’re doing to succeed in either or both of those categories.  As someone hoping to profit, you need to know how to develop and market a competitive product line.  As a teacher, you need to know the difference between high and low quality, appropriateness of content and format, and you need to be be able to incorporate, enhance, and advise on the best way to make use of this new tool.  So, let’s explore these topics for a moment…

When we try new things, we sometimes experience unexpected (and unwanted) consequences.  We sometimes fail.  That’s what happened to to a faculty member at Georgia Tech.  If you’ve been following MOOCs in the news, then you’ve seen this.  The question here is whether or not the failure had anything to do with the fact that the course was offered as a MOOC?.  Ga Tech and Coursera pulled the plug on, “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application,” earlier this month.  With over 40,000 registered for the course, it started badly and ended quickly.  Why?  Simple.  The course wasn’t ready.  The preparation had not been done.  It really didn’t matter whether this course was online or face-to-face.  The fact that it was a MOOC on how to develop and use MOOCs made it sensational in its truly mundane reasons for failure.  The instructor tried to use Google Docs to get students to self-organize into groups.  Appropriate administrative controls on document creation and editing were not in place, and students began editing in an uncontrolled environment, resulting in chaos.  In addition, students had problems accessing and reading materials that had been posted at the last minute to the syllabus.  The lesson learned is not a new one and it has nothing to do with new technology.  Faculty should prepare for courses.  Poor preparation is unacceptable online or off.  (Btw – this incident is very unlikely to prevent Ga Tech from offering more MOOCs, and it certainly didn’t cause Coursera to break a sweat.  They have many others that are proving successful.)

If you’re interested in a MOOC, go to its website and take a good look at the instructor, syllabus, resources, and overall structure and philosophy of the course.  If you are not sold by these items, or worse – you can’t find these items, then you may want to think twice. You also need to think about how you prefer to learn.  Do you prefer being a solo-learner or an active and engaged participant learner?  If you’re an instructor, do you prefer to direct from afar or engage actively and consistently, constantly shaping and re-shaping? You may also want to stop and think about course material and whether it lends itself to a structure that is linear, non-linear, or a combination of both.

In one of the more informative and helpful (as opposed to editorial) papers on the topic of MOOCs, we can explore 2 different MOOC formats based on established pedagogy and begin to understand why one may be more appropriate (and successful) than another based on the instructor, topic, and audience (MOOCs and the AI-Stanford like Courses: Two Successful and Distinct Course Formats for Massive Open Online Courses).  The author, C. Osvaldo Rodriguez, looks at emerging MOOC formats as a natural extensions of the distance learning pedagogy, and focuses on 2 distinct types of MOOCs that are offered by Coursera, EdX, Udacity, and others.

The first type is referred to as an artificial intelligence (AI) type course, which is most closely connected to a cognitive-behaviorist learning methodology.  These types of courses follow a traditional pathway with well established schedules, structures, and assignments.  The learner tends to rely on his or her own ability to complete assignments and meet deadlines and requirements, with only some social interaction, and very little dependence on other course participants (which could be as many as 100,000).  Course topics tend to focus on technical, linear, core subjects such as computer programming, introduction to databases, cryptology, anatomy, game theory, engineering, physics, chemistry, and math, etc.  These courses have been offered by Stanford and MIT with resulting success.  Tools used often include a central webpage, videos, posted reading, and additional content to supplement the learning experience.  The primary contribution of this type of online learning experience is the massive increase in distributed learning, or simply put, the ability to engage a huge number of participants.  While students typically receive acknowledgement of satisfactory completion from instructors, direct interaction is often limited to established “office hours” where the instructor or assistants address a pool of questions or topics submitted by students.  Participants in these type of courses are typically experts, professionals, undergraduates, and graduate-level students from across the globe seeking to acquire or improve a skill.  They tend to be objective-oriented and desire acknowledgement of completion or certification for the course.  Success is often dictated through structure, defined objectives, quality of resources, and the quality of the instructor, whose presence – although remote – still delivers material and focus via video and readily repeatable/accessible processes.  If you’re a solo-learner interested in acquiring a new skill or improving an existing skill and you want flexibility in location, schedule, and cost, this may be your style.  If you’re an instructor looking to augment an existing curriculum or transform core courses into an easily replicable format that can be offered on demand, this format may be effective.

The second type is the connectivist construct, or c-MOOC, characterized by a heavy reliance on social activity, self organization, and the inter-connectedness of students (again, numbering in well into the thousands) within the learning experience.  These MOOCs are expanding the definition and application of student-centered learning.  This type of online format is rapidly emerging, and is also where we tend to find the most experimentation in structure and content.  These courses may not be familiar to the traditional learner and require active engagement, flexibility, and use of new tools in social media.  Types of tools employed can include: a central webpage and blog feed; Moodle with wiki; ElluminateUstreamPageflakesNetvibesFacebook; LinkedinTwitterNingSecond LifeTwineFlickr; social bookmarking; and conceptual maps.  These courses can have higher dropout rates, especially when students become lost in the content or fail to successfully engage in the social construct.  In this setting, the student is in control of the learning process and the instructor’s role is transformed into one of facilitator and shepherd of resources.  Courses tend to be based on social and dynamic topics that are non-linear in construct and don’t typically lend themselves to an easily replicable format (watching a series of video lectures and taking online exams).  Participants may not be concerned with receiving certification, but are often seeking an opportunity to improve skills through new methods and approaches in a socially dynamic setting.  This format arguably requires more from the instructor and assistants.  Far from remote, the instructor needs to be present and constantly guiding to maintain positive, purposeful, forward momentum.  Success requires a multi-tasking leader (and assistants), capable of guiding students through learning scenarios.  Otherwise, it’s easy to see how chaos can ensue.  If you are a social-learner and enjoy active participation, engagement, and can self-regulate in large groups, this may be your style.  If you are an instructor looking to augment an existing curriculum or transform specific courses into highly engaged, student-centered, dynamic settings, this format may be effective.

Both formats have their own set of attractors and detractors.  It’s relatively easy to see why a particular subject may be more appropriate for one or the other, or why a particular instructor may be more inclined to one format or the other.  The two methods could easily be used in conjunction with one another, and either could be used to supplement the face-to-face classroom experience and traditional curriculum.  One is not better than the other – the key to success is knowing which format to use, when to use it, and how to use it to effectively to achieve desired educational objectives.  Whether you’re a student or an instructor (or both), you need to be both well informed and somewhat self-aware to ensure a successful outcome.  The next topic for exploration in this series will be focused on equity in education.  The dialogue is fairly polarized on this topic.  Do MOOCs narrow or widen the equality gap in education, and what impact do they really have on the value of higher education?




Communicating Science, the Uncivil Response, and the Blogger’s Prerogative

When I worked at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (EPA ORD), I was pleasantly surprised to find that the organization had invested in professionals who specialized in Science Communication.  As the Associate Center Director for Water at the National Center for Environmental Research, one of my responsibilities was oversight of grants and communication of scientific results (both internally to the organization and externally to the public).  I can say from personal experience that mastery of the art of communication and the ability to communicate effectively, to any audience, are critical and indispensable skills.  If you rely on someone else to fund your work and you are a scientist, engineer, researcher, or just someone who wants to get a point across and build a network of advocates and supporters, you need to be able to convince people that your work matters.  In many, if not most cases, the people you need to convince are not scientists.  This is especially the case if you are funded by the public (state or federal funding).  The fact of the matter is that you not only need to convince your audience that your work matters, but you also need to make them understand why it matters, why they should care, and ultimately – why it should be funded when resources are scarce and you are competing with others to keep your work alive.  There are some out there who staunchly believe that the merits of their work are self evident – the science will sell itself.  The harsh reality is that even the greatest science is relatively meaningless if no one cares about it, understands it, or wants to see it continue.  Communication can be your greatest ally and it can set you apart from those who don’t master it.  If you want to see an example of science that has been translated into language that resonates with the general public, here’s one that has benefited from deliberate and professional retooling (EPA’s Science Matters Newsletter).  It’s just one of many examples out there.  One thing you will note in these articles is the consistent use of plain (but not dumb) language, the focus on explaining the benefits (the “so what”) of the science and research to the reader, the use of visually engaging graphics, and multiple modes of engagement (blogs, podcasts, etc.).

With the advent of scientific blogging and the need to communicate more effectively comes the inevitable question, “how do we deal with immediate, negative feedback?”  In the good old days, a critic had to find your article in a journal, read it, and take the time and effort to officially respond.  In return, you could take the time and effort to also respond.  Anyone interested in the dialogue would have to put some effort into following the correspondence.  The opportunity to deliberate was fairly abundant.  Today, it may take someone all of 30 seconds or less to fire off a critical response – that everyone can potentially see.  As the author, you are left with the decision to approve or disapprove a comment.  You may even consider blocking someone from your blog.  So, what does that really mean?

A recent article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education sheds some light onto the matter.  In, “How Rude! Reader Comments May Undermine Scientists’ Authority,” the results of a new study conducted by Wisconsin and George Mason University indicate that the relative civility of comments may have an impact on how science is perceived and whether or not it is supported by the public.  They study asked 2,338 Americans to read a blog article on nanotechnology and respond based on their perception of risk associated with advances in the field of nanotechnology.  The respondents were split into two groups. One group received the article with attached comments that were polite and civil in nature. The other group received the article with attached comments that were rude and uncivil in nature. The difference in the responses from the two groups was interesting – the distinction between rude and polite comments appears to have had a polarizing effect on reader response.  “Of participants who had already expressed wariness toward the technology, those who read the sample article—with politely written comments at the bottom—came out almost evenly split. Nearly 43 percent said they saw low risks in the technology, and 46 percent said they considered the risks high. But with the same article and comments that expressed the same reactions in a rude manner, the split among readers widened, with 32 percent seeing a low risk and 52 percent a high risk.  “The results led one of the study’s co-authors to seek advice from other noted scientific bloggers.  (I personally find the ultimate recommendation from the co-author somewhat amusing and also a little unsettling.)  She advocates for wide adoption of warning rude commenters and then blocking them if the warning is not heeded.  Another researcher consulted on the topic advised that, “scientists and science writers need to realize the power they have to control their online environments.”  (There are currently over 70 comments posted on this article – many express outrage at the idea of censoring comments and discussion on scientific topics).

Herein lies the crux of the dialogue.  At what point do you, as an author, refuse to allow someone’s comment to be visible?  We don’t know how rude the comments in the study were.  They could have been laden with profanity and personal abuse directed at the researchers, or they could have been overly critical of the topic and simply impolite in expression.  We don’t know from the article.  In general, we have to trust authors not to over-exercise the blogger’s prerogative.  You’re probably always going to get good and bad comments – if you’re topic is interesting enough to get comments at all.  If every single comment is rude and offensive and you weren’t deliberately trying to bait people, you may want to put some serious thought into what you said and why you got that response.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have the ability to control the content on a blog we’ve created. I am saying that we need to think carefully before we decide to block a comment.  If I wrote a blog article on a scientific topic and someone responded by insulting my mother, I may very well decide to block that comment.  For one thing, it doesn’t contribute anything to the subject matter.  However, if someone simply refutes my research or position, and does it in a rude or impolite way, I may very well choose to allow the comment.  It may be impolite, but it may add a necessary perspective to the discussion. Science can be, and often is, controversial.  People can become impassioned.  In some cases, the most outrageous responses can also incite critical thought and rally necessary support from the opposing side.

In the end, it’s all relative, largely subjective, and up to the author to make the call on what they will and will not allow.  As for me, I tend to think it’s better to know where your opposition comes from and how strong it is – and whether or not you need to consider a dissenting voice – no matter how much you may dislike it.  I tend to be suspicious and skeptical of anything with unanimous, glowing support.  I believe that critical discourse is essential.  I guess I’d have to see just how rude those comments were before making the final decision.

The study referenced above will be published in a coming issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 

State of the Union – College Scorecards

In tonight’s State of the Union Address, President Obama included discussion on improving education in high schools and also controlling student debt and rising college tuition.  “Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years. But taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do. Tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my Administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”  It will be interesting to see what the scorecards look like and what kind of response we get from students, parents, and colleges and universities.

Full text for the State of the Union is linked here.