How Preferred and Trusted Digital Platforms Will Reshape Education

Anyone denying the shift toward preferred and trusted digital platforms might want to look at the numbers as seen here, and we are wise to consider the fact that this has implications for education as well.

Digital platforms are here and they are reshaping market share across industries. They are reshaping personal habits. They are reshaping how families and communities function. This is not new. We’ve been living in and experiencing these changes for decades, but the statistics above give us a glimpse into what can happen in education as well.

I realize this provokes mixed reactions. Some might not like it. Others might not want it to happen. Still others might be deeply concerned about it. Even others remain skeptics. I’ve experienced all of those at one point our another. However, we are in denial in if we think this shift is not reshaping education as well.

Others will look at the statistics above and point out that, while Amazon grew in shares, it is not the most profitable. In fact, it didn’t even turn a profit until 2016. Yet, I will point out that it did impact both market share and profit for some of the others in the chart as well as countless others. It actually generated more profit for storefronts who found a powerful platform in Amazon. It established its market influence. In addition, regardless of profits at the moment, it is reshaping the modern retail marketplace in ways that are noteworthy.

This trusted platform / storefront element is one of the more profitable parts of the Amazon enterprise. I wrote about this recently in an article entitled, “A Likely Storefront Future of Continuing Education.” I tried to stay modest in my speculations in the article, but the truth of the matter is that an Amazon approach to education at large is likely to emerge. We are not sure who or which organizations will take the lead, but it can and likely will happen. It may be underway and I just haven’t noticed the emerging dominance of certain platforms.

By the way, this doesn’t mean the end of face-to-face education anymore than Amazon’s success meant the need of all face-to-face storefronts, but it will have an impact, one that is potentially larger but certainly different from what most people expect. This is not a doomsday article for traditional education. It is a recognition that education and learning as we know it will be transformed by the trusted and extended services platform model.

This is about building a preferred and trusted platform. I stopped by a Best Buy recently in search of a last-minute addition to Christmas presents. When I asked about a niche product, you can probably guess what the person told me at the store. We don’t have that in this store, but you can go to our website and order it. The people at the store are constantly reinforcing that the place to really get what you want is online, and it was a fragmented customer experience. You are just taking your chances if you go to the store. My wife had a related experience when she went online to order something from Walmart that she could pick up in the store. When she arrived, they didn’t have it, even though the website indicated that all she had to do was go to the store to pick it up.

Amazon went a different direction. Order it from us (or one of our partners) and we will tell you when it will arrive. Before you order it, check out our community of customer reviews, compare prices across our products and those of other vendors who we welcome in our storefront, choose when and how you want it shipped…

Some K-12 and higher education leaders might look at that last number in the opening image and note that the answer is that we need to add an online element. Yet, while that might be important, this is not just about going online. Each of the companies in the list are online. It is just that Amazon, an almost entirely online storefront, had a 1910% growth while all but Walmart saw significant declines, and Amazon made itself a one-stop shop and destination point that extends from consumer goods to entertainment, photo storage to books in every modern format, cloud servers and storage to tracking digital subscriptions. There is something more significant at play here, and that something has enormous implications for education also. It is about the trusted and one-stop platform. People seem to like and want that.

In education, consider the examples of Coursera and Edx as MOOC providers. Both of these went the route of partnering with large, flagship, or elite institutions. You don’t find many small or niche higher education institutions even welcomed on their platform. Contrast that with Amazon who partners with even the smallest niche boutiques who can meet their standards, follow their policies, and deliver quality products on time. Notice the community built around Amazon that extends across providers and services, anticipating questions and needs, and then expanding the platform to address them.

The future is unclear but the impact is apparent to anyone who will take the took to study the trends. Some of the MOOC providers might pivot and try this. LinkedIn seems to be trying to do it. Blackboard is trying to do it through a B2B strategy as a provider of ever-expanding services for educational institutions, but it still does not prove to be a true and easy-to-work-with partner for many vendors (at least not from several direct personal experiences on that front). Plenty of others opted for more niche approaches that will likely be sustaining over the upcoming years. Those who are growing online are often doing so with incredibly narrow ways of thinking about education or training. Yet, I’m still waiting for those two or three preferred and trusted platforms to emerge. Perhaps they are already here and will show themselves as such. Maybe they will be an expanded aspects of an existing and widely trusted and used social platform. They could come from new startups. There is even a chance that they will come from the non-profit education space through a single leader or a strong consortium (but I’m skeptical at the moment). This might take a few years. This might take a decade or more. Regardless, it will happen.

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Re-imagining Learning & Credentialing in a Connected World

I’m playing with this idea of multiple pathways to learning and earning associated credentials. So, I wanted to get the following rough ideas out to you as a way to spark discussion and invite help; especially help creating better ways to illustrate the possibilities. I’m particularly interested in how all this relates to the promise and possibility of micro-credentials. As I was driving to work a few months ago, I had this ideo of a map that could represent what I’ve been thinking about with regard multiple pathways to learning. I describe it below and then end with a 5-minute rough visual intended to visually communicate some of these ideas.

I pictured three main road: Continuing Education Court, Self-Directed Street, and Degree Drive.

Continuing Education Court 

This street represents the many accelerated, non-credit, intensive and/or compacted learning experiences available to people today. There are experiences like weekend workshops on writing, how to start a business, managing your finances or anything else. This road also includes learning from the thousands of webinars that are free or fee-based on the web today, covering topics ranging from personal development to compliance issues at work. It also includes stops at other learning events: conferences, retreats, “boot camps”, etc. These are usually just-in-time learning experiences, and I put them in the class of semi-formal learning, as they don’t include all the trappings of a full formal schooling experience. They are usually discrete and disconnected, self-selected based on learner need and interest. Sometimes there are credentials associated with the experiences, but often not. They are a collection of experiences, often provided by multiple organizations; and there is less of an overall formal curriculum across all learning experiences. Instead, the learner opts in and out as she deems useful for her goals and interests.

Self-Directed Street

Like Continuing Education Court, the learner determines the curriculum / path on this street. Activities and learning experiences are largely designed or coordinated by the learner. Sometimes they are independent learning experiences. Other times learners come together to share and learn with or from one another. Learners not only choose what to do, but how much they will do. For example. note that I put MOOC Mountain on Self-Directed Street when it could also go on Continuing Education Court. I did this because of what the research tells us about how learners use MOOCs. Most do not sign up and complete the course as formally planned. They do it their way, on their timeline, and the extent do which they believe it useful or a high priority. Nonetheless, a case could be made that there are MOOC mountains on both roads. Over time and with focus and effort, people can become incredibly knowledgeable and skilled by traveling on Self-Directed Street, but there are few to no credentials to use of evidence of this learning.

Degree Drive

This is the most familiar road when people think about learning. It represents the formal programming of a student in a school (k-12, higher education). It is often course-based and a pre-determined curriculum (decided largely by others). This curriculum determines where learners stop along the way, what they do and how they do it. There can be sights and features that resemble what you see on Continuing Education Court and Self-Directed Street, but the formal structure and directedness is a common hallmark of this road. Also, the stops along the way can be carefully connected, with one stop preparing a person to get the most out of the next. Even as one progresses, there is careful documentation of what travelers completed and how they performed. Traveling on this road culminates in a credential that is intended to give evidence of one’s accomplishments and growing competence in some area of study.

Combining the Three

What happens when we don’t think of these as three disconnected and unrelated learning pathways? What if we see this as representative of a city or region in which one travels on a lifelong learning journey? What possibilities does that create for us? Consider a model where credentials can be provided as people demonstrate competence through any of these stops along the way, whether it is the weekend workshop, the self-guided tour, the self-study stop, or a formal course. This is one of the interesting and exciting possibilities of micro-credentials and digital badges. Their affordances give us a greater ability to imagine such contexts, as evidenced by the cities of learning initiatives.

What we imagine can be exciting and terrifying. Some worry about what this would mean for formal learning organizations if such an idea were to spread. Others point out that, in this age of democratized information, it may be even more dangerous if the idea does not spread, as it could turn schools into credentialing factories instead of rich, human, and collaborative learning communities…what they are when they are at their best.

Regardless, what I just described is already partly in place. This is not simply some vision of a possible future. This, apart from the credentialing element, is already what happens for many people. It is how we learn in a connected and increasingly digital world. Now we have the opportunity to let this current reality inform our thoughts and planning about 21st and 22nd century credentialing.

Below I’ve included an embarrassingly rough draft visual to help illustrate the idea that I just described. I would love to have partners in this effort, people who can take what I started and create a more robust and aesthetically appealing version of the visual. Please let me know if you are interested, or just create it, share it, and let the conversation spread. Even if there are no takers on that front, I look forward to continuing the conversation about how we might imagine and re-imagine learning and credentialing in a connected world.

Alternative Pathways to Credentials

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6 Design Experiments in a Mildly Massive Open Online Course

A little over a year ago, I led my first MOOC, Understanding Cheating in Online Courses. It got a fair amount of media attention, likely because it made for provocative article titles…things like, “MOOC Teaches How to Cheat in Online Courses With an Eye Toward Prevention.” There were also articles in the BBC News, Venture Beat and the New York Times. Those articles tell a bit about the what and why of the MOOC, but they don’t really get into the design side of things, giving you a glimpse into the design decisions that shaped this experiment. I shared a few of these thoughts at conference earlier this year, but I thought I others might be interested, so here you go.

First I should explain the goals of the MOOC. There were six of them.

  1. 1.Increase attention to academic honesty issues and have a great conversation with people about a topic that is important to me. Yes, I created a MOOC to build a community around this topic, so that I could learn more about the subject.
  2. 2.Equip people to mitigate against academic cheating, but in a way that was not all about policing and punishing.
  3. 3.Add depth to the current discussion by looking at it from an interdisciplinary perspective (the philosophy of cheating, psychology of cheating, from the perspective of the cheater, etc.).
  4. 4.Challenge existing beliefs and myths. Many talk about cheating as a simple moral issue. I tried to broaden the conversation to think of it also as a design issue.
  5. 5.Promote a design approach to academic honesty.
  6. 6.Experiment and play with the affordances of open learning.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.37.46 PMAfter meeting a number of times with my design team (a few instructional designers, a digital media specialist, and our director of online technology), we decided upon six features: collective knowledge generation, a mix of public and private spaces, live events, a design that welcomed and encouraged self-blending, pre-established but emerging schedule, and whimsical but meaningful digital badges. Each of these were selected to build community, foster a highly personalized experience and self-directed, and to honor the unique affordances of a MOOC…doing things that can’t be done with other courses as easily (like collective knowledge generation).

Collective Knowledge Generation – This is one of the affordances of a MOOC. If you have hundreds or thousands of people gathered together around a topic of shared interest, you can actually leverage that group to generate meaningful content that benefits the entire community and beyond. That is what we did. For example, we started the course with an online discussion, where participants shared cheating stories that they’ve experienced. In a matter of a week, we had probably one of the largest collections of informal cheating case studies in existence. And we learned about how students are cheating through those stories. There is no way that I or any other single instructor could have created a better and more varied collection of examples.

Then we followed that activity by making it even more personal. We had a “cheating confessional.” People had a chance to anonymously share a time when they cheated, why they, and how they cheated. It personalized the topic, reminding us that the proclivity for cheating is closer than we like to think. It didn’t condone cheating, but it did make it a bit more personal. This activity added even more cheating case studies from which to learn.

Throughout the class, we also created a cheating lexicon in Google Docs. At any point in the class, participants could add a new term that they learned in the course, also adding a definition and source. The group edited one another’s work and we developed an ever-growing lexicon of terms.

Then at the end of the class, students had the option of doing a “final project” where they came up with a proposed project or plan for mitigating against cheating in their learning organization. Those got posted to the class so we could learn from the wonderful ideas and how plans varied from one context to another.

A Blended of Private and Public

This was an open course in that anyone was welcome to join. However, it was not entirely open. First, we capped enrollment at 1000, so not everyone who wanted to attend was able. This was mostly just a limit put in place by the provider that I used. Beyond that we also elected to host some course discussions in the password-protected learning management system, where only other registered participants could read them. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, this was done to give people the freedom to share and be a bit more candid than they might want to be on the public web.

Alongside that, we had plenty of openness. There was a Twitter stream (#cheatmooc), public weekly content and live events that anyone could access…whether they were registered or not. We also made some of the collective knowledge resources public to the world (like the Cheating Lexicon).

Live Events – As a way to build rapport and to collect great lectures on the topic, we offered weekly lectures on the topic for the week, open to the world. We recorded all these and made them public to the world.  Most of these were done using Google OnAir along with a Q & A through a simple chat tool. We encouraged the presenters to be personal…even a bit informal in the live events. They were rich with amazing content, but we tried to run them a bit more live a great living room conversation.

Now here is an amazing part of the live events. I initially planned on presenting all these myself. Then, with the great media attention, a number of amazing scholars reached out and offered to help. So, we had leading thinkers and companies in the field giving these talks (James Lang presenting on what was at the time his forthcoming book called Cheating Lesson; Tricia Bertram Galant, Teddy Fishman, Proctor U, Software Secure, TurnitIn, etc. It was a wonderful and impressive collection of people who gave us a rich and diverse look at the topic.

Plan for Self-Blending

A core affordance of a MOOC is that students don’t need to do what the instructor tells them. They are in charge of their learning. They choose what is valuable and what is now, whether to persist, when to pay attention and when to take a break, which resources to read or watch, which activities seem valuable, and when to go find or create a new resource. We designed the MOOC to honor all this, treating it as a distinct affordance of a MOOC.

As such, we took a lesson from Howard Rheingold and used co-learner language. I described myself as a co-learner and tour guide, not an instructor who calls all the shots. Resources were offered, not required. It was a buffet instead of a prepared meal. They choose what goes on their plate and what does not.

To help provide structure, each week had a provocative driving question, content that explored that question, and suggested activities/experiments that helped participants grapple with and explore that question. Amid this, we added enough resources and activity options that there were many paths to answering and exploring the driving question. The learner got to choose how to explore the question, how deep to go, etc. We also included learner contributions to these resources. So, if a learner went out and found a great resource, we edited the course to include those treasures.

A Pre-Established but Emerging Schedule

This course was a learning community, not an instructor-led dictatorship. So, we wanted the shape of the course to be informed by the interests and needs of the participants. We had pre-developed weekly learning objectives and driving questions. We had pre-developed weekly readings and resources. We had pre-developed weekly suggested learning missions and events. Yet, we revised, added, and removed based upon what students wanted. For example, two of the live events were not even planned beforehand. Students requested a topic, so I went out and found the best people I could to speak to it. Fortunately, they were willing to help us out. I also adjusted many resources and added new suggested activities by watching and listening to the learners. In a sense, this was an adaptive design.

Digital Badges

This course was my first time implementing a digital badge system. With the wonderful help of, it was pretty easy to do. We did a ton of reading and research on the concept of digital badges and then we just gave it a try. Our badges were not competency-based. They were meant to recognize contribution to the community and conversation around a given weekly driving question. We assigned points to each suggested activity. If a learner earned 100 or more activity points in a week, they got the badge for the week. Each badge represented a “role” for the week, as students were invited to approach each week by trying on roles like philosopher, psychologist, instructional designer or cheater. We had badges like the research assistant, the cheating psychologist, the cheating philosopher, the cheating investigator, the teacher, the instructional designer, and the cheater (which had a sub-title…”this badge was not earned honestly). We tried to be whimsical but substantive in this design, and a number of people were able to use them as evidence of professional development for their employers.

As another experiment, we had an “exemplary contribution” badge that was distributed to 1-3 people each week, as surprise recognition for their wonderful addition to the community for that week.

Note that the entire badge design was about recognizing and encouraging contribution to he community. They were less about recognizing learning and more about celebrating an individual’s commitment to building knowledge from which others could benefit.

This was a wonderfully rewarding experiment in creative instructional design, digital age communities of practice, and how to leverage the affordances of open learning to give voice to important issues in society. It was far from perfect, but I consider the items above to be largely a success. It was a joy to see the great media attention to this important topic, countless blog posts written about it by participants, and dozens of academic integrity projects implemented in k-12 schools and Universities based on participant work in the MOOC.

Beyond Pigeonholing MOOCs

I recently read this article and infographic called, Are MOOCs Still Going Strong? It is worth a few minutes of your time. I put together the following comments in response to it. My comments sound critical, and they are to a degree. However, I am thankful for the author’s contribution to the conversation about the role of MOOCs. I just want to offer some additional or different perspectives.

I appreciate a thought-provoking infographic, but I am concerned because these data risk perpetuating the same conversation about MOOCs that most media outlets (including bloggers) have focused upon for the last year. I don’t disagree with most statements in the infographic and yet I can challenge almost every item in it. It just comes down to a definition of terms and coming to a shared understanding of the many purposes of MOOCs. Note that I said purposes, because there are many MOOC makers and MOOC providers with different goals in mind. My comments are related to one or more direct quotes are claims from the article, so it might help to review the article before reading on. At the same time, if you are already familiar with the MOOC conversation, you can probably follow my thinking without the original article, just using the brief quotes below.

1. “MOOC create a 2-tiered system”

This seems to assume that the purpose of MOOCs is to replace traditional online or face-to-face higher education. While some claim that, many (even most) of us in the open online learning world are not invested in MOOCs to replace traditional online and face-to-face higher education. It is simply to increase access and opportunity to learning (not schooling, just learning).
2. There are 3 MOOC Delivery Systems

There are hundreds, if not thousands of MOOCs running outside of Coursera, EdX and Uadacity. I know these are the three most popular and often have some of the largest courses, but I’m not sure if it is helpful to talk about MOOCs as if these three are the only important players. That is like saying that Harvard, MIT and Yale or the only real players in higher education or that Google, Bing and Yahoo are the only important search engages on the web. Clearly there are many others out there as well, and in the MOOC world I contend that the others are doing much of the most promising, innovative and interesting work in the world of open learning.

3. “Motivation is corporate profit”

I’m not comfortable telling all the MOOC providers that profit is their motivation. I know from direct experience that it is not. This is not the case with traditional online courses either. Yes, there are certainly some online Universities that likely have profit as their primary goal (not just with MOOCs, but for all of their offerings), but many of us do not. The same would go from brick-and-mortar higher education programs.

4. “MOOCs have a 93% failure rate.”

This is comparing MOOCs to traditional tuition-based, credit-offering programs. We are using a vocabulary to talk about engagement and persistence in MOOCs as if they are just another version of a college course, and yet that is not the intent or vision behind many MOOCs. I, for example, have made the case that we could just as easily argue that MOOCs have close to a 100% success rate. My problem with a statement like the 93% one is that I don’t think we are carefully defining our terms. It seem a bit like critiquing the value of a conference based upon how many people register but do not attend every session and planned event. I think we would be better off if we evaluated MOOCs with a new set of criteria that is more specific to the purpose and nature of a given open course.

5. “Traditional grading systems are impossible.”

This is accurate, but it also seems to be comparing MOOCs to traditional courses. Why would we want or need traditional grading systems in most MOOCs? Given the goal and purpose of most MOOCs, what is the need for a traditional grading system? Feedback is important (as it is with all learning), but there and hundreds of ways to give feedback that do not even require a traditional instructor. Again, MOOCs do not have the same purpose of credit-based college courses. There are many learning experiences that do not lend themselves to traditional grading, but they can be wonderfully useful and rewarding learning experiences. The same is true for open courses. In fact, I’m not sure that traditional grading practices are the wave of the future in traditional courses.

6. The History of Distance Learning

If you look at the infographic linked to at the beginning of this article, you will see a simple timeline called, “History of Distance Learning.” It includes 1890s and 1920s correspondence courses, 1993 with Jones International as the first online University, then it jumps to MOOCs in 2006. I know this is not intended to be an exhaustive history, but not including at least a few of the thousands of things that happened in online learning between 1993 and 2006 risks leaving the reader thinking that MOOCs are the dominant part of online learning today. In reality, there is a massive higher education world of online courses that are not MOOCs. A rapidly growing number of college students are taking non-MOOC credit-based online courses. Also, since MOOCs are part of the open learning movement as much or more than they are a part of the credit-based online world, it might be helpful to include reference to open learning as a point in the timeline, changing the title of from “History of Distance Learning” to something more related to open learning. I realize that this might sound critical, but without a bit more detail in our conversation about these matters, we are going to collectively miss the mark.

7. MOOCs are a “Bargain education for those who can’t”, and traditional credit-based college is “‘Real’ education for those who can afford it.”

While some have this sort of a vision for MOOCs, this is not how most MOOCs are being used. Especially if we venture beyond Coursera, EdX and Udacilty; we find a wonderfully diverse collection of MOOCs that exist to serve different audiences. I led two MOOCs in the last year, both of which targeted those who work in K-12 or higher education. They were professional development and professional learning community MOOCs. There are hundreds of such MOOCs out there. It seems wise to include them in the broader conversation as well, especially if we are asking if MOOCs are still going strong.

8. MOOCs “Force professors to improve lectures.”

This is one of the proposed benefits of MOOCs now. Perhaps that is a current affordance, but I must again suggest that we look beyond Coursera, EdX and Udacity to the other types of MOOCs out there. Consider, for example, the many connectivist MOOCs that have little reliance upon lectures. Instead, they are leveraging crowd-sourced knowledge generation and other promising peer-to-peer learning.

9. MOOCs “are usually free.”

This is just a small clarification. If it is not free, it is not a MOOC. By definition, MOOCs are open courses. Perhaps the author was thinking of the fact that some MOOCs offer certification tracks that require a fee. The only reason that I’m compelled to clarify the point is because I worry that we are putting too much emphasis upon the “massive” and “online”, but not talking enough about the “open”, which is fundamental to the conversation about MOOCs. They are, after all, part of the open learning movement.

10. There are “over 2 billion potential learners in the world” and “over 70% cannot afford college.”

Out of all the data in the infographic, this strikes me as the most compelling and valuable contribution to the MOOC conversation. Is it possible that the open learning movement can contribute to self-education…not just for those who can’t afford college but for the rest of the world as well? How are MOOCs changing the way people think about learning? I ave studied at over 20 Universities in my life, with four degrees. 2013 was the first year that I was not enrolled in at least one credit-based course since I started kindergarten. What changed in 2013? Over the past five years, I discovered both the power of self-directed learning and open online courses. Together, they allowed me to build amazing connections with co-learners around the world, to develop new skills and build new knowledge, and to more fully embrace learning beyond formal schooling. MOOCs are doing this for people, often people who have one or more degrees already. They are shifting some people’s understanding of learning, helping them to build robust online personal learning networks.

I appreciate the time put into the infographic. It is a good discussion starter. I am just looking for a broader and more nuanced conversation about MOOCs, one that includes the many important voices and experiments beyond Coursera, EdX and Udacity. I yearn for a rich and robust conversation about MOOCs, one that includes the elements that I reference in this article. This is increasingly difficult to find in articles and blogs over the past year. I invite you to join me in the effort to expand this conversation.  Let’s move our conversation beyond the growing pigeonholing of MOOCs and into the much more diverse and rich contemporary world of open online learning.

7 Ways for Online Learners to Cultivate a Learning Community

In many online courses, it is possible to learn a great deal and earn a good grade without getting to know others in the class. You may be interacting with others to accomplish this, but the interaction can feel limited, even contrived. However, I contend that participating in an online course can be about much more than earning the grade and learning something.  I’m an advocate for online learning communities, with community being a central part of the experience.  Some people who still see the Internet in terms of technologies may not quickly understand what I mean by this.  They may think that community and relationship are terms that are specific to the face-to-face world or online environments that mimic part of a face-to-face interaction.  I can usually identify such people because they may speak about being advocates for online learning, but they almost always gravitate toward synchronous communication (tools like Skype, Hangouts, and phone). Others, like myself, think of the Internet largely in terms of connections.  From that perspective, the Internet simply provides new ways to engage in community, cultivate relationships, and build meaningful connections with others. For this to happen, it requires an intentional effort from people, especially the learners.  Toward that end, here are seven behaviors, perspectives, or strategies that can help one become a vibrant part of an online learning community, both giving and receiving in significant ways.

1. Communicate Early and Often – Threaded discussions continue to offer many powerful communication affordances that are not available in real-time communication: empowering students who are largely on the sidelines of discussion in the face-to-face class, creating a record of communication that can be revisited and extended for weeks or months, demanding more careful consideration of one’s thoughts before sharing them. With this in mind, have you ever been in an online course where some classmates wait until the end of the week to start participating?  That is the equivalent of going to a face-to-face class and remaining silent until the last ten minutes of the class session. Then, all of a sudden, you start spouting out all of your thoughts from throughout the entire class.  That entirely misses the idea of a conversation.  The same thing happens in an online threaded discussion unless you take part in the online discussion in an ongoing way, logging in several times throughout the week to comment, read, reflect, and comment further.  That makes for a much more vibrant and authentic experience, and it is a way of being an active part of the community, showing deeper interest and respect for your co-learners, learning from others, and allowing others to learn from you.

2. Be Really Curious – There is a time to speak and a time to listen.  Listening is where we show genuine concern for and interest in co-learners.  I often suggest that you imagine that you are on a first date, trying to use good first date conduct.  This means listening as much or more than talking, asking good and genuine questions, making it a priority to show the other person that you care about them and what they have to say.  Taking on this attitude in an online class is a way to quickly build positive and often long-lasting relationships with others.

3. Look for and Reach out to Specific Individuals – As you go through a course, you may discover that you resonate with the goals and interests of another student.  Or, perhaps there is another student who has a very different perspective or background and you would like to learn from that person  Why not reach out? Send the classmate a private message, sharing what you appreciate about their contributions and inviting them to connect beyond the course (via Twitter, email, etc.), explaining that you would be interested in staying in contact as a way to share ideas and learn from one another.

4. Self-Organize Student Activities – You are not limited to the formal activities of a course.  Why not try to arrange an informal study group, a Google Hangout to touch base and further discuss ideas from the class, set up a Twitter hash tag to exchange ideas, create a forum outside of the formal class, or some other means of exploring a topic that some are interested in but that doesn’t necessarily fit in the course discussions?  This goes a long way in helping to build a stronger sense of community and it parallels the sort of informal group meetings that happen at many face-to-face institutions.

5. Encourage and Affirm – Online course discussions can often get rather content-focused. In fact, some early studies about online communication in the workplace indicated that online collaboration was more task-oriented with fewer “relational” comments.  This can be seen as a benefit and a drawback.  However, one way to be relational and content-focused at the same time is to share words of encouragement and affirmation with co-learners.  Share what you appreciated about their perspective, comments, examples, and illustrations.  Let them know when and how their comments help you, and thank them for it.

6. Challenge and Question – On the flip side, we want to cultivate a rigorous learning community and that means disagreeing, challenging and questioning when appropriate, but doing it in a way that is gentle and respectful. Much learning takes place as we contrast our understanding with that of others, joining in a mutual pursuit of truth or a more accurate understanding of the subject at hand.

7. Build Upon the Ideas of Others – In some online classes, individual student comments  seem like a disconnected collection of individual posts, often driven by the desire to craft a post that ensure them the highest grade.  While this is an unfortunate reality in many online courses, don’t let it prevent you from taking things a step further, trying to turn posts into a dynamic conversation.  A great way to do this is to build upon the ideas of others.  Take an idea that another shares and add a new example, illustration, or further exposition of the idea.  As multiple people do this, we get a sense of progress and discovery through online discussion.

There are plenty of others ways to be an active participant in an online course / learning community, but these seven provide simple starting points.  Give them a try and let me know how it goes.  By the way, if you are an online course instructor / facilitator, perhaps your challenge is the figure out how to encourage these sorts of activities.

University as Digital Citizen

Serving at a private liberal arts University in Wisconsin, we are less than a three-hour drive from the University of Wisconsin where the Wisconsin Idea was born. Simply stated, the Wisconsin Idea communicates a vision that the state University will serve the people and communities in which the University resides.  It will give, “advice about public policy, providing information and exercising technical skill, and to the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities.”  Similarly, former Harvard President James Bryant Conant (note that I am certainly not condoning some of his other ideas by referring to him) is quoted on the September 23, 1946 issue of Time Magazine as saying, “A scholar’s activities should have relevance.”

Both of these quotes explore the relationship between the University and the broader community (local, regional, national, and/or global).  You might say that they explore the notion of University as citizen.  In today’s landscape, I propose that Universities also have the challenge and opportunity to consider their role as digital citizens, not only thinking about digital spaces and communities as resources for getting, but carefully reflecting upon how they might make positive contributions to the digital world.

This is an aspect of the online University presence that gets less attention in the media.  From this perspective, MOOCs serve as sort of extension sites that reach a wide array of people with valuable content, leaning opportunities, and networking experiences. Beyond MOOCs, we also see contributions in the form of faculty bloggers, scholars hosting Tweetups, the free sharing of scholarly sources, the opportunity to network and connect with University faculty, free and inexpensive webinars, online conferences, not to mention extended access to full programs through online learning.

All of these have strong connections to many University mission statements.  In fact, it is rare to see a University mission statement that makes references to courses, degrees, letter grades, and programs.  They tend to be much broader than that, about equipping students for making a difference in the world, or perhaps about creating a higher education community that has a positive impact upon society.  Mission statements vary from private to public institutions, from institutions informed by different faith or philosophical traditions, and also from teaching to research Universities.  Consider two mission statements from my state of Wisconsin.

The University of Wisconsin Madison Mission (excerpt)

“The primary purpose of the University of Wisconsin–Madison is to provide a learning environment in which faculty, staff and students can discover, examine critically, preserve and transmit the knowledge, wisdom and values that will help ensure the survival of this and future generations and improve the quality of life for all. The university seeks to help students to develop an understanding and appreciation for the complex cultural and physical worlds in which they live and to realize their highest potential of intellectual, physical and human development.”

Concordia University Wisconsin Mission Statement

“Concordia University Wisconsin is a Lutheran higher education community committed to helping students develop in mind, body, and spirit for service to Christ in the Church and the World.”

These two missions are qualitatively different. The first has a heavy focus upon research & scholarship while the second focuses upon equipping students.  The first directs the mission toward the highest human potential while the second focuses upon the Christian notion of vocation, people being equipped for service to their “neighbors” through their gifts, talents, and abilities. At the same time, they both focus upon a University purpose that has the intended goal of benefiting those beyond the campus itself.  This is an important purpose of Universities, even as we think about the current and future nature of the digital world.  Toward that end, Universities that embrace their role as digital citizens might consider a few simple guiding question to shape their online presence as digital citizens.

  • What is distinct or unique about what we have to offer at our University?  Can any of that be shared online through resources, communities, events, or networks?
  • To whom are we called to serve and how might we leverage online community to serve them?
  • How can we leverage the digital world to continue to provide support, education, and encouragement to alumni from our institution as they seek to live out their various life vocations?
  • How might we empower and equip individual University members (faculty and/or staff) to engage in scholarship or disseminate findings in the digital world?

Digital Culture & the Future of Educational Publishing

Already in the late 1990s, I heard predictions about the impending doom of educational publishers.  As the first experiments with e-readers and e-books emerged and early online residents discovered the potential of a read and write web, scholars and others publicly mused about the future of the publishing industry.  Today we see any number of significant trends that continue to impact educational publishers:

  • interactive and multi-modal e-books;
  • the web as network and social spaces more than a simple content repository;
  • mobile devices;
  • consumer demand to access the same resource across devices;
  • the new literacies notion of reading as socially-negotiated meaning;
  • open textbook projects;
  • open source publishing;
  • folksonomies;
  • print-on-demand;
  • social media as a blending of content, community, connectivity and collaboration;
  • any number of options for rapid editing and re-versioning;
  • the notion of the digital collective essay (as evidenced publicly on Wikipedia and more often privately in collective writing projects within Google Docs, Sharepoint, Wikis, etc.);
  • the online media sharing movement (e.g. YouTube as the second most used search engine next to Google);
  • adaptive educational software and personalized learning products (e.g. Dreambox);
  • the content experience within serious games, game-based learning, gamification, and simulation-based learning;
  • self-publishing with the option of low-cost editing and marketing (unbundled resources for authors and editors);
  • grass-roots digital content curation that organizes current resources for easier consumption (e.g.;
  • peer-to-peer content sharing and distribution (wikis, blogs, podcasts, Google Docs, Dropbox, etc.);
  • growing public confidence in content from sources that did not go through the traditional editing process;
  • transmedia migration;
  • open courseware;
  • and open courses.

Many informed educational publishers need not worry about any of these trends, as the leaders are already exploring, using and/or considering the implications of everything on this list. In fact, several have brilliantly honed in on a few and started to integrate them into their products, services, platforms and communities. The wise publishers also take heed of Henry Jenkins work, not to mention the important lessons of the current transformational impact of blended learning. With regard to Jenkins’s work, I’m referring to his idea of Convergence Culture, the concept that new media do not completely replace all old media as must as old and new converge.  In terms of blended learning, I’m pointing to the convergence of the digital and the physical and not thinking of them in either/or terms.

There are promising opportunities for publishers that embrace and leverage any or all of these (albeit some are quite divergent from traditional business practice).  This requires the humility, willingness and effort to revisit certain organizational values, internal policies and processes, as well as reconsidering how they think about, share, protect, and/or use “resources.”  With all of this stated, companies tend to navigate changes, even ones as rapid and transformational as the ones listed above, as long as they remain excellent at discovering the greatest needs and problems of their client base, and investing the most resources in developing agile products and services that genuinely meet those needs and address those problems.  Of course, this also includes looking a few years into the future, getting good at some predictions about the coming needs, and this can be a challenging part of serving a Wild West sector like education.

One of the greatest risks is the publisher that underestimates what I believe to be the disruptive innovation of open source, grassroots digital content collaboration, and self-publishing.  Dismissing these as of inferior quality is the classic response of a company that is getting ready to be disrupted.  After all, the idea of a disruptive innovation, as noted by Christiansen, is that it starts by providing an inferior product to an audience that is not served or poorly served by others in the industry.  Self-published products may seem crude to publishers (just as some cringe or scoff at the typos that show up in a largely unedited source like this blog), and yet they serve a significant and growing population.  For example, I will have more people read this blog post in a week than the total sum of people who read most of the articles that I’ve published in more traditional sources.  I just met an early childhood educator who has 500,000 vistors to her web site every week!  While there will remain an important role for more carefully edited and professionally produced content and educational resources, I can’t help but think that there are amazing and needed roles for publishers to fill within the world of open source, grassroots collaboration, and self-publishing.

What are your thoughts about the future of educational publishing?  Feel free to share in the comment area or via one of my social media extensions to the blog (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn).

Why and How to Get to Know Your Online Learners

Know your audience.  Know your client.  Know your learners.  Whether we are talking about presenting to a large group, working with a prospective client, going on a first date, or teaching a new group of students; there is a universal principle that will greatly impact one’s ability to connect, persuade, relate, sell, serve, or teach.  It requires listening and observing, paying attention to the other, taking care to get to know them.  Know their challenges, background knowledge and experiences, abilities, interests, needs, goals, fears, beliefs, and values.

This same principle is true with effective online teaching and learning.  Without getting to know the learners, we are likely to miss out on many opportunities to teach, guide, and encourage.  If one is committed to cultivating a learning community, then creating experiences and opportunities for learners to get to know one another can be quite powerful as well.  While some people consider such things as “touchy feely”, there is no question that this is a significant aspect of creating a safe, positive learning environment.

  1. It can reduce student anxiety, which allows learners to focus more on the content and meeting the learning outcomes.
  2. It can build a sense of trust among learners which will empower them to be more candid in group activities and discussions, even allowing for more opportunity to respectfully disagree and challenge one another.
  3. It can help students build resilience when persistence when messy or complex learning is necessary.
  4. It can increase overall student satisfaction as well as retention rates.
  5. It will create a more positive, encouraging and pleasant environment in which to learn.

With that in mind, here are some activities / ideas to help you get to know your online learners.  The especially powerful ones involve learners getting to know one another as well, as they sometimes benefit from each other as much or more than they benefit from the instructor.

  1.  Find Commonalities – Most online courses have discussion areas where learners introduce themselves to one another and their classmates.  When replying (and encouraging students to reply), consider posting things that you share in common with each learner.  This helps to build connections right away.  We tend to trust those with whom we have things in common.  This is not to suggest that we ignore or disregard differences, but in the early stages of the course, take the time to point out the commonalities, and invite students to do the same. Do you have common hobbies or interests?  Can you relate with life or work circumstances of another?  Do you share certain goals, aspirations, fears, or challenges?  Perhaps it is as simple as coming from a similar town, having a common educational background, or juggling the challenges of work and family.  Of course, all of this requires listening, learning, and asking questions of the other learners.
  2. Google Them –  I am not suggesting that you stalk them.  However, if they share something related to an interest, a work affiliation, involvement in a club or group, or something else; then take a couple of minutes to learn more about it.  This might be helpful in better understanding them.  It might even give you insights that you can use to illustrate a key concept in the course at some point.
  3. Create a Weekly Check Up Survey – It can be as simple as using a quiz tool where students spend a couple of minutes responding to 1-3 open-ended questions.  What worked well for you this week?  What was challenging or confusing?  What do you expect to apply to work or life right away?  What sparked your curiosity this week?  About what would you like to learn more…or less?  These are just a few examples.  Pick your own or even change them up from week to week.  You can build this into the “assignments” or activities for the week so that students get in the habit of doing it.  Also, if you do this, be clear about your role.  Explicitly tell them the purpose of this activity and whether they can expect to get feedback individually.  At minimum, it will be important to show to students that you are reading these, and the comments are informing how you work with them.
  4. Use Free Inventories / Surveys – Have students fill out one the many inventories available on the web.  Of course, you want to be careful that they are not required to do this every class, but at some point, it could be helpful to have them do something like the character strengths inventory at and share some of their strengths with you and/or the class.  You can keep a record of these and take into account the strengths of different learners when planning group activities or weekly events.
  5. Use Synchronous Activities – A Google Hangout or Skype session can go a long way in building rapport and getting to know your learners.  It gives you a chance to experience their nonverbals, for you to hear their voice and see them.  This can be a powerful way for you to think of and treat the students as real people amid the otherwise disembodied communication of the web.  When you plan such activities, don’t just use them to lecture.  Use them as times for learners to share and collaborate.  Share as many questions as you do answers.  Be really curious about them.  Invite them to speak, question, collaborate and contribute.  That will make for a better opportunity to learn about them.
  6. Create Learning Journals – Learning journals are just what they sound like, journals or diaries that focus upon student learning experiences in the course.  They can be open-ended, or you can direct them with specific prompts or questions each week.  Consider giving them examples and guidance at first, and using it as a place where learners reflect on how to apply the content to their real world life circumstances, or as a place to reflect on what is helping them learn in the course.  You can make these visible to the entire class or just private journals that are only visible to you or a small group of their classmates.

There are plenty of other ways to get to know your online learners, but these are a few to get you started.  If you have other suggestions, especially ones that have worked for you as an online teacher, please consider sharing them as a comment.

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Fully Online Course Do Not Exist

Is there really such a thing as a fully online course?  Many formal learning organizations grapple with how to support and make sense of different learning environments.  Who supports the face-to-face students, the blended learning efforts, and the fully online learning initiatives?  Because of the unique needs and contexts of learners who study primarily at a distance, many organizations create specialized offices for the online programs.  These might include dedicated instructional designers for online courses, faculty training programs, student advising and academic support staff, dedicated online admissions people (or contracted services to cover much of this), distinct technology support for online learners, as well as people to help remote learners with library services, tutoring, and accessibility issues.

In an effort to make sense of these real and important issues, there are often lines drawn to separate services for learners in different environments.  In fact, these lines can become so strong that they begin to shape the way schools, programs and instructors go about designing online learning.  One problem with this is that the convergence of mediums is the future of learning.

Some of the most fascinating and promising technological developments blur the lines between the physical and the digital.  We already see products that augment physical reality with a digital overlay. Consider this educational example.   Similarly, medical technology blends the traditional doctor visit with devices that patients (or soldiers) wear or embed in their clothing, allowing for constant monitoring and tracking of data critical to an individual’s health and physical well-being.  More home technologies are on the market that allow physical devices to interact with one another, the web, and people.  Think of the refrigerator that scans the products (through ID tags) for various items and informs someone when it is time to buy more eggs or milk, or when something is about to expire.  This may seem like science fiction, but augmented reality and the digital overlay of the physical life is already underway.  People have experimented with it for well over a decade.  Looking ahead, in less than a decade, we will see this having significant implications for learning environments.

Some of these ideas may seem too distant from your current experiences in education.  The general concept, however, is not. Consider that there really is no such thing as a fully online learning experience.  The reason is obvious.  It is because learners still live in the physical world, even if they are participating in class via a computer or mobile device.  Learners physically interact with devices to learn and they are brokering their attention between diverse physical spaces while learning (the online student taking a quiz on a mobile device while riding the subway home, or the instructor texting back and forth with students while watching a movie at home with the family).  Online learning is largely popular for the very reason that it does integrate with an individual’s needs with regard to time, space, and place.

Some of the best and most effective online learning offices and organizations acknowledge this fact and design courses in a way that strives to take advantage of it.  An online environmental science course that requires students to do all of their work by sitting at a desk in front of a computer misses a huge opportunity.  Why not instead design learning challenges and experiences that require learners to get away from the computer, grab their phones, ipads, or cameras and head out to local green spaces.  They can experience, analyze, collect visual and other data, and collaborate with classmates from around the world.  Why not integrate challenges and assignments that invite learners to get into the community, observing, interviewing, shadowing, and collecting digital data to share back with the class?  This is far from a fully online learning experience. It is leveraging technology to integrate formal learning with diverse physical spaces.

Many instructors work with instructional designers to create their courses.  Unfortunately, instructors somethings come to believe that the instructional designer’s role is just to help them learn how to use the learning management system.  That may be rooted in an assumption that the learning management system is where all the learning “magic” takes place.  And yet, a good instructional designer will resist this role, often avoiding the learning management system altogether in the first half of the design process.  One of the reasons for this is because a LMS restricts one’s thoughts about the possibilities.  Online learning is about free range, unleashed, integrated, experiential, active, engaged, and participatory learning.  It has the power to extend learning across multiple physical spaces, all woven into a unified and transformational learning experience.  To fully capitalize upon this vision, it requires that we accept and embrace the fact that there is no such thing as a fully online course.


“What if…” Questions to Re-imagine Learning Environments Through the Lens of Participant Pedagogy

This post is part of a series of reflections informed by my participation in the 2013 Mooc Mooc at Today we are exploring participant pedagogy, what Howard Rheingold calls peeragogy (also called paragogy) and related themes.  Below are first reflections followed by a a list of “what if…” questions intended to help us imagine what a learning environment informed by participant pedagogy might look like.  After reading the list, please add more “what if…” questions in the comment section.  For more resources on the subject, consider reviewing the rich content provided in the peer-developed Peer-to-Peer Learning Handbook.

Many of the readings and resources on the subject invite us to reconsider the power structures and dynamics in various learning environments. Rather than the teacher being responsible for all aspects of the planning, prescribing, and assessing; participant pedagogies re-imagine and redistribute these functions. In some cases, it may be helpful to completely remove the word “teacher” from the discourse. The teacher in unnecessary in one sense. That does not mean that that the roles and responsibilities carried out by the teacher in a traditional pedagogical framework are unnecessary. Instead, it means that that those roles and responsibilities can be fulfilled by all or various participants in a learning community.  As a result, peer-to-peer learning environments challenge us to reconsider traditional notions of teacher and student.  Participant pedagogy and peeragogical notions invite us to reconsider learning environments by asking questions like the following:

  • Instead of the instructor pre-developing the syllabus, what if learners (including the instructor as a “co-learner”) developed the syllabus together?
  • Instead of the instructor taking the full responsibility to assess the learners, what if the learner’s established methods and criteria for assessments?  What if learners self-assessed and peer-assessed?  What if assessment was something that learners did as part of the learning process and not something that an instructor does to them?
  • What if learners developed ways to crowd-source the feedback loops that allow them to check their progress?
  • What if learners differentiated the learning environments themselves by contributing individual and group learning objects and resources that turned into a continually growing repository for other participants?
  • What if the rules of the “class” or learning environment “read and write” and not “read online”?
  • In a game-based learning experience, what if the participants themselves established the rules of the game or had the ability to change the rules of the game mid-play?

I offer these questions as a starter point, but in the spirit of peer-to-peer learning, what do you have to contribute to the list?