A vision for online “tutoring”

If you haven’t heard, the California Community College (CCC) system has undertaken a 57 million dollar, 5 year (to begin with), Online Education Initiative. Check it out if you haven’t heard about it – suffice to say it’s a grand vision for supporting student access and success across the system that goes far beyond provision of online courses to online learning infrastructure and integrated support services for students and faculty across the 112 CCCs.

I am participating in a small working group considering how online tutoring should be a part of the mix (since I helped MiraCosta to become the first CCC to offer online tutoring via the Western eTutoring Consortium rather than by outsourcing completely). In our early discussion, we have been invited to consider a grand vision for online tutoring. Here’s mine – what do you think?

Aristotle tutoring Alexander

Aristotle tutoring Alexander (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Online tutoring in a perfect world is a great support option for all students, not just those enrolled in online classes. The advantages of high-quality learning online are brought to bear: anywhere, anytime, rich media, abundant high-quality relevant resources, a supportive community, flexible options for presentation of information, engaging interaction, and systemic analytics and processes that over time make online support even easier and more targeted for each individual as well as enabling continuous systems improvement.

In this vision, online tutoring is not just a quick fix, remedial option for struggling students, but a performance enhancer, a support mechanism with the potential to help every learner – even those who are already excelling – to go beyond their current capabilities.

Online tutoring in a perfect world is not merely an “extra” layer of support services that students must seek out beyond their typical educational routine. Rather, every faculty member, every course, and even other non-course academic and student support areas (e.g. the library) find ways to integrate online tutoring on-ramps/opportunities throughout the student experience so that tutoring is seen as normal, present, integral, and available whenever it might be needed.

In this vision maybe “tutoring” as a term becomes obsolete and we need to craft a new, more expansive word that encompasses this notion of ever-present support. As this evolves it might more seamlessly incorporate and interface with other forms of online support for all learners, including peer communities, counseling and advising, mentoring, real-world connections with community members, support programs for special populations, co-curricular and extra-curricular experiences, library resources, discipline-specific resources, information literacy guidance, tech support, study skills, etc.

Would love to get more thoughts on this …

MOOC thoughts, long overdue

Time to get back to this long-neglected blog, with what else but a post about MOOCs. I was fortunate to be able to attend the Re:boot forum at UCLA in early January with the MOOCerstars and politicos, and should have reported on that. I did a lot of live tweeting along with Audrey Watters; see storify1 and storify2 if you’re interested. For quality analysis, Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill did very good work before, during, and after the event.

But that’s not what finally brought me back here. What did? I was asked an open-ended question about the role of MOOCs in relation to community colleges as part of a survey by the CA Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. Here is my response:

MOOCs are certainly an interesting phenomena, but at first glance their current incarnation seems anathema to the community college approach. Community colleges focus on providing an environment where learners of all types find ample support services, small class sizes, instructor attention, and on-target instruction to help them persist, succeed, and receive certification of their educational endeavors in order to increase chances for employment or continuing education.

MOOCs, on the other hand draw in massive numbers of enrollees to, in general, highly specialized subjects. Their pedagogy is generally based on recorded lectures, quizzes, and student-student interaction unmediated by an instructor. Successful completers are a tiny fraction of the enrollees and are usually students who are already highly educated. Completers receive no official credit, although options are growing to receive credit through proctored assessment or by enrolling in a for-credit class which relies heavily on a MOOC for course content and activity. MOOCs at present seem to fall into the accreditation category of Correspondence Education, since they do not provide “regular and substantive interaction” (aka “regular effective contact”) between students and instructor.

Community colleges may find opportunities to provide MOOC assessment or to build local courses around MOOCs, adding the “regular effective contact” piece that MOOCs don’t provide. But the “business model” that elite institutions are following in working with providers like EdX, Udacity, and Coursera does not seem to apply at all at the community college level.

On the other hand, the “true” origin of MOOCs from the early-to-mid 2000s is rooted in ideals of open access, open educational resources, and student-generated content. These MOOCs were built around a more DIY, “take what you need and give back what you can” kind of approach. This model seems to me much more aligned with the community college ideals of community outreach, wide access, and life-long learning. But this is a very different sense of the role of the MOOC than what I see being hyped now.

What’s your take?

Where is a new online instructor to start?

English: no original description

Starting line, Indianapolis Speedway (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or, where to begin when introducing novice instructors to online teaching & learning?

To continue the theme from my previous post, I would suggest that it is key to introduce the notion of iteration, or redesign. The language of “course conversion” has always bugged me, because to me it implies a kind of mechanical, one-time translation process from in-person to online, without really rethinking (iterating) the design of the course for the new environment. In fact, Ko & Rossen say “if you’re converting an existing course into an online version, your basic approach need not change.” (p. 12) I think that could send the wrong message, though if I read that in context, the “basic approach” they refer to is not the approach of teaching the course, it is the approach to designing the course – considering goals, objectives, tasks, assignments, etc. The challenge is to get faculty to reconsider all of those things as they account for the “opportunities afforded by the new online environment.”

Ko & Rossen go on to say some important things about their ideals for what happens as faculty engage in online course design:

You will fashion tasks and exercises that emphasize student collaboration and de-emphasize the traditional role of the instructor (p. 14)

[Teaching online] makes them better teachers — not only online, but also in their face-to-face classes … We find that the instructional design process becomes less implicit and more of a deliberate enterprise. (p. 19)

So I appreciate the reflective intent of the Where the Hell Do I Start exercise and its introduction of a more deliberate approach to course design. But I also wonder if it moves a little too quickly forward without raising some more fundamental questions and prompts for instructors to consider changes in their curriculum and/or their teaching. [Full disclosure: my score on the pedagogy Questionnaire when I force myself to make selections is a 7 - very much at the student-centered/constructivist end of the spectrum.]

So for me, the Getting Started Chart would do well to raise a few more questions, especially to those who score at the higher end of the questionnaire. Should you really just  jump into creating online lectures galore? And not to give a free pass to those at the other end of the spectrum, if you are great at doing groupwork in person, how well will that really translate to the online environment? Do you provide sufficient instructions and structure, or are you just really good at facilitating, explaining, and sorting out issues on the fly in the classroom?

But even more than that, we are getting to instructional methods right off the bat. Shouldn’t we be first doing some thinking about course outcomes, and aligning outcomes with content, activities, and assessment? Things that are a bit bigger picture? I think this is what Ko & Rossen are suggesting as the “basic approach” that doesn’t change when going online. I know the SLOs and Course Outlines of Record are fixed in CA community colleges – it’s not like you’re going to completely reinvent the course. But there could be a lot of attention given to rethinking how those SLOs have historically been taught and assessed, what has worked well, what could be improved, etc. For instructors elsewhere, there may be even more latitude to completely reconsider the fundamental outcomes of your class. And upon rethinking outcomes, and how you plan to assess student learning, you may come up with some very different thoughts about the content, assignments, and other activities that will best help students to get there, than if you begin the course design process by thinking about the instructional methods you prefer.

So for me the initial questions should be questions of inquiry:

  • into my own ideals & practice as an educator
  • into the effectiveness of the current course curriculum & design in helping students succeed
  • into the teaching & learning opportunities afforded with online technologies
  • into the challenges that an online version of the course will present to students
  • into the effective practices for online teaching & learning employed locally as well as solidly grounded “in the literature”

And these questions should be viewed not as being asked one time, but repeatedly.

What questions do you find helpful in prompting your growth as an educator? What questions would you find insulting or patronizing? What are the hard questions that should be asked, but rarely are?

Iterating toward … what exactly?

One year ago, I was still settling into my brand-new position as Faculty Director of Online Education at MiraCosta. I dabbled with POT(Cert) last year and my first POTCert post was full of questions that I think I now have answers for. Of course, many of those answers are, “it depends,” “we’re not sure” or “you tell us.” I feel more comfortable with the ambiguity, more aware of where the immediate opportunities exist to make a difference, and also more settled with taking a long view when it comes to being part of significant institutional change/growth. And aren’t all of those things part of life as an educator?

If I begin to think I have it all figured out – whether it’s content, pedagogy, students, technology, my institution, my colleagues – I probably am becoming a bit stale. Thus my blog’s title and tagline – Education Everywhere: life = growth = learning = change.  For me, the fundamental excitement of online education is that it offers an opportunity to rethink the conceptual (not just physical) boundaries that come to us with time- and place-bound education. And rethink not just once, but continually.

Thus the concept of iteration – as Wikipedia says, “the act of repeating a process usually with the aim of approaching a desired goal or target or result.” So what might that goal/target/result be for an educator? Clearly, student learning is at the top of the list. But even that raises questions: learning what? And how do we know if learning occurs? And how do we find a link between our process (course design & teaching) and that learning?  And so we think about more specific aims … which then adds a further iterative aspect to what it means to be an online instructor.

David Wiley’s blog is called iterating toward openness; he is a key leader in improving education through development and use of open educational resources. What I like about this is his goal is really a principle. It is not a concrete, black-and-white target. Measurable outcomes are often thought of as destinations, with broader principles as guideposts/roadmaps, but I think it’s the other way around.

So, to wrap up this introduction of myself for Potcert 12 … what drives me? What am I “iterating toward”? As an educator, leader, manager, coach, and parent, my ultimate hope is to co-create an environment in which people thrive: that is, they find safety, health, and respect; they discover connection and meaning; they express caring, creativity, and joy. Is there a way to express that more succinctly? I look forward to elaborating (iterating) on this theme in the weeks to come …

Blackboard 2012 theme problems

This wasn’t originally going to be a blog post, but an attempt to share this via email with a Bb UI designer somehow failed, so I thought perhaps posting it here might generate some broader useful input anyway.

We installed Blackboard 9.1 service pack 8 on our production system on June 1st and the early-early feedback from faculty was, hey, the new look and feel is cool! But as our earliest summer classes got going, it was clear that there were some usability issues with the 2012 theme. Once we started peeling the onion, we found enough problematic issues that we decided to roll back to the 2008 theme.

The immediate issue has to do with how apparent (or not) hyperlinks are:

  1. The problem most bothersome to people: Links in content area titles (links, folders, pages, assignments, tests, etc) are not apparent as links. Doing away with underlining for hyperlinks is a fine and modern choice, but to do so, there should be consistency in the way links are represented. Users should not be asked to set a color for these titles anymore if underlining is gone. They should default to hyperlink color style.
  2. Many of the color schemes available within the 2012 theme for users to select provide little or no contrast between link colors and the text color. This simply should not be an option for course designers to select.
  3. Links everywhere should highlight upon rollover in the way that the course menu links do. At present they do not.

Our super Blackboard faculty support person, Karen Korstad, tells me that there is a good deal of traffic about these issues on the ASU listserv right now, but Blackboard thus far has not been responsive to the issue.

If you want to see what I mean in #1, go into CourseSites (if you have access). Look at the Student Orientation: Your Path to Success course. Notice that the titles of content areas are just black, regardless of whether they are clickable or not, and there is no rollover action. The designers compensate for this by explicitly telling people to click on the words, which to me just compounds the confusion, because it seems like you should click the words in the statement rather than realizing the statement refers to the words in the title.

Contrast that with the Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success #bonkopen course. In that course, all of the clickable titles are apparent, showing up with underlines and in green. But inspecting those elements it is apparent (I believe) that they have been MANUALLY, individually styled by inserting <u></u> tags around the title and selecting the color for the title that corresponds with link colors in the color scheme chosen for the course. Blackboard cannot expect faculty to follow this procedure to make their clickable area titles visible.

There are some other areas that we have experienced problems with in the 2012 theme that seem to be solved by rolling back to 2008, but I am less certain of the specifics … these are just things we’ve also noticed:

  1. Adding web links to the course menu takes a LONG time, and once added, response time when clicking those links is very long
  2. Browsing a course in Safari on the iPad doesn’t work
  3. Learning Units don’t seem to work correclty

All these final things are less certainly tied to 2012 theme for us, and pale in comparison to the issues with hyperlink styles I outlined above. Anyone else seeing these things or having other related issues?

UPDATE 6/21: After initial responses from Blackboard were quite discouraging (advising us to edit the CSS ourselves, telling us this would be addressed in sp10 at year’s end) we received this note yesterday on our ticket: “Just to confirm that we are waiting on patch for the issue where content items do not have hyperlinks. I do not have a delivery date, but it is a top priority, and we will let you know as soon as it is available.”

Time for a Learning Styles post

The POD network (an organization of higher education faculty development professionals) listserv occasionally visits the topic of learning styles, and I felt compelled to weigh in this time. Unfortunately, my response came out terribly formatted, so I will redo it here.

The discussion included the usual back-and-forth between skeptics and not-so-skeptics, and then someone shared a brief essay from Neil Fleming, author of the VARK learning style assessment, questioning the arguments against learning styles. The essay begins:

The most damning criticism, about learning styles comes from researchers in the academic world. Not much comes from those who use learning styles as part of their strategies for learning, training and teaching. It is usually stated in these terms: “There is no evidence that knowledge of one’s learning styles is a benefit to learning.”

My response:

I disagree with the assertion that the strongest criticism of “learning styles” is that “There is no evidence that knowledge of one’s learning styles is a benefit to learning.”

The strongest criticism is that there is no evidence that instructors succeed in improving learning by attempting to diagnose student learning styles, and adjusting instruction accordingly for the individual students. This is what Pashler et al (2009) call the “meshing hypothesis” (p. 108), Coffield et al (2004) call the “matching hypothesis” (p. 121), and Riener and Willingham (2010) label the “critical and specific claim of learning-styles proponents.”

If learning-style proponents wish to argue that the critics are knocking at a straw man, they are, IMHO, willfully ignoring what many K-16 educators have decided that they are supposed to believe about learning styles.

On the question of whether self-awareness of learning styles is beneficial to learning, the critics are less clear. In fact, Coffield et al state (p. 132)

A reliable and valid instrument which measures learning styles and approaches could be used as a tool to encourage self- development, not only by diagnosing how people learn, but by showing them how to enhance their learning.

and (p. 120)

Learning styles can provide learners with a much needed ‘lexicon of learning’ – a language with which to discuss, for instance, their own learning preferences and those of others, how people learn and fail to learn, why they try to learn, how different people see learning, how they plan and monitor it, and how teachers can facilitate or hinder these processes. Through dialogue with a tutor knowledgeable about the relevant literature, the students’ repertoire of learning styles can be enhanced in the hope of raising their expectations and aspirations.

However, the concern is that a shallower approach to self-diagnosis of learning styles can be counter-productive.

Pashler et al. (p. 117):

There is growing evidence that people hold beliefs about how they learn that are faulty in various ways, which frequently lead people to manage their own learning and teach others in nonoptimal ways.

I would like to be optimistic in the vein of Coffield et al, but as long as most student knowledge about “learning styles” is derived from experience with teachers who believe in the matching approach, I think even this is problematic.

What beliefs and experiences do you have about “learning styles?”