Tuesday, March 22, 2011


From Wisconsin to Ohio politicians have successfully played the magician by diverting our attention away from the real issue. There are other viable sources of income to assist in balancing the budget. Instead they have successfully pitted the middle class against one another. I have been appalled at the venomous attacks we are inflicting on one another. We find ourselves swinging away at our friends and neighbors, and for what benefit I ask? In any line of work those who do less than the rest can always be found. However, on the whole we the middle class all work hard, whether in a factory, small business, farms, educational institutions, or police & fire departments. This nation has been built upon our backs.

I propose that we have not asked the right questions. Instead we have allowed ourselves to be blindly led, and are now engaged in middle-class warfare. We are in fact letting the politicians pull the wool over our eyes, while they continue to protect big business and their own pockets. Yes, our governor has little incentive to pick his own pocket, so why not wring more from those who already do the most... the middle class.

Let's wake up and stop throwing punches at one another. Let us not allow ourselves to be hoodwinked any longer. Let us collectively speak up and demand a better solution. One based on data and the facts.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Elementary my dear Watson

I recently watched with great interest the three day special Jeopardy contest which tested two past winners against IBM's computer called Watson. IBM has certainly made great strides with artificial intelligence. It was fascinating to see how a super computer responded to the types of questions/clues that are usually posed on Jeopardy. Even with a few odd answers, Watson won the three day competition easily.
Watson, a high-speed network of servers occupies a large room and refrigeration units that are needed to keep the cpu's from overheating. At the heart of this super computer is not just an encyclopedic knowledge database, but the capacity to in essence reason (by the use of algorithms) and use available data, comparisons, and elimination to a come up with a logical answer.

Certainly Watson has implications in many areas including medical, business, and industry. However, what captured my interest the most was how computers like Watson might be utilized in enhancing learning. Now one might surmise that if; A.) Computers can mimic human intelligence and surpass the amount of knowledge and speed answers can be obtained, and B.) The size of this computer could occupy the physical space of current handheld/mobile devices, we could just use it like a Super-Google to answer questions when we need them. This would be nice, but I think that if a computer of this capacity could be developed it may be able to change the face of education as we know it...to finally make the old educational factory model obsolete. Imagine being able to utilize current research in teaching and learning to create and modify curriculum to maintain best-practices from pre-k through post-graduate learning, and in face-to-face, blended and online learning venues.

In my imagination I could see it taking the content and customizing it to meet individual learners needs and styles of learning. Right now in K-12 one teacher works with 20-30 students of varying capabilities. In higher education we fill large auditoriums with a hundred students of different learning abilities and styles. Just how, realistically speaking, can one educator meet each and every one of these student's learning needs? Certainly students are tested and evaluated along the way, some outliers are put into special groups or offered enrichment opportunities early on and others winnowed as they go through the system. But, is this the best we can do without pushing the limits of current staff and available budgets?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we didn't have to put labels on individuals, placing them in boxes (gifted to learning challenges), with the prospect of limiting these learner's potential? With the use of artificial intelligence we could instead focus on optimizing students learning potential.

Intelligence is a scale from low to high, and each of us fits somewhere on that scale. Personally I think everyone has areas in which they are gifted. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to individualize and enhance each learner's knowledge construction, without creating a more labor intensive process for educators? This could free these subject matter experts to spend more time doing what they were educated to do and mentor and encourage students. If educators had adequate tools at their disposal to meet individual learning needs, and engage and encourage a variety of learners, it would facilitate the transition from the factory model we have fenced ourselves into for the last 50 years or so to a newer and better individualized system. Grouping students by age, grade and abilities could all but disappear, replaced by an integrated adaptable system. Tailored learning would allow each one of us no matter our circumstances to take advantage of the potential we are given at birth. However great this individualized model is, unfortunately factors such as social, cultural, and family & educator support would still be variables which could affect learning outcomes.

I remember as i was growing up technology and science promised us many things. While I am still waiting for my flying car and personal robot, the science that we thought would become everyday life by the 60's is just now advancing towards ubiquitous use. Computers are becoming smaller, more portable/usable and we're more connected everywhere we go. Robotics and artificial intelligence have made great strides in the last 10 years. This trend will continue as we dream and work towards better understanding how the brain functions and what it means to be aware of our surroundings and be human. Watson is the result of many years of work not only at IBM, but at universities and research centers. Here's hoping that society can and will take full advantage of current and new technologies, to not only make our lives easier, but to help all individuals meet their natural potential.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Engaging Students: Presentations and Tools

We've all been students at one time or another. For educators, it means that we have spent many hours as students ourselves. Remember how boring some of your instructors/profs were and how much you dreaded going to some classes? How about the teachers who made the subject matter so interesting that you didn't want to miss a single class?

Now fast forward to the present. You are now a subject matter expert and charged with teaching your students what you know. So, what are your lectures like? Are they boring monologues and information dumps like the classes you disliked or are you using techniques to increase interest and engagement in and out of your classes?

In today's do more with less atmosphere in academia changing or enhancing your instructional techniques can seem challenging. Here are some simple tips and tools to use to increase student engagement.

Good: Show & tell. You can add interest and explanation by adding images/video to your presentations. Research shows that paring verbal with visual enhances the assimilation and retention of content.

Better: Show & Tell + Discuss. One method that might work well for you is to assign a reading or multimedia viewing (it could be your lecture) before class, then spend the class discussing and answering questions. You become the facilitator and must be comfortable with talking less and listening more.

Best: Show & Tell + Discuss + Social Media. If you lecture in class and there is not enough time for discussion a phenomena called backnoise occurs. That's when students begin whispering/passing notes or texting one another with questions and comments like: "I don't understand...", "What did she say?", "This makes no sense!", "Is the test this week"....etc. You can leverage and channel this backnoise to your advantage by using a number of tools and techniques presented next.

1. Make the important concepts Tweetable. Keep these Tweetbites simple and clear so they can be Re-Tweeted. If you are using presentation software like Microsoft PowerPoint or Keynote add these bites to your slides. You can also get plug-ins like Slide Tweet for PowerPoint and Keynote Tweet for of course Keynote. Using these tools you can see and react to your students tweets in real time, either as a refreshable comment page, embedded in your presentation or as a ticker. You can choose to display the backnoise when you think it is important, like answering questions, or hide it so it won't be a distracting.

2. Capitalize on audience feedback and take advantage of the backnoise by embracing the use of social media. This can increase student engagement by allowing them to participate virtually during and after class. Students do not have to use Twitter, as TodaysMeet allows them to engage in realtime interaction. PollEverywhere can provide more student feedback too. Encouraging your students to use the real-time features of these applications can encourage comments, questions and important feedback to help you further enhance how you teach. In sum these tools can help you hone your presentations and meet student learning needs. You can add more explanations where there was confusion and remove what didn't work.

Universities like Purdue have created a custom social media add-in called Hotseat that instructors are using to increase engagement in and out of the classroom. Check out the video on YouTube.

Most students are familiar with and use social media everyday. Try leveraging these tools to take your students from anonomyous and passive to engaged and interactive.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Academic Freedom and Online Standards for Teaching

Ask almost anyone who has taught online and they will tell you that it is very different from teaching face-to-face. They may be the same species, but their natural environments are as different as dolphins and humans. In recognition of this fact many higher education institutions, whether for or non-profit now require their instructors complete and pass an online certification course in order to teach online. For universities and colleges who have instructional standards formulated and in place, it makes provides a structure for course rigor, quality instruction, and accountability. However, for those institutions who do not have standards nor methods to verify that current or potential online instructors have or use needed capabilities, the issue of consistency and quality becomes an issue.

At the crux of the matter are two main areas. First, the need for all online instructors to be competent in the use of an institution’s learning management system (LMS) and requisite technical and computer skills. Second, instructors need to understand and apply appropriate online pedagogical/andragogical practices.

The first is imperative. In order to teach online one must not only have a fairly computer and high-speed internet connection, they must also be very comfortable online/browsing the web, using email, word processing software and other applicable tools as well as using the LMS tool which houses the course. Training is certainly part of the solution, but instructors must take the initiative and continue to learn and stay current with these tools.

The second, use of best-case pedagogical/andragogical practices makes or breaks course rigor and effectiveness. Online teaching and learning has been around for some time and by now it should be evident that the practices of teaching online differ from that of face-to-face instruction. The online venue is and should be primarily asynchronous and all communication and interaction that would normally take place face-to-face is conducted virtually. To assist with this tools such as email and discussions and chat come to the forefront to aid in creating an atmosphere of communication, interaction and engagement. An online instructor must establish a presence in a course and engage in discussions with students and the course in general more often. In addition the proper use of visual verbal media (VVM) can provide students with the ability to repeat and review content and add value to the learning experience.

Instructors must learn the LMS well and be able to modify their teaching practices and course content to meet the venue’s requirements and student’s learning needs. For full-time/tenured faculty it means more work on top of perhaps an already busy schedule. For adjunct instructors it may mean learning more than one LMS if they teach at different institutions, and following different instructional/facilitation standards if any.

With more and more institutions using adjunct instructors, it may be easier to require certification for them, but making current faculty retroactively compelled to become certified can be challenging. If an institution is not unionized the administration has more leeway to implement standards. However, if a union does exist it may impede the process. Either way there is likely to be resistance from those who do not wish to change.

One of the most often used excuses I have heard to refuse to go along with implementation of standards is academic freedom. When I hear this I am always perplexed as to why the person/group in question thinks that being required to learn the tool/technology and best-case practices is in opposition to the tenets of academic freedom.

To make my point I checked several sources to find the definition of what academic freedom means. From the American Association of University Professionals, AAUP site to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, AACU to the Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia the definitions were primarily the same. Academic freedom is essential a freedom o speech in the classroom. It distills down to the ability to: 1.) Freely research and publish results, 2.) Use controversial content that aligns with the subject matter taught. 3.) Be free of censorship, but as scholars remember their professional and institutional obligations, showing scholarly respect of others opinions.

Nowhere did I find a reference to the right to circumvent proper teaching practices or not learning the proper tools for teaching. Online or face-to-face it makes no difference, nothing is stated or even alluded to that would indicate that standards formulated by an institution for online teaching and course best practices flies in the face of academic freedom.

It would however be reasonable to assume that instructors would be interested in using best-practices for teaching, whether it be tools or pedagogies.

I for one would like to seee more institutions thoughtfully creating standards for teaching online. Doing so would better ensure the quality of their instructors and online offerings.

As always I’m open to your thoughts on what I’ve said.


Association of American Colleges and Universities, AACU

American Association of University Professionals, AAUP

Encyclopedia Britannica


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Just the Facts Please

I was watching the Daily Show when Pawlenty made his online education pitch and was appalled. As someone who has done a great deal of research into online education (I am ABD right now and my Ph.D will be in online learning) and who works in the trenches managing an distance learning and instructional design center at an institution, it is clear that Mr. Pawlenty is not adequately apprised of or knowledgeable on the subject.

First, an adequately designed and taught online course takes more time to teach than a face-to-face course. The reason? Interaction and engagement. Because online courses are not synchronous (at least they shouldn't be), asynchronous methods such as discussions forums/postings must be used to create community and adequately asses learners grasp of subject matter. These discussion posts must be read and thoughtfully commented on by the faculty teaching them. Many are graded. This takes time. In addition because online tests are essentially open-book, other assessment methods, usually writing intensive ones are used. Again, time intensive.

Second, Time is money. It takes more resources and time to convert existing face-to-face (f2f) courses to online. F2f courses, or course-packs that are summarily dumped on to the online venue are not best case and resemble correspondence courses at best. These courses do the opposite of well-designed online courses, their rigor suffers, and they isolate students rather than build community, interaction, critical thinking skills and engagement. Creating multimedia also takes time and money. Depending upon subject matter, courses should include well-designed multimedia (visual & verbal modes) which can also enhance content transfer. Not just multimedia for multimedia sake, but interactive content created to assist learners in grasping and assimilating content. The more interactive and multimedia intensive an online course is the more time and expertise it takes, and thus the more expensive it is. Add simulations and virtual environments to the mix and it can be daunting.

Lastly, Not all students learn well online (maturity, self-motivation, computer/online access, technical skills) and not all faculty teach well in this venue (teaching style, technical skills). A one-size fits all mentality will do great harm to the quality of education students receive.

All in all I find Mr. Pawlenty's comments uninformed and based on personal opinion rather than research (a.k.a. the facts as we presently understand them). Great for politics and sensationalism in these budget cutting days, but bad for those who have devoted their lives to the education of students.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Faculty Preference for Mode of Learning

As I work to assist faculty to improve their pedagogical practices and courses, and learn new/existing technologies, I have noticed an interesting trend. It is contradictory in that it seems to conflict with the results of a recent survey I conducted, which asked instructors for their preferred mode of learning.

Surveyed were two groups of instructors; those that teach online and those that do not. Of the 30 respondents who do not teach online 75% preferred to learn in a face-to-face (f2f) venue while 25% had a preference for virtual/online learning. These results differed from those who taught online. The 26 online instructors who responded, suggested that their learning preference for f2f was close to 40%, while those who chose virtual/online learning was nearly 60%.

Okay, it's pretty clear that those who teach f-2-f prefer to learn that way and instructors teaching online like to learn online. So what's the contradiction? According to the log I keep on f2f and online learning attendance, when offered equal opportunities for both f2f and virtual/online learning events, the majority of instructors, 70%, choose virtual/online learning as opposed to 30% who choose f2f.

Can these results be likened to espoused versus practiced theory, or are their other factors at play here? One could surmise that the respondents are saying one thing and doing another, but variables may suggest otherwise. Factors that may influence mode of choice may be: 1) - Time constraints (e.g. course schedule, meetings, etc.), 2) - Interest in or relevance of learning subject matter to their instruction, 3) - Motivation to learn, or perhaps 4) Fear of peer judgement if their level of knowledge/expertise is at a novice level in the subject matter (I.e. no one likes to look dumb in front of their peers much less their students). Their may be other factors which influence this trend. Not sure just how many readers my blog has, but do sound off on this topic. I look forward to any feedback that you might provide

Monday, February 15, 2010

Building Critical Thinking Skills

One of my concerns about our population is that although we are perhaps the most educated country in the world, many of us lack the important skill of thinking critically. It has been said that he who controls the mind, controls the world. Too often we are spoon fed information, not only by the media and web, but also by our educational system. If this information is assimilated as fact without further evaluation, it gives those that disseminate information the power to control you.

In higher education a well-rounded education equips learners with the skills to not only be a productive citizen, but to participate in improving their world. When little or no civil discourse on important issues and ideas takes place, students do not have the opportunity to learn to critically evaluate and filter information.

In our politically correct culture we have a habit of double-checking our thoughts, which for the most part allows for civil discourse. However, in an academic setting students may fear potential implications and think twice about speaking up. Concerns such as lower grades or social rejection due to their views may cause them to repress their thoughts.

For students to build critical thinking skills they need to be given the freedom and support to take intellectual risks. As part of the learning process, institutions and educators should encourage students to share ideas and thoughts that others might find controversial or even offensive. Providing students with an opportunity to engage in respectful and thoughtful discourse or be assigned to play devils advocate on issues and beliefs can create an opportunity to hone their critical thinking skills. This can be a wonderful learning experience and chance to more closely evaluate both sides of an argument, deepen assessment of their personal motivation and thought processes, adjust their current paradigm, and build more effective communication skills.

As online learning is my area of interest and research, online course discussion threads can be a great tool to engage learners in thoughtful and respectful dialogue, and enhance their critical thinking skills. Any curriculum can include opportunities for dialogue on any number of topics that may influence or impact the area of study. As an educator you can encourage discussion on ethics, politics, religion, law...and the list goes on. To supercharge student engagement allow them to bring up important topics for discussion, which impact their potential vocation and world. Everyone has opinions and feelings about major issues we face and having the opportunity to voice and learn other viewpoints builds not only critical thinking skills, but knowledge on the subject as well.