December 8, 2016

What I learned at Drexel University in National Distance Learning Week

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A street protester in Philadelphia on election day

A street artist in Philadelphia on election day

Fear and loathing in Philadelphia

On Tuesday and Wednesday last week, I found myself in Philadelphia on U.S. Presidential Election day, and even more importantly, the day after, as the results became known. I was there, not to ‘rig’ the election, as some have rumoured, but to visit one of the leaders in online learning in the USA, Drexel University.

I’m not going to say much more about the election, except to note that as in the rest of the country, Pennsylvania was deeply split, with cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburg voting strongly for Clinton, and suburban areas, smaller towns and rural areas voting in sufficiently large enough numbers for Trump to just about win the state and its electoral votes. So the election results have caused a certain amount of fear and loathing in Philadelphia, particularly among the university community.

Why Drexel?

Drexel University is a private, nonprofit university ranked among the top 100 universities in the USA. In 2016 it was ranked the 8th most innovative university in the USA by US News and World Report. It has about 26,000 students.

Drexel University was founded in 1891 as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, by Philadelphia financier and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel. The original mission of the institution was to provide educational opportunities in the “practical arts and sciences” for women and men of all backgrounds. It is famed for its co-op education program and its close links to local industry and businesses, and in the past for its acceptance and encouragement of low income students. However in recent years its focus has changed, partly driven by the perceived need to increase its ranking. Today it has very high student tuition fees and a highly selective admission process.

I was there to visit Drexel University Online (DUO), an internal division within the university that serves those students at Drexel taking online courses and programs.

Drexel Online

Drexel University has more than 7,000 online students from all 50 states and more than 20 countries. It offers 140 fully accredited master’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and certificate programs in a wide range of disciplines. Nursing in particular has a very strong set of online programs. Drexel was an early pioneer of online learning, offering its first fully online master’s degree in 1996.

Drexel University founded National Distance Learning Week, in conjunction with the United States Distance Learning Association, in 2007, and has won several national awards for institution-wide excellence in online education.

As part of Drexel’s contribution to National Distance Learning Week, I was invited as a guest speaker, to talk about ’21st century knowledge and online learning: re-designing teaching for a digital age.’ While at Drexel, I also took the opportunity to see what Drexel is doing with advanced learning technologies.

Advanced use of technologies at Drexel Online

DUO offers faculty a technology lending library, where faculty can try out new devices and evaluate their potential for teaching. This includes an augmented reality headset that combines a cheap ($10-$15), easily assembled cardboard frame into which a mobile phone can be inserted in front of the eyes, enabling augmented reality programs to be delivered at very low cost to the student (provided they already have a mobile phone).

DUO has also developed a very interesting web site, called VirtuallyInspired.org, which showcases a number of innovations in online learning from institutions across North America and around the world.

Here I will describe briefly just a few of Drexel’s own innovative projects, which I hope will inspire you to look in more detail at the VirtuallyInspired web site.

Tina the Avatar

Tina the Avatar

Tina the Avatar

Tina is an avatar of a 28 year old woman in a virtual world who not only responds to questions asked by students but can also be physically examined and will respond according to how she is being treated. The teaching around Tina is broken down into 10 modules, each of which correlate with a body system that students learn about in class. The program serves not only as reinforcement for the principles taught in the course, but also to develop interpersonal skills needed by clinical professionals. Professors are able to view the type of questions asked by the student and how the student reacts to Tina’s responses. They are then able to give the student advice and make recommendations for interpersonal skill improvement.

Synchronous online teaching

Drexel is experimenting with the use of low-cost (US$450) robots (Kubi) combined with iPads to improve the ‘telepresence’ of students in online webinars. In the classroom where the instructor is located, there is an iPad for each remote student locked into a robot that each student can remotely move around the instructor’s classroom. Using Skype and the camera on the student’s computer, the student’s face appears on the iPad. In this way the instructor can see the faces and hear each individual student via the iPad, and the students at home can also see on their screen not only the instructor but also the iPad images of all the other students in the class. This system is already in use at the Michigan State University.

Using Kubi for telepresence at Michigan State University

Using Kubi for telepresence at Michigan State University

Forensic investigation

Students taking a course on forensic investigation can use a branching video sequence to search for clues at a crime scene. Students can do a virtual walk around and inside a house and are asked to observe and interpret what they see, followed by a debriefing afterwards.

These are just a few of the several innovations that Drexel is experimenting with. Others include the use of video simulations in law and nursing, dealing with critical incidents in practice.

Innovation and operations

Drexel University is to be congratulated for two reasons: it has an extensive, ongoing online program that delivers a wide range of courses on a daily basis to over 7,000 students. For most of these courses, the challenges are common to all online post-secondary programs: ensuring that the programs are of high quality and that students succeed. This means applying well known best practices and procedures, using standard tools such as a learning management system, and ensuring that students are well supported by instructors.

At the same time, DUO is investing some of its energy and resources to investigating new ways of designing and delivering online teaching. This means finding like-minded faculty partners who can see the potential of new technologies and who are willing to put in the time and effort to do something different. The challenge here is to evaluate each innovation, to integrate such innovations into regular teaching, and then to ensure the diffusion of successful innovations into a wider range of courses and programs.

Getting the right balance between on-going operations and innovation is a challenge but one that Drexel Online seems more than able to handle.

And lastly, I cannot express enough my appreciation for the kindness and attention paid to me by Susan Aldridge, the Director of DUO, and all her staff during my visit. Elections may come and go, but American hospitality continues for ever.

Sky’s the limit: the world’s cheapest touch-screen tablet

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© Android Community, 2011

Marlow, I. (2012) The Next Billion Report on Business Toronto: Globe and Mail, January

This has to be the best e-learning technology story of 2011. Datawind, a relatively small Canadian company based in Montreal, has won an Indian government contract to produce a 7 inch touchscreen tablet named Aakash that costs $52 to manufacture and will sell, with Indian government subsidy, for $35 for universities, colleges and high schools in India. The tablet runs on Google’s Android software.

Datawind aims to manufacture (in India) 12 million tablets in 2012, with a potential market of over 100 million students in India alone. Orders are now also pouring in from Thailand, Turkey, Sweden and many other countries. It has already manufactured 10,000 test tablets. (The tablet is available for sale only in India at the moment, and it’s hard to get until production ramps up).

This story is well worth reading in full. It shows how two Indian-born Canadian businessmen responded within two weeks to the Indian government request for proposal. The tablet is named Aakash after the Hindi word for ‘sky’, because Suneet Raja Singh Tuli, Datawind’s CEO, was on a Delhi to Toronto flight after signing the contract when a woman gave birth to a baby which she called Aakash (“Sky.”)

The significance of this contract cannot be underestimated. As the article reports:

More than 800 million people in India have mobile phones, yet only 10% of Indians have Internet access….The Indian government is banking on a nationally subsidized mobile tablet to help pull millions of its disconnected citizens online and into the modern economy.’

India already has a thriving e-learning software and content development industry. Expect this to take off in the next year or so as universities, colleges and schools start demanding content for the tablets.

E-learning in 2011: a retrospective

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‘That was the year that was, it’s over, let it go…’, as the old song says. But before it does go, let’s look back and see what happened in the world of e-learning in 2011.

First, a disclaimer. I sit here on the edge of the world, in my little office, and although I make the occasional sally into an institution of higher education, I see only a tiny fraction of what is actually going on around the world. No-one is more conscious of the problem of defining ‘reality’ as I am, especially in such a dynamic world as e-learning, where rhetoric is often far distanced from actual practice. So, no, this is not a scientific review of the year, but a personal view of events that seem significant to me looking back. (I will be doing an outlook for 2012 early in the year).

Learning management systems

LMSs had trundled on fairly quietly for nearly 15 years (apart from an aggressive but unsuccessful campaign by Blackboard to dominate the market) to the point where LMSs are now used by 95% of all post-secondary institutions in North America.

2011 though saw some dramatic developments. Blackboard moved into synchronous tools with the purchase of Elluminate and Wimba, and was itself bought by a shadowy private equity company which also gobbled up Sungard  Higher Education and Datatel, positioning itself as a totally integrated software provider for the higher education industry. Despite this, Blackboard continued to lose market share to both commercial competitors such as Desire2Learn, and to open source systems such as Moodle and Sakai.

Into this already highly competitive and fragmenting market came several new companies, the largest and most immediately threatening to Blackboard being Pearson’s Open Class. Instructure is another company with a different way of looking at learning management, and in Europe, ‘its Learning‘ has been making large gains. I have a less clear picture of what’s happening in India, but if my e-mail is anything to go by, there are several large companies offering LMSs in that continent, and looking to expand internationally.

However, not only is there more competition, but views are changing about the desired features of an LMS. In particular, there are increasing efforts by the LMS organizations to incorporate social media, to enable mobile access, and to enable institutions to make their content ‘open’ from within an LMS. Some institutions are getting sick of continuous and costly upgrades and migration, and are taking care to ensure that any content created is easily exportable so that the institution does not become platform dependent.

I think the last strategy is very wise. There are too many players in a relatively small field and someone’s going to get concussion or even completely taken out of the game. What is clear is that institutional decision-making is going to get harder, not easier. Technological change outside the LMS continues at a rapid pace. Can an LMS be all things to all people? Probably not. It will become important then not just to focus on which LMS to use, but increasingly on how one wants to teach, and what combination of tools provides that flexibility. The LMS is not going to continue as a one-stop technology for teaching, if it ever did. But nor is it going to go away, at least not for the next few years.

Course redesign

Although I have seen quite a lot of innovation in pockets and on a small scale, I have seen little over 2011 in the way of major redesign of courses. Instead, there has been a large increase in lecture capture generally. The major design development seems to be ‘flipping’, inspired by the Khan Academy. Instead of having students come to a lecture in real time, the lecture is recorded and downloaded by students at home (sometimes the instructor does not record a lecture themselves but gets students to download lectures from the Khan Academy or other open educational resource sites such as MIT), and class time is spent on discussion or small group work. This is probably an improvement (anyone have any evidence yet?) but it is not going to start a revolution.

What I was looking for in 2011 was a major breakthrough in the redesign of large lecture classes, along the lines of the NCAT course redesign project. Although Carol Twigg is soldiering bravely on, there is still a huge way to go to change the traditional large lecture class across campuses in North America and elsewhere. We continue to add bells and whistles to the horse and cart, in the form of large screens, clickers, in-class tweets, lecture capture, polling via mobile phones, and real-time access to data and news events in class via the Internet, but it’s still a horse and cart. When are we going to get a railway, never mind a high speed train?

What I have found encouraging (in the isolated pockets of innovation) is the attempt by some instructors to give power to learners, through the use of blogs, wikis and e-portfolios. to enable learners to create their own learning materials, and to share and collaborate with others. Can we move this from the early adopters though to the cautious mainstream in 2012?

Mobile learning

There has definitely been progress at an institutional level in mobile learning during 2011.  Some institutions, such as Abilene Christian, Northeastern, Stanford, Carnegie mellon and Tufts have implemented institutional strategies to make mobile learning widely available. The iPad in particular has been integrated successfully, mainly into regular classroom teaching, but also in other areas, such as clinical practice.

However, the main uses still remain mainly administrative, for student support services, and for more flexible access to standard online content. I did not find many instances of redesigning teaching to exploit the affordances of mobile learning, such as use of location, data collection in the field, interviews, etc. Nevertheless, all learning is rapidly becoming ‘mobile enabled’.

Open educational resources

There were several important developments in open educational resources in 2011. Perhaps the most noticeable was the formation of the OERu, which is attempting to combine open access to content with institutional accreditation. A growing number of institutions and individual instructors are making their online content freely accessible, and some institutions, such as the University of British Columbia, have extensive cross-institutional blogs and wikis created by instructors, students, and ‘experts’ or interested parties from outside the institution that are often linked to formal courses, but sit outside the LMS, and are open to the public.

Apart though from special cases such as OER Africa, special collections or repositories of open educational resources did not seem to me to be gaining traction in 2011. This is one area where the rhetoric seems at odds with the reality. I don’t see a lot of take-up of OERs in post-secondary institutions. There is plenty of supply and lots of ‘hits’, but it is hard to find extensive application within formal learning environments. ‘Open-ness’ is growing, but in ways that are not quite what was anticipated by the more dedicated proponents of OERs.

Yes, content is becoming more readily accessible, but what really matters to many learners is open access to and interaction with quality faculty or instructors, leading to recognized qualifications, and many institutions that proclaim the principle of open content deny open access to learners, either through too expensive tuition fees or through too rigorous entry requirements. This is the reality of limited resources.

Online learning continues to grow

Growth in enrollments in online courses was again up, by 1o%. The pace is slowing a little, but this is still impressive, given the impact of the economy and the very slow growth rate of conventional enrollments, at around 2% last year in the USA.

The rest

There were several other topics I predicted in my outlook for 2011. I will come back to learning analytics in my outlook for 2012. Otherwise shared services did not take off in 2011, as I had hoped, but I did perceive increased use of video in particular, not just in the form of lecture capture, but an increasing number of short video clips for education on YouTube. Gaming and simulations remained on the periphery, and virtual worlds almost disappeared off the e-learning radar in 2011 (except in Finland, but they live in another reality anyway!). Blended learning continues to grow, but I’m not sure what the term means anymore.

Conclusion

Slow but definite progress in online learning was made in 2011. Certainly growth continues, and there is a great deal of innovative activity around the fringes of formal courses, and especially in informal learning. The LMS and lecture capture remain though the bedrock for most online learning, and that’s not the future I’m looking for.

And I do miss Amy, a great singer. Let’s see what happens in 2012.

 

Google’s Chrome notebook: next year’s big e-learning technology?

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Google Chrome Notebook

Google’s Chrome notebook is likely to hit the markets early in 2011. A pilot version is already operating.

Key features:

Price: not determined yet, but likely around US$200

Functionality: 12″ screen, full keyboard and web browser: primarily a wireless only machine

Applications and storage: mainly in the cloud (well, it is a Google product)

Security: high – more difficult than laptops or desktops to hack

Battery life: Similar to iPad, i.e. seriously long.

For an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of the Chrome see:

Rothman, W. (2010) Why Google’s Chrome will succeed Innovation on msnbc.com, December 20

Why a game-changer?

See: Joshua Kim (2010) The B.R.I.C.I.’s, Higher Ed, & the Chrome Laptop Inside Higher Education, December 9

Joshua argues that:

The Chrome is a leapfrog tool, perfect for the people of the emerging world who are currently on mobile phones (having skipped landlines), and will soon be in the market for an affordable computer. Over the next 40 years, the vast majority of the growth in higher ed will be concentrated in the emerging world – in the B.R.I.C.I.’s (Brazil, Russia, India, China, Indonesia) and their neighborhoods. It is in these countries where the important innovations in higher education will also emerge.

Risks

There are lots of reasons why the Chrome may not make it. Rothman’s article gives a comprehensive risk analysis. Competition in the notebook field is fierce, and Google doesn’t always get the market right (e.g. Google Wave).

However, I’m with Joshua Kim here. It’s not going to be in North America but in the BRIC countries where the growth in IT technology markets as well as in innovation in higher education is going to be over the next 10 years, and the Chrome looks like a perfect fit for this market.

Google Chrome icon

Google Chrome web browser icon: click to open