July 24, 2014

Thinking about the design of the ‘flipped’ classroom

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Image: © University of Washington CTL

Image: © University of Washington CTL

Barnett, P. (2014) Let’s scramble, not flip, the classroom, Inside Higher Education, February 14

University of Washington (undated) Flipping the classroom, Seattle: University of Washington Center for teaching and Learning

This blog post by Pamela Barnett, the Director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Temple University (USA), looks at a number of ways to re-design teaching to incorporate both online and classroom teaching that goes way beyond the ‘standard’ flipped classroom model (if such a thing exists – see the U of Washington post for excellent resources on the flipped classroom).

Dr. Bartlett’s post is well worth reading for ideas on how to make the most out of hybrid learning. I think we will see more and more papers and posts on this topic as more and more instructors move to hybrid learning.

But while I agree with the spirit and the intent of Pamela Barnett’s post, there is still the assumption that all such decisions will be taken by the instructor working in isolation, on a case-by-case basis. I’m wondering how long it will take to move:

(a) away from every individual instructor making their own decisions about the right mix of online and face-to-face learning, on a course-by-course or just a lesson-by-lesson basis, to a program approach of looking at the needs of a program – and its students – as a whole, in deciding the right mix of online and campus-based teaching

(b) to a team approach, involving an individual instructor working with an instructional designer, to determine the right mix of online and face-to-face teaching within a particular course or program

(c) to developing clear guidelines or principles on what is best done online and what on campus. (What? A theory in educational technology? What was I thinking?)

Until now the argument has been: ‘Online learning OR classroom instruction’. Now we need to look at the best ways to combine them. I will be very surprised if the flipped model as practiced today survives once we have that knowledge. But we lack the science or experience to guide us on the ‘what’s best done online and what face-to-face’ discussion. We are still very much in the cottage industry stage of higher education teaching – all craft and no science. We need both theory, and evidence from practice to support or challenge the theory. Until then, anything goes with hybrid learning, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. It allows for innovation and challenges to our existing ideas in this area.

Discussing drop-out rates in MOOCs

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Rivard, R. (2013) Measuring the MOOC drop-out rate Inside Higher Education, March 8

A good, balanced discussion about how ‘success’ in MOOCs should be measured, with some data about completion rates.

MOOCs forcing traditional academics to re-think their teaching

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Lecture capture at MIT: we can do better

Rivard, R. (2013) Learning how to teach, Inside Higher Education, March 5

This is perhaps the most encouraging item of news about MOOCs so far (and also illustrates that edX is taking a more thoughtful approach to MOOCs than Coursera.)

The Provost of Harvard, Alan Garber, noted that because of the wide exposure that MOOCs offer to academics, they are wanting to ensure that their teaching matches or exceeds that elsewhere. “Our faculty are extraordinarily successful,” Garber said. “They are used to winning. And they don’t want to lose this game.”

At the same time, the Director of edX, Anant Argawal, admitted that there is certain learning sciences research that many faculty, including himself, had long ignored as they focused on their own disciplinary fields. “To me, these papers should be must-reads,” he said.

However, it is a pity they still haven’t discovered the mass of prior research on online learning, but at least there is a recognition here that MOOCs can and should improve their pedagogy.

Further developments in competency-based learning

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Salt Lake City: HQ of Western Governors’ University

Fain, P. (2013) Rise of customized learning, Inside Higher Education, March 5

Contact North (2013) Western Governors’ University, The Gamechangers in Online Learning Series, Sudbury ON: Contact North

Competency-based learning allows students to study at their own pace and often allows them to build on previous learning and experience to jump ahead in a program, so long as they can demonstrate through an exam their already existing level of competency. This works very well for adult learners.

Contact North has a full description of how Western Governors’ University works. WGU is perhaps the leading institution in competency-based learning. The Inside Higher Education article discusses WGU’s expansion into Washington State, Texas, Tennessee and Missouri, and also describes some other institutions also moving into competency-based learning.

The one disadvantage of competency-based learning is that students tend to study in isolation from other students (although supported by an instructor), so it tends to be not so appropriate for more qualitative and critical-thinking based subject areas. The advantage is that students can start almost immediately on enrollment, and work at their own pace, sometimes finishing much more quickly than in a paced, 13 week semester..

The big challenge is to align competency-based learning with the North American Carnegie system of credit hours. Institutions such as WGU have to jump through hoops to equate their ‘competencies’ to credit hours in order for students to be eligible for US Federal loans. However, all  part-time students are at a disadvantage in qualifying for government loans or grants, whether competency-based or cohort.

Keeping up with MOOC developments

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How are you keeping up with MOOC developments? If you are like me, you are probably feeling swamped and not a little overwhelmed by all the coverage and news about MOOCs. Here’s what I’ve come across over the last couple of weeks.

MOOCs as an entry to a degree program

Kim, J. (2013) Q&A with Randy Best on MOOC2Degree Inside Higher Education, January 24

Joshua Kim interviews the CEO of Academic Partnerships about its plan to underwrite MOOCs that will guarantee entry to a university degree program with institutions that have partnered with Academic Partnerships, so long as the students successfully pass an examination set by the institution at the end of the MOOC. This project will use Instructure’s Canvas as the platform. Eight universities have so far signed up. The MOOCs will be existing online courses in the degree program. Students will receive full credit for successful course completion.

In this model, a university makes its own, already designed online, for credit programs, open to anyone, and if students successfully pass the course, they become admitted to the full program. This is really a big step towards opening up previously highly selective institutions.

I think this is a very interesting model. I pushed for a somewhat similar model for graduate courses at UBC, whereby we offered an ‘open’ online certificate program, but pushed for students who succeeded to carry over the credits into a full masters program. I was unsuccessful – the Faculty of Graduate Studies insisted on students meeting graduate entry requirements – even though these ‘open’ students were getting the same or better grades than other graduate UBC students taking the same courses (the certificate courses were also available as credit courses to the full-time graduate credit students).

Institutions have unnecessary and often arbitrary restrictions to entry and any model that breaks this open is to be welcomed. This one is tied to learner performance, which is properly measured and assessed.

MOOCs for credit

Fain, P. (2013) As California goes? Inside Higher Education, January 16

San Jose State University has signed a deal with Udacity:

‘to create a pilot program of three online, entry-level courses that will cost students $150 to take and lead to university-awarded academic credits if passed….The university will cap enrollment at 100 for each of the three courses, with half of the slots going to students from San Jose State. Priority enrollment for the remaining 150 openings will go to high school and community college students, members of the military and.’ veterans, and wait-listed San Jose State students.’

My question is: why is this a MOOC? It’s not massive and it’s not open and it’s not free. This sounds very similar to many existing programs aimed at enabling more open access to otherwise ‘closed’ programs, such as prior learning assessment.

Preparation for challenge exams

California community colleges, faced with a shortfall of 500,000 place in its campus-based colleges because of state funding cuts, are considering:

creating examinations for remedial courses and core general education courses for an associate degree aimed at students who want to transfer to a California State University campus. Students could use MOOCs to prepare for challenge exams, and community colleges could steer them toward the free online courses. And MOOC providers could tailor their offerings to the exams and gateway courses.

Then what? Having passed the challenge exam, there are still no places on further courses.

The problem is that California is in a financial mess, and there is a lot of flailing around to find cheap ways of providing post-secondary education. MOOCs are seen as a possible answer, but the issues of quality, learner support and assessment for MOOCs are not going to be resolved by wishful thinking. For more on the California situation, see ‘California buzzing’, which suggests other, and in my view, better ways in which online learning can help.

One last comment

MOOCs are a very interesting development, and have some potential to bring about major changes in the post-secondary education system.

However, they are only a side show to most online educational developments. Many other interesting things are happening and these are being drowned out by the hysteria and hyperbole surrounding MOOCs. It seems any new development in online learning has to be called a MOOC to get any recognition (even if it is neither massive nor open).

We need to get back to a sense of proportion here. It’s not the number of enrolments that matters, but the learning that takes place. For-credit online programs have had to prove that students can learn just as well online as on campus. There is over 20 years experience of what works and what doesn’t in credit-based online learning that is being ignored in most (but not all) MOOC developments. Not a single MOOC has been able to demonstrate clear learning gains for the students (or a viable financial model, for that matter). When that happens, they deserve to be taken seriously. Until then, I suggest you focus on the real world.