Book review: Learning Theory and Online Technologies

JANUARY 16, 2012 BY 

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Linda Harasim is one of the pioneers of online learning and this book brings together theory and more than 20 years of experience in online teaching.

From the publishers

Learning Theory and Online Technologies offers a powerful overview of the current state of e-learning, a foundation of its historical roots and growth, and a framework for distinguishing among the major approaches to e-learning. It effectively addresses pedagogy (how to design an effective online environment for learning), evaluation (how to know that students are learning), and history (how past research can guide successful online teaching and learning outcomes).

What’s it about?

Two quotes from almost the first page of the book give an indication of why this book is important. Linda states:

‘Educators who restrict their use of the Internet and the Web to making traditional didactic teaching easier or more efficient are missing opportunities to introduce better, different or more advanced ways of learning.’ (p.2)


‘There are few theory-based or research-based guidelines to assist educators to develop more effective pedagogies for online learning environments.’ (pp. 2-3)

Her goal in this book is to address ‘the need for a theory of learning for 21st century realities and presents educators with new ways of thinking about teaching and learning using online technologies.’

What’s in it?

The book is organized in four main components:

  1. Introduction to learning theory and technology, which examines different epistemologies, particularly objectivism and constructivism, and the historical links between technology and learning.
  2. Three major theories of learning and technology from the 20th century: behaviorism; cognitivism and constructivism. Harasim provides a comprehensive overview of these theories and links them clearly to developments in computer-based learning.
  3. Online collaborative learning: a theory of learning for the 21st century, which is proposed as ‘a new theory of learning that focuses on collaborative learning, knowledge building, and Internet use as a means to reshape formal, non-formal and informal education for the Knowledge Age.’ Three chapters cover the theory itself, its practice, and cases of institutional innovation based on online collaborative learning. There is lastly a chapter on scenarios for online communities of practice.
  4. Conclusion, which is basically a short summary of the preceding chapters.


This book is essential reading for anyone teaching online, especially those with no background in educational theory. The psychologist, Kurt Lewin, once said: ‘There is nothing so practical as a good theory.’ This holds true particularly when entering a new field of activity, such as online learning. Theories are like a torch or a map which can help you through difficult and unexplored terrain.

However, Harasim goes one step further and proposes a new learning theory that fits the needs of a knowledge society, a theory based on online collaboration and knowledge construction.

‘Despite the rise of the Internet in the real world, teachers are reluctant to adopt it in the educational world…but the solution is not to advocate educational adoption of the Internet without a theory or strategy to guide the pedagogical transformations required’ (pp. 82-83).

You will need to study this yourself to see if you are convinced that this is essentially a new theory, or is just a specific application of constructivism. In a sense though that is an issue for professors of education. What is valuable for practicing teachers is that Harasim offers an approach to teaching online that is distinctly different from moving a face-to-face classroom online, and is also different from an up-front, instructionally designed course. Her theory also emphasises the importance of teachers in ensuring that knowledge is constructed and advanced, and that the language and fundamentals of a discipline are learned and applied. The theory is supported by examples and cases, although personally I would like to have seen more empirically-based evidence that linked the practical applications of the theory to measurable learning outcomes or qualitative changes in how students learned, or whatever measure of success that would be appropriate for testing the theory.

It should be noted that there is no discussion of other theories of networked learning, such as connectivism, which is a pity. It would be have been fun to see Linda Harasim critiquing George Siemens (and vice versa) but I am sure this will come. (Linda and George: please feel free to use this collaborative learning space as a boxing ring).

Lastly, theories are neat but life is messy. I’m not sure that teachers should be or are willing to limit themselves to one theoretical approach. Although I am a constructivist by inclination, there have been moments in my teaching when a strictly behaviourist approach has been clearly the best solution. (Arguing with two fighting seven year olds in the back seat of a car when I am trying to find the right exit from the Oakland freeway is not my preferred strategy). The online collaborative learning approach starts with idea generation, but where do the ideas originate? I also don’t accept that all learning (or at least all meaningful learning) is necessarily collaborative or social; it is usually a mix of individual and social activity, and each seem to me to be equally important.

Nevertheless these are quibbles on my part. This book is well written, easy to read, and we need good theory to support our teaching decisions. This book offers an important contribution to the debate on online teaching and I highly recommend it.


Talking while the teacher is talking: learning in the back channel of #change 11

by Joe Dillon

I’ve experimented with back channels in my 7th grade language arts classroom. On occasion, I used it as a way to focus students’ attention during Socratic circles. The outer circle of students, three times larger than the inner, armed with netbooks, had to respond on a wiki page discussion thread to the participants’ comment during the discussion. The outer circle recorded questions, reactions and quotations from the one participant they tracked. Since I was working with adolescents, the silent social opportunity during the Socratic circle kept everyone active and engaged, which can be a challenge when the outer circle has to sit quietly and record on tally sheets or some other paper record to track the conversation.

So, I believe in the potential of back channels and was excited to participate in the chat room during both of Howard Rheingold’s live sessions for the MOOC this week. From past experiences in Blackboard Collaborate, I’ve grown accustomed to the webinar format and I bounced my attention from the chat thread to the video feed of Rheingold’s presentation. It was interesting to participate this way in the context of our learning that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, just task switching. According to Rheingold, we pay attention costs with each switch.

With that learning in mind, I reflected on my participation. Between the two sessions I felt at times engaged, rewarded and distracted by the chat.

I wonder: What are the implications for teaching and learning in back channels, when participants effectively talk while the teacher is talking?

I’m thinking of ways participants might revisit the back channel transcript to support ongoing thoughtful participation and so that we might better understand the potential. Here are three possibilities I see for using the back channel transcript:

1. Have participants search through a transcript of the back channel and code their responses based on how they feel their participation impacted their attention to the session or their learning.

2. Ask participants to connect the small, quick discussions with other discussions online. For example, search for discussion forums and comment threads elsewhere online where participants might extend their conversations. (A quick teacher discussion in a chat room might easily connect to some of the larger group discussion threads on, for example.)

3. Ask each participant to identify the most important post in the back channel and blog about that immediately afterward.

Please add any suggestions you might have in the comments.

More pedagogic change in 10 years than last 1000 years – all driven by 10 technology innovations

by Donald Clark

Pedagogy – one of those words that’s used when people want to sound all academic. So let’s just call it learning practice. Of one thing we can be sure; teaching does not seem to have changed much in the last 100 years. In our Universities, given the stubborn addiction to lectures, it has barely changed in 1000 years. So what’s the real source of pedagogic change?

It’s not education departments who peddle the same old traditional, teacher training courses or train the trainer courses. It’s certainly not schools, colleges and universities which seem to have fossilised practice (to be fair some old practices are sound). It’s certainly not respected pedagogic experts. When they do arise, like Paul Black and Dylan William, they’re largely ignored. Here’s my theory – the primary driver for pedagogic change is something that has changed the behaviours of learners. independently of teachers, teaching and education – the internet. Let me elaborate…..

Suddenly we had Google, then in the last ten years Facebook, Twitter, BBM, MSN Messenger, Wikipedia, YouTube, iTunes, Nintendo, Playstation, Xbox. All of these have had a profound effect on how we learn, through radical shifts in the way we find things out, communicate, collaborate, create, share or play. The internet is a pedagogic engine, changing and shaping the way we learn. In this sense, we’ve had more pedagogic change in the last 10 years than in the last 1000 years – all driven by innovation in technology.

1. Asynchronous – the new default
Education and training have been tied to the tyranny of time and location. Being able to access courses, knowledge and media has been a huge positive flip towards learning where and when you want to learn. Clive Shepherd believes that the new default should be ‘asynchronous learning’ (not realtime) and not the traditional live, face-to-face, synchronous (realtime) classroom course. Only after you’ve exhausted the asynchronous online options should you consider synchronous face-to-face events. What a wonderfully simple idea, a massive pedagogic shift enabled, largely by online technology.

2. Links – free from tyranny of linear learning
The simple hyperlink encourages curiosity and is a leap to more learning. It has allowed us to escape from the linear straightjacket of the lecture or paper bound text (article, report, academic paper, book). It has led to more meaningful learning experiences adding breadth, depth and relevance. Links are a key feature of Wikipedia, online content, articles, reports and huge amounts of posts in social media that finish with a meaningful link. This pedagogic innovation has freed us from the tyranny of linear learning.

3. Search and rescue
Google aren’t kidding when they state their mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. They are well on the way to doing it and while they’re at it, providing educators with the tools, over and above ‘search’ such as Google Docs, Translate, Scholar… the list goes on. They’ve even invested in the Khan Academy. The challenge for every teacher is to ask themselves, ‘Is there anything I’m doing or teaching that can’t be found in Google?’ This pedagogic shift means more independence for learners, less dependence on memorised facts and answers to most questions, 24/7, for free.

4. Wikipedia and death of the expert
Jimmy Wales should get the Nobel Prize. A crowdsourced knowledge base that is bigger, better, easier to use, searchable and in many more languages than any encyclopedia that went before. In addition, it recognises that knowledge has blurred edges, so discussion is available. The 5th most popular site on the web, everyone uses it – yes everyone. The radical pedagogic shift is not only in the way knowledge is produced but the fact that it’s free, seen as open to discussion and debate, and so damn useful.

5. Facebook and friends
Sarah Bartlett’s study has found that students are keeping Facebook open for collaboration right up to deadline during assignments. Social media is a way of sharing experiences and knowledge with a wide range of friends and weak-tie acquaintances and has changed the way we learn. It allows us to collaborate and access recommended links to learning, as well as learning events in the real world. Being networked means living within a new pedagogic ecosystem.

6. Twitter, texting and posting
There has been a renaissance in reading and writing among young people. They text, BBM, IM, Facebook (primarily a text medium), every day, often many times a day. This is often done even when they have the possibility of voice (mobile) and face-to-face services such as Skype and Facetime, which they often avoid. They are also keenly aware of what channels are archived (text and Facebook) as opposed to discarded (BBM, IM and voice). Far from drifting towards high end media, text is alive and kicking.

7. Youtube – less is more and ‘knowing how’
YouTube has changed the way we use video in learning for ever. The irreversible change is the idea that a piece of video needs to be as long as it needs to be, not an overlong, over-produced mini-TV production. This is why the 1 hour recorded lectures on YouTube EDU and iTunes U seem so damn awful. Why replicate bad pedagogy online? It also proved Nass & Reeves original study was right that high-fidelity video is not essential. YouTube has shown us how to do video, keep it short and that we don’t need big budgets to do good stuff. More importantly, for ‘knowing how’ as opposed to ‘knowing that’, it has proved incredibly powerful.

8. Games
Games have brought the proven sophistication of flight simulation into our homes and shown that failure (abhorred in traditional teaching) is the key to learning. Repetition, reinforcement, deep processing, learn by doing and fine-tuned assessment are all features of gameplay. Games, and console hardware has opened up possibilities for simulations and experiential learning that is already shaping learning in the military and healthcare. The multiplayer dimension is also changing the way we see the pedagogy of collaboration in learning. Gameplay is just another word for sophisticated, experiential pedagogy.

9. Tools
This is not often recognised but the word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tools have effected a considerable change on pedagogy. Word processing has changed, irreversibly, the way we write (reorder, redraft, use reference, citations, spellcheck, grammar check) as well as providing graphics and layout tools. Our digital documents are also replicable and easily sent by email. Spreadsheets have given us the ability, not only to do formula driven work, especially in functional maths useful in business and science, but also driven the easy and flexible representation of data as graphics. Presentation tools have allowed us to present text, graphics, photographs and even video into teaching and learning. Tools, pedagogically, allow us to teach and learn at a much higher level.

10. Open source
Open source in coding led to the idea of open source in tools and knowledge. From MIT Courseware to Project Gutenberg, huge amounts of learning have been made available online, across the globe, for free. Free books alone have opened up the canon in a way we could never have imagined, fuelling the e-book revolution. In this age of digital abundance, open and free content is the democratisation of knowledge. This is truly a digital reformation that has swept aside unnecessary barriers to access. Pedagogy, in this sense, has been freed from institutional teaching.

These are ground breaking shifts in the way we learn. Unfortunately, they’re not matched by the way we teach. The growing gap between teaching practice and learning practice is acute and growing. Institutional teaching, especially in Universities is hanging on to the pedagogic fossil that is the lecture. The word pedagogy has become a hollow appeal for traditional lectures, classroom teaching and summative assessment. The true driver for positive, pedagogic change is the internet.

Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: “Open”

by Audrey Watters

When I made my 10 tech predictions for 2011 for RWW last year, I included the following:

6. Openly-licensed content – open education resources, open source, open data – will thrive, as more people question outmoded intellectual property laws. Nonetheless, there’ll still be patent and copyright infringement lawsuits aplenty.

Looking back on 2011, I don’t really feel like I can pat myself on the back about that prediction. I don’t think I can cheer, “woohoo, I got it right.” What I wrote was so very bland and vague. And while I can chronicle all sorts of interesting developments in openly licensed content this year, I’m not sure that verb I chose in December 2010 — “thrive” — is quite the right one for December 2011. Have we really seen intellectual property laws questioned this year (See: Andy Baio’s article “No Copyright Intended“)? Or are we seeing them re-inscribed (See: SOPA)?

That’s not to say that 2011 hasn’t been an important year for openly-licensed content, open educational resources, open source, open access. Indeed, it’s been quite an interesting year for the adjective “open.”

A retrospective:

JANUARY: The Departments of Labor and Education announced a $2 billion program to help build educational and career-training materials. The stipulation: the materials have to be licensedCreative Commons CC BY, making them available to be openly shared and remixed.

FEBRUARY: LMS upstart Instructure released the source code for Canvas, its learning management system software.

The first strategic meeting was held for Open Educational Resource University (OERu), a system under development by the OER Foundation to make it possible for students to gain academic credit by studying open educational resources.

MARCH: Federal Judge Denny Chin threw out the Google Books settlement, rejecting the deal that Google had made with the authors and publishers over its digitization efforts. (Not a ruling about openness per se, but definitely a ruling about ownership.)

APRIL: MIT OCW turned 10. (For an interesting read, check out the announcement back in 2001 in The New York Times.)

JUNE: Federal legislation was introduced in Brazil that would require that government funded educational projects be openly licensed. And the Sao Paolo Department of Education also mandated that all its educational content be released under the Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial Share-Alike license.

JULY: Activist and early Reddit-er Aaron Swartz was indicted for downloading some 4 millionJSTOR articles from the MIT library.

SEPTEMBER: JSTOR announced that it making all its early journal content freely available — because, ya know, it’s not copyrighted — including all JSTOR articles published prior to 1923 in the U.S. and prior to 1870 elsewhere in the world. (Thanks Aaron Swartz!)

OCTOBER: Washington launched the Open Course Library which makes openly-licensed content available as a (potential) textbook replacement for 81 of the state’s most popular college classes.

Pearson announced OpenClass, prompting me to use an Admiral Ackbar image in my storyabout the education company’s “free and open” LMS.

Language in a House Appropriations Bill appeared to strip federal funding for OER in any Department of Labor materials. (See January. Marvel at lobbying efforts.)

LMS giant Blackboard announced its support for OER, making it possible for faculty to sharetheir course materials. The company also said it was revising its policies so that institutions that do open up their course materials this way don’t incur any additional licensing costs when people access the materials, even via webinars and the like.

NOVEMBER: Khan Academy (undeniably one of the biggest OER stories of the yearraised $15 million to expand its faculty/platform/facility.

DECEMBER: Chrome surpassed the open source browser Firefox in market share for the first time. (IE remains the world’s most popular browser.)

Prooposed legislationin California will allocate $25 million to create the California Digital Open Source Library, a library of 50 free and openly-licensed college textbooks.

Reading through this list of events — which I realize is just a very partial picture of everything that falls under the label “open” and which really does contain a good amount of “good news,” I still can’t help but feel that 2011 was sort of a mixed bag. I am sure that OER will be on lots of folks’ lists of most important education trends of the year. And I don’t mean to say that it isn’t.

But I have this suspicion that some of the progress we’ve made towards “open” only exists at the surface or very fringes. I think we’re in store for lots of conflict over what constitutes “open” — how it’s funded, how it’s labeled and licensed, who mandates “what counts.” I don’t mean to complicate a post of 2011 trends with musings about 2012. In fact, I’d see some of these conflicts bubbling beneath the surface all year — it’s in the lawsuits and the funding battles and the business model and marketing plan re-writes.

What does it mean — culturally, pedagogically, politically, financially — that Stanford garners so much buzz for its free online courses while other MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) go unheralded? Will more universities offer opencourseware and demand open access? Will government funds help promote OER? Will these funding efforts subsidize open content from a closed set of “common” standards? Will “open” become the magical marketing term that giant education companies adopt? What happens to the open Web when companies like Facebook, Apple, and Amazon want to attract consumers to their Internet silos, and similarly what happens to open content when publishers must scramble to adapt their business models to a digital world? What does it mean — culturally, technologically, philosophically — for example, that Google’s Chrome browser has now surpassed the open source browser Firefox for market share? Do folks really care if something is “open”?

What happens when pedagogical agents are off-task?

by George Veletsianos

Social and non-task interactions are often recognized as a valuable part of the learning experience. Talk over football, community events, or local news for example, may enable the development of positive instructor-learner relationships and a relaxed learning atmosphere. Non-task aspects of learning however have received limited attention in the education literature. Morgan-Fleming, Burley, and Price (2003) argue that this is the result of an implicit assumption that no pedagogical benefits are derived from non-task behavior, hence the reduction of off-task activities in schools such as recess time. This issue has received limited attention in the pedagogical agent literature as well. What happens when a virtual character designed to help a student learn about a topic, introduces off-task comments to a lesson? What happens when a virtual instructor mentions current events? How do learners respond?

These are the issues that I am investigating in a paper published in the current issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior, as part of my research on the experiences of students who interact with virtual instructors and pedagogical agents. The abstract, citation, and link to the full paper appear below:

In this paper, I investigate the impact of non-task pedagogical agent behavior on learning outcomes, perceptions of agents’ interaction ability, and learner experiences. While quasi-experimental results indicate that while the addition of non-task comments to an on-task tutorial may increase learning and perceptions of the agent’s ability to interact with learners, this increase is not statistically significant. Further addition of non-task comments however, harms learning and perceptions of the agent’s ability to interact with learners in statistically significant ways. Qualitative results reveal that on-task interactions are efficient but impersonal, while non-task interactions were memorable, but distracting. Implications include the potential for non-task interactions to create an uncanny valley effect for agent behavior.

Veletsianos, G. (2012). How do Learners Respond to Pedagogical Agents that Deliver Social-oriented Non-task Messages? Impact on Student Learning, Perceptions, and ExperiencesComputers in Human Behavior, 28(1), 275-283.

Why Edtech, Why Now, and How It Will Change Public Education Forever – Eventually

by Jack West

Unmet Expectations from The Great Equalizer

The decades long attack on public education has weakened the institution enough to make it nearly indefensible in many geographic regions of the country. The once-was pride of a post-war America has suffered sustained insults from privatization advocates, and anti-tax alliances. Perhaps we have lost sight of our common cause. Maybe the absence of a formidable foe on the global stage leaves us waiting in the halls of the coliseum for too long, forcing us to turn on each other. Regardless of the cause, public education in America is nearly the shame that opponents have been calling it since the 1960’s when the system was the envy of the world.
creative commons license NicholaasB

The current sustained economic recession is the immediate cause of systematic failure. First, schools increased class sizes, cut sports and music programs, and turned off the heat at the last bell. Then came the furlough days, and the trimming of administrative positions. Now,instruction is being outsourced to unproven, and in some cases, fraudulent, online education purveyors simply because they will meet state education obligations (some of which the online education lobby has re-written themselves) for a lower cost. Hang onto these crumbling walls a high needs child population, 26% of whom now live in poverty. Let them eat Ketchup! The situation is as grim as it has been in more than half a century.

But this is America, home of Hollywood. In our stories, whenever the protagonist is beaten down and appears to be taking his last breath, rock bottom gives him the foundation he needs to spring once again to his feet.

Enter the edtech entrepreneur or edupreneur. The edupreneur is a new breed of motivated hero-genius. She is the TFA alum who spent just enough time in a classroom within a school that was more like a prison than a Utopian city on a hill to be inspired to change a system that would do that to children. He is a former Paypal, Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Zynga engineer/executive who called in rich and wants to be a part of a growing movement of like-minded individuals applying the same collaborative/competitive energy to solving a problem whose solution truly has the potential to save the world. They are seasoned nonprofit executives who have joined forces with others and found a way to fund making quality educational content free to everyone. All of them come to the wire-frames with at least two things in common: they have all been to school, and they all want to make it better.

Occupy Education?
If there is anything we have to thank the machinery behind our global financial crisis for, it is the rebellion that it has spawned. While many are occupying city centers across the country, directly protesting the unequal representation purchased from congress by the entitled few, the edupreneurs are attacking one of the roots of the problem, a democracy weakened by inadequate public education. Education budget cuts in every state are forcing school systems to spend more creatively to meet the progressive (lower case ‘p’) improvement demands of NCLB. In the same way that the ‘x factor’ was perceived to be a source of the extended prosperity of the 1990′s, education leaders now hope that edtech will do the same for education achievement.

A true democracy demands an educated citizenry, a citizenry that knows when they are being ‘played’ with emotional issues like immigration and terrorism. Democracy requires a confident populace that reads, discusses, and understands when and why a government official makes a decision that weaves the last thread from the shawl of the poor into the cloak of the king. The edupreneur is a tinkerer, a problem solver. He is the one that changed how we communicate with each other. She is the one that changed how you listen to music. They are the ones that believe with the right team, anything can be done – including reclaiming our democracy.

The edupreneur is a technocrat and a meritocrat. Even those that had the advantage of attending the best schools, still had to work intelligently and diligently to achieve what they have before arriving at edtech. Their work involved solving complex algorithms, collaborating with a team of different personalities and nationalities, and even communicating with their competitors on standards that would benefit the entire field. They succeeded in their prior work because they were open minded, capable of pivoting their business model to respond to a new market or meet a new challenge, and because they were intelligent. They are idealists, and those that are engineers (which is most of them) probably appreciate the complex moral confrontation often addressed in their favorite sci fi and fantasy. The edupreneur is not satisfied with financial reward alone. She did her market research and knows that the time of return for any education business is double that of the other startups she worked on – if there is to be any significant financial reward at all.

Edupreneurs as Changemakers
This bespectacled army of once was science fair blue ribbon winners, robotics team champions, and mathletes will change how we engage with information and ideas in the school setting. They already have. Gone is the need for native software that every individual teacher must maintain themselves. Gone is the need for the ink-smudged transparency. Soon, gone will be the need for letters home because the communication between student, teacher, and guardian will be safe and ongoing. The opportunities for reconfiguring what we think of as class, teacher, and even school are boundless for the edupreneur.

few education institutions will show us what can be done with the forthcoming quiver of edtech arrows. Within a year there will be learning analytics platforms that make possible formative assessment that gives both teacher and student the ongoing feedback they need to make differentiation a reality. There will be social networks that keep teachers connected with their students wherever they are in a safe and productive environment. There will be adaptive, cloud-based mathematics instructional systems that will change the meaning of the phrase drill and kill.

The students of these few successful models may very well, finally, offer us hope that the promise of The Great Equalizer is a legitimate one. The successes of these pioneering schools, contrasted by the distinct possibility of a much larger failure of the dominant traditional institutions, will inspire the real change that must happen if we want to recover our democracy.

From the Ashes..
The likely failure of edtech to cause any significant reform in the majority of education institutions can inspire the reforms necessary to effect broad scale change. When the edupreneurs discover that their paradigm-changing inventions fail to pave the path to national excellence that they had thought it might, some will retreat in defeat. Others will seek answers.

The tenacious eduprenerurs will wonder. Why didn’t the ever-presence of formative assessment data, available to teacher, parent, and student alike, increase student test scores in inner-city Oakland? We gave it to them for free! Why didn’t the suite of multi-media mixing tools inspire students in L.A. Unified to attend more school? Why aren’t U.S. scores on the PISA moving up to join other industrialized nations? Why is the number of students pursuing post secondary education continuing to decline?

Then, some of those edupreneurs that remain in the game, having dedicated themselves to solving this national problem of giving every child a quality education, will seek answers outside of technology. And it is the collective power of this technocratic intelligentsia, that can crowdsource a protest of thousands in a few short hours, raise half a billion dollars for a minority presidential candidate, and provide the tools for a global people’s revolution against tyrany in a single spring, that will finally begin the process of changing education at its roots.

The deep solution will employ all of the edtech tools the edupreneurs will have built, but it will be much more. Meaningful education reform will require that we give up on American exceptionalism and learn from countries like Finland, Singapore, Germany, and Japan. A lasting solution to our education woes will mean changing how we recruit, train and compensate teachers. A lasting solution will mean that we embrace standards articulated by the practicing professionals themselves and not bureaucratic ad hoc committees. Perhaps most importantly, a lasting solution will mean that we make a commitment to ensuring that every child comes to school from a safe home with adequate nutrition.

We can only hope that there will be a few edtech entrepreneurs that stay the course even after this current recession ends and the recruiters begin once again to hound them day and night. If there are a few that remain, perhaps they will have allied themselves in dedication to the idea that education is not the privilege of a free world, it is the foundation of the free world. Then, perhaps they can help us #occupy education.

e-learning outlook for 2012: will it be a rough ride?

by Tony Bates

© Firehorse Blog, 2012

Another year, and online learning, e-learning, learning technologies, educational technologies, digital learning, or whatever you call it or them, will continue to grow, become more prevalent, and more a central part of teaching and learning in higher education – but exactly how and in what ways?

The general trends are not going to change much from 2011 (which I identified as course redesign, mobile learning, more multimedia, learning analytics,and shared services), but some of the specifics are becoming clearer. Below I’ve ranked my predictions in order of significance for higher education, and also given a probability rating of the prediction actually happening.

1. The year of the tablet: 99% probable

Tablets – iPadsKindlesAakashes (Sky), etc. – will become a regular component of teaching and learning in many institutions. This will be mostly initially in traditional classroom and lab settings, but increasingly in more mobile applications outside the campus. Why?

  • tablets are more flexible, convenient and mobile than laptops and more practical for learning activities than even smart-phones
  • most LMSs already have almost transparent mobile capacity
  • tablet prices will continue to fall with increased competition, and applications and power will continue to increase with new models in 2012
  • textbooks will increasingly become digital and the tablet will become the mobile textbook library for students
  • functionality will increase, enabling tablets to become creators as well as distributors of learning materials
  • expect to see an iPad 3 with increased functionality released in April, 2012; this will generate even more interest in tablet applications for education
  • expect to see an enormous explosion of online teaching in developing countries, as cheap tablets such as the Aakash penetrate a world hungry for low-cost Internet access.

During 2012, we will see a small but increasing number of educational applications that build on the unique affordances of tablets, rather than merely moving LMS material to a tablet.

Likely barriers to the use of tablets:

  • institutional and instructor inertia
  • possibly some concerns over cost and equitable access
  • lack of standardization (although HTML5 will ease this)
The Aakash $35 tablet

2. Learning analytics: 90% probable

Learning analytics enable easy access to data on the desktop or tablet for instructors, administrators and even students about how students are learning and the factors that appear to influence their learning. The rapid expansion of learning analytics in 2012 is probably going to be the biggest surprise for many people outside the small coterie of people currently using learning analytics. Again, this is not likely to explode in 2012, but it will gain traction quite quickly, and again, there are strong reasons behind this prediction:

  • the biggest driver is going to be appeals and accreditation. Learning analytics enable institutions (and those appealing grades) to access hard ‘evidence’ of student performance, particularly online. Institutions can demonstrate to accreditation agencies what and how students have learned through the use of learning analytics. These may not be the best reasons for using analytics, but they are a very powerful ones, especially as quality assurance boards start latching on to learning analytics.
  • LMSs will increasingly provide the software necessary as part of the standard service
  • identifying ‘at-risk’ students. There is growing evidence that at-risk students can be identified almost within the first week of a course through indicators that can be tracked through learning analytics, such as amount of activity in an online class, response to e-mails, etc. The challenge will then be to find ways of supporting at-risk students
  • tweaking teaching; learning analytics provide instructors with useful data about how and what students are learning, enabling quick changes to materials and to teaching approaches while the course is still running
  • course review and planning: learning analytics will improve the evidence for both internal and external course reviews and future course planning.

Likely barriers:

  • identifying and collecting the data in ways that are useful for decision-making
  • concerns about student privacy
  • data overload for instructors who are already busy
  • lack of integration between LMSs and other student information systems

3. Growth of open education: 70% probable (depending on definition of open education)

I find this the most difficult area to predict, because so much of what is claimed under open education is either not new or not significant in terms of how it is actually implemented. Also open education covers so many different areas, such as content, access to instructors, learner support, badges or peer-to-peer assessment, recognition of prior learning, shared resources, and on and on. So let’s try to unpack some of this:

  • ‘raw’ digital content is already nearly 100% open, but a great deal of well designed commercially-produced digital instructional materials is likely to remain closed, or at least partially covered by copyright, because of the high cost of development. Nevertheless, the trend is towards openness, especially for digital materials created with public money, and this will continue in 2012. The Obama Administration’s $2 billion fund for OERs in community colleges which will start flowing in 2012 will add an immense amount of new OERs. The challenge then will be to find models that ensure massive adoption and use of such materials in formal learning during 2012, as there are few examples to date.
  • open access to high quality (all right, highly qualified) instructors is likely to be limited to idealistic volunteers, or to limited events (e.g. a MOOC), mainly because of a mis-match between supply and demand. Too many people want access to what they may incorrectly assume to be high quality instructors at elite institutions, for instance. This is partly an institutional barrier, as institutions try to protect their ‘star’ faculty, which is why this form of openness depends largely on individual volunteers.
  • one area to watch in 2012 is whether institutions otherwise requiring high academic qualifications for entry to degree programs start opening access to learner support to the general public. This is not necessarily direct instruction, but would include counselling, awarding certificates for successful completion of open courses (such as MITx), even automated exams. There is a cost in doing this, but it is far less significant than opening up faculty to those not meeting formal entry requirements. This would be a welcome move back towards public service rather than for-profit or full cost-recovery continuing education, but is unlikely in the current economic climate.
  • qualifications for open learning. I do expect to see institutions such as the OERuthe University of the People, and possibly the Khan Academy, putting in place ‘challenge’ exams that students will pay for that will provide a qualification such as a degree. Will any of the established open universities move in this direction? This would seem an obvious move if they are to remain competitive and relevant. More importantly, will employers and conventional institutions recognize such qualifications, particularly for entrance to graduate school? In the meantime, expect to see a growth in badges, especially for informal learning.

Likely barriers:

  • lack of recognition by conventional institutions of qualifications obtained through the use of open learning (this resistance has always been there, and won’t go away quickly)
  • lack of cost-effective models for incorporating open educational resources in formal programs
  • demand from students for formal qualifications from elite or ‘closed’ institutions
  • general concerns about the quality of OERs (although I suspect this will diminish during 2012, as more and better quality OERs become available)

The OERu logo

What’s not to MOOC?

by John Schinker

The two-week break in the #change11 MOOC has given me an opportunity to catch up a bit, and to reflect on the experience so far. It’s now sixteen weeks since the start of the course, which has included thirteen weeks of content, a week of introduction, and a two-week winter break. According to Stephen Downes, the course has 2,000 registered participants. The course web site has had 38,000 visits. There have been 1300 blog posts tracked with the #change11 tag, and there have been 2500 tweets with the same tag.

On a personal level, I’ve spent about 25 hours on the course, I’ve blogged about it four times, and I’ve tweeted about it, umm, more than once (I think).  I’ve read or consumed more than 70 posts, documents, videos, and web conferences related to the course, and I’ve commented on about 10% of them. My notes are more than 16 pages long and are summarized in the Wordle image on this post (click on it for a better view).

Mostly, I’ve kept up by reading the daily email that comes from the course, which lists the upcoming events, recent blog posts, and tweets that use the #change11 course tag. I also set up a newspaper using the #change11 course tag. This gives me an overview of the links posted via Twitter related to the Change course, all formatted as a daily newspaper. Admittedly, I haven’t always been faithful about using the tag, and I’m sure others have been doing the same thing. So the numbers cited above are probably estimates on the low side.

I’ve been trying to keep track of my level of engagement because I’m participating in a pilot project involving graduate workshop credit for MOOC participation. We’re trying to figure out how to make this authentic learning experience fit into the framework of formal continuing education workshops. Why shouldn’t work in a MOOC count toward teacher licensure renewal or salary advancement? Some would argue that participation in a MOOC is more relevant than taking a graduate workshop at a university. But the challenges are many. We have to find a way to ensure that people are really participating, that they’re really engaging with the content and other participants, and that they’re finding a way to make it relevant to their own professional lives. Plus. the regents like to see things like contact hours and some sort of tangible product that can be assessed.

In my case, then, a typical week consists of about 107 minutes of engagement. I read about 5 web resources. I take just over a page of notes. I make a comment on a blog post about every two weeks, and I post on my blog about the course roughly once a month. That’s well below my expected level of engagement, which called for about 30% more consumption of others’ content, and about double the contributions from me.

But none of this counts the related non-change11 stuff I’ve been doing. I bought and read Chris Lehmman’s new book on Web 2.0 tools and Will Richardson’s book on Personal Learning Networks. I passed them around among our administrative leadership team, and we’ve had many conversations about the future of schools. I attended a21st Century Learning summit with my superintendent, and we spent a lot of time talking about how to reinvent our successful public school to continue to meet the needs of our students. And because my professional learning network is already in tune with many of the topics in the Change11 course, the same ideas keep coming up over and over in the normal conversation flow through those networks. That happens with or without the course tag. For most, that’s just lifelong learning. It’s great that my personal professional development is so embedded in my professional life and my online identity. But in this case, because I’m trying to track it, it’s a little messy.

The challenges for me, moving forward, are to increase my level of engagement with the other MOOC participants, and to bring some of these conversations down to the local level. I need to be engaging my teachers, my administrators, and my community members in these ideas about what next generation learning looks like. I hope to use several different strategies to accomplish this. Without using the terminology and structure, we may be bringing some of the elements of the MOOC into our school district as a professional development model.

2012 is going to be an exciting year.

Creating the Connectivist Course

By Stephen Downes

Creating the Connectivist Course

When George Siemens and I created the first MOOC in 2008 we were not setting out to create a MOOC. So the form was not something we designed and implemented, at least, not explicitly so. But we had very clear ideas of where we wanted to go, and I would argue that it was those clear ideas that led to the definition of the MOOC as it exists today.

There were two major influences. One was the beginning of open online courses. We had both seen them in operation in the past, and had most recently been influenced by Alec Couros’s online graduate course and David Wiley’s wiki-based course. What made these courses important was that they invoked the idea of including outsiders into university courses in some way. The course was no longer bounded by the institution.

The other major influence was the emergence of massive online conferences. George had run a major conference on Connectivism, in which I was a participant. This was just the latest in a series of such conferences. Again, what made the format work was that the conference was open. And it was the success of the conference that made it worth considering a longer and more involved enterprise.

We set up Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008 (CCK08) as credit course in Manitoba’s Certificate in Adult Education (CAE), offered by the University of Manitoba. It was a bit of Old Home Week for me, as Manitoba’s first-ever online course was also offered through the CAE program, Introduction to Instruction, designed by Conrad Albertson and myself, and offered by Shirley Chapman.

What made CCK08 different was that we both decided at the outset that it would be designed along explicitly connectivist lines, whatever those were. Which was great in theory, but then we began almost immediately to accommodate the demands of a formal course offered by a traditional institution. The course would have a start date and an end date, and a series of dates in between, which would constitute a course schedule. Students would be able to sign up for credit, but if they did, they would have assignments that would be marked (by George; I had no interest in marking).

But beyond that, the course was non-traditional. Because when you make a claim like the central claim of connectivism, that the knowledge is found in the connections between people with each other and that learning is the development and traversal of those connections, then you can’t just offer a body of content in an LMS and call it a course. Had we simply presented the ‘theory of connectivism‘ as a body of content to be learned by participants, we would have undercut the central thesis of connectivism.

This seems to entail offering a course without content – how do you offer a course without content? The answer is that the course is not without content, but rather, that the content does not define the course. That there is no core of content that everyone must learn does not entail that there is zero content. Quite the opposite. It entails that there is a surplus of content. When you don’t select a certain set of canonical contents, everything becomes potential content, and as we saw in practice, we ended up with a lot of content.

Running the course over fourteen weeks, with each week devoted to a different topic, actually helped us out. It allowed us to mitigate to some degree the effects an undifferentiated torrent of content would produce. It allowed us to say to ourselves that we’ll look at ‘this’ first and ‘that’ later. It was a minimal structure, but one that seemed to be a minimal requirement for any sot of coherence at all.

Even so, as it was, participants complained that there was too much information. This led to the articulation of exactly what connectivism meant in a networked information environment, and resulted in the definition of a key feature of MOOCs. Learning in a MOOC, we advised, is in the first instance a matter of learning how to select content.

By navigating the content environment, and selecting content that is relevant to your own personal preferences and context, you are creating an individual view or perspective. So you are first creating connections between contents with each other and with your own background and experience. And working with content in a connectivist course does not involve learning or remembering the content. Rather, it is to engage in a process of creation and sharing. Each person in the course, speaking from his or her unique perspective, participates in a conversation that brings these perspectives together.

Why not learn content? Why not assemble a body of information that people would know in common? The particular circumstances of CCK08 make the answer clear, but we can also see how it generalizes. In the case of CCK08, there is no core body of knowledge. Connectivism is a theory in development (many argued that it isn’t even a theory), and the development of connective knowledge even more so. We were hesitant to teach people something definitive when even we did not know what that would be.

Even more importantly, identifying and highlighting some core principles of connectivism would undermine what it was we thought connectivism was. It’s not a simple set of principles or equations you apply mechanically to obtain a result. Sure, there are primitive elements – the component of a connection, for example – but you move very quickly into a realm where any articulation of the theory, any abstraction of the principles, distorts it. The fuzzy reality is what we want to teach, but you can’t teach that merely by assembling content and having people remember it.

So in order to teach connectivism, we found it necessary for people to immerse themselves in a connectivist teaching environment. The content itself could have been anything – we have since run courses in critical literacies, learning analytics, and personal learning environments. The content is the material that we work with, that forms the creative clay we use to communicate with each other as we develop the actual learning, the finely grained and nuanced understanding of learning in a network environment that develops as a result of our working within a networked environment.

In order to support this aspect of the learning, we decided to make the course as much of a network as possible, and therefore, as little like an ordered, structured and centralized presentation as possible. Drawing on work we’d done previously, we set up a system whereby people would use their own environments, whatever they were, and make connections between each other (and each other’s content) in these environments.

To do this, we encouraged each person to create his or her own online presence; these would be their nodes in the course networks. We collected RSS feeds from these and aggregated them into a single thread, which became the course newsletter. We emphasized further that this thread was only one of any number of possible ways of looking at the course contents, and we encouraged participants to connect in any other way they deemed appropriate.

This part of the course was a significant success. Of the 2200 people who signed up for CCK08, 170 of them created their own blogs, the feeds of which were aggregated a tool I created, called gRSShopper, and the contents delivered by email to a total of 1870 subscribers (this number remained constant for the duration of the course). Students also participated in a Moodle discussion forum, in a Google Groups forum, in three separate Second Life communities, and in other ways we didn’t know about.

The idea was that in addition to gaining experience making connections between people and ideas, participants were making connections between different systems and places. What we wanted people to experience was that connectivism functions not as a cognitive theory – not as a theory about how ideas are created and transmitted – but as a theory describing how we live and grow together. We learn, in connectivism, not by acquiring knowledge as though it were so many bricks or puzzle pieces, but by becoming the sort of person we want to be.

In this, in the offering of a course such as CCK08, and in the offering of various courses after, and in the experience of other people offering courses as varied as MobiMOOC and ds106 and eduMOOC, we see directly the growth of individuals into the theory (which they take and mold in their own way) as well as the growth of the community of connected technologies, individuals and ideas. And it is in what we learn in this way that the challenge to more traditional theories becomes evident.

What we’ve learned – at least to me – is that cooperation is better than collaboration, that diversity is better than sameness, that harmony is better than competition, that openness is better than exclusivity, and that understanding complexity is better than reduction to simplicity. These are, to my mind, the opposite of the bases on which traditional education is designed. Does that make connectivism a theory? In a real sense, that question is irrelevant. ‘Theory’ implies principles and abstraction; connectivism is, in practice, the opposite of that.

If that all we’ve learned, that’s enough. But I think, as we read what follows in this series, that the learning is just beginning.

Seven black swans for education in 2012

by Dave Cormier

A different top ten list

For the past 6 years i’ve done a top ten list to finish off the year. As my interests have evolved and as my writing has changed, i’ve found it more difficult each year to try and pull together the list. This year I saw HackEducations post and thought… huh… that’s pretty much what i would have said. I’m sure I would have come at it slightly differently, maybe not spelled as well, but I don’t think i have significantly more to offer to that discussion. The only thing I would have added was Learning Analytics. So… check Hack Education’s list.

Black swans
I thought i might want to do something a little different this year… I want to talk about Black Swans. A black swan is a suprise event that changes the whole nature of a conversation. They are events that, in hindsight, EVERYONE wants to say they saw coming, but no one (or few people) predicted ahead of time. They are usually dramatic events, though it’s not the level of the drama that’s important, but rather the impact that it has.

As we look into the future, speculating about black swans is useful in two ways. The first is that it is a nice way for us to discuss issues that are important to us in a new landscape. It provides a new context to talk about important ideas. In this sense, the content of the black swan is less important than the conversations that the black swan event allow us to have. Too often we are caught up in the minutiae of a discussion and can’t see what it is about our work that is important to us. The second, and maybe more obvious things about black swans is… they might happen.

edit: i should probably add that black swan’s were first described in

About this list

I’m going to propose seven black swan situations that could happen in 2012. I’m not suggesting that these things will ACTUALLY happen, but thinking about change can sometimes help us conceptualize it in our own lives… even if nothing dramatic comes around. I’m going to avoid any of the really nasty events… no wars, meteors or volcanic eruptions… sorry. There’s lots of change out there to talk about.

Note: this post was edited rather significantly after chatting with Jeff Lebow and John Schinker on Edtechtalk.

Black Swan 7 – Free WORKING LMS for learning
What happens if we have a system that actually works? One piece of software that does all the writing, all the games, all the learning and all the measuring you ever wanted. It works on all the computers, in all scenarios, and offered to us for free from Google. Not far from reality… just a few more steps and we’re there. What happens to Blackboard? We’re learning… lets use google. End of story. It works on tablets, on phones. It has scholar, docs, mail. What if we added google textbooks? We’d save a fortune on training… and give more power over to one company.

Black Swan 6 – Copyright Bans Open textbooks in the US
I can’t imagine how the textbook companies could pull it off, but when a billion dollar industry is threatened, there are lobbying dollars to move around. There have been some excellent initiaties at the school level all over the united states, but in this scenario, all classroom textbooks MUST be paid for. Perhaps to ‘preserve quality.’ Maybe the argument is even less rationale than that. Does this move us more towards a different country to lead us? Can we get Finnish textbooks?

Black Swan 5 – Oil hits $400/barrel
Changing directions entirely, what happens in the price of oil hits a crazy high number. It sounds unlikely, but i never thought I’d see the prices we had a few years ago either. If it costs a fortune to drive, does that change things? Does that move us towards online education?

How can we, in canada, rationalize heating a building all winter long just to put kids in it?

Black Swan 4 – US government invests in Analytics
Doesn’t sound crazy? Seems pretty normal eh? Think your way through it. A few years ago NYC invested $80 million in a student tracking system. Imagine the US government investing $80 billion in a system that tracks every student grade, up to the minute, and giving them a dashboard that told them how each school was doing… right now. Think testing is rampant in the school system now? Imagine what would happen in this scenario.

Imagine the Kahn academy for the whole education system. At any given time, you’d be able to send ‘at risk’ students to the right tutor who could put them back on track. We’d know oodles about what kinds of things helped people ‘learn’. If that’s what we wanted :) Would it be worth it? Maybe we could refocus school time on projects… and art… and music. Or maybe we all stay home and press buttons on our computers.

Black Swan 3 – International students stop coming
There are any number of reasons why this could happen… Out here on the east coast of canada, most schools are over 10% in their ratio international students to Canadian students. This is important for beefing up enrolment, but its also important for the extra fees paid by those students. If governmental regulations or incentives changed in any number of countries in Asia this could have a dramatic effect on Higher Ed. Would we try and teach them online? Would schools start to close? Would we try to attract students from other countries? The ‘international student’ has become a critical part of the fabric of higher education.

Black Swan 2 – Free books for everyone!
There is a battleground, right now, for content in higher education. We have billion dollar companies selling what amount to pretty average textbooks, and schools and different communities trying to create their own. What if the Thailand Government decided it was willing to put 10 billion dollars on the table to create free textbooks for everyone. One country (pick whichever one you like, could be Luxembourg or Saudi Arabia) offering free books, edited by renowned experts to the world. Would we take them? Is the content so transferable that we wouldn’t care who created them?

Black Swan 1 – MIT accredits MOOCs
MIT seeing Stanford pulling ahead in the free openness sweepstakes, decides that it will work to provide accreditation for open online courses. They themselves are safe in the knowledge that people will still come to MIT to work with the people/resources they have there, but they’ve decided that they are going to hire 10K tutors to evaluate people in the new MOOCs they plan to launch this year. 1 million students, 10000 tutors. What would that do?

All the first year classes taught by 10 central institutions… what then?