Friday, October 24, 2014

NMC "Five Minutes of Fame" Presentation

Back in June at the NMC Summer Conference in Portland OR, I presented "Five Minutes of Fame" on our "WhyCI" social media contest, where we awarded two $1,500 scholarships for 15-second videos. It was a fun project! If you're interested, the video's now on YouTube.

Not sure why my face is that shade of blue, usually it's a bit more shifted to red...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

LMS Futures: You've read the blog, now see the movie...

Link to the video here

My talk at Blackboard World was not recorded, and a few people expressed an interest in seeing it. As a substitute, I went into our new Faculty Innovations in Teaching Studio and created a 20 minute narrated version of the talk. It's a little stripped down and of course doesn't have the interaction from the presentation in Las Vegas, but I'm happy to be able to provide it for anyone interested. You can find it here at our Cinema CI site.

I have also submitted a proposal to the EDUCAUSE ELI meeting to be held next Spring in Anaheim California. If it's accepted, I'll be presenting a 15 minute "TED Style" talk on "Imagining the Post-LMS World". It will build upon some of the same information but with the intent of being more forward-looking and focusing on the opportunity to begin moving on beyond LMS.

I'll be at EDUCAUSE 2014 in Orlando next month, and I hope to make it out to OpenED in Washington DC in November - hope to see some of you at these venues so we can continue to conversation face-to-face.

Thanks again for all the comments and tweets and encouragement - much appreciated!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

LMS Futures: Extinction?

This is the last entry on this topic (for now), and the hardest to write. My thinking has "evolved" rapidly on the potential for a post-LMS future.

When I started planning the Blackboard World talk on which this series is based, I decided NOT to predict what was likely to happen, but rather to do three thought-experiments about three different future scenarios, and see what I would find. But now that I've gone through this, I find myself yearning for - and helping to build - a post-LMS future. This is not a result I anticipated.

When I first put the dinosaur slide on the screen, someone at talk piped up and said I was telegraphing my conclusion. But the dinosaur is an ambiguous image - sure, they are extinct now, and they lasted a heck of a long time. And furthermore, we think that birds evolved from dinosaurs. So the dinosaur encapsulates all three futures.

After all, LMS's WILL be extinct... it's just a question of how long they have to run. Perhaps they will outlive email, or COBOL.

But it's not just a question of how long they will survive - somewhere, there's a school still running Lotus Notes. The question is how long they will dominate the mental model and the discourse around online teaching and learning in higher education. And now that I've worked through this in my own mind, I think we might be somewhat closer to a post-LMS world than I thought when I started.

For a moment, let's go back to my slide representing a student-centric LMS. If you look at the picture for a minute, and take out the word LMS, you'll see that what you've got looks a whole lot like the Internet.
If we can build connections by connecting learners and teachers and resources and tools using the Internet, do we need an LMS? Well, it's very useful to have some of the things an LMS provides, like:
  • a standard approach to authentication (a way for people to log in) 
  • a way to communicate between the learning tools we're using
  • perhaps,  a way to limit access to copyrighted materials
  • perhaps, a gradebook or other assessment tools
I'm sure you can think of many other helpful tools you'd like to have, but the point is that building every feature you want into a single system is an obsolete strategy for software. Yes, LTI helps, but it still starts from the premise that you have a core system and you want to plug tools into that system. What if everything was a person or a tool or a resource, and you could connect and disconnect them as needed? You'd have a very powerful learning environment that was not an LMS.

The question is, can you do it? The key observation that people such as Jim Groom and Brian Lamb and many others have made is that having your own virtual machine with Wordpress and a few other tools gets you a long way there. In other words, we may have been closer than we thought when we started down the LMS road, but we were seduced by the promise of the glowing system in the sky that could solve all our problems for us. The Reclaim Your Domain project launched by Kin Lane (@kinlane), Jim Groom (@jimgroom) and Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) suggests a strategy of moving forward into the past and giving students and teachers the tools to build their own connections that they can own and control. So perhaps by backing up a bit and moving in a different direction, we can begin to build a more flexible learning environment, one that is no longer closed in space and closed in time, and that can give the student a framework that can carry forward beyond the walls of academe. I don't know if it can work, but I think it's a journey worth taking to see what we can learn. We've embarked upon an experiment on my campus to explore the "reclaim" world with a few intrepid faculty and students, and in the future I'll be letting you know more about how we're doing.

To everyone who read and commented on these blog entries, THANK YOU! To everyone who came before me and put out the ideas that I synthesized/adopted/stole/reclaimed/repurposed/remixed - THANK YOU even more. It's been a fun ride and now I might even write a blog entry or two that doesn't mention LMS.

Photo credits:
Birds: Art Siegel via Flickr
Dinosaurs: Miki Roventine via Flickr

Sunday, August 10, 2014

LMS Futures: Revolutionary Change via Student-Centered LMS

There are many forms an LMS revolution might take, but I'm just going to talk about one - creating a student-centered LMS. As I've mentioned (harped on?) before, the standard LMS model is centered around the course or the class. One other fairly obvious alternative is to build the LMS around learning materials - but I don't find this all that interesting because you end up with something that looks like a Content Management System. CMS's are great but I don't see them as an LMS replacement.

Many of our learning institutions claim to be student- or learner-centric. Nearly everyone on my campus can quote the first words of our mission statement: "Placing students at the center of the educational experience..." And much of the time, we take that seriously. What would a student-centric LMS look like? It's a non-trivial design problem, but here's a few high-level thoughts.

In a student-centric LMS, the core abstraction of the LMS is the student. In the diagram, I'm imagining a student with control of connections to other entities within the system. These could be instructors, or other students, or learning materials. To create a course, you invite students to connect with a common set of resources, one or more instructors, and the other students in the course. When the course is complete, the student can drop the connections she doesn't need any more - but keep the rest. As the educational experience proceeds, the student collects, under her control, the connections that remain meaningful and useful and drops the ones that are stale or irrelevant. Furthermore, these resources could be local and within the LMS, or they could be external to the LMS or to the student's current institution.

If you start building the LMS from this perspective, you end up with something like the diagram on the right. I've just added a few connections to give a sense of where I'm going. Students can connect to students and to resources. Instructors would just be another kind of student, ones with perhaps some special abilities (like assigning grades).

The model is simple, but the change is important - if we build the LMS from the bottom up as a tool that connects students and resources rather than a tool that replicates the notion of a closed course, we'll get a system that's quite different from what we have now. But once I envisioned this model I started to question whether the LMS as a system really offers any value. Perhaps, if we created technology to support learner -to-learner interaction, we're on the road to not needing an LMS. And perhaps, this isn't really something new at all but a return to models familiar to the history of the Internet.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

LMS Futures: Evolutionary Change

I began this series promising to speculate on three possible futures for the LMS - evolution, revolution, or extinction - so let's start with evolution. An evolutionary path assumes that the LMS as we know it today basically got it right, it just needs to get better. If the user interface can be improved and simplified, if mobile access can be an assumption, if outside tools can be better integrated - maybe that's all we need.

I was somewhat amused when I arrived at the BbWorld keynote address and heard CEO Jay Bhatt outline his priorities for the Blackboard Learn product:
  1. Improve the user interface
  2. Mobile first
  3. Cloud infrastructure
  4. Big Data
Now, after we get done chuckling over "mobile first" being the second item on the list, what we have here is a recipe for incremental, evolutionary change. Some people I respect spent a lot of time looking at the new user interface and came away impressed. Bb claims they are moving to a fully responsive design, and from what I saw it appears to use a timeline as the key organizing principle for the interface, which seems like a promising approach to me. 

Providing a better interface and better mobile access can potentially improve the user experience for Blackboard - and perhaps help catch them up with the competition - but does nothing to address the essential nature of the critique I've developed here. Any LMS built around the model of a closed course has severe limitation and implications that I think have negative consequences (elucidated nicely here by Michelle Pacansky-Brock).

I don't have a lot to say here about cloud infrastructure - I think this is a move that Blackboard needs to make to be competitive but it has no inherent impact on the student or faculty learning experience. Big data... I don't want to go there right now. Just for the moment, let me say my optimism about the potential for big data is balanced by some pretty big doubts about the value and concerns about the risk.

This is Blackboard's plan and the list might be different for another LMS, but an evolutionary change means we've accepted what an LMS is and what it can do, we just want it to do it better. That might be the most likely path for the near future, but it's also the least interesting, so I'm looking forward to my next post on revolutionary change.

(photo credit: Bert Hakim @flickr cc-by-nc-nd/2.0) 

Monday, July 28, 2014

LMS Futures: The Charge Against LMS

For my talk at BbWorld, I contemplated what it is that people hate about LMS's in general. I summarized these issues in the visual shown here.
The topic "What people have about X LMS", where X is often, but not always, Blackboard, is one I chose not to get into at BbWorld. There's plenty that's been written and spoken on that topic.

Are there other things about the LMS that aren't captured here that you think are important? Or does this pretty much cover the difficulties that make you, your faculty, or your students frustrated with your LMS? If you think I've missed something I'd be grateful if you'd comment below.

I'm particularly interested in the third topic, which I think is the most interesting and the most deeply imbedded in the fundamental design of the LMS.

LMS's are closed because they were designed to be that way. As I've argued here before, the LMS mimics traditional classes, and traditional classes are closed. In a future post, I'll consider what an LMS might look like if the design was centered on the student rather than the course.

Friday, July 18, 2014

LMS Futures: Paving the Cowpaths

I want you to imagine you're a higher ed CIO or Provost in the year 2000, and you get the follow two sales pitches for a learning (or course) management system.

  1. If you buy LMS A, it will open up wonderful new possibilities for your students to learn using online technology. It will require your faculty to completely rethink their role, they will need to adopt new strategies and redesign their courses, but at the end they will have radically better results.
  2. If you buy LMS B, it will help enable your faculty to do what they are doing in the classroom now, but they can do it online. This will enable you to reach new students and engage your existing students using technology, without requiring any major disruption in the role of the faculty.
Is it any surprise that #2 was the winning strategy? Organizing the LMS around the course and modeling it like a closed classroom, was the right strategy for selling the product. But today we find ourselves "inside the (course) box". In a future post I'll discuss how a course-centric model implies a particular software design that's part of the frustration so many of us have with the LMS 15 years later. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

LMS Futures: Live in Vegas!

It was a real pleasure (and a relief!) to make my presentation at BBWorld. I really enjoyed the energetic and engaged audience and was flattered by the standing-room-only crowd.

As I admitted at the start of the talk, it all started with the title ("Three Futures for the LMS: Evolution, Revolution, or Extinction"). It was clearly a title that got people's attention, but what I thought would be a fairly simple thought piece turned out to be all consuming for several weeks. In fact, this is a topic probably more suitable for a Masters Thesis than a 45 minute talk.

My goal was to leave the audience with more questions than answers and I hope I succeeded. I got lots of good ideas during the talk and encouraging tweets as well. If you were there, thank you for helping to make it an enjoyable experience!

Besides my presentation I had quite a few very interesting conversations at Bb World. It's clear that the team that has been built in the last year is different in philosophy, approach, temperament and talents from the "old" Blackboard. Time will tell whether or not they can overcome the inertia and ill-will left behind by the old guard. I'm an optimist (an optimistic curmudgeon?) and I wish them well. Thanks to everyone who took time to make new connections and renew old ones, and see you on the Twitters.

I promise more discussion to follow, including both selections from what I presented as well as related thoughts I've had over the past few weeks that just didn't fit into the talk or are still just too half-baked to present (but always ready for blogging!) Thanks for reading, your comments, tweets, and attaboys are more motivational than you know.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

LMS Futures: So What Does an LMS DO anyway?

vintage advertisement for a "Ditto" machine
Despite the constant drumbeat of complaints about LMS's over the last 15 years, they continue to be used, so someone must think they are good for something. In fact, the LMS does solve several problems for instructors and for institutions; furthermore, it's proposed that it will solve at least one new one.

Content repository: at its core, an LMS is a place to keep stuff and distribute it to students. In a sense, the LMS is the descendant of the "ditto machine" via the photocopier.

Administrative Tool: An LMS allows an instructor to maintain an accurate course roster and record information about students in the course, e.g. attendance and grades.

Single Point of Contact: To the extent that all or most of a campus uses a common LMS, students can expect to go one place and find everything they need for all their classes.

Faculty/Student Communication Tool: A closed (like a classroom) environment used for faculty-to-student communication (often), student-to-faculty communication (sometimes) and student-to-student communication (rarely).

Learning Tool Portal: An LMS is often used as a way to authenticate students for the use of learning tools such as blogs, video servers, proprietary data bases, textbook related materials, etc. The IMS Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI) specification makes this easier although it still remains a challenge.

A key feature, driven directly by the classroom metaphor, is that this is a closed space. You're in the class, or you're not, and typically if you're not in the class you see nothing - although some LMS's have begun to develop more granular access models. Certainly there are advantages - particularly related to student privacy and copyright management - but also significant limitations imposed by the closed classroom model. In later postings I'll focus on the limitations.

Do you agree? Have I missed something important that isn't obviously related to one of these five attributes? Please let me know!

Monday, July 14, 2014

LMS Futures: About the course, the instructor, or the student?

In my last blog entry, I argued that the metaphor of the online course has been the driving force behind the development of the LMS. In a thoughtful email, Casey Green offered an alternative perspective, which I quote with his permission:
With due respect, I’d argue that the focus of the LMS (or course management systems) has really been less about the course and more about assisting faculty. Admittedly, I know this will be a controversial claim, given continuing, almost two-decades long rants and rage of faculty about the design and functionality of various LMS applications.  But I think it is far to say that the  CMS/LMS emerged as a way to assist faculty, who had few technical/coding/HTML skills, to post course resources online.   We focused on "the course" because that was the arena of obvious and recurring need.
I can't really argue with that. There was certainly a sense that creating your own online materials was just "too hard for faculty" and they needed a "Web Course in a Box" as described in this lovely vintage page. But that was the goal, it's tough to argue we've been very successful. Nearly every educational technology conference I've been at in the last 15 years has included a talk about "How we convince our reluctant faculty to use the LMS." Typically, it seems to revolve around food and, sometimes, a little money. However, only rarely do those responsible for educational technology ask whether the technology they provide is part of the problem rather than part of the solution - see "It's time to stop blaming the faculty" for more on this topic.

Regardless of the intent, I would argue that the core construct of the LMS is the course. Look at the challenges and the hacks created to help instructors manage multiple courses, or migrate materials from one course or semester to another. A (traditional) course:

  1. starts and ends, and
  2. has enrollment - you're either in it or out of it
  3. has one, or perhaps a handful of instructors, with a special role that's distinct from that of a student
  4. students that complete a course get credit and a grade
These are essential features of a traditional course, and the very success of the LMS, as well as the greatest limitations, come from tightly integrating these features. The irony is that the LMS was built to support the very features of learning that could be irrelevant - or at least, much less relevant - in a web-connected world. The model of a course is based on scarcity of space, time, and information, at the moment that the Internet revolution has made all these factors less deterministic than ever in history.

(photo CC by stanfordedtech via flickr) 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

LMS Futures, LMS Past: It's all about the COURSE

The Learning Management System as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon. There's a wonderful graphic created by Phil Hill (@PhilOnHigherEd) that's worthy of study as it recapitulates visually much of the history of the LMS in Higher Education.

Let me stop for a minute and rave about how great this graphic is. It's incredibly useful and I'm grateful to Phil for creating is as well as licensing it with Creative Commons so we can all share it. Thanks also to Casey Green ( and George Kroner (@georgekroner) for collecting the data.

A couple of things to note - with the exception of Canvas and eCollege, all the major LMS's had their original roots in universities. {Casey Green pointed out to me that Canvas started as a student project, so while it didn't last long in the academic environment, it did start there as well.} Looking at the names of the earliest systems gives you a clue about their origins: WebCT is "Web Course Tools", Blackboard was launched by the merger of "Web Course in a Box" and "CourseInfo". These were tools for managing courses and were commonly called "Course Management Systems" or CMS's at the time. Even the name "Blackboard" suggests a place to put information about a course - where the teacher puts next week's homework and the date of the midterm.  As more functionality was added, the name "Learning Management System" became popular, but if you consider what these systems are used for by most instructors most of the time, they are about managing classes and mostly not about managing learning at all. (Note, too, the not-so-subtle difference between a "Tool" and a "System".)

I researched EDUCAUSE's online resources to find their earliest references to "Course Management System". A couple of interesting ones are Julie Parmenter and Jay Fern describing Indiana University's "OnCourse" system in 1999, and a presentation by Fred Siff on the use of Blackboard at the University of Cincinnati from the EDUCAUSE Conference in 2001. The IU presentation is from CUMREC, which is a conference focused on "Administrative Computing", and there's that word "course" again. Siff's presentation is entitled "The New Core Business System: Course Management Systems" and includes the telling quote:
New course management systems are too important -- and too powerful -- to be relegated to academic computing.
You can see where this is going to end up...

I was surprised to find out that the LMS terminology had emerged by that time, and there's an interesting article from 2001 by Phil Long, Vijay Kumar, and Jeffrey Merriman on open frameworks for education that refers to "learning management systems." But my point is that from the beginning it's been all about managing COURSES. We even see this most recently in the term MOOC, where C stands for course. In my next installment, I'll discuss why the focus on the course was one of the most important decisions for encouraging the adoption of LMS's and simultaneously one of the biggest roadblocks to creative learning.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

LMS Futures: Evolution, Revolution, or Extinction?

I'm not sure exactly what prompted me to submit a presentation proposal with the above title to Blackboard World, and I'm not sure what possessed them to accept it. In any case, I'm going to be speaking at their conference in Las Vegas on the future of the LMS and describing three possible scenarios. My goal is to try to pull together, in a semi-coherent manner, thoughts that have been rumbling in and out of my head on this topic for the last couple of years.

To help me get my act together I'm going to try writing here about these scenarios, and I would really love to hear from you - what do you think? Where is the LMS going - or is it going away? Can the defects that many find with the current generation of LMS's be fixed, or do we need to start over with a new kind of LMS, or go a different direction completely? I'd love to hear your thoughts and, with your permission, incorporate them into my talk. In my next posting, I'll start with an idiosyncratic and incomplete history of the LMS and some ideas that I have about how we got to where we are today.

Photo CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Mikl Roventine @flickr 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tales of Future Past 1 - Teaching Online pre-Internet

Jim Groom's wonderful series of blog posts about the early and pre-history of edtech have motivated me to exhume a bit of my edtech prehistoric existence. My first bit of arcana is an article I wrote in 1992 entitled Class Discussion by Computer: A Case Study.

A MicroVAX, similar to the one we used.
The article, published in the ACM SIGCSE Bulletin (CSE = Computer Science Education), describes an experiment that I did in a "Computers and Society" class in 1990, using a discussion tool called VAX Notes. Yes, it ran on a DEC VAX - my campus, Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) got its connection to NSFNET a year later in 1991. Here's a few choice quotes:
...the practical effect (of the computer) on the format of the typical college course has been nil....most...faculty continue to use the lecture model for most courses...
...I thought that it would be both useful and relevant to the course topic if the students were to participate in an ongoing discussion via the computer.
Computer conferencing can be a valuable adjunct to a can reduce the isolation of class members outside the class meeting time. I would encourage instructors in any discussion-based course to experiment with computer conferencing.
A few other notable items -

  • I thought it was necessary to explain to the reader what electronic mail (referred to as "e-mail") was, and the difference between email and "conferencing software"
  • I didn't reference any other experiments like it. I am certain that that was other work happening along the same lines but I didn't find any. (There was no way to Google it!)
  • The entire exercise was built around the metaphor of a f2f class discussion - even if the software had made it possible I don't think it would have occurred to me to open it up outside the class.
  • The most fun part about reading it today is reading the quotes from the students!
Enjoy! There's at least one other item I've found that I'll blog about, and one more I'm still looking for.

One more thought - everyone should read Jim's blog bavatuesdays. If I had continued down the road of focusing on teaching with technology instead of going in 10 different directions over the next 20 years I might be halfway to where Jim is now with his students. #bigfan #4life

Saturday, June 7, 2014

What do we mean when we talk about "online learning"?

This post started with a tweet from @ClaireHMajor:

Good question! I responded:

We're living in unique times. A large percentage of teachers at all levels are teaching online, or preparing to teach online, or thinking about teaching online, and thinking about how to avoid teaching online. But the vast majority of these teachers have never taken an online class, or if they have, they probably haven't take a good online class. Can you imagine trying to learn how to give an in-person lecture to a class, or lead a classroom discussion, if you'd never had your own experience as a student in lectures and class discussions? It's only natural to assume that the way you've seen it done before is the "right" and only way.

But twenty years from now the situation's going to be a lot different. We know that something like 50% of college students take one or more online course - see, e.g. - and the numbers keep climbing. Twenty years from now, most newer teachers will have had quite a bit of experience using online tools to learn. These teachers won't view online as a special case, but rather part of the mix of what it means to learn.

Which brings me to the term "online learning". Does anyone really "learn online"? Learning takes place within a learner, and the learner interacts with people, books, online tools, video, and the world in the course of the learning process I think the term "online learning" is a carryover from "distance education" which became "distance learning" and then "online learning". There was a well-meaning idea behind this - we should remember that the goal is learning, not teaching or education. But really, while "online teaching" makes sense to me as a description of a teaching strategy or modality, "online learning" really doesn't. The learner is not "online", rather they are using online media in the course of the learning process.

Perhaps we'd be better off dropping the terms "face to face learning", "hybrid learning", and "online learning" and just talk about learning via "face to face instruction", "hybrid instruction", etc. As one my heroes, Alan Kay, said, "the music is not within the piano; and likewise, the learning is not within the network or the computer, it takes place within the student. Strategies and media change rapidly but the fundamental processes of learning are deeply ingrained in our nature and change slowly if at all

Thanks Claire for stimulating this line of thought.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Dear EDUCAUSE: Please ditch the CIO Lounge

Let me start by stating that I'm a huge fan of EDUCAUSE and particularly of the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference. I attended the first joint EDUCOM/CAUSE conferences in the late 90's and I think I've missed no more than 2 in the last 15 years. Many of my best professional connections, and not a few lasting friendships have been forged through EDUCAUSE connections. So I speak as a friend.

A few years back, EDUCAUSE decided that it needed to offer more "value" to Chief Information Officer (CIO) attendees to the Annual Conference. I am guessing that they got feedback that at least some CIOs were finding the conference experience to be not valuable or perhaps less pleasant and enjoyable than other conference opportunities. This is, of course, a big deal for EDUCAUSE - I get it that to be viable EDUCAUSE has to be attractive to CIO's. Not only does the CIO approve the annual EDUCAUSE membership fee on most campuses, a vendor's decision to pay for space on the exhibition floor depends not just on how many people are at the conference, but on their roles. Since CIOs usually have control over the largest budgets, their attention is coveted by the vendor community. Without vendor participation the economics of the large edtech conference is completely different.

I get it - EDUCAUSE needs to make sure that the Annual Conference is attractive to CIOs. Special CIO roundtable discussions were added, there's a guide to items in the program that should be interesting to CIOs, and, there's the CIO lounge, pictured below.

EDUCAUSE CIO Lounge (photo by Melissa Woo, used with permission)
It's a pleasant place, with comfy chairs, a large screen to view the plenary sessions, lots of power plugs to charge your phone, and free (non-alcoholic) drinks and snacks. It resembles an airport "club" room. And of course, now that you've got a CIO lounge, you need a way to tell who's a CIO and who's not, so there's a special color or stripe on the name badges to let the attendant at the door (and, by the way, observant vendors on the trade floor) who is entitled to this special privilege. And there it is - the assumption that CIOs are entitled to special privileges.

Being a CIO is a privilege and it can be a pleasure, as I and my co-authors talk about here. The CIO has a special role and typically has more influence on campus than other members of the technology team. It's a senior academic position that pays well and (usually) engenders respect on campus. So yeah, being a CIO is something of a Big Deal.

But systems administrators are kind of important too. And instructional designers, programmers, web designers, user support specialists, equipment techs, network managers, and the list goes on. Oh, and not to mention librarians and (other) faculty members. I like to operate from the perspective of "one team, one goal", a motto I learned some years back from an A/V tech. What message does it send when we exalt CIOs above every one else at the conference and encourage them to isolate themselves among their kind? I think the message is pretty obvious, and I don't care for it.

At this point, someone else might say "hey, if you don't like it, stay out of the CIO lounge!" Starting this year, that's what I intend to do. But whether I'm in there or not EDUCAUSE is making a statement about CIOs and I think it's the wrong one. I encourage the leadership to ask themselves whether it's time to send a different, more inclusive message, and just add more chairs and power supplies that everyone can share.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Google says "Thanks" to teachers on Earth for all the data

Here it is - Google Classroom. I'll leave it to others to analyze what these means, but comment on just one line in the announcement:
Like the rest of our Google Apps for Education services, Classroom contains no ads, never uses your content or student data for advertising purposes, and is free for schools.
OK,  so Google will not use your content or student data for ADVERTISING PURPOSES. That leaves out a world of other possibilities.

So bring it on Google! It's gonna be fun.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Once more, MOOCs teach us what we knew already

(photo credit: clemsonunivlibrary on

The headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education reads "Passive MOOC Students Don't Retain New Knowledge, Study Finds".  To quote the article:
The researchers suggested that when planning courses for professionals, MOOC providers should develop engaging coursework that requires peer interaction and immediate use of new knowledge.
So, do the following mental experiment - take out the word "MOOC" and the words "for professionals" and change "providers" to "instructors" and you get:
... when planning courses, instructors should develop engaging coursework that requires peer interaction and immediate use of new knowledge.
That's time-tested advice, consistent with what we know about cognitive psychology and learning theory, that's been around for a long time before anyone coined the acronym "MOOC".

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Complete Works of Sebastian Thrun (Abridged)

(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Just to save you time in your busy schedule, here's some of the best lines from "In Conversation with: Sebastian Thrun, CEO, Udacity" in Fortune:

Sebastian Thrun wears many hats. 
"...everybody in the world can become a data scientist..." 
"...we are really passionate about democratizing education." 
"...we are kind of the Hollywood of education." 
"...the technology skills gap is important, first because there are many open jobs...The vast of majority of students we have ... are actually in jobs right now." 
"...I mean that's a big enough chunk for us to bite." 
Will you need to raise more money? "Yes, we will." 
"I'm very proud to be a professor at Stanford... to make this happen on a campus the quality of the research faculty, that's just what it costs."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The New Face of Disruptive Innovation

It's been proposed to me that we in higher education are just "envious" of our start-up brethren in Silicon Valley. I mean, here we are working everyday with students and often being told that what we do just isn't good enough, while people like Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller raise money and give TED talks and are lauded as the future of education. We are the old guard trying to hang on to our buggy whips while a new generation creates DISRUPTIVE INNOVATION which is not only virtuous but leads to riches untold. Envious? Maybe...

But that doesn't mean that, when we point out the contradictions and shear arrogance of much of what passes for innovation - but often really isn't innovative at all - we are necessarily wrong.

The MOOC hysteria of the last few years has taught us the value of the Big Lie - say it long enough and loud enough and with enough conviction and people will buy it. They may not actually pay you enough money to wean you off venture capital, but they will buy it. Two of the biggest were that MOOCs were going to be the great leveler, and that they would be the disruptive innovation - in the Clayton Christensen sense of the term - that would force much of higher education to go out of business to be replaced by a new, efficient ("virtually free!") replacement. Oh, and that giving away courses would be a great way to make money.

Two years ago I enrolled in Udacity's Introduction to Computer Science course. I have a Ph.D. in Computer Science, was a full-time faculty member for about 10 years, and often taught Intro to Computer Science. It was a class that I usually enjoyed teaching, but I often struggled with the best way to present the information, so I was very interested to see how Udacity approached the topic. While I could quibble with some of the choices, I thought the course was well-done overall, and that David Evans was a good presenter. Other than the presentations, there wasn't a lot there (the message boards were more or less like trying to read Slashdot) but if you kind of knew what you were doing when you went in you could learn something. I went all the way through and took the final, achieving "High Distinction". I was a little embarrassed that I didn't achieve "Highest Distinction" but hey, it's been a while since I've been a student. At least, that's my excuse.

Of course, like everyone else, I wondered how they planned to make money by creating these courses and making them available for free, but it occurred to me right away that an obvious strategy was to sell access to students that did well in their courses. Hey, looking for a sharp entry-level web developer? Why fight for students at MIT when Udacity can offer you the best of 10's of thousands who've taken their MOOCs.

It also occurred to me that, with appropriate support, Udacity's course could be good for a lot more students. Imagine if the students were in small groups (a "class") with someone attentive to their needs (a "teacher") and if there was a way to provide more authentic assessment of their ability to learn the material ("tests", "grades", "credits", "degrees"). The Udacity material would substitute for a textbook and some of the content delivery portion of the the course, and someone else (a "university") could do the rest. Viewed in this way, Udacity's course is a kind of media-rich online textbook, that could form the core of something that looked like a blended or online course. You know, online courses of the kind that have been around for many years. A Udacity course didn't look to me so much like a university replacement and more like an online instruction alternative - which is exactly what it was and is.

Fast forward two years, and here's Udacity's model of instruction. (See

Look familiar? The "Courseware" is what they provided before; the "coaching" sounds a lot like what an instructor does; the "projects with feedback" not only give feedback but also provide assessment, and the "verified certificate" is sort of like credits although Udacity can't (yet) provide accredited, transferable credits.

Udacity's great innovation is.... what? That coaches are paid less than professors? (But maybe not less than TA's.) That it's online? I think that's been done before. Where's the innovation?

I actually like a lot of what Udacity is doing. It's a legitimate alternative for many students to develop their IT skills. But disruptive to higher education? I don't see it.

By the way, it's not even that cheap. Udacity has "invited" me to the "upgraded" course that will offer me a "verified certificate" vs. my "unverified certificate".

They have even, generously, offered me 20% off, so it will only run $120/month. For a "typical" three month period, that's $360, or $450 at the full rate. The community college in my neighborhood offers Intro to Computer Science for about $200. Of course, at Udacity I can "Learn From the Best!"

So let's hear it for innovation. If I wasted my time being envious every time someone else came up with an innovation that I didn't think of, I'd be miserable, but really I'm pretty happy to be muddling along with colleagues and faculty and trying to help make things better one student at a time. I wish we could celebrate that work instead of going to TED talks.

(h/t to Michael Caulfield @holden at for his spot-on writing about Udacity and Coursera which inspired many of my observations.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

When Teaching has nothing to do with "Big Data"

I read two remarkable posts today from two remarkable teachers, Michelle Pacansky-Brock and Gardner Campbell. You will get more value from reading what they have to say than what I say here, so follow the links and if you're still interested come back.


Hey, you're back, thanks. By mentioning both Michelle and Gardner in one post, I don't mean to imply that their approaches to teaching are the same - they are as unique as each one of them - but there's a common element - teaching as a human activity.

When looking at Michelle's slides from her talk today, I have the advantage that I have heard her speak many times so can hear her voice in my ear as I read them. But even without that, you can glean the core of her lesson - that there is nothing that substitutes for the human bond between teacher and learner. And furthermore, that teaching is an act of faith. Great teachers take chances for their students - and for themselves. We learn to love what we fear because it makes us a better person and because we believe our students will benefit.

Gardner talks about the urge to hide behind the "stuff in stacks" (beautiful turn of a phrase) because it's safe. His exchange with his student describes teaching heart-to-heart, a process that in his words is "emotional, or spiritual–hard to know the difference, perhaps". 

Put me down on the side of those who believe that the best way we can use our technology is to support and enhance these human connections. "Big Data" has its place but it doesn't help us understand the heart of the learner.