Scathing Indictment of MOOCs from Dick Bates

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Apparently Dick Bates, a lifelong proponent of and researcher into online and distance learning, has announced his retirement. (And I only say apparently because I was sent to his blog, where he seems pretty clear about retiring, via Twitter.) I’ve heard Dick’s name but don’t know him or his work personally, though even a cursory glance at his blog suggests the influence and import of his work.

He included in his retirement post these paragraphs on MOOCs (and for some reason, I wasn’t able to copy and paste the actual text, so I had to screen shot it):

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As someone moderately familiar with MOOCs and the controversy surrounding them (just enough to make me dangerous, I suspect), I know exactly what he’s talking about: slap reputable-college-x’s name on something and all of a sudden it’s automatically amazing, whether or not it actually is; that’s annoying in an emperor’s-new-clothes kind of way. On the other hand, few would say now (after the self-proclaimed year of the MOOCS that was 2013) that MOOCs are the educational panacea (or innovative disruptor; disruptive innovator?) that they were originally touted to be. In fact, few educators would admit that MOOCs are viable for any but the most motivated ‘students’ because of the very pedagogical flaws to which Bates refers.

But let’s not ignore the resources that MOOCs provide, if not to students than to teachers. As a teacher of subject x, can I ignore the free availability of reputable college professors lecturing, often in multi-media and engaging ways, about the subject I teach? Even if such lectures don’t make it to my students, they provide me with an invaluable resource, one both better (probably) and more engaging (definitely) than the books I’ve relied on for years. And from the producer’s standpoint, has a college professor ever prepared for a class in the way that she would prepare for a MOOC? I certainly don’t know, but I’m guessing not, such that the college professors producing such courses themselves are getting an invaluable professional development experience by, on the one hand, maintaining the integrity of their course and its material and, on the other hand, reflecting on how that best can be disseminated to tens of thousands of students at one time.

So let’s look at MOOCs for what they are: great resources for anyone who wants to avail themselves of them for any reason. Once we start getting to MOOC degrees and RIFfed faculty members, then we can start fighting the good fight. But until then I’m going to go back to my video lectures on Roman Architecture (thank you, Yale and Prof. Diana Kleiner).

And then there’s MOOCs. I can’t express adequately just how pissed off I am about MOOCs – not the concept, but all the hubris and nonsense that’s been talked and written about them. At a personal level, it was as if 45 years of work was for nothing. All the research and study I and many others had done on what makes for successful learning online were totally ignored, with truly disastrous consequences in terms of effective learning for the vast majority of participants who took MOOCs from the Ivy League universities. Having ignored online learning for nearly 20 years, Stanford, MIT and Harvard had to re-invent online learning in their own image to maintain their perceived superiority in all things higher educational. And the media fell for it, hook, line and sinker. This is a battle I no longer want to fight – but it needs fighting. But my reaction did make me wonder, am I just an old man resisting the future? And that has definitely left a mark.

Lastly, I am concerned that the computer scientists seem to be taking over online education. Ivy League MOOCs are being driven mainly by computer scientists, not educators. Politicians are looking to computer science to automate learning in order to save money. Computer scientists have much to offer, but they need more humility and a greater willingness to work with other professionals, such as psychologists and teachers, who understand better how learning operates. This is a battle that has always existed in educational technology, but it’s one I fear the educators are losing. The result could be disastrous, but that’s a theme for a whole set of blog posts.

- See more at: http://www.tonybates.ca/2014/04/15/time-to-retire-from-online-learning/#sthash.uhGIDem0.dpuf

The Ambiguity of Twitter (140 Characters = No Context)

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I have said and written often how much I like Twitter for gathering information: it all comes to one place and I can tailor it (follow / unfollow) however I want. Sure, it can be hard to tame at times but I’m working on that.

Last night, though, I had my first experience of what I will call being Twittered (the pun with titter fully intended), which is the acceptance of false information (or the imposition of assumptions on true information whose truth becomes obscured because of those assumptions) because of the inevitable lack of context that 140 characters imposes.

As you all likely know, yesterday was the 1 year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. Boston (near which I live and work, though more the latter than the former) was abuzz with Marathon commemorations (and I did love Diane Williamson’s column here), both official and unofficial. So last night, when Twitter started buzzing with news of backpacks at the finish lines and detonations, I assumed (because I had no information to say otherwise) that this was some sort of commemoration, albeit somewhat morbid and eerie: perhaps newscasters were retweeting what they tweeted last year, or somehow recreating the day’s event as part of a more formal commemoration.

I find out this morning, of course, that in fact there were actual bags left at the marathon site last night and there was an actual (albeit precautionary) detonation. But with only 140 characters to go on, and no sense of what was actually happening beyond those 140 characters, plus the added context of the 1 year anniversary, it didn’t even occur to me that this could actually be happening.

So a cautionary Twitter tale. No one got hurt but an interesting phenomenon nonetheless.

Blended Week Book Interview Survey

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This is a bit later than I wanted it to be, but after the blended week book interviews I surveyed the class to try to get some sense of its effectiveness. I’ve pasted the results below. (And most of the questions were agreement scales, with 1 being strongly agree and 7 being strongly disagree.)

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I was pleasantly surprised by the results (allowing, of course, for a bit of less-than-honesty), largely because it seems that the goals of the project / approach were met. In previous years, when relying exclusively on the final project, I had much less of a sense of whether or not students read, or to what extent they read, and in fact assumed that few had read. The interviews, it seemed, encouraged students to read and were a more rewarding form of assessment to boot. Definitely something I’ll be continuing.

Blended Book Interviews

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I had written before about how I was going to use this week’s blended time to conduct book interviews with students about their outside read books. Those interviews have been this week and they have been great (mostly). Students schedule themselves in for 8ish minute meetings with me. They talk about where they are in the book and what has happened so far; I ask some follow-up questions and we go from there. Grading is based on how well they know the book / how specifically they can talk about the book. (Some students even brought notes, which I hadn’t thought of, but is certainly a good / valid idea; I even had one student bring only her (outside read) book and her notebook, which I assumed had notes in it; as it lay there closed, I told her that, if there were notes in it, she was welcome to use them, at which point she revealed about a page per chapter.)

I am constantly struck during the blended week how different students are one-on-one vs. in a classroom setting. I of course know this intellectually, but to see it in action is quite striking. Students that are silent and reticent in class become articulate and insightful one-on-one, for me one of the greatest benefits of this (ongoing) experiment.

As I was going through my first interviews, it struck me that a rubric might be worthwhile, i.e. a checklist of items for both me and the student to look for / go for. On the other hand, though, such a project is exactly the reason I am wary of rubrics. I have so enjoyed the organic nature of the conversations, and I’d be afraid that using a rubric would make them much more mechanical, i.e. students would become too beholden to the rubric and the conversation would lose a lot of its spontaneity / natural progression.

It also occurred to me that such an approach would work well for books that we read in class as well, that to incorporate such meetings, likely shorter individual meetings to avoid taking so much time, would be an excellent way to check in with students, not only in terms of comprehension / keeping up but also allowing them a forum within which they could ask questions or get help with specific things, especially for some of the more difficult books that we read (I’m thinking especially here of the Iliad).

So definitely a successful experiment and one that I look forward to continuing.

Twitter, the Mets, St. Patrick’s Day, and Stereotyping

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I’m always taken aback but some people’s visceral reaction to Twitter (both adults and students). It should surprise me too much, though, because I have a similarly visceral reaction to Facebook. My surprise, however, stems from my assumption (valid or not) that people view Twitter as somehow a negative-Facebook: Twitter Darth Vader vs. Facebook Luke Skywalker.

I love Twitter. Don’t worry. I’m not tweeting out what I had for lunch (PB&J) or how my weekend was (great; went skiing with the family yesterday); in fact, I rarely, if ever, tweet. Rather, Twitter for me, as it has I think for many (especially adults) has become my primary source of news and information (beyond the Daily Show and the Colbert Report). All of the things I’m interested in come to me via my Twitter feed.

So it was more out of curiosity than any inherent interest in the implications that I clicked on ESPN’s post about the Mets’ St. Patrick’s Day hats. A good friend of mine is a Mets fan and I figured she might like to see it (and, in fact, have one), and so I ended up on the Mets’ original post:

Immediate reaction to the image was predictably shallow (ugly, awful, good luck, etc.). But what became very interesting was how the discussion quickly turned to a (implicit; I’m not sure half the participants realized what they were doing) discussion on stereotyping (in the first image below, note especially the last line on all heritages):

Especially toward the end there, the discussion seemed to take a bit of a turn for the negative in tone, but even still a pretty interesting view into (if not explicit discussion of) stereotypes ensued.

As for stereotypes themselves, well, whether we want to admit it or not, there are certain stereotypes that are more accepted than others, largely because the target of the stereotypes doesn’t do anything on a systemic level to dispel them, i.e. individuals may have a problem with them but the group as a whole doesn’t band together to condemn them with a unified voice. The Asian and Jewish stereotypical images in the thread above would be roundly criticized by Asian and Jewish groups (as opposed to individuals), while the Irish (on an individual level) seem to be divided on the stereotype propagated on the Mets hat. Similar, I suspect, is the Italian mafia stereotype, one which I (as an Italian American) am not thrilled about but whose origin and propagation I understand and wouldn’t go to great lengths to protest or dispel.

Nonetheless, a pretty interesting discussion out of what I would guess was deemed a very innocent initiative and an even more innocent post.

Long(ish) Term Success from the Blended Experiment?

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Was at senior show (kind of a senior skit show / comedy show whose humor varies year to year; not bad this year) tonight and saw an alum from last year when I piloted the blended class (albeit with a class that was very difficult to manage). This particular student was about average for the group: certainly not an angel in class but not a ringleader either with a solid work ethic and solid skills. We talked for a few minutes about school and he commented that our class was ‘just like a college class’. At first I thought he meant a college class as we at Wayland use the term, i.e. a lower level class, i.e. how funny it was that the class was so out of control. What he meant, though (thankfully), was that his classes in college function just like our class, i.e. what we did in his class, especially with the blended approach, prepared him for how his college courses would function. And that of course was exactly the point of the blended experiment, to introduce to students the time management skills they would need in college in a more controlled and overseen environment than college. I’m glad to hear it (might have) worked. Thanks, JD.

GoogleTranslate Feature

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As a language teacher, I am clearly hesitant to acknowledge GoogleTranslate’s presence much less promote it but we were just shown the audio capabilities of it (which apparently work best in Chrome and might not work in others). In GoogleTranslate if you click the microphone at the bottom left of the text box will detect your speech and translate it into any language (which can then be played back as well). The accents were passable to good; the language was so-so. Spanish seemed right (seemed, though the accent sounded pretty good, even for an electronic voice), arabic I had no idea, and Latin was wrong (he was demoing, not I, though I requested the Latin).

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