I’ve recently completed a literature review on the topic of Massively Open Online Courses (and, more specifically, whether there is compelling data-based analytics that support the investment in such a platform). What has resulted from my initial review is a curious new learning theory: connectivism, devised by Siemen and Downes, which supports the use of MOOCs from a theoretical standpoint.  Here is an excerpt from my review:

Initial keyword searches of “MOOC” both on the web and within academic journal search engines revealed a consistent theoretical framework behind the MOOC: connectivism. In fact, Clarà and Barberà (2013) revealed that some in the field have begun to classify two types of MOOCs: cMOOC (or connectivist MOOC) and xMOOC (other types). The xMOOC doesn’t necessarily use a particular pedagogical strategy, although Clarà and Barberà found that a behaviorist approach is normal in those “non-connectivist” MOOCs.

Why identify connectivism beyond the three most widely-recognized pedagogical concepts of constructivism, behaviorism, and cognitivism? Siemens and Downes (as cited in Clarà and Barberà) rationalize that traditionally, knowledge is a thing; that is, a representation of what a person can create or appropriate. Web 2.0 and associated technologies create a multiplicity of perspectives and therefore do not mesh with the thingness of knowledge. Siemens and Downes, in response, proposed a new learning theory: connectivism. Connectivism demonstrates the following two key concepts in digital learning (Clarà & Barberà, 2013):

  1. “…Knowledge is subsymbolic, and that representations are just epiphenomena of knowledge, but not its matter.” In other words, knowledge is a representation of the recognition of association of patterns.
  2.  “These neuronal associative patterns are caused by the learner’s recognition of associative patterns between informational entities (named nodes) located outside the learner and organized in a network. In the Web 2.0 environment, the nodes would be people, materials, and tools that the learner connects to.”

Mackness, Mak, and Williams (2010) studied the Connectivism and Connected Knowledge course offered by Siemens and reported the participants’ reactions, especially with regard to the concept of connectivism. They wrote, “…participants [experienced] the principles of connectivism – autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness in practice. Our findings suggest that these might all be achievable in a complex learning network, but in a course (as opposed to a network), particularly a massive open online course, they can be compromised.” What’s especially relevant about this connectivism study is that it took participant feedback and compared it to successful outcomes in the course itself.

Although the course was specifically tackling the topic of connectivism, because Mackness, Mak and Williams equated connectivism with MOOCs, the results are some of the few and far between evidence-based dialogues on the subject. “It may be true that all learning begins with a connection, but connectivity itself is not a sufficient condition for connectedness or interactivity,” they found.

Clarà and Barberà (2013), meanwhile, dispute the psychological underpinnings of connectivism. They posit that the theory itself is a learning paradox: how does one recognize a pattern if one doesn’t know there is a pattern to be recognized? If one does recognize the pattern, how should he or she know the significance of the pattern? Practically, without leadership and direction, students without the ability to self-regulate at an advanced level feel lost.

Secondly, they propose, the node theory of connecting with another human being is not a binary on-off switch. Rather, building of relationships is a fluid concept that grows (and wanes) as a dynamic process. The authors characterize this fault as underconceptualization of relationships and connections.

Finally, Clara and Barbera claim that connectivism doesn’t explain concept development. As with connecting nodes, learners do not understand concepts as a binary: learning psychology for decades has supported continued growth of the understanding of a concept. A 12-year-old does not understand a concept the same way that he or she did at age four. In the twentieth century, associationism was abandoned for this very reason (in the Vygotskian tradition of cultural psychology).

Even with their critique of connectivism as a theory, Clarà and Barberà don’t call for the abandonment of MOOCs entirely. They urge that a new and adequate pedagogy be developed for xMOOCs.

Connectivism is not without its champions. Rodriguez (2012) characterizes one of the case studies of a cMOOC as a success (although surreptitiously quoting Siemens, the thought-leader behind connectivism, is not terribly convincing). With a lower drop-out rate compared to the Stanford-style courses and a peer model, Rodriguez concludes that though the experience for participants was different, it was still valuable.


Clarà, M., & Barberà, E. (2013). Learning online: Massive open online courses (MOOCs), connectivism, and cultural psychology. Distance Education, 34(1), 129-136. doi:10.1080/01587919.2013.770428

Mackness, J., Mak, S., & Williams, R. (2010). The ideals and reality of participating in a MOOC. Paper presented at the Seventh International Conference on Networked Learning, Aalborg, Denmark. Retrieved from website: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2010/abstracts/PDFs/Mackness.pdf

Rodriguez, C. (2012). MOOCs and the AI-Stanford like courses: Two successful and distinct course formats for massive open online courses. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 23(1). Retrieved from website: http://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2012/Rodriguez.pdf

(This post was originally written in the College of Western Idaho’s Virtual Campus Newsletter, March 2013.  It provides help and resources for online instructors.)

What is a video lecture?

A video lecture is a digital lecture you post on your Blackboard site.  It is different than your standard PowerPoint presentation.  It can include:

  • Video/audio of the instructor with accompanying content (like slides)
  • Instructor demonstrating a process, such as recording a welding technique
  • Presentation that covers multiple subjects with intentional breaks and practice quizzes embedded

There is no “one way” to accomplish this.  It’s a creative process and depends entirely on your subject matter.  For example, a Math lecture may look like this, while a Diesel Mechanic tutorial looks like this.

Why should I use it?

In a word: presence.  Instructor presence is critical to building a connection with your students.  In addition, if you create easy-to-follow multimedia presentations with a comfortable interface, your students will have access to material throughout the semester that they can easily refer back to.

Students don’t always learn from simply reading.  They also don’t learn from a 45-minute long video with an instructor talking straight into the camera.  They need the same demonstration and practice opportunities they would receive in a face-to-face lecture.

How do I do it?

We recommend starting small.  You can start by adding audio to your PowerPoint presentations and setting them to auto-run, or giving short introductions recorded on a webcam at the beginning of each new unit.

You can use Camtasia or record your Collaborate sessions, too.  There are a lot of options available!

There are two distinct environments where mobile testing gets consistently brought up by organizational leadership: academic and non-profit/business.  In this article I’ll explore the pros and cons of both.  But first, what is mobile testing?

Mobile testing can broadly be defined as any electronic assessment performed on a non-traditional, mobile computing device.  At this point in the mobile lifecycle, I might also add that mobile testing is new and not particularly vetted.  Yet due to “mobile” being the L&D modalité du jour it’s not uncommon to for one manager or another to pop into the training office and ask about iPads.  It’s even more apparent in academia, where getting an institution’s name in the paper often has images of kids tapping and swiping away on a tablet.

Assessment Types

Assessment doesn’t have to mean test in the traditional sense.  Of course an assessment can be multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, etc. where the test-taker sits and answers questions with or without resource materials.  This type of information memorization has its place in certain disciplines.  But what about active assessment?  Consider assessing groups of participants on a large project or having a participant demonstrate knowledge by performing an action.  This is where mobile fits in.

Where Mobile Fails

As of this writing, the two types of devices usually defined as mobile are the tablet and smartphone.  Now, not all tablets are created equally, and many perform identical functions as a desktop computer (like the Windows Surface).  But for standard tests on standard mobile devices, the following are concerns:

  • Many testing platforms use Flash, which most mobile devices cannot access.
  • Smartphones, and to a lesser extent, tablets, are typically used in public areas.  That means wireless access can be unreliable and spotty.  Or, using a 4G cellular connection can pull huge amounts of data.
  • The screens are much smaller and difficult to read.  Analyzing an image, typing a response or tapping a hotspot could be problematic.
  • Being in a public area may mean breaks in concentration.  (The sound of steaming lattes breaks mine, at least.)

Mobile Opportunities

Think about the second assessment type I outlined above.  Mobile is perfect for demonstration and active assessment.

  • Employees can take a live tour of a facility and demonstrate understanding of processes by taking pictures of correct objects.
  • Groups could produce an easy Prezi with sound and video and let users tap and swipe to explore.
  • In a machine shop with stations, students watch a demonstration video of a procedure.  Then, students record themselves on the device performing the same procedure for review.

A mobile device is not just a mobile computer.  As with any modality, tools should make sense for the learning activity.

Francisco Dao writes, “If you listen to the advocates of online learning, MOOCs and Internet-based courses will cure all of our education problems. Just hand out some Android tablets, stream some courses in Python, and sit back and watch as everyone magically becomes a highly productive knowledge worker propelling the United States to new heights of economic prosperity. But this vision of online learning is so ridiculous I’m waiting for Ricardo Montalban to show up in a white suit and welcome these people to Fantasy Island.”

I have no idea what wretched organization he’s referring to, or what e-learning professional would ever recommend handing out toys and expect results. 

I’ve written time and time again the critical need for, at the very least, the ADDIE model when considering any new learning initiative (academic or industry).  There is an incredible level of upfront analysis that Dao seems to have never experienced.  The modality of instruction is merely one of the questions an e-learning practitioner considers when designing and developing instruction – and any practitioner who only sees the bells and whistles of a tablet PC is in the wrong field.

Thanks to my former colleague Ben Miller for tweeting this article.  You can look at the original article from The New York Times here.

There is trouble with online college, certainly, and as a relatively new method of education (including fully-online degrees), there are significant obstacles through which the education community needs to break.   It’s not had the pedagogical study that decades of face-to-face, traditional university settings have had.  And pedagogical methods are changing as rapidly as the latest iPad lands in a freshman dorm.  So let’s take a look at where the NYT oversimplifies and misses the mark on its criticism of online college.

By opening with Stanford’s much-lauded Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), it fails to distinguish the significant differences between those low-risk courses and enrolling in an online course as a fee-paying student.  90% attrition isn’t surprising, considering:

  • Students enrolled in a MOOC have very little incentive to succeed; there is no “punishment” like a poor grade, being forced to repeat a course, or pay back financial aid.
  • Rarely do students enroll in a MOOC for anything other than professional development or personal interest.
  • Many hiring, employment, and business experts discourage including non-credit courses on a resume.

Don’t get me wrong – I love TED as much as the next gal.  But I wouldn’t consider myself a “student” when I’m watching an instructional video or free lecture.

Let’s turn to actual, high-stakes online courses.  The article goes on to rightly point out the serious barriers that factor into being a true online student.  “The research has shown over and over again that community college students who enroll in online courses are significantly more likely to fail or withdraw than those in traditional classes, which means that they spend hard-earned tuition dollars and get nothing in return. Worse still, low-performing students who may be just barely hanging on in traditional classes tend to fall even further behind in online courses.”

These retention figures are a norm across the country.  But universities and small community colleges have tools and research to institute policies and help students achieve.  Students who can simply sign up for an online class, get an instructor who is not prepared for the online environment, and fail because they lack technological capabilities is a tragedy.  At a minimum, all online programs should offer the following basics:

  • Rigorous frontloading and required training for faculty who want to teach online.  An instructor should go through a comprehensive training program that includes practice, mentoring, and, if unsuccessful, should not be allowed to teach online.
  • Restriction on enrollment for students who lack online skills.  These skills could be tested in an assessment center prior to enrollment.  It should test advanced technical skills; time management; and understanding of differences between online and face-to-face environments as starting points.  Further, students should be required to have a modern, well-functioning computer with several “back-ups” in case of hardware failure (such as the library).  Equipment failure is not an option for the online student.
  • Continuing education and development for both faculty and students as technology changes.

Instructors should be trained on the concept of online presence.  Managing students through weekly e-mails isn’t enough.  Video, VoIP, imagery, discussion boards, and journals are all simple and easy-to-use tools that move the instructor away from an anonymous facilitator and back into the role of professor.  (And this just scratches the surface in terms of what instructors should and should not be doing to instruct a successful online course).

Certainly, online courses are a cash cow for many institutions (especially the for-profits who pre-package dry course material that can be cycled through dozens of instructors without changing).  The initial expense of training instructors and preparing students for the online environment would be easily overcome with a highly successful online program that attracts students globally.  What it takes is significant planning, analysis, and administrative support – which not all colleges are, unfortunately, willing to do.

Check out my old friend Dustin Verburg’s piece on Teaching Social Media.  You can find the blog post here.

I’ve very recently moved from private industry instructional design to higher education.  So to give you an idea of what we’re up against, take a look at this fact sheet from Educause Center for Applied Research: http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS1208/EIG1208.pdf

By Kevin Taylor

This is something I have been pondering since I accepted a position at Temple University. As a student, I was never really attuned to Boise State University’s administration. It was always there in the background, helped me register for classes a few times, but for the most part they were the invisible hand behind my academic experience. After being the member of the administration at a nationally ranked university, I can see the wizardry conducted behind the curtain. What I see are a large number of very talented and hardworking people trying adapting to an ever-changing and evolving landscape. There are many struggles facing higher education; increased tuition costs, a dire tax situation, and student loan mechanisms that are commonly seen as broken and misaligned. There are some problems the university can’t fix, but there are other challenges that it can.

Process Design

One of the biggest areas of improvement I can see is process design. Universities are notoriously siloed, and oftentimes what occurs on a functional team doesn’t always align with the goal of a cross functional process. Identifying critical processes around fundraising, admissions, financial aid, housing, and scheduling could help find much-needed efficiencies. The ability to reliably conduct university operations in a manner consistent with Lean, Six Sigma, and TQM best practices could yield tremendous gains and reduced costs for universities with savings that could be used to help expand services, create jobs, and invest in university talent.

Knowledge Management

When processes and procedures change and evolve, there needs to be documentation. “Why do we need to document stuff?” you might hear stakeholders ask, secretly terrified that a loss of transparency in their work may result a loss of control or employment. What I find so funny about this is that it’s typically very difficult to get released from a university. There are ways that this happens, but even poor performance is not usually enough to get you dismissed. However, there is turn over, promotions, and the lucky ones get to retire to a tropical island to enjoy tasty drinks with little umbrellas. This means that all the knowledge they have about their processes, procedures, and where “the bodies are buried” leaves with them, and others must reinvent the wheel. Instilling a culture of knowledge management, providing tools and the training to use them (e.g., in-house wikis, Microsoft OneNote, etc.) and re-enforcing this culture through including knowledge management in job descriptions is critical.

Leadership Development

Process Design and Knowledge Management are business disciplines that require a high degree of leadership to help cut across the silos, agendas, and administrative fiefdoms common higher education. According to Wikipedia, Sayre’s Law states, “In any dispute[,] the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” Wallace Stanley Sayre, former political science professor of Columbia University, also added that, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics because the stakes are so low.” Now, while not all university leaders fall prey to this trap, there are some that do. Personality politics, personal agendas, and other sources of organizational toxicity notwithstanding, there are some truly brilliant leaders in academia that would benefit from leadership development in the form of meeting facilitation skills, project management (in all its various forms), employee engagement, and so on. Without the basic self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and organizational best practices needed to support the first two opportunities, it’s just going to be business as usual.

How Can Instructional & Performance Technologists Help?

The value we can add as Instructional & Performance Technologists is threefold. First, we can help leaders identify opportunities for organizational performance improvement by conducting the qualitative research needed to identify issues at the ground level. We are good at talking, listening, and putting together the puzzle pieces to help identify the current state and help leaders articulate a clear future state. Second, we have the ability to help articulate the Knowledge Management strategy and professional development plans needed by the organization. With Knowledge Management (including the more grass-roots variety), there needs to be a formal training program to support new talent. Finally, we are in a position to build the leadership development programs needed to support these first two components. Pulling these three components together, higher education has the opportunity to excel at what they have done since time immemorial, work to make the world a better place to work, live, and play.

 KeviKevin Taylorn is a Training and Performance Improvement professional in the Philadelphia area.  He can be reached on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/kct1981.

Couldn’t help but share this – visualizing mLearning’s future with a chuckle!

The Future of Mobile Learining

I stumbled across this blog from a retweet.

I’ll admit, I thought the whole mobile thing was going to be a passing fad. I didn’t even have a cell phone in high school, nor did I start texting until after college. (My 17-year-old niece probably thinks I’m a dinosaur.) It wasn’t too long ago that I picked up an iPad and an iPhone, and the designer in me became enamored with the possibilities.

The universities in this blog piece were focusing more on small steps to move into the mobile sphere. Accessing courses and grades on your phone and mobile newspapers are definitely innovative. But what Bangladesh Open University is doing is phenomenal: “One method utilized in its classrooms blends SMS with TV and/or radio for a multimedia experience encouraging digital discussion while soaking up recorded lessons.”

More and more universities are realizing the benefits of moving classes online. These 10 universities have demonstrated the value of adding mobile into the mix.


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