Distance Learning Is Getting Closer to Home

distance learnerAccording to the report from Learning House released in May, two-thirds of online undergrads were taking online classes less than 50 miles from a campus of the school where they enrolled.

This probably surprises many educators. In the early days of online learning, one of the big attractions of online courses was that it gave access to students at a distance from institutions. We called it distance learning back in the day for just that reason. At my university, we often talked about those students we had in a course who were across the country or aboard a Navy ship on the other side of the world.

That changed over the years and the trend became to offer our own commuter and residents students online courses. The convenience wasn't about the distance from campus but about the convenience of anytime learning. A generation used to time-shifting their viewing habits on TV by VHS tapes and later DVRs was primed for doing the same for education. Video-on-demand (VOD) and education-on-demand (EOD?).

In the report, they found that 45% of the students studied online within 25 miles of campus - which is not a terrible commute. 78% of the online students were enrolled at a school with a campus within 100 miles. The old distant student that lived more than 250 miles from their campus accounted for only 8% of the respondents.

Learning House is a company that partners with schools to market and manage online programs, so analytics on why students select what they select is important to their business model. Obviously, local media is more important to marketing online programs than national ads.

The reasons respondents gave for selecting an online program are not surprising: things related to ease and pace of study, such as year-round courses, frequent start dates, self-paced courses and accelerated courses. Of course, tuition and fees is always a factor.

The surprises in the report come more from the results around distance. Besides the reasons given above, why would students take online courses from a school that offered them face-to-face nearby? The survey found that 76% visit their campus at least once a year, and 45% do so three or more times per year. Why? The top reason was to meet face-to-face with a teacher (40%) but also to use a library or lab or meet with a study group. Not exactly a hybrid course, but touching upon some of those features. Students seem to want those options along with the online features.

The "anywhere, anytime" learning model still works, but the appeal of the big name university across the country may not be as appealing as we once believed. This is also something we see with MOOCs. The appeal of free courses from major universities online is still with us, but many students still feel negatively "distanced" from the instructor and their fellow students with any online learning experience. But in a course with 20 other students is not as distanced as one with 20,000 students.



Online Learning Is Not All in English

globeAmericans are rather well known for being American-centric. President Trump's "America First" speeches make that clear. Despite what Copernicus pointed out, we tend to think we are the center of the universe. This also tends to be true when it comes to MOOCs.

MOOCs from outside the United States don't get the same amount of attention as ones from within. I started a group on LinkedIn back in 2012 when I was offering a meta-MOOC on their rising use in academia. That group over the years has been much more international and broadened the discussions to online learning in general. 

Of course, even an American MOOC taught from Stanford is international in its participants. I try to take note of international courses and efforts.

Globally about 75% of all MOOCs are offered in English. Translating MOOCs taught in English to other languages can increase participant enrollment and disperse course knowledge to non-English language learners. However, it takes a significant amount of time and resources to translate text from English into another language, and then manually replace the translated text in the targeted language.

"China's higher education is facing problems, such as traditional teaching approaches, content and the quality of teachers not meeting student demand in the new era," said Zhan Dechen, a professor at Harbin Institute of Technology. Could MOOCs could be a solution to those problems? More MOOCs in China creates its own set of challenges.

The Online Education Development Office (OEDO) in Japan has trained teaching assistants who support faculty members in all aspects of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and Small Private Online Course (SPOC) planning, production and course running as well as assistance with copyright issues. They offer a MOOC Development Toolkit which include Microsoft Excel and Python scripts to speed up the translation process in Open edX Studio. OEDO developed a Content Modification Tool that replaces English text with translated Japanese text in a localized version of Stanford University's MOOC on “Creating Effective Online and Blended Courses”, for Japanese faculty/staff development.course development in edX Studio.   

Still, that 75% of MOOCs in English have international appeal, translated or not. Google launched a MOOC to train entry-Level IT Support Staffers. It was intended for use with Americans. Before Google created its certificate program through Coursera, Google training programs designed to help low-income young adults get into the information technology industry by learning the fundamentals of tech support were being offered. Through its work with a relatively small number of learners who participated in Google internships or an IT residency program, the company discovered it could get them qualified very quickly. This is the type of course that if it was a truly MOpenOC, and translated, it could be offered for a much more global audience.

Learning How to Learn Online

learnI have been reading about some of the sessions at the International Conference on E-Learning in the Workplace (ICELW) that occurred this month at Columbia University. 

One keynoter was Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester. She is known for her course "Learning How to Learn," which is sometimes described as being "the world’s most popular MOOC." It has had more than 2 million participants. There may be MOOCs with more participants, but her course has been translated into multiple languages and had some serious media attention. It is a broader kind of course and not really aimed at a college audience alone. It fits into a workplace focused conference and lifelong learning. It is described as a course that “gives you easy access to the invaluable learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, math, science, sports, and many other disciplines” to learn.

I haven't taken this course, but I plan to this summer. From what I have read, many of the concepts are ones I know from my own teaching and education courses. For example, “how the brain uses two very different learning modes and how it encapsulates (“chunks”) information.” That is something I learning a long time ago in teaching secondary school, and also used extensively in doing instructional design on other professors' courses as they moved online.

I was more interested in knowing what her "secrets" would be for building and teaching that MOOC. I haven't seen any video from the conference, but here are some bits I have found about her session.  

She uses the "Learning How to Learn" principles of learning that are being taught in the course in the design of the course. She is not adverse to PowerPoint slides but uses simple visuals to chunk key ideas.

Oakley emphasized the impact of integrating lessons from neuroscience. One of those is neuro reuse theory. The theory was a way to explain the underlying neural processes which allow humans to acquire recently invented cognitive capacities. It attempts to explain how the brain responds to new cognitive processes - think of many of our digital encounters - which are cultural inventions too modern to be the products of evolution. Simple application is her use of metaphors (a key element of neural reuse theory) because they allow students to a quick way to encounter new ideas. 

She emphasizes paying attention to production values in creating a course. She did her course production herself at home and says the cost was $5000. I assume that was for software, video hardware etc. Many schools now have production facilities for online course development. 

Bottom-up (as opposed to top-down) attentional mechanisms are a theory from neuroscience that she uses to keep attention on the screen.  Bottom-up mechanisms are thought to operate on raw sensory input, rapidly and
involuntarily shifting attention
to salient visual features of potential importance. Think of the sudden movement that could be a predator. Top-down mechanisms implement our longer-term cognitive strategies, biasing attention toward something like a learned shape or color that signals a predator.

This is a more complex topic than can be covered in a blog post but it is easy to accept that the brain is limited in its capacity to process all sensory stimuli in our sensory-overload physical world. The brain relies on the cognitive process of attention to focus neural resources according to the contingencies of the moment. You can attention into two functions. Bottom-up attention is attention guided by externally driven factors to stimuli. That could be the bright colored popup ad on a screen. Instructional designers can make use of techniques that marketers and game designers have long used. Top-down attention refers to internal guidance of attention based on factors such as prior knowledge and current goals. The overall organizational structure of a course - weekly elements, labels, icons - can take advantage of top-down attention.

She recommended the use of "unexpected humor" to help maintain interest, which can also be a bottom-up technique.

Wherever practicable, theory is instantiated with examples drawn from personal stories.

Overall, this is all about trying harder to engage learners. Oakley pointed out that in a MOOC learners aren’t "caged up like students on campus." MOOC learners are free-range learners - free to come and go, free to stop paying attention or attending class - and if course production values are weak, students are more likely to tune out.

In designing and teaching an online course in the traditional college/tuition/credit/degree situation, we do have students caged more, but that doesn't mean their brains operate differently.

One of Oakley's earlier books is A Mind for Numbers with the subtitle How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and her new book this summer is Learning How to Learn whose subtitle is How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens. Those subtitles remind me that these book and the topics they address are lifelong learning concerns, though certainly of interest to K-20 teachers.

I am planning to take her course this summer before I embark on a new course design project. See coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn I'll follow up on this post when I finish. If I finish. If I don't finish, I guess I'll make some analysis of why - was it me or the course?

MOOCs Are Still a Solution

A recent opinion piece headlined "Moocs are a solution in search of a problem" by Chris Fellingham, who is strategy and research manager at FutureLearn, got a response from true MOOC pioneer Stephen Downes. 

Downes writes:

According to Chris Fellingham, MOOCs " arose from the boredom of Stanford University computer science professors fed up with teaching the same lectures each year. Out of idle curiosity, they wanted to see what would happen if they dumped their courses, lectures and all, online for anyone to take." According to this story, MOOCs then searched for a problem to solve - providing new skills to university graduates, say, or offering new kinds of certificates. None of that is my experience, nor is it even true outside the narrow bounds of Coursera and Udacity. MOOCs were created in order top provide access to learning using open educational resources, modeling the connectivist philosophy George Siemens and I had been working on for a number of years. The problem of access is real. It exists because the people writing in places like Times Higher Education do not consider access to be a problem at all.

MOOCFellingham's main premise is that since "A common question to start-up founders is: 'What problem does this solve?'” Then, MOOCs are a solution in want of a problem.

As Downes counters, the MOOC did not emerge initially "from the boredom of Stanford University computer science professors fed up with teaching the same lectures each year." Those Stanford courses came later, but did get a lot more attention in the media than the earlier MOOCs.

One problem that MOOCs can still help solve is access to learning. The "democratizing of knowledge" may sound lofty, but it is real. The Internet itself allowed for this in an informal learning way, but a MOOC is a much more formal approach - and an important one.

That first "O" in a Massive Open Online Course has taken a beating in the years since those first MOOCs. I would say that the majority of courses labeled as MOOCs today (such as those in Coursera and other large providers) are still massive online courses, but they are not open.

As Coursera, edX, Udacity and Fellingham's own FutureLearn make more connections and deals with universities in order to have a business model, their course become less open in the true OER sense.

Luckily, many of these courses are still free when taken without credit concerns. But free in cost is just one aspect of OPEN Educational resources.

I don't have issues with providers wanting to make a profit with their courses. But I am concerned with 1) those courses being called MOOCs when they are MOCs, and 2) that I am seeing fewer truly open courses being offered by large universities and the biggest providers.

Alternative certifications and degrees, such as MicroMasters and nanodegrees, have a place in higher ed and they owe much to the MOOC rEvolution.  

New online education companies keep appearing. No connections to a university, but possibly connections with employers also have a place in providing specific training in what employers want - which educators have sadly discovered is often not what they teach.

Many of the problems in education and in online education from a decade ago still exist. The solutions are still evolving.

Two More MOOCs I Didn't Complete. And I'm Okay With That.

MOOCThough we hear a lot less about Massive Open Online Courses now than we did five years ago, demand for online courses is still growing. In 2015, the global market for online learning was said to be about $107 billion and in 2017, this market was said to have grown to $255 billion. If those numbers are correct, that is more than 200% growth.

Those numbers certainly have attracted companies to create and sell online courses. But I still find many articles that say the completion rate for courses remains low - about 15%. HarvardX and MITx recently reported that only 5.5% of people who enroll in one of their open online courses earn a certificate.

How can we explain this disconnect between demand for courses and the number of people who actually complete the course whether it is free or for a fee? I would go back to some of my MOOC posts since 2012. People often take a MOOC with no intention to finish all the work or the course. They come into the course to get certain content. That is not a model traditional schools or instructors know. It is also a new model for learners. take what you need, and leave.

My own most recent MOOC experiences fit into the non-completion category.  I took the course from HarvardX (edX) on "Buddhism Through Its Scriptures."  I am not new to the study of religion or Buddhism, but I am not really familiar with Buddhist scriptures. I took this free course (no credit/certificate, though that is offered) because of an intellectual curiosity. The course has readings, both scriptural and informational. There are video lectures. There are discussions. There are even quizzes to check and perhaps stop you along the way to prevent you somewhat from just clicking your way through the content.

The other MOOC I enrolled in simultaneously is "Compassionate Leadership Through Service Learning with Jane Goodall and Roots & Shoots" offered through Coursera. This is an action-oriented online teacher professional development course. It is not as passive as many online courses and requires participants to identify and implement a local service-learning campaign. All of this uses the Roots & Shoots program model associated with Jane Goodall, who is one of my personal heroes.

I should not enroll in two courses at once. I just can't commit the time. Though I was interested in the service learning curriculum from an educator point of view, I did not have any plan to implement a campaign. 

I learned about the Roots and Shoots model, gathered some teacher resources, learned the differences between service-learning and community service, and understand what is meant by a compassionate leader. many of the skills apply to other projects I work on, especially in my volunteer work.I mentor young people and some of that is about try to create change in the community, so learning about using community mapping, collaborating with stakeholders, and designing practical campaigns are all useful. 

Did I learn from the two courses? Yes. Will I apply that learning to my personal and work lives? Yes. Did I complete the courses? No. Do I consider this a failure of the course or myself? No. 

One of the battle cries during the rise of the MOOC was to democratize online learning. I believe that has happened. The number of free and inexpensive online courses available to learners worldwide is massive. There might even be too many courses - part of the online information overload of blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, ebooks, webinars, and websites.

Our way of measuring student success across different platforms and educational settings need to change. A better question to ask a MOOC learner at the end of the course is whether the course met their needs. 

I don't know if the "freemium" model of the MicroMasters programs offered on edX will be part of a new way of selecting courses and a program. They allow someone to start in a lower-cost online course and then apply for an in-person semester-long graduate program if they make it through the online portion. The MOOC-that's-not-a-MOOC is a kind of test drive.

There are many interesting approaches to online learning, certification, accreditation and tuition that are changing higher education. The MOOC movement initiated many of these projects - but they are NOT MOOCs. Keep that in mind.