Archive for December, 2014

What is authentic learning in a digital environment?

We don’t really know. Nobody does. Yet.

Despite the many answers that are lighting up the Twitterboard — mostly with endorsements of commercial learning “suites” — surveys, studies and news accounts are telling us that the online education industry is simply too young and too inexperienced to have come up with a fail-safe system for educating students from kindergarten through college.

To appreciate the complexity involved in answering what makes for authentic learning in a digital environment, let’s look at a list of the major online delivery models (courtesy of Phil Hill, executive vice president at Delta Initiative). Among these are:

+ Ad hoc online programs assembled by individual teachers.

+ Fully online programs designed for for-profit organizations, such as the University of Phoenix, and online-only courses designed by non-profits, such as Rio Salado College.

+ School-as-a-Service companies that develop curriculum and online tools. Our competitor Pearson is an example.

+ Corporate-Academic partnerships, such as the Cisco Networking Academy, that deliver curriculum, technology platforms and program assessment tools.

+ Competency-Based Education that emphasizes educational outcomes over grades. An example: Western Governors University, which confers certification on students who have “demonstrated learning outcomes.”

+ Blended/Hybrid Courses and the Flipped Classroom, which offer online and face-to-face class instruction where students listen to lectures online and do homework in the classroom. The Khan Academy might have spearheaded this approach by posting bite-sized tutorials on YouTube that let viewers learn K-12 math at their own pace and then spend more one-on-one time with their teacher.

+ Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the system whose technology enables students — in the hundreds of thousands — to log on and take courses with high-profile faculty who design and lead courses. The best known examples include Stanford University-based Coursera and Udacity, and edX, founded by Harvard and MIT.

The makers of online learning products may not know exactly what constitutes authentic online learning, but they are producing them for a variety of learning platforms nonetheless. In addition to getting a jump on the market, what else does the proliferation of these online models signify?

First, online learning is new. For all intents and purposes, it’s only as old as the Web, and no single system, pedagogically or technically speaking, can claim bragging rights. Even a MOOC maker, which looked to be a celebrity winner, recently pulled the plug on an online course that had attracted some 40,000 registrants. A blog headline on The Hechinger Report, an independently funded project of Teachers College, Columbia University, summed up that particular experience: “My first MOOC: Online class about how to create online classes failed miserably.” The moral of the story: If you rush pedagogy into a bad marriage with technology, you’re going to end up in divorce court with your students.

Second, data pointing to the efficacy of online learning is in short supply. That’s not to say that organizations, such as the Babson Survey Research Group, are silent on many of the essential questions about the online experience. Survey authors are getting answers from “chief academic leaders” about their commitment to online learning, the perceived workload involved in teaching online, and the kind of schools that choose one digital experience over another. The most important questions, however, remain unanswered: “What online learning system actually works? For whom? How and why?”

Third, all of the players in the online learning ecosystem are still experimenting. And that’s a good thing. They know that fanfare over the latest scalable technology is not the same as a pedagogical victory. We won’t know who the real winners are until that excellent digital environment comes into existence.

That’s sort of a meta assertion — that we’ll know it when we see it. But we will know a good system when we can evaluate what happens when a student engages with online educational content. For this we will need to establish metrics and then evaluate them in light of the relevant data we can collect. That data probably won’t come until digital textbook publishers, cognitive scientists, classroom teachers and software developers build out the online environment.

Should McGraw Hill just wait for the digital environment to evolve into something seamless and interoperable? The harsh reality is that companies that do not keep up with technology simply become society’s vestigial organs — if they survive at all.

Admittedly, we were prudent when we entered the digital learning marketplace. We went after the low hanging fruit — homework management and lecture capture, to name just two of the tactical issues we addressed with our Connect and Tegrity tools. With 125 years of institutional memory, we have been alert to the snares that await an enterprise that sets out on a fishing expedition instead of a clearly mapped trail. As we wrote in our post about the Impenetrable Forest of Doom, we did not want to create pedagogical tools and content without knowing what works — and without knowing how to reach a vast, distributed customer base with diverse educational needs. When the online learning data are in, we will move forward knowledgeably to integrate Connect, Tegrity and our other educational aids into good online learning systems.

We made the right decision at the time. But that was then and this is now.

We cannot wait around for others to develop the pedagogy and tools in harmony with an online environment. We have a blueprint in mind that shows how good content plus a reliable business model can speed the advent of effective online learning.

For now, let’s just say, it’s in the Cards.

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How to enter the Impenetrable Forest of Doom and live to tell about it

When it comes to education, every new year brings out the forecaster in us. In case you haven’t heard, this is the year of the massively open online course, the MOOC. It’s also the year of the iPad educational app. And it’s also the year of gamefication.

You almost have to envy the ancient Greek Erythraean Sibyl. All she had to do was decipher an acrostic in a set of oak leaves to predict the divine parentage of Alexander the Great. Education seers today are learning that their predictions increasingly depend on a more complex oracle known as “big data” — a collection of metrics so information-rich that it requires cognitive computing systems to analyze it. But if we prognosticators speak without understanding how students make decisions, memorize, pay attention and engage in many other individual and interactive learning behaviors, we will be hard-pressed to predict with any accuracy what pedagogies and technologies will bring about the desired result — whatever that may be.

Lest you throw your hands up at the hugeness of our prediction conundrum, we want to mention what we already know about the very near future of the education marketplace, or, as we call it, the Impenetrable Forest of Doom.

Like many of us, we grew up loving video games.  The Legend of Zelda was a big favorite. Like all the games we got obsessed with, winning meant entering into a fantastical world, overcoming obstacles and attacks, liberating an unfairly imprisoned royal and bringing order to a chaotic universe. This gaming paradigm is more or less the one we turn to whenever we talk about conquering the equally labyrinthine education “ecosystem” — a world every bit as formidable as Zelda’s.

As with Zelda’s world, the education ecosystem is made up of many disparate constituencies and topographies. The customers for our textbooks and learning systems are spread across the immense Impenetrable Forest of Doom — “IFOD” — in K-12, colleges and universities. Most of the ivies and quite a few state schools are “Level 1” in difficulty to reach. Meaning, textbook publishers know who they are. In fact, publishers see them as low-hanging fruit. But what about the schools in Paragould, Arkansas, and Victorville, California, “settlements” deep in the interior of IFOD? If you are a textbook publisher and you do not have a sales force in the hundreds, if not thousands, you are only circling the perimeter of IFOD — and leaving innumerable opportunities unseized.

So, the first problem the education entrepreneur encounters is distribution. Even if you have a pretty good idea of who constitutes your customer base — and that’s a big “if” — can you afford to send your sales force out to meet with everyone in it?

At least two problems can arise when you have this kind of spotty customer base:

+ You are reluctant to make intellectual and capital investments in a product with a profit margin that remains relatively small because you can’t actually sell enough of your product. Moreover, you can’t modify it to satisfy the unique requirements defined by fifty different state educational systems.

+ You produce products that do not address core education issues but opt instead to create generic training programs common to large organizations. Instead of developing content that teaches students how to write computer code, interpret “Huckleberry Finn,” and solve problems in English, history, math and physics, you sell programs that train employees to avoid sexual harassment or to use their 401K plans. At best you are able to sell productivity tools to school systems that automate the rote tasks associated with teaching math and science.

McGraw Hill has several popular products that fall into this latter category. For teachers a tool like Connect reduces the amount of unproductive time spent grading tests or worksheets. For students a tool like LearnSmart aids in memorizing mathematical formulas or foreign languages. For teachers and students, Tegrity records lectures and make them available online for curriculum enhancement and self-paced learning. All of these tools are built at great cost and address tactical issues. And they fall short of employing technology as we dream it might be used: To help students learn how to live and work in a world with an infinite number of urgent problems waiting to be solved. Producing an online learning curriculum involves bringing together good content, effective pedagogy and a seamless technology in a way that does not now exist at any scale.

As they say in Maine, “How do we get there from here?”

Part of the answer lies in offering content developers an open platform where they can create education applications that work with everything: Your iPad, iPhone, Android device, laptop and any other digital devices you own. An open software system, which would let developers write code that other developers could modify, would accomplish at least three things. It would:

+ Offer gifted developers a way to distribute their education apps into every corner of IFOD.

+ Give education publishers profitable channels whereby they could sell into IFOD.

+ Enable an education-focused technology that has the potential to reach students, teachers, administrators and standards boards virtually anywhere in the world.

We don’t want you to conclude that McGraw Hill alone has overcome the problems that are hampering the growth of this open platform. We have the same legacy systems and technology islands that bedevil just about every company whose name isn’t Facebook or Google. It’s going to be a financial and IT feat to build out this open platform, but without it, education entrepreneurs will never jump off of “Level 1.”

We’ve got to figure how to move up to Level 10 — by which time we will have grown our customer base and developed robust educational offerings supported by big data analysis.

That’s our prediction for 2013.

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Bringing the Benefits of Technology to Education

In the beginning there was the chalkboard.

The wall-mounted slate was a disruptive technology that enabled the social networking of pupils in a common space. It provided access to a shared learning environment and allowed for pedagogical assistance at a nearby help desk. The technology was a revolutionary leap over personal slates or twigs used in conjunction with a patch of dry soil.

In any conversation about education and technology, it’s worth remembering that a new device or aid has staying power if it solves a problem. The chalkboard addressed a longstanding problem in 1800 about how to educate children of all ages in a one-room schoolhouse with a single instructor who had to teach a “cross-disciplinary” curriculum, or, as it was called, the Three R’s. The survival of the chalkboard to the present day in nearly every corner of the world attests to its role as a transformational educational tool.

We at MHE Labs see no reason to abandon anything that has worked incredibly well for 200-odd years without an on/off switch or without a software stack designed to extend its educational reach. The chalkboard and other enduring technologies, such as textbooks, have helped educate generations of students, some of whom acquired the intellectual necessities to produce penicillin, split the atom and invent the Internet.

What we are more tempted to challenge, though, is a mindset that cherishes the status quo because change is expensive or frightening, or because what was good enough for me should be good enough for you. Our goal is to investigate educational technology to see what works – whether the technology is new, old, consumer-based or business-to-business.

All of us who have lived through the past two decades understand that the world we inhabit today is not exactly the world of our fathers and mothers. None of us alive as recently as 2000 could imagine that every industry that brought us the benefits of modernity — automotive, publishing, retail, for example — would be shaken to the core in less than a decade. The Internet economy has had an impact on the way we work, consume culture, and even as Nicholas Carr argued in “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” think. Moreover, the geopolitical landscape has undergone seismic shifts. The majority of U.S. manufacturing jobs are snaking their way around Asia and Latin America, and, if the futurists are right, many of them will yield to automation by 2045. When that era arrives, we can only hope that people will be doing ultra-sophisticated high-tech jobs that will require ongoing education and training.

That era isn’t very far away. By the end of this decade, China is expected to graduate 195 million young people from colleges and universities, and the U.S. 120 million. Will 315 million students from China and the U.S. alone have the luxury of learning the “old fashioned way,” in a classroom with teachers, textbooks and chalkboards? We also have to ask: How good has the old fashioned way been at teaching students from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds?

Of course technology already has made inroads into the conventional classroom. edX, a nonprofit start-up from Harvard and MIT, enrolled 370,000 students in late 2012 for its first official massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Coursera, a Stanford University start-up, has 1.7 million enrollees. The Khan Academy, an online offering of 3,000 self-paced tutoring and practice videos, already boasts 229,704,855 “lessons delivered.” At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, McGraw Hill itself unveiled an adaptive ebook that assesses what students retain as they make their way through the incrementally more challenging “Smartbook.”

Yet without any research to speak of on these new learning formats, the question begs to be answered: How authentic an educational learning experience are any of these from the student, teacher and state standards point of view?

Which brings us to the mission of McGraw Hill Education Labs.

No single individual or constituency knows with certainty how to address the technology demands of a twenty-first-century education system. That’s why we at MHE Labs are using this blog to spark a conversation. For starters, we would like to share with you some questions we have about the educational landscape:

+ What problems need to be solved?

+ Why is technology such a hard sell?

+ What educational and marketplace opportunities cry out to be met?

We intend to offer up some possible answers as well — answers derived from our own long engagement with the education marketplace.

We surely welcome ideas from textbook publishers, but we also need to hear from the garages and kitchen tables where most of this country’s innovations, from Apple to Hewlett-Packard, have been born. We recognize that innovation comes from a certain risk-taking personality — free of institutional dark matter — that creates products and systems. It’s these innovators who will attract the one or two customers ready to use a new product, provide feedback and spread the word to potential customers. We are the first to admit that the most profound educational innovation is likely to come from outside the ecosystem of big business and government.

As the publishers of conventional and digital textbooks, we are even prepared to ask if we are expecting too much from technology. We have seen other industries, notably healthcare and aviation, wrestle with the same question. How much technology can an innovation-averse industry, such as healthcare, assimilate into its processes? How much technology can an innovation-friendly industry build into its airplanes without creating a fresh set of problems? As much as we want to test the potential for digital technologies to improve educational outcomes, we need to make sure we don’t change something that has worked well at various times in history.

To fulfill the mission of MHE Labs and this blog, we will articulate our vision for an open community that inspires educational content driven by metrics, research and science. We will describe the logy, inefficient education market that all textbook publishers know first-hand. And we’ll talk about how an open, flexible technology infrastructure can facilitate the growth of a dynamic educational marketplace whose beneficiaries are not just individual students but also a global society that must educate a new generation for a world whose contours we are still struggling to make out.

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