Call Me Hammerhand

I am still buzzing from all the ideas percolating from SLOAN International Conference on Online Learning, but today my buzz was from two totally unrelated (and yet totally related) blog posts from my PLN.

At the conference, there were many of us who cautioned people to not fixate on the latest digital tools, because the tools come and go, and what is important is teaching and learning.  After all, Jane Hart noted in her 2013 Top 100 Tools for Learning that the Number One tool of 2007 (Firefox) is now #97, and the Number One tool of 2008 (Delicious) has slid to #60 (and one I have abandoned for Diigo).  Things like WordPress or Pinterest or Poll Everywhere are “just a tool.”

How many of YOU have said similar words!?!

So, this morning I am reading a post from Gardner Campbell entitled “Doug Engelbart, transcontextualist.”  Gardner writes:


“There is no such thing as “just a tool.” McLuhan wisely notes that tools are not inert things to be used by human beings, but extensions of human capabilities that redefine both the tool and the user. A “tooler” results … The way I used to explain this is my new media classes was to ask students to imagine a hammer lying on the ground and a person standing above the hammer. The person picks up the hammer. What results? The usual answers are something like “a person with a hammer in his or her hand.” I don’t hold much with the elicit-a-wrong-answer-then-spring-the-right-one-on-them school of “Socratic” instruction, but in this case it was irresistible and I tried to make a game of it so folks would feel excited, not tricked. “No!” I would cry. “The result is a HammerHand!” …

So no “just a tool,” since a HammerHand is something quite different from a hammer or a hand, or a hammer in a hand. It’s one of those small but powerful points that can make one see the designed built world, a world full of builders and designers (i.e., human beings), as something much less inert and “external” than it might otherwise appear. It can also make one feel slightly deranged, perhaps usefully so, when one proceeds through the quotidian details (so-called) of a life full of tasks and taskings…”

Let me repeat, a HammerHand is something quite different from a hammer or a hand, or a hammer in a hand.

Which brings me to the second post I read this morning, from Jane Hart entitled “The Social Learning Revolution and What It Means for Higher Education.”  Jane provides the Slideshare below which she used for her closing keynote at the WCET Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado last week.

Jane discusses her latest findings for the Top 100 Tools for Learning, where free online social tools dominate the top of the list.  She also notes that  learning, working and personal tools are merging, and that personal and professional learning is under the control of the individual.  She suggests that in the workplace learning revolution, individuals now have the tools to solve their own learning and performance problems.  The connected workplace with its wired workers – what Harold Jarche and Jon Husband call a “wirearchy” – increasingly demands new skills and practices.

Jane then suggests that what this means for higher education is that it is not enough to just add social tools to instructional practices.  Our students need to build social competence within a Personal Knowledge Management framework to prepare them for the new world of work.  They need to learn how to leverage social tools to solve their own learning and performance problems, as they will be expected to do when they enter the world of work.  Their “school work” should not be done in isolation, but integrated with a professional external network.  Working with this external network, our role as faculty is to help students make sense of what they find in the confusing world of the web – learning how to filter, synthesize and analyze, then encouraging them to share their learning back with their network.  In other words, our role as educators is to help students develop their digital identity.

She asks “How are you preparing your students for this new world of work and learning?”  Which begs the question, how are we in Centers preparing faculty to help them prepare these students?

Gardner’s post has me considering that whether working with faculty or students, when we begin to use a digital tool in our instruction, a HammerHand is something quite different from a hammer or a hand, or a hammer in a hand.

How does our use of a digital tool change us, our students, and the teaching moments?

As I said, my brain is buzzing.  Would love to hear your thoughts….

Graphics: {Recon Construction}




Enhanced by Zemanta

Sloan Online Conference Days Two and Three

SLOAN Conference logo

An interesting second and third day here at the 19th Annual SLOAN Consortium International Conference on Online Learning.  The second day started early with an 8am keynote by Daphne Koller of Coursera, entitled “The Online Revolution: Learning without Limits.”

Her abstract for this talk made the following points:


“We are at the cusp of a major transformation in higher education. In the past year, we have seen the advent of MOOCs – massively open online classes (MOOCs) – top-quality courses from the best universities offered for free. These courses exploit technology to provide a real course experience to students, including video content, interactive exercises with meaningful feedback, using both auto-grading and peer-grading, and rich peer-to-peer interaction around the course materials. We now see MOOCs from dozens of top universities, offering courses to millions of students from every country in the world. The courses start from bridge/gateway courses all the way through graduate courses, and span a range of topics including computer science, business, medicine, science, humanities, social sciences, and more. In this talk, I’ll report on this far-reaching experiment in education, including some examples and preliminary analytics. I’ll also discuss how this model can support a significant improvement in the learning experience for on-campus students, via blended learning, and provide unprecedented access to education to millions of students around the world.”

Given the hype around MOOCS and her early talks, I was a bit skeptical going in, but she delivered a solid keynote.  She seemed to emphasize that Coursera was in the platform business more than revolutionizing higher education…that Coursera was a good supplement filling a need that life-long learners had – given that 80% of the 5+ million Courserans already have a degree.  She noted that her own degree in computer science was dated, and so the types of courses offered by Coursera attracted (and completion demonstrated) those that wanted to update knowledge and skills.

She was quite proud of the reach of Coursera, noting not only numbers, partners, and courses, but that 14 students in Antarctica were currently enrolled in Coursera courses. #neat! She also made the point that when you reach massive scale, the cost of a course per student approaches zero. She demonstrated some neat applications of both machine grading and peer assessment in physics courses, chemistry labs, and humanities essays.  Of particular note (for me) was a study in which 1200 peer graded essays were also graded by TA’s, and the results strongly correlated.  I thought it was a leap to suggest that peer grading built community, but it is evident that sub-communities do form in Coursera courses.

She took on the issue of retention and completion rates, noting that first of all, completion was not the intent of most.  However, if one measured completion of those who paid and signed up for Signature Track, the completion rates approached 85%.

Sloan07Contrasting her talk was the keynote on the third day, with Anant Agarwal (edX & MIT) discussing “Reinventing Education.” My colleague Yin Wah Kreher captured me madly tweeting during Anant’s talk!  His abstract noted:

“Digital technology has transformed countless areas of life from healthcare to workplace productivity to entertainment and publishing. But education hasn’t changed a whole lot. EdX is a MOOC (massive open online course) initiative that aspires to reinvent education through online learning. EdX’s mission is to dramatically increase access to education for students worldwide through MOOCs on our platform, while substantially enhancing campus education in both quality and efficiency through blended models that incorporate online elements created by the edX team.

This talk will provide an overview of MOOCs and edX, and share student stories that reveal how they are increasing access to education worldwide. The talk will also discuss where MOOC technologies are headed, and how they can enhance campus education. Finally, the talk will provide some recent research results that will allow us to improve education online and on campus, and discuss how MOOCs might evolve in the future.”

I found his talk much more nuanced and positive compared to Koller’s talk.  Rather than “selling” Coursera and pointing to huge (and impressive) numbers, Anant focused on the slower growth of edX and how lessons learned from decades of educational research was mindfully integrated with their approach.  Their first course was one of MIT’s hardest, requiring differential equations and complex problem solving.  They anticipated 2,000 signing up, but 155,000 signed up.  Over  26K did the first problem (indicator of true interest and not “tourist” status}, over 9K passed the midterm, nearly 7200 were certified at the end.  As Anant noted, the press focused on 95% not completing, but he focused on the fact that 7200 completers represented the potential output of 36 years of teaching circuits by the old model…something to be celebrated.  edX has continued to grow and now has nearly 100 courses.

As impressive as the courses and partner institutions are, Anant singled out how other institutions like San Jose State University are using edX MOOCs as “next generation textbooks.”  SJSU’s circuit course that used the MOOC for content and interactions saw a class failure rate drop from 41% to 9%.  Anant saw no difference to using MOOCs as next generation textbooks as he saw in the typical practice of most university courses using a textbook written by someone other than the teaching professor.  Huge implications for both publishing and teaching practice, but this concept really resonates with me!  As Rena Palloff tweeted:

Anant was very proud of the edX platform – OpenedX.  He described it as the GarageBand of education!  The active learning technology that he demonstrated was indeed – as he passionately noted – “very cool!”  He showed a Science of Cooking lab simulation that sizzled when the students cooked their steak.  Homework feedback gives big green checkmarks when work is correct, and green checkmarks have now become a meme on campus.

Overall, the twitter backchannel had some skeptics, but the majority saw this final keynote as a winner.  Well done, SLOAN-C!

Dropping back to Day 2, David McLeod and I did our presentation on “Liberating Students: Harnessing the Power of Open Student-Generated Content.” I have to say that the tech gods certainly smiled on me, as my presentation depended on first the use of Prezi, then playing the embedded YouTube with David’s portion of the presentation, and finally connecting with David at University of Oklahoma by Hangout for the Q&A portion…all in a 35 minute window.  Yet, it all worked perfectly.  I had set my laptop up on top of the podium facing the audience, and during the Q&A, David interacted with the audience like a rock star!

We described how we empowered students to create their own meaningful content outside the confines of an LMS, using WordPress, Netvibes, Protopage, and the creativity inherent in our students to make impacts in student lives…and in David’s case, the wider community.  Our Prezi is below, and I would recommend watching David’s pre-recorded 7 minutes within it, as all of the follow-up questions were directed at his super-innovative Project710 class.

I felt so bad for Lauren Cummins in the session following mine, as the tech gods that smiled on me frowned on her.  She presented on “Social Presence: Creating Online Learning Communities that Empower Student Learning.”   Two doors down from mine, yet she could not connect to her Prezi, and ended up using a Powerpoint hastily constructed the hour before…which was too large for the projection screen, so the words were cut off.  She gamefully pressed on and discussed ideas for creating community. Key was the social presence of both the students and the teacher.  Research has demonstrated that student perceptions of the presence of the teacher lead to higher student satisfaction with the online course…as well as potentially increasing student engagement.

Yesterday I noted that Bill Pelz was awarded a SLOAN Fellow.  At the second day luncheon, numerous other awards were distributed, including one to Kelvin Thompson and Baiyun Chen of University of Central Florida, for their work in faculty development.  I caught up with Kelvin afterwards, along with other BlendKit alums, to discuss BlendKit 2014, which Kelvin is currently developing.

I briefly attended a panel discussion by some of the thought leaders in higher education on “Leading the e-Learning Transformation in Higher Education.”  Most discussed the beginnings of elearning, but I left before I heard any transformative thought…in order to meet up with the BlendKit folks.  I will have to go back and listen to this one, as the make-up of the panel was impressive.

poster2The poster session was lively.  Quite a few posters on a topic that bothers me – processes to proctor tests using video systems.  I know such processes are probably needed…but current state of technology (to me) seems to try and sell a false sense of security.  But as one faculty lamented…if I can just get my students to stop cutting and pasting during tests, that would be an improvement.  With all the amazing enhancements to assessment demonstrated during (in particular) Anant’s edX keynote, it seems that there are better ways to assess students – and use assessment formatively to enhance learning.

<Climbing off soapbox>

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed three days of interaction and engagement with my colleagues at the SLOAN International Conference for Online Learning.  Looks like next year’s conference will be October 29-31 in Orlando.  I understand that the Sebastian Thrun costume was already trending on Twitter as must-wear next year!  I hope to be back.

{Credits: Josh Murdock, Yin Wah Kreher, Britt Watwood}

Enhanced by Zemanta

SLOAN Online Conference Day One

SLOAN Conference logo
The 19th Annual SLOAN Consortium International Conference on Online Learning (did you notice…I said NINETEENTH) kicked off today.  Our keynoter this afternoon brought our attention to the fact that SLOAN has been fostering a conversation about online learning for 19 years.  With the Year of the MOOC last year notwithstanding, online learning was not discovered last year!  But more on that in a moment.

Today, I attended three information sessions and the keynote address.  As usual, I was active on Twitter using the hashtag #aln13, so one can get a sense of the proceedings by following the very active tweet stream.

My first session was with Melissa Venable ( and Amy Hilbelink (Ultimate Medical Academy): “Can Existing Quality Guidelines Inform Faculty Participation in Online Course Design.”  Check out their slides.  My take away was that quality is and should be a faculty initiative.  Administrative drivers do not always work well.  They discussed both the QM rubric and the Quality Scorecard, emphasizing that the first was course-based while the second was program-based.  Given my past blog posts on Community of Inquiry, I noted with interest this tweet from Phylise Banner:

I hope to connect with Phylise later to learn more!

My second session was with Steve Ehrmann and others from George Washington University, on Six Design Features of Distinguished Online Programs.  At VCU, we are committed to creating online courses and programs that are “distinctive”, so I wondered how Steve approached this.  He noted that the proliferation of online offerings nationally has led to commodity online education.  Learners have access to dozens of programs that are indistinguishable from each other.  They end up competing on size and sizzle.  Like any technological advance, there are positives and negatives.  Depending on audience, online education has increased quality in some programs and seen it decreases in others.  For some, online education has increased access while potentially denying it to the poor, disabled, or remote populations. Steve suggested that new programs need to be both exceptionally good and perceived by constituents as exceptionally good.

Steve suggested six features for programs that might meet these two requirements:

  1. Recruit a dream team to develop and teach the program.
  2. With a hybrid approach, exploit “place” in online programs (though place does not necessarily mean on campus).
  3. Find corporate partners to help make the program distinctive.
  4. Take advantage of scale to create customized learning for each student.
  5. Use small group synchronous activities to create tight bonds with students.
  6. Educate students to thrive in a hybrid digital workforce.

Our excitement of the day came just as Steve’s session was ending, when the hotel fire alarm sounded.  Luckily for those presenting, it was a short lived false alarm, but it cut a few minutes into my third session. Shanna Jaggars discussed recent research into online learning.  She noted that many reference the DoE Meta-analysis study published in 2009, that that study really only looked at 7 research studies of full online courses at four-year institutions.  These studies tended to research small class-size courses at elite institutions.  Her Center for Community College Research attempted to dig deeper at more traditional online students by exploring success in two-year college online courses in Virginia and Washington states.  Her study of 23 courses at two Virginia community colleges using student interviews raised an unexpected issue of students complaining that they really did not know their teachers nor feel their presence in class.  For me, I would question whether this is a factor of “online learning” or one of how teachers are selected, assigned, and supported in teaching online.

Shanna ended her session by suggesting that online teaching and learning could be improved through the conscious use of faculty inquiry and the scholarship of teaching online.  One-oft workshops were not the answer.  Totally agree here, and our CTE Online programs do attempt to integrate the research and the practical aspects of teaching online.

Hal Plotkin of the U.S. Department of Education was our keynoter.  He discussed how online learning aligned with President Obama’s goals for improving education in America. In a somewhat rags to riches story, he discussed his own background and how one event changed his life and led to a career in newspapers after first dropping out of (or as he noted, being pushed out of) high school, then eventually obtaining an Associates degree and Bachelors degree.  He noted that currently, only 7% of the world’s population go on to some college, and that meant the 93% were a hugely untapped potential.  His admonition to us was not to further prop open the door of access to higher education, but to blow the hinges off that door!

Sketch of Keynoter

As Plotkin was talking, Josh Murdock tweeted the above sketch on Twitter. I thought it was pretty cool and wondered if he had done this on an iPad?

Some tweets were pretty snarky regarding Plotkin’s message, but it resonated with me that he called for more open access, more sharing of resources, and less judging of current experiments.  He noted that the current set of MOOCs were the Model T’s of online learning…with better cars on the way.  He also noted that in the rush to develop online programs, we needed to keep the law of the land regarding ADA and accessibility front and center.

The day ended with the awarding of this year’s SLOAN-C Fellow Awards.  It was most gratifying to see my good friend and colleague Bill Pelz of Herkimer County Community College recognized with this national award!

We closed the night with dinner with VCU colleagues at Cat Cora’s restaurant on the Boardwalk.  My presentation is tomorrow.  I hope the internet gods are kind!  🙂



Off to SLOAN

SLOAN Conference logo

Tomorrow, I fly to Orlando for the 2013 SLOAN-C International Conference on Online Learning.  With my colleague David McLeod of University of Oklahoma, I will be doing a presentation on “Liberating Students: Harnessing the Power of Open Student-Generated Content.”  We will showcase our use of open processes such as WordPress, Protopage, and Google apps to free student work from the confines of an LMS. Our Prezi is below:

I’ll be tweeting using the hashtag #aln13. Come join the conversation!

Enhanced by Zemanta