Monday, November 25, 2013

MOOCs and the Future of Informal University Engagement

One of the highlights of the recent Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning was a keynote address by Daphne Koller of Coursera, one of the major platforms for Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  Her presentation focused on the vision of MOOCs as opening access to education for a global audience who may otherwise not be able to learn about a wide range of subjects.  She also described features of Coursera that provide a level of learner engagement that is not discussed much in the media.  An example is the ability of students to review and grade each other’s papers.  Along the way, she emphasized that Coursera’s MOOCs are not designed for college credit, but that they do provide access to learning opportunities.  She noted that, while Coursera had no plans to charge for courses or to grant credit, they were starting to offer learners, for a small fee, the equivalent of a “certificate of completion.”   While Koller didn’t mention it, such a certification could make it easier for students who complete MOOCs to apply their learning through credit for life experience or credit by exam procedures.
            While MOOCs may emerge as primarily a means of globally extending content, there seems to be good reason to think that they may also emerge as a way of creating and sustaining learning communities.   As such, they could be an extremely valuable way to re-envision the Extension mission in a global information society.
            For example, many land grant universities have made a commitment to helping small business operators develop the skills they need to be successful.  This is critical in many communities, where small businesses are major employers.  Historically, this work has been done through occasional workshops and small conferences.  However, in the online environment, we can easily envision an engagement MOOC environment that would include:

·      Video and computer-based OERs that focus on critical small business leadership skills, the latest research in the field, case studies of successful small business innovations, policy studies, etc.
·      Online readings and assignments related to each of the OERs that give students—current and aspiring small business operators—the opportunity to explore the issues in more detail and to apply them to their own situations.
·      Shared review of student responses, providing an opportunity for enrolled students to explore each other’s ideas and share responses, in addition to faculty feedback.
·      An ongoing learning community, allowing small business operators and faculty to share experiences and innovations as they implement ideas gathered during the formal course.

            A similar pattern—publishing of OERs, engagement of learners around the OERs, and structured sharing of experiences and insights among participants—could be applied to other communities historically served by university extension educators.  These include small community governments, police officers, social service providers, agriculture professionals, and a wide range of civil society professionals and community volunteers.  
            In addition, this environment could be used to create new relationships between universities and employers in specific industries in which the university is already engaged through teaching and research.  Engagement MOOCs can be used to maintain contact with recent graduates as they move into jobs in selected industries, for instance, or to translate research findings for industry practitioners.  Historically, such services tended to be organized on a state-by-state basis, through land grant universities.  The online environment supports a much greater opportunity for universities to share expertise across state and even national boundaries, greatly increasing the cost-benefit of producing OERs.   As such, MOOCs become practical opportunities for new and powerful a academic communities across traditional institutional boundaries and to build new relationships between faculty and industries for research, technology transfer, and professional education.
            The MOOC is still a very new concept within the online learning universe (which itself has existed for only two decades).  Early innovators in the MOOC arena tended to focus on extending large undergraduate courses to informal learning communities.  It may well be that, in the final analysis, online learning as it emerged over the past two decades will continue to be the best way to extend formal credit instruction to a global student population, while MOOCs—which have already demonstrated their ability to attract global audiences to informal learning opportunities—will allow higher education institutions to re-envision their nonformal continuing and extension mission to serve the informal learning needs of a constantly expanding community of professionals, civil servants, and community volunteers.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Using MOOCs to Revitalize University Engagement with K-12

A few months back, I posted a piece about the possible role of MOOCs—Massively Open Online Courses—in the public university’s commitment to community engagement.   The piece offered several examples of how the MOOC concept could be used to revitalize community engagement—aka, continuing education, outreach, extension—by creating new kinds of university-community collaborations.  Today, I want to explore one of those ideas in more detail:  the use of the MOOC concept to enhance the K-12 curriculum.
            The idea that I’ll be exploring is not really new.  From the 1960s through the 1980s, public televisions broadcast television programs during daytime hours that were designed for use in K-12 classrooms.  State public television networks collaborated with their state departments of education to coordinate program funding and selection.  Stations then worked through regional networks to acquire programs for in-school use.  With the advent of satellite in the late 1970s, a national marketplace of instructional television emerged, both at the K-12 and higher education level.  From early on, university-based public television stations (and, in Canada, Provincial networks like TV Ontario) were the major producers of in-school television programs.   
            Let me use an old ITV series as an example.  In the 1970s, Penn State Public Broadcasting and the Department of Science Education in the College of Education received funds from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to produce Investigative Science in Elementary Education, a series targeted to students in grades 1-3.  Each week, we broadcast a 15-minute program that teachers would use in their local classrooms.  Each program demonstrated a specific scientific phenomenon for elementary school students.  One looked at how water drops form; another examined wave patterns, etc.  The series was accompanied by a Teacher Guide that suggested classroom activities for each program.
            This was a major part of the first half of my career.   I started as a production assistant at Penn State Public Broadcasting, helping to produce instructional and general audience programs.  Later, as Director of Instructional Media, I was responsible all levels of instructional production and for our relationship with schools in our 29 county broadcast area, including program selection and professional development of teachers.
            This system remained vital through the 1980s, as schools struggled to move the Baby Boomer generation through the K-12 system in the post-Sputnik era.  By the 1990s, though, it was faltering, as the school population declined and as other technologies—videocassette and computer-based instruction—made broadcast obsolete.  Today, that system no longer exists.
            However, the need for higher education to help K-12 has never been greater.  Today, schools are struggling to meet the needs of an information society.  Funding is low and teachers are being laid off or not replaced, with the result that class sizes are again growing at a time when we greatly need to be producing students who can go on to college or to postsecondary training for information-related careers in a globalized economy.  The question is:  How do we do it?
            Engagement MOOCs offer a unique opportunity to revitalize—in fact, revolutionize—this old relationship between public universities and the K-12 sector, without the hugely expensive infrastructure that public television required.  Today, the issues are different than the 1960s, but just as profound.  A generation into the Information Revolution, we find ourselves as a nation, struggling to compete with workers from around the world.  Increasingly, our school graduates need knowledge and skill in science, technology, engineering, math—the STEM arena—in order to find jobs and keep businesses in our communities.  At the same time, we need to prepare our students to live in a more complex, globalized society.  The challenge is to ensure that all teachers, in every school at every level, have the resources they need to keep their students moving toward the goal.
The Model
The identification of the discipline and level to be the focus of the effort should be made in consultation with the K-12 community.  Once a curriculum area and grade level is identified, then a survey of teachers should be conducted to identify the specific topics to be covered.  The question is:  what topics are the most difficult to teach in the school classroom?
            For each topic, the institution would develop a multi-media module.  This could be a video demonstration, a computer simulation, a problem, etc.  Each would be supported by a text-based guide showing teaches how to use the material effectively in the classroom.  The modules become a collection of learning objects/open educational resources that can be used by teachers in a variety of ways and shared with other institutions.
            The modules would be the core of the MOOC.  Teachers wishing to use them in their classrooms would enroll in the MOOC in order to learn how best to integrate them into the curriculum.  The resulting course could be taken as a noncredit experience, resulting in a badge that would go on the teacher’s record.  It might also be taken as part of a credit course.
            Teachers who participate in the MOOC would also be eligible to join other teachers in an ongoing learning community, using the MOOC environment to share ideas about how to use the modules in different settings, expanded teacher guides and curriculum materials, student feedback, etc.  This ongoing engaged teacher community will ensure the continued refinement and improvement of the modules and the teacher-education component of the Engagement MOOC.
            In the end, the MOOC will (1) provide teachers with tested instructional materials to use with their students, (2) ensure that teachers receive professional development so that they can use the materials to best advantage in different teaching situations, and (3) create an ongoing learning community among teachers and university faculty that will sustain the effective use of the materials over time.
            Universities that offer such Engagement MOOCs will need to develop relationships with school districts and, ideally, with their state’s Department of Education coordinate use of the MOOCs.  To be effective in the log run, this model also requires multiple programs that hit key parts of the curriculum.  Ideally, universities would form a consortium to share responsibility for producing these Engagement MOOCs in disciplines and to share the finished products, so that each MOOC reaches well beyond its home state. 
            This is one example of how we can use online learning to engage both teachers and students for educational improvement.  In a future posting, I will explore another engagement model: Using the MOOC model to empower community development in small communities.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Today is election day—an off-year election in which we will vote for local offices--school board members, the mayor, members of the borough council—and for a few regional and statewide positions, from district attorney to state supreme court judge.   These are elections that help define our sense of community.  Because we are still relatively new to our neighborhood, I took a closer look than usual at the voter’s guide and got a lesson in politics and community.

Pennsylvania is one of several states that are known for the impact of Republican gerrymandering—restructuring voting districts to create safe districts where chances that Republicans will be elected and re-elected.   I live in State College, PA.  It is a university town and, I know from the experience of living here for most of the past four decades, more liberal as a community than the farming communities that surround it.   One assumes it would be a relatively safe Democratic district.  So, I was not surprised but still dismayed to see that State College and its suburbs have been redistricted to be in two separate congressional districts.  State College Borough is one corner of a district that largely covers farming areas and small villages ending in Philipsburg—about 24 miles west of State College.  However, the townships that surround State College—where most of the university employees live—are part of another district that extends to the east and that also include small and rural communities dominated by Republicans.  The result is that all State College area residents are in safe Republican districts.  The State College area community has been divided so that we cannot vote as a community.  We have been artificially segregated so that we have no effective vote on statewide and national offices that are defined by districts. 

I am a Democrat and a progressive Democrat at that, although I did once vote for a Republican for President (he lost).   I care about keeping—and ensuring the purity of—our ability as individuals to be effective members of a community and to use government as a tool for helping others in our community live the best life that we can all make for ourselves and our fellow citizens.  The purpose of government in a democracy is to give citizens the means as individuals to ensure that all people have equitable access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Gerrymandering denies individuals the right to be heard in elections.  In this light, gerrymandering should be seen as a fundamentally unpatriotic act.

Gerrymandering, along with closing the government over ideology and threatening to force governmental default, constitutes something that is very dangerous to our democracy.  We tend to be very forgiving in this country.  In this instance, however, we need to work self-consciously and persistently to reclaim true Constitutional government.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Joan Didion's "Democracy"

Over the past few years, I have become a huge fan of Joan Didion.  It started with her last two books--The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights--two powerful memoirs that I think are, in some ways, unique artifacts of her generation of new journalists and, at the same time, examples of the best American writing of any decade.   I then went back and read her earlier "new journalism" work, which I found to have much greater staying power than most of the work of her peers like Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson.

Now, I have just finished one of her best novels, Democracy.  Published in 1984, it is set in 1975, in the days and weeks immediately surrounding the American withdrawal from Vietnam.  It is a remarkable piece of fiction, focusing on one woman, Inez Christian Victor, and her small circle of family, in the context of the political and social upheaval of the times.  The book would be memorable for the narrative style alone--Didion first-person narrates it as a journalist writing a novel, which gives her incredible ability to break the rules and focus us on the important issues.  But the story itself and the historical context are powerful in their own right.  Inez Victor and Jack Lovett are memorable characters, as is Billy Dillon, the political pro who constantly chimes in to re-contextualize what is happening.

Beyond that, Democracy speaks to the dynamics of American public and private life in a time of dramatic changes.  There are lessons in it for today.

The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights introduced many readers to her late in her career.  I hope, like me, they go on to discover her for what she is:  a great American writer and social commentator.