To piggyback on the last point…

Adventures in Education, Joining the Edtech Conversation


Big Ideas

In the spirit of a project-based semester, I have found myself taking part in a number of playful discussions about Big Tech Ideas in the past week or two. After carefully plodding through my actual semester-long projects, there’s something refreshing about busting out a wide brush and painting big old pictures with it. Feasibility? Yawn, who cares. Here are some DOPE IDEAS destined to blow up the online world and make everything amazing.

Dope idea #1: NETBOOKS. (Credit shared with my friend Gerald for this one, as long as with any of the other hundreds of people who have probably already thought of this.) An online membership service wherein you have access to 50-100 carefully selected texts each month. Readers can write notes in the margins, participated in monthly book groups, stuff like that.

Obstacles: Copyrights, actually having the books, the monthly fee might be too price-y.

Dope Idea #2: DIGITAL ADVENTURES. People volunteer to lead video tours of exotic locales in real time while on vacation. Why post instagram pics that only make people jealous and miserable, when you could Skype anyone who wants in and livestream to the digital community?

Obstacles: Do waterfalls have wifi?

Dope Idea #3: WATCH A MOVIE WITH __________________. Directors, producers and actors tune in for shared one-time only free (or ticketed?) online viewings of their movies with a live discussion board with Q and A. The special guests share commentary while the film is playing. There would be plenty of ad opportunities, and this would be a good promotional tool for upcoming sequels or whatever.

Obstacles: Um, NONE, this idea is perfect. (But like… could already exist?)

Dope Idea #4: BEING A REASONABLE CITIZEN & HUMAN APP/MOOC. A MOOC that has alerts a couple times a year for the most basic important human political/finance things you should be doing, i.e. alerts for rent at the end of the month, voter registration deadlines for your state, how to do your taxes, when new laws pass and it would be embarrassing not to know them.

Obstacles: It would not be fun to use this app at all, condescending premise (but I need it).


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Online Privacy & MOOCs

The seriousness of online privacy is something that did not really occur to me until this course. I do all kinds of nothing to protect my information online. It is something I used to chalk up to a fairly consistent trait of being generally trusting of strangers. I tend to leave my wallet out on tables. When I lived on the South Side of Chicago or in a dodgy small city in Russia, I would walk home at night all the time. My phone has never had a locked screen. As a logical extension of these examples, I haven’t even checked how to make myself unsearchable on Facebook and only a month ago did I realize that I ought to have truly different passwords for different things and not tell them to people.

This past week, my professor was quoted in this article in the tech section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece, entitled “Are MOOC-Takers ‘Students’? Not When It Comes to Feds Protecting Their Data,” focuses on the murky legal space MOOCs occupy in their collection of user data. The topic is a spicy one, as it truly is hard to call whether or not a free, open online course ought to adhere to the same strict regulations that protect student data within academic institutions. Should MOOCs be bound by Ferpa, and therefore be legally responsible for protecting the information of registered course-takers? Some universities say no, Ferpa does not apply to their MOOC offerings, though many of them still protect the information regardless, out of sheer goodness.

I was relieved to find that edX’s answer was simply “YES.” Universities offer MOOCs, and the enrolled users, while not enrolled in the school, are still enrolled in the course. I also do not see any reason that schools offering open online courses would be exempt from treating the data of those users as they would that of a tuition-paying student. The incentive on the university’s part to instill institutional trust in the user may be lost when the money is gone, and the funding may be from different sources, but the terms of the federal law still seem like they ought to apply. However convoluted and remote, the university-student relationship still exists in the MOOC-space. Registrants share identifiable information that ought to be protected. As an unknowing user, I believe I would have more trust in, say, Stanford University to protect my information than I would, say, Twitter. This might be naiive, but I’d maintain that an academic institution of any kind ought to inspire at least the trust of confidentiality of my information, even in the wild web.

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A Look at Our T509 Massive Project

Here’s the link to the “final” market map (made on UXPin)

Ultimately, this was an entirely new and exciting research endeavor for me, personally, and a gratifying collaborative experience with my group. All three of us were consistently motivated throughout, and it was illuminating and energizing to take part in Julia’s complex and dynamic think-process in mapping out this research. The whole project was an educationally enriching experience.

Check out our executive summary to get an idea of the project here:

The purpose of this project is to investigate how technology can more efficiently expand students’ social capital– that is, the network of peer and adult connections, guidance, and advice that students can bank on in the future. We researched edtech tools geared towards mentoring, coaching, bringing experts into classrooms (over video), and connecting students to new peer groups beyond their school and neighborhood. Following this research, we created a market map of these products in order to understand their unique business models and how they may or may not be disruptive to traditional education models in K-12 and higher education.

This market map was created via our research as well as a survey developed by our team and delivered to each organization. The Google survey asked questions regarding revenue model, use cases, and general company information. The response rate to this survey was approximately 38%.

We used a three-fold classification system to organize the highly varied information we sourced from each company. The metrics were: broad category of service or product, the synchronous or asynchronous nature of the service or product, and the “level of touch” for each service or product. In this case, “level of touch” refers to the degree of access to or interaction with an expert or mentor that a student has when using the service or product. Services providing one-on-one mentorship, for example, were classified as high touch.

At a glance, the clearest takeaway of our market map is that most current resources target college preparation, admissions and retention. Another noticeable trend in our map is that most organizations deemed “high touch” (strong human interaction) offered synchronous interactions for users; while all of the “no touch” (self-driven interaction) and most of the “low touch” (weak human interaction) organizations offered asynchronous services.

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Last week: “The Russian government has announced it will create a “regional electronic encyclopedia” to serve as a counterweight to Wikipedia.” (Washington Post, Nov. 17)

The Kremlin’s recent whack-a-mole style attempts to stamp down on Wikipedia are familiar, in terms of power and information, but somehow still especially strange. Also strange are the bizarre-o minor edits on Wikipedia pages that have been traced to the Russian Government.

For example:

  • Adding a sentence to the Wikipedia article about the Vietnam War to emphasize the embarrassment of America’s defeat.

Other examples are even more absurd. After living in Russia for a year from 2012 to 2013, I feel like I experienced a much different Russian internet than the nationwide “CIA project” suggested in recent Kremlin murmurs. While I am sure my personal information was plenty up for grabs back then, as it would be now, the only sense I got of the internet there was that, much like anything else in the country, it was an open, renegade space. Copyright laws were only suggestions, and anything and everything could be found without restriction, and on the equivalent of Facebook (VKontakte), no less. Again, I am sure I was naiive to think that my internet usage went unobserved, and that I was operating in a big, free online world (not that I did anything beyond stream some movies), but the level of supervision that the Russian government seems ready to impose on the internet is surprising to me. Also, this rush for cyber control of citizens feels especially scary given the patchy world of law enforcement that operates over there.

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Elitism in Online Education: Minerva

Looking at the homepage for Minerva Schools at KGI, where I am greeted by a host of highly photogenic multi-cultural 18-year olds joyously ascending a hill in San Francisco, ready to “change themselves as they endeavor to change the world,” I feel a slight chill. Having spent a semester surveying the MOOC landscape, imagining the possibilities of free, open, online resources to promote equity and access to information, there is something slightly unsettling about Minerva’s overt elitism. Granted, the elitism is flipped from the usual entirely: Minerva seeks out the best and brightest among those who cannot afford, or would rather not pay, the Ivy League fee.

The school then offers a fusion of study abroad and online teaching as an alternative to a traditional private undergraduate education. The admissions page calls for “future innovators and leaders” to engage in a “unique,” “global” experience. The ideal student seems to be some kind of international wunderkind/self-starter who speaks perfect English. (According to the picture, the student must also wear enough scarves be deemed a “citizen of the world.” But I digress.)

A recent NYT article states that the school “calls itself the first elite American university to open in 100 years.” The site asserts its quality by noting the 2,000+ applicants vs. the tiny number selected. It almost seems that– as arguably is the case in much of the college admissions space, and elsewhere– sheer selectivity is enough of a reason to think it’s good. The school poses occupies an odd, possibly emerging space in online education: an elite, closed, for-profit online school. Fulbrights and other fellowships that enable a high-prestige version of a year abroad already exist, but the online education aspect of Minerva brings in what might usually be seen as a low-prestige aspect into the equation, leveraged mainly by branding and selectivity. Founder Ben Nelson, a business man with a pedigreed background and former president of a major photo site acquired by Hewlitt Packard for big bucks, has created what a T509 visitor called a glorified “semester-at-sea” (and I agree), but what may very well be what he wants: a disruptive alternative to a Harvard experience.


Is “Sesame Street” Massive?

In the 60’s, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett ventured out on a kind of experiment, and decided to make a children’s television program. This program would be entertaining to children, but would also deliver carefully-determined academic content and pro-social messaging. In other words, the show would do its best to supply preschool education in a televised format. Like Head Start, a driving mission behind “Sesame Street” was, and is, to help kids prepare for school and increase equity in education for preschool-aged children. The show basically offered preschool curriculum for free.

Proponents of massive open online courses cite their potential as a disruptive force, offering more access to college-level courses for free. The current model of upper education is seen, appropriately, as broken, favoring those with money and social capital, and alienating those without. Like preschool, college was not initially made for everyone. It was an additional, optional level of schooling that bolstered higher outcomes for those of higher means. Limited access to preschool meant the deck was stacked for kids of means before they even started kindergarten. Similarly, of course, those without a college degree are now at a huge and growing economic disadvantage. However, college is exclusive and limited by design. MOOCs are, viewed in the best light, a promising vehicle for reshuffling the deck, to whatever degree possible, on the broken, elitist system of higher education.

I would argue that, though there are interactive features in place to measure engagement and understanding throughout,  MOOCs are, first and foremost, a series of videos. This is not meant to be a reductive dismissal of elements particular to the online medium. The quizzes, the discussion boards, the ability to click through content at your own pace, to have an actual username and account– these are certainly key elements of the online learning experience. Rather, it seems worthwhile to note that video production is at the heart of a MOOC. One professor likened her online course to an “interactive textbook,” much like a prolonged documentary feature with unique interactive elements, thanks to the digital format. (Bombardieri)

“Sesame Street” was not the first children’s television show with an educational component, but it was unique in that it was very much research-driven and had an in-house team conducting formative evaluation at each stage of every episode. A panel of experts in child psychology, media studies and so on have also served to aide and inform the development of the show as a whole. Each episode was– and is– tested with real kids to ensure that content is being delivered appropriately and children can demonstrate mastery of whatever goal has been outlined for a given segment. “Sesame Street” is unusual in that it actually seeks to measure its own results, and restructures itself accordingly. The model of the show has been researched extensively, and much of the findings support the idea that watching “Sesame Street” helps kids get through school successfully, even as far along as in high school.

“Sesame Street” did not necessarily change or challenge the format of regular preschool education, rather it sought to use an unlikely medium to open up a number of the benefits of pre-K schooling to a much larger, more socioeconomically varied audience. As things stand currently, HarvardX, for example, might be seen as doing something of the same– increasing exposure to elite college courses for a much wider audience, through the wonky world of the internet. Even though it is a different audience (little kids) and a different medium (television), I think the “Sesame Street” model is worth mentioning in the context of MOOCs, because it provides an excellent, unique example of how research-driven, goal-oriented educational media can succeed and adequately measure its success.

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MOOC Scattegories

“A typical registrant was ‘male with a bachelor’s degree who is 26 or older’ (p.2). ” (57, Hollands & Tirthali)

My first experience with MOOC’s was while abroad in Russia. My co-worker, your typical male-with-a-bachelor’s-degree, was all fired up about Coursera. I signed up for a Princeton poetry class (or something along those lines), and proceeded to watch maybe half a lecture and none of the required work or readings.

The main thing that struck me about this report is the way it laid out the different possible functions for MOOC’s. It helped me to break down the world of massive online offerings into meaningful categories, and, even though we’re a couple weeks in, served as a nice retroactive intro piece to the topic.

I’d label my Coursera poetry course, which was admittedly a pathetically low involvement venture on my part, as an ELECTIVE. It’s a pretty low stakes MOOC, in that its not geared toward any professional development or helping to effect any academic outcome. The goal is purely enrichment, with perhaps a bit of peeping-into-the-ivy-league-classroom curiosity at play. Some might argue that these classes detract from the small, intimate, truly intellectually engaged in class environment of a real-live university classroom, but there does not seem (to me) to be very much threat of anyone taking these courses instead of going to Princeton, if they can.

Another meaningful category this reading created was what I might call SUPPLEMENTARY, or particularly having the online MOOC available to help students to meet benchmarks, to work through qualified subject matters. These seemed to be the most palatable to most higher ed instructors, since here the MOOC is acting as a tutor, in a way, helping to alleviate the burden of needing to master required content to get to the next level, or more specifically, to help pass a giant “bottleneck” course, where the instructor has too many students to focus on individuals anyway. The MOOC here is like a tutor. This seems to be the model accepted in high school classes as well, where the MOOC is basically acting as extra help alongside the classwork.

Then, and this may not be its own category in terms of design, but MOOCS ABROAD would likely constitute their own realm of discussion.

Beyond that, another natural category might be something more serious: a MOOC that is truly meant to act as the primary source of whatever the subject matter may be. This might be bridging into online university territory? Or perhaps maybe this is more a question of use, and, at this point, of theoretical, future use. This is the theoretical world of MOOCs that we might discuss in conjunction with the concept of a de-schooled society, an imagined future where the internet is college.

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Trying on my digital legs and learning to waddle around

After several, tasteful, snobby years without a Twitter account, I’ve finally caved. A twitter and a blog this week. I’ve lost both battles and the war, but its for the best. There’s a whole world of educational resources, information and conversation on the internet, it’s high time for me to get hip to it. My goal here is to be in on the conversation. I’d like to get a finger or two on the pulse here, and explore new realms. 

I’ll be sharing my findings and observations on various elements relating to educational technology. Buckle up. And be sure to think carefully about the entire design process and all the different contradictory elements that informed the design of that proverbial seatbelt.