Thursday, January 29, 2015

Making feedback more personal

My New Podcasting Workspace by Brad.K, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Brad.K

Online education is often accused of being impersonal self-study with predominantly text-based communication that lacks the intimacy of meeting teachers and fellow students face-to-face. The discussion forums of many courses are indeed rather impersonal with many students and teachers opting not to show photos of themselves. The teacher may provide recorded lectures but generally there is very little personal contact in such environments; face-to-face contact is missing and students seldom hear the teacher addressing them directly. As a result it is extremely difficult to foster a sense of community and when interaction is limited and relatively impersonal it is no surprise that many learners simply give up or slowly fade from view. As low bandwidth has become less of an issue in recent years online learning should have been first to reap the benefits of synchronous and asynchronous audio and video communication to provide a more media-rich learning environment and enable more personal contact between students and teachers.

It is surprising therefore that we are only now beginning to exploit the use of audio and video in education. This is highlighted in an article by Steve Kolowich in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Could Video Feedback Replace the Red Pen? It describes how teachers are providing feedback on student assessments by posting short videos instead of commenting in text. The advantages of video feedback are many but above all it makes the teacher-student contact suddenly more personal, offering contact and empathy in a way that text can never convey. The article quotes student reactions to video feedback as overwhelmingly positive, claiming that the communication was real, honest and authentic in comparison with text feedback. The teacher addresses the student directly giving a few minutes of specific feedback and this can make the difference between the student opting out or staying the course. In addition teachers found it quicker and easier to make a video commentary with a mobile and any hesitations or repetition was seen by students as adding to the personal touch of the message.

Instructor feedback seems like a natural fit for video, especially because short videos have become easy for anyone to make and distribute. The Monash instructors, for example, recorded theirs with webcams and iPhones. And yet they found few documented cases of similar experiments in the research literature. Most studies have focused on videos directed at an entire class, they said, rather than ones tailored to individual students.

We should not simply focus on video either. Audio has many advantages and also offers a more personal contact than text. Recording an audio message is simple on any device and audio files can be easily embedded into a Word document or a PowerPoint slide enabling the teacher to give specific feedback on the student's work. Although it's good to see the teacher's face now and again it's often better to hear the voice while looking at the work being commented on. For students with bandwidth limitations audio feedback is not demanding and provides that direct contact between teacher and student that text fails to provide. The British organisation JISC's guide, Using Audio Feedback for Assessment, provides good advice on using audio feedback with students. They have also produced a specific guide to adding audio comments to a Word document.

Some research into the effects of student feedback on their development has brought up themes of staff effort gone to waste and students not digesting feedback, therefore hindering their development (Hartley and Skelton, 2002). As a result numerous case studies have investigated the potential for successful audio feedback to be an improvement on written feedback in the perception of students and assessors.

Audio and video can also transform the discussion forum offering students a choice in how they contribute. It also increases accessibility for students with impaired sight or dyslexia many of whom will feel much more comfortable making an audio comment than writing text. I know several teachers who use the tool VoiceThread to create discussion threads with a combination of video, audio and text communication and this gives a real voice and face to all participants who, on a more traditional online course, would never see of hear each other at all. Basically a variety of media makes a richer learning environment for all. Imaginative use of media for asynchronous communication can help to narrow the distance in online education. Soon the concept of face-to-face will not necessarily mean being in the same room. It can even be applied to asynchronous communication.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Soft skills are key to employment

The skills that employers value most are not the skills that tend to be examined and rewarded by universities. What employers are most interested in are soft skills such as teamwork, initiative, creativity, critical thinking and practical experience and these are all notoriously hard to quantify and examine within the traditional academic structure. This is further confirmed in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, College Students Think They’re Ready for the Work Force. Employers Aren’t So Sure. The article discusses the findings of a new report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Falling short? College learning and career success, which is a survey of 400 employers and 613 students on how well students are prepared for employment. There is a clear mismatch between the expectations of employers and graduates' self-assessment especially when it comes to so-called soft skills that are seldom visible in academic certificates.

The students indicated that they felt qualified in areas like written and oral communication, critical and analytical thinking, and applying knowledge and skills to the real world. But employers consistently rated students lower than they rated themselves. For example, while 59 percent of students said they were well prepared to analyze and solve complex problems, just 24 percent of employers said they had found that to be true of recent college graduates. (Chronicle article)

It seems that employers are less interested in grades and formal credentials and want instead to see evidence of practical work experience and proficiency in soft skills. This does not mean that formal credentials are not relevant but that they come further down the list when compared to hands-on experience. According to the report the demand is for generalists rather than specialists:

... employers say that when hiring, they place the greatest value on demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across all majors. The learning outcomes they rate as most important include written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision-making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings. Indeed, most employers say that these cross-cutting skills are more important to an individual’s success at their company than his or her undergraduate major. (AACU report)

There are of course many university programmes which focus on problem-based learning, work experience, real-life projects, internships and so on but studies like these also highlight the need for credentials to be more granular and include evidence of soft skills. The use of skill badges to complement traditional credentials can be one way of rewarding students especially if they can be awarded by the organisation the student has worked with during studies. The growth in interest in competency-based degrees can also be seen as a response to employers' demands. A university education can thus include a variety of certificates/badges awarded mostly by the university but also by other organisations who have benefitted by the student's work. In this way we can make academic credentials more granular and the student will have references from several sources. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Are MOOCs really about rebranding?

Branded by derekGavey, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by derekGavey on Flickr

What's the difference between a MOOC and a regular online for-credit course? That's the question asked by David Wiley in a post entitled Koller, Thicke, and Noble: The “Blurred Lines” Between Traditional Online Courses and MOOCs. Most people would answer that scalability is the key feature of a MOOC with tens of thousands of participants signing up for the most popular courses. However there have been many massive online courses even before the four-letter acronym was invented, for example the popular summer math refresher course, Sommarmatte (site in Swedish), run by several Swedish universities for many years. Here hundreds of high school graduates refresh their math skills helped by student mentors in the sort of peer learning that many MOOCs are working with. So if scalability is nothing new what then is so special about MOOCs?

Wiley presents a long list of common features between MOOCs and online courses and concludes that the main difference is the type of platform:

The more I think about it, there seems to be only one practical difference between MOOCs and traditional online courses – the platform they are offered on. Online courses are offered via Blackboard and Canvas, while MOOCs are offered via Coursera and EdX.

In the traditional online course the focus is on the university and its faculty and the choice of platform is largely irrelevant for the students. In a MOOC, however. the platform has star billing.

In a traditional online course, the lead brand is the institution, followed by the faculty member, with little or no consideration for the LMS the course is offered in. (Have you ever seen an ad for a traditional online course that touted (or even mentioned) which LMS the course was offered in?)

By contrast, with MOOCs the lead brand is the LMS – you’re taking a course on Coursera! It happens to be offered by MIT. And there is probably a list of “Course Staff” buried at the bottom of the About the Course page.

Is the MOOC movement really about rebranding education? I don't see higher education being swallowed up by MOOC consortia but there are certainly concerns about who owns what and how the major consortia will be able to use their vast amounts of student data for future learning analytics applications. I don't see the present MOOC consortia as a threat and there is clearly an interest in the courses they provide. However, as I have written in several previous posts, there must be alternative paths available. It's perfectly possible for a university to go it alone and offer an open and scalable variant of an existing online course. Whether they label that as a MOOC or not is irrelevant, it's the openness that matters. Wiley sees the adoption of open licensing and the resultant sharing, reuse and adaptation of learning resources as the alternative path forward allowing greater access and improving quality through co-creation and peer review of resources and methods. MOOCs in their present form are simply one of many variations in online education. How we interpret the word open is the key issue to investigate in 2015.