Category Archives: effective practices

The Quality of Learning

thumbby Hap Aziz

I find that in the never-ceasing stream-of-consciousness that represents my current and evolving thoughts on technology-enabled education, the theme of quality is a constant. In all sectors of the education enterprise, there seems to be a consensus that quality (whatever that might represent) must be an essential component of learning content and experiential process. Even before I thought to quantify the characteristics of quality in education, I had a strong sense that there were indeed characteristics to be measured. But as Hamlet might say, “aye, there’s the rub!” The challenge is in determining what those characteristics are before we can begin to consider how to measure them.

Which brings me to my second Shakespearean reference in as many paragraphs. In Act IV, Scene 1 of his play The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote the following lines:

“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”

Yes, there are two definitions to the term quality. The first, which I used in the context of learning, is the idea that quality is a measure of how good or bad something is. The second definition as used in The Merchant of Venice is that quality is an attribute of something, and in this case, Bill is describing an attribute of mercy. Reread the passage above, substituting the one instance of the word “mercy” with the word “learning.” Now consider the line “it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” It doesn’t take a great shift in mental perspective to think of quality not as a measure of the learning experience, but rather as an intrinsic attribute that blesses both the teacher and student alike. All we need to do is optimize conditions for this attribute to be revealed.

There are several components to learning that may function as a blessing–or as a curse if poorly executed, and the following are just a few:

  • The facilitation of the relationship between teacher and student
  • The manner in which content is organized and made available
  • The kind of support provided to teacher or student when technical difficulties arise
  • The ability to leverage additional tools that may enhance the learning experience

What level of resources or commitment of effort does it take to optimize these conditions in any particular learning environment? I probably needn’t point out that there has been much relevant research performed. But it is important to remember that we can lose sight of the big picture when we dive into the weeds of data, and that it is always a good idea to revisit key principles on a regular basis. Probably the biggest of the big picture views is the concept that the entire institution must be aligned from top to bottom and side to side on the core mission of learning. In fact, the institution should commit itself to the ideal of being learning-centered. (While I won’t explore the implications of terminology here, I will point out that there is a significant different between being learning centered as opposed to being learner or student centered. See the work of Terry O’Banion with the League for Innovation in the Community College.)

Quality as an attribute provides a basis for agreement on a common philosophy regarding the learning experience; “it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Once this is understood and adopted as a foundation construct, then we may begin to articulate the idea of quality as a measure of the learning experience. This is where we enter the world or metrics and assessments with the intent to execute an effective feedback and improvement cycle. Fortunately there are tools that may assist us in this process:

While these tools are extremely valuable on their own, I would never recommend adoption as an excuse to breathe a sigh of relief as though the quality question has been answered. These tools may be integrated in whole or in part into the overall governance and strategic planning process that subsequently drives day-to-day decisions regarding how learning activities are conducted. Human intelligence in the learning enterprise is still the prerequisite to data-driven decision making. Or at least it should be.

One of the reasons that it’s difficult to answer the “quality question” is that quality can be categorized in multiple ways, each with multiple considerations. The following diagram depicts a possible model.

Quality of Online (or Technology-mediated) Learning

diagram Copyright (c) 2016 by Hap Aziz

The four columns represent the categories in which we might assess quality attributes.

  • Framework – Here we consider the quality of technology infrastructure and support across an institution. How well equipped, for example, is the academic technology group in order to provide exemplary levels of service to the various end users?
  • Content – The quality of course design process has a direct impact on the actual materials and media that both educators and learners will interact with during the duration of a particular course. You might think of the difference between a well-curated academic journal and a tabloid pseudo-news publication.
  • Experience – When we think of the quality of faculty and student end-user experience, we need to consider both the end-to-end experience as a service as well as a product. What will students say after they have taken the course? The answer often comes back to how they felt about what they experienced throughout.
  • Design – Program design quality includes components of the three other quality measures, but it is also an overarching theme that spans an entire program of study rather than individual courses. This means that individual course quality measures “interact” in the learner’s mind–so a single poor experience might negatively impact the whole program experience.

The horizontal themes are representative of characteristics that are common across all the quality attributes.

  • Ethics involves topics from intellectual property policies and considerations to online harassment and bullying.
  • Resources addresses the way in which institutions provision their online operations, hopefully positioning themselves for success.
  • Constituents is all about audience: who is participating, and what is important to them.
  • Measurement is the ever-present need to understand how well we are executing to our goals at every level of the institution from leadership to department to individual instructor.

It’s at the intersection of each column and row that we might explore some questions regarding quality, such as what the ethical issues around the use of particular course content might be, or how we might go about measuring the user experience. Some of the questions might point to best practices that could be applied to most institutions under most circumstances, while others might be very specific to individual institutions, programs, or courses. I’ll be facilitating this discussion, in fact, at the Online Learning Consortium Collaborate regional conference in Las Vegas on June 10th this year, and the result should be a list of questions and considerations around those points of intersection in the diagram. I’ll follow up with a subsequent blog entry, so watch this space!

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Filed under effective practices, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, learning, online education, Online Learning Consortium, online quality, standards, technology

Taking a Contrary View: How Useful is the Syllabus?

foxnewsby Hap Aziz

I noticed a picture making the rounds of Facebook today of an Austin Community College professor, David Lydic, wearing a t-shirt with the caption, “It’s in the syllabus.” The picture linked me back to this article on the Inside Higher Ed website title, appropriately enough, “It’s in the Syllabus!” I needn’t go into great detail regarding the specifics of the article, but one can readily surmise the overall tone of the content: educators are often frustrated by repeated questions for which the answers are found within the course syllabus.

While the picture shows an angry instructor, Lydic explains that he was posing for the photograph with that expression at the request of the student snapping the shot. Indeed, Lydic wears the shirt primarily as a humorous way to remind students of the existence and utility of the course syllabus. Like many instructors, Lydic has repeatedly gotten questions that would all be answered for students if they simply read the syllabus provided to them.

What I found very interesting were many of the comments posted in response to the article. Many appreciated the t-shirt for its light-hearted approach:

“I got a kick out of this article. All I want to know is ‘Where can I get one?’!”

“Getting the attention of the students is often difficult. This humorous approach will stay with the students not only in this class but others! Love it!”

“This is an easy, fun way to remind students of their responsibilities and it will stick with them.”

But some comments indicated some deep frustration and a rather unflattering view of their opinion of at least some of their students:

“Yes, we should hold their hands instead! Science knows that they cannot read the syllabus all by their little selves!”

“Syllabus skippers (and grade-grubbers, and deadline-benders, and special case pleaders?) may think they are entitled to ask any question they want. But they’re not. Public higher education is a public good that very few people have the privilege to use. Asking dumb questions or asking for special consideration in a classroom full of students is akin to leaving your trash on a public beach: it just ruins the opportunity that more thoughtful and responsible people are happy to have, and happy to share, by doing their due diligence.”

I’ve taught for many years in both public and private institutions; at community colleges as well as universities; face to face and online courses. In every one of the courses, I would begin my dialog with the students by telling them that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Not because I was interested in holding their hands to spare them the chore of reading, but because I understand that the learning process is complex, and that individuals struggle with different issues when they encounter something new.

Clearly, though, there is something to the “dumb questions” point if it resonates with so many in the teaching profession. Right? As the title of this blog entry suggests, I disagree with that perspective. Consider if we were discussing some other product, and the consumers kept asking the same question(s) over and over. There are several questions we would ask ourselves (“maybe our user manual stinks,” or “is the design of our product fundamentally flawed?”) that would indicate an attitude and a desire to better serve our consumer.

My point is this: if so many students regularly ask questions when the answers are in the syllabus, could it be that the syllabus construct is flawed, and we as educators should address that? In defense of students, we need to admit that:

  • Syllabi, while often addressing the same categories of information are by no means standardized in their format (even within the same academic departments at the same institution).
  • Syllabi are often used from term to term, and not all instructors are completely rigorous in the process of updating information.
  • Modern students are often non-traditional, and many are the first members of their family to go to college, so syllabi are a new thing for them to comprehend along with a whole host of other new things.
  • Modern students are conditioned by a world of just-in-time-information accessibility, so they often do not consider or ask a question until they actually are in a particular situation. Informing students at the beginning of the term via the syllabus that the final exam is worth 25% of the course grade doesn’t make sense when they don’t start thinking about the final exam until the end of the term.
  • Modern students are accustomed to searching for information using services such as Google, yet syllabi are often provded as Word or PDF documents (or paper!). This is not ideal for when searching for particular bits of information.

It seems to me that the age-old syllabus is not meeting the needs significant numbers of students. The solution isn’t, however, to dig in our heels and insist that students simply read the syllabus. At least that’s not the user-friendly, service-oriented solution that would actually address the issue in a meaningful way–more meaningful than a t-shirt that admonishes the student for their unfamiliarity with that document.

So as a challenge to my fellow educators, what might we provide to our students instead?


Filed under colleges and universities, communication, course syllabus, education, education course content, effective practices, Hap Aziz, higher education

Education Delivery within 30 Minutes, or Your Money Back!

by Hap Aziz

No, education is not like a pizza (nor is it like a box of chocolates), a commodity to be delivered–even if there is a transaction involved. However, many people do equate the process of educating with the task of information delivery, where students’ minds are vessels to be filled by the wisdom of some source. While that might be a component of the very complex and textured process of learning, it isn’t everything of course. One of the challenges to understanding the process is in identifying what all the components are, and after decades of “research,” it appears to me there are still major gaps in our understanding.

The article “Is Khan Academy a real ‘education solution’?” written by Valerie Strauss for The Washington Post is a more critical look at the approach the Khan Academy takes by “flipping” the classroom. I like the points that Strauss makes in her piece, especially regarding the issue of learning efficiency, and how we might come to know the efficiency of the process. While Strauss asks the question, I want to point out that we truly do not measure what is going on in the brain in terms of learning and cognition–not in a way that would give us a very clear and accurate picture of the effectiveness of various teaching practices. Last year I wrote a blog entry on that subject, “Practicing 18th Century Education in the 21st Century Classroom.” Also, it is worth mentioning that while there are common themes that may be effective for large groups of learners, the most efficient education processes are going to depend on customization to the learner. There will be no one-size-fits-all solutions. To a large degree, the Khan Academy videos fall in this bucket, but there are avenues for customization through the integration of interactive elements that “direct” the video clips–though this will add greatly to the complexity and cost of production.

Ultimately, though, if we are to know with certainty what education processes work for individual learners, we need to be able to take a look at what’s going on in learners’ minds. Outside of the occasional NASA experiment, we’re really not doing a whole lot of kind of research.

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Filed under education, education technology, effective practices, Hap Aziz, neuroscience

Legacy Systems and the Anchors that Work Against Change

by Hap Aziz

Back in October, 1995, a small computer company called Be, Inc. (founded by former Apple executives), released a new computer into the marketplace. This machine was called the BeBox, and from 1995 to 1997, less than 2000 of these computers were produced for developers. The BeBox had a lot of unique features going for it such as dual CPUs, built-in MIDI ports, and something called a GeekPort that allowed hardware experimenters both digital and analog access directly to the system bus. One of my personal favorite features of the BeBox was the pair of “Blinkenlight” stacks on both sides of the front bezel. Functioning like a graphic equalizer, they depicted the real-time load of each of the CPUs in the machine.

But as exciting as the hardware was to computer geeks like me, the real revolution was in the Be Operating System, or the BeOS, as it was called. Written specifically to run on the BeBox hardware, BeOS was optimized for digital media applications, and it actually took full advantage of modern computer hardware with its capabilities of symmetric multiprocessing, true preemptive multitasking, and a 64-bit journaling file system (which for practical purposes meant you could shut off power at any time without going through a shut-down process, and when you turned the machine back on, you would find that your open files were still intact).

BeOS was able to accomplish all sorts of things that Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux could not by shedding nearly all of the legacy “baggage” that the other operating systems continued to carry. The Be team was free to rethink the underlying software systems paradigm at the very deepest levels, and the results were truly astounding to those that saw the BeBox in operation.

The moral of the story is that the greatest transformation is possible when we rethink processes and technologies that have been in place for years, decades, and even generations. This is significant when we think of education, because the majority of our education systems are indeed legacy systems, designed and implemented to facilitate processes that were put into practice over a century ago. Even our “modern” Student Information Systems and Learning Management Systems are limited by the “legacy anchor,” and as a result, we see little true transformation in the teaching and learning space. Education timelines are based on year “blocks” of content, and each block is targeted to a particular age group of student (why is every student of approximately the same age grouped in the same grade?). The foundation of the classroom experience is still the lecture, and with online courses we work to “fit the lecture” into an asynchronous mode. Assessment and evaluation processes are, well, pretty much the same as they have been, only with more variation in execution. Schools and institutions of learning are hardly any different than they were in the 1700s–a group of students go to a building where they meet in a room and work with a single instructor. Even in the online environment, we build virtual analogs to the physical world: a group of students go to a URL where they meet in discussion forums and still work with a single instructor.

What would true transformation look like, given the technologies that are available now? How would we write a new, legacy-free education operating system for the 21st century? Those are two very big questions that could spawn a series of lengthy discussions (and, frankly, I need to write a book about it), but I have a few principles that I would offer up:

  • Education should be non-linear from the perspective of time spent on task. That is to say, a concept such as “4th Grade Mathematics” where all 9 year old children are expected to learn the same content over the same amount of time should go away. Little Julie may master fractions and long division in three months while little Stanley may take half a year. At the same time, little Stanley might be happily absorbing 18th century American literature, while little Julie is still working on more basic reading comprehension skills.
  • Places of education should be built to meet specific learner needs rather than be built around the same specifications of classroom space, administration space, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and so on. Why does every elementary school look like every other elementary school, and not just across stretches of geography, but across time as well? The elementary school I attended in the 1960s would function with little modification for my daughter who is in elementary school now. Surely learners (at any age group) are not a monolithic group with singular needs, yet we build places of education as though they are.
  • Education should offer multiple pathways forward rather than a single path that results in matriculation to the “next grade” or failure and repetition of the previous grade. In the world of computer game design, multiple pathways forward is commonplace, allowing players with various skills to progress according to his or her particular strengths–and in making progress, the player is often able to “circle back” and solve particular challenges that he or she was unable to complete earlier in the game. In the same way, a learner may bypass a particularly challenging content area, yet come back with greater skills acquired in a different “track” better able to solve the original challenge.
  • In fact, the idea of “grade levels” is in many respects antithetical to the concept of the lifelong learner. Why measure start points and end points as set dates on a calendar? Rather, education milestones should be set and achieved on a skills-mastery framework, and this process is ongoing for the true lifelong learner. The ramifications of this would be profound on a social level (the singular graduation moment may no longer exist), but from the perspective of personal growth and fulfillment, the benefits could be tremendous, and there will certainly be just as many–if not more–opportunities for celebrations of achievement.

Ultimately, bringing significant transformative change to the education-industrial complex will require rethinking of almost every segment of the teaching and learning process, including the manner in which we engage technologies to support that process. Being willing to discard our legacy baggage will be extremely difficult for many. Yet doing so will be the only way in which we might remix our 21st century technologies of smart devices, mobile connectivity, social media, the Internet, and more into an educational system that meets the diverse needs of our 21st century learners.

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Filed under children, colleges and universities, computer games, creativity, education, education technology, effective practices, emerging technologies, face-to-face instruction, future technology, games, Hap Aziz, higher education, Internet, Learning Management Systems, learning outcomes, legacy systems, online education, smartphones, social media, Student Information System, tablets, technology, virtual college

Teaching With or Without Technology?

by Hap Aziz

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education online ran an article titled, “A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working,” a tale of two professors with two seemingly widely divergent instructional methods for connecting with their students. Michael Wesch, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, is the “tech-happy” professor, utilizing all manner of technology tools from Twitter to YouTube videos to collaborative Google Docs in the active process of engaging his students. The article begins by describing Mr. Wesch’s teaching-with-technology evangelism, and how some encounters with other instructors that have tried his methods unsuccessfully set him on a path of rethinking those methods.

Enter Christopher Sorensen, who also teaches at Kansas State University as a professor of physics. Mr. Sorensen applies a decidedly low-tech approach in his classroom interaction, avoiding tools such as clickers and even PowerPoint–which he feels would get in the way of his teaching. From the article:

“Exactly how he connects with a roomful of students is unclear to him, but he senses that it happens. ‘I walk into the classroom, and I get into a fifth gear, you might say. My voice goes up and down. It’s almost like being an actor. But don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been an actor or anything.'”

Elsewhere in the article it is mentioned that Mr. Sorensen has seen research that indicates students retain perhaps 20 percent of the material they are exposed to through the lecture format, and that he is still a strong proponent for lecturing as a method of classroom engagement. Of course, I’m curious as to what his thoughts are on that research, but there was nothing in the article to give an indication. This point raises another question that was not answered (or asked) regarding both professors: what are their students’ outcomes? It’s difficult to assess the effectiveness of either approach without some data (and while Mr. Sorensen was shown research regarding his method of engagement, there was no information regarding his particular case).

The question of presentation style in the classroom does not have a one-size-fits-all answer, and much depends on the level of comfort an instructor has with the particular methodology he or she utilizes. Mr. Wesch encountered other instructors that tried incorporating some of his techniques only to find that the results were not as expected (or desired). That isn’t necessarily surprising, given that the other instructors may have been unfamiliar or uncomfortable with making the approach actually meaningful for their students. On the flip side, were there any instructors that used Mr. Wesch’s techniques to great success? The article does not state so (although it does point out that Mr. Wesch has rethought at least a portion of his message).

This article reminds me of an anecdote I like to share when I make presentations regarding the role of technology in offering solutions to new challenges: the story of NASA and the Space Pen. In the 1960s, when NASA sent our astronauts into space with the intent of conducting experiments, there were no devices like tablets or laptops, so the way they recorded the experimental results was through pen and paper. However, pens did not function well in the low-pressure, micro-gravity environment within the space capsules. So NASA spent several years and millions of dollars developing the Space Pen; a gas-pressurized writing instrument that can write in zero gravity, upside down, or even under water.

The Soviets, on the other hand, sent their cosmonauts up with pencils.

The point being that the proper technology is the one that works, and often there are “low-tech” solutions that will fit the bill just fine, while certainly in other cases, more technologically complex solutions might be required. What happens in the teaching and learning environment is dependent upon many factors, including students and their learning styles, instructors and their level of comfort with different tools, and the resources and support available to facilitate learner success. And if we’re going to discuss the use (or non-use) of technology in the classroom, we really need to include student outcomes as an essential part of the conversation. If the outcomes aren’t satisfactory by reasonable criteria, then whatever we are doing needs to be carefully reexamined.


Filed under accountability, colleges and universities, education, education technology, effective practices, face-to-face instruction, Hap Aziz, higher education, learning outcomes, technology

IMS Announces Educational Positioning System Pilot

by Hap Aziz

If you have been following this blog, you may be aware that I have been involved in the development of a concept known as the “Educational Positioning System,” or the EPS. You can read some of my past blog entries on the topic here, here, here, and here. The EPS has gotten quite a bit of attention as a framework that can potentially transform the the level of engagement and control that students have regarding their own education. This represents a very disruptive level of technology that could flip the entire ownership conversation of academic data. Aneesh Chopra, the current Chief Technology Officer for the United States recognized this in bringing the concept back to the Obama Administration. Further, the IMS Global Learning Consortium (an organization dedicated to the advancement of education through the implementation of standards and use of effective practices) has taken on the EPS concept. I facilitated a workshop on the EPS in November of last year at the IMS Global Quarterly Meeting, and today the Consortium has issued the following press release:

Dear Friend of IMS Global,

Today, at the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) meeting in Austin, TX, USA, there will be a presentation at 3 PM announcing a new IMS project. The presentation is entitled:  The Educational Positioning System: Guiding Learners Along Their Academic Path.

The EPS has emerged as a topic of interest in the U.S. in recent months, receiving some attention after it was brought up in a panel discussion as the EDUCAUSE annual conference in October:

On January 19th the White House announced several initiatives that are complementary to the EPS concept:

IMS applauds the effective use of data.  Our focus is the use of data and interoperability to help individual students succeed.

Today, IMS is announcing a new project to work with IMS member organizations to implement EPS pilots. See the Call for Participation here:

Currently we believe that the ideal initial focus for EPS pilots are systems of institutions. We are very pleased that the Lone Star College System has stepped up to lead the first pilot. In coming months IMS will be working with our members to pull this pilot together and hopefully initiate additional pilots.

We will also be covering this topic in depth at the annual IMS Learning Impact conference, May 14-17 in Toronto. Details for the conference are here:

Tune in to IMS for future announcements,

IMS Global

Right now I’m at the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative 2012 Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, where I’ll be co-presenting “The Educational Positioning System: Guiding Learners Along Their Academic Path.” It will be during this presentation when we make the EPS announcement officially to the public. But if you are reading this blog entry before 3 pm Central time, remember, you heard the news here first!


Filed under announcement, education, education technology, Educational Positioning System, EDUCAUSE, effective practices, Hap Aziz, higher education, Open Government Platform, standards, technology, U.S. government