Tag Archives: Inside Higher Ed

The Non-Linearity of Learning

thumbby Hap Aziz

This morning, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote address at the 2016 ATMAE Annual Conference in Orlando. (ATMAE is the Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering). My address was titled, “Virtual Engagement: How Gamification Can Improve the Distance Learning Experience.” I admit the title was a bit of a stretch, as I was truly interested in discussing how gamification can improve learner engagement, no matter the modality of the course or program. And to be clear, “gamification” to me means a set of techniques, some technology dependent, that may appear to have very little do to with actual game playing, on the surface.

One of the points I made is that gamification allows for flexibility in the way content is presented to learners for their consideration. That is, games allow players to move forward via multiple pathways, and this is good for a number of reasons, one being that if a player gets stuck in one part of the game, things don’t have to come to a grinding halt. The player can simply move to a different area, and in the interim, a eureka moment may come that allows the player to come back and solve the previously unsolved part. Formal learning experiences tend to be more linear, however, which is one of the great elements of frustration for students. When they get stuck, there is no place else to go in the course. Until they get outside help, they are often left with no choice but to do something else entirely, while they curse the offending course material for being too obscure or complex or both.

I was pleasantly surprised to find corroboration of this gamification technique in an unrelated article that I happened to find while reading Inside Hire Ed online just a few hours after my keynote. The article by Matt Reed is titled, “Going ‘Full Florida‘,” and it is about Florida’s experiment to drop the requirement for remedial classes coming into college. Reed describes how this (i.e., going “Full Florida”) could actually be a good thing:

Having spent nearly a decade as a chief academic officer at two different community colleges, I’m increasingly sympathetic to going Full Florida. There’s something fundamentally broken about developmental education as it’s currently done, and placement has a lot to do with it. Forcing students who have had bad experiences in a given subject to start by re-taking material they’ve had before, on their own dime, with no credit towards graduation, is a motivation-killer. And it’s based on a theory of knowledge that I don’t think holds water.

It assumes that students can only learn material in one order. It assumes that material progresses linearly, and that students have to go step-by-step to make progress.

I’m just not sure that’s true.

Take languages. It’s possible to teach a language in a linear way, but that’s not how people best learn them. They learn languages by being thrown in the deep end and flailing around a while. Anyone who raised children can tell you that their learning is much more idiosyncratic than linear. Yes, that can lead to gaps, but gaps can be filled.  And the fastest way to shut down a kid’s interest is to reduce it to workbooks.

Notice that Reed writes: “It assumes that students can only learn material in one order. It assumes that material progresses linearly, and that students have to go step-by-step to make progress. I’m just not sure that’s true.” In other words, Reed has observed that people tend to learn better if their learning experience is modeled after the way they play. I certainly agree with this, and I’m gratified to see the idea articulated outside of the direct context of game playing.

Students do not learn material in one order, and, indeed, in many cases they cannot learn material in one order because obstacles can become insurmountable when there are no other paths forward. This is a design problem, not a learner problem, and it doesn’t matter if the audience is in need of remediation or perfectly suited for advanced study. The good news is that this is a design problem that is continually being solved in the gaming world. The bad news, though, is that many educators have not yet determined that the gaming world knows more than a thing or two about how people learn.


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Filed under gamification, Hap Aziz, non-linear learning, play, Uncategorized

Society or Student: What Should Education Serve?

Hap Azizby Hap Aziz

As educators, politicians, employers, technology futurists, and others debate the challenges facing education in the United States, the very basic question of what an education should provide is not often a key component of that debate. When the discussion turns to “common core” or “competency-based learning,” the terminology exposes the bias that there are subject areas or skill sets that are important for our students to master… and that, of course, implies that there are facets of human endeavor that are less important, at least from a public policy and funding standpoint.

At the Learning Impact 2013 conference in San Diego, this was one of the themes woven throughout Dr. Yong Zhao’s keynote address. His comments were provocative but very compelling along this line of reasoning: The greater specificity in education content (exercised through design control from some central, external entity accountable to societal demands), the less likely that students will be able to navigate a creative, entrepreneurial path in life. It is this premise that Dr. Zhao used to buttress his premise that the United States, despite having students that often score near the bottom in world-wide academic performance, produces inventors and innovators and entrepreneurs in much greater proportion than do countries with top test-performing students such as China, for example. While many people in the U.S. have high regard for the Chinese education system, it is instructive to know how non-Americans assess China:

“China must have entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs.”
– Wen Jiabao, Former State Premier


“The next Apple or Google will appear, but not in China unless it abolishes its education.”
– Kai-fu Lee, Founding President of Google China

Part of this is a cultural mindset, and in October of 2010, a Gallup poll found the entrepreneurial mindset to be much more prevalent in the U.S. than in China (or even the European Union).

The question on entrepreneurship and culture, Zhao argues, is very much related to the success-or failure-of an education system to squash creativity and independent thought. The reason our workforce is more entrepreneurial is due, at least in part, to the fact that the American education system does such a poor job of educating students in those categories that our society most values.

This is what Steve Wozniak comments about the top-ranked Singapore education system:

“Apple couldn’t emerge in societies like Singapore where ‘bad behavior is not tolerated’ and people are not taught to think for themselves.”

Author and CNN Travel contributor Alexis Ong remarks:

“Wozniak’s comments are really a scathing indictment of the Singapore education system, its strictly regimented curriculum and by-rote study techniques that sustain the city’s “formal culture.”

Consider that Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, and Larry Ellison all dropped out of college. If we accept the metric that college completion equals education success, then these tech giants are failures by the established education standard. Certainly I’m not arguing that students cast off the repressive chains of education to have a successful and fulfilling life. However, it is extremely important that we as a society understand what we want our education system to accomplish, and if we consider the system to be broken that we understand the actual problem in order to fix the system rather than further remove the ability of creative thought from our students.

I’m not confident that we are paying adequate attention to actual challenge in our seemingly singular pursuit to improve learning outcomes at all levels of the education process. In an article titled “Laptop U” published in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller writes extensively on the topic of MOOCs (massive open online courses), and how many educators as well as legislators see MOOCs as a solution to several types of education challenges. While he acknowledges there is controversy surrounding the use of MOOCs, Heller provides the reasoning of supporters that MOOCs “are designed to insure that students are keeping up, by peppering them with comprehension and discussion tasks,” and they will have high production values (apparently to better engage students).

Yet there is discouraging data. A study cited by Inside Higher Ed concludes that the “average completion rate for massive open online courses is less than seven percent” (strongly suggesting that students are not, in fact keeping up). Early data from Coursera indicates an overall completion rate of seven to nine percent (although Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller argues that this is misleading, as most students enrolled in MOOCs have no intent to complete). Regardless of statistics, it appears that the MOOC strategy is to funnel more students through massively standardized model (whether through implementing common core curriculum or creating large-scale technology-mediated courses). Voices for customizing the education experience to fit individual students and cultivate unique talents and characteristics is a very faint part of the discussion.

The current “crisis” in American education shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Zhao points out that students in the U.S. have scored below the students of other countries over decades. This is not a new phenomenon. However, government spending on education has increased dramatically year over year since the 1960s (some data charts here), and people are demanding accountability for these expenditures. He who pays the piper calls the tune, after all. It is likely that as long as funding dollars continue to be poured into education with little evident or immediate improvement, those in charge of administering the funds will determine what the funds will buy in terms of technology, policy, and curriculum design.

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Filed under accountability, common core, cost of education, education, education course content, education technology, government funding, Hap Aziz, MOOCs, online education, standards

The Practicality of the Massive Open Online Courses Model

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

Earlier this year, Dr. Joshua Kim (Director of Learning and Technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College) wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed titled, “Why Every University Does Not Need A MOOC” in which he examined the question of whether or not all higher education institutions should develop MOOCs as part of their teaching and learning portfolio of offerings. The core point of his article is that institutions should not necessarily try to follow the MOOC model as developed by a handful of pioneers. This is a risky endeavor, he reasons, and the key to success is in looking at other models of educational program development. Specifically, Dr. Kim recommends that institutions exercise introspection and examine what unique program offerings they might bring to market in order to appeal to a highly diverse learning community.

The argument has some merit, and indeed we see examples of institutions creating programs that have a “twist” to attract students: Lone Star College’s partnership with the oil and gas industry and the Mississippi Corridor Consortium’s partnership with Toyota for an education-to-work program are just two examples. Certainly, the idea of finding opportunities to engage students in learning that leverages an institution’s own collective expertise and “DNA” is not a new idea… and it is not an idea mutually exclusive to MOOCs, to be offered up in their place. In fact, it isn’t difficult to imagine these innovative programs being offered, at least to some degree, in MOOC format. Where I think Dr. Kim’s argument fails is that he blurs the distinction between program viability and demand as opposed to engaging delivery mechanisms and opportunities. Ideally, institutions should be looking to combine both of these elements.

That is not to say that the use of MOOCs will guarantee any measure of success. This is hardly the case–given the current levels of student preparedness, the revenue models under which different institutions operate, and lack of experience that many (if not most) institutions have in implementing non-traditional modes of online education, developing MOOCs can drain an institution’s resources while driving no change in the status quo of enrollments, retention, and student success.

The question of whether or not to implement MOOCs is preceded by the more basic question: “Under what circumstances can MOOCs thrive at my institution?” This is much more difficult to answer. What are the programs to be considered at MOOC candidates? How do we assess students for enrollment? And perhaps the elephant in the room for many institutions, especially those that are tuition-driven: how do we sustain the model without negatively impacting our revenue? While I cannot offer comprehensive answers (that discussion is just beginning in higher education), I can see some potential pathways for exploration:

  1. We should be looking at MOOCs as a delivery option for large enrollment courses with longer refresh cycles. At least while an institution embarks on the MOOC path, the economy-of-scale issue is a top-of-mind consideration to be addressed. Building MOOCs that will “be around for a while” with less need for revision while help in budgeting, and attaching MOOCs to courses that already may have more faculty (and even instructional design) resources associated with them will be helpful as well.
  2. MOOCs should not necessarily replace traditional on-ground and online courses, but rather they should be offered as a supplemental environment. As an additional learning environment, the existing student support mechanisms can still be utilized, which might mitigate some of the concern over the participation of tech-novice students. And keeping MOOCs associated with course that are funded traditionally is one way of covering their development and maintenance costs.
  3. We should seriously consider collaborative efforts between institutions and team mentorship (not “teaching”!) from an instructor pool. Again, the sharing of resources is a consideration, but a big “win” with this approach is the potential for extending and enhancing the learning community. Ultimately, if we are able to provide more types of support for our students, we widen our pathways to improved student success.

Are MOOCs for everyone? Certainly not, at this point in time. However, taking a measured look at how MOOCs might be integrated into an institution’s existing model of instruction is a conversation that will be coming up more and more in higher education.

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Filed under colleges and universities, cost of education, education technology, face-to-face instruction, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, learning outcomes, MOOCs, online education