Tag Archives: Learning Management Systems

Making the Connection between Millenial Students and Online Education

by Hap Aziz

Earlier this week I attended a conference (for our Ellucian CIOs), and one of the sessions that greatly interested me was “Millienial Behaviors and Higher Educations Focus Group Results” presented by Richard Sweeney, the university librarian for the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Mr. Sweeney’s session was actually in two segments: he first discussed what the research has revealed about Millennial students, and then a group of 13 college and university students were brought onstage as a live focus group. He asked the group several questions (the answers the students gave to some of which were quite surprising), and then for about the last 15 minutes of the session, the students fielded questions from the audience.

Millennial students were defined as those now going to school that were born between 1980 and 2000 – aged ranging fr0m 12 to 32 years old. In a study* comparing Millennial medical students to Generation X medical students, the Millennials were found to be more warm and outgoing, more abstract than concrete, more adaptive and mature, more dutiful, more socially bold and adventuresome, more sensitive and sentimental, more self-doubting and worried, more open to change and experimenting, and more organized and self disciplined. One of the key findings of the study is that Millennials “have greater needs to belong to social groups and to share with others, stronger team instincts and tighter peer bonds, and greater needs to achieve and succeed” (p. 574). The implications are fuzzy when it comes to online learning. Must these social groups be face to face, or will online social networks provide the requisite connectivity between the individuals?

In either case, as educators we need to optimize the social characteristics of the online experience in order to facilitate the Millenials’ feelings of belonging and abilities to bond with their peers. Another datapoint** shared by Mr. Sweeney is that for Millennials, “interaction and a sense of community are the key requests of those born digital when it comes to online learning, as surveys indicate” (p. 248). If we look at examples of online interaction such as participation in Xbox Live or the Playstation Network, we see that it can be quite compelling. Millions of recurring users subscribing to a pay-for-play model is a strong indicator of success in this case.

Having the student focus group allowed us to ask a sample of Millennial students about their perceptions, and one of the questions was whether or not they liked the online mode of learning. Without exception, all the student panelists expressed the sentiment that their online courses were not engaging, with consensus that online courses were not effective as an avenue for learning. I wanted to dig deeper in this direction, hoping to draw a distinction between online courses and online learning. I asked the students whether or not they were comfortable going online to learn about anything, say for a hobby interest or particular need they may have had at some point in time. Again, there was unanimous agreement–this time to express that going online to learn things was something that the students did regularly. The content that they were able to access for the personal needs was much more engaging than was the content developed for their online courses.

The answer to this question certainly requires further study, but it reinforces an intuition that I (and many educators) have had for quite some time: while online content developed for the general consumer (in a highly mind-share competitive environment) captures attention and brings users back repeatedly, online courses are often bland and uninspiring, and the reasons for their use may vary, but the quality of engagement of the overall online course experience is not among those reasons. This doesn’t surprise me, as I sample online courses developed for and within the current breed of learning management systems. There is a cookie-cutter feel to the content, and while there is greater integration of multimedia materials, these elements are episodic within the courses rather than integrated in a way that provides a true interactive experience to engage the learner.

Is this an artifact of the “mass production” of online courses? Perhaps, but there is little reason for this to be the operational model. A decade ago, designers discussed the power of the World Wide Web based in the ability for the “mass customization” of content. Yet when we examine online courses as currently developed, we see the presentation of an experience that is the same for each and every student within the same course. Every student progresses through the same discussion forums in the same sequence, answering the same prompts. Every student completes the same assignments, usually in the same calendar-driven sequence. Every student listens to the same podcasts, flips through the same PowerPoint slides, and watches the same video clips assigned by their instructors.

The important question to answer now becomes one of transformation. How do we as educators infuse online courses with the level of interactivity that will actually engage our students? (Hint: Think computer games, but think “small” at the same time.)

 

*Nichole J Borges et al.  “Comparing Millennial and Generation X Medical Students at One Medical School.  Academic Medicine;  81.6 (2006): 571-576
**Pauley, John and Urs Gasser. Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.  New York: Basic Books,  2008

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Filed under computer games, education, education course content, education technology, face-to-face instruction, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, higher education, Internet, Learning Management Systems, Millennial students, online education

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

Selecting Learning Management Systems: Is the RFP Process Appropriate?

By Dr. Suzanne Kissel

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to attend a WCET webcast entitled “Why the RFP Process Doesn’t Work in Today’s LMS Market.”   Pausing only to register, I forwarded the invitation to my colleagues and blocked out the requisite time on Tuesday, May 22nd.  I think that I’m going to make it back from my client meeting just in time to hear the panelists Phil Hill, Executive Vice President at Delta Initiative, and Patrick Masson, Chief Technology Officer at UMassOnline speak to the matter.  As someone involved in helping to write LMS RFP and evaluating the results, I am eager to hear these experts, but I also have my own thoughts.

While looking for an example to share with a colleague, I ran across my notes for putting together an LMS RFP and selection process.  They highlighted the creation of a selection team, identification of a key decision-maker, system & technical requirements, on-site presentations by selected vendors, surveys, and involvement by faculty and staff.  I shot the notes off to my colleague with the thought that they were probably what she wanted before I looked at the date when I wrote them.  It was 2004.

Although it’s certainly possible to argue that LMS aspects have not changed since 2004, what it means to learn and teach online is undergoing vigorous renegotiation.  The well-documented successes of open courses along with free or low-cost online learning tools are just two of many.   Technology and learning are intertwined with each other.  Change in one leads to re-application or re-definition of the other.  So, if the technology has changed or is in the process of changing, why have LMS selection processes more or less stayed the same?

Part of it is the cost and the commitment involved; selecting an LMS has been likened to a marriage.   It’s expensive to get in, but even more expensive to get out.  The stakes are high.   Instructors and administrators have to interact and depend on the LMS on a daily basis.  Glitches in the LMS have wide-reaching implications and must be resolved in a timely manner.  As a result, the RFP process has become increasingly bloated.  It’s expensive to run and even more expensive to participate in.  Smaller companies, open source alternatives, or even free-ware simply cannot compete with the larger players who can create sandboxes, make multiple site visits, and fill out RFP’s that can sometimes reach into the hundreds of pages (I know, I’ve helped create some of these).   Because of the proactive sales and marketing techniques of the larger LMS companies it is not uncommon for institutional stakeholders to have already pretty much made the decision before the RFP has already been written.   The long process often is conducted anyway.

The alternatives to the traditional LMS are out there; the difficulty is changing the RFP process from what it was back in 2004, when there were no alternatives, to select the best product for the school.

If I had to rewrite that 2004 document, how would I do it?  I’d like to share some preliminary thoughts here and hope that they’ll perhaps inspire some discussion.

  1. Evaluate Institutional Needs – Too often, institutions get hung up on features, but the need should be cast wider.  Of course, there is always cost and support.  However, what are the ultimate goals and objectives – are they to grow a distance-learning program?  Retain students? Offer mainly web-enhanced and hybrid courses?  Participate in a consortium or share courses across institutional boundaries?  Try not only to look at present institutional needs, but those that relate to the future as well.
  2. Consider Online Content – More frequently than not, institutions of higher education anticipate updating, reviewing, and considering standards for their online courses at the same time they move LMS.  With the growing demand for differentiated content and, as Phil Hill identifies, the increasing overlap between the LMS platform market and the content market, it becomes important to consider all possible alternatives to the LMS.
  3. Keep an Open Mind – This is open in all sense of the word – open-to-open source, open or Creative Commons licensed content, and open to LMS alternatives.  Of course, this is not to say that one of these should be selected, but this attribute as well as the willingness to do some research should lead to a much more streamlined RFP.

I wanted to write all of this down before the much-anticipated WCET webinar; I look forward to hearing the opinions of the panels and comparing them to my own.  This is an important conversation and I’m glad to have a part in it.

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Blackboard Acquires Moodlerooms; Borg Reevalute Strategies for Assimilation

by Hap Aziz

I admit, with the acquisitions that Blackboard has made over the years, I could not resist the Star Trek reference. However, the ramifications for this latest move by the LMS heavyweight are quite far reaching, especially in terms of the impact it could have on the open source marketplace for learning management systems. Realize, that as large as Blackboard’s market share is, even after the acquisitions of WebCT and Angel, their market share as been decreasing–slowly, but decreasing still. This is the type of move that could be considered a game-changer, as long as there is a commitment on the part of Bb leadership to leverage Moodleroom expertise rather than bury it.

(Does anyone remember the story of Quark and mTropolis?)

From our perspective here at Learning Through Play & Technology, there are some definite upsides as well as some potential bad news from this move. We’ll take a few days to survey the education landscape and present our analysis. In the mean time, we encourage you to take a look at what Ray Henderson has to say on the topic.

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Using Gaming Systems as Modern Learning Tools

by Martin LaGrow

The advancement of gaming technology from one generation to the next is mind-boggling. It’s hard to believe that in what has become known as the ‘Video Game Crash of 1983,’ the industry virtually fell out of existence, with revenues dropping from $3.2 billion to $100 million in 1985.  The cause of the market crash was also fertile grounds for the solution—a glut of subpar and poorly developed games and systems drove consumers away.  The solution, therefore, was a focus on innovation and quality to woo consumers.  Ultimately, the Nintendo 64 and Sony’s Playstation reinvigorated the market in the mid 1990’s.  Microsoft entered the game and elevated competition with its Xbox in 2001, in side by side competition with the new Nintendo GameCube.  It’s hard to find solid numbers because the definition of video gaming can vary, but most estimates indicate that industry revenue is now over $20 billion a year.  Current developments of the Wii and Xbox 360 prove that companies are still willing to innovate and invest to take their fair share of a very large pie.  Market penetration is significant—sales estimates in the United States would indicate that over half of US households have at least one advanced gaming system. The likelihood of the market compressing again as it did in 1983 is slim to none.  Consoles are advancing in technological capability much faster and in different directions than the home PC, tablet, and mobile device.  Is there an implication in the advancement of these platforms for education?  If LMS designers are open-minded, there certainly could be.

The concept of using a gaming console for learning is certainly not new. Pictured, an Xbox is employed at the AT&T Oaks Course outside San Antonio to help golfers lower their handicaps before actually embarking on the course.  By using the Xbox Kinect, one can imagine that the same Xbox will soon analyze and advise the same golfers about their swing.

Another classic example is the evolution from Rock Band to Rocksmith. Whereas users once plugged a toy push-button guitar into their game consolses, all of their time invested was wasted when it comes to real-world application. With the advent of Rocksmith, the guitar used is now the real deal—meaning gameplay is translated to real-world skills. Though many critics pan the game and its effectiveness, it is only a first incarnation. If the market demands it, new versions will evolve that increase effectiveness.

More academic pursuits are already available.  For example, “Let’s Learn Japanese” (http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Lets-Learn-Japanese-Beginner/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d802585504ac) is an early venture into language learning.  Microsoft also now partnering with Sesame Workshop and National Geographic to pitch the Kinect as a potential tool for ‘embodied learning’ that puts children right into the action (http://content.usatoday.com/communities/gamehunters/post/2011/10/microsoft–kinect–xbox-360-learning/1).

So how can the innovation and advanced interactive features of the current generation of game consoles be harnessed for higher education?  The answer may lie in supplementing online learning environments rather than replacing them. Consider the strengths of the game console as a potential supplemental tool to bolster the weaknesses of the traditional LMS:

Ease of navigation and familiarity to users. Students who grew up interacting in a three-dimensional online world can easily translate those skills to academic challenges.  If navigation through academic software mimics traditional RPG’s with user friendly tools like Kinect and the Wii remote, there is one less hurdle to separate student from success.  The fear of navigating a new online system is summarily removed.

Interconnectivity. Many games rely on the integration of game consoles with internet activity. For example, the Wii version of Club Penguin allows children to transfer their achievements and rewards to their online Club Penguin account, accessed through a web browser.  All that is required is a network connection.  Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure takes it one step further, and records data via RFID to figurines, which can then be synchronized online as well.  The point is, if students can complete exercises, master objectives, and progress sequentially in course material on their game console, that information is very easily submitted and stored to an online LMS.

Standalone functionality.  Every LMS is based on the assumption that students have consistent, high-speed internet connectivity.  Furthermore, a high volume of server capacity is necessary for large institutions to support all students.  Server downtime or network congestion can frustrate students attempting to frantically meet deadlines.  If students can complete drill-and-practice work, view videos, and participate in simulations locally on their game console, and rely on internet connectivity only for the purpose of uploading and recording progress, the demands on network speeds and server capacity are reduced.

Availability and inexpensiveness.  The processing power of an Xbox 360, for the cost of under $300, rivals most laptops (the custom CPU is a triple core processor running at 3.2 GHz) and the graphics power is naturally better (500 MHz GPU with 512 mb GDDR3 RAM).  The amount of downtime due to viruses, hard drive failures, etc. becomes almost a non-issue compared to what students experience with their laptops.  And as mentioned previously, a great many households already have access to game consoles.

I’m not suggesting that playing video games replace scholarly writing or course interaction in online LMS’s.  I am, however, suggesting that we can harness the power of the tools that already exist to provide an exciting and different way to engage students, taking full advantage of technology the PC world has not yet embraced. The PC is being left behind in the way people use technology today, and replaced with tablets, PDA’s, and even game consoles.  It’s time for the world of education to innovate in these different spaces to engage today’s learner.

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Filed under computer games, education, education technology, games, Learning Management Systems, Martin LaGrow, simulation, tablets, technology