Tag Archives: Martin LaGrow

Higher education: Who is the customer?

Martyby Martin LaGrow

In Hap Aziz’s recent blog article, Society or Student: What Should Education Serve, Mr. Aziz posed a number of important questions: what is the role of higher education in contributing to and preserving the entrepreneurial spirit? What is the contribution of higher education to developing students who demonstrate creativity and independent thought?  The answer, it would appear, would be one and the same—serving the student, by providing an education that encourages independent thought, serves society. The influx of US government dollars into education, however, means that the American citizen is rightfully interested in the ROI—what is the quantitative, as well as qualitative return on the investment of an estimated $54 billion dollars per year (http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/09/17/its-well-past-time-to-slash-higher-education-subsidies/) in federal grants, aid, and tax breaks—aside from money spent at the state level? This amounts to $250 per taxpayer. Granted, these are very rough estimates, and could arguably be swayed either way depending on what you want the numbers to portray, but my point is this: As Mr. Aziz stated, “He who pays the piper calls the tune, after all.” While this is true in most business transactions, is it true in higher education? At the end of the day, who is the customer? Because this determines who higher education is going to be motivated to serve.

One school of thought is that the customer is the government that is putting the dollars on the table. Eighty-five percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates receive financial aid at four-year colleges. Meanwhile, this number soars to 92% (now 96%, according to the Harkin report referenced below) at for-profit colleges (http://chronicle.com/article/Share-of-Students-Receiving/132016/). Whether this is a good use of funds or not is a subject for another day. The question here is, if the government is indeed the consumer (paying the piper), is the government calling the tune, or dictating how and where those the dollars are spent? Current data would suggest not—the government is writing blank checks that any institution meeting very basic requirements can qualify for. Pell grants and loans are available to any college that can win accreditation, and every college can get the same amount. Though it is the US Department of Education that officially recognizes college accreditation, it is outside agencies that review institutions and actually grant accreditation (http://www.ehow.com/how-does_5128294_do-colleges-accredited.html). This means that while government funds higher education through grants and loans, it does not directly evaluate any institutions or programs to where those funds are directed. Is the government calling the tune? Hardly. Any direct governmental oversight of funds spent has been done after the fact. The senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions) committee chairman, Tom Harkin, initiated a two-year investigation to determine exactly what the government is getting for its money from for-profit colleges that receive the highest portion of government funding (http://www.harkin.senate.gov/help/forprofitcolleges.cfm). The conclusions do not paint the outcome of this investment in glowing terms. But nothing was dictated in advance as to what those funds could and could not be used for. If the government is left holding the bag, it is only because it left the door open for opportunists rather than providing a clear picture of the intended expenditures and outcomes.

Another school of thought is that the customer of higher education is the student. After all, although it is the government that writes the check, it is the student that hands it over to the finance department of their chosen institution.  As the student makes the spending decision, it is the student to whom institutions are marketing. One finding of the Harkin report was that 22.7 percent of all for-profit college revenue was spent on marketing, advertising, recruiting, and admissions staff. Traditional colleges and some non-profits are striving to keep pace, spending over 20 percent of their annual revenues on advertising and marketing (http://www.evolllution.com/opinions/ways-higher-education-marketing-change-10-years/).  Colleges and universities are thrust into unfamiliar territory—determining the hot buttons that cause a potential student to chose them over and above increasingly fierce competition, and catering to obtain (and retain) those students. As the student walks through the doors with a government check, it is truly the student who calls the tune. And like the government, the student is typically not doing a great deal of investigation into exactly what those dollars are paying for. After all, it is usually not $20,000 a year they have earned and socked away into their own savings to pay for this education. It’s effectively someone else’s money, money that they will have to pay back at a later date—once they have obtained the high-paying job that their new degree practically guarantees.

And what is it that this customer wants? Though students are incredibly varied, and their expectations for higher education are equally varied, the end result is ultimately, and almost unanimously, the same thing. From the eighteen-year-old student entering a four year MBA program on a traditional campus, to the twenty-eight year old student taking night classes in veterinary technology at a vocational institution, the purpose of pursuing higher education is to get a job. It may be to pursue the American dream of independent wealth, or to just make enough to pay the bills and raise the children, but the outcome is the same. The institution that can convince students it offers the greatest opportunity for success will win the day.

So we have a precarious arrangement. A government provides nearly unlimited and unmonitored funds to institutions to market and provide an education to students, and allows students to determine the allocation of those funds based on the ability of the institution to convince them of its worth. It’s up to the institution to determine, therefore, what is more important…in this arrangement, will it be to use those dollars to provide the best value and quality of education to the student, contribute meaningful research to society, and lead the charge in developing the independent and entrepreneurial spirit, paying to recruit and retain the highest quality instructors? Or will it be more inclined to enhance its image, create dynamic marketing campaigns, and falsely inflate retention and graduation rates to produce enticing statistics for its potential students?

Or to put it anecdotally, if my parents gave me a $100,000, unconditional loan to buy a new car when I turned 18, would the salesman make a sales pitch to them, or to me? And at the end of the day, do you suppose I would end up making the most informed purchase with those funds? Until the unrealistic alignment of funding in higher education is reformed, neither student nor society will be best served by the outcome.

And for the record, I did some searching and found a used 1991 Lamborghini Diablo for $93,500. But don’t worry. I’ll pay it back.

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Filed under Department of Education, education funding, Hap Aziz, higher education, Martin LaGrow, student loans, U.S. government

The MOOC that fits – Will be the MOOC that Survives.

JT Hudnut headshotby Jason T. Hudnut
Chief Coordinating Consultant:  www.theturnpiketeacher.com

The world of the Massive Open Online Course, better known by the catchy and humorous acronym: MOOC, both fascinates and intrigues me.  With 20 plus years as an educator under my belt, I have seen many versions of teaching as it translates from pre-school to higher education and then again  from public, charter, private, and even to parochial settings.  So the future of how we as educators reach our students has been a thought that wanders in and out of my curious mind on many occasions. I am struck by a comment suggested by Hap Aziz in his article: “Rethinking the Class Paradigm:  The Rise and Potential Fall of MOOCs”, posted on February 28, 2012 on this blog.  Mr. Aziz states, “Very few educators would argue that there is no difference between teaching cohorts of 20 students or cohorts of 200, 2,000, or even 20,000 students.” I obviously agree with this, but I wonder if we could, as educators, adapt…or better yet…evolve into an instructor capable of reaching and teaching any number of students under our guidance.

Mr. Aziz references Joshua Kim, Director of Learning and Technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College, in his article : ”Open Online Courses Are No Substitutes for Classroom Learning” for The U.S. New & World Report.  Mr. Kim states, “Authentic learning requires a two-way dialogue between student and instructor. College teaching at its best is much more than the delivery of content: It’s about the co-construction of knowledge with students and faculty…” Kim continues, “Education is one of those things in life (like friendship) that is based on the relationships between individuals, and therefore is limited in how far it can scale.”  These concepts absolutely nail it for me.  The dialogue between student and instructor and the relationships between the individuals involved in the academic setting has been supporting keystone as I continue to stack the building blocks of my philosophy of education.  It is my desire to reach the student, not only through the curriculum, but within and beyond the strength of the relationship we have developed in the realm of a mutual respect and trust.

The respect that should flow between teacher and student allows us to accept that a learned knowledge from the instructor is being properly evaluated, translated and presented to a willing pupil.  The trust that must be built in this bond lays on a foundation that should already determine the fact that each participant firmly believes in the ability of the other.  The student trusts and respects the knowledge and ability of the instructor.  The instructor, in return, should trust and respect the willingness and ability of the student to learn.  Now…can we, as instructors, translate this relationship with one student to a larger group?  We certainly do this for a class of 20 students, and maybe for a case load of 200 individuals.  We do it over a period of time for 2,000 pupils.  I believe, that we can build up our academic muscles and reach 20,000 students with the same principals of trust and respect, or by whatever means may work for the individuality of each instructor.

Mr. Aziz is absolutely correct though.  To do this, the paradigm needs to shift.  I really was sold on his assertion that suggests, “MOOCs are not courses as much as they are communities.” But I fell in love with his concept of,

“…entering into the scale of a small city.  And when it comes to a city, we understand that no single person (or even small group of people) is responsible for running the whole city. It’s not just the mayor or the city council members. There are hundreds, and even thousands of other official and semi-official roles to be played in the smooth running of a city: police, firefighters, garbage collectors, teachers, and more with whom I interact as a citizen (student) of my city (MOOC) depending on what kind of assistance I need or interaction I seek.”

YES!!!  That is the ticket; a MOOC should be run like a city.  All of the individuals involved have roles to play.  Aziz paints a world where he speaks of meaningful services meet the needs of the community.  He proclaims, “This is where the education community needs to rethink how MOOCs are built and administered, and ultimately what the role of the instructor is to be.”  I believe, this proclamation, as illustrated by similar conversations within the academic community, prove that this shift has already been ushered in.  We, as the educators of today, and even as the former students of yesterday, have given birth to the needs of the future and the evolving of academia.

Doug Holton, of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, FL., makes a poignant claim in his article: “What’s the “Problem” with MOOCs?” published for EdTechDev: developing educational technology on May 4, 2012. Holten asserts,

“Especially disturbing is that none of the major MOOC providers have hired anyone trained in Instructional design, the learning sciences, educational technology, course design, or other educational specialties to help with the design of their courses.  They are hiring a lot of programmers and recruiting a lot of faculty, who may have various motivations for participating in these open education experiments.”

If the shift we are seeing is to make any noise at all, here are the first rumblings to echo throughout the halls of our universities, colleges, school yards and all the way down to the dark corners of the software developer’s office cubicles. Now is the time to look at a blending of our talents.  The masses can be reached.  We must bring the talents of those in the classrooms, who are designing, implementing and delivering curriculum, together with the genius of those in the Information Technology field who are able to design, implement and deliver the software that will build the “Massively Open Online Communities” that Hap Aziz has envisioned.

Martin LaGrow gives us a wonderful reflection of Mr. Aziz’s thoughts in his response article: “Rethinking the Class Paradigm: MOOCs as a Community,” also for this blog, on March 13, 2013.  Mr. LaGrow’s words, “In a sense, the MOOC is a product of evolution.” Jump right up and off of the page and fall straight into my wheelhouse.  Yes sir, the MOOC is an evolution.  And the MOOC is not finished developing and adapting to the environment that we have built to house it.  LaGrow continues to ask, “…how can higher education leverage the strengths of the MOOC without also applying the limitations of the classroom?” I also wonder how this will play out.  I already pontificated on my philosophies of respect and trust.  Perhaps we should not limit our inquiries to the world of higher education.  The proving grounds of today’s collegians fall to the high schools and lower schools that first planted the seeds for the desire to acquire knowledge.  These institutions are changing more and more with the explosion of alternative education and the race between public, private, charter, and parochial schools to outdo each other and keep their enrollments up and funding flowing.

In any case, we all must agree, it is a changing world.  The way we teach and the way we learn is evolving.  MOOCs were only a distant concept just decades ago.  They were simply a dream of the Silicon Valley prophets of yesteryear.  Today, MOOCs are a reality.  Tomorrow, they will be a necessary ingredient in the delivery of a significant variety of knowledge on this planet.  It is a testament to Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”.  The MOOC that fits- will be the MOOC that survives.  Whether it is as a course or a community, that is the question.


Aziz, H. (2013).  Rethinking the Class Paradigm:  The Rise and Potential Fall of MOOCs. Retrieved from https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/rethinking-the-class-paradigm-the-rise-and-potential-fall-of-moocs/

Holton, D. (2012). What’s the Problem with MOOCs?. Retrieved from http://edtechdev.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/whats-the-problem-with-moocs/

Kim, J. (2012). Open Online Courses Are No Substitutes for Classroom Learning. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/economic-intelligence/2012/06/29/open-online-courses-are-not-subsitutes-for-classroom-learning

LaGrow, M. (2013).  Rethinking the Class Paradigm: MOOC’s as a Community. Retrieved from https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/rethinking-the-class-paradigm-moocs-as-a-community/

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Filed under education, education technology, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, Martin LaGrow, MOOCs, online education, virtual classrooms

Rethinking the Class Paradigm: MOOCs as a Community

Martyby Martin LaGrow

In his February 28th post called ‘Rethinking the Class Paradigm: The Rise and Potential Fall of MOOCs,’ Hap Aziz posed the question, “Is there truly a way for a single instructor to teach a class with 30,000 students,” and went on to suggest that the answer is no—a MOOC should not be perceived as a course so much as it should be a community. If this perception does not change, he predicted that “the whole MOOC movement will come crashing down by not being able to meet some very important learner needs.”  So what are the limitations of the MOOC as we have come to know it, why do those limitations exist, and what do we do to overcome them?

In a sense, the MOOC is a product of evolution. However, it is not a haphazard mutation. It is evolution influenced by the application of technology to education. The problem with this kind of evolution is that our preconceived notions are carried over from its predecessors—along with their limitations.

The first e-books are a great example of dragging physical limitations into the technical sphere. To increase consumer acceptance of the new technology, the e-book experience was designed to be as much like the book experience as possible. The end product was a book—a book that was functionally no more exceptional than a standard book, even to the point of turning pages. The technology was limited in its scope and provided little improvement over the actual book experience (or none, as some opine). It even brought its own limitations—expense, the need for power, and the dangers of reading in the bathtub! The e-book has since all but disappeared, absorbed into the tablet trend, as any tablet in existence can provide a far richer e-book experience while performing other functions as well.

When higher education ventured into online learning, much the same approach was taken. Educators took their paradigms about the classroom and shifted them into the online modality. When this was done, often the limitations of the classroom carried over, the limitations of technology were added to the mix, but the benefits of technology were not adopted, creating a shallow academic experience. After all, what was an in-person classroom? A synchronous group of 15-25 students, perhaps, an instructor, some lecture component, assigned readings, the submission of papers and perhaps quizzes and tests. Not surprisingly, this was the shape that most online courses took (any many still do today). The classroom paradigm has been transferred online with mixed success. When designed and facilitated well, the limitations are mitigated by a sense of community. As noted by the Illinois Online Network (ION),

“Online learning has its most promising potential in the high synergy represented by active dialog among the participants, one of the most important sources of learning in a Virtual Classroom. However, in larger classes…the synergy level starts to shift on the learning continuum until it eventually becomes independent study to accommodate the large class. At this point, dialog is limited as well as interaction among participants and the facilitator. The medium is not being used to its greatest potential (source).”

Enter the MOOC.

The MOOC is the next evolution of online learning. The limitations of the classroom, once passed down to online courses, are now also in the DNA of the MOOC. Often, the MOOC is little more than a standard online course opened up to a much greater number of participants, inheriting the issues of its predecessor without embracing the new opportunities that the structure provides. If ION is correct, then the MOOC that fits this description is the worst of both worlds.

If, however, MOOCs are removed from their historical roots, and considered to be Massively Open Online Communities, as Hap suggests, the limitations of the class may be released along with the paradigm. This view is also espoused by Doug Holton of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Center in Daytona Beach.

“The question is, are MOOCs an example of imposing an existing worldview (traditional instruction, courses, and instructors) on a new medium for learning?  Is it necessary for all the ‘students’ in a MOOC to be learning the same topic at the same time (synchronous learning)?  That appears to be a common defining characteristic of all MOOCs.  Does there have to be a single, unchanging instructor?  Does it have to be a ‘course’ at all, with a finite beginning and end?  Most students forget much of what they learn once a course ends…Many topics are constantly changing and evolving (like science and engineering and technology), and one’s learning may be out of date sometimes within months, if not years, after a course ends.  Much of what we learn comes from outside the classroom anyway – what we call lifelong learning and informal learning (source).”

Holton gets to the heart of the issue. What if the finite classroom model, which is the basis for online classrooms and thus the grandfather of MOOCs, is flawed? After all, what is a course? It is usually a set of predetermined objectives that are stated, accomplished, and measured upon completion. It does not necessarily represent authentic learning. It does not model the professional realm, or the communities for which students are being prepared, in which they will be expected to continuously learn, contribute, and foster relationships. These are the things that a MOOC does well. The question is now, how can higher education leverage the strengths of the MOOC without also applying the limitations of the classroom?

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Filed under eBooks, Hap Aziz, higher education, Martin LaGrow, MOOCs, virtual classrooms

The Relationship Between Facebook and GPAs

by Martin LaGrow

In 2009, a doctoral candidate from Ohio State University conducted a study of college students who use Facebook regularly (who knew there were any that didn’t?) and shared the results with the American Education Research Association (http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1891111,00.html). The study of 219 undergraduate and graduate students found that the GPAs of Facebook users averaged about a full grade point lower than those of nonusers. The implied conclusion—that Facebook has a detrimental impact on academics—is inescapable. Neuroscientists even go a step farther to claim that Facebook inhibits normal brain development and person-to-person interaction. Oxford professor Susan Greenfield suggests that constant connection to social media is guilty of “infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noised and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1153583/Social-websites-harm-childrens-brains-Chilling-warning-parents-neuroscientist.html).”
The case against Facebook seemed pretty grim for students, but the growing tide against the social media monster also generated pushback. Just like people can’t blame the fast food industry for their weight issues, perhaps college students can’t blame Facebook for their low GPA. Reynol Junco of Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania supported this premise after conducting a study of 1,839 college students. His conclusion was that for every 93 minutes spent on Facebook, the GPA dropped just .12 grade points. “Facebook use in and of itself is not detrimental to academic outcome,” says Junco. “It depends how it’s used (http://reyjunco.com/wordpress/pdf/JuncoCHBFacebookGrades.pdf).” Junco even went one step further to suggest that using Facebook as an information-gathering source can even increase GPA’s.
Going back to the original study, if we accept the premise that Facebook users earn a full grade lower than non-users, we then have to address the fact that correlation does not equal causation. It’s critical to look at the nature of the individual who is drawn to use social media two hours a day. This is a person who desires instant feedback. It is a person who wants social interaction. It is a person who does not just want to be passively engaged, but wants to be part of the dialogue. It is a person who wants to share thoughts, feelings, and ideas for the response of others, as well as to participate in the dialogue when others post theirs. In a traditional LMS, where controlled content is king, this learner will not thrive.
Junco’s study forces us to take a step back and recognize that the original study has nothing to do with whether someone chooses to use Facebook or not and it has more to do with different styles of learning. Facebook does well what traditional LMSs do poorly—it provides tools for engagement that suit the user. It is intuitive. It is open. Interaction and connections are the most valuable component, and that mimics the way that most people learn. Perhaps the question is not “How does Facebook affect GPAs?” but rather, “How can education learn from Facebook to increase GPAs?”


Filed under Learning Management Systems, learning outcomes, Martin LaGrow, social media

“Habit of Mind” in Higher Education

by Martin LaGrow

Due in part to a continually struggling economy, the demographics of the average college student have shifted in recent years. It’s no secret that the average age of students has been climbing for years—various reports indicate the mean age is now somewhere in the high 20’s. As a response to this (and probably contributing to the trend, as well) colleges have been adjusting their focus to target the preferences and objectives of these older students. Rather than ensuring students get what they NEED in the long term, they are providing what students WANT in the short term—skills that position them for a job right now. This response of higher education is akin to a parent feeding a child a candy bar to cure immediate hunger pains while neglecting the fact that the child needs good nutrition for long term healthy growth.

The landscape of higher education has drastically shifted. Brick-and-mortar institutions that have historically been bastions of thought leadership now have to compete with colleges that are touting ‘real-world’ job skills and ‘hands-on experience’ to put students on the fast track to employment. Community colleges, for-profits, and vocational skills are competing for students who want to be in school today and employed tomorrow—or are very often employed full time as they attend classes. In the end, there is a trade-off.  Students may have their hunger satisfied with skills for an entry-level job, but are they developing intellectual skills and ‘habit of mind’ that will serve them in the long run?

Contributing this trend, many colleges are emphasizing metrics that can be easily measured in the short term over life skills that can’t easily be quantified in the long term. After all, when a syllabus is drafted, isn’t the emphasis on the tangible—what the student will KNOW, DO, or PRODUCE at the end of the course? And in an online environment, how much emphasis is placed on students successfully meeting easily measurable objectives? Often, too much.

Intellectual character and virtues have often historically been sequestered in the liberal studies department. History and Philosophy were logical places to promote integrity, inquiry-driven learning, and values beyond oneself. The fields we today refer to as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) could focus on the mechanics of life, with little more than a nod to the meaning of life. So what happens when today’s students flood programs that emphasize the hands-on skills and practical knowledge without providing rigor in personal development? We may not fully realize this today or tomorrow, but the evidence will creep into our lives five or ten years from now.

Today’s colleges and universities must recognize that they are preparing students not for a job, or even a career, but for life. This may not be what students are always asking for but it is what society requires. Subject matter experts, course designers, and instructors must work together to push for really learning that goes beyond the facts and skills. “What the student will know” is not enough. The student must recognize the significance and usefulness of that which is known. “What the student will do” is a good start. How the student will recognize when and why it is done shows analytical prowess. “What the student will produce” in a course is important. But more importantly, will the student be able to describe the significance of the product, other than in terms of “I had to do it to pass the class?”

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Filed under higher education, Martin LaGrow, online education, STEM

Online Instruction for the Millennial Student

by Martin LaGrow

From a very young age, children learn through play and exploration. This is a time tested truth, and for generations academics have struggled to capture the learning elements of play and exploration and to harness their power in a classroom setting. All too often, sadly, standardization and metrics win out and students are forced to ‘learn’ in an artificial environment in order to achieve equally artificial standards. In essence, children’s natural processes for learning and exploration are often squelched by the traditional classroom environment.

My colleague Hap Aziz recently wrote about the disconnect between millennial students and higher education in the online world. One of his key points was that millennial students are very adept at online learning, and yet generally do not appreciate what is offered to them in terms of online courses. This conundrum is a technological evolution of the age-old problem expressed above—the natural tendencies of learning are thwarted by institutional efforts to teach and measure in very traditional means. Ironically, history repeats itself as students are again forced to forego their natural tendencies to conform to the world of education.

From Aristotle to John Dewey to Jean Piaget, many great philosophers recognized the need for the academic process to start with the student’s natural inclinations. Education is not, nor has it ever been, a one-size-fits-all proposition. So what does this mean for higher education when it comes to dealing with the millennial student online? It means that you do not start with a prefabricated, cut-and-dried set of expectations and outcomes for an online course. It means that you instead start with knowing the learner and allowing them to use their proclivities rather than stifling them. Therefore, it is equally as important to know the student as it is to know the content!

So what does research tell us about the millennial student? Millennials Go to College by Neil Howe and William Strauss may be the definitive resource on their characteristics. In a nutshell, Howe and Strauss identified these seven traits as common to the new generation of learner—categorically, students born since 1982:Special. They have always been treated as special, important, and wanted. Positive feedback and academic emphasis on building self-esteem means they are comfortable on a pedestal.

  • Sheltered. A product of being over-protected by parents and society. Consequently, they have little experience in resolving conflicts.
  • Confident. Motivated, goal-oriented, and destined for greatness. They see college as the launch pad for future success.
  • Team-Oriented.  Group-oriented within their own generation. Not wanting to stand out or be considered selfish, and geared toward service and volunteerism.
  • Achieving. Focused on good grades, hard work, and involvement in extra curriculars. Pressured to be perhaps too career focused; achieving goals supersedes the importance of personal development.
  • Pressured. May not understand spontaneity as their childhoods were structured and regimented with organized activity. Overly given to multi-tasking and taking on too much, but expect others to be flexible with their scheduling conflicts.
  • Conventional. Civic minded, respectful of authority, and believing that the government knows what’s best and will take care of them. They value parents’ opinions, conformism, and social rules.
What cues can the instructional designer and online instructor take from these characteristics when it comes to crafting a meaningful learning experience?
  • The millennial student expects the instructor to be authoritative yet accessible; worthy of respect and personal. While this student may respond well to positive feedback, he/she may require detailed, compassionate explanations of failures rather than just being pointed to a rubric. This student will strive to meet expectations when given a second opportunity.
  • If you run into a conflict with this student, take the high ground. It does not always pay to take a hard line and force them to accept your judgment. Consider difficult situations as teachable moments to help them develop their resolution and negotiation skills.
  • Create meaningful opportunities for group work and team assignments. When doing so, allow them the opportunity to evaluate their own participation and the participation of their peers. Give them ownership of the goals and outcomes for group assignments.
  • Remember to keep a focus on how your course develops them as a person, not on how well they will meet pre-established course objectives. If their goal is to meet course objectives, when the course is over so is their learning. If they learn that they are acquiring life-skills and useful knowledge, their learning continues as they move on in life.

These are some general principles to consider when working with the millennial student. In a follow up to this article next week, I will expand on how the millennial student uses technology, and what specifically that means for enhancing online instruction.


Filed under education, Hap Aziz, instructional design, Martin LaGrow, Millennial students

Gamification of Education: Balancing Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

by Martin LaGrow

The bleeding-edge blogosphere of education is alive and well, and the topic du jour is gamification.  It is a concept that is already being utilized aggressively in other markets, but there is a lot of debate about whether it has a place in education.  As with most new trends, we are dealing with evolving terminology with no pre-established definition.  As gamification takes on different directions in different contexts, no doubt people will be using the term without an agreed-upon understanding of what it is.  Gamification of education is not just the addition of games to academics—that concept is as old as education itself.  We can all think of games we played in the classroom as kids that complemented learning.  Nor does it necessarily speak toward the application of gaming technology to education.  Rather, gamification is the application of the mechanism and structure of gaming to a traditionally non-game focused context—in this case, the classroom.  According to Joey Lee and Jessica Hammer’s insightful paper, Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?, gamification is “The incorporation of game elements into non-game settings.”  The website GamifyingEducation.org goes into more detail, expanding the definition as it applies to education to include “…the use of game mechanics and dynamics like badges, leaderboards, and actions…for improving motivation and learning in informal and formal settings.”

Before discussing this in the context of education, let’s take a look at how gamification has infiltrated another industry:  health and fitness.  Virgin’s Healthmiles program is a classic example of gamification in action.  Designed to assist employers in promoting healthy lifestyles for their employees, the Healthmiles program exemplifies all of the hallmarks of gamification.  Employee progress toward a healthier lifestyle is quantitatively tracked.  Participants earn badges for various accomplishments, “level up” when they reach certain milestones, and can even compete against coworkers and other program participants through social networking.  Successful attainment of goals is also incentivized with HealthCash.  Virgin has successfully capitalized on the principles that make gamification effective.

Proponents of gamification in education see it as a cure for the malaise affecting our schools.  Students lack motivation.  Efforts to engage them through traditional means are failing.  On the surface, gamification seems like it may be the solution.  According to gamification.org,

“Gamification… doesn’t rely on internal motivation (emphasis mine). Instead, it’s using the oldest tricks in the book: providing instantaneous feedback, egging on the competition, and rewarding even tiny steps of progress. Gamification assumes that the player isn’t especially motivated — at least at the beginning — and then provides barrels of incentives to ramp up that motivation.”  In other words, proper application of external motivation can prime the pump, if you will, of internal motivation and drive success.  While this may be true to a point, it is certainly not a panacea—and some will respond more to this type of motivation than others.

Let’s apply this logic to the Virgin HealthMiles program.  It’s a great notion—after all, who doesn’t want to be healthier?  Who doesn’t agree that exercising more and feeling better about themselves is important?  And this program rewards and incentivizes what we all know we should be doing!  So what rate of participation would you expect in such a program?  Seventy-five percent?  Fifty percent?  According to Virgin, “Our approach…attracts an average of 40% of employees.”  Clearly, external motivation cannot drive success in a vacuum!  While forty percent of employees taking steps (literally) toward a healthier lifestyle is certainly a good thing, what contributes to the 60%, on average, that do not participate in the program?  The answer, in part, is lack of intrinsic motivation.

Applied in an academic context, while gamification can certainly be an effective tool to produce desirable results in some measureable contexts, it is no replacement for internal motivation.  Students need to understand the value of the tasks that they are performing in order to achieve sustainable learning.  A life-long learner is not fostered by extrinsic motivation.  When the motivator is removed, the learner must understand the value of learning for its own sake.

Gamification certainly can and should play a role in the evolution of education.  However, as in all things, it is wise to avoid extremes.  Gamification is rooted in incentive theory.  Understanding this, before any major shift is made toward gamifying education in any context, it is important to understand other theories of motivation (drive theory, humanistic theory, arousal theory, etc.) to best address the needs of all learners.


Filed under computer games, education, education technology, games, gamification, Martin LaGrow, simulation

Reimagining Online Education, Continued…

by Martin LaGrow

In the past, I have postulated on this blog that the current model of online education is obsolete.  The expression Web 2.0 has been in use for at least eight years to describe the interactive nature of the internet, but the world of academics has made scant effort to embrace it.  While online education relies on dated, asynchronous tools such as email, discussion boards, and drop boxes, even our leisure pursuits have become vastly more interactive and vibrant…think Farmville, Second Life, and even beyond.  When I say we need to think “outside the box,” I am not talking about a tired cliché.  I am talking about that box under your desk that plugs into your monitor. In other words, online education does not have to be confined to your computer. Why not take advantage of the other box sitting next to the TV in virtually every household—the gaming system?

When evaluating any process, device, or system, I like to ask this:  If there was nothing already in existence, no preconceived notion of how it is ‘supposed’ to work, and we invented it today, what would it look like?  Sometimes you can hypothesize about such things and it avails you nothing because you are restricted by what is already in place.  Take, for example, the highway system.  You can’t just erase what’s already in place and start over if you want to redesign the traffic flow of a city, much less the whole country!  But in online education, the same can’t be said.  Nothing prevents us from starting over from scratch, and designing it based on the tools that are in existence today.  We are not committed to the established pathways of the past in a physical sense.  Starting over is scarcely more difficult than pressing the ‘delete’ key!

My next focus in reimagining online education will be to discuss the advantages of utilizing common elements of Web 2.0 and gaming systems simply to spark discussion.  These elements include avatars, interactive environments, RFID interactivity, and the introduction of gaming systems as academic tools.  Today I want to focus on avatars.

The current model of learning management systems is hallmarked by detachment of student, instructor, and peers.  It is possible for students in many online learning platforms to pass a course and earn credit without ever having a real-time conversation with instructor or peers.  Sometimes this gap is bridged by requiring at least one conference call or online session.  Even so, students who prefer to ‘lurk’ can remain as disconnected as they choose.  Teachers who choose not to share personal information or even a profile picture are easily perceived as an uncaring, non-present grading ‘robot’ by students.  It can be difficult for instructors to have a real understanding of who students are, and to take their work in context when they cannot visualize the student as an individual.  Consider teaching thirty or more students in an online course, and having no knowledge of their identity other than a name—and what if you have four Kimberlys in your class?  Yet this matters to students…A distance educator at Boise State University explained that her research about online learning revealed that students frequently complained about having an unengaged or uninvolved instructor as a reason for their dissatisfaction (Magna Publications, “Distance Education Retention: The SIEME Model,” Retirement & Retention, December 2005).  This is partly a byproduct of the flat nature of online instruction.  So how can avatars promote a more personal connection in online coursework?

The avatar, in its most basic form, is a representative incarnation of a person.  Before you participate in virtually any social media interactive game such as Farmville, you must first design your avatar.  The importance of the avatar is not that it is an exact replica of the individual, but that it is a representation of what the individual wishes to present about himself or herself.  This makes it a much less intimidating tool than using a webcam, for example.  The self-conscious student (or instructor for that matter) can share only those elements of identity they are comfortable to share.  Overweight? Bad acne? Gender confused? Afraid of age discrimination?  Your avatar can represent you in a way that you are comfortable.

When using most LMS’s, students and instructors are unaware of the ‘presence’ of others engaged in the course concurrently.  In an interactive room where an avatar represents the presence of participants, interaction between student, peers, and instructor becomes natural.  A student is far more likely to ask the teacher questions if they can ‘see’ the teacher in the room, rather than having to send an email and wonder if it will be received and returned.  By establishing a presence in the room at regular intervals, instructors can create an environment that promotes interactivity.

The web service Voki (http://www.voki.com) provides instructors with the ability to create an avatar and give it a voice.  While this still lacks the interactivity of a robust, multi-participant environment such as Second Life, it may be a beginning point for instructors who are interested in providing a new ‘face’ for students to connect with in their course. If students were to interact the same way, discussion posts could actually become just that—discussion posts, not written papers gleaned and reproduced from a textbook or a website. This tool is still asynchronous, but it represents a step in the right direction—true interaction that fosters the development of personal connection and dialogue between students and instructors.

In my next article, I will elaborate on the potential of gaming systems as academic tools.

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Filed under avatars, computer games, creativity, education technology, future technology, Learning Management Systems, online education, simulation, technology, video, virtual college, virtual identity