Tag Archives: The Chronicle of Higher Education

Second Chance for Second Life?

thumbby Hap Aziz

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education website, Jeffrey R. Young has an article titled, “Remember Second Life? Its Fans Hope to Bring VR Back to the Classroom.” I do remember Second Life, and I actually used in some college courses I taught about eight or nine years ago. It was primarily a tool where I could gather with students for additional lecture time outside of the classroom, and often it was a combination of socializing and course content Q&A. Fortunately, my students were comfortable with technology (the course was on the subject of digital design), otherwise I would not have been able to provide the technical support to get the students signed up, logged in, and comfortable in the environment. The technology is smoother now, but I wouldn’t recommend it for students not confident in their online computing skills.

The history of Second Life is interesting in that it began as a possible game world framework, but the development environment was so robust, SL morphed into an open-ended virtual space that really had no particular purpose. This was both its advantage and its curse, as enthusiastic users that saw potential in the technology worked at finding a purpose for the platform. Many higher education institutions acquired space in SL, and educators used it for lectures, office hours with remote students, and a variety of other activities somehow connected with learning. And while the individual users may have designed unique personal avatars, the education spaces, for the most part, were representation of real campus locations (or at least could have been real). There are a number of reasons SL was unable to sustain itself at its heyday level of engagement, and Young explores them in his article in connection with the latest tech wave of Virtual Reality innovation. Second Life, in fact, is looking to ride the new VR wave with its Project Sansar (indeed, if you go to the SL site, you’ll see that you can explore SL with the Oculus Rift, which is a step in that direction).

Will the addition of 3D VR breathe new life into Second Life? As a technology, there is no question that VR has great novelty out of the gate. But I still believe that without some sort of meta-narrative point to drive engagement, SL could go through another bubble-burst cycle. By “meta-narrative,” I mean that Second Life itself needs to have a point, rather than offer itself up as an environment where users can do anything they want. Why enter a virtually real world to “just hang out and look around” when we can much more easily accomplish that in the really real world?

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Filed under avatars, colleges and universities, education, emerging technologies, future technology, games, Hap Aziz, higher education, higher education institutions, holograms, narrative, simulation, technology, virtual classrooms, virtual college, virtual reality, virtual worlds

Teaching What to Learn and Learning How to Teach

thumbby Hap Aziz

In his article “The Top 5 Faculty Morale Killers” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education online (April 25th, 2016), Rob Jenkins discusses several of the ways in which middle managers at academic institutions might influence faculty members’ experiences, for good or bad. Considering full-time faculty (rather than adjuncts), he discusses topics of micromanagement, trust issues, hogging the spotlight, the blame game, and blatant careerism; and for the most part, I find myself in agreement with his management observations and commentary. However, there is one area on which Jenkins touches that is problematic and often a subject of (sometimes heated) discussion at many of the institutions I’ve encountered over the past couple of decades. Under the heading of “micromanagement,” Jenkins writes,

“If, as an academic middle manager, you wish to destroy morale in your department, you can start by dictating to your faculty members exactly what to teach, how to teach it, which materials to use, and how to evaluate students.”

In this sentence, Jenkins links four related yet separate points, which he earlier categorized as being issues of academic freedom. I don’t believe the blanket application of the concept of academic freedom applies equally to all of these points, specifically as a protection against the potential administrative requirement to meet a certain standard of professional competency regarding learning outcomes. This discussion has only broadened as faculty and students both have become more involved with online and technology-mediated learning models, and some of those online learning concerns and considerations may be instructive in this context. Let’s examine Jenkins’ statement point by point.

  • what to teach

When it comes to making decisions regarding the subject matter being taught, there has been little disagreement with the idea that the full-time faculty member is the ultimate decision-making authority; that is, within generally accepted content parameters established largely through professional consensus, and as agreed upon by academic departments as to what content should be covered within courses. There are some dissenting viewpoints, often related to more politicized or controversial content as highlighted in this Huffington Post article. However, there is not enough cause to argue this point with Jenkins, and I see little downside in letting the subject matter expert (especially in contrast with the opposite approach) determine the subject matter being taught.

  • which materials to use

As with the point of what to teach, the selection of materials may largely be left to the faculty member. Certain decisions regarding text-book adoption, inclusion of supplementary materials, etc. may be subject to moderation by the appropriate academic department, but even so, the departments themselves include the teaching faculty. The remaining two points are where the conversation may be considered contentious.

  • how to teach it

When online courses and programs began to gain traction and popularity as an option for students in the late 1990s and early 2000s,  student outcomes lagged comparatively for the online alternatives. Eventually, it became obvious to institutions that basic faculty teaching and technology skills were not enough to replicate the on-ground classroom experience. In the 2004 study, “Online, On-Ground: What’s the Difference,” Ury and Ury found that “the online  student mean grade (80%) what significantly lower than the mean grade of the students enrolled in traditional sections of the same course (85%).” Drop-out rates continue to be problematic for online programs due to a number of variables, many of which are differentiators between online and on-ground instruction, as observed by Keith Tyler-Smith in his 2006 Journal of Online learning and Teaching article, “Early Attrition among First Time eLearners: A Review of Factors that Contribute to Drop-out, Withdrawal and Non-completion Rates of Adult Learners undertaking eLearning Programmes.”

The preponderance of research has demonstrated that building a successful online course is not simply a matter of selecting the appropriate content (or translating and transferring content from an on-ground format to an online format–whatever that might be). As the pressure for accountability grew (for a number of reasons), the notion also grew that faculty, by virtue of their subject matter expertise were not also necessarily well-qualified to develop effective online courses. Interestingly, this was by no means a new assessment or understanding. The instructional design community has understood this for quite some time, but without the mechanism for providing a comparative illustration–which online courses provided–faculty design of courses and how to teach them–was standard practice.

It does not necessarily follow that having subject matter expertise means that faculty also have teaching methods expertise. This is true for online courses, certainly, but it is also true for on-ground courses. Institutions serious about service to their learning populations must decide how they will equip their faculty for success, whether that is through ongoing professional development, the provision of support resources such as instructional design staff, or any combination of methods. But that will mean some form of “micromanagement” as institutions get a handle on assessing the performance of their academic programs and measuring the success of their students.

I remember reading an interview with Isaac Asimov in which he talked about his writing. In his life, he authored over 500 books along with countless essays, short stories, and articles. He was asked how he did what he did, and what advice he might give to aspiring authors. With perhaps uncharacteristic humility, Asimov admitted that as much as he wrote, he really had no idea how to explain how to do it. Writing was something he did prolifically, yet that did not qualify him to teach writing to others. Not coincidentally, he also expressed that he would make a poor editor, which brings me to the final point.

  • how to evaluate students

In the past decade, institutions have become quite serious about measuring student success, expending significant resources to determine what is affecting student engagement, retention, and persistence. The Spellings report (2006) emphasized accountability as one of the four key areas requiring attention in U. S. higher education. There are now, at many institutions, a variety of data-mining tools that allow academic leadership as well as faculty to assess student performance across a wide range of metrics. While a faculty member may be the best person to determine the quality of a student essay based on an articulated mastery of the content area, there are a host of other reporting metrics that address student performance issues and success that are not directly related to content mastery. Today’s reality is that student evaluation is most effective as a collaborative activity in which faculty play a key but partial role along with others in the institution.

So, yes, Rob Jenkins has identified several potential morale killers that institutional management might inflict upon teaching faculty. But to no small degree, some of what Jenkins identifies as morale killers is what I’d identify as entrenched attitudes that will lead to pain if they are not willingly let go. Of course I’m not saying that all faculty are in this situation, and I’m not even saying that there are no faculty at all that are able to teach well or effectively evaluate student performance. However, these two points are tied to an older way of thinking of the teaching and learning enterprise, in which the faculty member is the sole connection point to the student learning experience. With all the tools and resources available to faculty members in the technology-mediated classroom environment, it’s that older way of thinking that’s the true morale killer.


Filed under accountability, education, education technology, face-to-face instruction, faculty, higher education, instructional design, online education, teaching

Rethinking the Class Paradigm: The Rise and Potential Fall of MOOCs

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

There has been quite a bit of attention paid to MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) in the past year; most of it positive, though the criticisms have been getting more exposure recently (check out “When MOOCs melt down” in The Chronicle of Higher Education). The momentum for MOOCs appears to be positive still, with the Horizon Report > 2013 listing MOOCs as one of the game-changing technologies in higher education just around the corner. The chorus of doubts is growing, though, and without some fundamental rethinking of how MOOCs should operate, I might consider myself in that camp of uncertainty. Some of my concerns are regarding the practicality of running MOOCs in the way most likely to yield worthwhile results for the enrolled students–as well as for the organizations or individuals responsible for running them. This entry I posted in December of last year touches on that theme.

The concerns I have, though, aren’t all about practicality; they are also about sustainability and viability of the model. This article from U.S. News published a little over half a year ago leads the reader into the premise that there are differences between traditional online courses and MOOCs (primarily scalability), and it is in these differences that the weaknesses of MOOCs are revealed. The truth is a bit more difficult discern in this case.

Scalability is certainly an issue, even in the traditional classroom teaching and learning environment. Very few educators would argue that there is no difference between teaching  cohorts of 20 students or cohorts of 200, 2000, or even 20,000 students. The author of the article (Joshua Kim, Director of Learning and Technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College) asserts:

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…

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.

The line of reasoning here is that changing the scale of online courses exponentially does not require some fundamental change(s) to the underlying structure of the courses and the relationships within the courses. This isn’t isolated thinking, however. When I attended the ELI Conference in Denver earlier this year, I was quite interested in seeing what other educators were doing in the field of MOOCs so I attended several sessions. Invariably, the sentiment among the presenters was that MOOCs were like super-sized online courses. One phrase that stuck out in my mind was the statement, “when teaching a class of 30,000 students….”

Is there truly a way for a single instructor to teach a class with 30,000 students? Especially if education is based on relationships between individuals?

No, the paradigm needs to shift. MOOCs are not courses so much as they are communities. In fact, if we think of 30,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 students all interacting in a single online community, we realize we are 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.

Running a MOOC should be much more like running a city than running a course. And the citizens of the MOOC all have roles to play in keeping the MOOC running smoothly while providing meaningful and timely services to the other citizens. 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. If we develop MOOCs the same way in which we develop smaller online courses with merely a few dozen students, we’ll find that the whole MOOC movement will come crashing down by not being able to meet some very important learner needs.



Filed under EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, Hap Aziz, instructional design, MOOCs, online education

Kickstarter and the Paradigm of Crowd-sourced Funding

by Hap Aziz

This morning I was on the Good Day morning show that airs on Fox 35 in Orlando, Florida. The topic of the segment was Kickstarter.com, and the funding of creative projects through the crowd-sourcing models. Kickstarter, of course, has gotten some fairly extensive media coverage so far this year. There may be more funding for the arts through Kickstarter than through the National Endowment for the Arts this year (more info), and Kickstarter has broken through to the foreground of the collective cultural psyche, even appearing on the IFC series Portlandia (more info).

Browsing through the individual projects, you can get a quick picture of the kinds of ideas people are hoping to fund. It is also possible to gain a sense of what types of projects gain funding, and what fails–although that’s not black and white. The idea needs to be well thought out, of course, but the presentation of the idea itself must be reasonably polished–enough so to inspire some measure of confidence in the potential donors. Perhaps most importantly, the person or people behind a particular project should have strong and extensive social networks that they can leverage for donation opportunities.

Kickstarter is not without criticisms and critics. One of the complaints is that so many of the projects on Kickstarter are, well, junk ideas. Tech blog Gizmodo.com recently ran this piece on why they are done with Kickstarter. It would seem that like so much of everything else on the Internet, it is exceedingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Yet, I don’t think that many people would deny the attractiveness of the model.

So I began giving some thought to the idea of more specific Kickstart-like sites, with tightly controlled review processes that adequately vet proposals before releasing them for donation requests (Kickstarter does have a light review process and a set of criteria for participation). Of course, I thought of the possibility of a higher-education version of Kickstarter, and then I saw this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Professor Hopes to Support Free Course With Kickstarter, the ‘Crowd Funding’ Site.” Certainly, there’s a potential market for the concept, and with a more rigorous review process, institutions of higher education could tap into their strong social networks of students, alumni, and community partners (referring back to my earlier point on what makes for successful funding). There are even arguments to be made why the crowd-sourced model could be used to supplement more traditional grant funding at institutions for a wide variety of projects.

I think the idea of a higher-education version of Kickstarter has some merit, and given my own professional network within the higher education environment, I’ll be exploring the idea to see if it might have wings. Keep watching this space for development on that front.


Filed under creativity, crowdsourcing, government funding, grant funding, Hap Aziz, higher education, Kickstarter, Kickstarter.com

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