Personalized learning is popular right now. But is that a good or bad thing? I can buy all kinds of personalized gadgets online, but do I really like or need any of them? If you decided to get me a custom dinner place mat that says “Matt’s Grub” – sure that is personalized. But its also a pretty useless personalized item that I have no interest in.
Many prominent personalized learning programs/tools are a modern educational version of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series from the 1908s. As I have written before, these books provided a promise of a personalized adventure for the reader, which was entertaining for a while. But you were really just choosing from a series of 50 pre-written paths, hoping to pick one of the ones that led to a happy ending. Of course, If you happened to have any physical characteristics that were different than the ones written into the story (I remember a classmate that had shaved his head making fun of one page that had the main character doing something with his hair – yes they were sometimes gendered stories even), then the “your” in “Choose Your Own Adventure” fell flat.
These eventually evolved into more complex books like the Lone Wolf gamebooks that had you doing your own battles, collecting objects, and other activities that were closer to role playing games.
But let’s face it – the true “Choose Your Own Adventure” scenarios in the 1980s were really role playing games. And few were as personalizable as Dungeons and Dragons.
Now, whether you love or hate D&D, or even still think it is Satanic… please hear me out. D&D, at least in the 80s, was personalizable because it was provide different pathways that were scaffolded. New players could start out with the Basic D&D boxset – which came with game rules, pre-designed characters, basic adventures to go on, etc. And that wasn’t even really the starting point. If basic D&D was too unstructured for you, there were books like the Dragonlance Chronicles or the Shannara series that would give you this completely guided tour of what D&D could look like. Oh, and even a Saturday morning cartoon series if the books were too much for you.
But back to D&D, once you mastered the Basic set, there were more sets (Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal) – all of which gave you more power and control. Then, when you were ready (or if you found Basic D&D too pre-determined), there was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. This was a set of books that laid out some basic ideas to create your own characters and worlds and adventures. And you were free to change, modify, add to, or completely re-invent those basics. Many people did, and shared their modifications in national magazines like Dragon Magazine. Oh, and what if you want to make your own world but are still unsure? You had a whole range of pre-designed adventures called Dungeon Modules. Just buy one, play, and get inspired to create your own. Or, maybe the opposite is true: you were just tired of your creation and wanted to take a break in someone else’s world.
To me, Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s was a much better metaphor for what personalized learning should look like. You had completely mindless escapism entertainment (aka lectures) when you needed it, like the books and cartoons. You had the structured environment of Basic D&D to guide you through the basics (aka instructivism). You had a series of games and accessories like Dungeon Modules and Companion Sets to guide you (aka scaffold you) to the advanced stage. You had the Advanced books that set a basic structure for creating your own world (aka the Internet). Then you had a network of people sharing ideas and designs to keep new ideas flowing (aka connectivism). Many gamers would go back and forth between these various parts – creating their own world, sharing their ideas in the magazines, playing dungeon modules on occasion, reading the books, and dipping back to basic D&D when the mood hit them.
This scene from The Big Bang Theory shows how players can customize, adapt, and personalized the game experience, even as they play:
Of course, there were problems with the gaming community. It was expensive, and often sexist and/or racist. So I am not painting the Dungeon and Dragons world of the 1980s as some perfect utopia. I am looking at the design of the tools and system here. It is one that in some fashion pre-ceded and informed what we are doing with pathways learning, and one that I think is closer to true “personalization” than what some personalized learning situations offer.
I almost dread looking at my social media feed today. Pokemon Go (GO? G.O.? (wake me up before you) Go-Go?) received a large bit of media attention this weekend, apparently even already spawning posts about how it will revolutionize education and tweets about how we need what it produces in education:
Oh god. Someone has already written the “how Pokemon Go will revolutionize education” article
All I could think about is: how did we get to this point? Every single tech trend turns into a gimmick to sell education mumbo jumbo kitsch tied to every cool, hip trend that pops up on the social media radar. I guess I shouldn’t been that surprised once Block-chain became educational, or Second Life was used to deliver classes, or Twitter replaced LMSs, or MySpace became the University of the future, or DVDs saved public schools, and so on and so forth. I bet at some point thousands of years ago there was a dude in white toga standing up in an agora somewhere telling Plato how chariots would revolutionize how he taught his students.
I’m all for examining new trends through an educational lens, but every time I just want to say “too far, Ed-Tech®, too far!”
We all know education needs to change. It always has been changing, it always will, and will always need to have a critical lens applied to how and why it is changing. But with every new technology trend that gets re-purposed into the next savior of education, I can’t stop this gnawing feeling that our field is becoming a big gimmick to those outside of it.
A gimmick is basically just a trick intended to attract attention. One or two seem harmless enough. Well, not that harmful? But once everything that comes down the pipe starts become this trick to get people to look at education, the gimmick gets old. People are still asking what happened to Second Life, to Google Wave, to you name the trend. After a while, they stop buying into the notion that any of us know what we are talking about. Just think of the long-term effect on the larger discourse of so many people declaring so many things to be the savior of education, only to abandon each one after a year or two.
The problem with the hype cycle of Ed-Tech is that is buries the real conversations that have been happening for a long time on whatever the hype-de-jour is. Do you want the Pokemon Go for education, where students are engaged, active, social, etc? We already have a thousand projects that have done that to some degree. Those projects just can’t get attention because everyone is saying “Pokemon Go will revolutionize education!” (well, at least those that say that un-ironically – sarcastic commentary that apparently went over many people’s head not included).
Evolution of the Dual-Layer/Customizable Pathways Design
For the past few weeks, I have been considering what recent research has to say about the evolution of the dual-layer aka customizable pathways design. A lot of this research is, unfortunately, still locked up in my dissertation, so time to get to publishing. But until then, here is kind of the run down of where it has been and where it is going.
The original idea was called “dual-layer” because the desire was to create two learning possibilities within a course: one that is a structured possibility based on the content and activities that the instructor thinks are a good way to learn the topic, the other an unstructured possibility designed so that learners can created their own learning experience as they see fit. I am saying “possibility” where I used to say “modality.” Modality really serves as the best description of these possibilities, since modality means “a particular mode in which something exists or is experienced or expressed.” The basic idea is to provide an instructivist modality and a connectivist modality. But modality seems to come across as too stuffy, so I am still looking for a cooler term to use there.
The main consideration for these possibilities is that they should be designed as part of the same course in a way that learners can switch back and forth between them as needed. Many ask: ‘why not just design two courses?” You don’t want two courses as that could impeded changing modalities, as well as create barriers to social interactions. The main picture that I have in my head to explain why this is so is a large botanical garden, like this:
There is a path there for those that want to follow it, but you are free to veer off and make your own path to see other things from different angles or contexts. But you don’t just design two gardens, one that is just a pathway and one that is just open fields. You design both in one space.
So in other words, you design a defined path (purple line below) and then connect with opportunities to allow learners to look at the topic from other contexts (gold area below):
You have a defined modality (the path), and then open up ways for people to go off the path into other contexts. When allowed to mix the two, the learner would create their own customized pathway, something like this:
The problem with the image above is that this really shouldn’t only be about going off the walkway in the garden to explore other contexts. Learners should be allowed to dig under the walkway, or fly above it. They should be able to dig deeper or pull back for a bird’s eye view as needed. So that would take the model into a three dimensional view like this:
(please forgive my lack of 3-D modeling skills)
Learners can follow the instructors suggested content or go off in any direction they choose, and then change to the other modality at any moment. They can go deeper, into different contexts, deeper in different contexts, bigger picture, or bigger picture in different contexts.
The problem that we have uncovered in using this model in DALMOOC and HumanMOOC is that many learners don’t understand this design. However, many do understand and appreciate the choice… but there are some that don’t want to get bogged down in the design choices. Some that choose one modality don’t understand why the other modality needs to be in the course (while some that have chosen that “other” modality wonder the same thing in reverse). So really, all that I have been discussing so far probably needs to be relegated to an “instructional design” / “learning experience design” / “whatever you like to call it design” method. All of this talk of pathways and possibilities and modalities needs to be relegated to the design process. There are ways to tie this idea together into a cohesive learning experience through goal posts, competencies, open-ended rubrics, assignment banks, and scaffolding. Of course, scaffolding may be a third modality that sits between the other two; I’m not totality sure if it needs to be its own part or a tool in the background. Or both.
The goal of this “design method” would be to create a course that supports learners that want instructor guidance while also getting out of the way of those that want to go at it on their own. All while also recognizing that learners don’t always fall into those two neat categories. They may be different mixtures of both at any given moment, and they could change that mixture at any given point. The goal would be to design in a way that gives the learner what they need at any given point.
Of course, I think the learner needs to know that they have this choice to make. However, going too far into instructivism vs. connectivism or structured vs. unstructured can get some learners bogged down in educational theory that they don’t have time for. We need to work on a way to decrease the design presence so learners can focus on making the choices to map their learning pathway.
So the other piece to the evolution of this pathways idea is creating the tools that allow learners to map their pathway through the topic. What comes to mind is something like Storify, re-imagined as a educational mapping tool in place of an LMS. What I like about Storify is the simple interface, and the way you can pull up a whole range of content on the right side of the page to drag and drop into a flowing story on the left.
I could image something like this for learners, but with a wide range of content and tools (both prescribed by the instructor, the learner, other learners, and from other places on the Internets) on the right side. Learners would drag and drop the various aspects they want into a “pathway” through the week’s topic on the left side. The parts that they pull together would contain links or interactive parts for them to start utilizing.
For example, the learner decides to look at the week’s content and drags the instructor’s introductory video into their pathway. Then they drag in a widget with a Wikipedia search box, because they want to look at bigger picture on the topic. Then they drag a Twitter hashtag to the pathway to remind themselves to tweet a specific question out to a related hashtag to see what others say. Then they drag a blog box over to create a blog post. Finally, they look in the assignment bank list and drag an assignment onto the end of the pathway that they think will best prove they understand the topic of the week.
The interesting thing about this possible “tool” is that after creating the map, the learner could then create a graph full of artifacts of what they did to complete the map. Say they get into an interesting Twitter conversation. All of those tweets could be pulled into the graph to show what happened. Then, let’s say their Wikipedia search led them to read some interesting blog posts by experts in the field. They could add those links to the graph, as well as point out the comments they made. Then, they may have decided to go back and watch the second video that the instructor created for the topic. They could add that to the graph. Then they could add a link to the blog post they created. Finally, they could link to the assignment bank activity that they modified to fit their needs. Maybe it was a group video they created, or whatever activity they decided on.
In the end, the graph that they create itself could serve as their final artifact to show what they have learned during the course. Instead of a single “gotcha!” test or paper at the end, learners would have a graph that shows their process of learning. And a great addition to their portfolios as well.
Ultimately, These maps and graphs would need to be something that reside on each learners personal domain, connecting with the school domain as needed to collect map elements.
When education is framed like this, with the learner on top and the system underneath providing support, I also see an interesting context for learning analytics. Just think of what it could look like if, for instance, instead of tricking struggling learners into doing things to stay on “track” (as defined by administrators), learning analytics could provide helpful suggestions for learners (“When other people had problems with _____ like you are, they tried these three options. Interested in any of them?”).
Of course, I realized that I am talking about upending an entire system built on “final grades” by instead focusing on “showcasing a learning process.” Can’t say this change will ever occur, but for now this serves as a brief summary of where the idea of customizable pathways has been, where it is now (at least in my head, others probably have different ideas that are pretty interesting as well), and where I would like for it to go (even if only in my dreams).
I have been struggling with this blog post for much longer today than I probably should admit. Lots of people ask you what you are going to do “now that you have a Ph.D.” And the truth is, I really don’t know. I currently work in a nice position that requires Ph.D. level work, so its not like I am in a hurry to change things. But it is also a position that requires me to determine what I want to research, so staying put or looking elsewhere leaves me with the same confusion over “what’s next?” either way.
But why do I feel so confused over the future? This line from Jim Groom’s recent post seemed to finally clarify my hang-up:
“a bunch of folks who have been, for the most part, marginalized by the ed-tech gold rush for MOOCs, big data, analytics, etc—a push for the last four years that dominated the field’s time, energy, and precious few resources.”
There are interesting things happening in those “gold rush” areas, and also some concerning things. But our field, overall, does have a “cool” crowd and a “not so cool” crowd. If you are not currently into analytics, wearables, and a few other hot topics… you are usually left in the margins. I’m not sure if marginalized is the best word, but maybe… toiling in obscurity? For example, even bad ideas in analytics get more attention, more funding, more awards, etc, than great ideas in more obscure fields like instructional design, learning theory, etc.
That is not to slam analytics or wearables or whatever as a whole. There are some great ideas there. As Vitomir Kovanovic stated today:
Learning Analytics are like wine; it takes them long time to be good and the bad ones will give you a headache
So for a lot of these “hot topics,” I don’t hate them as much as see them having a long waiting period to mature into something practical. In the meantime, the instructional designer in me knows of practical ideas that can be used right now to make a dent in things.
But, the depressing truth is that these ideas will mostly always be kicking around on the fringes. When people like Mike Caufield complain about feeling obscure, and his ideas are a hundred times more popular than the ones I am interested in… it doesn’t make one want to sign up for years and years of fringe work.
Personally, I think the idea of “thought leader” is a bit along the lines of “rock star.” Others see differently, that is fine with me. But “thought leaders” are still part of the cool crowd, where as “thought synthesizers” tend to get left out of the conversation frequently. Most of the really interesting things that I like to work on, like customizable pathways design, are not really the result of “thought leaders” as much as “thought synthesizers.”
So the problem is, should I throw my lot in with the cool kids and do things that I am maybe-kind of interested in, or follow my passions into obscurity?
To be honest, I don’t really know. I am technically already in obscurity, so no where to go but up, right? A lot of this is not really about me, but the ideas that I think have great potential. They are also, unfortunately, ill-defined, poorly worded (too many syllables, which I say in all seriousness and not flippantly), not sexy, not flashy, not cool. I could very easily hitch my wagon to some ideas that are cool sounding and sexy. Someone sent me a link to a university that was looking for a Professor of Game-Based Learning that they thought I would be a good fit for. Sounds fun, flashy, hip, etc. But it was also in Texas, and let’s face it: Texas is not a great place to live (sorry if you think it is). And they pay academics poorly. I just found out this week I could get a raise if I went to teach high school down the street. Not interested in that at all, but…. ouch.
Also don’t know if I could spend all day teaching game-based learning. Not my passion. You see, I went to get a Ph.D. as a frustrated instructional designer that couldn’t get a foot in the research door because I wasn’t a professor. I wanted to follow my passions into researching ideas that made a practical difference (like many other Ph.D. students I am sure). That was five years ago, and the general state of academia has declined rapidly since then. I’m hardly enthusiastic to jump on the tenure track when that is such a minefield. If I can even get on the tenure track – that is difficult at best in the current university climate.
Oh, and now in many states students could be packing heat. So, yay safety.
So now that my pity party has been dragging on forever and will probably cost me the 6 readers I get for any post (WordPress stats are depressing as well), I leave anyone still reading this my depressing confession: if you get a Ph.D., you may end up finding yourself at a crossroads to choose between your passions and what will actually get you somewhere. If your passions line up with the cool crowd, you are lucky; if they don’t, you have a hard choice to make. I can’t tell you which one I will make. Obviously, I will be choosing very soon. But do I really want to push off in the opposite direction of the stream of hip ideas that have “dominated the field’s time, energy, and precious few resources”? It’s hard to say. But an important question to ask oneself.
Presentation with lead presenter Justin T. Dellinger at the Digital Learning Research Network in Stanford, California on October 16, 2015. From the session abstract:
Starting in 2008, the MOOC became an overhyped buzzword that some felt posed a major threat to traditional higher education systems. These courses would replace the professor with fully automated platforms and change the landscape of the university at large. As they have continued to evolve, it has become increasingly evident that MOOCs are a symptom of learner and system needs, and serve to complement fully online, blended, and face-to-face classrooms rather than replace them. In the post-hype period, it is valuable to look at how these courses address the aforementioned needs, if they actually do, and how MOOC design strategies can affect traditional online courses, both in positive and negative ways. This session will include a brief case study of a large fully-online history course at the University of Texas at Arlington attempting to incorporate elements learned from MOOCs, such as multimodal pathways, microlearning, moving out of the learning management system, and use of social media. More importantly, this session will posit larger questions to the group about feasibility, conceptualization, and implementation to spur further discussion.
Customizable Modalities for Individualized Learnin...
Customizable Modalities for Individualized Learning: Examining Patterns of Engagement in Dual-Layer MOOCs
About This Presentation:
Presentation with Justin T. Dellinger, Vitomir Kovanovic, and Srecko Joksimovic at the Digital Learning Research Network in Stanford, California on October 16, 2015. From the session abstract:
Dual-layer MOOCs are a recent attempt to transfer control over learning experience to MOOC participants in ways that personalized learning designs often cannot accomplish. A dual-layer MOOC design involves creating two complete and complementary learning pathways for the course, with each pathway focusing on different epistemological modalities. The overarching idea is to allow MOOC participants to navigate the course pathways in a way that best suits their particular learning needs, by utilizing one modality, both modalities, or a custom combination of either modality at different timeframes in the course. Any pathway through the modalities would count as “completing” the course. A dual-layer MOOC might have an instructivist modality focused on traditional content delivery and discussion paired with a connectivist modality focused on networked and social learning. This study will seek to investigate the experiences of participants in the “Data, Analytics, and Learning” MOOC (DALMOOC), a dual-layer MOOC organized in Fall 2014. Using a mixed-methods approach, course participant patterns of engagement will be analyzed to investigate the differences between participation strategies, as well as to identify participants that utilized different pathways through course modalities. After initial quantitative analysis of course participation traces, a subset of participants will be invited to participate in follow-up semi-structured qualitative interviews with the goal of providing more depth to the analysis of their patterns of engagement. Additionally, online discussion postings and social media activity created during DALMOOC will be analyzed to help inform interview questions. Thus, the main goal of this study will be to examine differences in participation strategies across both course modalities as well as to utilize study findings to refine, improve, and focus future research and design of the dual-layer model of MOOCs.
Challenges and Opportunities of Dual-Layer MOOCs: ...
Challenges and Opportunities of Dual-Layer MOOCs: Reflections from an edX Deployment Study
About This Presentation:
Paper presentation with lead author/presenter Carolyn P Rose along with co-presenters Oliver Ferschke, Gaurav Tomar, DiYi Yang, Iris Howley, Vincent Aleven, George Siemens, Dragan Gasevic, and Ryan Baker at the 11th International Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL 2015) in Gothenburg, Sweden on June 9-10, 2015. From the paper abstract:
This interactive event is meant to engage the CSCL community in brainstorming about what affordances in MOOCs would enable application of and research extending theories and best practices from our field. To provide a concrete focus as a foundation for this discussion, we present the innovative design of a recent edX MOOC entitled Data, Analytics, and Learning (DALMOOC). We have integrated several innovative forms of support for discussion based learning, social learning, and self-regulated learning. In particular, we have integrated a layer referred to as ProSolo, which supports social learning and self-directed learning. In further support of self-directed learning, intelligent tutor style exercises have been integrated, which offer immediate feedback and hints to students. We have integrated a social recommendation approach to support effective help seeking in the threaded discussion forums as well as collaborative reflections in the form of synchronous chat exercises facilitated by software agents. The event will include an overview, offering the opportunity for active engagement in the MOOC, structured brainstorming, and interactive, whole group feedback.
From Instructivism to Connectivism: Theoretical ...
From Instructivism to Connectivism: Theoretical Underpinnings of MOOCs
About This Publication:
While the first MOOCs were connectivist in their approach to learning, later versions have expanded to include instructivist structures and structures that blend both theories. From an instructional design standpoint the differences are important. This paper will examine how to analyze the goals of any proposed MOOC to determine what the epistemological focus should be. This will lead to a discussion of types of communication needed—based on analysis of power dynamics—to design accurately within the determined epistemology. The paper also explores later stages of design related to proper communication of the intended power structure or theoretical design as these relate to various activities and expectations in the MOOC.
During several panel presentations at the AECT Annual Convention in Indianapolis in November 2015, concerns with MOOCs were raised. In this paper the authors discuss a few of those concerns of extra interest, and explain the relatively new customizable dual-layer MOOC course design. This new paradigm of MOOC design holds promise to alleviate some of the concerns with open global MOOCs.
Understanding Instructional Designs and Teaching...
Understanding Instructional Designs and Teaching Strategies of Massive Open Online Courses
About This Publication:
This study examined instructional designs and teaching strategies of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), with a focus on the activities and expectations for students to complete the courses. It is hoped that such an examination will help in the development of a course taxonomy which will help learners set better expectations before they take college-level courses. This effort will also provide guidance for instructional design and technology choices beyond MOOC settings in a global learning environment, since emerging designs such as MOOCs are often designed for learners who would otherwise not having an opportunity to learn. Therefore, this taxonomy could be helpful to learners from different cultures, due to differences in language backgrounds and cultural experiences of learning.
Cyberbullying at a Texas University – A Mixed Methods Approach to Examining Online Aggression
About This Publication:
Co-authored this research paper along with lead author Dr. Katie Crosslin. From the abstract: “Cyberbullying is characterized by utilizing digital technology repeatedly to purposefully send information about another person to inflict harm. The objective of this mixed-methods study was to identify the prevalence for victimization and bullying behaviors, as well as to examine undergraduate students’ perceptions and experiences with cyberbullying.”
Virtual Reality and Wearables in Online Learning...
Virtual Reality and Wearables in Online Learning: Finding the Human at the Center of the Technology
About This Research Study:
Several studies are currently in the planning stages to investigate the overlap between Virtual Reality, wearable devices, and humanizing online instruction. Various grants and journal articles are being explored along this line of research.
Customizable Modality Pathway Learning Design: Exploring Personalized Learning Choices Through a Lens of Self-Regulated Learning
About This Research Study:
This study was conducted to complete my dissertation. From the abstract: “Open online courses provide a unique opportunity to examine learner preferences in an environment that removes several pressures associated with traditional learning. This mixed methods study sought to examine the pathways that learners will create for themselves when given the choice between an instructor-directed modality and learner-directed modality. Study participants were first examined based on their levels of self-regulated learning. Follow-up qualitative interviews were conducted to examine the choices that participants made, the impact of the course design on those choices, and what role self-regulation played in the process. The resulting analysis revealed that participants desired an overall learning experience that was tailored to personal learning preferences, but that technical and design limitations can create barriers in the learning experience. The results from this research can help shape future instructional design efforts that wish to increase learner agency and choice in the educational process.”
Further research and grant opportunities are being explored to continue this topic.
Posted: May 15, 2016
Participants’ Experiences Regarding Engagement...
Participants’ Experiences Regarding Engagement and Self-Directed Learning in Open Online Courses
About This Research Study:
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) give researchers a unique window into examining engagement in online courses. Without the typical motivation of grades or the possible threat of failure, learners are left to self-direct their engagement with course content and activities. By investigating the reasons why learners either complete or drop-out of MOOCs, this mixed-methods study sought to gain insight into participants’ experiences of self-directed learning in MOOCs. The research from this study has been presented at several conferences, and a journal article is currently in development.
Posted: April 12, 2015
Understanding Instructional Designs and Teaching...
Understanding Instructional Designs and Teaching Strategies of Massive Open Online Courses
About This Research Study:
This study examined instructional designs and teaching strategies of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), with a focus on the activities and expectations for students to complete the courses. It is hoped that such an examination will help in the development of a course taxonomy which will help learners set better expectations before they take college-level courses. This effort will also provide guidance for instructional design and technology choices beyond MOOC settings in a global learning environment, since emerging designs such as MOOCs are often designed for learners who would otherwise not having an opportunity to learn. Therefore, this taxonomy could be helpful to learners from different cultures, due to differences in language backgrounds and cultural experiences of learning. This study was conducted with Dr. Lin of the University of North Texas and submitted to the American Educational Research Association for consideration.