Monday, 31 March 2014

Stepping through the MOOC minefield

Once upon a time there were MOOCs.  They popped up out of nowhere (although in one guise or another they've been around as long as the web got its 2) and took the educational world by storm, but is the market now saturated with these and why are so many of them offered at a price?  If you want to put them into a simple category you could start with those that are free and those that are not.

Paid MOOCs could then be simply classified into two simple categories again; those that are all about Learning - and those that are all about Earning.  There's only a letter of difference but it makes a world of difference.  If you're starting out looking at MOOCs the first piece of advice would be to not pay for it.  Does this guarantee it's any good?  No, and nor is the converse true, it just means that so many of us don't know what we don't know, yet still insist on picking what someone else insists is something worthwhile.  What I mean simply is if you've never 'done' a MOOC before then do a free one first and see how you go.  Paid MOOCs aren't a bad idea, after all if you want world-class training there's a fair chance that you will have to pay for it; just be aware paying for it doesn't guarantee that.  On the other hand it often means that someone has done some sort of quality check on it that may not occur for a freebie.

Free MOOCs aren't hard to find but the key here is that just as necessity is the mother of invention, having some need to learn a specific something should be your motivator.  Yes, you can take a course on 'anything' but you'll only learn about 'anything' - not much use if you wanted to learn about 'something' or even 'something else'.  If you're after just a little bit of knowledge then a MOOC may not be for you at all... Google will probably find the answer if you have a simple question or a few questions.  You have to remember that MOOCs have their grounding in higher education so you can expect quite an academic or educational approach to learning rather than a training approach.

Where to go?  The first MOOC provider (and credited by most as the inventor of the MOOC) is Coursera - not a bad place to start either as all the courses are free!  You can also try edX which is quite similar or Udemy which has quite a range of often more professional looking courses - but watch as there is a mixup of paid and free courses on the site.  If you don't want to get involved in the 'community' side of things, you'll probably find again that the MOOC may not be for you - you can find courses that are designed for a single user without interaction, but you've probably found just an online textbook of sorts (yes, even if it's video) and may have missed the social bus.

Long and short of it is that whilst I may go Google something, going to MOOC it didn't ought to slip into our vocabulary any time soon - it's a commitment to a level of learning and involvement.  Statistics show us that less than 10% of MOOCs are completed...

One last thing to watch for; lots of MOOCs have a time commitment and weekly exercises and things that require you to be active.  Whilst there are launch and track type MOOCs that you can meander through at your own pace, lots will just leave you behind and you'll not get anything out of them.  If they say they require you to spend a few hours a week on them, make sure you can actually commit the time, otherwise you'll fall into the 90% from the aforementioned paragraph!

If I've put you off I don't mean to.  MOOCs are a great concept and really good at delivering some high-level learning if done right, they are just not the be all and end all of 'learning'.  Be careful with your time and your money and research your subject and time commitments before embarking.

Can I recommend some good ones?  Yes, but DM me as what's good for the goose...

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Videos v e-Learning

Think back to your school days and remember when the TV trolley came into the classroom?  Okay in my day it was obviously a tube set with a VCR underneath, in yours it may have been a fancy smancy projector or even a nice LCD, but it mine it a big TV.  That always signalled good times to me but probably for a host of the wrong reasons.  Whether it was a documentary on how the Romans built walls or the last day of term and Robin Hood, I liked the TV coming in because it meant I didn't have to 'do' anything!  TV we inherently think of as being 'lazy' media because we sit back and watch.

I wrote in the last blog about how MOOCs and e-learning are often very similar but that MOOCs often rely heavily on video information.  Let's explore that a little more, is video a 'lazy' media that has lower level learning or does it have a place in or above e-learning? 

Of course video is delivered electronically (and mostly these days across the web with sites like YouTube and Vimeo) and if we're going to get stuck into definitions again, if you use video to deliver learning essentially by very definition this is e-learning isn't it?  It is.  But it's also different from what the majority of people think e-learning is.

Video is usually described as being a media rich platform.  What that means is simple turns is that it has a heck of a lot in it - if you think about making an animation of a man running compared to a video of a man running, the video has a lot more detail and 'information' in it.  The problem with this is that lots of the information is just information that maybe doesn't add anything to the point you're trying to get across.  Video is often 'quick and dirty' (no, not like that) in that you can capture it at real-time speed and often get across points very quickly using the media - this is again because of the richness and amount of information being transmitted both visually and by audio.  From a learning technologist puritan views we could easily dismiss video as an easy and therefore lower way of producing learning, but are we doing it an injustice?

Video, like e-learning, can be very good or it can be be very bad.  Good video can be incredibly informative and a much quicker way of getting information across, but think of it like painting a house.  If you just slap it on it will probably look bad.  You need to do your preparation first and set the scenes the information, mask out what you don't want covered and everything you need to pull it together - this typically takes longer than actually doing the painting.  Thinking of video as only being an entertainment media rather than a learning platform is as misplaced as feeling that games have no place in learning (learning is pervasive remember, it's in everything we do).

Video really takes off when we can start to use it within our learning rather than the entirety of our learning.  I remember back in my military days we created an e-learning piece around military drill where we spent a couple of hours shooting drill experts performing all the marching and moves with rifles and various pieces we needed.  We then spent a few weeks putting this into a learning piece where all the videos were controlled by the learner with revision pieces, zoom details and instructions and testing pieces.  It was pretty good (and more than a couple of years ago!) and great fun (we green-screened it to eliminate non-useful information).  Why did it need the e-learning piece?  We used to just chuck a nice video of the drill on the screen, surely that was the same?  And this is where we traditionally see the limitation of video - it was very much driven by the producer - this is what you see type approach.  Of course, so was most e-learning and we've come a long way in producing e-learning with a more 'pull' approach so video can also get the same treatment.

Working recently with the Icehouse in NZ for business start-ups, one of the training providers is making video for use on the LMS with hyperlinks and pieces built into the video that you can click on.  What they're doing is trying to create a more interactive approach - you could argue you could do this just as effectively within your surrounding learning system, but by adding some interaction they're trying to pull in the user to become more involved.  The criticism of video I stated earlier is often to do with it being a passive media that delivers something to you.  We actually need to look at that too, because sometimes this is exactly what is required.  Think about watching a really good film, it pulls you in and you become totally absorbed in it.  If our learning video can hit that type of note, then we're really on to something.  Put another way, how often does e-learning really pull you in so that you become totally absorbed in it? 

The main limitation in video for me is actually about the doing part.  Video can show you how to do things, explain in full colour and great depth, but it's not the same as doing.  Doing things for me is the greatest way to learn, we're trying to bring more and more doing into e-learning for just that type of reason; video alone may fall short on that... unless of course...
The future for video is also pretty cool.  If you've not heard of 'augmented video' then take a look at this:
Of course, just to hammer home my point around the use of video you'll notice that it's a TED video explaining it.

So e-learning can actually learn a great deal from media like video and games; particularly around immersion into the media.  Likewise video can learn from good e-learning around how to actually involve the learner.  This means that there's definitely a place for video in e-learning (and learning in video), the trick as always is to design learning that has a variety of media and activities to immerse, engage and get the learner doing things that they're going to remember.

Friday, 14 March 2014

MOOCs v e-Learning

Many of you may have asked, been asked, or been to afraid to ask what's the difference between a MOOC and e-learning?  Unless you've been somewhat insular over the last couple of years you will have heard of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and their huge impact on what we broadly class as education.  But aren't they just e-learning?  Well, that depends on your definition of what e-learning is...

So MOOCs are a form of e-learning in its purest sense because they are based on electronic media.  The only questionable part is the learning - of course this in itself is sometimes a misnomer for e-learning so without getting in to good examples or bad examples MOOCs are and example of e-learning.  So why would we consider them otherwise?  It's because of the way they've grown up and constructed that a lot of e-learning purists (assuming such a thing even exists in our blended world) are of the impression that a MOOC is really a collection of resources and a bit of social media rather than properly designed learning media.  Some of this stigma is valid, for instance in the early days (and still sometimes) people put resources in a 'course' add a forum, put a quiz on it (if they're really advanced) and call that e-learning.  Again, broadly it is, but if you want to call it good e-learning that's something different.

If you insist that your e-learning be highly interactive then a lot of the 'resource' based learning (and lots of MOOCs fall into this category) fall short of this and consist of pages, links and lots of videos which seems to be a bit of a rewind given modern learning theory.  Of course the 'quality' can be off-set by putting good social tools around it and invoking great response from the community.  A MOOC with just resources but a very active and involved community will actually be a success.  If you think about it this makes a lot of sense when we remember the learning is pervasive (that old 70/20/10 model again).  If only about 10% of learning is from the formal - then it makes sense that the focus should be on the environment and social tools where the bigger slice of pie can be accessed.

So does this mean we swing the other way and proclaim that a MOOC is actually superior to an e-learning course?  No joy that way either, because good e-learning not only gets maximum effect out of the small piece of pie, but it is also able to use social media by either sitting in an environment that allows and promotes this (such as a good LMS) or has supporting infrastructure and tool access.  In fact if MOOCs are part of e-learning you could swap that around and say that e-learning is a part of a MOOC too - the only distinguishing part being how big it is (Massive) and how available it is to a wider audience (Open).  Given that most e-learning is online (yes, there are still some non-web based learning examples and closed systems of course, you could say e-learning was an OC and therefore the only differentiation between a MOOC and OC was the MO - or in other words if you e-learning is accessed by lots of learners and open to outsiders to join you've effectively got a MOOC.

That's all fine and dandy, but in reality the question isn't what's the actual difference between the two it's how good the design is of whichever is suitable; that means everything as usual is going to boil down to your instructional design first and foremost.  High-quality e-learning is not only interactive with a learner and system, but also with learners and trainers/teachers and of course learners and learners. 

So if that all boils down to 'click next to continue' and good social tools around the media to I have to suck back on an earlier blog?  Maybe a little!  But unless you're working with highly limited resources strive for interactive and engaging pull e-learning on your 'modules' with highly engaging social tools around it and reap the rewards with engaged learners... yeah MOOCs and e-learning alike.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Time to remove the stabilisers?

There's no doubt about it, being in the e-learning industry in New Zealand can sometimes be very frustrating.  You frequently can't win falling between those that scoff at the attempt to drag forward those with literally no 'belief' in the learning technology world to those that think you're way behind the curve.  Truth of the matter it can be exhausting caught in middle ground.  Makes me wonder has the time come to take off the stabilisers?

If we were to blaze forward and challenge with truly new ideas and get up to the forefront of learning technologies from here would it be something that would be embraced by those around you or would you find that everyone had stopped pedaling and lay by the roadside? 

The problem that we often seem to face here is that it's an uphill struggle that we metaphorically run in to.  If you're riding a bike then the uphill bits are always the hardest, particularly if balance is an issue 'cos you sure go up hill slower than down.  Budgets here are often unrealistic, particularly from those looking for next generation learning, this in itself causes many issues and frequently we settle for the all too easy option of pretty e-learning that revolves more around clicking next than actually engaging the learner.  The click next button is pretty much the same as clicking on those stabilisers.  Suddenly we're going at a safe pace that our bosses will be happy with, and if it's pretty at the end surely job done?

A lot of our issues are around preconceptions that we've not really challenged.  In NZ the internet was pretty slow, but with fibre and VDSL already piping our information faster than ever before there are new opportunities to really engage.  Security settings and system configurations have always seemed like sacred cows, but if we don't start to challenge some of these then how will we really know?  There are forward thinking organisations that are actually changing the very environment people work in, providing social and social media opportunities... could it work where you are?  Do you have to be limited by what's immediately around you and what's available?  Do you have to be constrained in 'work time' when who knows what work time even is any more?  If I want to go on Facebook at 2pm on a Monday, can I?  No-one complains when I answer my work emails on Sunday, Saturday and every night in between!  So let's challenge some of our traditional ways and look at a more exciting future in learning.

The answer I guess is to keep a focus on where we're going and to stop looking down at the ground.  We want to try and drastically increase the learning in our e-learning by making it more engaging and interactive, that means sometimes trying new things (even sometimes falling off along the way).  We want to make learning a more social thing, even if that means handing over our control and letting others find their own way.  As organisations we should be opening up communication channels and social media, not shutting them down - all we're doing by this at the moment is causing our bikes to go so slow that they'd be dangerous without stabilisers.  If we open up and speed down the hill, we don't need stabilisers, next thing you know we're all grown up and able to fly on our own.

So for now, those stabilisers are coming off and we're going to forge on.  Some may fall, some may not even try but just one or two of us might make it; that might be enough to get a cycle lane put on the super-highway. 

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Social Side of Learning Technologies

I’m a fan of learning technologies as you’d expect given my vocation, but I’m not a big fan of using them in there most limited way.  For example, if your LMS is there to launch and track e-learning modules and that’s about it that’s fine, you don’t need someone like me to tell you how to do that and if you’re using that for compliance that’s fine too - it’s just not what I call learning.  Yes, your LMS should be able to launch and track learning but that’s like saying the sole purpose of having a WoF (warrant of fitness for the non-Kiwis amongst you - like your MOT in the UK) done on your car is to make so that you can drive it legally.  The WoF is there to make sure you are at the minimum level of ‘compliance’ for safety - but what it should encourage is proper vehicle maintenance and servicing.  In the same way your compliance training is there to give you a minimum legal clearance on standards - what it should encourage is proper activities and learning so that your learners have levels of understanding over and above a simple checkbox.

You may be under the misconception that I’m against compliance training or getting your WoF or health check.  I’m not at all, I believe in measuring and checking as a good process.  What I don’t think is that this is the end of the story.  I know the WoF is a necessary thing and I firmly believe it’s a requirement (despite grumbling like everyone else when mine is due).  The WoF doesn’t address any issues with my car beyond highlighting them and it is not exhaustive to any issues that there could possibly be or things that are going to go wrong next week.  Same is true for most compliance training launch and track activities.  They check at that point the rudimentary understanding, tick it off and say you’re good right now.  It’s not exhaustive and it doesn’t highlight where things may go wrong in the future.

I’m not a massive fan of the 70/20/10 rule of learning (I prefer pervasive learning because actually the breakdown of percentages is always variable), but I do agree to the basic theory that only the smallest piece of our learning comes from the formal training that we’ve often received.  In terms of compliance training it’s probably lower still.  We learn from what we see others do, stories we share and doing the job and making mistakes and learning from them.  To access the larger pieces of the cake we need to take learning beyond the simplest of compliancy pieces and realise that the classical formal course has huge limitations.  What’s great is that most modern LMSs are equipped to help us take learning further.

The earth-shattering features that they possess are often the most under-utilised in organisations; they may not appear new or as sexy (okay, compliance training and sexy may not go well in a sentence together) as that new e-learning package with the whizz-bang graphics that you just shelled out $50,000 for, but they give you access to that all important big slice of learning.  Let’s start with the simplest yet most powerful social tool that your LMS possesses (if it doesn’t then your LMS isn’t really and LMS - it’s probably some form of CMS, great for tracking compliance, not for learning); the humble forum.  If there were a single tool that I could recommend to organisations above all others it would be the forum.  Most of you have experience at some point of commenting on, replying, starting discussions or just reading forums so they’re hardly anything new, but what they are is social and interactive and that’s the area where learning flourishes.  The skill for making good e-learning lies in instructional design of course (apparently news to about 50% of e-learning producers out there) and the forum is an example in this.  If you put up a simple ‘course forum’ on each e-learning course you’ll probably find that it gets very few if any posts and adds little or no value.  That’s not a fault of the forum tool, it’s a fault of the instructional design.  If a teacher in a classroom just asks compliance type closed questions it doesn’t mean that all questions are limited, it just means that they’re not using them to their full extent.  Same with forums.  If you pose the right types of question you’ll get responses.  The idea is that you challenge thinking, you engage people in issues that are relevant to them and you provide an environment where others start to comment not just on what you say and vice versa, but on each others ideas and theories.

A great example of this is to use controversial or difficult scenarios using something like a Q&A forum.  A Q&A forum in Moodle/Totara works so that you can pose questions and people can only see each others replies when they post an answer - the forums then become open.  I was working with a client recently using this technique as a pre-learning experience question and then using this as a springboard to picking up on misconceptions and common trends.  If you want to instigate discussion try posing questions without a clear right and wrong type answer - these tend to initiate the best discussion and get others involved in trying to justify or reason against opinions.  What these type of interactions do is make people really think not just about rules but about the application of them to real-life scenarios; that’s what learning is really about.

Forums can also take learners off in a variety of directions and all you need to get this to occur is a little push!  I run a little e-learning programme hear in New Zealand for beginners and like to make one of the first requirements for the programme posting on a forum.  The way I do this is to set it up as a compulsory activity that they must complete to be able to complete the course overall.  You can even make them make multiple posts or start a discussion thread.  Whilst it’s not a high-level use of the tool it does get them comfortable with making a post or discussion which can unlock their access to more sophisticated use.

I’ve also seen forums used effectively as part of the assessment process - lots of LMS forums even allow you to allow some peer ratings!  Use this with care as it can have a different outcome to what you were expecting, but actually you can create some interesting scenarios and get users to vote on the best response. You can achieve a similar outcome by getting learners to comment constructively on each others posts.

There’s other great tools you can use to get the social side of learning ticking along.  Feedback and voting buttons can work well provided you share the analysis of results back with the group - again you can use the tools beyond their baseline use - feedback doesn’t have to be your level 3 feedback or happy sheet - it can be to  pick areas of concern or ‘stuff’ you want covered and then if you share everyone’s views  - it can even be used without any real further work from you or as a starter to then link to a forum to expand upon the ideas that throws up.  If you need to understand the importance or relevance of a wiki tool just search for more or lest anything on the net.  I guarantee somewhere in there they’ll be an entry by Wikipedia.  Wikipedia is the most famous of wiki sites but its hardly a one-off.  A great activity is to get your ‘group’ to respond on one Wiki and build upon the answer to what they believe is correct.  It’s great because it forces the group to think on their answer and build their answer together (along with justifications).  In fact wikis are really useful for more than that - we use one for our Learning Technologies staff and I don’t control the content which is better for me (as I don’t have to do all the work) and the consultants as they get to lead the direction we go in.  Imagine setting a wiki on ‘where to go from here’ type theme in your course or ‘how could this course be better’?  

I’ve mostly talked about the asynchronous tools involved in your learning up to now, but don’t forget the tools for synchronous learning that can also be used to good effect.  The very simple chat and whiteboard type approach (particularly good if you have an ‘expert’ on hand that people can ask questions of) right through to the full blown training webinar.  The best webinars use interaction beyond just trainer and learner and involve some level of interaction.  Using webinars with web-based (or SaaS type) tools means you can real-time do things with your learners regardless of where you are - most webinar tools have things like voting (and hands up) and you can usually share a whiteboard or use a third party software to achieve this type of thing.  I’ve recently been using Web-Ex and Totara LMS together through an API plugin - that can work quite nicely so the learner goes through their course page and seamlessly into the webinar but still with the tools the LMS offers and third-party tools at their disposal.  The reason I’m strongest of all on the asynchronous tools though, is that the interaction takes place largely without much input from the trainer - that’s a good thing for two reasons again; it’s easier on you and it accesses the big slice of cake by learners learning from each other.

My final social side of learning is the Facebook effect.  This is sometimes a step too far for those of us running an LMS and learning.  But I like using an e-portfolio system to truly hand control over to the learners.  In an LMS the system and control remains with the organisation, with portfolios the power passes to the individual - but that’s where the power of social learning is.  I like using Mahara in conjunction with Totara LMS; this means the LMS belongs to the organisation and the portfolio belongs to the learner.  How this works is that the learner can then put together their page or timeline and post what they want to share with who they want to share.  As trainers or administrators we may not be included… and that’s okay.  It can work well for formal submissions but also for things like peer reviews and general sharing.  If you’re worried people may start sharing answers or learning with each other then you’re kind of missing the point; if they’re learning from each other great! They’re learning.  Suggesting learners create a page for their course or programme can work well; you can decide whether they end up submitting or just let them share to increase that background learning.  Either way if you’re doing something that’s igniting learning beyond what you directly ‘teach’ then that’s a good thing and increasing the amount of cake consumed!

In closing even the best and most beautifully designed e-learning module is just a small piece of the pie, if you want to increase the availability of pie then you need to access the social side of learning and embrace those tools the LMS or e-portfolio/social platform.  It’s not a question of ‘who ate all the pies?’ but ‘who wants a bigger piece of pie!'