Designing Open Materials Intentionally for the Blended Classroom

One of the interesting things that is going on right now is that MOOC providers, unable to find a path to sustainability in the direct-to-consumer market, have now positioned themselves as providers of materials for campus-based flipped classes, part of a larger trend Amy Collier and I have been referring to as the “distributed flip”.

I’m glad to see some of the focus is now at on helping the 70% of American high school graduates who enroll in college to have a more engaging and educational experience, one that might lead to graduation rather than just debt. But why would materials that were developed for massive, fully-online classes of self-learning adults be suited for use in the blended classroom?

I mean, they *might* be. By accident. But is that what we want? It reminds me of those scenes in Better Off Ted where the failure to create a successful food product leads to the sale to the military of some type of weaponized pudding.

What might materials developed explicitly for the blended or flipped classroom look like? Oddly, in another part of MIT, they’ve got some experience in this. The BLOSSOMS project at MIT was started explicitly to look at how video might be used effectively in the blended classroom. Here’s a short clip from BLOSSOMS. If you play it to the end (it’s a 90 second clip), you’ll see that the presentation is designed with the expectation that some work will be done in class.

Did you play it? I don’t think it’s particularly revolutionary — on the contrary, I see it borrowing a lot of lessons from past uses of video for education. But there’s nothing wrong with that, IMHO.

You can argue that you don’t need video to do this. I think that’s correct. Video is one way, but there are others. If you flip through Dan Meyer’s blog on math education, for example, you don’t necessarily find traditional “blended education materials”. But you *will* find a community of people designing high-impact activities for the classroom that use simple prompts. I love this activity about “stacking cups” for example:


As Dan points out, this builds off a simple image, and escalates. Moreover, it’s an image that you can create yourself. It’s an image that puts you in the frame.

I’ve talked about this before, but the Open Education community and Silicon Valley tend to think we need more educational resources. And to a certain extent, we do. But if we are going to support blended learning what we probably need most are good teaching resources. Stuff that helps you be awesome in the classroom. Stuff that builds in insights of hundreds of people running these activities, and turns it into iteratively improved activities that set your classroom on fire.

Stuff that leaves room for you to be in the frame.

At InstructureCon I had a great conversation with Jared Stein on something I had seen in a couple of distributed flips using video lectures of other teachers (MOOCs and otherwise). Faculty lost credibility with the students. In the case at Keene State, one faculty member got very harsh evaluations from the students who felt the faculty member should be doing their own lecturing.

I initially saw that as typical student resistance to active learning. And a lot of it probably is. But the more I’ve talked about it with people, the more I come to the conclusion that it’s not simply that.

You see, xMOOCs and other OER are often designed to remove face-to-face teachers from the equation, not to make them more awesome. The were designed to assert that the authority comes from this self-contained experience. When xMOOCs are used for blended learning, the classroom is not a partner in that effort — it’s more a housekeeper, there for the tidying up after the real work is done.

You can design against that, and you will. But why should you have to?

If you’re considering fueling a blended learning revolution on your campus using MOOCs, it is worth thinking about this. One of the best ways to increase student learning is to help your teachers excel at what they do. Are the materials in a traditional MOOC really going to do that?

Or are they going to write your teachers out of the frame?

The Distributed Flip (Presentation for InstructureCon 2013)

I gave a presentation at InstructureCon last week on the distributed flip, and in particular, how it related to MOOCs. I thought the session went extremely well, and when the video is available a couple weeks from now I’ll post it. But I wanted to get the main argument down here. I flew through it a bit faster in the presentation (done in a record 13 minutes), but the thrust of the argument is the same.

One note here — I use the term MOOC here to denote xMOOCs. I used to always rigorously distinguish xMOOCs and cMOOCs, but I’ve found general audiences know MOOCs as CourdacityX stuff, and sometimes you just have to refer to that phenomenon under the terms they know. When I’ve used xMOOC, people have gotten far too hung up on the term. 

The distributed flip is a way of approaching flipped classroom design. It’s worth noting that I’m using a fairly broad definition of flipped classroom here. This is not the simple “homework in reverse” model. Rather, it is the idea that *some* amount of “low-level” activities done inside class (lecturing, quizzing, etc) can be moved outside of class using technology, and the reclaimed time can be used for high-impact activities – project-based learning, peer instruction, guided inquiry, etc.

I think it’s also important to note that I don’t think the flipped classroom is particularly new. Instead, it represents a way of teaching that has existed for centuries in many disciplines. Maybe longer. Effective teachers have always realized that face-to-face time was a precious resource that is usually most effectively used on integrative tasks, not on lower-level skill development. The student of Spanish memorizes words at home, not in the classroom, and uses classroom time to deal with more difficult issues of fluency and conversational application. In the humanities, students are expected to come into class with a basic comprehension of a text, one which the professor will push on through Socratic questioning. The sciences, a bit of a latecomer here, now push teachers, via schemes like Mazur’s Peer Instruction, to use classroom time to address conceptual hurdles identified in student pre-class work.

So it’s not really new. I don’t care, because the research shows that the principles the term stands for work, which is what actually matters. I think an argument can be made that technology allows us to move more activities out of the classroom than was possible previously, but even if that wasn’t true, I’d still push for the flip, because it works.

So how best to think about flipped classroom design? I find that Robert Talbert’s idea of a “cognitive cutoff” is a helpful way to think about prepping a flipped classroom. According to Talbert, most understandings worth attaining involve some level of hierarchal learning goals. Here, in this slide, Talbert points out the target outcome is fluid real-world application of the Chain Rule in Calculus. If Talbert wanted to practice that high-level skill in class, then students are going to have to come into class with a number of outcomes already achieved. They will have to know what the Chain Rule is, be able to identify composite functions, and do some basic application and analysis. It’s the price of admission to the high-impact stuff.

That line that separates the objectives that students need to come into class having accomplished from the objectives that they will practice in class is what Talbert calls the “Cognitive Cutoff”.

What I find interesting about the cognitive cutoff from an educational materials perspective is this. If your cognitive cutoff is low – somewhere just over remembering – your educational materials issue is pretty simple, and you might be able to deal with it by recording some mini-lectures and combining them with textbook readings. In this sort of scenario it’s completely possible that a faculty member could do this by themselves, though admittedly at an increased workload.

But what if you want to push that cognitive cutoff to where Talbert is pushing it? And what if you want to develop a rich set of activities and materials that support the students in reaching that cutoff before class?

I’d propose that to do that in a really effective way requires more work than any one single faculty member can do, and that when you get into designing online components that test application, understanding, and analysis that you may also be pulling from skills that are not traditionally those of faculty (e.g. instructional design). You have to get beyond the cottage industry model of course design.

So enter the Distributed Flip. The idea here is that some amount of design of flip materials is done centrally by a group of people, either as a company, consortium, or loose network of individuals. Those high quality materials are then distributed among many instructors who work to localize and modify them for use in their own flipped classrooms.

If this doesn’t sound revolutionary, it’s because it’s a trend that has been around for quite some time now. If you think about that “cognitive cutoff”, you’ll realize that digital materials have been attempting to cut into those higher order objectives for a while. So, for example, many publisher resources used to concern themselves mainly with introducing students to the material. But over the past decade or so publishers have developed online resources that claim to push that cutoff point higher, to get the students up to higher level objectives before they come to your class. Pearson, in fact, no longer calls itself a textbook company — it’s a “digital learning and services company.” In the non-profit arena, Carnegie Mellon’s OLI announced its initiative to build shared materials for blended community college courses in 2009, a process similar to that which NCAT, the National Center for Academic Transformation, has been doing since 1999 (long before the term “flipped classroom” was invented).

Niche efforts also abound. As just one small example, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities wants universities to experiment more with a Global Challenges-based curriculum. But there aren’t really good texts to support this. So they got together 10 universities, pooled their teaching materials, and wrote their own set of digital resources. Those materials are hosted on an LMS run by the New York Times called Epsilen, which hosts both the the teaching resources and student online activity around those resources. This was put together (the planning stages at least) before the xMOOC craze.

A broader and more recent effort (and one which I am particularly excited about) is the Kaleidoscope Project, where multiple institutions collaborate to build “Open Course Frameworks” which can be used by any institution. In efforts like Kaleidoscope and Global Challenges, the teaching community around the resources can as valuable as the resources themselves.

Which brings me to an important point: I’m skeptical about the hype around educational technology. But I’m very bullish on the possible impact that well-crafted materials, cross-institutional collaboration, and robust communities of practice could have on education. When it comes to educational materials, the move away from single author resources towards resources informed by our collective educational experience is a good thing, increasing the impact of the best ideas we have on how to educate and helping us move past the “it worked for me as a student” school of educational design.

And if it moves us also to talk more about what works in our classrooms and what doesn’t; if it starts connecting faculty, and making practice visible — so much the better.

So what about MOOCs? How do they fit into this world of the distributed flip?

Like many people, when the first Coursera and Udacity MOOCs were published, my first thought was whether these could be used as distributed flip materials. When you are looking for materials to help people flip classes, you have the sort of single-mindedness that a zombie has looking for brains. And MOOCs looked like brains to me.

Of course, it shortly turned out that MOOCs weren’t really open, and that Coursera, edX, and Udacity all explicitly prohibited reuse of their materials without permission. And permission involved being in a pilot, paying some money, or doing other things we can’t know about because of non-disclosure agreements. (Even more openness, apparently…).

But say you want to pony up the money and use these materials – do MOOCs make good distributed flip materials?

There’s two answers to that. One is simple and uninteresting, and one is complex and fascinating.

Here’s the simple answer: of course they could make good materials. If they are good videos, good online activities, good forum discussion questions – well, then – yeah, sure. Good integrated materials are what you want, right?

But that’s kind of a dumb answer. We’ve really said nothing there about MOOCs per se. We’ve said good materials make good materials.

Here’s the more complex question: Do MOOCs offer anything substantial to the distributed flips above and beyond materials? The answer to that is going to depend on affordances of the global cohort associated with MOOCs. Because the thing which separates MOOCs from other digital resources efforts is the “massive” cohort bit – you’ve got a large, synchronized group of students going through the lessons at a group at the same time. Remove the cohort, and it’s just digital resources.

So I was talking with Amy Collier and Helen Chen at Stanford about this question (Amy, by the way, is the person that coined the term “distributed flip”) and we decided to do something novel. We decided to talk to a variety of people that were doing distributed flips with MOOCs, and find out what their experience was. Our thought at the time was that the relationship of the large cohort of the MOOC and the local cohort of the class might be really productive.

But that’s not what we found. What we found when we talked to people actually doing this was that in most cases the large and small cohort weren’t even really sync’ed up.

This is kind of an odd thing, but it makes sense when you think it through. The obvious reasons are that differences in schedule matter. Start dates and end dates are different. You have semester vs. quarter issues. You might have different breaks, different mid-term reporting requirements, snow days. Maybe throwing the students straight into the MOOC, before getting project teams set up is not the best thing, so you want to introduce that on Week Three. The project you are doing might require students get through the material faster. You might be on a four-credit system. Maybe you’re working around guest speakers.

That’s the obvious thing. The less obvious thing was this – professors, quite rightly, can’t be designing activities on a week-to-week basis as the materials come out. We had one professor who initially tried to do that, until she fell behind a week because her students needed more time on a particular topic (yet another reason why sync’ing is hard). She expressed that falling behind was a blessing in disguise, because now she had more time to prep her class activities that would be based on the MOOC.

Professors in a distributed flip are responsible for the most important part of the experience – the higher order activities that occur in real time. In order to structure those activities properly, they need to be able to look at the digital materials as a whole while designing the class. They need to be able to make timeline adjustments around their in-class projects and activities. Running classes in sync with the global cohort reduces their ability to do that, which is why it is unsurprising that so many professors choose to use the MOOCs primarily as digital materials, without paying too much attention to the central MOOC’s schedule.

In fact, if you look at all these stories in the press about this or that MOOC being used to flip a class at Random State University you’ll find that Random State University isn’t sync’ing up either. I’ve looked at a lot of stories around this trend, and I’ve yet to find one where syncing with the global cohort was a priority. In fact, many of the offerings are impossible to sync up with by design. That edX Michael Sandel course that San Jose State was arguing about? It runs for 20 weeks, which far exceeds any known semester length. The Circuits and Electronics course we heard about as the gold standard of “MOOC impact” starts mid-March and runs for 14 weeks, which accommodates neither a traditional quarter or semester schedule. This is why, if you read carefully in these articles, you’ll find that San Jose didn’t use a MOOC, they “used material” from a MOOC.

In other words, there’s no MOOC in these MOOC applications…just a collection of digital resources. The “Massive” part of the course is not even used.

The other thing we found, or at least heard from the professors, is that the students didn’t really use the social features of the MOOC much. This isn’t surprising – if you are not in sync with the global cohort, it significantly reduces the sorts of conversations you might have. But even when we looked at the backend data for the one course that was (nearly) in sync we found that the Median Student visited the forums twice over the entire course period.

Twice. That’s two visits, not two posts. For the vast majority of students, that’s just going to the forums and looking. And one of those times was probably in the initial course kickoff to see what the forums were, or say hello.

It might be tempting to see this as a failure of either the MOOC design or of the local teaching. But digging down into what the students were doing we came to see this disengagement as a feature, not a bug. These students in flips were working on project teams, or participating in local learning communities. In such systems you want the students to rely on their local teammates for help and answers. In fact, the extent to which those students bond to their local classmates is one of the highest predictors of college success.

So the students *were* conversing. They were just doing it in the local instance. And that’s good. That’s what we want.

So back to our original (complex) question. Are MOOCs, in practice, adding much to the distributed flip toolbox? My sense (and not necessarily the sense of people I worked with on this) is that the features that make a MOOC a MOOC don’t really add much to the blended classroom.

So what, you might say. There are some features you don’t tend to use in blended scenarios. It might be tempting to see this the way you see cable TV – I have 100 channels, I only watch five, but it’s not like those channels are hurting anything.

Except that’s not really the case here. In this case the large sync’ed cohort you aren’t using still has an impact on the product. Because that sync’ed cohort requires a centralized version of the course. And a lot of the issues we heard from distributed flip educators – inability to localize, lack of direct access to data – are products of that centralization. If we were getting lots of benefits from centralization, we’d lump this stuff. But it seems like we aren’t, or at least weren’t in these specific instances.

Now it looks like, in the recent news stories about Coursera and its deal with a number of state systems, that Coursera is going to decentralize these offerings a bit. It’s still unclear what the structure of these recent initiatives is, but I’m guessing it is going to trend toward local control and instances if they are going to become a vendor of services to educational institutions. I imagine that edX and Udacity will follow suit – the future of the distributed flip just involves less centralization than the current MOOC structure entails. That’s not to say that either centralization of local control *wins* — just that we’re going to find a better balance.

And the story about MOOCs is not all bad, either. One thing we found is that the professors really appreciated the chance to be a student in the MOOC, to see how the course was put together. You can imagine, in fact, a sort of “milkweed” model here, where many faculty take an initial centralized MOOC as students (along with self-learners), and then disperse to the corners of the earth to run their own local version of that course using the materials. You’d have to have the MOOC providers adjust their copyright policies, but such an experience could be transformative for faculty, building on the success of modelling as an educational transformation strategy, and potentially jump-starting robust communities of practice.

So that’s the argument. We can learn a lot from the excitement that MOOCs have generated among instructors looking to flip their classroom. The distributed flip is not going away, and something in MOOC-space is definitely going right here. But to fully realize the potential of MOOCs we have to see the tensions inherent in MOOC design, and understand how some of the cohort-based affordances of the MOOC are bought at the expense of the local experience. A marriage of traditional OER concerns with some of the visible practice inherent in the MOOC could have, in my opinion, significant impact of the quality of teaching (and the cost of quality teaching), and such a marriage is possible if we can open up an honest conversation about what real-world reuse looks like, and what could make it better.

Thanks for reading/listening. Now go out and make the world more awesome.

Why Use Open Course Frameworks? [Slideshare Presentation w/ Audio, 20 mins]

This is a short presentation I gave our advisory board at the college recently. What I wanted to explain to the board (mostly businessmen and political people) is why we are looking at Open Course Frameworks with Lumen/Kaleidoscope. For the uninitiated, Open Course Frameworks are to commercial courseware what open textbooks are to textbooks.

The presentation is a bit bland by design — it’s meant to show production and use of OCFs not as a giant leap, but as an obvious evolution of what we do as institutions.

If you’re familiar with blended learning, pressures on education, etc., the one piece you might be interested in is the financial comparison of the production of commercial e-learning vs. the production of digital resources in higher education. It begins on the slide titled “But we still have a cottage industry model of production” and goes for about three slides, making the case that we spend far too little on digital resources for education, and that the only non-publisher solution to this is cross-institutional collaboration. That portion is only 3 or 4 minutes. It has some interesting figures you may not have seen, which I’ll blog here eventually.

Chromebook as Convivial Tool

So I’ve taken a bit of ribbing for my Chromebook purchase since the PRISM leak (although it’s increasingly looking like PRISM is overstated, and other aspects not tied to providers are understated — so I guess we’re all going to stop using the internet and phone service now…).  But as quirky as my little $250 Chromebook is, I think it’s reaffirmed a feeling I’ve had for a while now.

You see, your normal thin-client device nowadays (phone, tablet) approaches the world through apps. Ugh. The Chromebook is lighter than an iPad or a Galaxy Note and it gives me a full featured browser.

Why does that matter? Well, you know the whole “there’s an app for that problem” schtick? Here’s the thing — a fully featured browser can solve almost anything. Apps push you to look at problems as being “solved by products”. Browsers push you to look at problems as solved by process. And while it may seem a purely semantic distinction, I think it has a psychological reality to it that you feel pretty keenly when you switch devices.

I loved my Galaxy Tablet I had for two years, but now that I’ve replaced it with a Chromebook I feel that I lost something by carrying it around. You can’t quote Illich nowadays without being accused of misreading Illich, but it did remind me a bit of this:

Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision. Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others. Most tools today cannot be used in a convivial fashion.

There’s a balance to be struck, of course. I’m sure many would point to the cloud-based nature of the Chromebook and its corporate intent as arguments against its conviviality, and laugh outright at putting “Google” and “convivial” in the same sentence. Fair enough. For many people conviviality means dialing up autonomy to eleven, and it’s not satisfied until you’re running Ubuntu on a home-brew laptop through a mesh network using GIMP and an Apache mod to share your photos. I get that, intellectually at least, but that’s not where my line is.

Apps, on the other hand, and the culture around them, are something I feel quite viscerally.  There is almost no difference nowadays in terms of efficiency between dialing up an HTML 5 website to do most tasks and clicking an app button. But there is a huge difference in the psychological experience.  Browsers empower you as a reader-participant; apps reduce you to a consumer — even when they let you participate. I’m willing to accept the other stuff (corporate, cloud-based)  if it can help us get back to the original humanity of a browser-based web, and so I’m rooting for this alternate Chromebook vision of the gadget-web pretty hard right now.

Which probably means it will die, given my history with such things. But thought I’d mention it.

Justin Reich Goes to Work for HarvardX

Today I learned that Justin Reich is going to HarvardX as a research fellow. That’s good news for Harvard and open access online efforts in general, since Justin is nothing if not ambivalent about recent developments, and the CourdacityX space needs more ambivalent people.  The fact they have brought him reaffirms my belief that edX is the organization in this space that may, in the end, actually influence higher education for the better.

Justin is perhaps best known for some of his work on openness and equity. I covered one of those studies on Hapgood a couple years ago (see “Openness as a Privilege Multiplier“). If you haven’t seen Justin on this issue, you might want to take a couple minutes to watch the short video below, an Ignite presentation titled “Will Free Benefit the Rich?“:

I’m hoping if you’ve got this far downpage you’ve fired up the video. In case you haven’t, here’s a quick summary: we tend to think of openness as a leveler of playing fields, but that’s not necessarily the case. Openness in some forms can increase the gap between the haves and the have nots. Implementation matters, licensing matters, context matters.

But certainly MOOCs don’t operate that way, right? Well… about that. Justin explains:

And my deepest concern is that the people who will benefit from these new initiatives are those who already are privileged and advantaged. As I’ve argued since my doctoral research, there is a very real possibility that new learning experiences made widely accessible on the Internet will disproportionately benefit the affluent, who have the financial, social, and technical capital to take advantage of these new opportunities. The early reports from the first round of xMOOCs certainly contribute to these concerns—if 30% of Edinburgh’s MOOC participants have BAs and an additional 40% have BA’s and a graduate degree, then MOOCs may be creating new opportunities for lifelong learning for the affluent at a much greater rate than they are providing new learning pathways for the under-served.

Again, structured wrongly, openness is a privilege multiplier, a factor which, when applied both to rich and poor indiscriminately, can exacerbate social inequality and injustice.

What’s the solution? The first step is to see the argument that the universities and faculty  powering these initiatives bear no responsibility for the social impacts of their products as shockingly unethical nonsense. Differences in small things like licensing can have massive effects on whether openness serves as a multiplier or a leveler, and the terms of that licensing are controlled by the participants.

I’d point out, for example, that in the United States 66% of all last year’s high school graduates enrolled in some sort of college, in no small part because Pell Grants cover 99% of the cost of community college. Poorer students, however, tend to not make it through to graduation,  because the schools the underprivileged end up at are horribly under-resourced. In such a world, versions of openness which prohibit free reuse of materials by institutions such as public community colleges but allow free use by interested college graduates can hardly by seen as social justice endeavors.

Justin, I think, gets that. Of all the things that drew him to Harvard, he points to the HarvardX IP “legal hackathon”, an event in which the law school and other entities pulled together students and experts to design the set of content policies for HarvardX which would best serve the stated mission of EdX? Not surprisingly, his IP design team there came out with exactly the sort of licensing for xMOOCs that we’ve long pushed for here: reuse centered policies that allow, among other things, the systems we’ve set up to help struggling students to use materials that could help those students.

There’s lot more to like about Justin and his work, and while research appointments can sometimes be a cheap nod to issues rather than a commitment to engage seriously with them, I think that such a tack with him would be ill-advised. As he so eloquently puts it in his post:

As I start with HarvardX, I think of Henry David Thoreau’s scholarly commitment as he ventured to the shores of Walden Pond: “and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.” But, I’m hopeful that it won’t all be meanness. I think we can take the hype surrounding MOOCs and harness that energy to create some valuable online learning experiences, without getting lead astray by the hype.

I’m not a 100% sure how this ends up either, but I feel considerably better about the future today.