Last week, TechChange President Nick Martin participated in a panel on “MOOCs and Online Learning” at the AAAS event on “Broadening Access and Participation in STEM Education Through Technology: Promises & Challenges”. The event was hosted by the MaDTECHEd Affinity Group and co-sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Here are some of the highlights from the panel:

  1. Current MOOCs tend to be one-directional and lack meaningful interaction. MOOCs need to focus more on the teacher’s role as a facilitator rather than just a lecturer. However, taking a more social approach to online learning can be difficult to scale.
  2. Students that benefit most from online learning are self-motivated, autonomous, patient, and focused. All panelists agreed that that online learning courses self-select for self-motivated learners. Did you know that the average age TechChange student is approximately 34 years-old? Often, TechChange students are working professionals that seek training to fit in their busy schedules.
  3. Online learning should be social. Online learning has the ability to connect people across vast geographies and more online courses should encourage relationship building and networking. For example, in a recent TechChange course on mHealth, a doctor in Argentina and a health care worker in Uganda shared best practices in mobile health for their respective countries.
  4. Hybrid models that combine both online and offline learning can be extremely effective. Using online learning to complement face-to-face instruction can be the most powerful form of delivery. Salman Khan calls this approach the “flipped classroom” and we’re big believers of this model at TechChange.
  5. Students who pay for online courses are more likely to be engaged. Free and open courses may broaden participation, but don’t always inspire meaningful interaction. Students are more likely to be engaged and give feedback when they have paid for course. Online course providers should think about creating the right incentive structures to increase engagement.

Missed the event last week? Here’s the link to the webcast of the entire conference. To see Nick along with other panelists speaking on the topic of “MOOCs and Online Learning”, you can fast forward to 1:00:35 – 2:32:00.Nick_AAAS2

Ever wanted to become a famous voice actor? Now is your chance. Over the next month, we will be holding virtual auditions to find the next Voice of TechChange. The winner of this competition will become the voice of our animations & course modules – an international voice superstar heard by TechChange students drawing from over 100 countries.*

Imagine the unique opportunity to provide the voice for our expertly-crafted animations, such as the one below, on “Why is it so hard to try something new in ICT4D?”

Do you think you (or one of your friends) have what it takes? To enter the competition, follow these three, simple steps. The deadline for entering is August 15.

1. Sign up for a free Soundcloud account, if you don’t have one already

2. Record, or upload onto your Soundcloud account, a clip of yourself reading this text.

3. Share your audition sound clip via e-mail to info@techchange.org, with the subject: “Audition for the Voice of TechChange – [Your Name]”

After all the audition tapes are in, we will sift through the entries and find the Final Four candidates for the position. We will post these in a follow-up blog post for our readers to vote. The two entrants receiving the most votes will be invited into our offices for in-person auditions this Fall, and then we will crown the Winner of The Voice (of TechChange).

Last month, 130 doctors, nurses, development workers, techies, government officials, and academics from 35 countries joined us on an exciting four-week journey through the latest developments in mHealth.

Imagine how difficult (and expensive) it would have been to assemble this group into one classroom in person!

Thanks to the amazing team at the mHealth Alliance and an all star-roster of incredible experts, we managed to build upon the great success of our inaugural effort and deliver a powerful second installment of the online certificate course TC309: Mobile Phones for Public Health.

Three observations/trends emerged during the course:

  1. Mobile data collection most discussed! Mobile data collection, management and analysis gained significant attention in the course forums. We were thrilled to be joined by Yaw Onokwa, one of the founders of Open Data Kit and Jeremy of CommCare who provided students with live demos of their respective software packages and shared a number of insights and best practices for developing surveys, acquiring and managing users, scaling data projects and more. The always-engaging Alain Labrique (Johns Hopkins University) joined us for a fantastic session on the continuum of care that touched on his exciting work in Bangladesh and the importance of investing in the evidence base.
  2. The importance of human centered design (HCD): Human-centered design also featured prominently throughout the four weeks. Isaac Holman (co-founder of Medic Mobile) led participants through an exercise in drawing/mapping a health ecosystem based on HCD principles. Design experts Erica Kochi (UNICEF Innovation) and Robert Fabricant (Frog Design) shared a wealth of insights from their experiences in successfully launching and sustaining mHealth projects in a number of countries. For many of these world-class practitioners, this was the first time they had ever presented in an online course like this.
  3. Fewer pilots + design for scale: After the New York Times featured an article last spring entitled The Benefits of Mobile Health on Hold there was certainly a lot of room for debate and critical discussion about “pilotitis”. Patty Mechael noted that one trend she has observed in last year is fewer organizations are starting pilots more are focused on designing for scale from the onset of a project. And finally, Gustav Praekelt shared the amazing work his foundation has undertaken to team up with leading private sector entities in South Africa to achieve scale (1 million+) in fighting HIV and preparing mothers for childbirth.

Three highlights from the course:

  1. Techies + Healthies: We featured a TEDx Talk by Josh Nesbit titled, “Techies + Healthies”, which prompted an insightful discussion about the need to promote more engagement between practitioners from both fields. We also asked participants to reflect on their own orientation on the healthie – techie spectrum.
  2. Zombies, Zombies, Zombies: What would a TechChange course be without a Zombie Apocalypse. This time, participants had to respond to an impending zombie invasion and practice gathering vital health and preparedness data using tools like Magpi, FrontlineSMS, CommCare formhub, OpenDataKit and more.
  3. What a Map! We asked participants to describe the health systems in their own countries and then crowdsourced an interactive Google Map of everyone’s responses. I personally learned a tremendous amount about the challenges and opportunities that exist in other countries through this visualization and am excited to do more of these kinds of activities in future courses.

While there are always improvements to make and things we’ll work to do differently next time, overall, the course was a huge success. But don’t just take my word for it. Of the 30 participants so far who have completed our post-course survey, all 30 said the course fulfilled or surpassed their expectations and 27 out of the 30 said they are likely or very likely to recommend the course to a friend or colleague.

Here’s a selection of what our participants had to say:

  • “The blend of high notch experts with various diverse experiences in the mHealth and social spaces, the expert coordination, moderation and tech support by Nick and colleagues, brought practicality and vividness to the course. Are you a healthie or a techie? It does not matter. If you want to do mHealth right, then come to this course.” – Francis, World Vision International
  • “I felt truly engaged by this course, and was somewhat surprised by that as other online courses I have taken for credit have felt very distanced and flat in terms of educational energy. If you want to know what the leading experts in mhealth are saying about the state of the field, take this course. The best part? Live webinars that felt like inner circle information (how the insiders talk over drinks) coupled with direct access to ask your specific questions through text chat. I can’t wait to take a refresher course next year to see what’s new!” – Kirsten, Rice University
  • “The TechChange online course platform is amazing! They provide you with online learning that is exciting, user-friendly and highly informative. The speakers in the mHealth course are really great and I have learned a lot from the presentations and exercises. For people who are busy and cannot catch up on-time (like me!), you don’t need to worry because TechChange has provided a platform where you can retrieve videos, materials, audio recordings. So, go with TechChange as your top online course provider!” – Mary Rose, ACCESS Health International

The TechChange online platform also underwent all kinds of upgrades thanks to the tireless efforts of our dev team led by Will Chester. See what some of our participants had so to say:

  • “Here is a learning platform that is designed completely for the convenience of the individual – you can participate in as many sessions as you can and still have opportunity to catch up on those you’ve missed even 4 months after completing the course. You can even rate your performance by the tech points earned and look at what others have earned – which is a great way to motivate or encourage participation.” – Apera Iorwa, mHealth Alliance
  • “I thought the platform was great–very dynamic and user-friendly. I’ve taken several other online courses and this was the best platform thus far.” – Kiara Reilly, Booz Allen Hamilton

Stay tuned for details about the fall mHealth course and be sure to check out our lineup of upcoming courses: Social Media for Social Change, Intrapreneurship: Innovating from Within, and Tech for Emergency Management and more.

We’re excited to announce that we’ve teamed up with Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) to support capacity building and learning for their global community of users and implementers.

Last Thursday, TechChange was proud to participate in the TechGirls program by inviting two young women from the Middle East to shadow our team during a work day. While we’ve always been committed to tech capacity building in the Middle East, it had been almost two years since we conducted a series of trainings in the West Bank, and we couldn’t pass up a chance to invite future colleagues into our home and share our enthusiasm. According to the State Department, the TechGirls program:

“[P]rovides girls from the Middle East and North Africa with the knowledge and resources to pursue higher education and careers in technology. This program builds on the U.S. global commitment to advance the rights of women and girls around the world.”

Nagham joined us from Nablus, Palestine. She is 16 and started using the computer at the age of 5; and she would like to study IT or Science. Nagham expects to improve her programming and game design skills. Sondos is from Zarqa, Jordan. She is 16 years old and has taken classes in robotics, Visual Basic, Oracle, Invention, Photoshop and HTML and SQL programming. Sondos is especially interested in pursuing technological interests that will aid the field of medicine.

With that in mind, we set up a variety of hands-on workstations that included:

Hands-On Coding and Electronics: Combining Art, Problem-solving, and Circuitry

Screenshot of our office temperature as measured by Arduino sensor.

Python-powered office temperature website

Since both TechGirls were interested in both programming and hardware, we started off with our in-house code ninja, Michael Holachek. Michael is 18, an avid robotics enthusiast, and will be attending MIT in the Fall to study Electrical Engineering. Michael started off with a short discussion about the connection between art and electronics (including a TED talk on painting circuits), introduced some basic programming in C and Python, and then demoed a few cool circuits on the Arduino and Raspberry Pi. They then worked together to make a TechChange mood lamp that played the TechChange theme song and display the office temperature on a website. At the end of the session, Sondos and Nagham came up with several ideas for applying these new skills to new problems, including attaching a room thermometer to an Arduino board to trigger an alert if the room became too hot for a baby.

Making Graphic Elements: Generating and Animating TechGirls Avatars

With their new Arduino boards built, both Nagham and Sondos sat down with Pablo Leon and Rachel Roth to try illustrating themselves and then animating their avatars in After Effects. Rachel provided a sketch of our guests and then we loaded them on our custom tablets for illustration. Trying their hands with our stylus, they learned about creating layers, sorting into folders, using filters, etc.

Illustrated avatars of TechGirls

New avatars illustrated by TechGirls!

After they finished creating avatars, Alon Askarov demonstrated how to use the Puppet tool to teach them how create short animations. Given that we were limited by time and that TechChange animations take time (see our blog post on this), these were kept to minimal facial expressions, but we still had fun doing it!

A brief animated loop of Sondos

Animated Sondos

Designing a Four-Week Course: A Tour of mHealth

Since Sondos was interested in public health projects, we tried to show off what we’d been working on for our mHealth and maternal health initiatives. We opened up the most recent course that we had built with the UN Foundation on Mobile Phones for Public Health,but rather than the speakers or content, what seemed to be the most interesting was the 161 participants in the course from all around the world. We agree: It is pretty cool.

Student map from our mHealth class

Student map from our mHealth class

But on top of the novelty, we also chatted about how we believed connecting these students was a core part of online learning — not just transferring knowledge on technology, but building a community of practice. After all, technology is the easy part when it comes to mHealth.

Building Interactive Learning Experiences in Articulate

TechGirls Articulate screenshot

But a platform isn’t enough for online learning. Catherine Shen discussed how to structure content for educational purposes. This meant walking through the current courses being designed for State Department, USAID, and the World Bank. Catherine used a current course from OTI Lebanon on advocacy for the TechGirls to see the mechanics of course design at work.

The TechGirls then created a short interactive presentation on their TechChange day, integrating their animated avatar with a survey that the girls used to tell us about their experience. Using a Likert scale, the girls gave their impressions of their shadow day.

The results were clear: Both of our participants strongly agreed that the job shadow day was fun and inspiring, in addition to being informative and interactive.

It was for us as well. Thanks to the TechGirls team for joining us!

Funny group picture of TechChange and TechGirls

Thanks TechGirls!

This post was written with contributions from the entire TechChange team. Thanks specifically to Catherine Shen and Michael Holachek for contributions in the sections above.

The first step to closing the ever-widening technology gender gap is getting more young girls excited about technology. This is the goal of the State Department-led TechGirls international exchange program, which connects young girls from the Middle East and North Africa with tech mentors in the US. The three-week program aims to connect and support the next generation of women in tech by providing them with a foundation of skills, experience, and networks that can lead to future career opportunities in technology back in their home communities.

It is no secret that our team is passionate about ensuring global inclusion & understanding of tech applications, so you can imagine that we are incredibly excited to be a part of this years’ TechGirls program. On July 11, we will be hosting two budding female technologists, one from Jordan and the other from Palestine. These young women will get a behind-the-scenes look at our DC nerd attic, shadowing different members of the TechChange team.

This will include spending time with our in-house coding ninja Michael, learning the basics of Raspberry Pi and the “Internet of Things.” At another station, they will meet with our learning experience designer Catherine to get an inside perspective on the life cycle of a TechChange course, from design to reality. Our animation team will lead them through the basics of creating compelling and educational graphics – perhaps even letting them design their own.

Announced in 2011, the TechGirls programs was built on the heels of the first-ever TechWomen mentoring program, which pairs emerging female leaders with top American women in the technology sector. This year’s TechGirls cohort is comprised of 27 girls from eight Middle Eastern countries and the Palestinian Territories, who will gain hands-on skills development in fields such as programming, robotics, mobile app building, web design and video graphics.

 

When I graduated college two weeks ago, I thought I was done taking classes for a while. Yet, instead of hanging out with friends, finishing season 4 of Arrested Development on Netflix, or even going for a run, I spent my first weekend in DC back in a classroom.

Early Saturday morning, I joined Nick Martin, CEO, at George Washington University to assist him in teaching a two-day, graduate level course on using technology for crisis response and governance. This wasn’t your run of the mill course though. Rather than introducing theorists with lofty ideas, abstract from the reality of disasters on the ground, Nick crafted the course as a realistic, hands-on approach.

As a fun beginning to the day, Nick broke the students into small groups to learn how to use Twitter. Tasked with creating accounts that impersonated celebrities, some of the students crafted hilarious Tweets and interactions. Among my favorites:

From there, we examined a series of potential solutions for crisis response. We considered how mobile phones could be used to collect and analyze data, how we could use CrowdMap and OpenStreetMap to visualize data and dynamically respond to changing geographies, and how social media could be leveraged in conflicts to raise money or locate survivors. This overview of the different platforms allowed us to focus on both the benefits of each solution and, more importantly, the limitations.

The second day of the course featured more hands on implementation of technologies and zombies.

Yep. Zombies.

In this simulation, we were preparing for an inevitable invasion of zombies in Washington, DC. New York City had already fallen, so the students had to design and implement plans for both alerting citizens of the apocalypse and ascertaining how prepared they were. By trying to implement tools such as FrontlineSMS, Magpi, Open Data Kit, and FormHub in a disaster scenario, it quickly became apparent that certain tools were preferable for certain scenarios. For instance, while FrontlineSMS would be fantastic for disseminating information, it would be challenging to run a survey on it. Open Data Kit and Magpi work wonderfully if you have an Android phone, but falters on an iPhone. Formhub, while offering both an Android app and a web-based form, can only accept surveys created in a .xls file type—definitely not prohibitive, but it does require an extra layer of expertise.

After we saved the world, or at least DC, from zombies, we explored a few tools in the sector of finance, health, and governance. Among the highlights for me were m-Pesa, a fascinating mobile-based money transfer system started in Kenya; MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, which sends valuable information to pregnant women concerning caring for their child; and CrowdHall, a rethinking of the town hall meeting for the digital age.

Both the breadth and the depth possible in these two days impressed me. The number of tools we used demonstrated the tremendous advances and potential of technology to address crises as they arise. Despite my belief that I could avoid a classroom for a few years, exploring these potential solutions was the best possible foray back into education.

With high expectations for mobile health initiatives, and a proliferation of pilot projects (see this map from Uganda), it can be easy to forget that the mHealth field is still young. Like any emergent industry, mHealth is currently experiencing growing pains, a few of which were highlighted by Tina Rosenberg in her recent New York Times article, “The Benefits of Mobile Health, On Hold”.

In the article, Rosenberg raises a number of important points. She cites, for example, the misalignment between expectations and current realities in mHealth:

“Roughly a decade after the start of mHealth, as the mobile health field has come to be known, these expectations are far from being met.  The delivery system is there.  But we don’t yet know what to deliver.”

She also highlights the pilot fatigue that has stricken mobile-saturated countries such as Uganda and South Africa, as both public and private sector actors rush to become first-movers in the mHealth space. In some cases this has led to lack of coordination and limited impact.

But there is a silver lining. New research is underway in the mHealth space, and leading actors in are learning from past mistakes to design more effective platforms. Projects such as UNICEF’s Project Mwana have successfully introduced simplicity to a complex health system. And stakeholders are beginning to wake up to the fact that technology is only one part (and often the easiest part) of the equation.

This issue was addressed by Patricia Mechael, executive director of the mHealth Alliance, in the NY Times article: “We can get excited about the shiny new object, but the real impact comes from thinking about the cultural and professional context in which it’s being implemented.” How are mHealth platforms adapting to new realities, and reacting to emergent challenges?

This will be a key point of discussion in our upcoming Mobile Phones for Public Health online certificate course, in which Mechael will speak as a guest expert. The course, which begins next week and runs from June 3 to June 28, already has participants signed up from over 25 countries.

Through case studies, guest expert interviews, multimedia tutorials, interactive exercises and live demonstrations of mHealth tools, the course will showcase how mobile technologies are revolutionizing global health systems – and how various challenges can be overcome. While current mHealth projects may not yet be meeting lofty expectations, they are certainly moving in the right direction.

For even more information about the course, visit the course page or take a look at the syllabus. To make sure you get a seat, fill out an application here and enroll today!

Traditional education in the US has long been required to accommodate those with disabilities through statutes like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but online learning has lagged behind. The excitement for improving online access to Ivy League classrooms should extend beyond just connectivity to intentional instructional design. But what standards and guidelines exist?

Fortunately, the charging one has been solved now that we've all standardized on mini-usb. Or is it micro-usb?  Shit.

We recently took on the challenge of bringing all of our coursework into compliance with Section 508, a set of regulations which sets technical standards to promote equal access to (among other things) web content and multimedia for populations with disabilities.

Online learning can improve access to information by people with disabilities. Compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act isn’t just the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense. But we still have a long way to go.

According to Wikipedia: “Section 508 (29 U.S.C. § 794d), agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to the access available to others.”  These accommodations include things like closed captioning and audio descriptions for multimedia, machine readable design to allow screen readers easy access to and navigation through content, and other methods of ensuring that everyone has the ability to benefit fully from our courses.  Some may say that regulations such as these impose a great cost, and likely help few.  But we think differently, for several reasons.

This is an endeavor we want to be doing anyway, because it’s the right thing to do.

A lot of the courses we do are about inclusion: using technology for democracy, better health, and conversation across traditionally disparate groups.  We are proud to have students from around the world in each of our courses.  Leaving behind those who have difficulty accessing technology would undermine our mission.

It is not difficult if done from the beginning.  

Though including closed captioning or audio description tracks obviously involves more than the bare minimum amount of effort, if included from the beginning, it becomes part of the content generation process, and overhead is low.

It makes us more competitive.

Federal agencies and contractors are required to conform to the 508 standards if compliance is possible.  This includes procurement.  So a compliant product must be chosen over a non-compliant one.

It naturally follows from good design and coding principles as well as web standards.

Good code and good design have a common theme:  they are clean.  Clean design and code is also easier for assistive technology like screen readers to read.  It’s simpler to do things like make text larger if there is plenty of space to do so, avoid using colors to denote meaning since it can’t clash with your color scheme, and leave room for captioning and transcripts in empty space that doesn’t distract other users with unnecessary detail.

Thinking about the challenges of accessing our content helps us make the experience better for all of our students.

Thinking about how to minimize the impact of compliance on your media forces you to think about how you present material, and to present it in different ways that will complement each other.  Not only because different people learn different ways, but also because reinforcement through a different mode is still repetition, the most effective form of learning.

Thankfully, the 508 Standards are fairly straightforward.  Indeed, they involve a careful analysis of the problem and what solutions work, which is a long and arduous process we are ill equipped to duplicate.

What isn’t straightforward ways to test your product and underlying platforms for actual usability.  The next couple of posts on accessibility will talk about some of the more troublesome edge cases in 508, our process to make all of our content as accessible as possible, and how future standards and technologies can continue to make learning inclusive.

What processes do your organization use to expand access to your services?

Big data is already giving us better TV shows. Could it also help build a better education system?

This week our team went to 1776 Reboot: Education Meetup, where we heard from leading experts from Coursera talk about the future of online MOOCs, as well as entrepreneurs from TechStars about applying an accelerator approach to learning. But one of the real stars of the night was Richard Culatta of the Department of Education, who declared that we now have more data about what kids watch on Netflix than how they learn in school.

So what?

When Netflix rolled out House of Cards as all 13 episodes developed on metrics learned over the years from their watchers, Kevin Spacey stated in a Business Insider article:

“It’s a real opportunity for the film and television industry to learn the lesson the music industry didn’t learn. Give the audience what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they’ll buy it.”

In our last post, Four Reasons Why Universities Aren’t Ready to Move Online, we looked at how universities need to invest more heavily in producing compelling online content — not just videotaping professors lecturing. The dirty secret behind online all of the education platforms that are generating the creative chaos around online education is that they are not providing an online education at all, but rather educational content in a structured format. If that’s the case, what can online education learn from the current revolution in content distribution?

In criticizing current approaches to online learning, we often refer to the “Netflix” approach to online education — passive consumption of videos instead of interactive back-and-forth learning. But there’s no doubt that there is a market for passive consumption of educational videos, ranging from the current gold standard of Lynda.com to simply looking up a how-to screencast on YouTube.

  • Piecemeal Content (Amazon). Amazon is a retail company, that wants to also sell digital content. Think of this as purchasing and streaming an episode of Ken Burns Civil War. But are customers willing to buy educational content when there has been hesitation to do so for TV (hence the existence of PBS).

  • Free Prosumer (YouTube). YouTube is a Google product that wants to build general user data. The problem here for users is discovery and quality control — it’s hard to find quality, and it’s hard to find programs of study as opposed to small snippets of knowledge.

  • Freemium Model (Hulu). Hulu is an ad-supported subscription video service, that wants to build interest in existing broadcast content. It’s also perhaps the closest to the existing Coursera and EdX model. While the education is free, they are looking at “freemium” educational models where they can charge for certificates of completion or credit.

  • Premium Distribution Model (HBO). This could be TED talks right now, although those are free — TED controls the vertical by organizing the conferences, filming the speakers, and then distributing on their own platform. The content is often superb, but–like HBO–is restricted in it’s theme and format. HBO is a cable company that happens to be online.

  • Content Buffet + Original Content (Netflix).  Netflix provides on-demand Internet video streaming. Most interestingly, they then used big data from how their users watch other media to figure out how best to deliver its own content.  There’s not a perfect comparison yet, but there are some indicators of what’s to come.

Khan Academy started off with simple YouTube videos of basic skills.  Since then, they have aggregated them into groups with clear skill progression and then allows students to practice with post video problems, which give them an enormous amount of feedback on how well students are learning.  This data not only helps students learn through application of knowledge to problems with instant response, but easily enables Khan to present additional problems to support or remediate weak areas.  And all that data can show Khan how to make an even better experience by combining it with theories on effective learning.

Big Data companies like Hortonworks are trumpeting data-driven education, while new startups like Clever and learnsprout are helping developers get in touch with new sources of data on achievement and teaching.  Even government is getting in on the game.  Led by the Department of Education’s Richard Culatta and the administration’s general open data philosophy, every metric available is being drafted to the use of improving education across the country.  But the metric gathering potential of online learning is even greater.

Brace yourselves: We may be about to see some of the best educational content of all time built on metrics that traditional educators could only dream about. And moreover, since this isn’t just about producing content one time for one show, but for topics that will require constant updating and modification for improvements.

What will your courses look like when your professors are actually producing quality content and A/B testing the heck out of it? When they improve not semester to semester, but week to week?

This post was co-authored with Mike Brown.

Co-authored by Mike Brown.

The future of higher education may be online, but the present is still a mess.

The New Yorker recently published a thorough exploration of MOOCs and higher education. Coincidentally, this piece came out as the same week that my alma mater announced it had failed to fill about a third of its incoming freshman class. Whether a temporary enrollment misfire or permanent disruption of the education system, both the struggles of terrestrial universities and the potential for an online future raise important concerns about how higher education will survive.

Although perhaps not the author’s intention, the article revealed five key differences between traditional teaching institutions moving traditional courses online and courses designed to be online from the very beginning:

No experience in producing online content. The main video editor for Nagy’s course is a graduate assistant who recently defended her dissertation in Greek history, not a Web editor by vocation. Good educational content requires audio, video, graphics, and subject matter to work in unison. Universities are buying platforms like marble mansions and filling them with cardboard content.  But live teaching is hard, which is why good lecturers are hard to come by.  The same applies to other modes of delivery, and with MOOCs, the potential efficacy lost from skimping on the experience will scale with the course, growing linearly, while the cost of getting it right from the beginning is fixed, getting cheaper per person as number of students scale.

No clear teaching or evaluation model. This is still the “let a thousand flowers bloom” stage of online learning, but that has to end eventually. While it was good to see the back-and-forth on the socratic method, without methods of evaluating work, it seems premature to congratulate education on cracking this nut. Multiple-choice quizzes to test reading comprehension will never replace essays, and machines are a long way off from being able to grade 31,000 essays accurately.  But besides peer grading, which is successfully used by Coursera and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s “Around the Globe and Around the Clock: The Science and Technology of the CTBT,” we don’t have better ways of evaluating student progress in depth, as well as breadth.  New models and tools are needed for these subjects.

No clear business model.  It initially seemed unnecessary to take a trip and cameraman to Greece as part of the budget for this course, but if students are willing pay for that authentic experience, then why not?  It may well be that including such edutainment content as shots from the real places, much like the history channel used to do, will benefit students greatly;  what’s most important is that they track how it changes how students engage, and perform further experiments to validate these theories.

No access to social networks.  Perhaps the most telling part of the article was the admonition of universities not just as delivering elite education, but connecting elites with one another into lifelong networks. Emphasis on admonition.  Not only is more data available to mine when students interact in social network type settings, but students and teachers benefit from the collaborative and iterative experience inherent in group-based contemporaneous learning.

Traditional universities are, in the words of the article, standing in front of an avalanche. They are understandably attached to their current model, which they have developed over centuries, but it leaves them vulnerable to the scale-free model of online learning. The prospect of a global audience and substantial cost savings from online coursework is attractive. However, they are poorly positioned to benefit from either without revolutionizing their entire approach.  Universities, in this new age, are facing the classic Shumpeterian forces of creative destruction.  Much like the railroads, which once dominated transport, innovation is placing pressure on their model, and if they remain attached to a model displaced by innovation, they will be destroyed by it.

Are there more ways that universities are failing to keep up with the times?  Are products of e-learning startups falling too far from the educational tree?  Join the conversation in the comments.