Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Strategic Design in Online Education: Skill Streams in Courses

In the last post I suggested to you that in dealing with cognitive skills as outlined by Bloom that there is a needed change. The environment that Bloom first developed his hierarchy for does not quite fit or take advantage of an online environment. Due to the very nature of the environment on the Internet, the end goal for students is no longer to gather information for the instructor and then demonstrate the knowledge of information through assessment. There is more information on the Internet than what a teacher could accumulate in all of his or her formal education and the ability of students to find and reproduce it requires very little thought at all. In the post information age where our students are very comfortable with the Internet, the emphasis on the scales of information collection vs. process skills has shifted more to the process skills. It is not to say that students do not have to have basic foundational knowledge in whatever discipline they choose to follow but this foundation knowledge is a means to an end.

In order to create a culture of innovation within our societies, it must start at what we see as important for the education of children. We can not treat all children as if we have taken all from a specific mold which has up to this point been the foundation of the old industrial model of education.
Instead we need to educate students how to think, how to believe that they are capable of creating new knowledge and skills, and that our societies value their contributions to building the future.

With this in mind, what I am going to describe to you are some thoughts on the design of online courses that I think are essential to making "thoughtful engagement" an attitude in the learning style of online students. the thoughts that I offer are far from polished but if they get you think "what if..." and inspire you to offer suggestions for refinement then much has been accomplished that is of value. You see, in order for students to demonstrate this attitude, they need you as an instructor to model it for them and being willing to share your discoveries and challenges. These thoughts arise out of a frustration that I had experienced in the brick and mortar school and now find it creeping into the design of online courses. When we try to transfer what worked well in the brick and mortar school into an online environment, we also end up transferring some of our faulty  design issues along with the potentially good ideas.

One of these problems is that when a particular skill set is introduced to students and a dedicated set of exercises to reinforce the idea, we fail to draw connections to the next skill to show how it relates to the previously learned skill. In other words, in the exercises following we don't emphasize to students that we are building a skill repertoire which they will then focus on a specific issue that they will deal with at a time in the future. Students start to see each of these necessary skills as separate entities that are not connected. The problem is we need to have a framework of identified skills that we want students to master in a course but we don't prioritize and arrange these skills as building on the skill that came before. Part of the problem is a guilt that teachers sometimes feel if a student is struggling. We don't want the student to fail mastering the skill and in many western societies students are not to experience failure. Therefore, we have a habit of reminding the student of the nature of the previously learned skill.

So, how can we deal with this in an online environment? The following rough diagram is a display of ideas that might address this problem through a construct that I call "skill streams". The actual explanation of objects in the diagram will be detailed in page #2

mind mapping software

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Strategic Design in Online Education: "The Cascading Ideas Effect"


Picking up from the last post, I draw your attention to the example that I gave in regards to robotics at the end of the last post. In order to consider creating a culture of innovation within the online education environment, what happens after something is created whether it be new knowledge, new skills...etc is important. What the students exhibited is something that we should strive to achieve with all our students across all curriculum lines. Why? The "why" is really quite simple.We end up with a generation committed to laying the industrial model of education to rest and a generation committed to the positive advancement of our societies by believing that they have something positive to contribute in building the future.

The "Cascading Ideas Effect" that I proposed can best be explained by using an analogy.

When you look at a waterfall, what do you really see? What you see are streams of water cascading from a height in a linear fashion. If you introduce a small obstacle into the flow of the waterfall, the following results may occur:
  • the stream may be diverted into two different paths before coming to rest at the end
  • the water impacting on the obstacle, may cause a chain reaction of collisions of water droplets which then go on and continue to impact others resulting in changes of directions that increase exponentially
If we change this to refer to what happens when students create something, as the robotic students did, the small obstacle in this case is just one student saying "but wait what if we did this with our finished product...? This would be what you might call the tipping point in which a cause and effect pattern occurs and student collaboration begins again.
If the stream is diverted into two different paths this would mean that the collaboration would be divided into two different approaches as to where the finished product takes them. In both instances, the cause or catalyst is the created product. A larger obstacle could produce multiple approaches along multidisciplinary lines.

If this "Cascading Ideas Effect" is to really work in the online classroom what needs to be done?

  1. First, the teacher should introduce and model this attitude in all that he or she does. In other words, we are talking about the teacher sharing what he or she has created and the process that he or she followed to produce the created object, skills...etc. Teachers should be innovators and explorers. This is not meant to be an "add on" for teachers but should be an "instead of" because teachers work hard enough as it is. The education terminology that would apply is the term exemplars.
  2. Secondly, the course designer in an online environment should design his or her courses with relevant skill streams in which introduced skills are constantly and consistently built upon with the goal in mind of helping students to build a solid repertoire of skills that engage the mind and the heart in encouraging a culture of innovation.
At this point you might be thinking that I have got to be dreaming if I think that this will work. Yes, I am not dreamy but I am a dreamer but let me come back to the waterfall and ask you this question: "What happens if the waterfall is damned at its source?" The answer is that the flow dries up or stagnates with very little movement. This is what you can expect if we continue to embrace an industrial model of education which puts its highest priority on making everything standard and every student fitting the same mold.

Next...Strategic Design in Online Education: Designing Online Courses

Strategic Design in Online Education: Beyond Bloom

In fostering a culture of innovation within the enterprise of online education, we continue to apply habits of the mind as they apply to higher thinking skills that we want to instill in our students. However, I will suggest to you that in the digital age, we must go beyond what was described by Benjamin Bloom so long ago.

The Habits of the Mind that come into play in this instance are:
  1. Thinking Flexibly
  2. Striving for Accuracy and Precision
  3. Questioning and Posing Problems
  4. Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations
  5. Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision
  6. Gathering Data Through All the Senses
These habits of the mind if implemented throughout a curriculum will take you only so far. The question is will these habits as proposed by Art Costa and Bena Kallick (2000) foster innovation in our students as an enduring attitude that will result in our societies reaping benefits? This is a rhetorical question as you might guess. The answer is no. In order to develop a culture of innovation in online education, we need to go beyond what Bloom suggested. The first modification would look like the following diagram which was produced by Andrew Churches(2010)

You will notice that a new level is added labelled "Create". Ultimately, in order to progress to a culture of innovation, it is necessary that something is created which has value. This fits very well with the habits of the mind shown below:
  1. Creating, Imagining and Innovating
  2. Thinking Interdependently
In an online course, all the tools of the Internet, especially those that allow a student to create an environment depend upon the characteristics above and are part of the students' way of learning. However, once the students have created something that is uniquely theirs, is that the end of the line?

I use to teach students about robotics and one of things I noticed was students demonstrated all the different stages of Bloom's Taxonomy. By listening to them and asking questions it was clear that the students, individually, were at different stages on the Bloom continuum. One of the final tasks for the students was to use what they had learned to built a working model of a robot. You would think that that would be the end of it but instead something very interesting happened. At the end the student groups, without my direction, started to diagram for me ideas that they had to extend what they did to other potential applications. This started a cascade effect of ideas in which each student contributed an idea and the potential pros and cons. I found this to be remarkable because it was going against an attitude that seems to be a systemic problem in our society,that being, a cynicism concerning the future.
Therefore, I would propose that we need to go beyond Bloom, Costa and Kallick, and Churches to add another level that I will term the "Cascading Ideas Effect".

I will elaborate on this concept in the next posting....

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Strategic Design in Online Education: A New Mindset

In my last post I suggested to you that in order for online education to evolve into a more profound education experience for students, we need to create a culture of innovation. This shift not only impacts students but also online teachers in the way that they design courses and assess progress made by their students. One of the barriers to this happening is that many societies of our age have become very cynical about the future. This has the effect of creating a society at war with itself. Any suggestions that are made that are innovative that could impact education and society as a whole are too quickly dismissed or they are studied to death. This attitude is systemic not only in society as a whole but runs throughout the school systems. In such a cynical mindset,school becomes a place where the dreams and the imagination of young people about the future go to die.

This is not to suggest that every innovation that comes along should be adopted but we should follow one of the important principles of brainstorming and that is to not dismiss new ideas immediately but instead to strive to garner as many new, innovative ideas as possible. What is needed to begin this process is a change in mindset that takes us away from the pervasive cynicism that creates a society that constantly complains of the shortcomings of their lives but stifles every potential solution with the idea "it probably won't work". The change in mindset that I will describe involves changes that look at habits of the mind that are important to students and teachers and change in the structure of online courses.

Habits of the Mind, as described by Art Costa and Bena Kallick, describe a set of 16 attitudes that students and teachers should adopt in order to function effectively in a culture of innovation. These habits described below are not new but how they might be applied to the online environment is new.

  1. Persistence: One of the great problems that has its roots in a society with a cynical mindset is the fact that students when confronted with dealing with a difficult issue are quick to give up. Unfortunately, as a society, we are all to blame for this. Too often teachers and parents are enablers of students' lack of persistence. What students need are real models and examples of persistence and the fact that persistence often leads either to success at the task or the development of a alternative approach to meeting the task. NASA adopted a phrase that describes a type of mindset that needs to be more fully accepted. That phrase was:" Failure is not an option!".  The history of our nations have many examples of persistence and how it paid off. Unfortunately, we too often present these examples as exceptions to the norm rather than emphasizing that this should be the norm in our societies. Within the context of the online environment, we have before us a rich well of resources but how often do teachers and students stop after a couple of Google searches?
  2. Managing Impulsivity: Collaboration in an online environment can produce great results when properly moderated by a teacher but there is always a tendency of students to cut each other off before what they are saying is fully explained. Patience is important in this environment as much as it is important in a regular brick and mortar school. The difference is that in an online environment there is even a greater potential for distraction. For example, in a collaborative discussion there is always the chance that a student will go to his or her Facebook account to check to see what is up or become embroiled in sending messages to people who are not part of the collaboration. The role of the instructor should always be to make sure that every student is addressed by name which re-emphasizes that this is not an event in which you can be anonymous and that your contribution is vital to the success of the group.
  3. Listening to Others with Understanding and Empathy: One of the great problems of our age is that we have taught students to be narcissistic about life in our societies. It is again a product of a cynical society that we have students who have become self-absorbed and have an attitude of self-entitlement. This becomes quite evident in their relationships with their instructors, peers and parents. This is something that they have learned by the adult models in our societies. As adults consider this question: When we give to charitable causes, do we do it anonymously, not expecting any recognition or tax receipts from our government? In order for students to listen to others with understanding and empathy they need to consider the welfare of others more important than their own at the particular time in question. That involves developing the discipline of self-sacrifice for a greater good.
As you can see from the first few habits of the mind, they are attitudes that educators and students alike need to adopt if we are going to foster a mindset that is conducive to a culture of innovation. The next few attitudes tie in very nicely with the very heart of innovation and how a hierarchy of thinking skills such as Bloom's Taxonomy needs to change to incorporate to fit with a culture of innovation as it applies to online education. This discussion is for the next segment....

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Strategic Design in Online Education: Creating a Culture of Innovation

The education systems today produce students who are taught that the highest value to aspire to is to be a good consumer of goods and services. This value originates with an industrial model of education which also sees as the goal of education to produce workers to serve and labour in the global economy. But, is this the system the one that will lead to the greatest advancement of humanity on a global scale? The world in which this system thrived in is not the world today and is not the world that these students will end up spending their adult lives in. The revolution in education sees a change from this conveyor belt, standardized, one-size fits all perspective to one where the unique gifts of each student are to be focused on being producers of new knowledge, skills and wisdom. In order for this to happen there needs to be a change in the culture of education where innovation is not simply a by product of the system but instead is a focus of the system. This focus says to students that you are not all the same but that you have unique skills that are valued and if enabled or mentored by a system with a correct perspective, you will be architects of the future.

A culture of innovation will not come easily and will meet resistance because those who have a vested interest in the old system will mount substantial resistance if they see that interest threatened in any way.  Sir Ken Robinson gives a good description of what we are up against.

The revolution in education has already begun. Online education has the greatest potential  to enrich
the education of students by strategically designing what they offer to students so that a culture of innovation is encouraged, valued and most importantly, seen by the students that they can make valuable contributions to plotting the future.
In order for this to happen, online education needs to start fostering the habits of the mind which is an alien concept to many students but will be embraced by them when they see how much the world will open up to them.
Next posting will deal with the strategic design of course content that will put them on the path described.........