e-Literate TV Update and Request for Help

We are fast approaching the release of our first e-Literate TV (ETV) series. Our latest estimate is that we will go live in mid-February with a collection of interview episodes filmed at EDUCAUSE 2013 covering the following topics:

  1. An overview of challenges in higher education that are driving conversations about educational technology
  2. A review of the online learning landscape
  3. A discussion MOOC mania
  4. An exploration of the genre of courseware
  5. A conversation about the basics of learning analytics and adaptive learning
  6. A review of one faculty member’s experience with classroom flipping

Meanwhile, we are already hard at work on the second series, which will be called “Massive and Open: What Are We Learning?” Filmed primarily at the the MOOC Research Initiative Conference, the series takes a deeper dive into how people are actually using the tools that MOOCs offer in different contexts and discusses their promise as well as their problems. We expect this to be the model for future series, where we explore one topic from a number of angles rather than offering a smorgasbord like the pilot series. We have a long list of topics we’d like to cover in future series, ranging from increasing educational access to personalized learning to the promise and perils of big data in education and more.

With the release of the first series around the corner, Phil and I would like to tell you more about our ideas for ETV and request your feedback and (verbal) support.

The Problem We’re Trying to Solve

During a conversation about ETV with a handful of colleagues at the last Sloan-C conference, Mike Caulfield nicely summed up the challenge we’re trying to tackle in one word: solutionism. We seem to go through endless hype cycles for technology-enabled education solutions, whether those solutions are general online learning programs, MOOCs, adaptive learning, competency-based education, et cetera and so on, ad nauseam. And the context in which these solutions are discussed is usually either a pitch by a vendor or some breathless bit of fluff utopianism in the tech media or the mainstream punditry. There are usually very few information sources that provide in-depth and independent analysis of any given solution. But perhaps more importantly, the conversation itself on campus is framed by the vendor marketing and media hype. Conversations tend to be collapsed into which thing we should buy rather than what’s the best way to solve the problem that we’re worried about or reaching the goal that we’re aspiring to achieve.

Given that situation, educators generally have three choices. First, they can trust most everything the vendors and media say and hope that their vendor partners are steering them well. Second, they can distrust most everything the vendors and media say and approach technology-enabled solutions in general with deep skepticism. Third, they can put together a review process which attempts to codify the differences amongst the solution candidates. Unfortunately, what often happens is a combination of the worst of all three of these options. Somebody will make a (labor-intensive) attempt to codify every feature of all the solution candidates and make the vendors respond to a massive RFP. This has the effect of filtering out smaller vendors who can’t afford the sales support staff required to respond to long RFPs as well as unusual solutions that don’t fit into the box. But because the RFP is usually written to document differences among products rather than illuminate important features of the problem being solved that might recommend one solution over another, the results of the process often don’t change many minds. So people who entered the process thinking one of the products is a cure for cancer generally leave the process thinking it is a cure for cancer. Similarly, people who start the process thinking one of the products causes cancer generally end the process still thinking that the product causes cancer. So either the vendor that checks the most boxes wins or the vendor who had the most support going into the process wins. Obviously, this is not a good situation for educators, students, or schools.

Nor is it a good situation for vendors—even the big ones who can afford to jump through the hoops. If the wrong stakeholders at a school dislike the product (or the vendor) going into the conversation, then the vendor loses. Period. No matter how good their solution is. On the other hand, if the school (or individual educator) adopts a product uncritically without fully understanding its strengths and limitations, then that implementation is ultimately likely to fail, thus harming future sales.

But the biggest problem that solutionism causes is that it distracts us from focusing on the problems the solutions are supposed to solve. Who cares about adaptive learning, really? What we care about is student success. Adaptive learning is interesting to the degree that helps specific kinds of students achieve specific kinds of educational goals. One of the interesting aspects we’ll be highlighting with our ETV series on MOOCs is that “massive” and “open” have a lot of really interesting and exciting educational applications. It’s just that one of those applications probably isn’t “disrupting the university.” But because disruption hype from folks like Thomas Friedman and Sebastian Thrun has so dominated the discussion, we have missed opportunities on campuses to talk about the problems that MOOCs can help with.

Obviously, campus politics can be an aggravating condition to solutionism. Content—even interactive content—can only have a limited impact on this. But to the degree that we can generate dialog on campuses before these issues become politicized, (e.g., before somebody puts a stake in the ground and declares, “We are doing a MOOC!”), we might be able to reduce the role that politics play in decision-making.

How We Plan to Do It

We’re very lucky that we have a readership at e-Literate that includes a lot of knowledgeable and passionate campus ed tech evangelists. Their official roles can vary widely. Sometimes they are directors of centers for teaching and learning. Sometimes they are passionate individual faculty or department chairs. Sometimes they are CIOs. What they tend to have in common is a clear-eyed interest in how technology can help solve important educational problems. At e-Literate, one of our main goals is to serve these people by providing them with relevant information and analysis. Unfortunately, this usually isn’t enough to enable them to solve the problem of solutionism on their campus. They need more tools in their toolboxes. Specifically, they need an information source that can function as an anti-hype, not in the sense of being as negative about a solution as the hype is positive, but in the sense encouraging educators within a campus community who are not ed tech geeks to think for themselves and talk to each other about what they need in a solution, and which problems they need to solve in the first place. The most recent example of this spirit is the piece we did on adaptive learning for the American Federation of Teachers. We want to do that in a programmatic way.

Enter ETV. We start with a series of short videos on a topic. These videos are discussion-based, exploratory, and aimed at non-technologists. They are produced by experienced film makers using three cameras, so they hopefully will carry an air of respectability for those stakeholders who are sensitive to those sorts of authority markers. But they don’t provide any easy answers. In fact, each one ends with a question. We try to provide just enough information to convince the viewers that the topic we are covering in a segment is worthy of discussion. The videos are designed to function like mini-lectures at the beginning of a discussion-based workshop or an unconference session. We don’t expect the stakeholders we are trying to reach will watch every video. But we are hoping that our ed tech evangelists can persuade them to at least watch enough of one video to start a conversation. The videos will be embedded in a blog where we hope to encourage discussion among stakeholders of all types across institutions, but we expect that a lot of the conversations will happen within individual colleges and universities and outside of our software. All the videos will be released under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

We also want to encourage people to dig deeper into the content by getting into their zone of proximal curiosity. Using the platform provided by In the Telling, we will be linking to blog posts, news articles, and other resources around the web in the specific context of particular moments in the videos. If a viewer finds a point being made in the discussion to be particularly interesting and wants to learn more, then more will be only one click away. We want to create lots of different entry points into the content so that different people can focus on the aspects that are most relevant to them in the level of detail that is most useful to them. We call this “differentiated engagement.” Our goal is not to get everybody to know the same things about the topic but to get enough people on campus interested in and knowledgeable about different aspects of the topic that there is an opportunity for some productive and enjoyable conversation. It is connectivist in its design in that sense.

What I’ve described so far is what we will be releasing in February with the first series. Soon after, we hope to build out a community space around the content using BuddyPress and other WordPress extensions. In the short term, we will focus on creating a space for ed tech evangelists at different campuses to share ideas and ask each other questions about how to foster conversation (although we hope that ETV will encourage increasing numbers of people to see themselves as ed tech evangelists or, at least, ed tech ambassadors). We don’t pretend to have all the best ideas for catalyzing these conversations, and we want to encourage those of you who are out there doing this work every day to share your best ideas with your peers. It will take us some time to build this out, but we are excited by the prospect of it.

All of this will be free, the content will be openly licensed, and much of it will be available without a registration or login. (Discussion participation will probably require some sort of registration process, whether we use a distributed ds106-style method or a centralized method like bbPress.) We intend to pay for it through PBS News Hour-style sponsorship. And while Phil and I do have some long-term ideas for paid content and services that ETV community members might be interested in (which I will blog about in a separate post in the near future), the primary purpose of ETV is not to generate sales. We expect that a substantial majority of ETV users will never pay us a dime, and we are fine with that. Our goal is to help campus communities have better conversations that lead to better educational decisions. If we can do that, then we are confident that we will earn the good reputation we need in order for people to come to us for consulting.

And this brings us to the part where we need your help.

(How) Will You Use This?

We are in the process of talking with sponsors now, including a meeting that we will be having with a major foundation in a few weeks. The first questions they will undoubtedly ask are, “How many people will actually use this, and how will they use it?” Obviously, we have these questions ourselves as well. We have talked to some friends and colleagues to get input, but we need more. We’re looking for two kinds of help from you:

1. Your Specific Ideas About How You Might Use ETV in Your Context

What we’re looking for are statements like, “I run a monthly lunch and learn for about 20 faculty at Rural Community College, and I would consider using ETV episodes as the basis for some of these sessions if the content was right.” Or, “Our college is planning a major smart classroom initiative, and I would use an ETV series on learning spaces to facilitate an all-day workshop if such a series existed.” Or “If I had had the MOOC series when my Provost was making a decision to launch an edX course, here is how I might have approached the conversation differently.” Or “I could never get my Provost/CIO/faculty/whoever to watch a ten-minute video, but if I had a two-page article like the one you pointed to on adaptive learning, I would pass that around as part of our monthly e-newsletter to the Faculty Senate.” Or even, “I would never use this because….” The more specific you can be, the more helpful it will be for us. What want your ideas for what ETV could do for you and how you would use it, if only we design it right. Please brainstorm with us.

2. Expressions of Interest from Your Campus

We’re also looking for schools to express a more official interest in adopting ETV programmatically. We’re not looking for a commitment, and we’re certainly not asking for money. What we’re hoping is that some of you would say something like, “Not only am I interested in principle in encouraging all of my department heads to watch ETV episodes; I’d like to discuss the possibility of using a MOOC series as the basis for an unconference with them.” This will both help us to shape ETV as we move forward and assure potential sponsors that there is real interest on campuses in making meaningful use of ETV if we can get the funding for it. For these more specific conversations, it’s probably best for you to email me at michael [at] mindwires [dot] com.

As always, thanks for your honest feedback.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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