The Quotable Justin Reich: MOOC research needs to reboot

Thanks to Audrey Watters I just read a new article in Science Magazine and publicly posted here by Justin Reich, the lead researcher for HarvardX (Harvard’s implementation of edX and associated research team)[1]. Justin calls out the limitations of current MOOC research that focuses on A/B testing and engagement instead of learning, single-course context, and post hoc analysis with proper course design. While praising the field for making available cleansed data for any type of analysis, his core argument is that we need new approaches that cannot be solved just by research teams.
Update: Added link to publicly-available DOCX article.

While the whole article is worth reading, there are quite a few insightful quotes should get past the journal paywall.

  • Big data sets do not, by virtue of their size, inherently possess answers to interesting questions.
  • We have terabytes of data about what students clicked and very little understanding of what changed in their heads.
  • It does not require trillions of event logs to demonstrate that effort is correlated with achievement.

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  1. Note that Science Magazine access requires a subscription or purchase or individual article. []
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Harmonizing Learning and Education

I’m the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all it’s more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Dave Cormier has written a couple of great posts on our failure to take learner motivation seriously and the difference between improving learning and improving education. In the latter post—a response to Stephen Downes’ comment on the former post—Dave writes about the tension between improving an individual’s learning and improving our system of education, essentially positing that the reason why we as a society often fail to take learner engagement sufficiently seriously is because we become preoccupied with making the educational system accountable, a goal that we would be irresponsible not to take on but that we are also essentially doomed to fail at. (I may be putting words in his mouth on that last bit.) Dave writes,

There’s definitely something wrong if people are leaving their first degree and are not engaged in learning. We certainly need to address it. We totally want to be in the business of helping people do what they want to do. Try it. No really. Just try it. Sit down with a child and help them do what they want to do. And i don’t mean “hey this child has shown up with a random project they are totally passionate about and are asking me a question” I mean “stop them at a random time, say 8:25am, and just start helping them.” You will get blank stares. You’ll get resistance. You’ll get students who will say anything you want if it means you will go away/give them a grade. You will not enjoy this process. They will also not enjoy it.

There is something wrong. The problem is that we have built an education system with checks and balances, trying to make it accountable and progressive (in some cases), but we are building it without knowing why. We have not built an education system that encourages people to be engaged. The system is not designed to do it. It’s designed to get people to a ‘standard of knowing.’ Knowing a thing, in the sense of being able to repeat it back or demonstrate it, has no direct relationship to ‘engagement’. There are certainly some teachers that create spaces where engagement occurs, but they are swimming upstream, constantly battling the dreaded assessment and the need to cover the curriculum. The need to guarantee knowing.

He suggests that we need to redesign our education system around the goal of getting students to start caring and keep caring about learning. And his argument is interesting:

Give me a kid who’s forgotten 95% of the content they were measured in during K-12 and I will match that with almost every adult i know. Give me a kid who cares about learning… well… then i can help them do just about anything.

This is partly a workplace argument. It’s an economic value argument. It’s a public good argument. If Dave is right, then people who care about learning are going to be better at just about any job you throw at them than people who don’t. This is a critical argument in favor of public funding of a liberal arts education, personalized in the old-fashioned sense of having-to-do-with-individual-persons, that much of academia has ceded for no good reason I can think of. The sticky wicket, though, is accountability which, as Dave points out, is the main reason we have a schism between learning and education in the first place. Too bad we can’t demonstrate, statistically, that people who are passionate about learning are better workers. It’s a shame that we don’t have good data linking being excited about learning, being a high-performer in your job, and being a happy, fulfilled and economically well-off person. If we had that, we could largely resolve the tension between improving learning and improving education. We could give a compelling argument that it is in the taxpayers’ interest to build an education system whose purpose, as Dave suggests, is to increase the chances that students will start to care and continue to care about learning. It’s a tragedy that we don’t have proof of that link.

Oh, wait.

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Year-end Updates on e-Literate News Posts

For my final 2014 post, I thought it would be interesting to provide year-end updates to some news posts on e-Literate over the past year. You’ll notice that there is somewhat of an emphasis on negative stories or implications. For most positive stories, companies and institutions are typically all too happy to send out press releases with the associated media paraphrasing, and we have little need here to cover as news. The following non-exhaustive list is in date order.

D2L Growth Claims

In December 2013 I described layoffs at Desire2Learn (now officially named D2L). The significance of this story is that it calls into question D2L’s growth claims and trumpeting of massive new investment of $85 million. Some updates:

IPEDS Data on Online Learning

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A 2014 (Personal) Blogging Retrospective

Unlike many of the bloggers who I enjoy reading the most, I don’t often let my blogging wander into the personal except as a route to making a larger point. For some reason, e-Literate never felt like the right outlet for that. But with the holidays upon us, with some life cycle events in my family causing me to be a bit more introspective than usual, and with the luxury of having discovered Phil’s top 20 posts of the year post showing up in my inbox, I’m in the mood to ruminate about my personal journey in blogging, where it’s taken me so far, and what it means to me. In the process, I’ll also reflect a bit on what we try to do at e-Literate.

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e-Literate Top 20 Posts For 2014

I typically don’t write year-end reviews or top 10 (or 20) lists, but I need to work on our consulting company finances. At this point, any distraction seems more enjoyable than working in QuickBooks.

We’ve had a fun year at e-Literate, and one recent change is that we are now more willing break stories when appropriate. We typically comment on ed tech stories a few days after the release, providing analysis and commentary, but there are several cases where we felt a story needed to go public. In such cases (e.g. Unizin creation, Cal State Online demise, management changes at Instructure and Blackboard) we tend to break the news objectively, providing mostly descriptions and explanations, allowing others to provide commentary.

The following list is based on Jetpack stats on WordPress, which does not capture people who read posts through RSS feeds (we send out full articles through the feed). So the stats have a bias towards people who come to e-Literate for specific articles rather than our regular readers. We also tend to get longer-term readership of articles over many months, so this list also has a bias for articles posted a while ago.

With that in mind, here are the top 20 most read articles on e-Literate in terms of page views for the past 12 months along with publication date.

  1. Can Pearson Solve the Rubric’s Cube? (Dec 2013) – This article proves that people are willing to read a 7,000 word post published on New Year’s Eve.
  2. A response to USA Today article on Flipped Classroom research (Oct 2013) – This article is our most steady one, consistently getting around 100 views per day.
  3. Unizin: Indiana University’s Secret New “Learning Ecosystem” Coalition (May 2014) – This is the article where we broke the story about Unizin, based largely on a presentation at Colorado State University.
  4. Continue reading

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