No path for badging (or MOOCs)

Khan Academy Learning Dashboard

Yesterday I (virtually) attended a great chat with Sal Khan of the Khan Academy. I posed a question that was fortunate enough to be aggregated with others. When asked about the “knowledge map,” Sal responded that it is where they are “investing most heavily.”

My guess is, the Khan Academy folks are investing because they have already grasped what badging and MOOC proponents have not — single courses or competencies do not translate to deep learning.

If you’re not familiar with the Knowledge Map, it’s a tool that plots the relationship between related concepts in a given subject (currently math). A learner can thus use the map to forge a path to higher levels of learning in that subject, or to move down to more foundational topics when they find themselves in too deep.

Thus, the Knowledge Map forms the curriculum for self-paced, online learning. Without the clear path that a curriculum provides, a learner can have a difficult time knowing what they do not know — or where best to expand their knowledge.

Currently, MOOCs and badge/competency-based programs largely have not addressed this problem. Learners pick courses based on interesting titles, or notable teachers. As good as many of the online programs might be, without a surrounding curriculum many learners hop from one interest area to another.

Certainly badges play a role as a new form of certifying achievement in a discrete subject area (and in motivating learning). MOOCs also play a great role of opening access to great course content.

Yet, on their own, badges and MOOCs foster dilettantism in learning. Students who have taken this approach in traditional higher education have traditionally not been successful. It stands to reason that online learners working on their own might reach a similar fate.

A digital liberal education?

An interesting debate has sprung up between seasoned and visionary minds in education: Stanley Fish and Daphne Koller. I won’t strive to summarize their arguments here, but would instead suggest that it’s best to reflect on them in their entirety.

I will confess that I’m sympathetic to Fish’s long-standing esteem for the liberal model of higher education, and I agree with his criticism that newer digital models lean too heavily towards fact and skill at the sacrifice of knowledge and wisdom. Fish doesn’t use the term “information transmission” in his criticism – but I would contend that this is exactly what he is getting at. By focusing on teaching students facts, we neglect critical life skills that traditionally have been imparted through higher education (though, historically to a chosen few).

Koeller, however, counters with an excellent point that online lectures are a better use a professors time (though I know quite a few that prefer a face-to-face performance to a “cold” recording). Koeller cites UW-Madison as an example of where flipping a classroom can benefit student learning. 

Though flipping may improve outcomes which are tightly defined (skills and knowledge), one wonders how much improvement if any is gained for the knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom are two aspects of life development that I am skeptical can happen outside of a residential education.

Perhaps there is value in both arguments – we can find a balance in effectively using the Internet to transmit knowledge and to improve interpersonal communication, while still providing opportunities to develop these more intangible skills. Broadly defined learning outcomes (like the LEAP Value rubrics) may also offer ways to fine tune the college experience, both on and offline.

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The move away from textbooks

Colleges and universities are running eTextbook pilots again this Fall semester, and while the pilots of today very much follow the standard form of “the book,” I believe that two forces will push the evolution of (higher) educational eTexts in new directions.

The commitment to making traditional textbooks electronic appears to be minimal. I’ve heard that the percentage of textbooks that are “born digital” is low. Subsequently the cost of converting a text from print to digital adds to the cost of a book, rather than bringing costs down.

Conversely [WC?] the growth of bundling electronic exercises with texts, from what I have seen, has grown greatly over the years. Publishers market the educational additions directly to faculty, and often deliver the exercises through proprietary learning management systems. This allows publishers to collect more data on student interactions and learning, while decentralizing the educational experience for students (and minimizing institutional control over learning).

Given the potential benefits that publishers might reap from exercises, my hunch is that they will the be locus of evolution in higher education textbooks. By increasingly moving content into exercises, a number of changes are introduced:

  • It may be more difficult for instructors to verify the accuracy of materials
  • The ownership of the materials may come into question, as XXX
  • While an exercise might provide a superior experience for student learning, subsequent referencing of materials could be difficult.

While it’s not clear whether instructors or institutions would buy into this model, they would be wise to include it in pilots [awk].

Top 5 things that excite me about a smart watch

There have been a lot of rumors in the news lately about Apple and Google developing a smart watch. Personally, I find this much more exciting than glass as a useful technology in the near-term. Here’s why:

5. Assuming it has data, it would make the perfect phone interface. You already hold your phone up to your head. Holding your arm near your ear isn’t that much of a stretch.
4. Easier access to contextual data: Much like glancing down to see the time, a useful stream of data is a perfect fit for a watch. I’m an Android Google Now user, and I’m sure the interface would be great on a watch.
3. Bio-feedback possibilities: A device capable of receiving bio-feedback signals brings possibilities for consistent input of data, and more importantly – output. I’ve recently become a big fan of the productivity app Vitamin-R, which nudges you towards productivity. An close-at-hand device like a watch could remind you to take a break or maintain focus.
2. A remote control for the Internet of Things: Better than a TV remote, a watch could allow you to control internet-enabled devices, or might even bring the possibility of devices that respond to your presence. A watch might also be good for gaming as a cool replacement for a Wii-mote.
1. The big win for me would be a watch as a cell data tether.

A personal little wifi bubble to drive a tablet, laptop or any other device would make a smart watch much more useful and economical.

 It would also allow for activities that people often complain wouldn’t work well on a watch — just pull out your tablet after receiving an e-mail.

However, I have a small wrist – hopefully the batteries can get the size down to that of the Nike FuelBand.

For those of you who would take this one step further, check out Mike Elgan’s post on augmentation.