All aboard the MOOC train!


Whoo whoo!

Many like Nathan Harden are saying that the MOOC signals “The End of the University as We Know It.” Free online higher education, Harden argues, is part of the shifting sands for established higher ed institutions in the U.S. If you put much stock in 20-30 year predictions (I don’t), schools like EMU run the risk of being crushed by “the unsentimental beast of progress.” Sounds terrifying!

Elsewhere, media theorist and video game designer, Ian Bogost warns against unfettered MOOC euphoria in his piece up at The Atlantic: Inequality in American Education Will Not Be Saved Online. Bogost argues that…

“Information” was never enough. Information is only intelligible given the proper knowledge, context, and opportunity. Likewise, knowledge is produced and shared within a complex infrastructure supported by a web of different agencies and organizations. Even if made cheap or free for consumers, that knowledge still requires other, more foundational knowledge, community affiliation, and economic freedom to convert into meaningful use.

This sociological insight that Bogost raises is a good check to the kind of starry-eyed optimisim that seems to accompany what I call “smashy smashy” pieces like Harden’s that paint traditional higher education institutions as being dead men walking. And unsentimental beasts of progress have a tendency to create some pretty terrible unintended consequences.

So what does that mean for Mennonite education? What are the contexts and opportunities that can take our educational offerings beyond mere information transfer for our learners? What complex infrastructure and diffuse web of agencies and organizations are (or aren’t) we drawing on to support and carry out our work?


Human connection and ed-tech in Mennonite higher ed


In the January 7th issue of the Mennonite World Review, president emeritus of Fresno Pacific University, D. Merrill Ewert, laid out a few of the 21st century challenges facing Mennonite higher education. They include:

  • A broken financial model (including reduced congregational support of colleges)
  • Rise of the for-profits (University of Phoenix, et al.)
  • New faculty majority (non-tenure track faculty)
  • MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses, for the uninitiated)
  • Hostility to faith

While I would characterize the last point more as the increasing reality of a multiplicity of faiths (“faith” being understood in a rather big-tent/more-than-religions kind of way) rather than hostility to (Christian) faith, I think his other points are well worth pondering for Mennonite higher education in general. Here I’ll offer a few comments on how I think these relate to ed-tech at EMU, which is my domain, and how we can move forward to face these challenges.


Case study: Online video for recorded lectures


One of the exciting things about my work at EMU has been to hear periodic stories of adventurous faculty members experimenting with educational technology on their own. As the “ed-tech guy,” one might assume that I should be the one with all the cool ideas that I then take around and show the faculty, so they can get with the techno times. Thankfully, though, that is not the case! No, there are plenty of tech-savvy faculty who think creatively about how to integrate newer forms of technology into their courses and pedagogical repertoire. In these instances, I get to play story-gatherer and share them in places like this.

Doug Graber Neufeld, professor in and current chair of the Biology department, is one such faculty member. This past summer Doug taught his first fully online course – “Earth Sciences” – that is, as Doug explains, “an introductory science course that covers traditional aspects of earth science (e.g. planetary sciences, geology, natural resources, etc).” Having traditionally taught this same course in an on-campus format, Doug wanted to at least partially address the lack of face-to-face connection in a fully online course, so he turned to recording video lectures. “I wanted students to have visual input from me in explaining the material which…supplemented their readings (e.g. by bringing in local issues), and served as a stimulus for online discussions.”

Before I go into the details of how Doug went about doing this, let me first show a finished product, because the way in which he went about lecturing is pretty awesome…

For part of the “streams and floods” lecture, Doug stood in a local stream and held forth. (Click for the lecture video on YouTube.)


Case study: Student portfolios with collaborative online documents


Task: Make this go away.
(Note: Not professor Medley’s desk. Photo by PenRX via Flickr/CC.)

As the fall semester was getting started, I received a request from Mike Medley, professor in the Language and Literature department and coordinator of the TESOL minor here at EMU. He was looking for ideas on how to better handle documents in his 400-level “Methods of Language Teaching” course. According to Mike, “This course requires students to generate a wide variety of documents, especially in connection with lesson planning, micro-teaching, journal reading, activity creation, practicum observations, and tutoring experiences.”

Each student generating and submitting a wide variety and high number of documents throughout the semester – with Mike reading and making comments on each – can create quite a confusing mess when working with paper-based, email-based, or even Moodle-based submission and feedback processes.

Mike had used Moodle forums in the recent past to facilitate the student document submission and feedback process, but wanted to avoid the repetitive and time-consuming task of “downloading each document, saving it in my own drive, opening it, typing in my comments, and then uploading back to a place on [Moodle] where students could access it.” Who could blame him? This kind of work is technological drudgery. But good news: It doesn’t have to be that way!


Case study: Highly synchronous online course


At risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m going to write again about my first significant online course design and facilitation experience: the online restorative justice class at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP), which ran this past spring (and will run again this coming spring). It was what I would characterize as a highly synchronous online course[1].

Rather than storytelling and reflection, though, I’m going to lay out below “right brain”/”left brain” representations of how this course was conceived, structured, and conducted. By doing this, I hope to communicate succinctly why this course continues to inspire my thinking and work – but more importantly to inspire other faculty to take tidbits from this experience into their own online teaching.

Right brain: Visualizing virtual classroom space

Hand-drawn visualization of our online classroom, matching technologies with familiar objects. (Click for full-size.)


Partnering with faculty for online instructional design


Photo by Teo Romera via Flickr

This week I found a helpful article by Laura Lea on the Moodlerooms blog…

Best Practices: Sharing the Lanes of Design and Facilitation in Online Courses

I’ll get back to this article in a minute, but first let me set some context for how it factors into my work…

In my role as Distance Learning Technology Analyst for EMU, I’ve been primarily focused for the past five months on assessing,  acquiring, and rolling out new online ed-tech platforms for educational delivery. My first project over the summer resulted in the acquisition and deployment of WebEx for synchronous online class sessions, and lately I’ve started to focus on an online video platform to capture, store, and deliver video educational video content.


Change of venues…


photo by tonystl via Flickr

After four years of life in the campus of Eastern Mennonite University, the majority of which was spent as a graduate student, but also these past five months after graduation working full-time for Information Systems, I’m returning to my home state of Iowa. It’s been a tremendous gift to be part of such a wonderful learning community.

I continue my work for EMU from my new home in rural Iowa as somewhat of an experiment. In my role as Distance Learning Tech Analyst, one of the things I strive to do is help make remote students feel like a part of this community as best we virtually can. So that we’re trying this remote working arrangement has an “eat your own dog food” aspect to it.

In the coming months, I’ll be focusing my energy on a few new technology platforms for education, as well as developing more intentional programs and resources for getting this stuff into the hands of faculty – inspiring, equipping, and supporting. Very much looking forward to this next chapter!

Notes from the Teaching, Learning, and Technology conference at JMU


[Editor’s note: It’s been far too long since I’ve posted here, and I need to address that with something more substantive than a mere copy/paste of my notes from this awesome conference today at neighboring James Madison University. But until then…]

Keynote speaker, Jim Groom of Mary Washington, showed us his exploded open class – #ds106

I hopped on my bike this morning wearing flip-flops, which quickly ended up being a mistake. Despite our lovely warm fall days recently in the Shenandoah Valley, it was cold this morning, so my toes got really cold really fast before passing into that state where they feel warm and you know they shouldn’t feel warm so that’s probably a bad thing. But it turned out all right and I was treated to a great day of wonderful presentations, great ideas for EMU, and wonderful food and hospitality from our hosts at JMU. Below you’ll find my somewhat-edited notes from each session…

The frailty of community in MOOCs


“Whooooo are you? Who, who?”

Now that the PR hysteria around MOOCs has died down and there are actual courses running, I’m trying to track the experience of MOOC students, some of whom are blogging about their experiences. Here’s a helpful piece from Audrey Watters that talks about the peer feedback system in Coursera, one of the big two MOOC platforms, and its weaknesses…

 The Problems with Peer Grading in Coursera
(Hack Education/Inside Higher Ed)

The last problem she lists – “lack of community” – isn’t a surprise to someone like me who’s spent a lot of time in online social media over the years. I’ve reflected elsewhere about the kinds of things that eroded social cohesion in my own dearly departed virtual community. But in a higher ed context, it’s particularly troubling, especially for us at Eastern Mennonite University. One of the things that consistently gets pointed to as a value here is the premium placed on the building and sustenance of community. We often point to our Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition as the source of this value.

If, as seems to be commonly suggested, MOOCs are to be seen as a marketing tool – a way to get a message or brand out into the world – I think that raises at least two problems. First, it puts the cart before the horse. MOOCs deliver educational content, not marketing materials. Second, if MOOCs aren’t particularly good at developing a thick learning community, a school like EMU should be wary to engage in such an environment. To turn a phrase from McLuhan, the community is the message.

I’m not entirely opposed to a school like EMU experimenting with MOOCs. But in doing so, we should be looking hard for ways to overcome the severe limitations of the platform…limitations that cut against the very things that EMU believes make us “a Christian university like no other.”

An ed-tech ecosystem…always evolving


Yesterday a stool, today a flower…

When I started my work in May, my task was deceptively simple: Help EMU standardize on a web conferencing platform to facilitate a synchronous online classroom experience. Virtual/online class sessions had been used previously in a few of the graduate programs here at EMU, but with no standardization. The Nursing and MBA programs used GoToMeeting, and the course I helped design and facilitate for the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding used Adobe Connect. But IT departments crave standardization, so that was my task. (We standardized on WebEx, by the way, but that’s not the point of this post…)