Thursday, March 26, 2009

Brilliant 35 studies in media and learning

Mind and media

Another of my favourite e-learning sources of research. This is a book that literally changes how you design and media components in e-learning. The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, two Stanford academics, is full of juicy research on media in learning. It provides a compelling case, backed up with empirical studies, to show that that people confuse media with real life. This is actually a highly useful confusion: it is what makes movies, television, radio, the web and e-learning work.

Media equals real life

35 psychological studies into the human reaction to media all point towards the simple proposition that people react towards media socially even though, at a conscious level, they believe it is not reasonable to do so. They can't help it. In short, people think that computers are people, which makes e-learning work..

Why is this so? We do not willingly suspend disbelief, it just happens. Think of a ventriloquist – it is hard not to see the puppet as a real person. 'People can't always overcome the powerful assumption that mediated presentations are actual people and objects.' We swear at cars when they break down and kick objects when they cause us harm. We do it because we're programmed that way.

Hearteningly, it means that there is no reason why online learning experiences should be any less compelling - any less 'human' in feel - than what we experience in the classroom. As long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules, we will accept it. Read that last part again, 'as long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules'. If the media technology fails to conform to these human expectations - we will very much not accept it.

Don’t break the spell

The spell is easily broken. If the media technology fails to conform to our human expectations - we will NOT accept it. This is a fascinating lesson for e-learning. We must learn to design our courseware as if it were being delivered by real people in a realistic fashion. The effectiveness of the user experience on an emotional level will depend as much on these considerations as on the scriptwriting and graphic design. It all has to work seamlessly, or the illusion of humanity fails. This has huge implications in terms of the use of media and media mix.

Scrap learning objectives

Let's take just one example, in the phenomenon of arousal. Arouse people at the start and they will remember more. Yet if the first experience many learners have in an e-learning programme is a detailed registration procedure followed by a dull list of learning objectives. There is a strong argument for emotional engagement at the start of an e-learning programme and not the usual list of objectives. On the other hand, as we shall see, persistent arousal can be counterproductive.

Awkward pauses

Another simple finding, that shows we have real life expectations for media, is our dislike of unnatural timing. Slight pauses, waits and unexpected events cause disturbance. Audio-video asynchrony, such as poor lip-synch or jerky low frame-rate video, will result in negative evaluations of the speaker. These problems are cognitively disturbing.

Experts matter

With experts, respected and authoritative views can not only bring credibility to the programme, they can also increase learning and retention. For this reason many e-learning programmes use a key subject matter expert, or someone with strong practical experience in the area, to anchor the theory and practice. This could be an academic, opinion leader, consultant or senior manager. People like identifiable experts.

Quality of video no big deal

They thought that because peripheral vision is largely ill-defined and we are used to dealing perceptually with low visual fidelity in twilight, fog and so on, we are likely to cope well with low fidelity visual images. So they tested their hypothesis by measuring attention, memory and evaluation of the experience when viewing video. Interestingly, they could detect no difference between those who viewed low as opposed to high fidelity images. So don’t waste your money on broadcast quality video.

Big screens are good

Taking their experiments further they also discovered that the size and shape of the screen and therefore image mattered more than quality. Large screens and images were preferable to higher quality images and horizontal screens and images were also preferred over higher quality. In other words larger wide screen format monitors have more impact than quality of image.

Quality of audio matters

They also showed that users are more sensitive to the quality of audio than they are to that of video. This may sound surprising, but people are quite unforgiving when it comes to tinny audio with variable sound levels. Learners expect consistently high quality at a consistent volume. Record good quality audio.

Politeness matters

Perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of the book, however, is the role of politeness - which, it turns out, is hardwired into our systems. People are polite to computers and expect them to be polite to them. The authors' studies show that when a computer asks a user questions about its own performance, the user will give more positive responses than when a different computer asks the same questions. People also respond to flattery from computers, and are hurt if they get negative feedback that is too harsh.

These are just a few of the dozens of insights in this extremely worthwhile book, based on real research. It should be a must for anyone involved in producing e-learning content, or otherwise active in media production.

'If the designers of media would only follow their (Nass and Reeves’s) guidance, we would all gain through enhanced social graces in our interactions with media and technology,' says Donald A Norman.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Amazing learning styles research

In this detailed, large-scale study, published in the Journal of Kinaesthetic Education (174-76 p64 2009), the VAK learning styles theory was put through its paces using 600 GVCSE students split into; a control group (no identification of learning style), along with selected Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic learner groups. The control group of 150 received normal teaching, and the three other groups of 150 received teaching in their dominant style. The results are fascinating.

Kinaesthetic group
The kinaesthetic group were blindfolded and had earplugs inserted to focus their psychological attention on the learning tasks through touch alone. In English they were introduced to Shakespeare by feeling a plaster bust of his head, then asked to imagine a poem and short story, followed by recitation from memory, beyond this no real progress was made. On Mathematics there was some success with identifying 3D objects by hand alone, and in simple arithmetic, counting balls in and out of bags. However, numbers greater than 20 were beyond their kinaesthetic ability along with all 2D maths including negative numbers, decimals, averages, square roots, algebra, angles, measurement, trigonometry, probability and data handling. Students in physics did well in feeling the effects of energy transfer and static electricity shocks, but on electronics, forces, motion, waves, the earth, radioactivity, light, sound, and particles, no significant progress was measured. Results in Chemistry showed the greatest improvement where students were asked to feel the difference between gases, liquids and solids, but struggled with the Bunsen burner experiments. After several health and safety incidents this part of the trial had to be curtailed. ICT scored highest with keyboard skills showing some improvement but even with touch-screens nothing could not be read, so scores were generally low in all other tasks. Music was the lowest scoring subject as the students only had hands-on vibrations to go on. This proved to be an insurmountable barrier to learning. Touch rugby was played, although passing proved to be difficult. Asked to internally visualise their performance in their own minds, significant improvements were reported in ping-pong, the shot-putt and javelin, although the javelins had rubber balls added to their tips to prevent accidents.

Auditory group
The auditory group were blindfolded but not allowed to use their hands and sense of touch. In English, audio books proved useful for novels, short stories and poetry but there were disappointing results in reading and writing. In Maths, mental arithmetic was improved but in all other areas there was no measurable learning. The sound module in Physics showed most improvement but electronics, light, forces and every other part of the curriculum, were unteachable. Chemistry benefited only from the recognition of the hydrogen test, where a lit splint goes pop in a test tube. ICT showed no significant improvement, and even audio was of little use as the students could not see that the mute icon was on. Physical Education lessons were a challenge, but teachers ingeniously played football by inserting a bell inside the ball.

Visual group
The visual learners had earplugs inserted but were not allowed to use their sense of touch. In English the visual learners outperformed the other two learning styles; this was attributed to significant effect of being able to read and write. Maths performance was fine, but teachers struggled to cope with sign language to communicate feedback to students. In physics, the sound module was impossible, but in chemistry and biology, only the impossibility of hearing the teacher was a problem. Music could be read but not played. Physical Education could be performed but the inability to hear the ref’s whistle led to some indiscipline in team sports. Not being able to touch each other meant that rugby had to be abandoned.

The researchers concluded that students who were taught using visual learning would do well, despite the lack of auditory cues from their teachers, and that the addition of hearing and touch would almost certainly provide further educational benefits. Students taught using just an auditory or kinaesthetic approach are likely to significantly underperform in almost all subjects, apart from music and pottery.

Geek moms, Techmamas and Blogher

SXSW is a wide ranging conference that always throws up interesting happenings. Last year it was the audience taking over a boring session and people stripping off articles of clothing on pre-selected keywords, puzzling the speakers. This year I loved the ‘tech moms forum’. While it was guys like Berners Lee, Bezos, Wales, Gutenburg, Torvalds, Page, Brin, Hurley and Chen who created this wonderful technical habitat, it’s women who are starting to inhabit and humanise the environment.
In the US women buy around $90 billion in technology and influence 61% of all purchases. But the real action is on the social side, where mothers are creating their own websites, blogging, Facebooking and generally getting agitating to get things done. Self publishing has enfranchised this group, freeing mothers from the sometimes limiting confines of the home.
Advertisers, knowing that women are the power brokers on buying, have flocked to these sites. Heather Armstrong’s blog Dooce has a staggering 850,000 readers, and makes a living from her banner ads. Comscore states that sites targeted at women grew by 35% last year, second only to politics. Sex sells, and Tancer’s data in his book Click suggests that we spend 6.5 minutes on average on a porn site, with Friday night being the peak viewing time and a surprising 27.4% of visitors are women, especially pornographic fiction sites. BlogHer, a collection of 2,200 blogs by and for women has attracted significant venture capital.
Women are half the population but may end up contributing a great deal more than men in social networking, as they tend to communicate, enliven and engage in honest dialogue in a more open fashion. It’s less ‘what the hell’ and more ‘what-if’. But let’s not simplify this, as there’s a wide range of women groups online. Techmamas is a nice example of a hardcore tech mom who really does love the ‘tech’. Women 2.0 tends to be women in business and so on. What I’ve noticed, however, as I drifted through these sites, is the lightness of touch and lack of rancour. I’ll stop there as I feel a BUT coming on......

Friday, March 20, 2009

Omidreza Mirsayafi

The Iranian blogger Omidreza died in jail on Wednesday. He was guilty of no more than expressing some mild opinions against the religious fascism of Ayatollah Ali Khameni and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni. Just a simple post to salute him and all other bloggers who have been persecuted for their beliefs. 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Department of Health games howler

Derek Robertson has a devastating critique of this image used by the Department of Health to claim that videogames are killers.

Their investigation - nil
Their daignosis - terminal
Their treatment - look at our hokey little website

This is the part of Government responsible for our medical welfare, so why are they behaving like uneducated idiots? As Derek points out, this kid has a PS3 controller in his hands, but THERE'S NO WAY he's playing a game. It's a cheat, a lie, a setup. It smacks of some DoH, PR robot telling the photographer to make the kid look bored and disengaged. 
Joined up Government? I suspect this lot couldn't join up the dots in a kids' magazine. The idiots in the Department have clearly NOT read the government commissioned Byron report.
Sony are considering legal action over unauthorised use of their controller and the hapless, and The Gate (agency), may be regretting this contract.

Brain has traffic lights for memories

We know that most learning results in forgetting. So being able to identify when someone is in the right state to remember has a big payoff in learning. Huge amounts of wasted time can be eliminated and actual learning time increased. Research in this area has centred around psychological attention. Without it, we don’t learn.

But imagine being able to predict whether you’ll remember something or not. Researchers at University College, London have found a signature in the brain that occurs just prior to memory formation. It’s not in the hippocampus but in the medial temporal lobe. A magnetoencephalograph was used to measure this activity that acts like a switch for memory. If it’s on - you remember, off – you forget. It’s like a traffic light for memory formation.

Others, in Wired magazine, have speculated that, eventually, one could have an application on the likes of an iPHONE, that could show whether you’re focused enough to remember. Biofeedback training is another possibility, allowing learners to prepare to learn.

"Medial temporal theta state before an event predicts episodic encoding success in humans." By Sebastian Guderian, Bjorn H. Schott, Alan Richardson-Klavehn and Emrah Duzel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106, No. 11, March 16, 2009. 

Sunday, March 15, 2009

7 reasons why HR is no home for learning

1. Janus-faced

As HR departments around the world are told to select and fire staff, those who are shown the door may recall with mixed feelings the HR mantra, that ‘people are our greatest asset’. This is the problem with HR. It is, through no fault of its own, Janus-faced. One day they’re encouraging growth and self-development, the next they’re handing you a cardboard box and escorting you to the front door. One day they’re recommending a training plan, the next they’re forcing you to swallow several accusatory compliance programmes, protecting the organisation from your dangerous habits. One day they’re recommending communication and teamwork, the next they’re banning social networking sites. They have a tough job, but ultimately HR is a reactive ‘pay and rations’ function, and when it turns the tables on people, it seems duplicitous.

2. Change averse

HR could stand for Harm Reduction, as it is largely about equilibrium, not disruption. HR has to make sure that the ‘business as usual’ issues, such as recruitment, pay, holidays and absenteeism are managed and reported. When it comes to more radical, disruptive or change events, that throw things off balance, or focus on a new business need, it gets flustered. In practice, lack of experience in change management, often the result of a lack of raw business management experience, leads to initiatives that start but are not sustained.

3. Risk averse

HR could also be seen as Hardly Radical, as it is largely about reducing risk in a business. It’s expected to normalise activity, not suggest or take business risks. So when radical technology solutions are introduced to an organisation, its role is often to identify dangers then react by implementing a ban. This is precisely what happened with social networking. Without understanding even the rudiments of the legal situation, on confidentiality, libel and harassment, they simply banned them. What it needed was some sensible analysis around its business advantages and disadvantages, not a knee-jerk reaction.

4. Course obsessed

HR struggles to move beyond the course. I suspect this is due to its attachment to simple regular processes. Pay, holidays, appraisals, and so on, are timetabled. This leads to simplistic training largely through timetabled classroom events. HR rarely has to move beyond this type of organisational skill to get things done. HR in this sense could stand for Highly Repetitive. Courses are timetabled, attended (or not), weakly evaluated and run again. Failure to recognise that most learning does NOT come from courses, means it doesn’t think out of the box that is the trainer and classroom. It struggles to respond to alternative ways of learning. For example, it’s rare to come across even a single A4 page on informal learning.

5. Research-free zone

Hates Research could be another moniker. It’s a department that eschews science and research, because in ’pay and rations’, research has little impact. This allows all sorts of oddball initiatives to sneak in through the unguarded door, making it a welcome home for faddish and non-empirical theories and practices. Whatever NLP, therapy, learning styles, Maslow, Mozart effect nonsense comes its way, it embraces with open arms. So infused is HR by therapy culture, that counselling, coaching and mentoring have displaced learning. In making employment pathological, people have become patients, not employees.

6. Technophobic

HR is often technically weak and has low levels of technical expertise. This leads to crude procurement and the failure to identify and manage these risks. This, in turn, results in failed projects where the on implementation the whole thing disintegrates. With e-learning, it struggles to cope with the technical demands of online learning.

7. Trainer, not learner-centric

As HR is often about telling and explaining to people what their pay, entitlements, holiday and rights are, they rarely come at training from a learner-centric point of view. It’s a top-down department with a rule-ridden culture. Their knowledge of the psychology of learning, for example, is likely to be way below their knowledge of employment law. It’s a culture of the commonplace, not a culture of innovation.


This is not an attack on HR, only a recognition that its function is at odds with the need for an organisation to nourish itself through learning and innovation. It is has other objectives, other skills and a different mindset.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Carol Twigg's research on reducing drop-out rates through e-learning

Can drop-out rates be reduced?

Students drop out, fail or simply withdraw for a number of reasons. The US term (DFW - drop-failure-withdrawal) attempts to capture this. Significant decreases in the DFW figures, across a range of subjects, were seen in the University of Southern Maine, Drexel University, FGCU, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and the University of New Mexico. The results of the Twigg study were interesting:

University of Southern Maine

28% to 19%

Drexel University

48% to 38%


45% to 11%

Indiana University

39% to 25%

University of New Mexico.

42% to 25%

Carol Twigg's research on effective learning through e-learning


Carol Twigg points towards the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education developed by Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson (1987)

1.     Encourage contact between students and faculty

2.     Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students

3.     Encourage active learning

4.     Give prompt feedback

5.     Emphasizes time on task

6.     Communicates high expectations

7.     Respect diverse talents and ways of learning

The trick is to recognise these and other pedagogic virtues and then apply them to large numbers of students. Good pedagogy is easy to apply with small numbers of students where one-on-one tutorials and close attention to student progress is possible.

Other projects demonstrate statistically significant improvements in student understanding of course content by comparing the performance of students enrolled in traditional and redesigned courses on commonly administered examinations. Redesign-course students in statistics at Penn State, for example, outperformed traditional students on a content-knowledge test, with 60 percent correct answers in the traditional format and 68 percent correct in the redesigned classes. At Carnegie Mellon University, the performance of redesign-course students in statistics increased by 22.8 percent on tests of skills and concepts, and redesign-course students also demonstrated an enhanced ability to identify the appropriate statistical analysis to employ in a given real-world problem situation. At Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), the average score achieved on a commonly administered standardized test by students enrolled in the traditional fine arts course was 70 percent; in the redesigned course it was a significantly higher 85 percent.

Continuous Assessment and Feedback

E-assessment increases quality of learning by students as well as reducing workload on instructors:

·         numerous computer-based assessments give students instant feedback on performance

·        automatic assessment and feedback enables repeated practice with frequent feedback

·         students complete quizzes before class and are better prepared once they get there

·         quizzes provide powerful feedback to both students and faculty 

Increased Interaction among Students

Collaborative software can result in a more learner-focused system promoting active participation while giving the instructor an opportunity to ‘see’ their students in action:

·         simple technology to support opportunities for discussion among students

·         small discussion groups promote active participation by students

·         informal discussions are non-threatening to students

·         instructors monitor student contributions to discussions

Continuous Support

Support at all times, for internet savvy students, has become an expectation. It gives their learning journey coherence, sustaining interest, participation and learning. The research showed that small group work was beneficial, sometimes triggering peer pressure which led to meeting assignment deadlines.

Online Tutorials

One of the more obvious applications of the technology is to provide online learning resources:

·         interactive tutorials and exercises that give students needed practice

·         computer delivered presentations

·         computer delivered demonstrations

·         web-based reading materials developed by instructors or in assigned textbooks

·         examples and exercises in the student’s field of interest

·         links to other relevant online materials

·         individual and group laboratory assignments

Wisconsin had developed 37 Web-based instructional modules in chemistry by July 2001. Each module leads a student through a particular topic in six to 10 interactive pages. When the student has completed the tutorial, a debriefing section presents a series of questions that test whether the student has mastered the module’s content. Students especially like the ability to link from a problem they have difficulty with directly to a tutorial that helps them learn the concepts needed to solve the problem. 

Virginia Tech uses a variety of Web-based course-delivery techniques like tutorials, streaming video lectures, and lecture notes as tools for presenting materials in a linear algebra course. Consisting of concrete exercises with solutions that are explained through built-in video clips, such tutorials can be accessed at home or at a campus lab. In redesigned courses, tutorials have taken over the main instructional task with respect to transmitting content: 84 percent of the students enrolled in Virginia Tech’s linear algebra course reported that the computer presentations explain the concepts effectively.

Learning Assistants (LAs)

The use of Learning Assistants is often treated with suspicion by trainers, yet this research showed that LAs can actually be better than fully fledged trainers in some circumstances. They have several advantages:

·         close to course content

·         good communication skills with their peers

·         awareness of misunderstandings that occur in the course

The University of Colorado-Boulder (UC) and SUNY at Buffalo (UB) found that LAs were better than in lieu of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs). In Colorado’s redesigned introductory astronomy course, the LAs act as a vital go-between in that they pass on knowledge of where the 200 students are and what problems they’re facing. This solution may also be good for the self-esteem of the LAs.

Carol Twigg's resarch on cost effectiveness of e-learning

Cost analysis model

The first lesson from this research is the obvious, but not often applied, principle that the application of technology in learning will have greatest impact on larger courses.


The results were astounding. With 30 redesigned courses taken by 50,000 students:

·         all 30 reduced costs by 40 percent on average

·         cost saving ranging from 20 percent to 84 percent

·         increased course-completion rates

·         improved retention

·         better student attitudes toward the subject matter

·         increased student satisfaction with the new mode of instruction

·         cost savings of $3.6 million each year

But it was the means to these ends that were interesting. Some clear lessons about the application of technology to learning were learnt.

Cost reductions

Unless the organisation sees e-learning as a fundamental shift in practice, success is unlikely. A good measure for assessing costs is ‘cost per student’. There’s no real mystery as to how this can be improved, by having:

·         reduced costs with fixed number of students

·         fixed costs but increasing student numbers

·         lower drop-out rates and repeat courses

Whatever the strategy, it is clear that cost control or reductions need to be taken seriously. This may be difficult within an institution, due to cultural resistance and other obstacles, but it does have to be taken seriously. A cost, quite simply is a loss. If it can be reduced one should be duty bound to realise that saving, so that the money can be saved, or better spent elsewhere.

One of the most useful findings in this report is the honest appraisal of potential cost reductions. It is clear that people are the most expensive link in the learning chain. If technology can be used to reduce the amount of time faculty spend in teaching, monitoring and assessing students, considerable cost savings are possible.

The most effective cost saving applications of technology were:

·         Online Course-Management Systems

·         Automated Assessment of Exercises, Quizzes, and Tests

·         Online Tutorials

·         Shared Resources

·         Staffing Substitutions

·         Reduced Space Requirements

Online Course-Management Systems

These systems can administer students, classes and content. Many offer collaborative learning software. The cost reductions come from:

·         Reduced time on assignments

·         Reduced time by faculty on marking assessments

·         Reduced photocopying and distribution of course materials

·         Increased efficiencies in monitoring students

Automated Assessment of Exercises, Quizzes, and Tests

E-assessment automates much of the process. Huge savings in time and costs come from the automation of the design, delivery, grading and posting of assessment results. Much more formative assessment also takes place. This type of feedback motivates students reducing drop-out rates.

Online Tutorials

Online content is accessible 24/7, consistent, sustainable and scalable. It reduces the workload on teachers by presenting knowledge prior to the teaching, making teaching easier, as well as being available for reinforcement at any time. This can radically reduce the amount of teaching time on a course, or reduce the need for high-cost faculty staff. A huge range of such material can be made available from simple documents, spreadsheets and models to full blown tutorials and simulations.

Shared Resources

Avoiding duplication of effort is one of the greatest potential cost savings in education. When one gets away from the idea that every teacher is also a course designer, shared effort pays dividends. This proved to be a considerable source of cost savings. Once shared resources are online, huge amounts of time can be saved by both instructors and students.

Staffing Substitutions

Faculty are often the most expensive cost item in any course. By substituting some of the teaching time with lower cost learning assistants, considerable cost savings were achievable. The University of Colorado, SUNY at Buffalo, Virginia Tech, and Penn State all use learning assistants as a major cost-saving device. These LAs also proved more effective, in some cases, dues to their closeness to the audience, course and typical misunderstandings. Another neat variation on this theme is the ‘course assistant’ who handles all non-content queries by students. This can account for up to 90% of actual student queries.

Reduced Space Requirements

An often overlooked cost saving is the reduced need for expensive classrooms and lecture rooms for face-to-face instruction. This is not always easy to realise but Central Florida and others did recoup costs due to reduced space requirements. 


As one would expect, some are saving less than they thought they would, others more. However, the research ‘With regard to cost savings’ was described as ‘an unqualified success’ with the 30 courses are expecting a savings of about $3.6 million annually. Interestingly, the major cause of variation in cost savings was the way in which faculty time was treated. Greater savings were achieved by those who redirected faculty time. Those who simply redirected faculty time to other activities on the course did not achieve anything near these savings. Non-faculty support was another major factor.

In simple terms, quality can be delivered at reduced costs through the appropriate use of technology. What seems to matter is a holistic redesign of the whole course to optimise ALL available resources; the use of faculty, technology and other support staff.

For a more European perspective research from the Centre for Educational Research at the OECD is also worth examining, although it is less focussed with less rigour and therefore has  with lots of ‘jury’s out’ conclusions.

The research is available from "E-learning: The Partnership Challenge", from the OECD, with detailed case studies of 20 post-secondary education institutions from 13 countries. It identifies best practices/innovations, faculty changes and academic trends. This and other reports often ask the wrong questions. They simply look at what is happening, not well structured, well funded research projects which put hypotheses to the test.

Another important point is that the institutions may be slow in using e-learning, but students are not. It is difficult to find a learner who is NOT an e-learner, coming as they do from a generation which has grown up with the internet and Google.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Favourite e-learning research

I'm often asked to provide a piece of research to support e-learning and one of my favourites is a full paper on Carol Twigg's research. What follows is a short summary.

Transforming learning through e-learning

There are three key questions when looking at transformation in education and training:

Is it cost-effective?

Are we seeing better learning?

Can drop-out rates be reduced?

Answers to these questions were sought in one of the most detailed and influential pieces of research into course redesign from the Center for Academic Transformation in the US, funded by an $8.8 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The Program in Course Redesign, led by Dr. Carol A. Twigg supervised a truly innovative, wide-ranging and significant experiment in the use of technology in learning. In the light of increasing participation, rising costs and problems with student retention, the research tackled the issues of costs, effectiveness ad retention head-on.

Background to research

Out of hundreds of applicants, 30 research universities, comprehensive universities, independent colleges, and community colleges in all regions of the United States institutions each received a grant of $200,000. The research wisely focused on the courses that generated most enrollments. Just 25 introductory courses cover a third of all students in four-year institutions and half of all students in community colleges. In many of these courses, the drop-out rate ranged from 15% at top research universities through 30-40% at comprehensive universities and to a staggering 50-60% in community colleges. Widening participation clearly has consequences in corresponding drop-out rates after only one year.

Successful transformational tactics

The findings showed that the benefits flowed. Not from an incremental strategy, led by institutions, but from transformational change.

There were several transformational pedagogic changes that were marks of success:

1. Concentrate on large enrollment courses (larger impact and cost savings)

2. Improvements apply to many types of courses

3. Don’t fiddle, redesign the whole course

4. Don’t bolt on new technologies to existing physical system

5. Don’t stay with an unaltered concept of classroom instruction

6. Move students from a passive, "note-taking" role to an active-learning orientation

7. Move from an entirely lecture-based to a student-engagement approach

The point of the research was to have some sort of transformational effect on these institutions and the chosen courses. There had to be a shift from the old to the new so that comparative measures were meaningful.

Carol Twigg’s conclusion, at the end of this study was that we have “traditionally assumed that high quality means low student-faculty ratios, and that large lecture-presentation techniques supported by cheap labor constitute the only viable low-cost alternatives. But it is now clear that course redesign using technology-based, learner-centered principles can offer higher education a way out of this historical trade-off between cost and quality. New models demonstrate that it is indeed possible to improve learning and reduce costs at the same time. For the first time, we can have our cake and eat it too.”

Contact me if you want full paper.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mind reading and learning

Brain scans are really starting to come into their own with a flurry of studies showing how thoughts and memories are represented.

Where am I?
In a study from Current Biology, Several game players were trained to recognise simple 3D environments, University College London researchers then scanned blood flow changes and could tell, JUST FROM THE SCAN, where they were in the environment. In other words the scientists could literally read their minds. Their spatial memories can be read as neurons in the hippocampus, a key area in the formation of memories in the brain, called ‘place cells’ activate as they move around. There are clear, identifiable, functional structures representing how memories of this kind are encoded. There’s been some interesting speculation around reading minds and lie detection and it’s a very long way off. Understanding memory formation (the key to learning) is taking big leaps forward.

What am I doing?
My favourite brain scan study is the groundbreaking Pasceul-Leone piano experiment that showed the same levels of brain activity when both PLAYING AND SIMPLY IMAGINING a piano exercise. In other words we can learn by visualisation and mental rehearsal. Volunteers, who had never played the piano, were split into three groups. First, the control group simply listened to the piano being played over five days. The second group were taught to pay simple five finger piano exercises. The third group were simply taught to imagine they were playing the piano. The brain scans of the last two groups were almost indistinguishable. (Pascual-Leone et al Journal of Neurophysiology 1995)

This has huge implications for learning as it stresses the importance of rehearsal (practice), something long known in the psychology of learning, but much ignored in educational and training practice. I like to see this in combination with a clever study from Arizona State University took several elements of instruction and eliminated them one by one from an e-learning programme on 'computer literacy', using 256 students. They wanted to see what instructional components really mattered in e-learning. ‘Practice’ was consistently shown to be the factor that led to significantly improved results and attitudes. (British Journal of Educational Technology. In ‘The Impact of instructional elements in computer-based instruction’ by Martin, Klein and Sullivan 2006)

Where is it going?
Last year the University of California in Berkeley unveiled their realtime scanner in Nature,. This was put through its paces. People were asked to look at thousands of different images of people, animals, maps and so on. these were analysed, stored and the data used by a computer to correctly predict what someone was looking at JUST FROM THE SCAN. Mindblowing!

As brain scans start to uncover how memories are encoded, stored and recalled, we can look forward to significant advances in improving learning. Many of these improvements, such as sleep, chunking, visualisation and spaced practice could be implemented from what we already know in standard memory theory. What’s exciting about scan research is the possibility of really locating and identifying the physical and chemical pathways. This in turn could lead to massive increases in learning efficacy, increasing plasticity, faster recovery from injury and limiting the effects of dementia and other diseases.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Teacher training tantrums

Usual negativity around plans to have six month teacher training for mature professionals who want to teach. Union leaders throw hissy fits, what a surprise, and the teacher training establishment claim it’s not possible. But Brown was sticking to his guns on this one. He wants someflexibility and a change in the makeup of the teacher population.

Here’s 10 reasons why it’s not only possible, but desirable:

1. Teach First has being doing this for some time, placing teachers in schools after six weeks. They do this by being tough at the selection stage, something that many think is lacking in the normal route.

2. Select high calibre candidates, and the time can be halved. Many have proven, transferable skills and experience e.g. organisational management, HR, finance, projects and people management. Traditionally, few teachers have much of this.

3. Widens the profession to include more people with outside experience in a variety of jobs, something that must be good for the children.

4. All potential teachers have spent three, four or more years studying their subject and the higher qualified graduates have shunned teaching in the past, enticing them back sound like a good thing.

5. Quicker they get out of the lecture-heavy teacher training and into the classroom the better. Many of the skills can only be learnt by ‘doing’. Schools are the proper vehicle for this.

6. Current PGCE courses demand that you wait until September/October for a course start date. Even in the case of flexible courses such as the OU, you still have to wait months to start.

7. A year-long PGCE doesn’t make you a teacher. The idea that there’s some fixed period where you’re fed content, and out pops a teacher, is hopelessly outdated. Smart, experienced people with existing skills can certainly be fast-tracked.

8. I’d go further and argue for trainee teachers to go straight into schools and do far more distance learning and e-learning to support them in their probationary period. Don’t make this a fixed period; make it depend on reaching competency.

9. You can teach in a University without any teaching qualification.

10. We need good teachers – fast! The quicker we get people into the profession and classrooms the better.

Obama comparison

Compare this with Obama's speech today. Obama’s gloves came off in an attack on declining standards in education in the US. Poor grades and poor teaching were identified. On teachers, he pitted himself against the school unions, demanding performance-related pay, linked to results, and less protection for poor teachers. "If a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching," he said. "I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences." Urging an end to "the soft bigotry of low expectations," Obama said states needed to stop "low-balling expectations" for students and urged longer school days and years.

He got booed on this when on the campaign trail, but he’s sticking it out.

Can you imagine Brown making such a speech? I think not.


Social networking is not networking

Leave them kids alone

Social networking among young people is partly the result of parents keeping them indoors. Helicopter (read paranoid) parents wouldn’t let them hang out in parks, shopping centres or anywhere else for that matter. Packing their schedules with after-curricular activities, they couldn’t just wander and hang-out, so they began to hang-out online. Parental anxiety produced the networked society. Then parents turned on all of this wasted, online time and wanted to get them back out into the fresh air, the real world. Finally, parents started to social network themselves and relaxed a little. Turns out the kids were fine all along.

I want to be in my gang

All of this is OK. Kids don’t blog as they don’t have a lot of long-winded stuff to say, so they say lots of little, often inconsequential things within their peer group. And listen up parents/adults - you ain’t in their peer group. Despite what they tell you, you’re not their friends. They don’t want you there. They don’t want you in their gang, and they don’t want to be in your gang either. This becomes more intense as they become sexually charged teenagers, still mostly ‘look at me’, ‘chat’ and ‘party’ stuff. It’s the confirmation of the group that matters not the content or ‘networking’ (that’s a parent term). Neither is all of this disassociated from the real world. It emerges from real world relationships and is mostly about real world events – pics, tales about last night, where we going next and so on. Young people don’t confuse the two, only worried parents.

You may imagine that social networking breaks down barriers between classes, gender and age. Not particularly. The social divisions remain. MySpace was for everyone but when Facebook with its university and college pedigree came along, it sucked in the wanabees. Now that Facebook has seen a mass colonisation by adults, we see young people flooding out the back door.

Twitter – adult only content

Twitter is not used by young people because adults use Twitter – it’s too public. They want personal branding, socialising, privacy and their own place to play, somewhere the adults don’t snoop. They don’t want a functional, open, online, snoopers’ diary. They don’t want older people to know where they are what they’re thinking and what they’re saying to each other.

Adults, on the other hand, are more purposeful on Twitter. They want everyone to know what they’re up to. They rattle on about civil liberties but are far more promiscuous with their privacy. They don’t hang out in the real world and neither do they online. They’re busy, busy, busy and want to tell everyone just how busy they are. There’s little time for nonsense – well maybe sometimes to show you’re human. Twitter is remarkably free of humour and honest tweets about lazing around, getting sizzled, arguments – real life stuff. It’s like reading lots of tiny classified ads.

Kids are synchronous, adults asynchronous

Youngsters are big on IM but dismissive of email. They like their conversations to be multithreaded, quick, funny, and frothy. They want dialogue not a series of monologues. IM gives them effervescence and privacy. Hence the messenger acronyms; POS – Parents Over Shoulder, POTS – Parents Over The Shoulder, PRW – Parents Are Watching, P911 – Parent Alert, PIR – Parent in Room. Kids are synchronous beings, adults asynchronous. Adults much prefer Facebook status reports and Tweets.

Social networking is not networking

Of course almost none of this social networking is actually about networking, in the sense of meeting new people. It’s about networking with the people you already know or lie just on the periphery of that set – one or two degrees of separation at most. Social networking is a myth, it’s socialising largely with people you know.


Realguard (sic) actions by Andrew Keen and Susan Greenfield will attempt to stop progress by creating PR friction, but the numbers are too big and they’re not read by the participants of social networking. Social networks, at present, are emergent phenomena, as they largely reflect and reinforce social groups, rather than creating social groups. This is unlikely to remain true for long. It turns out Robin Dunbar’s social grouping limit of 30 and 150 were wrong. Social networks are pushing people out of their social comfort zone. Encounters with people of different ages, social class and geography are pushing everyone to be, little by little, more adventurous. Who knows where this will lead.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Rocket Science? Not even science!

Inspirational - yeah, yeah
Yet another, ‘inspirational teacher’ genre programmes from BBC2. Here we have a clueless physics science teacher confusing ‘cor-blimey’ with ‘cognitive change’. Fireworks were his solution to teaching physics and chemistry. Good idea, but he had no idea how to relate the fireworks to the science, and his preparation was woeful. The science was noticeable by its absence. He also seemed to know nothing about chemistry, openly admitting that he ‘hadn’t a clue how different chemicals created different colours in thermal reaction. He’s always confusing his copper colour – blue or green Mr Smith – he admits he doesn’t actually know.

Of course, fireworks are eminently impractical in schools so first up is a trip for the class to the countryside to see a specially commissioned £2000 firework display – OK so cost is obviously not an issue. First problem, it’s mid-summer and he has to get his kids home to bed, so they’re set off in daylight – oh and the display was so ‘crap’ that one of the kids was in tears. TTFN as Mr Smith says.

Next he’s off to the University of Brighton, where some luminescence experiments, way beyond the curriculum, are recommended. So the kids mix two chemicals but have they actually learnt anything? No. He defaults into one of his favourite lines - telling the pupils to tuck their shirts in.
Back to the fireworks drawing board. The chemical store in the school hasn’t been opened for years, so the locks are corroded and stuck, and the light-bulb doesn’t work. The chemicals are over 25 years old, so inert (bit of a problem in fireworks). He’s too late to order new chemicals.

He’s on surer ground with physics. However, the use of a slinky spring to show waves is hardly innovative. I can remember that from 40 years ago. And here we go again – an overnight trip to see a fireworks display in (oh no) Blackpool. ‘That’s a man’s firework, that is’ says Mr Smith, showing entirely expected, sexist tendencies. To be fair they did like the fireworks. Did they learn any physics – not a damn thing.

Headmistress, Mrs Holt is retiring. Another opportunity for fireworks? They get stuck into woodwork (not science) to build the fireworks scaffold. Oh dear, you guessed it – the party had to be cancelled.

Another school trip is planned at huge expense – mining copper in Scotland, the US and a trip to China, where fireworks were invented. A bottomless budget and science has still to make an appearance. What a waste of time and money.

Watch out Beedle’s about
It’s in the same genre as the equally appalling Channel 4 programme on adult literacy, Can’t Read Can’t Write, with Phil Beedle, behaving like a headless chicken. Phil is touted (on his own website), as the UK’s ‘most inspirational teacher’. If this is true, we’re in real trouble. He ranted and railed against the existing system, then applied (badly) some basic phonics teaching (which is the orthodoxy anyway). Even with the lure of TV he only got six out of nine adults through a basic literacy test after nine months. Given the scale of the problem we’d have to bankrupt the educational budget to get things done this way.

Phil was clueless on the basic psychology of teaching literacy. He did lots of soul searching, narcissistic pieces to camera, but after criticising the system, he simply parroted that same system on screen. He was hopelessly teacher-centric and failed to get the learners engaged with examples and work from THEIR perspective. This buffoon is quoted as an authority in high level government reports and bandied about as some sort of schools’ saviour – God forbid.

Move on
We need to move beyond this cliched view of the 'inspirational' teacher towards the 'competent' teacher, who can hold a class and actually teach the subject at hand within the time and budgeted resources of a school. Not these performing monkeys with their banal personal ideas, devoid of any real understanding of the subject or the mind. Teachers can be inspiring and inspiration can come from sources other than the teacher. It's clear that technology inspires young people, so why keep it outside the school gates. The difference is that technology is cheap and scalable.