Next Week in Cleveland: XPRIZE & CLE-BEE

Adult literacy providers and supporters in the Cleveland area have two exciting opportunities next week to network and learn:

$1 Million Adult Literacy XPRIZE Communities Competition Info Session

Want to revolutionze adult literacy by testing out the newest, research-based adult literacy mobile apps? Willing to compete for a chance at $1 million by motivating the most adult learners to utilize mobile learning? Register for free lunch and more information at 1pm on September 12th at Cleveland Public Library, Main Branch.

XPRIZE representative Haneen Khalef will also be hosting information sessions in Columbus on September 10th and in Akron on September 14th.

Not in Ohio? Find out more about the Communities Competition here.

One Night Only: 3rd Annual CLE-BEE

Many years ago, Christine Lee trained me as a volunteer adult literacy tutor, opening my eyes to the depth of the issue and inspiring my future career path.

More recently, Christine continues to inspire awareness and involvement with the crazy, fun idea to host a corporate spelling bee fundraiser to benefit adult literacy.

The whole team at The Literacy Cooperative of Greater Cleveland has worked to make this fun idea a reality. On September 13th, CLE-BEE will celebrate its 3rd year with high energy, local celebrities… and of course some good food and drink.

Individual tickets are $30.

Hope to see you there!

Tech for Tracking: Tools for Data Collection & Assessment

Welcome to the digital version of my training for The Literacy Cooperative of Greater Cleveland! The goal of this training is to acquaint you with learning management systems and allow you to explore a data collection option that might work for your literacy program.

Questions to consider BEFORE you look at a learning management system:

  • —What is your main reason for using technology to track and assess learning?
  • —What are the key features you would look for in a LMS?
  • —What are the major concerns or drawbacks you anticipate?
In person participants will have the chance to get in small groups and explore a LMS that might be applicable to their literacy program. Here are a few LMS options to start your research:

Google Apps for Education

Teachers can manage classes and administrators can manage assessments through collaborative documents, calendars, email and other services.

See it in action: Smart School: Cartoon program uses Google Apps


Looks like an older version of Facebook with features specific to education.

See it in action: About Edmodo, Features and more


Moodle is a free software that organizations can download and host as a learning management system.

See it in action: Walsh Jesuit High School’s courses online

Khan Academy

Started as a series of YouTube videos, this website has evolved into a full LMS with practice problems and lots of metrics.

See it in action: For educators in learning environments outside of schools

Blackboard Learn (Paid)

Used extensively by higher education as the online component for blended and distance education.

See it in action: Retention Center

America Learns Network (Paid)

America Learns was built for afterschool programs to support volunteers, instructors, and AmeriCorps members to provide professional development while inputting required program data.

See it in action: Network Youth Tutor

Small groups, or individual readers, please comment with the major questions you had about learning management systems. What answers did you find in researching one or more of these options?

Could MOOCs work for GED Test preparation? Lessons from History

New York Times declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC.I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with colleagues about our hopes and fears about this phenomenon.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are giant classes that anyone can sign up for. They are mostly college level courses, often offered by tenured faculty at Ivy League or other reputable universities who benefit from positioning themselves as experts. The courses may be free, but the “experts” are paid by selling more books and charging higher rates for consulting and speaking engagements. As such, both the subject matter and design are not targeted for low-level adult learners, since they don’t buy tons of books or pay lots of money for academic speakers.

UdacityMy initial response was the same enthusiasm I had for Khan Academy: could this be The Answer for my GED students? But Salman Khan is too busy creating videos for GMAT Test prep and hedge funds to focus on low-level adult learners. Turns out the same is true for Udacity. While I have been thrilled by the idea of creating free, open access learning, my main concern is how specifically we can make this work well for adult basic education/GED test prep learners. My adult learners have already have struggled in traditional education and don’t have the reading, math or self-management skills to take advantage of these existing “open courses.”

Since existing MOOCs don’t prioritize educating people MOST in need of education, figuring them out for GED Test prep will become the responsibility of non-profits and community colleges. The Gates Foundation saw the potential for MOOCs to help with remedial education: over 40% of college students need to take developmental courses before they can perform in your traditional 101 college course. I didn’t want to wait for the results of the Gates funding experiment, so I wanted to try out a MOOC for myself to see how it works.

About a year ago I signed up for Lean Launchpad by Steve Blank. It was delayed to accommodate the release date (and heavy promotion) of his book. (And I even bought the book! It’s a decent read, actually, but I should’ve just waited and borrowed it from the library) When it finally started months later, it turned out the “course” itself was just a series of (often poorly produced) YouTube videos and unfacilitated discussion forums. I asked myself: How is this any different from iTunesU? Other MOOCs incorporate self-assessed assignments or Javascript practice problems, but there are concerns that they are easy to cheat on if anything were at stake.

It reminded me of a lower quality version of a “learn to publish children’s literature” course I took by mail over a decade ago. At least in my mail correspondence course I was assigned an instructor! Regardless of content, as an educator I was not impressed by the Lean Launchpad MOOC and did not think it could work for my GED Test prep students.

What do you think about MOOCs? Have you taken one? Do you think they offer any benefits for GED Test preparation and adult literacy education?

Here’s my two cents & the lesson from history: we lose a lot in this conversation if we treat MOOCs like some new, amazing invention that dropped out of the sky from Harvard, EdX or any of these tech innovators. While MOOCs are a new technological form of delivering education, we’ve been through this before. Distance education has been an educational phenomena in the U.S. for almost 150 years. Correspondence courses experienced a big surge in enrollment over a century ago and some people wondered if it would transform education as we know it (sound familiar?).

Here are 3 very good reasons that MOOCs are exactly like mail correspondence courses:

  1. Became available due to an explosion in reliable new forms of communication: mail a century ago, high speed internet today.
  2. Saw a huge boom in enrollments when for-profit providers found a way to capitalize on the new technology as an efficient delivery system for mass-produced educational materials.
  3. Completion rates of about 10%: best suited for that small minority with significant self-determination or strong local support & incentives.

After a decade or two, the industry of correspondence courses saw a steep decline in enrollments. However, a small minority of those involved in this method of delivery were able to thrive and provide quality education. We can learn a great deal from the “best practices” of the institutions that have survived from that time period:

  1. Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle: Physical hub and local social participation: This book club started as a correspondence course in 1878. It thrives on local groups where readers physically get together to discuss the 9 selections.  After four years of active participation, members receive a certificate and become part of the alumni organization. The selected authors speak in person at the Chautauqua resort community in upstate New York. CLSC is just one of many educational programs offered.
  2. Distance Education and Training Council: Quality control and accreditation: Due to high rates of consumer fraud and low completion rates, correspondence courses quickly went out of favor with the U.S. public. However, a minority of institutions saw the benefits to the industry of creating a set of voluntary standards and methods for accountability. Originally founded in 1926 as the National Home Study Council, the organization changed it name to reflect that fact that distance education is a larger field than any one particular mode of communications technology (e.g. mail correspondence or online learning).
  3. Open Universities: There are too many of these to name any one institution, but the U.S. is one of the few industrialized countries in the world without an open university which provides formal higher education via mass-produced distance education for greatly reduced cost to students. The key lesson here is formalized and facilitated teaching: MOOCs will ultimately fail if we refuse to invest in actually teaching with them. I don’t know if it is possible to have genuine teaching presence in a course that defines itself as “massive.” However, formalized structures like managed enrollment, facilitated social connections, proctored exams, accountability through administrative supervision, access to student support services, and respected credentials upon completion are all elements that have allowed traditional higher education to have completion rates of 75% or more in correspondence courses…successes that have translated to recent expansion in online learning.

If we can translate these lessons into the way we design MOOCs, perhaps they will make a genuine long term contribution to education. Otherwise, I’m pretty convinced they will become just another untrusted niche industry and a forgotten lesson from history. So what do you think: Will MOOCs stick around? Or has the dot com bubble hit higher education?

Gamification of Learning

Every educator, trainer, and instructor aspires to keep their learners more engaged and to extend learning beyond their time of contact.  Often boring worksheets go unfinished and even energizing training workshops can be left at the door without a ready forum to apply learning.

Solution? GAMES!

Games seem quick and fun, but when I started to think about how to make one relevant for training…it broke my brain to figure out how they work.  How do you make something that’s challenging but not frustrating, and communicate quickly how to play so you can focus on actually learning?  The questions piled up so high, I put the whole idea in the back of my head for a while.

So when the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) was recently marketing The Gamification of Learning and Instruction by Karl Kapp, my curiosity about gaming got ahold of me and I almost bought it! But I’m still not done reading Employee Development on a Shoestring so instead I decided to give myself an hour to glean what I could from The Interwebs.

Of course, I started with my trusted AmeriCorps sources.  EnCorps offered some important considerations for facilitators in leading games, and also led me to the wiki Teampedia which includes teambuilding games.

The Learning Generalist has interesting notes on a webinar about how to design learning (aka “Serious”) games which included this cool Elearning example of a branching scenario.  The premise: “You’re a US Army sergeant in Afghanistan. Can you help a young lieutenant overcome cultural differences and make a good impression on a Pashtun leader?”  This is one of many times I wish domestic national service had anywhere near the resources of military service.  Military service members, I hope you appreciate how spoiled you are.  Just kidding…you serve in combat for goodness sake!  Stakes are a little higher.  But so is your training budget.  Still, I would LOVE to have the time and resources to create graphic novel style scenarios with scripts from real life AmeriCorps situations.

By far the best find was the free game creation program Thinking Worlds and their useful 6 lesson tutorial.

So now I just need an excuse to create a game…anyone want to hire me to craft AmeriCorps scenarios into Thinking Worlds?  How could you use gaming for your learners?

The Flipped Classroom: Interview with Stephen Volk

My eyes were glued to the article “Rethinking Teaching: Research about how people learn has change the way Oberlin professors teach.”  One of the professors highlighted, StephenVolk, won U.S. Professor of the Year Award in 2011 and founded the Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence.

Chalkboards, books, and an iPad sit on wooden desks
Photo from, featured in Oberlin Alumni Magazine

As soon as I was done reading, I emailed Stephen Volk (SV below) and to my surprise and joy, he quickly responded to my interview request!  Beforehand I checked out his sample syllabus for History 110.  The statements below are reconstructed from my notes and memory, so are not direct quotes.  I’m an unreliable narrator, but hopefully you’ll get the point.

MF: Congratulations on a great article, and on your Professor of the Year Award!  I wanted to know some more details about your blended learning methods alluded to in the article.  First of all, it mentions “research on how people learn” that impacted how you teach.  What were you reading that brought you to this point?  Can you share the names of the specific theories or researchers?

SV: First of all, I wouldn’t call it blended learning.  It’s a flipped classroom, where the direct instruction happens outside of the classroom so that when students are together in class they can use that time more productively.  So I was reading over and over again that we know that lectures are not very effective.  Finally I decided, “Well, I better do something about this.” I was reading John Dewey’s articles on social constructivism, some cognitive psychology, and neuroscience about transferring knowledge.  Other names to look up are Vyigotsky and Piaget.  Basically, the literature says that the social context is where learning takes place.

MF: The article mentions that you “prepare 30- to 40-minute video lectures that students view outside of the classroom.” I imagine you can’t do this for all your classes, but just the ones you teach often, like the introductory level classes.

SV: Yes.

MF: How do you create your videos?

SV:  First I start with my lecture notes to create slides, then narrate over the slides.  Oberlin College offers some education technology support but they have to serve all the faculty, so can’t focus in-depth on just one.  It takes about 8 hours to make a 30 minute video.  I love to tinker, and I need editing software to do that, in case later I want to go back and change the audio or a slide I can.  For audio I use Audacity and iMovie for video.  Then I post the video to Vimeo.

MF: What learner management system or course management system do you use?

SV: Oberlin has Blackboard and I post an online syllabus with embedded links to the Vimeo videos and articles on eReserves.

MF: How do you know if students are actually watching the videos?

SV: Some folks start class with a short quiz, but I don’t necessarily agree with that.  Vimeo gives good stats on usage so I might say, “Hey there were only 30 views over the weekend.” But then sometimes students respond, “We watched the videos in a group!” And I encourage them to do that at the beginning of the course.  The articles are password protected.

MF: How do you manage interpersonal relationships within groups in the classroom?  I ask because I’ve seen some negative responses to changes, for example a local medical school changed their curriculum to focus on small, student-led learning groups.  These are graduate level medical students, but still pettiness and power struggles can make it a very negative experience.

SV: I haven’t really thought about that or had problems with it.  However, for the medical school setting I would recommend you look up Eric Mazur at Harvard who has done some work on using small groups in the science setting.  You might have folks evaluate a concept in fours.

MF: How many students are in your class?

SV: Right now there are 49 students in that class-48 have laptops that they bring with them.  In the class I divide them into groups and give specific topics or questions for discussion.  Each group has a Google doc where they summarize their discussion.  Then I can read it or maybe we go back and talk about it as a large group.

MF: How do you select groups?

SV: A lot of ways, maybe they count off, or I separate them into positions on a topic and assign them groups based on their position so they can hear the other side, or they just pair up with the person next to them.  I find good discussion takes scaffolding.  This is very different way of learning for many of them.  The 1st week we’ll start with a classic article about communities of practice and I explain the theory of why they have to listen to each other in order to learn.  They start by writing by themselves: How do you learn? Where does learning come from?  Then they get into pairs to share their writing, and then two pairs into small groups of four.  Then I say, “You read about Communities of Practice.  Can a classroom be a Community of Practice?  What does it take?”  Then the next week we address, “Why study history?

MF: Do you have any recommendations for folks teaching outside of a college or university setting?  For example, I work mostly with programs at community centers, shelters, drop-in centers, places with higher transition and less of a constant student body.

SV: The first thing to think about is that the students must have access to the technology.  Maybe instead of full lectures you would use short videos, or DVDs.  You have to reduce barriers in order to reduce frustration, otherwise they won’t learn.

MF: Thank you so much for your time!  This has been really fruitful for me.

SV: No problem.  Have a great day!

This interview gave me a lot of concrete resources, and introduced me to The Flipped Classroom as way to deliver training and literacy instruction to best utilize the “social time” we have together.  What lessons about The Flipped Classroom could be useful for you?

Badges: Can Learning Be As Addictive As Gaming?

I have previously written about how Khan Academy has created a motivating, free learning environment by tapping into our innate desire to earn points and badges.

Thanks to Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation, now anyone can create awesome badges to reward people for learning.  They are already planning to use it for School of Webcraft.  No, not World of Warcraft…School of Webcraft.  Addictive challenges that can actually prepare you for a job.  Who knew?

Mozilla Open Badges

I imagine many colleges and universities using iTunesU might quickly jump on the bandwagon.  Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and MIT are also offering free courses online (mostly just videos & readings).  Though it’s super exciting to say “I’ve taken a course at Yale,” at this stage in my life I need to see something out of the experience I can put on my resume.  A badge would motivate me.  MIT is piloting a free facilitated course, and said they may charge a small fee for certificates in the future, which I think is more than reasonable.  Will they charge for badges soon, too?

My next prediction: LinkedIn is going to get covered in badges.  No more blocks of blah prose text or those bubbles where you add your skills…we’re going to see a more Pinterest-style amalgam of visual displays of accomplishments.  I have to admit: I was already attempting to add “badges” by joining or creating groups to visually indicate what matters to me.  For example, I want everyone to see I earned my Girl Scouts Gold Award.  (So what if it was high school?  I created and ran a theatre day camp called Dual Facade Productions with two friends at 17 years old.  It was awesome and I’m still proud of it.)

Girl Scout Gold Award

So some people may lecture me about the benefits of internal motivation yada yada, but I sincerely believe that in our hearts we are all just scouts looking to earn badges.  People wither and die without some kind of positive reinforcement.  And you know the cute online graphics are quickly going to turn into little felt things to sew onto your jeans or backpack.  Then they transform into hats and stuffed animals and sweaters and pretty soon you’ll have your online campus bookstore for badges.  And not just for kids!  Badges are motivating, they’re fun, they’re easy to identify, and definitely marketable.  What’s not to like?

I just found out about open badges 30 minutes ago, and I already have big plans for how to integrate badges into my trainings and projects.  Forget certification…I’ll be issuing badges soon.  Okay, I’ll probably call them certifications just to make it sound more professional.  But this is an exciting development for elearning!  Here’s what’s running in my head right now:

USA Learns

USA LearnsCreate FREE distance learning options for adult English Language Learners with USA Learns. Learners can take independent courses at their own pace or connect with a specific teacher & program. Interactive, multimedia lessons are relevant, engaging & effective.  Works best with a fast, home broadband connection; slow in a computer lab. Learn more at USA Learns Teacher Registration.

Thanks to LearnQuest in Cleveland, Ohio for this tip!

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