Guest Post: the latest MOOC Research

Note: Through March 27th I’ll be sharing this Digital/Edu space with some excellent professionals in the area of learning and innovation for one weekly guest post. In addition to bringing new voices and ideas to our readers, this will help me as I finish the first draft of my forthcoming book, The Test, on the past, present and future of testing in public schools, to be published by Public Affairs in 2015. Today’s guest poster, Justin Reich, is the Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow and a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He writes the EdTechResearcher blog for Education Week.

Framing MOOC Research: How Comparisons Shape Our Judgments

Last month, my colleagues and I on the HarvardX and MITx research teams jointly released a series of reports about the first 17 courses launched by HarvardX and MITx on the edX platform. We released a synthesis report with findings about all of the courses, and then 15 additional reports examining individual courses in more detail.

We tried to provide the public and our internal stakeholders with data that instructors can use to create better courses and that people can use to judge the state of the enterprise. We are keenly aware, however, that our data don’t have a single story to tell, and how people read our research depends upon how they approach the subject.

Here are two sets of facts, two possible frames for thinking about HarvardX courses:

Set 1: In September 2009, Boston’s WGBH published to YouTube a series of 12 videos from Michael Sandel’s Justice course at Harvard University. Each hourlong video is a combination of lecture from Sandel and facilitated Socratic dialogue among the hundreds of students who take his class every semester.

On YouTube, the first video has been played almost 5 million times. The second video over a million times. The next ten videos have been played about 300,000 to 400,000 times each. All told, the series has about 10 million views.

As a back of the envelope calculation (ignoring people who watch videos multiple times, who don’t finish videos, etc.), it seems unlikely that more than 6% of people who started the series finished the whole thing.

Set 2: Researchers at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College have done some very interesting work examining online courses in community colleges.

Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggers have recently published studies that show that online course completion rates in two large systems in Virginia and Washington are lower than face-to-face course completion rates. In Virginia, completion rates in face-to-face courses were 81 percent, while online completion rates were 68 percent; in Washington, the rates of completion were 90 percent for face-to-face versus 82 percent for online. While online completion rates lag behind on-campus counterparts, the vast majority of students in both conditions earn a passing grade in the courses in which they enroll.

The first set of facts concerns online media available to anyone for learning and personal growth. The second set of facts concerns structured learning experiences offered by institutions of higher education. Both are are potential frames of reference for interpreting our research about HarvardX and MITx courses, each could lead to different comparisons and different judgments.

One of the most important findings from our research is that people use materials in edX courses in all kinds of ways. The 2012-2013 MITx and HarvardX courses had a little over 800,000 registrations. A little over 43,000 people earned a certification of completion in a course. Nearly 36,000 people opened up more than half of the units of a course, but did not earn a certificate. Over 450,000 people viewed less than half of the units of the course (without earning a certificate), and nearly 300,000 people who registered for a course never entered the courseware at all.

The figure below is a scatterplot of all 800,000 registrations. On the y-axis is the student’s grade in the course, and on the x-axis is the percentage of the units (or chapters) in a course that the student opening. As you can see, nearly the entire possibility space is full of points. There are people who are completing every snippet of course content, people who are auditing courses and ignore assessments, people dabbling in a fraction of the course, and people who are never showing up at all.


How should we judge these findings?

One thing we can do is compare these patterns of behavior to the patterns of behavior in community colleges. In community colleges, we are keenly concerned with completion rates. Courses are expensive, and students who fail and drop out not only miss the benefits of learning and certification, but they also lose the money they invested in enrollment. We might make the comparison that only about 6% of HarvardX and MITx registrants finish a course, but in Virginia 68% of online community college registrants finish a course.

We could also compare the online learning content hosted on edX to the PBS Justice videos hosted on YouTube. In online content, we expect to see a funnel of participation. We expect, that on any website, there will be some number of people who navigate to the site, a smaller number of people who register, a smaller number of people who participate in some way, and then a smaller yet number of people who engage the deepest possible ways. When we compare the HarvardX version of JusticeX with the PBS version of Justice, we find very similar patterns of participation.

paired figures

Patterns of persistence and completion in edX look pretty typical when compared with engagement funnels of online media, and they look pretty lousy when compared to community college retention rates. So which is the right comparison?

Faculty intent should play an important role in deciding the right frame of reference, the right yardstick, for judging open online courses.

Some MOOC faculty are primarily interested in sharing their ideas and relatively uninterested in certifying learners’ competency. Michael Sandel, through PBS Justice,, and JusticeX, is primarily interested in helping more people learn more about moral reasoning rather than certifying people at a particular level of skill or knowledge about moral reasoning. If he’s trying to maximize the number of learning experiences that people have, of both lighter touch and deeper engagement, then the frame of online learning media seems to be a fairer point of reference for judging the public impact of JusticeX.

By contrast, many of Sebastian Thrun’s courses at Udacity, especially his pilot programs with San Jose State University and Georgia Tech, are explicitly designed to replace or complement typical courses of study in higher education. Familiar higher education settings make a more sensible frame of reference in understanding these efforts.

As new forms of online learning proliferate, no doubt there will be even more sensible ways of contextualizing and framing new courses and new platforms for learning. As we debate how open online courses might reshape the future of higher education and lifelong learning, its worth paying close attention to how the points of comparison that we choose frame our interpretations and judgments.



MOOC platform Coursera falls afoul of US sanctions

At least since MIT Open Courseware started in 2001, users around the world have been enjoying free and open digital educational resources. It’s consistently reported that around three-quarters or more of users of MOOC platforms Udacity, Coursera and edX come from outside the US, from nearly every country on the planet.

self-identified Coursera users in Iran, from Facebook

self-identified Coursera users in Iran, from Facebook

Until now.

Coursera, which has 21 million users in 190 countries, announced on its blog on January 28 that its online courses would no longer be available to students in Cuba, Iran, and Sudan. Not coincidentally, these countries are under US economic sanctionprohibiting any American business from providing goods or services. While Coursera had been operating under the assumption that its courses, which are free to users who do not select a “freemium” option such as Signature Track certification, did not violate these economic regulations, the federal government apparently found otherwise.

“We are a US-based company, we have to comply with US law. However, we’re fully committed to having access to as many countries as possible, and we’re actively working to make that happen,” Coursera founder Daphne Koller told me in an interview.

In an open letter to his students posted on the Coursera website, Iranian-born Professor Dr. Ebrahim Afsah, at the University of Copenhagen was a little more outspoken about the decision.

 I leave it to you to ponder whether this course is indeed a weapon and if so against what and what possible benefit the average American citizen could possibly derive from restricting access to it.

Be this as it may, I invite those students affected to use services such as or VPN routers to circumvent these restrictions.

Let me reiterate that I am appalled at this decision. Please note that no-one at Coursera likely had a choice in this matter!

In a fourth country, Syria, Coursera initially suspended access, before discovering an existing exemption in the sanctions for educational resources. Koller says that they are working intensively with the US State Department to get a special license for the remaining three countries as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, would-be students who sign in to Coursera and whose IP addresses identify them as being from one of these blocked countries will be able to browse the courses, but not enroll or watch any of the videos.

Self-identified Coursera student from Cuba, from Facebook.

Self-identified Coursera student from Cuba, from Facebook.

So far, Coursera, a for-profit, seems to be the only MOOC platform that has been flagged for violation of these sanctions. The company has an existing relationship with the State Department to offer “Learning Hubs” combining MOOCs with face-to-face interaction at US embassies around the world.

The descent of sanctions raises an important issue in the political and economic future of digital educational resources. MOOCs are often touted as a means to overcome the vast disparity in global access to education. But dozens of US universities are investing significant resources to create and run MOOCs–by some estimates, $50,000 to $100,000 per course. Public institutions, in particular, have a taxpayer-supported mission to serve the people of their state first and foremost. This mission is challenged by the trend of universities recruiting large numbers of out-of-state and international students who are willing to pay higher tuition bills. It might be equally challenged by the phenomenon of MOOC platforms based in the US that primarily cater to the needs of millions of foreign students.

What is the proper division of resources and priorities here? One proposal is that the US government specifically support the creation and dissemination of open-licensed digital educational resources for the good of everyone on the planet. Nonprofits might have a role too.

By coincidence, Coursera yesterday announced a strategic partnership with the charitable foundation of Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire whose other investments include the New York Times, to expand educational opportunities in Latin America. The Slim foundation previously partnered with Khan Academy, and offers its own open courseware site Academica.

The Coursera partnership includes translations of courses into Spanish, focusing on professional development in areas like health, education and technology, plus the creation of a network of in-person “learning hubs” throughout the region. The Slim Foundation already operates 3600 “digital libraries” in Mexico; at some of these locations, facilitators will be hired to help students discover and succeed in Coursera courses, and the programs may involve the use of volunteer tutors as well. This initiative marks a move from an online-only MOOC model to one that recognizes the importance of face-to-face interaction. “What we’ve found is that when there is a protected space for facilitated discussion, this can lead to significant increases in retention,” Koller said.

However, these opportunities will not be available to Spanish speakers in Cuba, at least for the time being. The protection of “protected spaces” for intellectual development only goes so far.

Coursera founder phones it in at open education conference

Coursera Infographic

#OpenEd2013 is the tenth annual installment of the premiere conference of the open education community, taking place right now in Utah. Open education is currently contested territory, with divisions highlighted yesterday by a flatfooted keynote from Andrew Ng, cofounder of Coursera, that played out to a baffled chorus of mockery on Twitter. Amid the jibes, there’s a serious issue at stake: will the future of education be dominated by a few closed platforms, and limited approaches to teaching, learning and knowledge, or will truly open innovation prevail?

Hope someone warned Ng that he can’t toe the standard Coursera line for #OpenEd13 talk. They have been doing this a lot longer than he has.— Amy Collier (@amcollier) November 6, 2013

Open education was first most closely identified with OER–digital educational resources such as MIT’s Open Courseware that carried an open license, such as the Creative Commons license, allowing them to be freely shared, reused and remixed. For self-identified open and connected educators, though, mostly from the higher ed world, openness wasn’t just a technical designation. They were concerned with democratizing education, making it accessible to all, peer-driven rather than hierarchical, emphasizing the fluid process of learning rather than the rigid gateways of accreditation–“an exploratory, community-created knowledge building process,” in the words of Athabasca University professor George Siemens. In this spirit, Siemens and Stephen Downes ran the first Massively Open Online Course, or MOOC, in 2008, with about 25 University of Manitoba students joined by 2500 students online. The topic–a bit meta– was “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge. ”

Today, of course, the term MOOC means something very, very different. From experiments pursued by a small group of learning and teaching enthusiasts, a handful of platforms — edX, Udacity, and Coursera— have emerged with tens of millions of dollars in backing from venture funders and foundations, hundreds of university partners, and millions of users. There is a dominant format for the MOOCs published by these platforms: they run from six to 14 weeks long, and consist of short video lecture “chunks” presented often by well-known professors, interspersed with multiple-choice comprehension questions, combined with readings, often homework assignments or an exam, and forums for discussion.

–I’m hoping Ng’s keynote is actually a bunch of short videos with intermittent quizzes. #opened13— Jonathan Becker (@jonbecker) November 6, 2013

Most of the MOOCs, while free to access currently, are not open-licensed–they are the intellectual property of the companies and institutions and thus can’t be downloaded, reused, or remixed freely.

–Why isn’t Coursera openly licensed? Ng says that its content creation costs too much money and that wouldn’t be sustainable #opened13 (sigh)— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 6, 2013

Ng is the quieter of Coursera’s two cofounders. He’s also director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, which means he has a deep intellectual interest in the growing field of “educational data mining,” learning research, training computers to grade essays and tracking student engagement. Coursera, like other large MOOC platforms, offers the opportunity to learn a great deal about the learning process, at least as it plays out online.

@jonbecker our analytics have determined your diminished interest and have now dispatched mentors to keep you engaged. #opened13— George Siemens (@gsiemens) November 6, 2013

His keynote, however, failed to address these research questions, and instead delivered a standard pitch about Coursera to people who are already quite aware of what it is. Also, unfortunately for a presentation on hybrid learning, there were technical problems.

–Oh the irony. Andrew Ng is Skyping in for his keynote at #opened13. So we’ve been asked to turn off devices to save bandwidth. MOOOOOOC!— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 6, 2013

The irony is worth underlining: the OpenEd community, whose major criticism of MOOCs is that they enshrine the one-way, rigid lecture format, was asked not to respond via the open web while Ng was lecturing to them over a video link.

Within the open education world, as summarized by George Siemens’ keynote right after Ng’s, there are a range of feelings about MOOCs–both angst and hope. This is not just a group of hipsters who are upset that their favorite band suddenly got really popular, or merely professors angry that someone is turning their life’s work into a business.

–Sorry Dr Ng, but there are heaps of people who create engaging online learning inexpensively. Too bad you couldn’t meet them at #opened13— Brian Lamb (@brlamb) November 6, 2013

These are engaged, excited, experimental educators and learners, with values that they fear are getting lost as MOOCs get even more massive. They want their due as partners in the creation of a diverse and vital future of education.

@GardnerCampbell Ng’s talk had no sense of or much regard for its audience. Conversation would be great, but there’s a sense + #opened13 in which xMOOCers refuse to meaningfully engage thoughtful critiques that was symbolized by what went down #opened13 — Luke Waltzer (@lwaltzer) November 6, 2013

As the K-12 “connected educator” movement grows, this debate will be increasingly relevant across all levels of education. Do we want a future where mass market MOOCs and similar digital resources are primarily prepackaged and delivered to students via a vendor-like, consumption-based model? One that enshrines the several-week course and the talking-head lecturer as the central model of education? Or will more messy, diverse, participatory models of open education have the opportunity to spread and take root? Can the two approaches interact and maybe even reinforce each other?

This was clearly a missed opportunity to raise these questions and more.

–I’m dropping out of this keynote. #opened13— Jonathan Becker (@jonbecker) November 6, 2013





An automatic boredom detector? Inside “educational data mining” research


I’m currently working on a book about the past, present and future of assessment. For the “future” bit I get to talk to researchers like Ryan Baker at Columbia. He’s spent the last ten years working on systems that gather evidence about crucial parts of the learning process that would seem to be beyond the ken of a non-human teacher.

The basis for the observations comes from what’s called “semantic logs” within a computer learning platform, such as Khan Academy’s: Was it a hard or easy question?  Did the student enter a right or wrong answer? How quickly did they answer it? How did it compare with their previous patterns of answers? The detectors gather evidence that students are gaming the system, drifting off-task, or making careless errors. They can extrapolate a range of emotional states, like confusion, flow, frustration, resistance, (which Baker calls memorably “WTF” behavior), engagement, motivation, excitement, delight, and yes, boredom.

Baker’s engagement detectors are embedded within systems currently being used by tens of thousands of students in classrooms from K-12 up to medical school. (Medical residents, he says, show the highest rate of “gaming the system,” aka trying to trick the software into letting them move on without learning anything, at rates up to 38% for a program that was supposed to teach them how to detect cancer.) His research, located at the forefront of the rapidly expanding field known as “educational data mining,” has a wide range of fascinating applications for anyone interested in blended learning.

Understanding how good these detectors currently are requires a bit of probability theory. To describe the accuracy of a diagnostic test, you need to compare the rate of true positives to the rate of false positives. The results for the “behavior detectors,” Baker says proudly, are about as good as first-line medical diagnostics. That is, if the question is whether someone is acting carelessly, off task, or gaming the system, his program will be right about as often as an HIV test was in the early 80s–0.7 or 0.8 (“fair” according to this rubric). For emotional states, which require a more sophisticated analysis, the results are closer to chance, but still have some usefulness. These accuracy scores are derived from systematic comparison with trained human observers in a classroom.

So why would someone want to build a computer program that can tell if you are bored?

To improve computer tutoring programs. Let’s say a learning program provides several levels of hints before the right answer. You want to build something in that prevents a student from simple gaming techniques, such as pressing “hint, hint, hint, hint,” and then just entering the answer.

To give students realtime feedback and personalization.  “I would like to see every kid get an educational experience tailored to their needs on multiple levels: cognitive, emotional, social,” says Baker. Let’s say the program knows you are easily frustrated, and gives you a few more “warmup” questions before moving on to a new task. Your friend is easily bored. She gets “challenge” questions at the start of every session to keep her on her toes.

To improve classroom practice. Eventually as these systems become more common, “I would envision teachers having much more useful information about their kids,” says Baker. “Technology doesn’t get rid of the teacher, it allows them to focus on what people are best at: Dealing with students’ engagement, helping to support them, working on on one with kids who really need help.” In other words, though technology can provide the diagnostics for affective states that affect learning, it is often teachers that provide the best remedies.

To reinvent educational research: This is a fascinating one to me. 

“I’d like to see educational research have the same methodological scope and rigor that have transformed biology and physics,” Baker says. “Hopefully I would like to see research with, say, 75% of the richness of qualitative methods with ten times the scale of five years ago.”

Modeling qualitative factors related to learning opens up new possibilities for getting really rich answers to really interesting questions. “Educational data mining often has some really nice subtle analyses. You can start to ask questions like: What’s the difference in impact between brief confusion and extended confusion?”

In case you’re wondering, I will clear up the confusion. Brief confusion is extremely helpful, even necessary, for optimal learning, but extended confusion is frustrating and kills motivation.

The very phrase “data mining” as applied to education ruffles feathers. It’s helpful to hear from an unabashedly enthusiastic research scientist, not an educational entrepreneur with a product to sell, about this topic. Privacy, he says, should be given due consideration. “The question is what the data is being used for,” he says. “We have a certain level of comfort with Amazon or Google knowing all this about us, so why not curriculum designers and developers? If we don’t allow education to benefit from the same technology as e-commerce, all we are saying is we don’t want our kids to have the best of what 21st c technology has to offer.”

If you’re interested in learning more, Baker has a free online Coursera course on “Big Data in Education” starting this Thursday. Over 30,000 people have signed up.

Can online learning make teaching more human?

Screen Shot 2013-09-03 at 3.56.59 PM

Data-driven pedagogy. The phrase conjures a robotic, dull future that only intensifies the worst aspects of 20th-century, bureaucratic, industrial wasteland-style schooling, where learners are defined down to “users,” or even metonymized as disembodied “eyeballs,” and force-fed bits of disconnected information.

For a counternarrative, the question is simple. What can creative humans do with the power of data? One possible answer is that computer-powered analytics could expand humans’ ability to focus on the most human aspects of teaching and learning.

I reported earlier this year on a small experiment the video website Khan Academy ran to this end.

While browsing the web site, some Khan users saw a simple slogan added to the page next to, say, a math problem: “The more you learn today, the smarter you’ll be tomorrow.” The line linked to a further explanation of the concept of “mindset,” the famous body of research by Harvard psychologist Carol Dweck on growth, achievement and motivation.

Displaying that one line led to a 5% increase in problems attempted, proficiencies earned, and return visits to the site, compared to otherwise similar learners who did not see the line.

This week, Andrew Liu, Udacity’s data science intern, blogged about his own research with the data generated by that MOOC platform. Apparently the questions they are framing go along similar lines: toward psychological aspects of motivation and engagement.

Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 4.55.42 PM

Model of student engagement over time.

Modeling student engagement over time.

“At Udacity, we now have the opportunity to take findings that originated from studies on tens of students in physical classrooms – such as Carol Dweck’s concept of growth mindset – and apply learnings to hundreds of thousands of students with improved teaching. But even more powerful is Udacity’s ability to conduct our own pedagogical research at scale on a rapidly growing worldwide classroom that was not even possible a year ago. Pedagogical areas we’re exploring include the importance of metacognition, expectation setting around formative assessment, and even new online challenges such as which characteristics of video keep students most engaged.” 

Mindset, metacognition (learning about learning), engagement–these are great research questions for educators to be looking at. They are not chiefly about automating the consumption and digestion of information, but about deepening the learner’s physical and emotional relationship with the process of learning.

It’s in part simply the growth of sample sizes that has some researchers so excited about what they might learn in the emerging field of data-driven pedagogy. I haven’t verified this independently, but I have often heard researchers repeat the notion that there are just very few large-scale randomized controlled trials out there comparing the efficacy of various classroom techniques and methodologies.  Sample sizes tend to be quite small and experimental effects hard to compare. (If there are counterexamples, I’d love to hear them).

A major example is the efficacy of online and blended learning itself. According to a comprehensive literature review published by Ithaka SR earlier this year, of over 1000 online and blended learning studies reviewed by the US Department of Education, only 45 met minimal criteria of having experimental research design and considering objective learning outcomes. Of those 45 studies, “most have sample sizes of a few dozen learners; only five include more than 400 learners.”

The kind of a/b trials that the Khan Academy and Udacity are doing, by contrast, can be easily run on hundreds of thousands of people.

Obviously there are relationships and aspects of the human dimension of learning that can’t be addressed with even the best data tracking and experimental design, or the largest sample sizes. There is an ever-present danger that the metrics chosen will tend to distort the nature of the undertaking itself. However, I can’t help but be a little optimistic that at least data scientists are starting with the right kinds of questions.

MOOCs Come To K-12

A couple of announcements this week point to a growing role for massively open online courses in K-12. The Saylor Foundation, the most interesting nonprofit in open education that no one seems to have heard of, launched a program of Common-Core aligned K-12 courses. And Lumen Learning, David Wiley’s startup which I wrote about earlier in the blog, likewise released a set of new “course frameworks”–these appear to be aimed at the community college level, but Lumen also consults with school districts on the adoption of open resources.

Three things are encouraging about the way MOOCs are being defined in K-12 at least if we go by these two announcements.

One is that the resources in each case are truly open–Creative Commons licensed, totally free to adapt, share, remix and reuse.

The second is that they are carefully pulled together and curated. Saylor notes, “[K-12 content development manager Angelyn] Pinter leads a team of 18 course designers (who are experienced educators), an editor, and members of a content development team. K-12 courses will undergo the same rigorous vetting and peer review process that developed alongside its existing 280+ college-level and professional courses.”

And the third encouraging aspect of this development is that these MOOCs are clearly being framed as tools for educators, not wholesale replacements for educators. The Lumen “course frameworks” amount to curated collections of open resources from around the web that serve as a blueprint that, equally, learners or teachers can follow. The Saylor courses are pitched, per the press release, for adoption by students or parents who want to go beyond what their schools offer, but equally by teachers and entire schools that want fresh collections of Common Core-aligned multimedia lessons to use.

At least in the smarter conversations amongst people who have been thinking about this for awhile, we’re moving quickly away from the assumption that MOOCs are going to entirely replace the classroom experience for any but a small fraction of potential learners. It’s equally clear that they will completely change that classroom experience. If I had a child in grade school right now I would definitely want a self-guided MOOC to be one part of their educational explorations, and I would also want their teachers to take advantage of open learning resources in their own “flipped classrooms.”

Photo Credit: EJP Photo via photo pin BY-NC-SA 2.0

Photo Credit: EJP Photo via photo pin BY-NC-SA 2.0

Can open educational resources rise again?

“I haven’t heard any other journalists use the term OER,” Anant Agarwal of the MOOC platform EdX told me recently.

This is a shame, to put it mildly. OER, or open educational resources, just means any type of material that is useful for learning and either in the public domain or published under Creative Commons license, making it essentially free for schools to adopt. Creative Commons licenses also encourage “remixing” of material, meaning that teachers and learners using a Creative Commons digital textbook, say, can add their own comments or improvements, and upload it for others to use.

OER had a proud beginning with MIT releasing video, outlines, syllabi and other materials for all its courses online beginning in 2001. Today the OCW (Open Courseware) Consortium has hundreds of university members in dozens of countries. But discovery, uptake, sharing and remixing of these resources has never been as robust as the movement would have hoped.

In the meantime, commercial textbook publishers like Pearson, technology companies like Apple and Amazon, venture capital investors, and even previously unrelated companies like News Corp, have started to see a massive opportunity in purveying tech to classrooms. Going digital in K-12 has become synonymous with selling out and buying in.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. One of the standardbearers of an alternative vision, surprisingly, is Agarwal. Edx, unlike the other famous MOOC platforms, Coursera and Udacity, which are venture-backed startups, is a nonprofit funded by the endowments of Harvard and MIT. Earlier this month, they released the code underlying their course architecture under an open source license. This means that universities could host and modify their own version of the code to create their own video-based courses. “We want to be the Linux of online education,” Agarwal told me, referring to the massively successful open-source operating system.

The edX courses themselves aren’t OER, with the exception of those offered by Delft University. Agarwal is currently working with Creative Commons on ways to license the course content itself so it can be reused, but not abused.

More directly relevant to K-12, Professor David Wiley, one of the original unheralded geniuses of OER, has just launched an important startup, Lumen Learning. Its purposes is to help school districts and community colleges adopt the free, high-quality open textbooks and resources that are already out there, so they can cut their textbook costs to zero while maintaining or even improving learning outcomes.

“We do strategic consulting, so it’s not just a faculty member staring at Google,” Wiley says. “We help faculty meet before the term starts and do more assembling, massaging, adapting. That’s the last mile that we hadn’t been getting across in terms of helping adoption of open courseware happen.”

In Wiley’s home state, 30 teachers and 6000 students have participated in a pilot, the Utah Open Textbook Project. The teachers adopted open textbooks that were free to read online and $5 for a printed copy in middle and high school science classes. Initially there was no difference in standardized test scores for students using a $5 book vs a $100 book, while current research reflects a slight improvement in learning for students who used the open resources.

“We want to be something like a Red Hat for the open education community,” says Wiley, referring to a tech company that makes a living by helping people find and use open source software.

This model has a lot of potential because it helps school districts save money, instead of spending money, in the transition to using new technology, and because it gets teachers involved in a collaborative process of adoption: discovering materials that fit their students’ needs and altering them when they don’t.  This compares favorably to what I know of the current procurement model, where administrators and district-level employees make most of the top-level decisions about what kind of materials and tools to purchase.

Does your school use OER? For a list of Creative Commons-licensed resources check out this link.

The five most important ed-tech trends at SXSWedu


I’ve been on the ground in Austin for the South By Southwest Education Conference & Festival for 22 hours. In that time, I’ve interviewed six people, chatted with many more, and hit the Java Jive in the Hilton four times. Here’s what I see as the biggest trends coming out of the conference.

  1. Data and analytics. There seems to be a consensus, which Bill Gates will no doubt highlight in his keynote tomorrow, that the most important potential—as yet unrealized—contribution of technology to teaching and learning is the ability to extract meaningful insights from the myriad information that students generate as they travel through life on their learning journeys: diagnostics, individualized goals and plans, demographic information, performance evaluations, and on and on from cradle to mortarboard. Companies like InBloom and Engrade envision a teacher working like a doctor, synthesizing reams of test results and other information with the help of tech tools to arrive at the proper intervention for the proper moment.
  2. Games and adaptive learning. What makes video games fun is that they get harder as you get better at them, keeping you in the right “proximal zone” between bored and frustrated. “In the gaming world, when you don’t get the right outcome, you don’t feel like a failure, you say how do I adjust,” says Dreambox CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson. This is what is meant, at its simplest, by adaptive learning. Game-like learning platforms range from Dreambox, a math program that “puts the learning in front,” in the words of Woolley-Wilson, to Kuato Studios, which later this month is debuting a fighting-robot coding game made by designers who worked on Call of Duty. Games and adaptive learning are intimately related to #1, data and analytics. In some sense, what defines a game is simply that the players are keeping score, so a key feature of online learning games is the constant generation of data that can, in theory, be used by teachers and parents in coaching mode to help direct students. Taken together, #1 and #2 form the megatrend/buzzword of “personalization”—the “mass customization” of learning.
  3. MOOCs. While many in the education space might be sick of hearing about Massively Open Online Courses, Coursera, edX, et al, they are still adding users and shaping the public imagination about what’s possible when classrooms open a window on the world.
  4. Makers and creativity. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Makerspace onsite at the convention center, where you could drop in and play with Legos, circuits and homemade play-doh. This hands-on, amateur, DIY stuff taps into a deep need for learners to accent what is most fully human, even as we are increasingly overwhelmed by virtual worlds. In addition, John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, hosted an influential panel on STEM to STEAM—putting the arts into STEM education. He’s argued that the forward march of technology will lead to a higher premium being placed on the personal, well-designed and handmade.
  5. Going back to the classroom. “Where are the districts?” “Where are the teachers?” Aside from a few leaders of charter schools I’ve run into, most of whom were presenting, my impression is that there are few full-time educators here, let alone people who make IT purchasing decisions for school districts. Many sense a fundamental disconnect on both sides between the innovation conversation going on here and the real needs of teachers in classrooms. Hopefully that will change soon.