Monthly Archives: February 2013


To MOOC or Not to MOOC

MOOC: Massive Open Online Course

For a quick overview of what MOOC, view Dave Cormier’s 5 minute video.

To MOOC or Not to MOOC
The Chronical Of Higher Educaiotn

by Nigel Thrift

MOOCs have become a media obsession. Why?

In part because they are the continuation of a story that has been around since at least the 1990s and the first days of magazines like Wired and Fast Company. At that time, information technology was depicted as part of a revolution: Marxist rhetoric had been appropriated by capitalism. Information technology would change everything through a peculiar mix of a corporate charge and evangelism, expanded profit opportunities and enlightenment.

I’d like to think that since then we’ve learned something. Information technology changes some things, for sure. But it doesn’t change everything.

After all, universities have produced a substantial body of research that argues that information technology is not an epochal economy-changing technology. Universities have also carried out a great deal of research that examines in detail what information technology changes and what it doesn’t, informed by minute ethnographic studies. Again, universities have produced a large body of research on how users are configured so that they suit the technology. And, of course, universities have produced a large body of research that actually led to the invention of the gadgets and codes and data that now populate the world. I could go on.

These sources must induce at least some suspicion about the wider claims concerning MOOCs, or massive open online courses. But little of this skepticism seems to have gotten through to the media front line. So, just recently, Thomas Friedman declares a “revolution” in The New York Times. And Gillian Tett predicts “dramatic disruption” in The Financial Times.

Why this obsession with MOOCs? First, because the MOOC model appeals to economic elites, like those who attended the overcrowded session on the future of online education at Davos this year. They are attracted to a sense of general beneficence with opportunities for profit in an economic environment where pretty well everyone is chasing limited opportunities for high returns. It is based on the idea that higher education is the next sector in line for the high-volume, low-margin information-technology treatment after finance, retail, and the media.

Second, because it taps into a vein of middle-class anger over tuition costs. No one can easily deny that higher education has become markedly more expensive for many of the constituency who expect to benefit most. There is a degree of resentment, and many middle-class parents see MOOCs, however they understand them, as a part of a push to flatten their costs for higher education.

Third, because in a time of austerity, nations are searching for ways of reducing higher-education spending, and MOOCs can look like a silver bullet, making it all so much easier to cut and still feel good about it.

Fourth, because all that said, as higher-education systems continue to grow in scale, it makes sense to look at ways of teaching more people more efficiently, and MOOCs may well be a part of the answer.

Whatever the motivation, the most appropriate advice might be to calm down. As so much academic research on generations of information technology has shown, MOOCs will change some things and not others. Bricks and mortar are not going to disappear, but information technology will continue to advance into the practice of higher education. My own university, Warwick, has just joined the FutureLearn MOOC. We are not doing it because we think that otherwise the university will go the way of all flesh. We are not doing it because we are in a panic about the competition. We are not doing it because we think that bucketloads of money are there to be made. We are doing it because we think MOOCs can become another generally benign way that universities can extend their influence and general visibility while realizing some of the benefits of university education for those who might not otherwise receive it.

What is forgotten in all the hubbub is that the financial models of most elite universities nowadays are not based primarily on educating undergraduates. Undergraduate education is undoubtedly central to what a university is, but it is generally a low-margin activity, when it isn’t being explicitly subsidized by endowments and other sources of income, and often makes up a relatively modest proportion of turnover compared with postgraduate education, research, and other sources of income. I suspect that the real issue for the future of most elite universities will be postgraduate education, which MOOCs  have less purchase on. Indeed, in the face of MOOCs and other similar developments, I suspect that the reaction of most elite universities will be to think even more carefully about any expansion of their online or offline undergraduate education.

Meanwhile,  nonelite universities will be caught up in a more general industrialization of higher education. In a previous blog, I called this “Big Ed,” and MOOCs will be one relatively small part.

And there is a historical irony about all this, too. Perhaps elite universities will end up going back to the future. Until recently, at elite English universities like Oxford and Cambridge, lectures were always optional. They were often thought to be incidental to an education based around the tutorial and self-directed reading. Examinations were based on students’ ability to read, and tutors would often say, “If you can read, there is no need to go to lectures.” Perhaps some universities will end up recreating this model but with a mixture of forms of learning, including a scattering of MOOC courses.

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Posted by on February 15, 2013 in Uncategorized


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What?s Wrong with Wikipedia? Evaluating the Sources Used by Students

The internet has changed the very meaning of ‘research’.” 

– Pew Internet and American Life Project  


In a recent report entitled, “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World,” the Pew Research Center confirms what many educators already know: student reliance on Internet-based search has replaced the more rigorous and traditional approaches to research. While the survey highlights the value teachers believe the Internet provides (99 percent agreement) for empowering student access to information, the survey of over 2,000 middle and high school teachers also found that 64 percent reported that digital technologies are more distracting than helpful from an academic standpoint. In short, what constitutes “research” for students today has come to mean “Googling.” 1

As a way to address this gap in student skills, Turnitin has developed a source evaluation rubric for educators to share with their students. The rubric, created by secondary and higher education instructors, is designed to help students evaluate sources that they use in their writing. Its intent is to help enhance student mastery of “21st century,” information literacy skills critical for academic, professional and career success in the digital age.

This white paper begins by highlighting the problem by reviewing findings from The Pew Research Center and Turnitin’s own study of student research practices. Next is an overview of the rubric that includes examples of how common source sites perform against the rubric. Finally, this study will offer guidance on how the rubric can be used by instructors and students to improve student research skills.

How do students research in the digital age?

The Pew report shows that the ease with which information “appears” online allows students to avoid any of the questions that may surface concerning the quality and intent of information they “research.” The Pew survey revealed that only one percent of those surveyed reported as “excellent” the ability of students “to recognize bias in online content.” As for their “ability to assess the quality and accuracy of information they find online,” only three percent reported that they found students to be “excellent.” 2

Turnitin’s own research reinforces many of the findings in the Pew report while providing a greater level of detail in terms of which Internet sources students include in their writing. Turnitin analyzed over 37 million higher and secondary education student papers submitted to the service from July 2011 to June 2012 and categorized each source into one of six categories. In these papers, Turnitin identified 156 million matches between content in the paper and the Internet. The chart below highlights the breakout of matches by category. 


This data supports the following insights into student research behavior, specifically:

  • Students appear to value immediacy over quality in online research,
  • Students often use cheat sites and paper mills as sources
  • There is an over reliance on the “wisdom of the crowd”
  • Student “research” is synonymous with “search”
  • Existing student source choices warrant a need for better search skills

Evaluating Online Sources

The Source Educational Evaluation Rubric (SEER) represents the evolution of the critical approach that Turnitin has adopted and used to categorize websites in our analysis of student sources. The rubric was designed by academic experts and used by secondary and higher education educators who field-tested the rubric by using it to evaluate over300 of the most popular student sources (which will be shared in a follow-up white paper.)

The rubric is built on five criteria:

  • Authority: Is the site well regarded, cited, and written by experts in the field?
  •  Educational Value: Does the site content help advance educational goals?
  • Intent: Is the site a well-respected source of content intended to inform users?
  • Originality: Is the site a source of original content and viewpoints?
  •  Quality: Is the site highly vetted with good coverage of the topical area?

To learn more about what’s wrong with Wikipedia, evalutating the sources used by students, and the Source Educational Evaluation Rubric (SEER), take a look at the rest of the Turnitin Whitepaper.

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Posted by on February 8, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Student Engagement in the Online Classroom – From Chronicle of Higher Education

January 31, 2013

Student Engagement in the Online Classroom

By Errol Craig Sull

Online teaching has many components, and all must come together smoothly for a productive, energetic, and enthusiastic class to result. If there is one factor more critical than others, though, it is student engagement, for without it, the entire course can be flat.

No one—not you, not the students, not the institution—wants that. No one wants to see students seldom participating in a course, late in submitting assignments, or leaving dissatisfied. In 19 years of online teaching, I have found myriad ways to keep students participating and excited.

Start with a good opening. Your “welcome to the course” announcement is probably the most important of the course, as it gives students an immediate sense of you—your enthusiasm, your approach (inviting or intimidating?), your attitude (upbeat or uninterested?), and your willingness to help them.

Unlike in face-to-face courses, in which your opening words are spoken then quickly forgotten, in an online environment they are available to your students throughout the course, 24/7. The students will return to your announcement again and again, so make sure, as you would for any of your posts and e-mails to follow, that it is clear, concise, well written, and free of typos. You’re setting the scene here, and the standards.

Be first whenever possible. You set the tone for the students. When they see you as an enthusiastic member of the class, that helps to get them revved up. In an online course, they know they will be working on their own, but they also need to know that you enjoy teaching the class and have a real interest in their learning. If you’re engaged, you have a better chance of keeping them engaged.

So be sure you always have the first post of each new discussion topic. Post an overview of the coming week and offer reminder announcements throughout the course so students can see you are a viable instructor at all times.

Respond to all student queries within 24 hours. You must constantly maintain that all-important umbilical cord that connects you to students. When you fail to feed the beast—offering your thoughts, reactions, and instructions online—students are wont to lose interest. One component of that is making sure you respond quickly to any student posts that shout “Help!” or “I’m confused” or “I just wanted to share this with you, Professor.” Those students are reaching out to you, and your quick response tells them that you are interested in what they have to say, that you are active in the course, and that they can depend on you—three qualities that go a long way to keeping students engaged.

Be detailed and positive in your comments on their work. Even when students do poorly, they will benefit and be motivated to try harder next time if your explanations for their poor grades are detailed and encouraging.

Be sure your comments on assignments point out not only when something is incorrect but also why it is wrong and how to get it right in the future. Give your students a breakdown of how you arrived at their grades (and if it’s an ungraded assignment, give them faux grades so they can get a sense of the quality of work they are submitting). Always point out a few things the student got right—especially for students who got a lot wrong. Strike a positive tone in the final sentence of two of your comments.

Respond to all—or nearly all—student discussion postings. For most courses where discussion postings are required, they become the heart of the course. Those posts are where students explore the course subject, interact with one another, and touch on topics not included in your syllabus. Your steady presence in those discussions reminds students of your interest and allows you to keep the discussions on track and moving forward.

It’s important to keep the discussions fresh. So at the end of each day, try posting a major comment on a discussion topic, ending with a question for the students to explore online for the next 24 hours. On the last day that a discussion thread is “alive,” end with a post that sums up the conversation.

From the beginning of the course, have ready a link to Frequently Asked Questions. No matter how much stock information you offer, students will continually ask questions about this, that, and the other thing—from the basic (“How do I post an attachment?”) to the highly specific (“When did the Periodic Table of Elements add Au for gold?”).

You can’t avoid the specific questions. But posting an FAQ link early on can save you time in answering basic questions. And students will appreciate the care you have taken in trying to help. Keep a file on common questions students ask, and update your FAQ link regularly.

Establish an “extra resources” section of your course. Find things happening in the everyday world outside your course that relate to your subject. The more students see such connections, the more important your course will become to them, beyond a grade.

So constantly be on the prowl for YouTube clips, articles and essays, photos, and even online crossword puzzles that highlight and reinforce themes in your course. Such extras add value to the course and underscore that you are an instructor who really wants to immerse students in a full learning experience.

Require students to pitch in. Whether you do this in a discussion thread or elsewhere, have each student find three Web sites useful to the subject or to your course, and three other Web sites that are fun or unusual. Be sure each student adds a line of explanation a
bout each of the sites. Students will feel a true part of the course, and all of you might learn something new and have fun in the process.

Steer discussion threads in the direction of students’ professional needs. Ask students to comment on the course topic as it relates to their majors and professional goals. The more personal ownership they feel over the online classroom and the course content, the more committed they will remain to the work, and the more likely they will be to keep participating in discussions.

Offer live chats on a weekly basis. A live chat at the beginning of each week (assuming your course is set up for that) can serve as an overview of the coming week’s assignments, musings on previous assignments, and general information. Chats (especially presented in PowerPoint or Prezi format) can bring the instructor live and in real time to the students, and offer yet another opportunity to help students “get it right” when it comes to both the course material and assignments.

Errol Craig Sull, an online instructor at Drexel University and Excelsior College, has been teaching online courses for 19 years. He is a columnist for “Distance Learning,” a journal published by the U.S. Distance Learning Association, and for “Online Classroom.”

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Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Uncategorized


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