All posts by Katrin Voelkner

Bye-bye Blackboard, hello Canvas!

After a year of pilot testing, Northwestern officially debuts Canvas —  a brand new learning management system — this fall. Some of you might currently be in the middle of getting your Canvas site ready for fall courses, others will continue to use Blackboard this year and switch to Canvas at a later point. (Blackboard is scheduled to go offline in August 2015.) No matter what your timeline is, we thought it would be good to get you up to speed on Canvas highlights.

Over the past several months, the MMLC has enjoyed working with Faculty Support Services (FSS) from NUIT Academic & Research Technologies, the team that is implementing and supporting Canvas at Northwestern. Together, we have collaborated on hosting workshops and experimenting with the many features and functions of Canvas. We would like to introduce you to some of the staff and resources around Canvas so you can benefit from their insights. Before we get to that, let’s review how you can get started and find any needed support. Full Post

Questions for Todd Murphey: an NU MOOC Pioneer

Todd Murphey

Todd Murphey

At our January World Wine Web event, we had the pleasure to welcome Todd Murphey, Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering at McCormick. Todd taught one of the first NU MOOCs this past fall on the Coursera platform: “Everything is the Same: Modeling Engineered Systems.” For those of you who weren’t able to hear Todd talk about his new teaching experience, you can still benefit from Todd’s insights because he was kind enough to answer some follow-up questions.

1) What motivated you to develop and teach “Everything is the Same: Modeling Engineered Systems,” one of NU’s first Coursera courses?

One of the things I noticed early in the MOOC debate was that people teaching MOOCs were almost unconditionally in favor of them.  My concern was that there would be a fundamental bias as a result—that the only people who had any personal knowledge about teaching and learning using MOOCs would be people who bought into them ahead of time.  So I decided I would like to create a great MOOC while fundamentally being objective about the impact on our students and the online students.  I also thought it was exciting to take material we have had in our undergraduate curriculum and translate it into a medium many of our undergraduates find much more intuitive than traditional books. Full Post

Mobile Mania

Let me start with a few numbers:

You probably did not need me to tell you that mobile technology has become so woven into our everyday lives that phones seem to be merging with our bodies. 89% of participants in a recent study reported feeling “phantom pocket vibration syndrome” – the false perception of a vibrating phone in their pockets.  Or people feel like they lost a limb when they displace their phones. Some hip Brooklynites or Silicon Valley types try to combat their over-reliance on mobile technology at Camp Grounded, a tech-free summer camp for adults offered by an organization called Digital Detox. (And yes, they do have a website.)

While there are some brave souls out there among our faculty who do not allow any technology in their classrooms, most of us struggle on a day-to-day basis with how to integrate various types of technologies into our classrooms in intelligent and effective ways. Given the high percentage of smart phone ownership and the increasing use of tablets, it seems like a lost opportunity to not think about how we can harness the computational power of these devices for our students’ learning.

This past winter, Educause – a non-profit organization that focuses on technology in higher education – studied undergraduates and their technology use at US institutions, and the survey included a sample of 225 Northwestern students. As you can see with the number on smart phone ownership quoted above, smart phone numbers will soon match the number for laptop ownership which, according to the survey, is 99.1 %. (The 0.9 % were two students who didn’t own a laptop at the time of the survey but were planning on buying one.) It is also no surprise that Educause identifies “Leveraging the wireless and device explosion on campus” as number one on its list of top-ten IT issues facing higher education.

At a “Mobile Meet Up” event hosted by NUIT in July, it was clear that mobile access and the demand for reliable and fast wireless coverage is something very much on the minds of NUIT folks. The plan is to have 80% of all interior spaces at Northwestern covered by wireless access and to implement a more powerful and faster system in 2014-2015. As reported by Julian Koh, more than 12,000 devices access the network during peak times. There are also new options for the Northwestern community for wireless access when traveling abroad: You might have seen the announcement that Northwestern “has joined a growing list of institutions worldwide that participate in eduroam (education roaming)—a secure federated wireless network for the international research and education community.”

But let’s return to the question of whether the proliferation of mobile devices should impact our curricula and modes of teaching, and if so, how. There is already a rich body of research out there studying “mobile learning” (or sometimes referred to as mLearning), which is commonly defined as learning mediated by a handheld and portable device such as a smart phone or tablet. (One of my favorite modes of “mobile learning” still is to grab a book and find a nice tree sit under and read. But somehow old-fashioned print books don’t figure prominently in most “mobile learning” discussions.) There are subfields to mobile learning with their own acronyms, such as MALL (=mobile assisted language learning).

One argument for integrating mobile devices into our teaching is reflected in the statement below, which was one of the conclusions drawn during a recent round panel discussion that included MIT Chancellor Eric Grimson: “The current generation of students is radically mobile and connected. Students expect to be able to do anything—anytime, anywhere—and seek the same flexible access to learning that they have with other resources.” (See here for a summary of the event and here for videos and materials of the presentations.) I agree that we should accommodate our students as best as we can if they want to access learning materials from different devices. We don’t have a set of stable best practices yet, but several projects are underway to integrate mobile devices into teaching and learning at Northwestern.

Students in a Northwestern Japanese Class

One such project has involved iPads in language classes, which is being spearheaded by Franziska Lys and supported by the WCAS Hewlett Fund for Curricular Innovation and administered by the MMLC. For the past two academic years, several language instructors have had the opportunity to use iPads in their classes and investigate the benefits and challenges of integrating tablets into their teaching. The participating faculty members are currently  in the process of gathering the results and they will soon be published on a new iPad study website. In addition to the sets of iPads connected to the study, the MMLC has purchased 16 iPads that can be checked out by faculty for class sessions. (See Cecile’s blog entry for more information.)

Ben Gorvine and David Smith in the Psychology Department have experimented with a software called TopHat that can be installed on computers and phones, and which functions as a sophisticated student response system and renders the use of additional clickers unnecessary. So far, they have used it in a Statistics for Psychology class as a way to engage the roughly 100 students during the lecture. One interesting observation Ben and David have shared with us already is that students did not seem too excited about using their phones for accessing TopHat, but instead preferred their laptops. Ben and David will present more of their findings at our MMLC Happy Hour on Friday, October 18.

Another relatively easy way to experiment with mobile technology is to find apps that can be layered on top of other teaching materials. I added the modifier “relatively” because, with the number of apps at the Apple store currently at over 900,000, it can seem like a daunting task to find the right app for your students. The MMLC iPads will come pre-loaded with the most useful apps, and we will offer information on our website and newsletter on helpful apps. If, for example, you want to encourage your students to study their vocabulary while waiting for the shuttle, you can recommend Quizlet, an app the students can use to create flashcards on their phone or browse existing sets of flashcards.

Full Post

Of MOOCs and More

MOOC by giulia.forsythe on Flickr

MOOC by giulia.forsythe on Flickr

Recently, I was one of 62,373 people who enrolled in Coursera’s Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC) on Gamification. Unfortunately, I am also among the 56,781 people who did not finish the course. (My more disciplined colleagues Cecile and Matt did indeed stick it out to the end and you can read about Cecile’s experience here.) Now, I am in no way proud of the fact that I dropped out of the course, but as the numbers tell you, I am – quantitatively speaking – in good company. An attrition rate of more than 90% is common for most MOOCs, as this visualization shows. The low completion rate points to one of the great challenges of this type of online education: how do you engage students in a virtual environment in a sustainable manner?

This is obviously not the only question that arises in regard to MOOCs and their role in higher education. In my brief foray here I am not attempting to summarize the debates that have been raging around MOOCs but simply give you a quick overview of two new major online initiatives that Northwestern is pursuing. (One document that has been referred to widely in discussions of MOOCs is this open letter written by faculty members of the San Jose State University Philosophy Department in response to pressure from the administration to integrate a Harvard MOOC into their curriculum. Or see this balanced article in the New Yorker that integrates perspectives of MOOC fans as well as skeptics. See below for a an infographic on major players from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Another helpful overview of the MOOC landscape can be found in this well-designed visualization by Online Schools’ Visual Academy. )

"Major Players in the MOOC Universe," Chronicle of Higher Education, Digital Campus 2013

“Major Players in the MOOC Universe,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Digital Campus 2013

Starting this fall, several Northwestern professors will have the chance to see for themselves what teaching an online course to thousands of students all over the world feels like. In February, Northwestern announced that it had signed an agreement with Coursera to offer Northwestern courses via Coursera’s online platform. As most of you know, Coursera is a (for-profit) company founded by computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng from Stanford University. Coursera’s website currently lists 374 courses that anyone with an internet connection can sign up for, for free. More than 3.6 million users have signed up for courses and when you go to the company’s homepage you can watch this number tick up in real-time. Until a few days ago, Coursera’s main plan for revenue generation was tied to offering a “signature track” for its courses where students have to pay around $50 in exchange for a “verified completion certificate.” On May 29, Coursera announced a new partnership with 10 public universities, through which it “is recasting itself as a platform for credit-bearing courses,” as the Chronicle of Higher Education put it in an article. According to an Inside Higher Education piece, many faculty members at these institutions expressed surprise when they found out about the deal their universities had struck with Coursera. The lack of faculty involvement in negotiations between for-profit companies like Coursera and 2U and universities has been a common complaint and one that has also been voiced by some Northwestern faculty members at recent Senate meetings and at a Faculty Assembly in May.

A good starting point for orienting yourself about Northwestern’s two new major online learning initiatives is this site created by the Provost’s Office which includes a chart contrasting the two efforts:

The table’s contrasting nature is helpful for capturing the main differences between the Semester Online and Coursera initiatives, yet Coursera (and other MOOC providers) are well on their way (or already are) offering for-credit, tuition-bearing courses. (Georgia Tech recently released the details of a new kind of arrangement between the university, the MOOC provider Udacity, and AT&T that will offer a master’s degree in computer science as a low-cost alternative to its on-campus program.)

Northwestern's offerings on Coursera site

Northwestern’s offerings on Coursera site

Northwestern currently lists six courses on its Coursera site and they include three courses offered by McCormick professors, two by Medill faculty and one by the Law School with topics ranging from Systems Engineering to Digital Content Management. At this point, none of the courses have start dates and only three of them have introductory videos in addition to the course description. I encourage you to watch these videos as they give you a good sense of the educational style of MOOCs and the production values involved in creating these courses. Several units on campus have joined forces as the “Coordinated Services Center” that will assist faculty members in the development and production of these courses. (All costs associated with producing these courses rest with Northwestern, which is different from the 2U model where the company is responsible for production costs.)

As of now, no process is in place yet for how Northwestern selects a particular course for the Coursera platform. However, the recently assembled Faculty Distance Learning Workgroup has emphasized the need to establish a transparent process and is advising the Provost’s Office on procedures. This workgroup has been chaired by WCAS Associate Dean Mary Finn and has representatives from all schools including five Weinberg faculty members (of which I am one). You can find the complete membership on this site and you should feel free to reach out to me or any of the members with questions or feedback.

The second online endeavor Northwestern is pursuing is with the for-profit company 2U and a number of other universities who came together as a consortium to offer for-credit, tuition-bearing classes in a program called Semester Online. The website currently lists classes by Boston College, Emory, Northwestern, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, and Washington University to be taught in the fall 2013. The consortium originally consisted of 10 schools but several have since pulled out, including Duke University, which left the consortium after a faculty council’s vote against Duke’s participation in Semester Online (see this NY Times article for more information). The only Northwestern course slated for fall 2013 is Medill’s Integrated Marketing Communication. In an email from May 14, Dan Linzer solicited proposals for Winter 2014 (due June 1) and beyond (due August 1). If you somehow missed the email you can find FAQs on Semester onlineon the Provost’s website, including the process for proposal review that the faculty workgroup I mentioned above helped to draw up. (The workgroup has been discussing a similar process for Coursera course selection and is hoping it will be put into place soon.)

Northwestern students can enroll in any of the 11 Semester Online courses offered in the fall and the NU News announcement about these inaugural courses states that enrollment remains open until August 5 and classes start in the week of August 26. They run for a semester but Northwestern students will receive only one credit. Non-Northwestern Semester Online courses will be treated like transfer credit and the approval towards major and minor lies within individual departments. At last week’s Weinberg faculty meeting, several chairs reported that their departments had voted against accepting Semester Online classes towards their majors and minors.

The discussions and meetings on online learning I have been engaged in during this past academic year revealed wide-ranging reactions: from excitement about new ways to reach students and experiments with online platforms and tools to deep concerns about academic freedom, intellectual property, and the potential threat partnerships with for-profit companies pose to higher education. There is an obvious need for continuing these important discussions and the MMLC is planning to host events around this topic in the coming academic year. We welcome your input and ideas. Until then, I might try to sign up for another MOOC, and if I ever make it through one, you might hear about it in an upcoming blog post.