Friday, 22 November 2013

Meet the expert - An interview with Seann Dikkers

As MOOCs struggle with criticisms about completion rate, The Good MOOC gets a different perspective from gamification expert Seann Dikkers, who researches, writes, and shares the usefulness of digital media for teaching and learning as the founder and director of Gaming Matter.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

Sure, I'm currently faculty at Ohio University in Educational Technologies. Previously, I taught social studies to middle schoolers for ten years and served as an administrator for four years. My graduate work was at the University of Wisconsin - Madison with the Games + Learning + Society research group. To know who I am, I'd say I'm a lifetime gamer, woodworker, father of two, a husband of twenty years, and a believer - in reverse order of importance!  

Gaming Matter was initially an umbrella organization for myself and other researchers to house our research on games for learning, teacher professional development, and school policy. The feeds that we post there have gained a following that exceeds our own work and we are beginning to host resources, like the Teacher's Toolbox, TeachOn! videos, and are even working with Playful Learning to put together conferences for teachers. The interest in games for learning has driven the expansion of the research community.  

  • Where do see higher education going in the medium to long-term future?

I see a lot of experimentation coming in the next few years. Free tools still have to have a compelling benefit for those that make them. Either these 'free' courses are to sell the cooperating institution, bring instructors to prominence, or are in themselves studies of the participants.

On the other hand, I do see an altruistic drive to produce quality learning products by people that want to advance their fields too. Codecademy is a fine example that trains 'coders'. So, it is a product designed to expand the number of coders in the world. The benefit may be that there are more coders in the job base, but that is a win-win for those that want to code and those that want to hire.  

Kahn academy was initially an effort by an uncle to help his cousins learn math better - completely altruistic. Because it was well done, it grew. Where there is demand, there will be product even if it isn't corporately sponsored initially.  

The nature of a digital asset though is that once made, it endures. So I see that there will be many MOOCs that were built in hype that simply limp along. However, I also see a lot of products like Kahn academy, LearnStreet, 3DGameLab, and Codecademy that are increasingly impressive and ready to serve learning needs.

In the long term, I believe that we will see online learning will diverge into a variety of experiences. MOOC's have a tendency now to be delivered content + community. Online gaming starts with experience and content is sought out to amplify game play. I like to think that these two worlds will continue to come together. Later I'll mention Minecraft as an area I'm researching now where I think this is starting to happen.

Also, the Digital Media and Learning folks are exploring effective experiences that leverage award and quest design to encourage informal learning. As long as experience is at the center, many game design elements can be thoughtfully applied to organize learning - as games already do. So there are seeds of the future of online learning, but I'm still excited to see how they will flower.  

  • There's a fair bit of online learning skepticism out there (particularly when it comes to retention rates)... Do you have anything to say about that?

Whenever someone says they have a better way to create learning experiences, we should collectively be wary. Snake oil salesmen have always preyed on those that are desperate and high stakes testing has driven the need to improve - even if only by 1% - to the point that some educational leaders will buy anything with 'promise', 'potential', or enthusiasm around it. So embrace skepticism, but remain malleable to evidence.

Retention rates are very difficult to make claims about in any learning setting. So I'll also be skeptical of those that claim to know how well people retain learning in online settings. Consider Mizuko Ito's outstanding study of youth living and learning online, out of UC-Irvine. Her team observed youth for thousands of hours of online activity and found that youth progressively were "hanging out, messing around, and geeking out". Wonderful terms!  Most communities of practice have those that work in the inner circles, those that are active, and those that are outliers.  

If this is actual behavior, then we should expect that in free and open online learning environments, there will be a certain number of those that stop in and check things out, some that dabble, and some that invest in the full online experience. So, for example, 15,000 people sign up for a free MOOC, should we even expect retention?  I'm not sure that informal learning can be measured the same way as compulsory learning. Nor can we discount the number of people that do find value in these free settings. I'm interesting in future studies that take into account actual patterns of behavior (like Ito) and use it to measure online learning accurately.  

  • Which are you favorite online learning experience so far and why?

Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire are doing an online MOOC right now that has impressed me. They combine Constance's past work on building community and Kurt's understanding of game design along with guest lecturers on the topic of games for learning. The production quality of their work has been stunning: site layout, curriculum design, animations, even the brick wall "studio" and conversational tone. Wonderful example of what MOOC's will look like as great designers get involved in the creation process.

And if you believe Tolkien is worthy literature, then Lord of the Rings Online stands out as an exemplary Massive Multiplayer Online game that connects great reading with great play experiences. Outstanding!

Finally, I'm in the process of playing Minecraft endlessly with my two kids. I've just finished spending a year interviewing teachers that have taken the 'blank slate' of Minecraft and used it as a classroom tool. It can be hosted locally and set up as a limited multiplayer game (keeping students learning private), and Minecraft is being adapted for a variety of topics, ages, and pedagogical styles in compelling ways. I'm writing up the study now and hope that the coming book will add to the conversation of what online learning can look like.

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Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Meet the edtech entrepreneurs - An interview with Mike Feerick

Long before the Stanford AI Class, before the acronym “MOOC” was even coined, ALISON, a free e-learning company was set up in Ireland.
The Good MOOC interviews +Mike Feerick, ALISON's founder and CEO, fresh from winning an innovation award at the Wise summit in Qatar.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

I was raised in Galway, Ireland.
I graduated from the University of Limerick before getting my MBA from Harvard. I then worked in the corporate world before founding I sold Yac to J2 Global Communications in 2007.

I founded ALISON (Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online) in 2007. It now has two million registered learners worldwide, and more than 300,000 graduates of its courses.
Each month, nearly 200,000 new learners sign up, many from developing countries, where access to traditional education and skills training is limited.

The judges in the World Innovation Summit for Education (Wise) awards in Doha, awarded ALISON a prize for its outstanding quality and its “exceptional impact”.

  • What do you make of the current MOOC craze when you've been in the game for much longer?

I think it is all good in making people aware that learning can and is free. When we launched in April 2007, many of our previously paying customers asked that they not be given access to the content for free as they preferred to pay (many were local authorities and schools who felt they needed to be seen to pay for services as a sign of quality). In that way, we broke some ground as a pioneer for those coming after us. Overall, it is easy to put content on the web. The challenge is to build around it a sustainable business model that can continue the initial investment and activity. Not many MOOCs and the like have shown us how they are going to be sustainable over the long run.

  • Where do see higher education going in the medium to long-term future with open resources, MOOCs and free tools?

I see more and more quality educational resources being made available to the public for free.  I see a small number of platforms and brands emerging - becoming very global.  Learning, and proving skills and competencies is going to become more informal all the time - that is not that the learning is however necessarily inferior.  Remember, services like ALISON are still only beginning.  What is truly exciting is where they can go from here - also considering where they have come to today. If they have been very innovative before, chances are they'll continue to innovate.

  • There's a fair bit of online learning skepticism out there (particularly when it comes to retention rates)... Do you have anything to say about that?

I talk about this in a talk I gave in Washington in Sept. The completion rates need to be viewed in terms of comparing apples with apples. If a course is free, then people will try it out - and many will choose not to do it. Are these people students of the course? No they are not. That's like saying that someone who walks into a shop and walks out again without buying something is a customer. Browsing needs to be considered. Evenstill, look at the completion rates of those who spend more than 10 minutes on a course. The ALISON completion rates move from 18% to 36% if you take in that factor. That is very encouraging.

  • What do you make of "Google Helpouts" and other similar online tutoring services?

It is a cool feature but getting people talking is not teaching.

There needs to be validation of someone's expertise. That's what we do on ALISON - not one can post up courses or comment academically without being reviewed by our highly qualified staff...

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