Lessons learned from the 30th annual conference on Distance Teaching & Learning

Recently, I attended and presented a part of my work at the 30th annual conference on Distance Teaching & Learning in Madison, Wisconsin. IMG_3494I had a great time at the conference, met some great new colleagues, and heard some excellent talks. One of my favorite quick talks was a very brief (about 15 minute) remote Skype talk from Elliot Masie. Masie is very popular in the world of online learning, in particular corporate learning, and it is easy to see why. He is energetic, and brings lots of great ideas to his talks.

Quick aside, my first interaction with Masie and his consortium occurred while I was working as a summer intern for Humana back in 2009.  On a webinar, Masie spoke about how the elearning world had done themselves a huge disfavor by having a lot of early online learning work focus solely on things like Sarbanes-Oxley training or other certifications that simply needed a check box to show to management that a satisfactory completion rate had been achieved. Because of this, so much early online training was dull, boring, unimaginative, and lacking in engagement for employees.  He issued a call to designers of the consortium to think of ways to bring back learning that was innovative and engaging for corporate learners. To demonstrate his points, he paralleled video game designers. He was not calling for ‘gamification,’ ‘serious gaming,’ any of the other trendy words used to describe video game research, rather he used some principles of games and why they are fun, such as difficulty (no one wants to play a game that is super easy), failure (the ability to fail frequently and restart), and other concepts that I thought were very insightful and potentially very useful for instructional designers. He suggested that if instructional designers were to design learning materials that were difficult, engaging, and had the option to not be afraid of failure, that these trainings could be very useful.IMG_3495

Now back to Masie’s recent talk. His key point that he spoke about (and later blogged about here was a notion that he calls Learning Interruptus. His view of current learning is that as opposed to a prior view of Learning Completus, where the assumption is that a learner completes an assignment, class or project from start to finish. Yet now learning has become much more interrupted, or interruptus. People may join a class or MOOC just to glean bits of information without intending to finish the course.  Learners will get distracted by other online resources while working on projects. Learners can often hit pause on their learning and them come back to it later. Learners have many choices and if we can accommodate and encourage constant learning, we can achieve greater success in keeping the learners active. In Masie’s words, “the learner of the future is not a prisoner.”

Another session that provided some good insight, was Chris Dede’s session about developing massive technology-based models for use in education. In this session, Dede spoke about the highlights of a recent project/simulation that has been developed at Harvard. The simulation is a pond ecosystem that can be used by students to learn about pond ecosystems and can also be ramped up to be used by advanced college students with the right development. While I am not very familiar with existing research about simulations, the point that I thought was most interesting occurred during the question and answer. One skeptic in the audience raised the issue that this was just a single simulation environment, in this case a pond, and it may not be feasible for many universities to have the ability to develop such an environment only to be used for that project. Dede’s response was clear, that yes, you need some initial funding to build the environment, in the same way a movie company has to spend money to build a western town set for films. However, the thing that was exciting to Dede is that this environment can be scaled, modified and used in myriad ways for learning, not just a single study that was going on now, with minimal requirement of maintenance and resources. Continuing with the Western town set metaphor, he said, “Once you build a western town set, you can film 30 different movies. We are building sets to use for a variety of purposes in the future.” This idea touches on open access learning and other concepts that I find very intriguing.

Finally, I learned that Madison, Wisconsin is as beautiful in the summer as everyone said it was. I actually camped at a small campground just outside of town on Mendota Lake, and the conference center, Menona Terrace, had spectacular view of Menona Lake. Taqueria Guadalajara had some of the best Mexican food I have had in years (try the sopes!) and overall the weather was great. It is easy to see why so many people love Madison.

Thanks UW Madison for putting on an excellent conference and I look forward to coming back next year.


walking-around-lived-experience-that-results-in-new-knowledge. Is this informal learning?

Q. If informal learning can be characterized as all the learning that doesn’t take place in school, what is the difference between informal learning and the walking-around-lived-experience-that-results-in-new-knowledge? Who are the populations of interest within informal learning research?

In some definitions they could be one and the same. I would agree that walking-around-lived experience is absolutely a part of informal learning and should be considered as learning.  That is one of the Sefton-Greens arguments as well. He argues that, “learning in out-of school settings needs to be accorded status and understanding as we seek to enhance the education system more generally” (p. 6, 2004). But this is too broad of a scope for me.  That is why I am focusing on online informal environments.

The populations of interest in informal learning vary greatly.  Sefton-Green and others focus on children in out-of-school contexts. My minor advisor in the Learning Sciences, Dr. Kylie Peppler, has focused much of her research on children and the intersection of the arts and new media in informal spaces. Other researchers from the Learning Sciences such as Dr. Kevin Crowley, from Pittsburgh, study museum learning and its connection to STEM. Business consultants and researchers, such as Jay Cross, focus on encouraging informal learning in the workplace. Our own recent work with Dr. Bonk on MOOCs and self-directed learning environments has shown examples from all ages.  There is high emerging interest in these populations.  The virtual choir had participants ranging from under 10 (with the help of a parent), to a woman in her 80’s from over 100 countries.

If I can go back to Sefton-Green’s criteria notice that he focuses on both structure and intentions. “the distinction between informal and formal learning…, can more clearly be made around the intentions and structure of the learning experience” (p. 6, emphasis added). Perhaps having the intention to learn could distinguish informal learning as an academic field from every-day lived experience. However, I would still consider those everyday experiences as informal learning, even though trying to investigate and research that would be very difficult.

What’s the deal with massive drop-out rates in MOOCs?

Q. You say that MOOCs represent a blurring of the lines between formal and informal education. How do you view the possible relationship between self-determination theory and the massive drop-out rates we see in MOOCs? How would you anticipate this aspect of MOOCs to guide instructional designers who are working to incorporate motivational aspects of informal learning into formal learning situations?

As has been pointed out, one major concern with MOOCs is high drop-out rates. A greater understanding of self-determination theory and how to maximize intrinsic motivation could certainly be applied with MOOCs.  However, there is evidence that people don’t enroll in MOOCs for the same reasons they would as part of a traditional course. According to a recent study based on Duke’s first MOOC on bioelectricity, when asked about motivation for enrolling, 87% expressed general interest in the course, 53% wanted to extend their general knowledge about the subject, 44% were interested in professional development. 26% reported that they were taking the course as a supplement another college/university class.  In other words, they may not have the same objectives of completing the course as you would find in traditional university courses. The role of MOOCs is still very much being debated and researched in higher education.

Dr. Dan Hickey, program director of IU’s learning sciences, is currently offering a MOOC on educational assessment. Actually he calls is a BOOC or Big Open Online Course, because his course is limited to about 400 students and some of them paying a fee and are enrolling for actual course credit, while others or enrolling just to participate and learn from the course. His course is a bit different then some of the other more massive courses.  And that flexibility is what is intriguing. His course may be available for credit, while many others may be simply used as an extra resource, in the same way that a good textbook or instructional video would be.  Just last month, Campus Technology (, ran an article about having blended MOOCs and using MOOCs to supplement regular classes.

So getting back to your initial question about drop out rates of MOOCs, viewing the relationship between SDT and focusing on meeting the intrinsic motivational needs of the learners could well have an effect on maintaining higher levels of engagement clear to the end of the course. Trying to figure out the best way to use MOOCs and the pitfalls of how to not use MOOCs clearly requires further investigation.