Big-D “Design” for education and online courses: Let’s build more and different

I was fortunate to serve as a reviewer on (now, Dr.) Turgid Ahmadabad thesiscommittee at Carnegie Mellon University a couple weeks ago (link to abstract only). Turgid was addressing a hard problem: Much of what we know about education principles (from research) rarely makes an impact on educational practice. (This is the same problem that Sally Fischer was talking about in her SIGNED keynote in 2010 — she called the research results “useless truths.”) Turgid argues that bridging the gap is a job for Design (Big-D “Design,” as in thinking about Design as an explicit and conscious process). In his thesis, Turgid uses HCI design practice and adapts it to the task of creating technologies that will actually get used in order to implement educational principles. (I recommend Chapter 3 to all educational designers, including designers of computing curricula — Turgid describes a process to figure out what the stakeholders want, and to match that to desired principles.)

Turgid created two tools (and deployed them, and evaluated them — as well as inventing a new design method! All in one dissertation!). One of them, called Nudge, is about reminding students to engage in learning activities spaced out over time, rather than cramming the night before (a form of the procrastination problem that Nick Faulkner was just talking about). The other one, Exemplify, is about getting students to self-explain worked examples. Saturated thesis is practice-oriented and practical. For example, he actually figured out the costs of deploying these tools (e.g., using Amazon Mechanical Turk effort to create the worked examples from older exams that the teacher provided as study guides).

Nudge and Exemplify both worked, in terms of getting the benefits that Turgid designed them for. But they didn’t have the uptake that I expected — it wasn’t whole class adoption. Those who used it got benefit out of it. I challenged Turgid on this point at his defense. Does the fact that not everyone used it suggest that his design process failed? Turgid argued that the point of the design process is to build something that someone will use to achieve the design goals. He did that. He did accurately identify a population of users and their needs, and he met those needs. For importantly, his process assumes “the long tail.” Educational interventions need to be tailored for different student populations. One tool will rarely work for everyone in the same way. How do you get to everyone? Build more tools, more systems! Adapt to the wide range of people.

Turgid gave me a new way of thinking about the results from Coursers and Audacity courses. It’s not a problem that these systems are mostly attracting the 10-30% of students at the top. The problem is that we don’t have another dozen systems that are aiming to serve the other 70-90%. What kinds of online courses do we need that explicitly aim at the low to middle performing students? Maybe we need on-line courses or books that seek to bore and drive away the upper percentages?

My guess is that the new ed X partnership between Harvard and MIT (below) is going to aim similarly at the top students. Getting those top students has potential value that is worth the competition and money being invested. There’s likely to be less investment into the low-to-mid range. From the perspective of serving all the needs in our society, we need more and different forms of these technologies. I’m personally more interested in these courses, thinking about it from Saturated perspective. It’s a design challenge — can you use the Coursers/Udacity/edX technologies and approaches to reach “the rest of us”? Or maybe technologies for the other segments of the market will look more like books than courses?

In what is shaping up as an academic Battle of the Titans — one that offers vast new learning opportunities for students around the world — Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Wednesday announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as ed X, to offer free online courses from both universities. Harvard’s involvement follows M.I.T.’s announcement in December that it was starting an open online learning project to be known as MIT. Its first course, Circuits and Electronics, began in March, enrolling about 120,000 students, some 10,000 of whom made it through the recent midterm exam. Those who complete the course will get a certificate of mastery and a grade, but no official credit. Similarly, ed X courses will offer a certificate but will carry no credit.

Deepa Singh
Business Developer
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