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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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    Science and Curiosity

    Congratulations to NASA for landing the Curiosity Rover on Mars late Sunday night after an 8-month, 352 million mile journey.

    Politics and Policies

    Lots of news from Louisiana this week following the state's move to privatize public schools by offering school vouchers that let public funding go for any sort of school, including religious ones. Policies at one charter require girls to get pregnancy tests before attending (and if they are pregnant, forcing them to leave school). And Mother Jones lists “14 wacky facts” that students will learn in some of textbooks used by the religious charters there, including dinosaurs probably lived side-by-side with humans within the last thousand years. Insert prediction about future NASA engineeers’ state of origin here.

    Tim Arnold, a senior at University of Central Florida, has been placed on academic probation for creating a website that, for a small fee, would notify students when a seat became open in a class. The university says that the system was like a denial of service attack, something that Arnold disputes, along with the punishment for his innovation.

    The California Student Aid Commission has axed 154 schools from its financial aid program, including the University of Phoenix. California students will no longer be able to receive state aid, including CalGrants, to attend these universities.

    The FCC is seeking public comments on its revisions to COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Adam Thierer has a good breakdown of what’s new, what’s good, and what remains problematic with the updated rules.


    Upstart, the new startup from former Googler Dave Girouard (formerly head of the Google Enterprise and Apps team), was unveiled this week. The startup applies the crowdfunding model of sorts to education, whereby students can get investment from others in exchange for promising to pay back a portion of their income to those who lend them money. Wired has more details on the company.

    Boundless, a startup that provides free textbook alternatives to college students, opens its doors to the public (despite still facing a copyright infringement lawsuit from major textbook publishers). See my thoughts here.

    Updates and Upgrades

    The peer-to-peer learning startup Skillshare has launched hybrid classes, combining online lessons with in-person workshops.

    The One Laptop for Child project is working on two interesting hardware peripherals: XOrduino and XO Stick. (As the name sounds, the XOrduino is an Arduino-compatible board that plugs into the XO laptop’s USB port.) The parts are available for free for those who are willing to do development work on the project (write apps, do Scratch or Turtle support work, etc).

    For more hacking options, check out Adafruit IndustriesBabel Fish, a DIY language-learning toy.

    And for still more Adafruit Industries’ hacks, check out the company’s educational distribution of Linux, specially customized for Raspberry Pi (the small, $25 computer.)

    Digital textbook app-maker Kno announced that it will begin offering K–12-level textbooks from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The target consumer here isn’t schools, but parents. Perhaps this is aimed at that market who would’ve bought the ol’ Encyclopedia Brittanica sets for their kids?

    StudyBlue has released a free iPad app (iTunes link), that lets students create digital flashcards.

    Physics Gizmo, an app that helps students collect data for use in their science experiments, has just been open sourced. You can find the code on


    Amazon has forced the e-book crowdfunding platform to suspend its receipt of pledges (, which I covered here, has been using Amazon to process payments). Although it might seem a little suspicious that a bookseller like Amazon is targeting a Creative Commons-oriented project lie, this appears to be part of a larger crackdown on crowdfunding.

    Research and Data

    ProPublica notes that while the industry has pushed back on last week’s report by Senator Tom Harkin regarding for-profit universities, there hasn't been much arguing with the figures cited in it, including the following: the average cost of a 2-year degree at a for-profit college: $35,000; the average cost of a 2-year degree at a comparable community college: $8,300. ProPublica offers a breakdown of the for-profit higher ed industry “by the numbers.”

    Despite the handwringing about technology exacerbating bullying, research from Norway (based on both Norwegian and American students) finds incidents of cyberbullying may not be as common as headlines would lead us to believe. 18% of American students reported they’d been subjected to verbal bullying; just 4.5% reported that they’d experienced cyberbullying.

    Where do invasive species come from? Science classes. Ouch. A survey of teachers from Canada and the US found that one out of four teachers who use animals in their classes as part of their science curriculum release those species into the wild when they're done.


    Techcrunch reports that MeeGenius, a digital early reading platform, has just closed a $2.4 million round of funding.


    The online learning startup Udacity announced that students enrolled in the Ohio eSTEM Academy will receive high school credit for courses they take via the Udacity platform (specifically, Intro to Statistics and Intro to Physics).

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  • 08/12/12--14:18: #MOOCMOOC
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    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    There’s been plenty of buzz lately about the ways in which online video is poised “disrupt” education – whether it’s via the growing video library of Khan Academy or through the video-based lectures and lessons offered by the flurry of new MOOCs (namely those offered by Coursera, Udacity, and edX).

    But the news out of MIT today – one of the founding members of the edX initiative – offers a very different sort of video education. And these videos make a very different argument too from the MOOCs and the Khan Academies of the world; it’s an argument that highlights several things that the hype about video-based instruction seems to ignore.

    1) The value of a campus-based university experience
    2) The importance of hands-on learning, particularly when it comes to STEM education.

    MIT is unveiling the trailer today for a new reality TV series (of sorts) – ChemLab Boot Camp – that follows 14 freshmen through its 5.301 Introductory Lab Techniques course. The four-week-long class is offered in January as part of the Chemistry major. The stakes with 5.301 are high – students who pass the class are guaranteed a job in a research lab at the university.

    As such, the new show could be seen as an infomercial for the MIT campus experience. And as the project was underwritten by the Dow Chemical Company, it’s certainly good promotional material for that company and, more generally, the MIT chemistry major. But the reality TV show is also a commercial of sorts for hands-on learning and for the joys and frustrations of working in a research lab.

    And that’s an important message for prospective scientists to hear – whether they’re in high school or college. Indeed, late last year, The New York Times examined some of the reasons why we’re seeing so few students graduate with degrees in STEM fields. While part of the argument was “it’s just so darn hard,” the article also highlighted the emphasis on lectures and dearth of opportunities for hands-on experimentation. (I wrote a follow-up post here.)

    It’s also worth noting that this video series comes out of the MIT OpenCourseWare office and is connected to that program’s larger outreach efforts with high school students. Its Highlights for High School initiative organizes over 70 introductory level courses from the university’s OCW site as well as other resources, to help high school students prepare for the AP exam.

    “We hope to show the human side of our field and to inspire young people to want to become the next generation of chemists,” says MIT Professor John Essigmann. And inspiration and humanness – particularly when depicted through the experiences of freshman students – are pretty compelling here. “Do you make mistakes?” asks one freshman in frustration as her experiment on Day 3 or so goes awry. And the video then offers anecdotes about failures from the course’s TAs, from other students who’ve successfully completed 5.301 and now work in labs around campus, and from professors themselves. “Of course you have failures,” says one. “But then you have to move on.” And the narrative of this particular episode confirms this, as the freshman says at the end, “This is so encouraging. If she can learn, then I can learn. And some day I’ll be just as good as she is.”

    The show officially starts September, but watch the video below for a sneak peak.

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    Long before the buzz about the “flipped classroom,” there was buzz about the “Flip camera,” a low-cost but good-quality, easy-to-use video camera. Teachers and students loved it. But the company behind the camera, Pure Digital Technologies, was acquired by Cisco 2009 and production was halted in 2011.

    Today, two of the executives behind the Flip Camera are unveiling their latest venture, Knowmia, a collection of “crowdsourced video lessons.”

    All of this is a pretty familiar narrative in Silicon Valley: entrepreneurs found a startup that gets acquired; the company that buys the startup doesn’t simply absorb the technology or employees, but actually shuts their product(s) down; the entrepreneurs leave the company and found another startup in turn. And increasingly, the narrative includes something along the lines of “I’m a parent now, and I want to do something to improve education.”

    On one hand, Knowmia’s founders Ariel Braunstein and Scott Kabat may be well positioned since the branding of their former company’s feature product coincides so neatly with one of the hottest trends in education right now. But there seem to be a lot of challenges ahead too – and not simply because consumer hardware guys and moving into educational software.

    And specifically, moving into educational video where there are lots of offerings already – vast video libraries on YouTube, as well as other sites that offer online lessons (video or otherwise). Knowmia is pulling some of this content into its site – it currently touts about 7000 videos – and hopes to employ a teacher-driven tagging system so that the content is more easily discoverable. (Pity this doesn’t tap into the Learning Registry or the LMRI – although it’s not too late to do so!)

    Knowmia will also host videos, a move that might assuage the fears of some schools that YouTube doesn’t just serve up quality video content, but serves up advertising as well as sometimes inappropriate related videos (although not so much with its new YouTube for Schools channel).

    The startup, which is part of the latest batch of Y Combinator companies, says it plans to “add value” to these videos by creating mini-courses – that is, having teachers in certain fields frame recommended viewing lists, as well as add other elements like assessments. The company also has an iPad app (iTunes link) so that teachers (or anyone really) can create their own lessons to share on the Knowmia site.

    There’s a “certain ‘magic’ that happens when a teacher and student match in style,” co-founder Ariel Braunstein told me, “when that teacher can explain things to a student that no one else can.” The point of Knowmia, he argues, is to be able to present a wide-range of video lessons on a topic so that students can decide what to watch based not just on content, but on teachers’ presentation styles.

    That stance certainly suggests that this is a consumer-oriented play and not (necessarily) a school-focused one. Braunstein says that Knowmia sees itself as a “supplemental education” tool and is chasing a piece of the tutoring market – currently at $54 billion in the US and expected to increase to about $100 billion in the next few years. But will parents want to buy video lessons for their children? Or will human tutors – on or offline – remain popular? How do classroom teachers fit into this model (and I mean that both pedagogically as well as economically)?

    And will the “flipped classroom” become not just a buzzword for teachers rethinking how homework is done and how class-time is spent, but one that parents too start to embrace in lieu of traditional test prep and homework help?

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    It’s hard to not see Stanford University as the leading force in a lot of the recent MOOC-related buzz; or at least that’s the story that Stanford and its startup spin-outs tell. That’s put MIT in the role of catch-up, arguably, even though the university was a trailblazer in earlier open courseware efforts.

    Despite partnerships with Harvard and Berkeley and over $60 million in funding, MIT’s MOOC initiative MITx has only offered one class since its launch – 6.002x, Circuits and Electronics. That course is a foundational one at MIT, required for all undergraduates in the electrical engineering and computer science programs. But only 7000 students successfully completed the class – a completion rate of about 5% (compared to a 14% completion rate for Stanford’s AI class).

    We can make too much of MOOC drop-out rates, I suppose, and in doing so, ignore the successes of those who do complete these courses. Indeed, one of the most interesting successes of MITx’s 6.002x may be one of the most interesting successes to come out of any of the recent xMOOCs.

    And that’s the formation of 6.003z.

    6.003z is the creation of Amol Bhave, a 17-year-old high school student from Jabalpur, India who was disappointed to learn that MITx had no plans to offer the follow-up class to 6.002x. Typically, the next class students take at MIT is 6.003, Signals and Systems. So Bhave took matters into his own hands, creating his own open online course with help from two other members of the 6.002 learning community – a class based on a blend of MIT OpenCourseWare and student-created materials.

    Course site:

    At the heart of 6.003z are the video-taped lectures from Professor Alan Oppenheim (who arguably boasts one of the best mustaches in Eighties educational video – something which does, of course, prompt me to point out once again that this format is not new). But in addition to the videos and the other MIT OCW materials, Bhave and others have created tutorials specifically for this 6.003z class.

    The creation of 6.003z is a triumph of the recent MOOCs, I’d argue, because it showcases learners building and creating their own knowledge, their own websites, their own technologies – not restricted to a single platform or institution or curriculum-map or major. (About 800 students signed up for 6.003z, and Bhave says that about 300 completed the weekly assignments. He's planning on offering more classes too.)  

    I fear too that too often we forget that the O in MOOC should mean more than just “open enrollment.” 6.003z was possible because of the openly licensed materials that MIT has made available – materials that students don’t just read or consume but that they are free to remix as well. And 6.003z points to a growing ecosystem for open learning, one that learners and not just institutions should be free to organize.

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    Cross-posted on Inside Higher Ed, a social network for scholars, is unveiling a new feature today that its founder Richard Price hopes will help address part of the “credit gap” for research. allows users to upload and share their research papers, and the site is launching its Analytics Dashboard for Scientists today that Price says will let scholars see the “real-time impact” of their work.

    Academic publishing has long been a black-box in terms of both who’s reading and who’s citing. Publishing in journals may be expected (required, even), but the delays in the publishing process can make it challenging to ascertain how much influence work has. “It typically takes about 3 to 5 years for citations to actually appear back in the process,” argues Price, pointing to the lengthy time between researching, writing, peer-reviewing, and publishing.

    That’s part of the problem with services like Google Scholar that do offer citation counts, Price contends. And certainly the new feature available on today is more akin to Google Analytics than Google Scholar. You can see the pageviews on your papers; you can see the keywords that led people to them; you can see where those viewers come from.

    The latter only gives details about the country of origin – enough for scholars to be able to tout the global reach of their work. It would be interesting to see more granular information – which city, which university even – but Price says there are certain privacy concerns before offering those sorts of details. isn’t the only site that offers these or similar services. The reference manager site Mendeley recently added a dashboard too. All this seems to reflect a number of changes in academic publishing that point to a more digital and more open-access future.

    It’s all in the service of accelerating scientific research, Price argues, by giving scholars immediate feedback (rather than waiting for that long publishing cycle). But as with any metrics offering, there’s a certain amount of ego-stroking here as well. Sure, you want “credit” for your work. You want to be able to track on research – yours and others’ – that’s new and/or widely-read and/or influential. But it also feels good to see the pageviews add up on your writing, and Price says that many of the scholars who beta-tested the feature found they were increasingly “addicted” to the stats.

    “There’s no going back now” to older, black-boxed forms of academic publishing, Price argues.

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  • 08/15/12--14:39: OER Use, Reuse and Remixing
  • I’m starting a new research and writing project today that examines the current state of open educational resources.

    My interest isn’t simply identifying where the repositories of OER lie or what they contain. Nor am I just looking at adoption or usage (although yes, the research will address all these things.) See, I’m particularly keen to investigate the formats that these openly licensed materials are in, and by an extension whether they’re being remixed.

    I have my suspicions about what I’ll find in regards to the latter. That is, we’re seeing a lot of PDFs (ugh) and not seeing much remixing. And so I want to ask “Why?”

    What are the barriers – to use, re-use, and remixing? Time constraints? Technological constraints? Copyright confusions? Are OERs missing important elements (e.g. There are lots of textbook chapters that are openly licensed, but few open test banks) that make proprietary resources more “useful,” even if they’re more expensive and more restrictive? If so, what are those "features"?

    Why do we opt to use OER? To save money? To facilitate sharing? How does technology (platforms, repositories, devices, formats) support or restrict or influence this? (What are, for example, the implications of hosting your OER on Google-owned YouTube? What are the results of publishing OER in PDFs?)

    And finally in the spirit of openness, let me be clear: this research is funded by FunnyMonkey, an education-focused Drupal shop in Portland, Oregon. Much like the research I undertook for Mozilla earlier this year, I’ve agreed to do this work because I am philosophically aligned with the organization and the project. The focus here is on open source technology, openly-licensed content, and open access to scholarship and research (i.e., all that I do for FunnyMonkey I will blog about here on Hack Education, where my writing is also openly-licensed). So stay tuned for a series of OER-related posts over the next six weeks or so...

    If you’re interested in chatting with me about this project, feel free to drop me a line -- particularly if you use OER in your classroom!

    Image credits: Ivy Dawned

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    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    I underline and highlight as I read and scribble copious notes in the margins of books (or sometimes, particularly in a book that I used for teaching, on a color-coded series of sticky notes that serve a dual purpose of bookmarking particular passages). But as I found myself reading more and more digital texts in recent years, I’ve struggled to adjust my note-taking habits to the new format. Sometimes it just wasn’t that easy technologically to take notes (I had to ditch my old school Kindle for this very reason); sometimes it wasn’t that easy to find the notes I’d digitally jotted down; I worried that, much like ownership of digital texts is in question, that my notes might just disappear if a platform owner decided to yank them (See: Amazon’s infamous 1984 incident).

    But while The New York Times and others have worried that e-books spell the doom for marginalia, I’ve long felt like they offer an interesting opportunity too. What if we can more easily share our notes? What if we could see the authors’ commentaries on their own works? What if we could easily read experts’ highlights? What if a class could work together on the pages of an assigned reading – asking and answering questions, and in turn giving the professor a sense of what’s being read and what’s being understood?

    Many of these things are problems that the education startup Highlighter has been tackling, initially offering a JavaScript plug-in enabling “comments in the margins” on blogs and websites. (I chose Highlighter as one of my favorite startups of 2011). Since then, the startup has shifted its focus slightly to become an education publishing platform that lets textbooks be published for the Web (as well as in PDF, Word, PowerPoint, Excel and ePUB) – all with built-in social marginalia features.

    Today Highlighter announced that it’s partnering with the 20 Million Minds Foundation, a non-profit committed to finding ways to lower the cost of textbooks, to product a book for the upcoming Fall term – Introduction to Sociology. The textbook, created by OpenStax College and Rice University is free and openly licensed.

    Highlighter and 20MM describe it as “the first student-faculty interactive textbook” insofar as it will offer these social highlighting, annotating, commenting and sharing features. The Highligher version of the textbook will also let professors place students into smaller study groups for easier social interaction and enables them to track students’ reading and note-taking progress within a topic or chapter.

    The app is built in HTML5, meaning it’s accessible across devices and platforms and via modern browsers.  (Highlighter is also ADA and FERPA compliant.)

    The startup says it has also landed contracts with a handful of universities that will utilize its publishing platform for course materials as well as self-published books.

    I wrote last week that a lot of the recent textbook-related news was banal at best. But Highlighter's social components, along with the OER materials and the flexibility therein, do offer something a lot more interesting here, I think.

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    Despite the doom & gloom, Morgen, Robin, and I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge today. The Bike Laners were insane.

    Politics and Policies

    Last weekend, Republican Party Presidential nominee Mitt Romney named his running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan. While some folks are saying that the selection “doesn’t matter a lot for education,” others point to Ryan’s record and suggest otherwise. In particular, Ryan has gone after Pell Grants and the National Endowment of the Humanities, proposing their budgets be slashed (or in the case of the NEH, eliminated altogether).

    The Department of Education unveiled its latest Race to the Top competition, this time pitting district against district (as opposed to state against stage) to compete for some $400 million in grants to be used for programs that “personalize learning, close achievement gaps and take full advantage of 21st century tools that prepare each student for college and their careers.”

    Georgia State Superintendent of Schools has come out in opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment in the state that would allow for a state board to fund charter schools even if local officials and school board members. “I cannot support the creation of a new and costly state bureaucracy that takes away local control of schools and unnecessarily duplicates the good work already being done by local districts, the Georgia Department of Education, and the state Board of Education object,” says John Barge.

    The Department of Education is taking its show on the road again this fall with Arne Duncan’s third back-to-school bus tour.

    Launches and Updates

    The big news this week was the launch of Khan Academy’s new Computer Science curriculum. It’s not surprising since the creator of JQuery, John Resig, is part of the KA team that the first language students will tackle is JavaScript. Here’s Resig’s post on the news, in which he points to last year’s demo by Bret Victor as inspiration. I haven’t had a chance yet to dive into the offering, but early reports from my-main-math-man Dan Meyer are positive. CS education prof Mark Guzdial notes that it’s a “very cool text editor. But it’s a text editor.” He also questions whether scaffolding in the new offering is really scaffolding.

    Math learning startup Motion Math has released its latest app, Hungry Guppy (iTunes) to help teach numbers to 3–7 year olds.

    Techcrunch’s Sarah Perez covers the launch of “YogiMeter,” a new app-rating system for kids’ learning apps from the startup YogiPlay.

    Brain Hive, a pay-as-you-go e-book service for K–12 libraries, has moved out of beta. The startup charges $1 per e-book that’s circulated and currently boasts about 3000 titles in its catalog. The School Library Journal has more details.

    Textbook rental company Chegg is open-sourcing Bromine, a tool it built to test some of the JavaScript it uses in its apps.

    Textbook app-maker Kno has released its first Android app.

    Scandals and Kerfuffles

    A cheating scandal has erupted at the Scrabble Nationals where a player was evicted from the tournament for hiding tiles. The player was only age 13 but had been touted as one of the rising stars in the Scrabble world.

    Staff at the University of Georgia’s student newspaper, The Red and Black, have quit en masse following what they claim is editorial interference by the non-student employees who’d recently been hired by the newspaper’s publishing company.

    Words and Books

    New digital textbooks, many of which are free and openly-licensed, are on store shelves (app shelves?) and/or coming soon from Garden Valley State University (calculus), Kansas State University (nutrition), 20MM and Highlighter (sociology), and Georgia College (ed-tech).

    The state of Nebraska is building its own virtual library system for schools.

    An animation teacher at the Art Institute of California is facing firing due to his refusal to make his students buy a textbook.

    Among the new words that’ll appear in the next version of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: F-bomb and sexting.

    Research and Data

    Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has released a new report detailing the relationship between job gains and education level immediately before and after this recent recession, and the differences between those with and without college degrees are pretty stark. According to a headline in The Atlantic this proves “beyond a doubt the value of a college degree.”

    Investment firm GSV Advisors have issued a new white paper on education investing and "innovation" titled “American Revolution 2.0.” The metaphor of warfare runs throughout. Yuck.

    A recent study published in Pediatrics seems to confirm what many reformers hoped (healthy-food-at-school reformers, that is): that keeping vending machines out of middle schools helps curb obesity. The effects aren’t huge – kids in states with strong laws forbidding junk food sales at schools just gained on average 2.2 pounds less, but hey.

    Funding and Acquisitions

    DC-based EverFi, which offers blended learning classes for higher ed and K–12 schools on topics like financial literacy, alcohol abuse, cyberbullying, and dating violence, announced that it has raised $10 million in a Series B round. Investors include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, and Twitter co-founder Ev Williams. (I covered the company here)

    Interactive whiteboard app-maker Educreations has raised $2.2 million in a Series A. (My story on the startup’s launch late last year is here.)

    Behavior management app-maker Class Dojo announced that it’s raised $1.6 million in seed funding. (I wrote about the startup way back in 2011).

    rSmart, a company that handles open source technology systems including the LMS Sakai, announced that it has raised $10.75 million in its Series B round.

    HASTAC, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory based at Duke University, has won a $294,000 NSF grant to study “interplay of cyberinfrastructure and scholarly communication.” The plans are to analyze the 6 years of data from the HASTAC site in order to examine how communication, mentorship, and interdisciplinarity affect scholarship.

    Classes and Degrees

    Pearson, the largest education company in the world, announced this week that it’s taking the for-profit university business to the UK and will open Pearson College there. The school will offer a “business and enterprise degree.”

    And in other accreditation news, Penn State has received a warning that its status may be in jeopardy due to its negligence in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.

    #MOOCMOOC has been trending on my Twitter feed, as the Hybrid Pedagogy folks have held their week long meta-mini-MOOC.

    Photo credits: Eli Duke

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    No More Red Ink

    High school teacher Jeff Scheur tells a pretty familiar story for anyone who’s taught writing: you spend a lot of time grading essays, doing your best to provide personalized feedback on what the students are saying and even how they’re saying it. But that feedback can often be overwhelming to students – all the comments and circles and “red ink” – and it’s sometimes difficult for students to figure out how to improve.

    That’s particularly true when it comes to providing feedback on their writing mechanics, Scheur contends. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling –they’re all fundamental to clear communication and good writing, but they’re something many teachers spend less and less time on in class.

    So in his spare time, Scheur created NoRedInk, a website to help students practice and review their grammar. In order to make this process a little less onerous, Scheur lets teachers and students personalize the practice assignments and quizzes with the names of their favorite bands, sports teams, movie or TV stars and friends.

    NoRedInk also adjusts the questions based on what students get right or wrong and shows tutorials if students get stuck. And as Scheur argues, it’s important that “kids learn to fix their own sentences” – something that’s led him to steer clear of multiple choice exercises. Instead, students have to type the correct answer or drag-and-drop the right punctuation.

    Currently NoRedInk offers exercises on apostrophes, commas, sentence fragments, and subject-verb agreement. Scheur says a unit on commonly-confused words is coming soon too.

    The website also offers a dashboard for students as well as teachers to track progress on individual skill areas.

    NoRedInk is currently a one-man-gig (Scheur is looking for a technical co-founder), but that hasn’t stopped him from getting well over 4500 teachers to sign up since the site went live in March. NoRedInk is free to use for now – “at least for this semester,” says Scheur. The startup is part of the current cohort at ImagineK12, the education incubator in Palo Alto, California.

    Grammar and the Common Core

    There's been a lot of talk recently that the Common Core State Standards are going to be a "boon" to the education industry, and when Scheur and I chatted last week, we talked briefly about what this would mean for his startup.  (He gets bonus points in my book for dismissing the notion of claiming that NoRedInk was "Common Core-aligned."  Scheur's motivation here comes from his work as a teacher, I think, and less as a CCSS-bandwagoneer.)

    Out of curiosity, I did some very basic “CTRL-F” research in the Common Core State Standards (PDF) this afternoon, looking for guidance, guidelines, and well, standards about the teaching of what I’d call the “mechanics” of writing. By that, I mean grammar and punctuation mostly – the mechanics of how you assemble letters, words, and phrases in way that conform to the norms of formal writing. Here’s what I found, based solely on the frequency of key words:

    Punctuation: 27 mentions
    Spelling: 27 mentions
    Grammar: 14 mentions
    Capitalization: 15 mentions
    “Frequently-confused words”: 3 mentions
    Subject-verb agreement: 3 mentions
    Sentence fragments: 3 mentions
    Commas: 8 mentions
    Apostrophes: 1 mention
    Semicolons: 1 mention

    Of course, you can only glean so much based on the number of times the CCSS mention “apostrophes” and the like. But my sense is that the Common Core doesn’t really focus much on the mechanics. (By comparison, “analysis” is mentioned 57 times; “creativity,” none.) The standards do say that students must “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking,” and there are certain grade-levels attached to certain skills.

    The question remains – now as ever: how will we help students learn these conventions? (And I’ll add here as someone who loves to write, how can we help students figure out when they can or should play with and even violate these conventions?)

    You pick some of this up when and if you read a lot and read a wide variety of genres. You pick some of it up when you write extensively, and again when you experiment with different forms, styles and with your own voice.

    Grading on Grammar

    I’ve got mixed feelings about teaching grammar (although I say this as someone who taught writing in college and not in K-12). When I taught, I really struggled with how much time to focus on mechanics. Some students struggled with commas. Some students struggled with sentence fragments. Some students struggled with those commonly-confused words that can trip all of us up: effect versus affect, among versus between, council versus counsel, and so on. Some students struggled mightily; others made the occasional error. I struggled to get all my students to think and write more critically, and as such I didn’t always feel like it was time well spent to fixate too much on mechanics. Oh sure, I'd circle the sentence where the subject didn't agree with the verb, but that was about it. (For the record, I didn't use red ink.)

    But what if we neglect grammar at the K–12 level and continue to neglect it in college?

    A recent article in the Harvard Business Review states things pretty bluntly: “I won’t hire people who use poor grammar.”

    “Grammar is relevant for all companies,” writes iFixit and Dozuki co-founder Kyle Wiens.

    “Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.”

    Students will be judged, whether it's by the Common Core assessments or by future employers or by those who read their Facebook status updates. So in addition to NoRedInk, here are some other grammar-related resources

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. I always find our conversation to be one of the most thought-provoking exchanges I have all week.

    Well, it's actually been 2 weeks since we've recorded an episode, what with busy travel schedules, unreliable WiFi in various travel locations, and so on. But we finally had a chance yesterday to talk our way through several weeks' worth of Hack Education stories and educational news items. Among other things, we discuss textbooks, hackathons, and MOOCs. We also explore the downsides of framing education "reform" in terms of warfare, market opportunities, or (race to the top) competitions. 

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    August 19, 2012

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  • 08/21/12--17:46: The Mechanical MOOC
  • Mechanical Flowers

    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    MIT OpenCourseware, OpenStudy, Peer to Peer University, and Codecademy are teaming up to launch a “Mechanical MOOC” – a free and open introductory course in the programming language Python that weaves together existing resources (content, Web-based study groups, quizzes and so on).

    Unlike some of the other MOOCs that have launched in recent months – particularly those headline-grabbing efforts from Stanford (and Coursera and Udacity) – this “Mechanical MOOC” will not force learners into a centralized website that recreates the LMS experience, where all the official lessons, lectures, discussions and assignments are supposed to take place. Instead, the content for this MOOC is linked from the original sources and distributed via an email list managed by P2PU.

    As P2PU co-founder Philipp Schmidt tells The New York Times, “The mechanical MOOC is an attempt to leverage the power of the open web–by loosely joining together a set of independent building blocks.” That is, MIT OCW will provide the content (from its 6.189 A Gentle Introduction to Python course); OpenStudy will handle the study groups; and Codecademy will offer its Web-based, interactive tools for coding practice.

    The class officially starts in mid-October with weekly lessons sent via email. But in a twist that might be a boon to those of us who consistenly drop out or drift away from these open enrollment courses, the weekly lesson emails can be paused or staggered so that you can still move through the content with a cohort of learners, even if you fall behind or have to restart the course. “We want to do more than sign-up tens of thousands of students and have only a fraction succeed,“ said OpenStudy co-founder Preetha Ram in the news release. “Our goal is to have everyone who participates succeed. We want to help learners remain engaged throughout the course and be supported by a community.”

    The email scheduler tool will be made available to other open content sites so that they too can build this sort of “mechanical MOOC.” But the goal here is really to empower learners to pull together what they need: the resources and the peer support.

    There’s no official instructor involvement here (paging Jonathan Rees!). No institution (and none of the participating organizations here) is in charge. No degrees or credits or certificates or letters of achievement will be awarded (you can, of course, get badges for your Codecademy achievements and for your helpfulness on OpenStudy).

    Lisa Lane recently argued that there are 3 types of MOOCs: network-based (e.g. the connectivist MOOCs), task-based (e.g. DS106) , and content-based (edX, Coursera, Udacity). By creating an open source tool for this “mechanical MOOC,” hopefuly this effort will help others take the best of all of those models, create their own open online courses (massive or not), and optimize for learning and community (and not just investors or institutions).

    Image credits: Chad Routh, Lisa Lane

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    Quick update:  I thought I’d kick off my new “State of OER” research by compiling a list of all the available OER repositories -- a sensible place to start. I thought about just compiling everything in a long list-like blog post at first, and then, as one is wont to do when projects seem big and call for collaboration, I started a Google Doc, where I started jotting down the names, the URLs and a brief description.

    But it quickly became apparent that that’s an insufficient way to track these sorts of things – and I’d go even farther to say that it’s probably part of the problem that OERs face right now in gaining more widespread adoption:

    So there’s openly licensed content available on the Internet. So what? How do I find it? How do I know it’s useful? (And more accurately in this case: so how do I create a directory that are actually useful to teachers and learners?)

    (I should note here that WikiEducator does have a good list of “exemplary” OER resources.)

    But more than just a list of what’s “out there,” I have other questions:

    What level and what topics do these OER address? Who created them? Are the resources rated? If so, by whom? Teachers? Students? How are these resources funded? (Namely will the resources disappear? There are a lot of dead links on that WikiEducator wiki.) What format are the resources in? How often are they used? And by whom?

    (OER Commons does a pretty good job of addressing a lot of these questions about the types of resources (topics, licenses, formats and so on), and potentially the Learning Registry could give us good data about usage.)

    Tomorrow’s post: some stats gleaned from these sites on what topics are available, how are they licensed, and what format are they in. Coming soon: a look at how educators and organizations are using OER (if so, how, and if not, why not).

    Disclosure: This research is being funded Portland-based, educational Drupal dev shop FunnyMonkey

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    OER Repositories, Part 2

    The data below is drawn from OER Commons, a site that provides one of the best directories for finding open educational resources. OER Commons makes it easy to search by resource provider, topic, grade level, media format and license type – all important for teachers and learners looking for free and openly licensed educational materials.

    So what’s available for what topics in what formats?

    Subject Areas:
    Arts 2241
    Business 1218
    Humanities 7722
    Mathematics & Statistics 8938
    Science & Technology 19051
    Social Sciences 6684

    Grade Levels:
    Primary 7347
    Secondary 20430
    Post-secondary 25311

    Materials Types:
    Activities and Labs 10454
    Assessments 2133
    Audio Lecture 812
    Curriculum Standards 4657
    Discussion Forums 99
    Full Course 4085
    Games 345
    Homework & Assignments 3218
    Lecture Notes 2228
    Lesson Plans 5281
    Readings 9895
    Simulations 4562
    Syllabi 6298
    Teaching & Learning Strategies 2663
    Textbooks 851
    Training Materials 1125
    Video Lectures 4102

    What format?

    Of the 850 textbooks on the site: 
    Audio 74 
    Graphics/Photos 79 
    Mobile 22 
    Other 17 
    Text/HTML 411 
    Downloadable docs 750 
    Video 132 
    Interactive 46

    The top 5 rated science textbooks for the secondary level (there were 67 total) are all in PDF format.

    What’s popular?

    That’s harder to tell.

    You can sort by “visits” to see that the top video lectures in Math and Science are:
    1. 10th’s and Decimals (from Teachers’ Domain)
    2. AP Calculus (from MIT Highlights for High School)
    3. AP Calculus (from University of California College Prep)
    4. Conducting Effective Online Discussions (from Learning to Teach Online)
    5. Algebra One (from University of California College Prep)

    For a little comparison…The top 5 Khan Academy videos (again, based on visits):
    1. Salman Khan at TED (1,769,506 views)
    2. SOPA and PIPA (1,422,424 views)
    3. Simple Equations (1,287,100 views)
    4. Khan Academy on Gates Notes (1,172,871 views)
    5. Basic Addition (1,148,807 views)

    How are things licensed?

    Of the 678 “Open Textbooks” available on the site:
    No Strings Attached 127
    Remix and Share 399
    Share Only 152

    Of the 19K “Science and Technology” resources:
    Read the Fine Print 5182
    No Strings Attached 7929
    Remix and Share 5658

    Of the 2130 assessments on the site:
    No Strings Attached 130
    Remix and Share 1098
    Share Only 26
    Read the Fine Print 876

    Some Thoughts

    Thousands of activities, lessons, readings, videos -- that's all good news. But if you peer closely at the kinds of resources that are available and the formats that they're in, you get an interesting picture of some of the priorities in openly-licensed content. It isn't just that the topics skew STEM. It's the dearth of primary-level materials. It's the amount of test-prep (often AP-test-prep) content. It's the preponderance of PDFs. And even with somewhat clearer language regarding licensing ("no strings attached" and "read the fine print" as opposed to Creative Commons' terminology), the continuing confusion surrounding copyright affordances for classroom usage.

    Disclosure: This research is being sponsored by FunnyMonkey, an education-focused Drupal shop in Portland. You can read other posts in this series here and here.

    Image credits: Ivy Dawned

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    Politics and Policies

    The California State University system – the largest public university system in the U.S. – is outsourcing its online education offerings to Pearson. Ugh. Some days, I just want to give up. But before I do, I’d like to echo Dr. Tony Bates’ questions: who will own the resources here? Who will own the content? Who will own the data? What happens to local, institutional expertise? Is nobody paying attention?

    According to numbers released by the FCC this week, some 19 million Americans lack access to broadband Internet. By my calculations, that’s about 16% of the population. About 14.5 million of those without access live in rural areas; and about 40% who could purchase it did not, citing cost, lack of technical skills, and/or lack of interest.

    Kudos to the Department of Education for being one of just 15 federal departments and agencies (out of 246) that met Thursday’s deadline to have a draft of their API strategy in place. APIs are an important data pipeline for all that public government data – and for education in particular.


    Jon Becker and I have rolled out the first draft – hey, let’s call it a launch! – of our collection Hack(ing) School(ing).

    SkilledUp officially opened its doors this week. The startup offers a directory of more than 40,000 online courses from over 200 providers, organized in such a way to make it easier to find what you’re looking for: price, course direction, instructor, and so on.

    The learning management system Schoology launched its App Center this week, with a handful of third-party apps that are now integrated fully into the Schoology platform. Among the apps available at launch: the safe messaging tool Remind101 and the math games from BrainNook.

    Research and Data

    The Gallup Poll and Phi Delta Kappa have released the results of their annual poll on education attitudes in the U.S. Among its findings: the most pressing issue facing school today, according to respondents: lack of funding. 97% believe it’s important to improve the quality of the nation’s urban schools, and almost two-thirds said they’d be willing to pay more taxes to do so (80% of Democrats, 41% of Republicans).

    Georgia Tech CS professor Mark Guzdial has published some data from the latest Computer Science AP exam, and simultaneously depressing and not-too-surprising. For example: the pass rate was 63.7% overall, 57.6% for females, 31.7% for Blacks. “No Hispanic female has scored a passing grade (3, 4, or 5) on the AP CS test in Georgia, Michigan, Indiana, South Carolina, or Alabama in the last six years.”

    It’s 2012 and college students still don’t like digital textbooks. More details from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Also in The Chronicle, some interesting data from the online study group site Piazza which looked at how students and professors are using its discussion forums. Among the findings: students at highly selective universities are more likely to ask questions anonymously. Also, while (no surprise) participation in forums was higher when professors required students to contribute, student comprehension was actually higher when they weren’t graded for participating in these online discussions.

    Actually, this news item doesn’t blog under “research” at all as it seems to confirm the worst sort of assumptions that older generations make about younger ones. But as happens every year this time: The Beloit Mindset List – what the Class of 2016 has “always known.”


    George Siemens, connectivist MOOC groundbreaker, announced this week that he’s joining the Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University.

    Former P2PU-er, traveler, and hacker John Britton is joining the social coding site GitHub as its education liaison. I’m really pleased to see GitHub think about campus community outreach, and they couldn’t have hired a better person for the job.

    GigaOm reports that education API startup Clever made a key hire this week too: Matt Pasternack, formerly of Junyo.

    Classes and Contests

    MIT OpenCourseWare, Codecademy, P2PU, and OpenStudy are partnering up for a “Mechanical MOOC,” which appears to be a lot more closely aligned – philosophically and technologically – to the cMOOCs than the xMOOCs and will gather materials from existing OERs and send out weekly emails to learners. (See my write-up here.)

    The book-renter Chegg is sponsoring a back-to-school concert where you can win a Taylor Swift concert for your school. I can’t even think of a good Kanye West joke to make here. Bonus points for any commenter that can complete the sentence “IMMA LET YOU FINISH, BUT _____ HAD THE BEST BACK-TO-SCHOOL CONCERT OF ALL TIME.”

    George Siemens and Rory McGreal are offering an open online course “Openness in Education” this fall.

    Richard Culatta and David Wiley’s open online course “Ed Startup 101” course kicks off on Monday, August 27.

    The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that education startup Udacity has opted to cancel an upcoming math class, saying that the materials did not live up to its standards.


    Education Week takes a closer look at the allegations of cheating in Philadelphia School Districts, arguing that the scope of the problem with “suspicious erasures on state standardized tests is far more widespread than officials have publicly revealed.” So far the district has only looked more closely at about a third of the 53 schools where “strong evidence” of cheating was found.

    GOOD’s Liz Dwyer reports that India plans on backing out of this year’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administered every 3 years to 15-year-olds worldwide. India did not performed well on these tests – scoring second to last – in 2009. She cites the Times of India saying the country has “shied away from the assessment as government officials felt our children were not prepared for such a test.”

    Proctored tests are now available for Udacity’s CS 101. Pearson will be administering these exams for Udacity. (In related news, Pearson also won the contract to administer the 2015 PISA tests.)

    ACT scores remained flat this year – identical (21.1 composite) to last year’s scores. In fact, the scores have hovered around 21 since 2008. Gaps remain in scoring levels among races and ethnicities, with Asians scoring on average the highest (23.6 composite) and African Americans the lowest (17.0). Asians scores have also shown the most growth in recent years.

    The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) released its first set of Common Core aligned test questions and task prototypes this week. Sample items from what PARCC is calling “Phase 1” are available here.

    Image credits: Terry Ross

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    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    When I wrote about the launch of online education startup Coursera back in April, one of the things that most intrigued me most was the description that founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng gave of their plans for a peer-to-peer grading system. I’ve been a critic of the rise of the robot-graders — that is, the increasing usage of automated assessment software (used in other xMOOCS and online courses, as well as in other large-scale testing systems). While some assignments might lend themselves to being graded this way, I’ve been skeptical that automation is really the way to go for disciplines that require essay-writing, despite the contention that robo-graders score just as well as humans do. Coursera said it would offer poetry classes (a modern poetry class starts this fall), and I just couldn’t see how even the most sophisticated artificial intelligence in the world could grade students’ intepretations and close readings.

    So Coursera’s plans for peer assessment sounded pretty reasonable.

    The plans sounded reasonable too, I admit, as I’m someone who’s used peer review a lot in my own classes. I like the idea of students writing for each other, not just for me as instructor. I think they benefit from seeing how their peers write and think, and I think the process of reviewing others’ work helps them recognize their own strengths and weaknesses in turn.

    I found my students to be pretty fair with the assessments they gave their peers. They were neither too brutal nor too lax when they evaluated each others’ work. My anecdotal experience matches some of the research that suggests that when students assess their peers’ work, they do score similarly to the grades professors would give (although others have found that peer grades are higher.

    But peer assessment in a class of thirty is very different than peer assessment in a class of several thousand, and based on some of the early feedback from several of the Coursera classes utilizing the peer assessment, there are some very serious challenges with doing so.

    Laura Gibbs, a literature and mythology professor at University of Oklahoma who is currently enrolled in Coursera’s Fantasy and Science Fiction class has been documenting on her blog some of the struggles that she and other students are facing with the peer feedback element of the class. This particular class does require “essay” writing — I have essay in quotation marks there as the submissions can only be between 270 and 320 words — which are graded by peers with a score of 1, 2, or 3. One of the requirements for the class also includes grading others’ work in turn. So in other words, for every essay you submit, you must also grade four essays from fellow students. Some of the problems with peer feedback, according to Gibbs and others:

    The variability of feedback:

    Many students are unprepared to give solid feedback to one another, and the course has done little to prepare them for such. In global class like this one, there are issues with English as a second language, as well as the difficulties in general that college-level students have with their writing. Gibbs writes,

    “In a class with 5000 active participants (although I think we are down to closer to 4000 active participants during the second week), there is going to be a whole range of feedback, from the very zealous people who give feedback longer than the essay itself, to the grammar police (yes, they are everywhere), to the ill-informed grammar police (the single most active discussion that I have seen on the discussion board was about US v. UK spelling - the Brits were not happy about being told that they needed to learn to use a spellchecker), and on down to the “good job!” people with their two-word comments, and finally the people who commented not in English or who offered incomprehensible comments that had been translated by Google Translate (or similar), and, at the bottom of the heap, the sadistic comments (your essay is bullshit, you are a complete idiot, I cannot believe I had to read this crap, etc.). Oh, and don’t forget the vigilante accusations of plagiarism based on misinterpretation of plagiarism detection software (yes, someone was accused of plagiarizing… from their own blog).”

    The lack of feedback on feedback:

    Although giving feedback is required in the Coursera science fiction class, there is no way for the students to give feedback on that feedback. Gibbs proposes rating the feedback in turn:

    “The 3s would be for those people who are totally knocking themselves out on the feedback and doing a really super job (god love ’em)… most of the feedback responses would probably be 2s (people would have to decide for themselves how they feel about the very large group of “good job!” feedback providers)… and some of the feedback would be 1s, as a way to let people know that something went wrong.”

    This could help the course instructors identify those who are continually leaving unhelpful comments.

    (Sidenote: I see that Chuck Severance who’s currently teaching the Internet History class has removed the peer assessment component from its requirements. I guess this is one form of feedback on the feedback — a recognition by the instructor about what’s working and not working in the class.)

    The anonymity of feedback:

    No one knows who’s assessed one’s work; no one knows who they’re assessing. While ostensibly meant to protect student privacy, this raises some serious when you can’t ask for clarification, when you can’t guage your feedback based on what you know about the author and their particular strengths and wekenesses, and unfortunately when anonymity brings out Internet trollishness in some students who feel they can leave nasty comments without any repercussions.

    The lack of community:

    This is connected to the last point on anonymity. How does peer feedback work if students in the classes aren’t really peers? Sure, by a strict definition they are, I suppose as they’re all enrolled in the same class. There are opportunities for them to introduce themselves on the forums, but participation in the forums isn’t required, and many students simply don’t visit them. As such there is very little community created by the class itself — although some learners have created their own study groups and the like, both on- and offline. Can peer feedback really work in a setting where there is so little community and where this is little sense of reciprocity?

    These are still early days for this type of grading mechanism in these new types of MOOCs. But even so, there are lots of resources that Coursera could be drawing from — instructors who have experience with peer feedback and those who’ve applied peer feedback to their own online courses. As it stands, one of the most intriguing things about the Coursera platform — that it wasn’t going to rely on robo-graders — may be one of its great weaknesses.

    Photo credits: Espen Sundive

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. I always find our conversation to be one of the most thought-provoking exchanges I have all week.

    In this week's episode, we discuss ed-tech startups and the Common Core State Standards, open educational resources, mechanical MOOCs, the outsourcing of public education, the push for platforms, cheating, taxes, and more.

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    August 27, 2012

    (Bonus content: The audio from my keynote at last week's Learning 2.0 conference, a virtual event that Steve organized.)

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  • 08/27/12--22:19: Ed Startup 101, Week 1
  • It’s Day 1 of Ed Startup 101, an open online course in education entrepreneurship being offered by David Wiley, Richard Culatta, Todd Manwaring, and Aaron Miller.

    I’m pleased to see this class happen as the gulf between educators (theorists, researchers, and practitioners) and entrepreneurs (founders and developers at companies big and small) can be pretty vast. Add politicians, lobbyists, investors, parents, publishers, and students to the mix and you’ll find plenty more gulfs, along with lots of currents flowing in different directions. And unfortunately, a lot of those currents flow away from education theory, away from education history, and away from education research.

    A MOOC of the connectivist sort, Ed Startup 101 operates on a distributed model, with participants’ work remaining their own, occuring on their own blogs and syndicated via RSS onto the course website. That’s quite different than the recent spate of MOOC startups that try to contain everything — lecture videos, assignments, quizzes, and discussion forums — within a learning management system. (See what I mean about gulfs?)

    As such, the emphasis seems to be on community — the community of learners as well as the “experts” that have been gathered to facilitate the weekly conversations.

    It’s “community” too that I talk about in my “intro” video, embedded below.

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  • 08/28/12--20:59: OER Usage (A Survey)
  • Part 4 of my research into the availability and accessibility of open educational resources. (See: parts 1, 2, and 3.)

    There’s no shortage of openly-licensed educational content online. Trickier, however, is finding the right resource — whether you’re a teacher or learner. And in some way, the challenges of that search — whether real or perceived — stand in the way of more widespread adoption of OER.

    Or so I gather from conversations I have with educators and organizations.

    Below is a survey I’ve created that asks some questions in the hopes of getting to the heart of this question: why or why not do you use OER? There are other questions too, particularly geared towards finding out how OER are used and if they’re remixed (and again, why or why not).

    I’m asking these questions of teachers and learners, because I think the usage by both groups is worth tracking.

    (Incidentally, I plan to create another survey and write another blog post too about teachers and learners’ understanding of copyright and Creative Commons licensing and how they opt to license their own work — but that’s for another day.)

    None of these surveys are terribly scientific, of course; none will be terribly conclusive. I am more interested in qualitative than quantitative responses — but the more who answer the merrier. (So thanks in advance!)

    Link to survey (Please share!)

    Disclosure: This research is being sponsored by FunnyMonkey, a Drupal-based education development shop in Portland, Oregon.

    Image credits: Ivy Dawned

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    Cheap Textbooks in Stillwater

    Cross-posted at E-Literate

    With all the talk about the “unbundling” of education, it’s interesting to see several universities start to experiment with a re-bundling of sorts — that is, bundling textbook expenses along with students’ course fees and tuition, and as such requiring students purchase the course materials (often in digital format) for their classes. In doing so, the schools argue, they’re able to negotiate lower prices with publishers by promising bulk sales of textbooks and other materials.

    Indiana University was among the first to pilot this sort of program several years ago, and similar efforts are underway at other schools. According to a recent story in USA Today, this includes the University of California-Berkeley, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, University of Virginia and Cornell University.

    It’s an experiment that seems to be catching on with schools, with bookstores, and with publishers. The latter are looking to survive the shift from print to digital; the former want to help students afford the materials they need to do well in their classes.

    A recent press release by Follett, which runs about 900 campus bookstores directly and services over 1600 indie ones as well, highlighted its plans for what it describes as “the next chapter in affordability” for college textbooks: IncludED, a program that “allows schools to provide required course materials to students as part of tuition or fees, ensuring students understand the full cost of education upfront and are prepared with required course materials on day one.”

    Indeed, this does solve the “problem” of students not having the required materials on day one. About a third of students report going without purchasing the required textbooks for their classes. But to frame this in terms of a lack of student preparation only gets at part of the issue. When students talk about course materials and textbooks, that isn’t the way they tend to frame the problem. The problem for students is cost.

    The bundling of textbooks with tuition is supposed to provide students with cost savings. According to a story in The Chronicle of Higher Education this time last year, the discounts may be as much as 20% off of regular e-book prices. A caveat however: e-books haven’t proven to be any less expensive than printed copies, and because there isn’t a market for used e-books, students are always forced to buy the more expensive new versions.

    This bundling also promises students better insight into what exactly their overall costs for school will be. There's an element of convenience for students too, say proponents, as students can more easily use their financial aid at their campus bookstores to make their textbook purchases. Of course, the trade-off here is that students can’t do their own price comparisons, can’t find free and openly licensed alternatives, can't borrow or share with friends, and can’t use copies that professors often place on reserve in the library.

    In some cases, these digital copies are rentals, and the students don't get to keep the e-books after the semester ends (although students at Indiana University get to keep their digital materials for the duration they're at the school).

    Despite the promises of better licensing deals, more cost savings, more efficiency, and better student preparation during the first week of class, it's hard to see this re-bundling as good news. As students continue to respond less-than-enthusiastically to digital textbooks, they could now be required to purchase them anyway.

    Image credits: Wesley Fryer

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