Resources to help learners learn online

It is beginning to look more likely that institutions will be leaning heavily on online and blended models of course delivery this fall, meaning that not only will there be a lot of new instructors teaching online for the first time, there will also be a lot of students taking an online course for the first time as well.

Right now, there are numerous initiatives underway across many systems to help “scale up” instructional capacity, including my own organization BCcampus where we have been doing numerous webinars and drop-in office hours on the basics of online learning aimed at instructors across the BC post-sec system. But I was curious as to what is being done to support those students who will be taking their first online course.

Quite a few resources were shared with me in the Twitter chat, so many that I thought I would curate them into a single blog post. If you know of more open resources that focus on helping students learn to learn online, please feel free to and them in the comments below and I’ll add them to this list.

Posts and Articles

Open Books

  • Learning to Learn Online, Christina Page & Adam Vincent (KPU) & LibreTexts. Openly licensed (CC-BY-SA) book that includes an interesting section on SQ3R reading technique.

Handouts

Videos

Slides

Courses

  • Learning how to Learn Online, Open University. A comprehensive 6 hour open micro-course from the UK’s Open University that can be applied to both online and face to face contexts. Especially useful is a section on how to be a reflective learner.
  • Digital Literacy: succeeding in a digital world, Open University. 8 week open course also from the Open University. Not focused specifically on learning how to learn online, but full of information that  This one is also a bit more general and focuses on developing digital literacy skills in general.
  • Essential Skills for Online Learners, University of Manchester. 4 hour micro-course that focuses on three core skills: Organization, Collaboration, and Communication
  • Being an OU Student, Open University. Another micro-course (12 hours) from the OU. This one aimed at potential OU students so some is specific to the OU. But the section on How to be a Successful Student contains some more general tips, including tips from students like getting your family & friends on board.
  • Learning how to Learn, McMaster University & UC San Diego (Coursera), MOOC not focused specifically on online learning, but more general learning. This one looks like it touches a bit on learning sciences and covers topics like chunking and retrieval practice.
  • How to Learn Online, Open University (via FutureLearn), 2 week MOOC that is one of the few that looks like it covers the topic of informal learning and has students examine how they are currently using the internet for their own informal learning.

Websites

  • Adapting to COVID-19 from my colleagues at BCcampus is full of resources for both students and educators, including some resources around dealing with stress and mental health issues. Openly licensed for reuse (CC-BY)
  • Keep Learning Online from UBC. Comprehensive and openly licensed for reuse (CC-BY)
 

Flattening the online education curve

It struck me last night that what is happening at many institutions right now in response to COVID-19 is our own version of “the curve”.

You are likely well aware of the curve in COVID-19 terms. It is what we are all working on flattening with physical distancing, cancellation of mass gatherings, and moving much instruction to virtual environments.

There are many reasons why we are flattening the COVID-19 curve, but high among them is to protect our health care systems from being overwhelmed with an influx of COVID cases at all once, making it impossible to keep up and leading to their potential collapse. The idea is, if we can work on reducing this sudden influx of patients requiring urgent care in our hospitals and spread the cases out over time, it buys time for our health care systems to keep up and manage the cases.

Chart showing illustration of flattening the curve

Flattening the curve gif CC-BY-SA credits on gif. Retrieved from The Spinnoff

One of the effects of flattening the health care system curve, however, has been the sudden stress it has put on other systems, like the systems at our educational institutions that support instructors and students with online learning. Overnight there was a spike in demand at institutions for help and support to transition instruction online. In effect, measures taken to flatten the COVID curve created other curves; massive spikes in systems that were not designed to support such a massive scaling up overnight.

This spike at our educational institutions has put a great deal of pressure, stress and focus on the systems at institutions designed to support online and distance learning, and the people who are feeling this acutely right now are the people; IT staff that need to keep the systems up, instructional designers, faculty support, educational technologists, people who have experience working at the nexus of education and technology, specifically online education. These are our institutional front line workers who are struggling to cope with a spike in supporting online teaching & learning.

Hopefully a bit of immediate pressure will be let off soon as the end of the academic term is approaching for many on a traditional semester system (others in trades training or who are on a quarter system may not be in this position). This academic term was the scramble term with the closure of face-to-face classes happening right in the middle of the term. The chaos term is coming to a close.

This is not to imply that things will get easier. Indeed, a second spike is coming, albeit at a traditionally slower part of the academic year with the start of spring terms and a summer term on the way. But hopefully as the end of term arrives for many institutions, this will provide a bit of reprieve from our own front line workers, and give administrators some time to prepare for the tsunami that is likely coming our way in September as many are predicting we will continue to see some kind of physical distancing restrictions in place.

By prepare, I hope that one of the measures institutions will seriously consider is shoring up the people who support faculty and students. Increasing the people capacity in their teaching and learning centres, faculty development, instructional design, IT support areas with people who have experience in online teaching & learning and educational technology. As the initial emergency response settles over the coming weeks, now would be a good time for administrators to consider hiring reinforcements to help prevent a collapse of the people who are currently working to flatten our own curve.

 

Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

Image of 45 record of song Who's Zooming Who by Aretha Franklin

Not one of Aretha’s best, but felt appropo

I am a bit behind on all the COVID pivot stuff that has been happening in higher education as I was off on a personal leave from work. Of course, it was impossible to completely ignore, but COVID and the higher education response was more like a dim buzz in the background of my life over the past few weeks.

One thing that was hard to miss, however, was the overnight success of the synchronous video platform Zoom and how it seemed to explode into higher education consciousness. It felt like almost every conversation, every blog post, every social media post I did see included educators discovering Zoom as institution after institution announced they were moving classes online. Which seemed interesting to me that such a relatively new entrant into the educational video conferencing marketplace could rise to such a level of notoriety in such a short period of time ahead of many established incumbents in the field. It wasn’t Collaborate, BlueJeans, Big Blue Button, Adobe Connect or a host of others that captured the zeitgeist. It was Zoom that seemed to become the overnight sensation.

Yesterday as I began resuming my normal work duties, I wanted to probe this “Why Zoom” question a bit as I think there may be some lessons in here that would be useful for educational technologist around the diffusion and adoption of education technologies. To be clear, I am not so much interested in technical superiority (real or perceived) of one platform over the other, although some conversations did hint at that. My interest is more to try to understand how Zoom seemed to go viral and in a very short period of time reach almost brand ubiquity levels of usage and acceptance. So I posted on Twitter

Below is a breakdown and some analysis of responses I received.

1) Incumbency


There were a number of tweets In response similar to Trent’s. We already had a license so that is what we went with. Which makes total sense. If your institution has already made the investment, then why move to something else?

But yet, I had this sneaking suspicion that there were many instructors who were jumping onto Zoom despite their own institution having licensed other synchronous tools. Indeed, I wasn’t the only one alone in thinking this.

and

Which highlights some potential issues that educational technologists can learn from. There was some speculation in the Twitter convo that institutions simply do not do a very good job of internally promoting the tools and, just as importantly, the intended purpose of those tools. Some commented that learning technologies can get licensed by a specific department or program and never be known outside that department or program, which is likely more common in larger institutions than smaller ones. There is also the possibility that instructors have given the institutional tool a go and made a conscious effort not to use it for whatever reason, perhaps not liking the user experience.

If you feel your institution could be in any of these camps where you suddenly see a lot of your instructors using or asking about Zoom, it would likely do some good after this time of crisis blows over to spend some time digging into why that happened, and examine your own internal efforts to make it known that you offer and support tools that do what Zoom does.

2) It traverses the work/home/school/social boundaries

There were a few responses like this one from Lucas that spoke about how Zoom seems to be a tool that has a lot of verticals. By that I mean it is used by a wide variety of groups, from families to educational institutions, corporations, small and medium size businesses, non-profits – Zoom seems to have a foothold in all these areas. At the same time that higher education was moving online, so too were a lot of people starting to work at home at organizations that had never had scalable desktop virtual conferencing before. This likely created a a happy confluence that Zoom could capitalize on.

I think there is a lesson in here for education technologists on how technology diffusion happens that is similar to what many of us experienced when mobile devices first began to pop up in our institutions. The drive for mobile adoption did not come from the institutions. It came from the students, staff and faculty, and the institutions needed to react to these consumer devices suddenly showing up in our institutions. I think something similar occurred with Zoom where instructors brought it in via its use in personal contexts.

Like wine o’clock (a usage I can heartily endorse these days).

Stephanie’s tweet also highlights another reason why Zoom Zoom’d the way it did….

3) The freemium model is different

For many video conferencing applications that do offer a freemium tier, that tier is usually capped at the number of users that can use it in any given sessions. Your session can be for as long as you like, but usually only with 2-4 users. The Zoom freemium model flipped it so that you could have dozens of users in it, but were limited to 40 minute sessions. This is brilliant. It gave educators the one thing they needed above all else in a freemium session – more people.

4) Aggressive Marketing

There were a few comments that revolved around the marketing practices of Zoom and how it seems to have an aggressive online marketing campaign that is probably being influenced by data gathered from their online partners. If an educator starts Googling terms like “video learning platform” or “online video for teaching”, there is a good chance that Zoom is targeting them with online ad’s. Start seeing these ad’s online more and more and feeling the pressure of needing to find something to solve an immediate problem, then Zoom is the answer. Zoom marketing, informed by metadata gathered by someones activity on Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc has probably identified that person as an educator to Zoom and therefore someone who ad’s should be targeted to.

5) Technical advantage

There were quite a few responses that said Zoom worked, and worked well, and that has led to it becoming the go to tool. Which may be true, although I have used numerous video conferencing platforms and find not a heck of a lot of difference between the quality and utility of Zoom compared to others. They all do the same job, or at least similar enough that I don’t see a huge difference that would warrant the oversized embrace of Zoom. And, well, Zoombombing has laid bare at least one pretty major flaw.

If there is a technical superiority compared to other (what I will call legacy) tools it is likely because Zoom is fairly young and has likely benefited from that as many older apps are often hampered by the technology of the time they were born. So, if there is a technical advantage to Zoom, it is likely partially due to the fact that it is not burden by technological legacy and benefits from modern development practices and technologies.

There were a few of “it just works” kind of comments. But as Mike Caulfield notes, “it just works” has an insidious side.

Privacy

Which leads nicely into the final point. I could not in good conscious write a blog post about Zoom without talking about privacy. Follow this thread….

Ian Linkletter also spoke a bit about how he perceives the culture of Zoom, the company

Indeed, Zoom appears to be of the “move fast and break things” mindset and has some serious work to do on the privacy front. But to be honest, I can’t say with any certainty that any other platform is better or worse than Zoom in this regard, with the exception of open source systems like Big Blue Button that you can host on-prem yourself. Having complete control of the application is one of the best ways to can protect user data and ensure that it does not become marketing data. As Doc Searls notes

Zoom is in the advertising business, and in the worst end of it: the one that lives off harvested personal data. What makes this extra creepy is that Zoom is in a position to gather plenty of personal data, some of it very intimate (for example with a shrink talking to a patient) without anyone in the conversation knowing about it. (Unless, of course, they see an ad somewhere that looks like it was informed by a private conversation on Zoom.)

We are living through a truly unprecedented event. So unprecedented that our provincial government has temporarily relaxed privacy laws (PDF) in our province to give higher education institutions (and others) more flexibility to meet the needs of their students, staff and faculty. However, let’s make sure that the technologies we use right now to bridge us to better days don’t simply become the default tools out of convenience or inertia.

Thanks all for contributing to the convo on Twitter. Twitter has felt a lot like the old days of Twitter these past few weeks, and I am seeing a lot of great sharing, support and conversations. It feels like the best of what Twitter and a PLN is.

If you have made it this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Zoom. Feel free to drop a comment.

* although I don’t think what is happening right now can be or should be considered online learning or distance education, or any other established term used to describe learning that is not done face to face. This is emergency teaching and learning in a time of unprecedented crisis. We are in a period of reactive teaching and learning, which is the opposite of online learning. Online learning is planned, deliberate and thoughtful in the sense that online courses often take months or even years to develop, not days or weeks. So, let’s not call what is happening right now online learning. Nor should we be rushing to do anything silly like use this as the time or circumstance to evaluate the effectiveness of online or distance learning. Because what is happening now is not online or distance learning.

 

Pressbooks cloning now with added H5P goodness

Steel Wagstaff at Pressbooks has been talking to me for the past few months of a relatively new feature of Pressbooks where, when you clone a Pressbooks book it will now bring over all the H5P activities within that book.

While this feature has been available for Pressbooks network users, for us at BCcampus where we host our own instances of Pressbooks that is a bit behind the update schedule for Pressbooks network clients, we have had to wait for the feature as we worked our way through updating our Pressbooks network. Thanks to the work of the BCcampus Dev/ops team and Josie Gray, the update to our networks happened a few weeks ago and I was able to finally test out the H5P cloning feature on our instance.

Caveat: if you are self-hosting your own Pressbooks network, you need to have the H5P plugin installed and both the H5P plugin and Pressbooks plugin need to be up-to-date. At the time I write this that means H5P WordPress plugin ver 1.15.0 and PB version 5.13.0, although, as you will see below, during my testing I uncovered a bug in the H5P WordPress plugin that is scheduled to be fixed in the next release.

I tested the cloning feature using this great Body Physics textbook from Open Oregon that I knew had a lot of H5P interactions in it. Cloning the book is not that difficult (Pressbooks has a good step by step guide) and, with the exception of the issue below, worked quite well.

The cloning process itself does take some time, about 10 minutes to complete for this particular book. For testing I am focusing specifically on how the H5P content came over (as opposed to the PB content) and, for the most part, the cloning routine did a very good job of copying all the H5P content included in the book.  When I went into the H5P Content section, I see all the H5P interactions there indicating that everything came over in the clone.

Screenshot of H5P Content area in Pressbooks showing all cloned H5P activities

If I check out the H5P interactions in the book, I can see that the H5P interactions kept their original context within the book. That is, they appear in the same place in the cloned PB book as the original source book. Additionally, when I looked at the embed url for each H5P content type in the cloned book, I see that the H5P content now lives within my book separate from the cloned book. It has not simply been embedded in my book from the source book. A full copy has been created within my book so that I can modify and customize without affecting the upstream version. Screenshot of H5P element showing the URL of where the H5P element is located, confirming that the H5P element has fully copied over.In the future, it might be useful to see the copy as a fork of the original with links back to the original version somehow instead of a separate and discrete copy of the element. But that would require a lot of future development work. Put that on the wishlist for the future (and, imo, low priority as I think that, while forking is an elegant way to be able to trace derivatives to/from, it would be something that very few users would ever actually use. I’d like to be proven wrong with that assumption someday, but right now I don’t think there is the level of engagement with revising OER’s that warrant the development effort).

However, all is not perfect. I notice that the author attribution in the copied H5P elements is incorrect. I am listed as the author of all of them.

Screenshot show me attributed as author of all H5P interactions

One of the features I love about H5P is that you can add CC licenses to each individual H5P element, which makes the rules around sharing and attributing content much easier and, imo, is one of the big reasons why I think H5P is an OER platform as there has been care and consideration on the part of the H5P developers to add this as default functionality in H5P. But it is problematic if all the H5P content imported loses attribution information, and falsely attributes all the imported content to the person doing the importing.

At first I thought that it might be that the attributions were not set correctly in the source material, and, sure enough when I went back to the original book I did not see any visible license information where I would expect to see it.

Screenshot of H5P element showing missing license informtionSo maybe there is no actual attribution information included with the original content and that is why the author info in the copy reverted to me, the default author of the book?

I tested with another book with the same result – I was credited as the author with all the imported H5P elements. I contacted Steel at Pressbooks to double check that this was unexpected behaviour and we did a quick test together, creating a new book with a new H5P element with proper attribution and imported that into a new Pressbooks book. Again, the H5P element was attributed to the person importing the book and not the original author.

Steel confirmed that this was unusual behaviour and created an issue in the PB GitHub repo reporting the issue. After some BA work on the Pressbooks side it was discovered that the issue was upstream in the H5P WordPress plugin. A report was filed there and the developers of the H5P WordPress plugin have developed a fix that will be released in the next release of the plugin. So, with luck, this cloning attribution issue should be fixed soon.

Other than that issue, however, the cloning routine itself is very slick and sets the foundations to make the reuse and adaptation of H5P content in Pressbooks much easier.

 

When your project goes to the dogs

After something like 15 years of connecting both virtually and face-to-face, I am very happy to finally be working with Alan Levine (@cogdog) on a project. I needed some technical help installing and configuring three open source math based homework systems that are being evaluated as part of the BCcampus Open Homework System project. Even though these are not WordPress projects, I know there is more to the dog than WordPress, and approached him to see if he would be able to help out with the project. And I am very glad that he said yes as he has brought exactly what I needed to make this part of the project go smoothly.

His first order of business was to configure some web space for the project. Now, I would have expected that he would have sent an email with three IP url’s pointing to different installs (something like 192.168.2.1:8080 or some other user unfriendly url that we often have to work with when working with sandbox servers). Instead, Alan set up a one page landing page and worked with our internal network tech to configure subdomains for each of the installations so that the faculty testers would have some sane links to follow while they were testing the three systems.

Screenshot of the this is not a test test site for the BCcampus open homework systems

Not only does this provide a fine landing place for testers to have everything in one neat and tidy package, but Alan has gone one step further to turn this landing page into a project status page so that, at a quick glance, everyone involved with the project can see the status of the technical work he is doing in a very open and transparent way.

Screenshot showing example of project status

He has also set up a way for testers to report issues back to him for follow up using a simple Google Form. Anyone who has an issue during the testing period can fill the form out and send him a screenshot of the problem, collecting all the technical issues for each platform in a handy single spreadsheet that will be invaluable at the end when we are evaluating the testing results.

Along the way, you see little glimpses of the human touch that marks it as an Alan project. Like the disclaimer he included at the bottom of the landing page with an animated homage to Mission Impossible.

Screenshot of Mission Impossible self-destructing tape from 60's TV showI really appreciate little touches like this that add a bit of levity and fun to a project.

I also appreciate that Alan has not hesitated to jump in and make contact with the developers of the three applications we are testing. So far he has discovered at least 2 minor issues in the code for one of the applications and has been working with the developers to fix the code. That is value added. Regardless of whether or not we decided to use this particular piece of software, Alan has made the project better by uncovering these errors and working with the developers to fix them.

Working in open source has it’s own challenges. One of them being that you need to add value to the community to have a voice in the community. Build some goodwill with the development community and establish a relationship. This kind of direct communication with the developers to help them improve their code goes a long way in establishing the foundation for long term relationships which puts you in good stead with the community, and Alan does it very well.

I am really happy this project has gone to this particular dog.