How prepared are learners for elearning?

distance educationWhat makes a learner ready to study online? How do they know? How do they find out?

In an attempt to address the issue of the higher student attrition (drop-out) rates in distance education (DE) and elearning than in face-to-face classes, it’s becoming more common for educational organisations to try to “filter out” learners who are unlikely to succeed on their courses and programmes. In other words, to assess learners’ preparedness for DE and elearning.

I think one of the biggest issues with self-assessment of readiness to study online is that learners often don’t know what the questions and ratings scales they’re presented with on questionnaires and application forms mean. Additionally, according to the Dunning-Kruger effect (Kruger & Dunning, 1999), learners with lower knowledge, skills, abilities, and experience tend to rate themselves proportionately higher than more experienced and proficient ones. In other words, the less they know, the less they know what they don’t know and the poorer they are at judging their own proficiency. In more exaggerated cases, we may actually be turning away more suitable learners and accepting less prepared ones.

In my attempt to address this issue, here are some qualitative questions that I feel are more likely to elicit responses that reflect a learner’s knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs), as well as their experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and values, that are relevant to distance education (DE) and elearning and to identify areas of strength and weakness rather than simple binary “yes or no”, or ratings scale responses. In other words, to encourage learners to describe their preparedness and have the interviewer decide how they compare to the minimum necessary KSAs defined in our learning organisation’s policies. It would also be possible to provide learners, whose KSAs may currently be insufficient or borderline, with personalised plans of action that they can use as a guide to “bring themselves up to speed” for successful DE and elearning.

Technical IT and Practical Requirements

What levels of technical and IT KSAs, practical facilities, and experience, beliefs, and attitudes, which are necessary for successful participation in DE and elearning, does the learner have?

  • Why does the learner want to take this course or programme? Is it for personal enrichment, professional advancement, retooling, retraining, or changing careers?
  • How many hours per week is the learner willing to commit to studies? How will the learner manage their time to prioritise and dedicate themselves to uninterrupted periods of study without distractions from colleagues, family members, friends, and/or associates?
  • What tools, services, and technology does the learner have sufficient access to to support their learning, e.g. sufficiently powerful and useful computer, webcam & microphone, reliable high-speed internet, and appropriate software necessary to read digital files and formats?
  • How technology literate is the learner? How proficient and experienced is the learner with communication tools such as email, discussion forums, chat, and video web conferencing? What online websites, discussion groups, etc. has the learner participated in? What can they tell you about their experiences?
  • What support structures does the learner have at home or in the workplace? How understanding and supportive are their colleagues, family members, friends, and/or associates?
  • What are the learners previous experiences of education and learning at school, college, university, and/or the workplace?
  • Has the learner taken distance learning courses in the past? If so, what were the learner’s experiences?
  • What beliefs, attitudes, and values does the learner express that are necessary and compatible to participate in their proposed programme of study? How much direction and support will they need? How well developed are their metacognitive/self-directed learning skills?

Although more time consuming and labour intensive to conduct and administer, I think these more descriptive, open ended questions should be more helpful in allowing organisations to assess learners’ preparedness for participating in DE and learning courses and programmes effectively. Also, they can be adapted and made more specific so that they more accurately reflect the requirements of specific courses and programmes.

Reference

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–1134. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121 Retrieved from: http://psych.colorado.edu/~vanboven/teaching/p7536_heurbias/p7536_readings/kruger_dunning.pdf

ZPD among learners

A limitation of direct instruction and what we can do about it

ZPD among learnersTeachers in professional development sessions, discussion forums, and informal conversations often recognise that there are issues affecting their learners’ attention and learning, despite their best efforts to design and plan clear, concise, interesting, engaging, purposeful, and meaningful lessons. I’ve frequently heard teachers, novice and experienced alike, searching for ways to make their classes more engaging and for more of their learners to make sense of more of the concepts presented to them at a time. Personally, I think that most teachers are very good at directing, instructing, describing, demonstrating, and explaining, and they’re often skilled, likeable, and entertaining presenters. I don’t think that teachers’ presenting abilities are the problem… …let me explain why.

Variations in learners’ Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Among any cohort of learners, even when they’re grouped according to their prior knowledge and abilities, there’ll be what Daniel Willingham terms variation in preparation (Willingham, 2009), i.e. that some learners know and can do more than their peers on particular tasks and problems. This is particularly clear in subjects such as Mathematics where concepts (facts and procedures) are logically extended from others; understanding calculus requires understanding trigonometry, which requires understanding geometry, which requires understanding algebra, which requires understanding arithmetic.

For example, when a learner has understood and proceduralised the concepts in arithmetic (i.e. acquired a working knowledge of arithmetic), then she is ready to learn algebra but she hasn’t yet proceduralised the concepts in algebra which is necessary to make sense of geometry. What’s more, she will require some kind of instruction and/or guidance in order to make sense of algebra, what it is, and how it works. Trying to learn geometry at this point would be beyond her abilities and knowledge and more than likely result in her being confused, frustrated, and eventually disengaging from the learning activities. Thus we have Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) model for any given concept (fact or procedure). In this case, she can already do arithmetic independently, can do algebra with guidance, but cannot do geometry, even if guided:

Zone of Proximal Development

Fig. 1 Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

However, it’s more complicated than that. The learner also has to have a sufficient grasp of the language and linguistic reasoning concepts that we use to reason our way through and make sense of mathematical concepts and ideas. Children can only manage the complex, logical reasoning required for areas of mathematics when they’ve acquired the linguistic skills to manage and direct their thinking in this way. In this respect, language is the tool that we use to think with. New Dorp high school, New York, apparently demonstrated this  when they raised their learners’ previously poor performance on math and science tests by emphasising developing their linguistic skills in math and  science classes², the researchers cited learners’ linguistic development as a strong contributor to their improvements in academic performance. (A well known aspect of task and test preparation is to draw attention to the “wording” of questions, tasks, explanations, and descriptions). Therefore, to tackle a maths problem, learners not only need prerequisite math skills and knowledge, they also need sufficient literacy skills and knowledge.

The traditional teacher-led classroom

ZDP among learners and their variations in preparation for a particular concept

Fig. 2 A traditional present-practice-produce classroom dynamic and their variations in preparation for a particular concept

In the traditional teacher-led classroom, the teacher directs, instructs, describes, demonstrates, and explains concepts to a cohort of learners. Those directions, instructions, descriptions, demonstrations, and explanations that the teacher presents to the learners are the raw materials that they have to work with in order to build their understanding of concepts (facts and procedures). For any concept that’s presented, there’ll be an inevitable variation in learner preparedness from learner to learner:

  • Some learners will already understand the concept and be able to complete any tasks and solve any problems that they may be assigned; for them, the class is, at best, further practice and consolidation but more than likely unproductive time.
  • Other learners may not be prepared to make sense of the concepts being presented; for them, the class is confusing, frustrating, and not engaging.
  • For those that are left, often a minority, find that the presented concept is within their Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD), and the class is a valuable, rewarding, and productive learning experience.
ZDP among learners

Fig. 3 The same cohort of learners may have different variations in preparation between different concepts

Given another concept in the same class, the variations in learner preparation may shift in unpredictable ways. A learner that was previously in their ZPD can find themselves suddenly confused and frustrated. Taking our math examples, they may understand the prerequisite math concepts but not have the linguistic skills to tackle the next one being presented, or vice versa. Clearly, the teacher-led approach only usually serves a minority of the learners in a class at any given time; it’s an inefficient, hit-and-miss way of helping learners to understand and make sense of concepts that tends to result in boredom, confusion, frustration, and deficits in attention in most classes.

Clearly, preparing one lesson to present, in a one-to-many fashion, to a whole cohort of learners which are at different levels of preparedness for any given concept, will inevitably give many, if not most, learners an unrewarding learning experience at one time or another. That the teacher is teaching a concept, and I’ll assume that the teacher is doing it well, doesn’t necessarily mean that her learners are learning it, and it’s not necessarily because of any failure on the teacher’s or learners’ part.

So why do most learners stick with their courses and programmes if they aren’t learning much? Possible reasons why learners tend to persevere in traditional, teacher-led classes, despite the boredom, confusion, and frustration that they may feel, are:

  • low expectations – A lifetime of teacher-led present-practise-produce classes doesn’t inform learners that there are other approaches, methods, and strategies that are more effective and appropriate for many learning objectives so they believe, “This is how learning should be.”;
  • extrinsic motivators – Rewards and punishments or sticks and carrots;
  • delayed gratification and self-regulation – They need to pass this test or complete this course for one reason or another;
  • and/or social reward – They like their teacher and/or their classmates and enjoy spending time with them.

In any of these cases, the main motivators to come to class and participate may or may not include learning in and of itself. It can be stressful, time consuming and is frequently cited as a major contributor to teacher “burnout.”

What can we do about it?

A one-to-many, expository approach is just one way to teach. It places the teacher not only in the role of “class leader” but also in the role of supervisor. Not only must she lead her learners and inspire them to learn, she must also direct their learning activities, step by step according to her lesson plan. At each step of the way, learners are dependent on their teacher’s direction and instruction of what to do next. There is little or no time for her to attend to the individual needs of learners and they have to either follow the lesson plan or get left behind and perhaps try to catch up later. They don’t even need to know why they’re doing it or what it means, as long as they follow the instructions correctly. Unfortunately, facts and procedures can be memorised by learners and repeated in tests without ever bringing them to life, giving them meaning, and really understanding them — Our minds have great difficulty in remembering facts and procedures that we haven’t understood.

What if we delegate the role and responsibility of supervisor, or as much of it as possible, to learners? Once they know what they have to learn, are they not capable of organising themselves and deciding how they’re going to learn it? In Project Zero, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, researchers are investigating this:

“One British study found that the primary forms of talk in elementary schools around the world are rote, recitation, instruction, and exposition. Academically productive talk (or “Accountable Talk” — a term first coined by cognitive scientist Lauren Resnick) is more likely to be grounded in discussion and dialogue rather than instructional or expository talk. Resnick argues that accountable talk supports student learning across economic, social, and linguistic backgrounds. Developing a vocabulary of collaboration; using tools such as protocols, thinking routines, rubrics, and norms; and focusing on building collective as well as individual knowledge are all ways to foster such learning conversations.” ³

The what and how of learning

ZPD among learners

Learner-led groups can address concepts in their own terms and help each other to meet their learning needs

A learner-led classroom cultivates a climate where learners can take responsibility for their own learning. The teacher’s role as leader is to provide the stimulus, what the learning objective is, any resources that may be useful, and allow the learners to seek the help they need and decide/discover how they can best learn it (If you’re a fan of Latin, the what is the syllabus, literally meaning “list”, and the how is the curriculum, literally meaning “the course of a race”).

A typical approach is to put learners into smaller sub-groups of no more than five and to work on tasks, problems, and projects as teams. Members of a learning team succeed together, working on their individual strengths to the benefit of the whole group. Learners can also adopt specific roles to play during a learning activity, as in the case of Reciprocal Teaching’s reading for understanding activities, which shares the cognitive load between members of a group allowing for more complex tasks, requiring greater collaboration, and promoting deeper learning. Learners who already understand a concept can help those who don’t yet, and as Dr. Matthew Lieberman has noted, learning a concept in order to teach it to a peer is a strong social and cognitive motivator⁴ (Peer teaching was very successful in the Écoles Mutuelles during the French revolution when there was a dire shortage of teachers, and popularised in the UK as the Lancasterian and Madras systems). Additionally, if one group gets stuck on a particular concept, they can ask another group for help. In this way, all learners are working together purposefully and meaningfully, always aware that they may be called upon at any time to help their peers to understand a concept. In this setting, the teacher spends less time instructing and directing learners and typically adopts multiple roles as a monitor, moderator, guide, and/or mentor with individuals, groups, or the whole class, depending on what any particular interaction or intervention she feels would be most productive and conducive to independent, self-directed learning.

What are some examples of self-directed learning?

In K-12 education, studies on Reciprocal Teaching have reported strong learning gains. Here’s a teacher oriented introduction to the method. Here’s an interesting paper, Simmons, A. M., & Page, M., Motivating Students through Power and Choice, that examines self-directed learning.

Part of the reason some “flipped classrooms” have reported success is that they provide classes with time and space to work together in small groups on tasks, problems, and projects informed by the presentations, readings, research, etc. that they do in preparation outside class.

In university settings, Peer-Instruction has been returning consistently higher learning gains and learner satisfaction in physics and math undergraduate courses. Here’s a paper by Eric Mazur, credited with introducing this method to higher education: Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results, and here’s an application of it in the humanities: Using Peer Instruction to teach Philosophy, Logic and Critical Thinking

Please note: These are just a small sample from a long and growing list of courses and programmes with strong orientations towards collaborative, self-directed learning and teaching practices in classrooms around the world.

How does this relate to online learning?

Many of the stock tools of modern online and distance learning and learning management systems are designed to facilitate collaborative participation and group work among learners; discussion forums, chat, wikis, databases, concept mapping, Etherpad (similar to Google Docs where learners can see each other edit pages in real time), etc.. The tools are available to teachers, faculty, resource developers, and curriculum developers but, with the notable exception of discussion forums, I’ve been surprised at how infrequently they’re used to this end. As with face-to-face learning and teaching practice, online learning and teaching practice tends to engage with only a small sub-set of traditional, orthodox learning and teaching theory.

For those teachers, faculty, curriculum developers, and academic management that are interested in exploring and developing learner-centred, collaborative courses and programmes, one of the most influential and frequently cited evidence-based models is the Community of Inquiry framework, which places a strong emphasis on social connection and collaboration between learners.

Here’s a first person account of a university faculty teacher who has successfully transitioned to online learning and teaching practice and how it has influenced her classroom practice: How Teaching Online Made Me a Better Face-to-Face Instructor

Does this mean we should never use direct instruction?

Certainly not. I prefer to think of direct instruction as just one of many tools available to teachers, and all tools have their appropriate uses and limitations. There are times when teacher-led, direct instruction to a cohort of learners is an appropriate choice and some amount of direct instruction can improve group cohesion, and be motivating and even inspiring to learners. However, I think problems arise when it’s the dominant or only method that teachers and faculty use and it’s the combined responsibility of teachers, faculty, curriculum developers, and academic management to work together to ensure that courses and programmes are using the most appropriate methods and approaches to meet learners’ needs in achieving their learning objectives. Although the proportion can vary from discipline to discipline and subject to subject, if you’re spending more than 20% of classroom time on direct instruction, I recommend reviewing what other methods could be more appropriate for your courses’ and/or programmes’ learning objectives.

References

¹ Willingham, D. T. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School?, A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, pp. 21 – 22. Jossey-Bass.

² Tyre, P. (2012) The Writing Revolution, TheAtlantic.com. However, it’s not entirely due to the writing programme and a more complex picture unfolds in this response: Fredricksen, J. (2012) Are We Learning the Right Lessons From New Dorp High School? TheAtlantic.com. Here’s an article that outlines the principles behind developing literacy skills for learning: Task, Text, and Talk: Literacy for All Subjects (2006) ASCD.org

³ Quoted from Krechevsky, M., Mardell, B., Riverd, M, & Wilson, D. (2013) Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Schools. Jossey-Bass, citing Michaels, S., O’Connor, M. C., Hall, M. W., & Resnick, L. (2010) Accountable Talk sourcebook: For classroom conversation that works (PDF download). Pittsburgh: Institute for Learning.

⁴ Lieberman, M. D. (2013) Educating the Social Brain, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, 1:12. Crown Publishing. Lieberman found that a learner who studies a concept with the intention of teaching it to a peer, even if she doesn’t teach her peer, learns it better and performs substantially better on tests that a learner who studies for a test.

Enabling web conferencing in Ubuntu Linux

Ubuntu logoUbuntu Linux and other distributions like Edubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, and Xubuntu have come in leaps and bounds in recent years and are becoming more fully featured and easier to use. I think they are now getting to the stage where they are potential replacements for Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s OS X for elearning. Well, almost…

Web conferencing usually requires Flash

Elearning increasingly includes live multi-way video web conferencing, which on Ubuntu Linux can be problematic. Most web conferencing platforms and systems require either Adobe Flash Player or Java Runtime Environment (JRE) to be installed. If you use the standard Firefox web browser, you need to install Flash Player as an extra, since it isn’t free and open source software (FOSS) and cannot be included in FOSS distributions. Luckily, it’s easy enough to do via Ubuntu’s software centre. It’s a similar process to installing apps on a smartphone or tablet but faster and easier.

More uses of Flash in Ubuntu Linux

There are other areas where Flash Player can be useful. For example, Ubuntu Linux doesn’t have support for the H.264 video CODEC. H.264 is used all over the web, including Youtube*, Vimeo, and Google Hangouts. Adobe Flash Player is an easy workaround to allow you to access and view those services. Also, the SWF Activity Module, Online Audio Recording, Soundcloud, WizIQ, LiveStreaming, and many more plugins for Moodle, as well as Moodle’s default media player, all use Flash.

* Youtube will play video without Flash or H.264 as HTML5 but only low-resolution versions intended for some mobile phones and not all videos are available in this format.

How to install Flash Player in Chrome, Chromium, and Opera

However, installing Adobe Flash Player doesn’t make it available to all web browsers on your operating system (Even on Windows, you need to install one Flash player for Internet Explorer and then one for other browsers). If you want to install Flash Player for other web browsers in Ubuntu, e.g. Google Chrome, Google Chromium (the FOSS version of Google Chrome) or in Opera, it’s a bit more complicated. This means using the Terminal (Ubuntu’s command line; press “Ctrl + Alt + t” to open it) and carefully typing in the following commands. After the first command, Ubuntu will prompt you for your admin password, which is usually the same password you use to log in with (if you’re the computer owner):

sudo apt-get install pepperflashplugin-nonfree
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get autoremove

How to install Java Runtime Environment

Some video web conferencing services and systems require Java Runtime Environment (JRE) to run on your computer. Most notably, Blackboard Collaborate, formerly known as Elluminate Live, requires JRE but even with it and the Iced-Tea browser plugin installed, it can have issues with connecting the audio. This is a frustrating issue that I haven’t found a workaround for yet. Please let me know if you know of one!

You can install JRE and the browser plugin from the Ubuntu Software centre. Look for the OpenJDK Java 7 Runtime and the Icedtea Java Browser plugin and install them both. If you’re feeling more confident with using the Ubuntu Terminal (Ctrl + Alt + t), it’s quicker and easier to install them like this and it will make sure that your computer uses the latest installed version of JRE by default:

sudo apt-get install openjdk-7-jre
sudo apt-get install icedtea-plugin
sudo update-alternatives --config java
sudo apt-get update

More uses of Java Runtime Environment

There are a number of web resources and projects for elearning that require JRE. These include Tufts University’s Virtual Understanding Environment (VUE), a feature rich concept mapping tool, as well as the NanoGong audio recording, Scratch learning games, Java Molecular Editor, Easy Java Simulations (and Open Source Physics), Jmol 3D molecular chemical structure, GroupDocs Viewer plugins for Moodle all require JRE.

Finally

So it looks like Ubuntu Linux is almost there… but not quite yet. Support for multi-way video web conferencing is there and is possible but not complete, especially in the case of Blackboard Collaborate. It’s also sometimes necessary to install additional software in ways that most “normal” users may find confusing and/or discouraging to do themselves on their own computers. Additionally, many learners and teachers may not know why their web conferencing platform doesn’t work or know that it can be fixed by installing the correct software. Let’s hope things improve further in the coming months or years.

Instant, simple video conferencing for free

appear.inThe following is a quick, simple “How to… ” guide for setting up instant, free, “no frills”, easy to use, multi-way video conferencing and chat in Moodle for up to 8 people at a time. It also works on any web page as you see in the embedded room at the bottom of this article.

How to embed appear.in in Moodle

  1. Go to https://appear.in/,
  2. create a video/chat room,
  3. copy the URL link,
  4. in Moodle, create a page (Page resource module),
  5. in the Moodle HTML editor, click on the show source code button <>,
  6. copy (Ctrl + c) and paste (Ctrl + v) the following code: <iframe width=”100%” height=”700″ src=”https://appear.in/[room]” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen> Your browser does not support iframes </iframe>
  7. replace [room] with the name of the room you created in step 2,
  8. and save the Moodle page.

There are also options to claim a room as your own and lock it so that only users with the correct password can access it. If you lock a room with password protection, you can simply put the password at the top of the Moodle page where you’ve embedded the appear.in room.

If you want to record conferencing sessions, you can use one of the many screen recording applications that are available. A good free and open source one for Linux systems is Record My Desktop. Here’s a list of screen recording software for other operating systems.

What is appear.in?

According to their terms of service:

“Appear.in is a web based video conversation service that allows you to have video conversations with others in the browser simply by having individual participants typing in the same URL in the browser window. Typing in the same URL will make the participants appear in the same room where you can talk to each other with voice and text chat and see each other with transmitted video. You do not have to install any software or plugins to use appear.in. You also do not have to register or log in to use the service.

Video and sound communicated in appear.in, is only seen by the people who are present in a room at the time the content is communicated. It is not disclosed to anyone who are not present in a room. You should be aware that by default a room is open, so anyone who knows the url can enter the room simply by typing the URL in the browser. If anyone enters a room you are present in, you can see them in the room. You can prevent others from entering a room by locking the room. When a room is locked, only room owners can enter a room.

Chat messages communicated in a room can be seen by people who are present in the room when the message is sent and by people who enter the room during the same chat session. A session ends when there are no people in a room any more. At this time, all messages sent in the chat session will be deleted and can no longer be viewed by anyone.

You can claim a room as your own room. This will give you control over the room, and give you the ability to customize it for your own communication needs. When you claim a room, you enter your email address. You will then get an email containing a link that provides access to the owner privileges for the room. Room owners can customize a room e.g. by setting the background image in the room and by using other customisation options that is or may be provided in the service in the future. Only room owners can set the lock for rooms that have been claimed and the lock will be retained when everyone has left the room so you need the room code to enter back into the room. A crown symbol will be shown on the video feed of a room owner to make it apparent who is the owner.

You can follow a room by clicking the “follow” symbol. Following a room implies that you will be notified whenever someone enters a room you are following, even though you are not currently in the room yourself. You can click the notification to enter the room and have a conversation with those that entered the room.

We retain the right to create limits on use and storage at our sole discretion at any time without prior notice to you.”

Source: appear.in – Terms of Service

Example video conferencing room @ appear.in/matbury.com

Disclaimer

I have no affiliation with appear.in or anyone associated with them. I have written this article based on my own use of the service with learners and it should not be considered as an endorsement. I am not responsible for anyone under any circumstances who decides to use the appear.in service.

Free and low-cost Moodle hosting options

MoodleEvery year, web hosting and installing web apps becomes less technically demanding, quicker, and simpler and it’s getting to the point nowadays where it’s a consumer level endeavour. Here’s a few of the easiest low-cost options for hosting Moodle that I’ve seen so far.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of the hosting providers mentioned in this article, neither am I endorsing any of their services. I’m citing them, without prejudice, as examples of types of Moodle hosting and they are by no means the best or only options that are available.

Why not use a regular web hosting service?

By “regular” I mean website hosting providers like GoDaddy, BlueHost, HostGator, etc. that are aimed at individuals and small businesses who only want to set up and blog or website to offer information, contact details, product and service catalogues, shopping carts, news, small downloads, etc.

Moodle 2.x is a large, powerful, and resource hungry piece of software. It’s a content management system, contacts and messaging management system, course management system, and can deploy multiple instances of discussion forums, wikis, blogs, presentations, documentation, multimedia resources, etc.. In other words, it requires a web hosting service that is more powerful than what most websites do. Using a regular web hosting service for Moodle is like using a car when you need a truck. The price gap between a website that runs WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal (a shared hosting service from about $5 per month) to a website that can handle Moodle (dedicated servers from about $80 per month) is a large jump and prohibitive to people who just want to try it out or run small, experimental, and/or exploratory projects (e.g. for research).

Are there cheaper ways to host or use Moodle?

Yes, there are. Here’s a few examples:

FreeMoodle.org FreeMoodle.org

If you’re a complete beginner and just want to try out Moodle as a teacher and course content developer, and/or curriculum developer, you can get started for free with FreeMoodle.org. This service has been running consistently and, as far as I know, under the same terms of service for as long as I’ve been using Moodle (Since 2006).

Pricing: Free for your own course(s) but very limited admin controls or privileges and on your courses only.

Link: http://www.freemoodle.org/

If you don’t need an online Moodle and only want it for personal use, you can install it on your personal computer, on Windows, OS X, or Linux. Please see this article: Update: Do you want to get started with Moodle?

In the past few months, I’ve come across a couple of new Moodle hosting service providers that I think offer good value for money. They are:

MDLSpot.com

This is a shared hosting service which runs one installation of the Moodle software but creates multiple instances of Moodle so that everyone can set up their very own Moodle and have admin access and control over the entire instance (WordPress.com operates in a similar way). AFAIK, you can’t install any 3rd party plugins or extensions yourself, so you’re limited to what standard Moodle can do “out of the box” plus a few “pre-approved” plugins and extensions.

Pricing: They don’t publish their pricing but they informed me that they charge something similar to Amazon Web Services usage rates (you pay per hour for what resources you use) which starts at around $200 USD per year. I suggest contacting them to confirm exactly how much your Moodle hosting would cost and what plugins and extensions they make available.

Link: http://www.mdlspot.com/

MDL2.comMDL2.com

This is an advertising supported service, i.e. free if you allow advertising in your courses (which may or may not be appropriate). Again, you get your own “out of the box” Moodle and have admin access to it.

Pricing: Advertising supported

Link: http://www.mdl2.com/

Here’s a list of free and ad supported Moodle hosting services.

Bitnami.comBitnami.com

Bitnami.com are more than just a Moodle hosting service. They’re a full cloud hosting service provider, mostly aimed at web developers, that have also developed a number of consumer level, user friendly website installation systems and services. If you create a Moodle instance with them, you get a virtual private server (VPS) which allows you sysadmin level access. This gives you almost complete freedom to install and add whatever features to Moodle and also install other software alongside it, meaning you can do some very advanced things with Bitnami that most low-cost web hosting services don’t allow.

BTW, Moodle is designed to be run on a “LAMP stack” (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) so Windows hosting options are not advisable.

Pricing: https://bitnami.com/cloud/pricing (See the FAQs at the bottom of the page; They offer very favourable terms and conditions). A “micro instance” with Moodle installed starts at around $200 USD per year.

AWS pricing: http://aws.amazon.com/pricing/ If you’ve ever bought anything from Amazon, e.g. books, movies, electronics, or whatever, you already have an Amazon account. All you have to do is activate an Amazon Web Services account.

Link: https://bitnami.com/stack/moodle

Finally

These are just a few examples of the options available and there are many more. If you know of any others or are a service provider that offers low-cost hosting services capable of supporting Moodle (2.5 and later), please let me know.

Discussion

You can follow and participate in the Moodle.org community’s response to this article here.

Ratings systems on social platforms can have unexpected effects

Plane in downward spiralThis is a quick post to share a recently published paper, How Community Feedback Shapes User Behavior, that examines the effects of ratings systems and up/down voting on social networking platforms and services. I go on to discuss some questions it raises for online social learning.

Abstract

Here’s the abstract to How Community Feedback Shapes User Behavior:

“Social media systems rely on user feedback and rating mechanisms for personalization, ranking, and content filtering. However, when users evaluate content contributed by fellow users (e.g., by liking a post or voting on a comment), these evaluations create complex social feedback effects. This paper investigates how ratings on a piece of content affect its author’s future behavior. By studying four large comment-based news communities, we find that negative feedback leads to significant behavioral changes that are detrimental to the community. Not only do authors of negatively-evaluated content contribute more, but also their future posts are of lower quality, and are perceived by the community as such. Moreover, these authors are more likely to subsequently evaluate their fellow users negatively, percolating these effects through the community. In contrast, positive feedback does not carry similar effects, and neither encourages rewarded authors to write more, nor improves the quality of their posts. Interestingly, the authors that receive no feedback are most likely to leave a community. Furthermore, a structural analysis of the voter network reveals that evaluations polarize the community the most when positive and negative votes are equally split.”

Summary of findings

  • The findings of the study appear to contradict the Skinnerian behaviourist model of operant conditioning (i.e. punishments and rewards or “sticks and carrots”).
  • Up/Down-votes and commenting provide a means for social interaction and “this can create social feedback loops that affect the behavior of the author whose content was evaluated, as well as the entire community.”
  • Authors of down-voted comments/posts tend to post more frequently and their comments/posts tend to be of lower quality.
  • Down-voted authors are also more likely to subsequently down-vote others’ comments/posts.
  • Down-voting tends to percolate throughout online communities having an overall negative effect.
  • Up-voting doesn’t appear to influence authors’ subsequent comments/posts in any significant way.
  • If comment/post authors receive no feedback, they are more likely to disengage with the community, i.e. fewer comments/posts and less up/down-voting.

The article concludes that ignoring/tolerating negative behaviour in online communities, i.e. giving no feedback whatsoever, is a more effective approach at discouraging it than addressing it directly, e.g. down-voting.

How does this relate to online social learning?

Firstly, we should be cautious about drawing any conclusions about online discussions and learning activities in online social learning. Firstly, the researchers report that, “…we have mostly ignored the content of the discussion, as well as the context in which the post appears… “, which can have significant and far reaching effects on the behaviour and interactions between participants.

Secondly, the social dynamics of social constructivist oriented online courses can be very different: The study focused on massive groups of self-selected users participating in communities based around popular media and entertainment websites, whereas in elearning, we’re typically dealing with smaller cohorts of learners who, at least in an ideal world, establish an atmosphere of mutual support, shared responsibility, and explicitly shared common purpose that is effectively moderated by skilled, experienced mediators/facilitators, e.g. teachers, teaching assistants, and/or moderators.

Rethinking the design of ratings systems

In my opinion, this paper raises more questions for elearning practitioners than it answers, which is a good thing:

  • How do learners use ratings systems and how does this affect their future behaviour in online learning communities? Is it significantly different to the users’ behaviour on social media sites?
  • Is it possible to design ratings/feedback systems that have more positive effects or at least avoid the potential negative effects reported in the paper?
  • How would the range of ratings options available to users affect the way they rate and comment, e.g. if you only include positive options in ratings?
  • How would providing ratings options that are more specific to the learning objectives of the particular learning activity affect the quality and quantity of comments and quantity of ratings?
  • What factors/influences affect learners’ behaviour in online learning communities more significantly with regard to ratings and comments? e.g. Does the degree of familiarity, mutual respect, and trust affect how learners respond to negative and critical ratings and comments?

Some example suggestions

In an earlier article, Implementing star-ratings in Moodle, I described how teachers and curriculum developers can create custom ratings in Moodle. As well as simple star-ratings, I listed some possible options which included Likert scales, prompts, showing interest, and expressing personal alignment, e.g. “This is(n’t) like me” statements. Most of these omit negative or neutral ratings, my reasoning being that, in order to give negative or critical feedback, learners and/or teachers have to take the time and effort to write sensitively phrased, personalised, specific, reasonable, constructive criticism, ideally with some kind of “what to do next”, so that it’s not just negative or critical but that it’s also helpful and purposeful in some way.

One strategy that springs to mind is to use ratings systems that, rather than ratings that suggest learners are being graded, i.e. “good vs. bad” comments, provide a set of prompts and/or questions and therefore are a convenient and helpful tool to encourage further participation. If learners have little experience of social learning and/or maybe need some initial support and guidance, having a convenient list of prompts/questions at hand could be helpful. For example:

Self-reliance questions

  • How do you determine this to be true?
  • Why don’t you consider a different route to the problem?
  • Why does that answer make sense to you?
  • What if I say that’s not true?

Reasoning questions

  • Why do you think this works? Does it always, why?
  • How do you think this is true?
  • Show how you might prove that.
  • Why assume this?
  • How might you argue against this?

Clarifying questions

  • Can you explain that in another way?
  • How does this relate to [discussion topic]?
  • Can you be more specific?
  • Can you give us an example?
  • Please tell us more about this.

Finally

It’s worth mentioning that a strong characteristic of these questions and prompts is that they are intended to stimulate analytical and critical thinking, which we usually expect to hear from teachers and mentors rather than from our peers. Learners don’t automatically assume that such questions and prompts are welcome or appropriate from their peers. In order for them to be positive and productive, participants should already be inducted into a familiar, trusting, mutually respectful and supportive group of peers, who all explicitly share a common purpose, i.e. learning objectives and/or “big/essential questions,” in a collaborative climate.

Discussion

I’ve started a discussion thread for this article on the Moodle.org community forums: https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=261124 Joining the Moodle community is quick, easy, and free.

Image credit Wikimedia Commons

Are teacher-led and learner-led approaches compatible?

tug of warAs learner-led/learner-centred learning and teaching oriented methods and principles gain attention and popularity, teachers, curriculum developers, and instructional designers are incorporating them into learning activities and courses. Many report mixed results and issues when they do so. The following article examines one possible contributing factor to such results and issues.

Defining terms

Firstly, I’m not arguing that teacher-led and learner-led views of learning and teaching practice are absolutes or binary states. I view them as being on the same scale from extremely prescribed and controlled by the teacher, e.g. the stereotypical Victorian school master, through to entirely self-organised, defined, controlled, and sustained learning by autonomous learners themselves, e.g. special interest groups and communities of practice, and I believe that most online curricula and learning and teaching practices are situated somewhere in between.

Teacher-led <———————————————————————–> Learner-led

Teacher vs. learner-led scale

When tensions arise

With the best of intentions and carefully and skilfully constructed learning activities, teachers, curriculum developers, and IDs can inadvertently create relational and motivational tensions between teachers and learners, and among cohorts of learners by the way they mix teacher-led and learner-led activities. Here’s a typical case scenario:

An experienced, well-informed teacher has developed an online course that is predominantly teacher-led. The course uses online presentations, readings, webinars, and forum discussions which are intensively monitored led by the teacher. The teacher conscientiously provides guidance, instructional scaffolding, and links to further resources at every turn. The teacher then decides to introduce some learner-led projects, problems, or tasks to the course (Perhaps as a way to make the course less labour intensive for the teacher?).

However, only a small minority of the learners participate as much as expected and/or required, and the majority go “off track”, waste time, and/or complain about aspects of the activity or the whole activity. The learning outcomes are mediocre at best or even poor, and it’s difficult to regain the previous “learning momentum” of the course.

Why did this happen? Is there something wrong with the activity? Is there some way to make it more productive? I suspect that in most cases, the activity is adequately designed and not the main contributor to the issue.

What contributes to these tensions?

If a course is predominantly teacher-led to start with, it creates an atmosphere and learning experiences that set up learners’ expectations that are aligned with being led and having critical learning decisions being made for them, or the feeling that any decisions they make need to be validated or approved by an authority figure; the teacher.

Additionally, some of the prerequisite conditions necessary for learner-led learning to occur, e.g. social presence and building autonomous, mutually respectful, and productive relationships between teachers and learners, and among the learners themselves, may not be in place and may have gone unnoticed since they aren’t critical to the success of teacher-led approaches. When suddenly faced with the responsibility of thinking autonomously, analytically, and critically, and having to work closely with peers, who they may or may not have got to know very well, and without the supervision, guidance, and approval of their authority figure (the teacher), the majority of learners’ expectations are not met; they feel lost, unsupported, and confused.

In my experience, the majority of learners are perfectly capable of being autonomous, thinking analytically and critically, and taking responsibility for their learning; most people do so from an early age in their public and private lives outside of education. However, because of most people’s previous experiences of education and strongly held cultural beliefs about it, we need to be explicit when asking learners to do so in situations and environments labelled “educational” and cultivate the atmosphere, and provide the environment, support, and resources that are necessary. Learners need to get to know each other and learn about what each of their peers on a course has to offer with regards to the subject matter and learning objectives. They need to build interpersonal relationships and cultivate trust so that they have the confidence to explore, experiment, and take risks and feel that they have the interest, approval, and support of their peers as well as their teacher.

In conclusion

I’m not arguing here that teacher-led and learner-led methods and activities are inherently incompatible, just that from what I’ve seen in practice in the majority of instances, both in face-to-face and online contexts, tensions and issues can and do arise when certain conditions and factors aren’t taken into consideration. When we break with educational traditions and orthodoxies, and/or atmospheres of learning that have been cultivated within organisations, we need to be explicit about what we’re doing and why, and ensure that the prerequisite conditions are in place for learner-directed learning experiences to be purposeful, successful, and productive.

What can learners and teachers do to limit corporate surveillance while working online?

Big Brother Google is watching youSince security and surveillance expert Edward Snowden blew the whistle and leaked damning NSA documents to investigative journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the implications and ramifications of the NSA’s dragnet surveillance, partly enabled by IT giants like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, have been cause for concern everywhere, and not least in elearning. As educators we bear a responsibility to our learners and other educators to protect their basic civil rights wherever and whenever we can. By being well-informed about internet surveillance and the tools and strategies available, we can offer useful, effective advice and help to reduce both the quality and quantity of personal data collected from them in the course of their online studies and work.

Why is internet surveillance an important issue?

First, here’s the scary bit. Below is an interview with a Journalist who’s looked into the business of internet surveillance:

“Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Julia Angwin joins us to discuss her new book, “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.” Currently at ProPublica and previously with the Wall Street Journal, Angwin details her complex and fraught path towards increasing her own online privacy. According to Angwin, the private data collected by East Germany’s Soviet-era Stasi secret police could pale in comparison to the information revealed today by an individual’s Facebook profile or Google search.”

So, What can learners and teachers do to limit corporate surveillance while working online?

What advice can we give and what measures can we put in place? Are they practical, understandable, and easily do-able? Here’s some practical suggestions to get the ball rolling…

Turn off local storage on Flash Player

Turn off local storage on Flash Player: Local Shared Objects (LSOs) are used extensively by surveillance organisations, including Google, because they reveal more information about users’ computers and software, making it easier to uniquely identify individuals, and LSOs aren’t deleted when you clear/purge your browsers’ cache, i.e. they’re more persistent. The benefits of allowing LSOs is minor and easy to live without.

Install a cookie manager

Along with your IP address and HTTP headers, cookies are the primary means of identifying and tracking individuals. There are several cookie manager extensions/plugins available for browsers that manage cookies for you. Those that you want to keep, e.g. for sites that you want to remain logged into, you can white-list them, everything else gets deleted when you navigate away from the site. My favourite is Self-destructing cookies for Firefox.

Block JavaScript from surveillance sites

This one’s a bit more problematic and can “break” page displays on some sites. If at all practical and workable, JavaScript blocking prevents some very detailed surveillance from taking place. From my experience with using free and open source web analytics software, I’ve witnessed how rich and detailed the collected data can be. There are two main approaches; white-lists and black-lists. A white-list is a list of approved sites to allow JavaScript from, a black-list is a list of sites to block JavaScript from. Both require someone to maintain the lists and block or allow new sites as they come up: many sites nowadays use CDNs and/or 3rd party libraries for JavaScript libraries and blocking them can make many sites unusable. In short, you have to maintain a list of legitimate JavaScript CDNs and 3rd party libraries as well as for the individual sites. I use a white-list plugin for Firefox called NoScript.

The added benefit of JavaScript blocking with white-lists, is that they also prevent the vast majority of web malware attacks. JavaScript has consistently been identified as the primary technology used in malware attacks by all the major anti-virus firms.

Use privacy protecting search engines

Rather than use Google, Yahoo!, or Bing as your search provider, why not use one of the more ethical and privacy protecting services? They don’t store your search history or your IP address and as an added advantage, they don’t filter their search results according to a personal search history profile thereby preventing the “filter bubble” phenomenon which can hide useful, relevant results from users.

Automatically generate random tracking noise

The browser plugin for Firefox and Chrome TrackMeNot periodically generates random but convincingly genuine search strings and sends them to search engines that may be tracking you. This “muddies” the profile they can build up on you, making it less accurate and less revealing about you.

Use different browsers

Using different web browsers, e.g. Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, Chromium, and Opera, for different purposes puts up barriers between surveillance companies that use the same tracking techniques, e.g. “+”, “Like”, and “Share” buttons (In many cases, you don’t have to click on them, they’re watching you anyway), across multiple websites. For example, use one browser for searches and another one for social networking sites, and another one for logging into email (or better still use a free and open source email client that doesn’t send tracking data to surveillance companies, e.g. Thunderbird.

Use a privacy protecting proxy

This is one that organisations’ IT support can implement on their users’ behalf. A proxy can filter out personally revealing information from HTTP requests and in some cases hide users’ IP addresses.

Why if my school/college/university/institution has switched to using Google services?

It would be expensive and difficult to switch back, so more than likely not a feasible option for many organisations. The best advice I can think of is to create Google accounts specifically for use with that educational organisation and don’t use those for anything else and, if you already use Google services, e.g. GMail, Google+, and/or GCalendar, migrate to a different service provider; preferably a more ethical one, if that’s possible. The idea is to create as many barriers as possible between your private life and your studies and work, and reduce the quality and quantity of your personal information and internet usage habits that are available to one single surveillance organisation.

Use TOR

TOR (The Onion Router) is at the extreme end of anti-surveillance techniques. It’s quite restrictive and only practical for searching for and viewing a narrower range of web media, e.g. viewing Flash-based media such as video and audio can reveal personally identifiable information thereby defeating the purpose of using TOR. TOR would be particularly useful for users researching politically and culturally sensitive topics, e.g. child abuse, sexual behaviour, terrorism, copyright infringement, and political activism, that might lead to inappropriate interventions by security and law enforcement agencies (or get followed around the web by some highly inappropriate targeted advertising!) It’s widely used by journalists, political activists, and people who want to circumvent censorship and surveillance around the world. TOR comes in a ready configured, optimised, easy to use, standalone package called the TOR Browser Bundle which can also be run from a USB thumb drive or CD ROM.

In summary

These measures cannot prevent surveillance entirely but they can significantly reduce the quality and quantity of data that corporations and government security agencies can collect about you. If you can add suggestions to this list that are practical, understandable, and easily do-able, please participate in the discussion. I’ve linked to this article from Moodle.org community forums. Joining Moodle.org is free and quick, and a great place meet elearning professionals and discuss things that matter to you and to them. (Disclosure: Moodle.org uses Google Search and Analytics but I’d like to get that changed!)

Update: Do you want to get started with Moodle?

BitNami MoodleBack in 2012 I wrote the article, Do you want to get started with Moodle? which turned out to be one of the most read and most cited articles on this blog. A lot has happened with software and web tools in the following two years so I’ve decided to write an update to it. I’ll be featuring a free and open source localhost server and web app installers from BitNami. For the record, I have no affiliation with BitNami or anyone from BitNami and have had no contact with them about writing this article.

Why run Moodle on your computer?

There are many benefits to having your own version of Moodle on your personal computer. Here are a few examples:

  • An easy way to try out and learn to use Moodle for free without making any commitments, renting servers, etc.
  • A safe sandbox where you can try things out before putting them out on the world wide web.
  • An offline environment where you can create, develop and test learning activities, resources, and courses in private before uploading them onto a public server.
  • Moodle pages will load faster, shortening the time it takes to develop activities, resources, and courses.
  • Install, test, and make sure that 3rd party Moodle plugins and services work as expected and meet your specific needs on your computer rather than on a public server.

Why write this update?

Since I wrote the original article, I’ve run into some technical difficulties with more recent versions of the localhost server (Wampserver) software I originally recommended, especially for running more recent versions of Moodle, e.g. 2.5 and 2.6. In my search for solutions I came across a number of other developers and Moodle users that were having similar issues. The solutions were far from simple or easy to resolve and so I thought it would be a good idea to find something simpler, easier, and less problematic to run Moodle on your local computer.

Why BitNami?

BitNami provides free and open source localhost installers that anyone can install and get working with the minimum of technical knowledge and, as you’ll see later in this article, the process is about as simple as it can be. There are two main options to get started with BitNami and Moodle. Let’s get started…

Option 1: Install Moodle only

The first and simplest is the all-in-one Moodle installer (-AMP stack + Moodle), which is available on Linux, Windows, and Mac. Download the appropriate one for your operating system, run it, and follow the onscreen instructions.

Important! When you have completed the installation process and you have your Moodle installation up and running and you are logged in, edit your user profile, change your user name and password, and write them down. If you don’t, you can end up getting locked out of your Moodle when you log out and have to uninstall and go through the installation process again.

Option 2: Install Moodle + other web apps

Using the previous installation method makes it difficult to install other web apps alongside Moodle, e.g. WordPress, Joomla, or ownCloud. Luckily, BitNami provides a basic “-AMP stack” installer (AMP = Apache + MySQL + PHP) which allows you to install any number of web apps along side each other. This provides a base localhost server that you can install Moodle and other web apps onto:

Important! The BitNami -AMP stack installer will ask you to provide a database password. Write your database password down and keep it in a safe place. You’ll need it to install Moodle and other web apps. Now you’re ready to install Moodle. Here are the modules to download and run that install Moodle on your -AMP stack:

Important! Again, as with the stand-alone Moodle installer, when you have completed the installation process and you have your Moodle installation up and running, and you’re logged in, edit your user profile, change your user name and password, and write them down.

Moodle logoWhat’s next?

If you’re new to learning management systems in general and/or Moodle, please be aware that they are large, complicated, but powerful and flexible software and so it takes time and effort to learn to use them. Be patient with yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whatever your interest or area of expertise, there are many books, tutorials, and courses available to help get you started. I also recommend:

Using chat to facilitate more interactive classes

chatHere’s how you can make your face to face lessons more inclusive and interactive quickly and simply by using a chat session during class, and open up a range of benefits that aren’t immediately apparent.

How does it work?

Before a face to face lesson or lecture begins, the tutor/teacher/TA opens or schedules a chat room in the course on the school’s, organisation’s, college’s, university’s, or institution’s Moodle*. All the class participants login and join the chat session. They can use their laptops, netbooks, or mobile devices. Now everyone can submit questions, requests, and comments and everyone can see each others’ during the lesson or lecture.

*Or any chat client on an elearning platform that has appropriate user management, privacy, and oversight facilities (e.g. most commercial chat services such as Facebook, Google+ don’t allow right of audit, which is necessary addressing ethical and behavioural issues), and that admins, teachers, TAs, and learners can access transcripts of previous sessions for learning and professional development (PD) purposes.

How does this affect the classroom dynamic?

  • All learners, even in a relatively large class, have the opportunity to participate in significant and meaningful ways.
  • Learners don’t have to raise their hands to interrupt the flow of the class just to have their question, request, or comment expressed and considered.
  • Less gregarious learners don’t have to compete for attention/get noticed and can therefore contribute their questions, requests, or comments more easily; everyone has an equal voice.
  • Learners can see their peers’ questions, requests, or comments whether they are addressed/focused on or not in the lesson.
  • Teachers/tutors can choose which questions, requests, and comments, in what order, and when to address/focus on.
  • Points raised by learners can be dealt with appropriately and in a timely manner and never “get lost in the moment.”
  • The transcript of the chat session is an invaluable record of what actually happened and when during the class, making it an excellent resource for critical reflection.
  • Teachers/tutors can review the transcript to see where the lesson could be improved and/or consider alternatives.
  • Teachers/tutors can see who’s participating more or less than they should be and find out why.
  • Teachers/tutors can assess learners based on their participation both quantitively and qualitatively even if it didn’t get addressed/focused on in class.
  • There’s a record of questions, requests, and comments that it may not have been appropriate to address/focus on during the lesson but could provide productive avenues of inquiry in subsequent classes.

Could it also get learners off of Facebook during class?