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Rob Boone

Poll Everywhere

Communications Consultant

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Instructors are the new developers


The Rise and fall and rise of online education

Online education. You probably have feelings about it. But do you know how to make the most of it?

Like an English major full of hope and idealism who comes home to stay for a spell, online education was cute and brimming with potential, in the beginning.

But it’s been three long, frustrating years now, Kevin. It’s time to get off the couch and make something of yourself.

So let’s see what we can make of online education. Let’s explore how to put it to work so we can engage students and make the most of this burgeoning technology.

In the beginning, there were MOOCs

Just a few years ago, MOOCs (massive open online courses) were an incredibly hot-button issue. In 2013, they were the wave of the future. Writing for the New York Times, Laura Pappano summed up the optimist’s take:

"Even in a remote developing country like can find high-school students tuning into courses from American universities like M.I.T., Harvard and Berkeley."

Papano went on to explain just how many resources higher learning institutions were pouring into the online education shift:

"EdX, the nonprofit platform established by M.I.T. and Harvard, has 68 courses from 28 academic partners and 1.25 million students. These are just two of the platforms out there."

And yet, just three months later, The Wall Street Journal ran this headline:

"MOOCS: Inflated Expectations, Early Disappointments"

The shortcomings of online education were taking center stage, empowering detractors. Study after study revealed new pitfalls, as the WSJ pointed out:

"A study conducted by a team from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the behavior of a million users in 16 Penn courses on the Coursera platform. It found that course completion rates ranged from 2% to 14%, with an average of 4% across all courses. User participation fell off dramatically after the first couple of weeks. Only about half of those registered viewed at least one of the lectures in their course."

So what gives? Is online education the future, or is it a flash-in-the-pan, an inferior alternative to traditional classroom-based learning?

Fast forward to 2015, when the Harvard Gazette sat down with Andrew Ho, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Isaac Chuang, MIT professor of physics, two of the leading voices in the MOOC movement. When asked about the potential for data to be used to increase the efficacy of online learning, Ho and Chuang had this to say:

"The challenge is to design learning tasks that are perceived to be enjoyable and valuable, and make feedback an integrated part of that experience. Ideally, we wouldn’t have to click to get to a dashboard. We would know where we were and what we needed to do by virtue of immediate feedback through the learning process."

As Ho and Chuang pointed out, the platform isn’t the thing- the thing is how you use the platform’s strengths to your advantage. Play to those strengths, and you’ll get results.

Tellingly, that piece was titled "The Maturity of MOOCS."

Let there be live interaction

One of online education’s greatest strengths is its interactive nature. In its infancy, MOOCs were an obvious form for online education to take: anyone could upload a course, and anyone else could download and study the material. MOOCs have since matured, but online education has also forked off in another, more obvious direction: live interaction. Like Skype before it, live classrooms break down geographic barriers, enabling instructors to deliver their infinite wisdom to students in Dubai, New Orleans, and Prague, all while staying within throwing distance of the chalkboard in Sydney that bears their name.

And with the addition of live interaction comes real possibilities for engaging students across the world, provided instructors are willing to play to the platform’s strengths.

Instructors are the new developers

Like any emerging technology, it takes awhile to find out just what those strengths are.

Consider the iPhone (or any new technology, really). When it debuted in 2007, not a lot of people knew just what it would become. Most everyone could tell it was hugely momentous, but what exactly were we going to use it for?

In a few short years, we had our answer: it wasn't the iPhone itself that was so game-changing.

It was all about the apps.

Developers were given a platform with which to create amazing things. Nine years later, it's hard to name an industry--or even a single business--that hasn't been touched by the smartphone shift.

The same goes for online education. Like the iPhone, it's a platform. This time, though, instructors are the new developers. The platform is here, waiting to be transformed, extended, optimized. It's time for instructors to find out what they can do with this thing.

Molding the platform: multi-location classrooms

Helen Wozniak is finding out what she can do with this thing.

The School of Medicine at Flinders University in Australia has campuses that span 1,880 miles. To connect instructors, doctors, and students across that distance is no small feat.

Wozniak uses live polling to do just that. She's both Senior Lecturer and Director of E-Learning, so she knows a thing or two about building platforms to optimize learning outcomes, connecting learners through the bits and bytes of what we used to call the "information superhighway."

In other words, Helen is a master developer.

Wozniak works with lecturers to embed polls into PowerPoint. Why? Because though many lecturers are rookie instructors, they're all familiar with PowerPoint, a fine example of Wozniak adapting her techniques to her audience.

Using the embedded polls, Wozniak can assess student comprehension in real-time, adapting lessons to the data gathered. 

Polls could be as simple as a pop quiz on diagnostic techniques, or they can be used to gauge comprehension in a complex lesson, tailoring the lesson to address any gaps in trainee comprehension.

Polls are traditionally a simple audience response system, but Wozniak even uses them as study guides, too, bundling poll results together with presentation notes.

“It allows face-to-face sessions to be used efficiently by focusing specifically on students’ current needs,” Wozniak said.

Students love this stuff

The Holy Grail of teaching is engagement: when engagement is up, magical things can happen, like students actually learning the things being taught.

Wozniak’s students are emphatically engaged: 90 percent of her students actively participate in her class when live polling is used.

90 percent. Most instructors will reluctantly admit that anything above 60 percent participation (or, in polling terms, "audience response") is a success. 90 is a break-out-the-cake-and-ice-cream success.

Why is engagement so high with live polling? One of the most common pieces of feedback from students is the simple but profound ability to make them comfortable enough to voice their opinions. Polling allows students to say their piece, often anonymously and without fear of recrimination. No longer are they merely being talked at- now, they’re part of the conversation.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of education as conversation. For Wozniak, and for instructors everywhere, that’s where the real potential lies.

The role of polling in the classroom

Apple's iconic slogan—"there's an app for that"—spoke to the nature of the iPhone platform. It wasn't about the phone itself. It was about what people could do with it.

A hammer is only as effective as the carpenter that wields it. Online learning is no different. It's only as effective as the instructors who design the course, whether that's in corporate training, medical instruction, or traditional classroom-based learning.

Author Profile Picture
Rob Boone

Communications Consultant

Read more from Rob Boone

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