January 2011 Archives

On a quest for the most readers: Open access to research articles

Can you have your cake and eat it? Julie Kelly and Kristine Fowler think that is possible. They explain the routes a researcher can take to balance the conundrum between getting published in highly regarded but expensive journals that few have access to and reaching the widest number of readers.

For more information about 20 by 20: An OIT Pecha Kucha Event, see http://www.oit.umn.edu/programs/20-by-20 That web page provides an overview of the event and links to the Google Site.

Skype Your Way to Becoming a Swan


All you need is a computer with a camera, a small amount of space, and Skype and you too can become a prima ballerina. The New York City Ballet dancer who trained Natalie Portman for "The Black Swan" is now offering online ballet classes.

The private or group Ballet Beautiful classes with Mary Helen Bowers cost about $40 dollars for a 60-minute class. A 90-minute ballet class at most studios in-person costs about $17. So why would anyone want to pay more than double the price for the class? Many students cite privacy, the ease of not commuting to class, and the opportunity for an out of shape ballet student to avoid standing next to a graceful 90-pound dancer.

Ballet teacher Mary Helen Bowers says her classes target specific muscles to help students achieve that ballet dancer body. "The muscles that ballet dancers use are specific to ballet. That's why ballet dancers have such a specific body type," Bowers told the Wall Street Journal.

Bowers says she started using the Web for her workouts in 2008 when she headed to Los Angeles to work with Natalie Portman. During the peak of her training with Portman Bowers says they were working out five hours a day, six days a week.

Bowers is developing a video that can be purchased and accessed online via computer or devices such as an iPod Touch. "If you are not at home or traveling, you are still able to log in and take the workout," Bowers told the Wall Street Journal.

The Ballet Beautiful classes are an example of how Skype and other technologies are shaping learning opportunities.

Tips on how not to let nerves get the better of you

Remember the time you had to give an important presentation and you were so worried about performing well that you simply froze despite hours of rehearsal the night before? Maybe it was the time you had to take a critical test and you were so stressed out that your mind simply went blank the moment your pen/pencil touched the paper?

Crumbling under pressure afflicts a lot of people, including those who are very talented. Though some people might attribute such embarrassing failures to lack of preparation, associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, Sian Beilock, argues to the contrary.

Even the most prepared presenter or test taker can still fall victim to what professor Beilock terms, "paralysis by analysis," which happens when a person thinks too much about what (s)he is doing. In an article by the University of Chicago, Beilock explains that thinking too much about specific parts of a task because of the fear of failing can throw off even the most well-practiced techniques.

To prevent your brain from being "paralyzed," a simple trick of singing, humming or whistling can prevent portions of the brain that might interfere with performance from taking over, Beilock's research explains.

Beilock also discovers that worrying depletes the working memory necessary for success. When people are anxious or stressed about a particular task, they often lose brainpower necessary for success. This means that even the brightest students can "choke" if anxiety steers their mental energy away from the part of their brain that processes information. Consequently, a stressed student can tap out her or his mental resources and forget crucial details needed to perform a task or answer a question.

Fortunately for students (or anyone) prone to "choking" under pressure, there is a simple solution out of that state of mind. A new study, also by the University of Chicago, found that students who were prone to test anxiety improved their high-stakes test scores by nearly one grade point after they were given 10 minutes to write about what was causing them fear. According to the study, the writing exercise allowed students to unload their anxieties and worries before taking the test and thus freed up brainpower that is normally occupied by worries about the test. This in turn allowed students to successfully complete the test.

Beilock's research is applicable to all kinds of performance anxiety such as giving an important presentation, interviewing for an important job, public speaking or any activity where the stakes are high.

In addition to the above tips, Beilock lists her best 5 strategies on how to remain calm under pressure, which can also be found in this article by TIME magazine.

Write. Pause. Practice. Do not over think. Distract. I will definitely use these strategies in future!

Go to Harvard for Free


A new book examines why high-ranking universities, such as MIT, Yale and Harvard, are offering free online classes.

Unlocking the Gates, by Taylor Walsh traces the evolution of opening these elite institutions to more students and what it may mean to the future of higher education. Walsh contends that although these universities don't offer credit or degrees for students completing the free online courses, the trend may foreshadow changes in the way all universities approach teaching and learning. She also asserts these online courses may lead to substantial innovations in how education is delivered and consumed.

Walsh is a research analyst with Ithaka S+R, the research division of the nonprofit Ithaka consulting group, which supported the project together with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She was recently interviewed in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the interview Walsh talks about Carnegie Mellon and its Open Learning Initiative (OLI). Walsh is quoted in the Chronicle as saying;

"There's not much "edu-tainment" to be found in the Carnegie Mellon courses. It's really about wanting to learn introductory statistics, and going step-by-step through these modules influenced by cognitive science. It's not going to attract the volume of usage, or necessarily the attention from reporters, that a much more easily consumable humanities lecture video might. ... The concept of a sophisticated learning environment, in which a learner can really master concepts without the support of a live instructor--I think that will endure. If anything, we'll see more of it. The ability to deploy an environment like that could really allow universities to teach a great deal of students at a very high level of efficacy and quality, while saving space and faculty time."

Walsh says she sees signs that many highly selective public universities are changing the way they deliver some basic courses. "The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill [is moving] their introductory Spanish course to online only, and then the project out of California to pilot a set of online courses that could be used to teach undergraduates throughout the UC system. Should experiments like those go well, that could really constitute a major vote of confidence in the medium of online teaching," Walsh told the Chronicle.

Open engagement" by "20 by 20: An OIT Pecha Kucha Event

A platform that facilitates open learning and encourages engagement and collaboration.

For more information about 20 by 20: An OIT Pecha Kucha Event, see http://www.oit.umn.edu/programs/20-by-20 That web page provides an overview of the event and links to the Google Site

virtual graduation.jpgHardly a stranger to technologies that help online distance learning students feel more connected, Florida State University's College of Communication & Information held its first-ever virtual graduation ceremony for online students last year.

According to an article in EDUCAUSE Quarterly Magazine, the college has been exploring a variety of methods to establish better connection with its online distance learning students. Methods have included e-mail lists, photo archives, wikis, social networking sites, extending on-campus events to online students via web streaming and even incorporating voice and visuals into its live online classes. In the college's more recent attempts to involve distance learning students and to foster a sense of belonging, distance learning students were able to attend their graduation ceremony regardless of their geographical locations. Logging in as avatars in the 3-D virtual world of Second Life, distance learning students wore graduation caps and gowns, and received their degrees on stage as the avatars of their family, friends and faculty members cheered and applauded loudly for them.

virtual graduation_2.jpg

Marking a milestone in a person's life, graduation ceremony is perhaps one of the most anticipated events in the lives of many college students. As most graduation ceremonies take place in-person and on-campus, many online distance students find it too costly, time-consuming and difficult to attend their graduation. Holding a virtual graduation ceremony, as FSU has exemplified, is an excellent way to include distance learners in the celebration of their achievement as students. The virtual ceremony proved a huge success with attendees. According the article, many graduating students valued the immersive and participatory nature of the experience and were happy to be able to attend their graduation ceremony, even if it's just virtually. Not unlike real world graduation ceremonies, friends and family of the graduating students were also able to share in this joyous occasion by logging in as avatars or watching over the graduating students' shoulders on their computers.

virtual graduation_3.png

Not only did distance learning students respond positively to the ceremony but faculty members as well. Faculty members who were unable to attend and speak live at the virtual event gave an audio recording of their speech, which was used at appropriate moments in the ceremony. The college has since received questions from current distance learners eager to know when future virtual graduation ceremonies would be held as they look ahead to their own graduation.

Though the virtual ceremony was considered a success, some graduating students were prevented from participating due to issues related to bandwidth and hardware incompatibility. Other technical difficulties experienced by FSU were related to the choice of location for the virtual ceremony. For instance, controlling the movements of the avatar proved to be challenging for inexperienced users, making it difficult for them to perform certain actions and going to designated areas.

While FSU may not be the first institution to stage a virtual graduation ceremony, other institutions include Bryant & Stratton College and The University of Edinburg, it will very likely not be the last as many institutions continue to seek ways to better connect with their online students.

JSTOR seeks to expand into full-text books

Inside Higher Ed has reported that JSTOR, a full-text internet database, has begun teaming up with several university presses to offer full-texts books soon. Other university presses and organizations are trying to get more longform content online as well. Google Books already offers some complete books and previews or the partial contents of many more.

According to its official press release, JSTOR will be teaming up with Princeton, Yale, and the Universities of Minnesota, North Carolina, and Chicago. Content is expected to be online in 2012. JSTOR sees this as "the next step in a series of efforts to integrate scholarship across formats and media and to establish a platform where librarians, publishers, authors, and users can innovate in the future."

According to Inside Higher Ed, these books would be made available through a license purchase by a university, the same way JSTOR articles are accessed now. The goal is not to sell books to individual users. JSTOR also hopes to distinguish itself by assuring its content is peer-reviewed scholarship, rather than self-published material and unverified content which can find its way into a Google Books search.

The move to increase e-books comes against the backdrop of physical textbook cost complaints. As my colleague Greta Cunningham noted earlier this week, the University of Washington recently limited the total book cost for courses. If other universities follow suit, online content will become a more important component of many courses, making recently published, well-research online content vital. Perhaps we'll begin to see more libraries without books like that at the University of Texas.

woman on phone.jpgWhen we think of solutions for supporting student retention and engagement, we tend to think of strategies that employ the use of sophisticated technologies, learning management systems, and/or software that are usually informed by equally sophisticated data mining methods such as Purdue's Signals project, University of Phoenix's Learning Genome Project and nudge analytic. While the role action analytic, advanced technologies and 'intelligent' LMS play in increasing student retention is highly critical and cannot be ignored, these initiatives also require a lot of resources and time to develop.

What about the here and now?

As proven by the University of Illinois at Springfield, and Dunlap and Lowenthal of the University of Colorado, Denver, strategies that involve interpersonal interaction can also greatly support student engagement and retention. By effectively enhancing students' sense of connection with their instructors and courses, students are more likely to be motivated and stay motivated. The good news is these strategies harness the resources that most people already have.

In a recent Educause Quarterly Magazine article, Dunlap and Lowenthal share communication strategies for establishing personal one-on-one relationships between online students and faculty. Instead of using high-tech software or sophisticated learning platform systems, Dunlap focuses on low-technology devices that almost all faculty and students now have at their disposal - telephone and email.

A brief phone conversation at the start of the course can go a very long way in establishing a sense of connection and building a foundation for trust, Dunlap explains. This is because a phone conversation about the course usually ends up being a very individualized discussion where students talk about work and families. Through this conversation, instructors might be alerted to issues that might affect the student's performance in the course such as hectic travel schedule, family or job responsibilities. Consequently, it allows instructors to preamp possible distractions and disruptions to the student's progress in the course. A phone conversation also allows the instructor to establish him or herself as a reliable source of feedback and support.

Establishing ongoing, one-on-on communication throughout the course is not an easy feat and may not be practical for some instructors due to their busy schedules. However, this type of support is often critical to students' success. Furthermore, the benefits are clear - opening the gates of communication enhances student retention in the course because it allows instructors to address individual student needs and provide individualized feedback. As Dunlap has discovered, never underestimate the power of building relationships between faculty and students, which can be achieved by using even the most simple and mundane of technologies.

Faculty and staff at the University of Illinois Online program would likely agree with professor Dunlap. In another article in the Educause Quarterly Magazine, the University of Springfield attribute their high retention and complete rates (equivalent to and sometimes even exceed those in their corollary on-campus degree programs) in the online degree programs to the strong relationship among staff, faculty and students.

Program coordinators & peer mentors

peer mentoring.jpgIn order to build trust and support students, UIS encourages the use of program coordinators in each degree program. Program coordinators play a crucial role in students' success by keeping track of their schedules and progress towards degree completion and intervene when they think the student's progress might be in jeopardy. They support students who face challenges in their courses and advocate for them on administrative and bureaucratic matters.

In addition to program coordinators, UIS also implemented an online peer-mentoring program in which experienced online students act as role models. They answer questions about the course and facilitate discussions. The whole point of UIS mentoring program is for less experienced students to observe and hopefully, model after the behavior of successful online students. This strategy has proven to be effective. In a project to study the effects of peer mentors on student retention, UIS with the partnership of seven other Illinois community colleges, discovered that the non-completion rate in the courses studied was reduced and more importantly, student success rate improved.

As Dunlap and Lowenthal, along with UIS have exemplified, some of the most effective strategies do not always involve complex equations, super-advanced technologies and LMS.

Bookless in Seattle


A Washington State program to bring low-cost, college material online is facing some challenges. The Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges began the Open Course Library as a way to help the state's half a million students in two-year colleges save the estimated $1,000 for books each year.

The project received a $750,000 matching grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation so Web designers from around the state could create ready-to-use digital course modules for the 81 highest-enrolled courses. The cost for the course materials is capped at $30.

According to the Open Course Library directive, material must be available to online and accessible to anyone. Other stipulations include, "Faculty designers, hired for their teaching experience and expertise in the subject, can use material from anywhere and anyone, as long as they abide by licensing agreements. Instructors can then use and revise the material as they see fit, dropping and adding components to customize the course for their own students."

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports the $30 cap is proving to be daunting. A lot of things that are open are old," said Melonie D. Rasmussen, who teaches at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom, in Lakewood, Wash. "Or they are open and strange. She remembers a 1980s math book posted online that refers to VCR's. It would take more time to explain what a VCR was than the math itself, she joked.

The Chronicle spoke to a North Seattle Community College philosophy professor who is frustrated because the five books he wants his students to use would break the $30 bank. The professor reports he is "flummoxed."

A Bellevue College chemistry professor says she and her colleagues are concerned that the $30 cap may mean their students won't be able to get the needed supplemental materials to explain basic science concepts.

Cable Green, of the state community-college board, is quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education as saying, "The Open Course Library is very much a work in progress, and may always be. Indeed, its success depends upon the academic community to continually review, revise, and improve the courses, and then post them back online for others." (The idea of freely sharing information, he concedes, might just be the more challenging cultural shift.)

But "getting there" is not in question, Green told The Chronicle. He says he's been blunt with textbook publishers and has encouraged them to get on board if they can.

"You saw what happened with Craigslist and newspapers," he told The Chronicle, referring to the free classified advertising that has helped force some newspapers out of business and required others to reinvent themselves. "We are going to get there with or without you."

Student newspaper to charge for limited audience


The Daily O'Collegian, the student newspaper of Oklahoma State may become the first college newspaper to start charging an online subscription fee, following in the footsteps of major papers around the country. Previously, the paper had received most of its revenue from advertising. The change will not affect current students, staff, and faculty of Oklahoma State. These readers will still be able to access full content for free. The same goes for anyone registering with a ".edu" email address.

The move raises two important questions. First, the Chronicle notes the move is partially in response to rising software costs. Will financial pressures cause other college newspapers to investigate subscriptions as a source of much-need revenue? What other alternatives will be proposed (e.g. freeware, license-sharing)? The second question raised by OSU's situation is which members of a campus community are entitled to free or reduced cost services? The Chronicle notes the O'Collegian's editor sees an "untapped market among parents, alumni, Oklahoma State sports fans, and potential students."

The move has been understandable to many in the journalism community, who acknowledge the financial difficulties newspapers are facing now. The Chronicle quotes Dr. Bryan Murley of Eastern Illinois' New and Emerging Media department as saying, "This is the time in journalism where we're sort of going to the coins-in-the-couch model of making money--wherever we can get a little bit here and there to keep things going." The O'Collegian's editor doesn't have high hopes for the first year of subscription services--noting as few as 100 subscribers would be a success.

College newspapers aren't the only student-run or student-oriented service suffering from harsh economic times. It will be interesting to see what the O'Collegian's experiment tells us about community members' willingness to pay and whether they're able to cause a cultural shift within their community away from universal access.

Big Pad on Campus

It appears iPads may be showing up in a kindergarten classroom near you. The New York Times reports a growing number of schools across the country are embracing the iPad as a new tool to enhance classroom learning.

The Times interviewed several New York area teachers who lauded the electronic tablet for its ease of use, light weight and ability to capture student interest. The iPads cost an average of $750 apiece and, according to the New York Times, may replace textbooks, allow students to communicate with teachers, and preserve a digital record of a student's portfolio.

Educators are still divided over whether initiatives to give every student a laptop have made any difference in academic performance. The Times said some parents and scholars are raising concerns that schools are rushing the investment in iPads before there is any hard research that shows the device improves student achievement.

"There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better using these machines," Stanford University professor emeritus Larry Cuban told the New York Times. He believes the money would be better spent recruiting, training and trying to retain teachers.

The New York City public schools have ordered more than 2,000 iPads, for $1.3 million and more than 200 Chicago public schools applied for 23 district-financed iPad grants totaling $450,000. The Virginia Department of Education is overseeing a $150,000 iPad initiative that has replaced history and Advanced Placement biology textbooks at 11 schools, according to the New York Times article.

Even kindergartners are getting their hands on iPads. Pinnacle Peak School in Scottsdale, Ariz., converted an empty classroom into a lab with 36 iPads -- named the iMaginarium -- that has become the centerpiece of the school because, as the principal told the New York Times, "of all the devices out there, the iPad has the most star power with kids."

Connecting students across cultural & national borders

global with many computers connected.jpgFew people would deny the benefits of exchange programs, especially programs that equip students with a more international outlook. In a future that will likely be characterized by global partnerships, skills and knowledge in cross-cultural competency are increasingly seen as valuable assets. Unfortunately, the ability to embark on a foreign exchange program is still enjoyed by a small segment of the student population because such programs are often very costly and time-consuming. A nonprofit organization, Connect, aims to change that with its 10-week program of facilitated online discussions between students from Western and Muslim countries, as reported in The Chronicle.

Creators of Connect believe that their program offers some of the crucial benefits of a traditional exchange program, such as intercultural discussions, but on a much more affordable and sustainable basis. The opportunity to interact with someone from a different country has greatly benefitted some participants of the Connect program. Many participants said that the program has taught them to be more thoughtful and deliberate in expressing their views on culturally sensitive topics as well as challenged participants' previously held stereotypes.

The multipolar discussion is one of the most compelling aspects of the program, allowing participants to openly discuss culturally sensitive topics such as terrorism, Islamophobia, religion, social customs, the veil and current affairs within a safe space. Through such discussions, participants witness the diverse opinions within the West and Muslim world instead of seeing them as simply divided or bipolar opposites.

Much like any other programs, this program is not without its problems. The biggest challenges to the program have been language and technology barriers. As English is the language of instruction, only English speakers can participate, which means that only a select group of students are able to reap the benefits of this program. Furthermore, in several non-Western countries, participants also face infrastructure problems. Faced with connection problems on campus, it is not uncommon for participants to adjourn to a nearby cybercafé to get better connection.

Despite these challenges, the creators of Connect remain hopeful that their model will catch on in other parts of the world because it can be easily replicated. Mr. Welch, co-founder of Soliya, the nonprofit organization behind Connect, hopes that larger institutions will be interested in hiring Soliya to develop more online exchange programs. As a fervent believer in the transformative power of cross-cultural experience, Welch believes that "some form of cross-culture exchange should be a fundamental part of higher education."

In another part of the world, Rachel Ellet, an assistant professor Political Science and Mouat Junior Professor of International Studies at Beloit College shares the similar interest in connecting students across national borders. Ellet, however, uses a vastly different approach. Born out of her interest in mobilizing students' study abroad experiences to enhance learning back on campus, Ellet piloted a program in which she linked students studying abroad with students back in her classroom in real time. As Ellet explains in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Educause Review, students studying abroad were asked to create and maintain a blog that linked their personal experiences to her course, keep up to date on class readings and to engage in classroom discussions with students on campus via videoconferencing.
This is a win-win situation for students studying abroad and her students back on campus. Having to accomplish tasks relevant to course materials, students living abroad were able to intellectually integrate their experiences abroad. Meanwhile, the students back on campus were able to receive up-to-date real world examples colored by personal experiences.

Similar to problems encountered by the Connect program, Ellet also experienced technical difficulties such as weak audio quality and unreliable Internet connection. Ellet advised instructors who are thinking of bringing the study abroad experience into the classroom in real time to also be aware of time zone differences, which will make scheduling videoconferences a challenge.

These challenges aside, one can expect many more organizations and individuals to come up with innovative ways for students to reap the benefits of a cultural exchange without ever having to cross national borders, especially during a time when more universities face the pressures of preparing truly global citizens with increasingly fewer resources.

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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