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The latest publishing sales figures show a sharp rise in the sales of E-Books at the same time that the total number of book sales on all platforms took a minor hit. In their just released January 2011 sales report, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) noted a 115.8% increase in net sales of e-books from the previous year while overall book sales dropped by 1.9%.

In higher education, one of the pressing questions will be how might this change in reading affect the textbook market? Will students and instructors embrace digital texts? The social learning platform Xplana projects that by the end of 2011, 3% of the total textbook market will be digital and that growth will be explosive over the next five years. By the end of 2016, they expect the total sales of digital textbooks to reach 26% of all new textbooks.

The advent of new reading platforms suggests the possibility to develop new ways of interacting with learning material. While some publishers might simply settle to replicate a print product in a digital form, other more innovative developers might embed assessments or opportunities for reflection within the text. User-controlled multimedia might help students replay presentations or simulate experiments. Books that are built for collaboration might help students jointly annotate a text or read annotations by their own instructor. There are many ways a new textbook could evolve, and let's hope that with such stunning sales figures and projections, publishers and authors seize this moment to reinvent rather than replicate the text.

Spinning Our Wheels

Two scholars ask the pertinent question, "is our..." er, "Are our undergraduates learning?" Citing their own research, they find that nearly half of undergraduates have no improvement in critical thinking and other high-end measures after two years of college, and over a third have no improvement after four years. Well, that's all based on some test, and they concede there is gain in content knowledge, but there's better headlines in saying they haven't learned anything at all. Read an excerpt and link to some critical feedback here.

Here's the money quote, echoing a note that has been played in stories about K-12 education for years: this failure is not a failure, it was the plan all along.

No actors in the system are primarily interested in undergraduates' academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence. Limited learning on college campuses is not a crisis, because the institutional actors implicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes that they seek, and therefore neither the institutions themselves nor the system as a whole is in any way challenged or threatened.

One quick trip to the recent past of the internet via the wonderfully time-wasting WayBackMachine is enough to remind us of all of the "creative" uses of font manipulation in what passed for information design. Who knew that these skills would one day come in handy?

According to a recent study, non-standard and varied type fonts can create "desirable difficulties" and create additional cognitive loads that tend to improve learning. The results seem counter intuitive. Most instructors strive to create easy-to-receive lessons, and students perceive that a lesson is successful if they feel they have had a relatively easy time learning the material. However, disfluency--"the subjective, metacognitive experience of difficulty associated with cognitive tasks"--has, in some cases, been shown to direct students to "process information more deeply, more abstractly, more carefully, and yield better comprehension." One key mechanism in these results seems to be the idea that disfluency (say, difficult to read type faces) cues a learner to be less confident that they have actually learned what they just read. As a result, there is a greater chance that they might engage the material with greater effort and in a more complex fashion. In their study, "Fortune favors the bold and the italicized: Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes," Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan conclude that "Student retention of material across a wide range of subjects (science and humanities classes) and difficulty levels (regular, Honors and Advanced Placement) can be significantly improved in naturalistic settings by presenting reading material in a format that is slightly hard to read."

See: Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D. M., & Vaughan, E. B. (Forthcoming). Fortune favors the bold and the italicized: Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition.

In 1987, Chickering and Gamson suggested seven principles for undergraduate education that (supposedly) transcend pedagogical theories. Nine years later, Chickering considered how technology could be a "lever" for the seven principles, but now another sixteen years have passed, and while the principles haven't changed, the technology certainly has.

As classes move more and more online, it becomes more important to consider these principles and how well they are embodied by our hybrid and online learning environments, particularly in regards to student engagement (which I think is what at least six of the seven principles are really about, and perhaps all seven).

I looked to Chickering's two articles to frame a series of questions about online learning that might expose some of the limitations of those environments, particularly asynchronous environments where students may not have contact with one another or with an instructor, as well as looking for both native CMS strategies and external tools that can extend the learning space.

1. Do you realistically and explicitly help students manage their time?

It is easy to think of an online classroom as a timeless void, but it isn't for students. Your learning activities should set expectations for how long learners will need to complete each module or activity. Remember that twenty minute blocks are best while anything over forty minutes will seriously tap students ability to stay on task and remain focused. If you find many of your activities or modules are over an hour long, consider breaking them up or shortening them.

When adding a lot of supplementary resources such as documents and links to other websites, be sure to label these appropriately as optional and suggest how they might be useful to complete the objectives of the course.

2. Do(es) the instructor(s) in your course websites have presence, particularly in a way that makes the student feel genuinely connected?

There are easy-to-use video tools that can capture video from a webcam and embed it in the discussion board or elsewhere, such as the University's own Media Mill or YouTube. Rather than create and "can" the video in advance, instructors should consider creating the videos during the course in response to student questions and feedback.

3. Do learners have the opportunity to assess their own learning in low-stakes ways with prompt feedback?

Remember John Houseman in the Paper Chase? Students dreaded being at the wrong end of his pointed finger, but they sure prepared for class knowing they might be. That’s lost in an online environment -- the challenge to give a good answer to a tough question on the spot, and the professor’s withering and/or complimentary response. Most CMS have some kind of self-assessment tool but they may only be good for basic comprehension of knowledge as opposed to the higher cognitive goals. Can you introduce a discussion forum or other way for students to demonstrate deep learning, and can the instructor commit to validating their efforts?

4. Are there opportunities for students to reflect on what they've learned or connect it to past learning?

Learners in face-to-face environments benefit from hallway chatter and other opportunities to simply share their challenges and frustrations, as well as their rewards and "aha" moments as they make their way through the course. While this can be somewhat facilitated with threaded discussions, you may also consider how blogs, podcasts, or other self-publishing and self-broadcasting tools can help students process their learning in an honest and reflective way before they have to demonstrate it on a final assessment.

5. Are there opportunities for learners to learn together in a meaningful way?

A few of us in the faculty development group have lately been thinking about the different modes of collaboration in learning environments -- from "sharing" to full-scaled collaborative writing. The best strategy here may be more for students "sharing" with their peers by posting their work in draft form and getting feedback. Consider folding peer reviews and small group discussions around assignments, particularly capstone assessments. If the course is open for students to complete at different times and at their own pace, you may need to consider how to create cohorts or otherwise facilitate a process where students do not feel isolated.

6. Do you help learners see the big picture?

"High expectations," Chickering calls it, but perhaps a better way to think of it is "post-course expectations." Why are learners in the course? What do they hope to achieve not just from this class, but from their program? What is it all about? This may be one case where an online class has an advantage over a face-to-face class. You have the ability to connect to real world experts and cognitive mentors who can explain how each component of the class is relevant to them, as professionals in the field your learners want to pursue. Because it doesn't involve a huge time investment or travel, you'll have an easier time finding willing guests. Embed short videos of testimony, or invite guests to answer questions using a live tool like Skype or an video sharing service like You Tube, embedding the result right in your CMS. Of course, this is just one of many ways you might take advantage of the web medium to connect learners to the world beyond the classroom and how the learning relates to their professional goals.

7. Does your course website appeal to diverse talents and ways of learning?

Can you include high-impact visuals, videos, and interactive multimedia to enhance pages of textual content? Of course this is a resource-intensive investment, but you may be able to incorporate existing materials that others have made available, or find ways to invest in reusable media objects that can be used by several different courses in your college or department.

Not all data mining is equal!

In his blog, Bruce Schneier outlines a useful taxonomy of social networking data. He divides all the data that is collected on an individual into six types, each with its own privacy concerns.

I see this as a useful step forward when talking about privacy within the context of a social network. One might release a particular type of data knowingly and willingly and with an eye toward intentionally broadcasting something. Other data, for instance when someone tags you in a photo or when a company traces your browsing behavior, may be information you want to keep more private. Distinguishing among data types, then, can help us conceptualize the larger universe of our data profile and can teach us more about how to shape it, project it, and preserve it.

A few good books

Here are some of the non-technological literature that has informed our practice in faculty development here at the University of Minnesota in recent years.

  1. Milton Cox's work on Faculty Learning Communities really changed the way we think about programs... instead of consultants working one-on-one with faculty, we thought more about cohorts and community. Our evaluation has shown that faculty really value the opportunity to exchange ideas with other faculty, even (or especially) faculty from other colleges and disciplines; it's a rare opportunity to do so.
  2. Dee Fink's work on course design radically changed our process from a traditional instructional design model to one that makes more sense for higher education.
  3. The work of our own alumn John Bransford - We use the book he co-edited, How People Learn, book extensively in our programs. In particular, How Experts Differ from Novices is an illuminating chapter that always gets a good discussion underway about the higher cognitive goals of instruction.
  4. Thomas Angelo & Patricia Cross's book on Classroom Assessment Techniques is never far out of reach. This is an immensely practical book full of ways to engage learners make a class lively and fun. The fact that they also useful for assessment almost feels like a bonus. Here's a summary with a few examples.
  5. Lately we have been looking into "signature pedagogies," the discipline-specific traditions of teaching and learning that inform the way faculty think in different areas. Lee Shulman introduced this idea in writing about professional education. Since then people in other areas have explored the signature pedagogies in their own disciplines, many of which are collected here.