Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

teensI glanced at the latest statistics on teens & social media released yesterday from Pew Internet and noticed an interesting distinction. Girls are more likely than boys to create and share content online. They’re more likely to blog and more likely to share photos. Boys do dominate in one category, however. They’re more likely to share video. I wonder if that means that girls are more likely to engage in online courses where they’re encouraged to share content. Does anyone know?

(Photo, Teens, by Victoriano Izquierdo Ramirez)


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randal pinketAnyone who believes that technology makes us more antisocial (yep, people still think that) should listen to Randal Pinkett. Although he’s probably best known as the winner of NBC’s The Apprenctice, Dr. Pinkett puts his learning to the service of others in extraordinary ways.

Dr. Pinkett’s dissertation centered how how technology can be used to build communities and close the digital divide. He established a project in the Camfield Estates, a low-income housing project in Massachusetts, where computers and training were provided to residents. Residents also had access to a restricted community web site where they could create profiles, post community events, chat, share news and participate on a discussion board. Very straightforward stuff. There were descriptions of businesses and services offered in the community and maps showing their location.

The results are inspiring. Rather than isolating people, it turns out that using technology brought folks closer together. Over the course of the year, the number of residents who recognized each other by name increased by a third. The number of residents who phoned each other nearly doubled. The number of residents who knew of the skills and abilities of their neighbours almost tripled. Before the project began, not a single resident knew of volunteer opportunities available in the community. After one year, 42% of residents felt they were “informed” or “very well informed”. People can say what they want about technology isolating people. Projects like this one tell us that the opposite is true.

One final thought … some might be tempted to say that the technology itself made the difference but I’m more inclined to say that it was how it was used. The project focused on the residents’ needs and empowered them to create the bulk of the content on the site. Social networking was a key feature of the web site, and Dr. Pinkett reports that it was also one of the most popular areas of the site. There’s a big message here for anyone who uses technology: focus on people. Dr. Pinkett’s research brings that message home loud & clear.

Dr. Pinkett was a keynote speaker at this year’s Conference on Information Technology. You can read more about his research at the BCT Partners web site.

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You might have seen this floating around the blogosphere over the past few days. It’s Hans Rosling’s second presentation at Ted. For those who didn’t see the first, check it out. Rosling is brilliant at explaining tough concepts visually. Brilliant. In 20 minutes, he can change the way you look at the world.  Better yet, his tools are posted on his site so that you can download and play with them yourself.

I didn’t think he could give a more engaging presentation than that one but he has. Be sure you watch until the end.

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Last week, it was revealed that about 100 first-year chemistry students at the province’s largest university were found to have cheated on an online exam by gaining access to the solutions in Blackboard. I heard the university’s Dean of Science, Ken Taylor, interviewed on CBC radio and was impressed with how the university is taking advantage of the “teachable moment” that the incident offers. Any student found cheating will be attending a session on integrity & professionalism in the fall (in addition to getting a zero on their assignment). Taylor also seems to be very available to the media and, without doubt, this is forcing a bit of conversation and reflection among students about the need for honesty.

The incident raises a few questions about the prevalence of cheating in online courses so I did a bit of digging.

the answer to cIn fact, there are studies that show that academic cheating of all kinds is fairly common and rarely detected. For example, I’ve seen a study that cites the somewhat surprising figure that 70% of high school seniors in the U.S. admit to cheating on a test and 95% of those students were never caught.

Despite the perceived ease of cheating online, studies show that cheating is no more prevalent in online courses than it is in face-to-face courses. However, whether online or face-to-face, students are more likely to cheat as the amount of communication decreases between them and their assessor. That’s a great argument for the need for more contact and interaction between faculty and students (something that may be lacking in many first-generation online courses).

When cheating does happen, it may be easier to detect in an online course since every visit to a campus server is logged and detecting plagiarism in essays is as easy as a Google search. With the case of the chemistry students cheating in Blackboard, I imagine it was just a simple matter of checking to see whose computers had visited the site with the exam solutions and when (if we choose to do it — in the case of the chemistry students, professors were notified by students, not technology).

There are lots of strategies to combat cheating including asking students to integrate their own experiences to their responses or putting more emphasis on the process rather than a product, but I wonder whether we’re just “band-aiding” a larger problem. Unfortunately, with technology, it’s very tempting for faculty to resort to using easy, automated objective tests. It saves a lot of time in marking. And those kinds of tests are popular in online courses. But the feedback is automated and often gives students little more than a grade. To what extent are we cheating students when we reduce their learning to nothing but a number?

It’s also common (especially in universities) to rely on high-stakes, end-of-term testing like the example above. That puts a lot of pressure on students, and often ends up in a kind of academic bulimia — students cram in the information and then purge. Again, with all the other options open to us, is this the most meaningful way we can assess learning? After all, the idea of objective testing just doesn’t fit with the ways their work will be assessed they leave school. What we often call cheating in the school world is called collaboration in the work world. After graduation, students are rarely put in situations where they need to complete projects without using resources and without asking someone for help.

So, do we need to rethink evaluation? Valencia Community College in Florida has some great suggestions for testing with technology and basically suggests that we need to bring a new “mindset” to testing including the idea that every test online should be treated as an open book test and need to be designed to accommodate that reality. Stephen Downes has taken that idea one step further and suggested that all our tests should be “open source” or freely available online. Now there’s a thought.

What do you think? How do you confront cheating? Any suggestions for lessening its likelihood?

(Photo, 250208textcheating, by Stephen Dembo)

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Or more importantly, will they stay? 

The issue of student retention in online courses has gotten some attention over the years, so it was interesting to read a bit of research on the matter.   This study was done with students in an online certificate program at Montana State University-Bozeman  that had near-perfect retention.  It’s no surprise that these mature students enrolled in the program because it offered them flexibility and was related to their work.  Technical issues are still a factor in retaining students but less so now that basic computer literacy is a component of all programs, whether online or not. 

However, it’s interesting to read that students stuck it out in their online program because of the qualities of their instructor, the quality of their experience and their own personal motivations.  In fact, one of the things students valued most highly was the ability of their instructor to give them a sense of themselves as a real person.  I have to admit that I find that reassuring.  I also have to ask, are we paying attention to the things that matter most for ensuring student success in online courses?

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Last week, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released another report about the growing role of technology in our lives & the different typologies of technology use. As I scanned the report, a couple of interesting stats jumped out at me.

smily cordThe first is that the most ubiquitous personal technology in America isn’t the desktop computer but the cell phone (73% to 68%). In fact, more Americans have have sent or received a text message (41%) than played a video game (28%). What implications does that have for the way we support learning?

The second thing I noticed is how much people believe that technology has improved their ability to share their ideas and creations with others (55%), work with others in their community (55%), do their job (59%), learn new things (79%) but most importantly stay in touch with friends & family (81%). That last stat is an interesting one for those of us who believe that the best technologies connect and help us get to know each other better.

(Photo, Face, by Ishikawa Ken)

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Peter Norwig's powerpoint parodyPoor PowerPoint. She’s been having a hard time lately. Edward Tufte has been picking on her for a while. Then there’s Peter Norvig’s famous parody of the Gettysburg Address that showed how PowerPoint can kill the most inspiring message. And now, well-known cognitive load theorist John Sweller has joined in. “The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster,” he says. “It should be ditched.”

But really, the problem isn’t PowerPoint itself. It’s how people use it — mostly for bulleted lists of text. Let’s face it. Who can blame them? The first thing you see when you start PowerPoint is a template for a bulleted list. (Bad design. Blame Microsoft.) However, when you present, as John Sweller’s research points out, people will have a hard time reading and listening at the same time. They have a hard time coping with all the information being thrown at them. It just doesn’t work.

Myself, I’m only a recent convert to PowerPoint. I find it helps keep me on track during presentations since I have a tendancy to get sidetracked. I’m also a “show & tell” kind of speaker. I like to show people what I’m talking about. PowerPoint gives me a way to organize and shuffle through those pictures.

How about you? Do you think PowerPoint should go? Or are there good ways we can use PowerPoint to get your message across?

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