Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Monday, September 8, 2014

I'm starting a new role

I've spent the last few months thinking hard about exactly what I wanted to do next.  A vision of the kinds of improvement that were possible in the long term for university teaching, and a path for getting there began to take shape. (An earlier version of some of those ideas was tested in this blog, in entries like this one.

Once I realized that working with those ideas was my goal, the next challenge was to find a place to put these notions to the test (somewhere near Silver Spring, MD where Leslie and I have long lived) and to find a good team to work with. 
The great news is that there was such a place and they were looking for someone with ideas and a track record like mine. 

So I'm happy to announce that I've just accepted the position of Assoc. Director for Research and Evaluation at the University System of Maryland's Center for Academic Innovation, working with MJ Bishop. The System has a delightful range of distinctive institutions as members, which should provide a good fire in which to cook my half-baked ideas.  And it gives me a chance to give back to the state where we've lived for 35 years.  I'll be starting in my new role on Sept. 22.

Limits to Interactive MOOCS (?)

In a recent Wired article, "The MOOC Completion Conundrum: Can 'Born Digital' Fix Online Education,", Dror Ben-Naim points to the potential of more interactive MOOCs to provide a more individualized, interactive educational experience.

Experience with interactive tutorials over the last half century suggests at least two questions to ask about any new strategy of this type:

1) How many person hours does it take to create, and debug, an hour's worth of student experience?  Historically that figure has been "hundreds to thousands," and the time requirement has changed less than one might guess over the decades. That's partly because the standards for the user experience have increased as the technologies have improved. But an even bigger factor has been the need for human judgment to assess how satisfactory each branch will be for various kinds of learners (learners with different preconceptions, learners with different reading skills, etc. etc.)

2) How many person hours does it take for a faculty member to decide whether this package offers good experience for all students?  Textbooks are generally comparatively easy to judge because tables of contents and thumbing through the book make triage easy. Instructional videos generally take much more time because faculty may feel the need to watch virtually the whole video, or video sequence, before their students see it. Interactive software can take even more time when instructors, unfamiliar with the package, want to see how it reacts to students with varied preparation, misconceptions, etc.  It's that same problem of judging the branching that makes development so expensive.

3) How soon might changes in underlying technology make the user interface seem old-fashioned, or interfere with the operation of the software itself? In that event, where will the money and effort come from to update the software? 

Interactive tutorials have often demonstrated impressive educational results, compared with less interactive ways of teaching the same content or skills.  However most such packages have died without ever progressing to Version 2.0 because there was no satisfactory answer to at least one of those three questions.

So, if you hear about a new technology for creating highly interactive and individualized instruction, it's wise before you leap to ask those three questions.