Distinguishing online courses from MOOCs still a problem for the media

You’d think I’d be used to it by now. Or maybe it’s still surprising because I presume that popular press would have figured it out by now.

Like many other media outlets, The Economist once again makes the mistake of equating and confusing MOOCs with online courses. If the distinction between MOOCs and online courses is confusing to you, it may help to think of online education as a big circle, online courses as a smaller, interior circle, and MOOCs as an even smaller subset within that:

MOOCs are just a small subset of online courses, which largely represent institutionally-designed online education. Online learning includes all the informal learning that happens everyday. Of course, this isn’t to any scale; in actuality, the online learning circle should fill this Starbucks.


There are good examples of reporting on online education in the popular press — Forbes’s 2014 article by Tom Lindsay, for example, but they are rare. Too many stories in the mainstream media treat online education as if it arrived just a few years ago. Of course, K-20 institutions have been offering fully online courses and programs since the birth of the internet, and largely with great success. As fascinating as MOOCs are, they’re not really what we talk about when we talk about online education.

New on Keep Learning: Technology-Enhanced Teaching in Higher Ed and Corporate

Check out my brief post over at Keep Learning that connects some of my experiences as an instructional designer in higher education who occasionally looked over the fence to the corporate e-learning field:

Bridging the Gap: Technology-enhanced Teaching in Higher Ed and Corporate. (As a bit of history, the eye-opening conference that I reference in the post is e-Learning DevCon. I commented on the 2009 event here.)

Also, I link to a report on LMS comparisons authored by Software Advice that quotes me describing the need for simplicity. Software Advice had conducted a survey of more than 150 HR professionals who use learning management systems. They aimed to discover how their organizations are using these systems for training, what benefits and challenges they’ve experienced and what their plans are for 2015. The results should help LMS buyers as they seek technology solutions in an era when human resources and professional development initiatives sees employee engagement as more important than compliance training.

Digital Tools for Reading in a Connected Age, Part 1

The continuing information explosion creates both opportunities and problems for readers. In order to adapt, we need better habits and new tools combined in novel ways.


The key functions that I’ve found necessary for digital reading workflows include…

  1. Organize current and future reading material
  2. Isolate reading material from the distraction-rich web for improved readability and deeper reading
  3. Annotation and note-taking to reinforce understanding
  4. Reminders to read or review saved items

No single tool does all three of these things for all document types, and so I’ve been playing with a number of different tools in combination. Here’s a look at the first two functions first broadly, and then in terms of specific tools I’ve found to be useful.

1. Organize current and future digital reading material

Let’s presume we have some kind of filtering mechanism for new information. Let’s presume that filtering identifies some reading material as “read now” vs “read later”. An item may be “read now” if it’s short, or if the immediate task at hand requires discovery of new information. An item may be “read later” if it’s long, or if reading the article requires deeper thinking, or if the reading must be deliberately woven into other work.

In any case, we likely want to save the reading material for later reference. We may want to organize the reading material for faster finding, or matching with themes or categories.

Diigo vs Pocket vs Readability for Web Pages

Diigo has been a favorite tool for saving, tagging, and organizing reading material ever since they went live groups and web page annotation capabilities.

Diigo is a classic social bookmarking tool with a 2-click process to save a document to read later. It seems a small thing, but Diigo automatically closes the current tab when you choose “Read Later”. This helps me keep my browser tidy while I’m exploring a topic.

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Diigo’s browser plugin for Chrome.

And while Diigo addresses function #1 exceedingly well, it does nothing to address function #2, so I’ve been exploring other options, particularly Readability and Pocket

Readability and Pocket are very similar in terms of their saving capabilities. Both have a simple browser add-on that lets you save documents for later (1 click for Pocket; 2 clicks for Readability).  But there are important differences.

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Readability and Pocket’s browser plugins for Chrome.

Readability is simpler. Its “Read Now” capability assumes most web browsing will read to immediate reading, and so it converts web pages into a consistent, simple text format with font sizing and line length that is advantageous to reading.

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Does anyone enjoy reading the unclipped lines in Wikipedia? Readability FTW.

To do the same thing in Pocket requires at least one additional click, added load time, and some navigational confusion as you are taken to your Pocket index in a separate tab.

However, Pocket is more versatile. Pocket has more features and social capabilities for sharing articles, and lets you tag items. What is really enticing about pocket is it lets you save videos and images just as you save articles, including PDFs.

Unfortunately, Diigo is the only one of these three that has annotation capabilities, and this is an important element for me when I am reading online (more on that later).

Mendeley for Academic Articles

Not all digital reading comes in HTML format. When I discover an academic article online, most likely it is a PDF *. While I could just bookmark these or use Diigo or Pocket or whatever and then read them in the browser, this is not always fit for the task. Most academic articles require slower, deliberate poring over. Organizing academic articles benefits from richer metadata, and that metadata is typically re-used for bibliographies and references. That’s why I use Mendeley for academic articles.

While Mendeley does have a desktop plugin that’s good for creating new entries in your Mendeley db, it does not auto-save web pages or PDFs for offline reading. Further, when I find a PDF I often want to secure it, in case it’s not available when next I search.

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Mendeley’s rather large browser plugin for Chrome.

So I start by saving the PDF into a Google Drive folder that is watched by the Mendeley app. I also have Mendeley automatically rename and organize those PDFs into a different folder on Google Drive. Using a cloud file manager for the watched folder means I can easily move from one computer to another, access files from project management tools like RedBooth, and share files easily with collaborators.

Mendeley also has a decent groups functionality which allows for sharing of articles, with notes and annotations. I use this with my team at work. Mendeley’s document management capabilities come with metadata lookup from their database. That alone is enough to make it my article manager of choice.

2. Tools to Isolate Reading Material from the Distraction-Rich Web

If you think you lose more than you gain by disconnecting your reading from the web, don’t bother arguing here. While I see benefits to both methods, for my part, reading on the connected web is simply too distracting. Even if I weren’t to click on any links, side and top bars distract my attention, and you never know when a web page is going to pop-up a survey or something. Also, you’re dependent on an internet connection.

So I isolate items — both web pages and PDFs — for offline reading using cloud apps that allow me to access those items on my phone, on my tablet, or on any computer.

For the experience of reading PDFs offline, I stick with Mendeley. Mendeley’s desktop app is easy to navigate, and the built in annotation tools give me everything I need without much overhead. The Mendeley mobile app is solid, and recent versions have introduced annotation capabilities that do sync up with the desktop version (perhaps to keep abreast of tools that leverage Zotero or Mendeley’s API, like Papership). The Mendeley mobile app does make you sync everything or nothing (actually, one article at a time, on demand), but that’s probably a good dilemma to have with the amount of PDFs that I have saved.

Mendeley’s iPad app, adding a note to a highlighted document

For web pages, all three of tools reviewed here (Diigo, Readability, and Pocket) have mobile apps for offline reading. Unfortunately, the Diigo Browser iPad app is pretty lousy for offline reading, especially compared to the simply beautiful Readability and Pocket apps.

Pocket’s iPad app displays offline articles as preview tiles.

Because I just don’t have a preference for one or the other, I’m sticking with Readability for now.

Readability’s iPad app syncs when opened for offline reading.

In part that’s because Pocket has more options that I don’t know what to do with. I may switch to Pocket if videos and images become a greater part of my reading and curation habits, or if new possibilities using Pocket’s tagging capabilities + IFTTT arise.

More on IFTTT as part of the reading process in the next post as I look at how to develop habits of reading that reinforce understanding of new information.

* A couple pro-tips for finding PDF versions without a college library login:

1. After searching in Google Scholar, click “All X versions” — you’ll often find at least one PDF.

2. In Google generally use the file type operator, filetype:pdf along with the title of the article.

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Why I Only Read Half the Things I’d Like To (and Remember Less than Half of Those I Do)

The present information explosion is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, we can find more resources on more topics in less time, with less effort, and at lower costs.  On the other hand, the unending streams of information can be overwhelming. We call this cognitive overload, and its ill-effects may include decision paralysis, continual partial attention, and other task-switching related costs.


Social Media Information Overload by Mark Smiciklas CC By-NC

Knowledge is power, but information is not.
David Lewis, “Dying for Information?” (1986)

I think about this problem especially in context of reading. It’s really no surprise that there appear to be increased cognitive load and associated visual distraction when reading on the web. Even setting the challenges of reading hypertext aside, we’ve known for a while that the act of reading digital is different from reading print, and that reading digital effects our outcomes (e.g. spatial-related understanding, speed, comprehension). This may be especially apt when the goal of reading is learning.

Personally, I want to read everything I can. If I sit next to a discarded newspaper on the train, I read it. If a trusted colleague shares a link on Twitter, I read it. If a blog post hyperlinks to an external site, I read it. If a web search yields five good results, I read each.

Or, at least, I intend to read those things. Often I save the document to “read later”, in some for or another: I can open the web page in a new tab; I can bookmark an article using Diigo; I can store a PDF in my Mendeley watched folder; I can save a web page for later using Pocket; I can star a tweet; I can relegate an RSS feed to Feedly. Etc.

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Unfortunately, too often those articles are abandoned. Too often I quickly skim an article to check it off my list and don’t really comprehend it. Even when I do read an article thoroughly and take notes in a fashion that reinforces my new knowledge, those notes aren’t always readily available, let alone organize, to review at a later point.

The fog of information can drive out knowledge.
Daniel Boorstin, “Helping the Library of Congress Fulfill Its Mission” (1983)

To combat these problems I’m squarely in the camp of Howard Rheingold and others, who seek tools and practices that help us thrive in information-rich environments. To date, I’m still seeking to solve the complicated problems of trans-media reading with different combinations of tools, but I’ve not found the perfect solution yet. In upcoming posts I’ll share some of the more promising pairings that I’ve hit upon.

Infographic on LMS course web site designs

The Instructure Research and Education team (myself along with Aaron Johnson, Alison Irvine, Matt Harrison) has released its first infographic into the world:

Complexity and Depth in LMS Course Designs

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A snippet from the infographic.

As the title suggests, this infographic reflects our recent foray into ways of making useful categorizations LMS course designs by looking at things like navigational complexity and depth of feature usage.

The survey at the bottom of the infographic will inform phase 2, which we’ll begin on this spring.

See also my post on Instructure’s Extra Credit blog: Categorizing and Comparing LMS Course Designs

“I fought the LMS…”: My First 10 Years With Learning Management Systems

This weekend I stepped in it. I made the mistake of challenging Jim Groom in public on his casual claim that “the open web kicks learning management systems (LMS) asses when it comes to teaching and learning in higher ed”. Oh, I meant what I said, and in a couple subsequent Twitter conversations I both suggested my point of view and gave notice that I am willing to be the champion for the LMS in some kind of a throwdown.

Yes, Bill, ^ for you.

I know, it seems to be a pretty masochistic position to put myself in Continue reading

“Lossless learning” challenges our thinking about instruction

At InstructureCon 2014 I shared some of our thinking behind a couple of new Canvas tools that aim to make face-to-face teaching easier and more effective: Polls (to address conceptual understanding) and MagicMarker (to address skills, attitudes, and more). In the coming months I’ll be talking more about the central hypothesis of “lossiness” that drove the development of these tools for the company, but here I intend to diverge a bit and explore this idea from alternative angles.

The assumptions we began with are…
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Google Glass — “Nauseous, unsteady, naked”*

glass mice

Of course anytime we see a novel technology enter the consumer market we also see nerd-minded educators (like myself) and business-minded observers (not usually me) begin asking how the Latest New Shiny will revolutionize education. Google Glass, wearable computer with a brand new acronym (OHMD) is one of those.

Actually, I don’t know if Google Glass is one of those.  Continue reading

Flipping isn’t a thing apart

Re-posted from Keep Learning

Slate’s article on “flipped classrooms” in colleges by Rebecca Shuman is useful as a hub to recent work on the approach. But it’s also an interesting starting point for conversation on what “flipping” is all about.

Schuman points out several potential problems with flipped classroom models that deserve consideration. It’s not just that “professors are forever annoyed—often justifiably so—at the possibility of “disrupting” an instructional style that is often the result of years of trial and error”, it’s that the flipped model seems risky; indeed, the article starts by warning students that they may be part of an experiment and not even know it! (So much for the “years of trial and error” it’s taken to perfect the traditional model…)

Continue reading