Mastery Learning & Personalized Digital Courseware

In my last post, I talked about the importance of instructional design in promoting or inhibiting student learning. One of the benefits when you start thinking about instructional design is you discover assumptions and constraints that your course imposes on student learning. Often, these are things you didn’t really think about before. For example, traditional college courses assume a fixed term length and then students adjust their studying to fit the calendar. Or not. There is an alternative model—the variable length term where students study until they complete the work; sometimes this is called Competency-Based Learning. The traditional approach privileges students with good time management skills and/or with lots of free time, and/or with quick learning skills. I’m not arguing that this is bad, or good. Just that it’s a constraint, one which tends to lead to a bell curve grade distribution.

Several students in my introductory courses really struggled last semester. Recall that I’ve mentioned probably having fewer than a dozen students in my career who I felt couldn’t do the work. Imagine a student working a full time and a part time job, with a wife and children and going to school “full time.” That describes one of my students last semester. When I spoke with him, he seemed reasonably bright; i.e. he seemed bright enough to be successful in my course. What he didn’t have was enough time to do the work well. This is the type of student who would probably benefit from a non-traditional instructional design.

About five years ago, I became interested in mastery learning.  See, for example, here and here. Mastery learning is an approach where students study a topic, working at their own pace, but they don’t move on to the next topic until they have learned the current one at a fairly high level of expertise. The expectation is that students won’t necessarily achieve mastery on the first try. So failure is expected, but it’s not the end result; rather, it’s one step towards mastery.

Mastery learning is like a pass-fail system, but the passing level is higher than a typical C grade. Actually, mastery is a different, more subtle notion of learning than that assumed by a standard grading system. In my mind, mastery conveys an ability more than knowledge of some content. It’s the ability to use the content in an appropriate way. It’s the difference between hearing about something and actually practicing it—being able to do it.

Mastery learning seems really important for prerequisite courses. Students sometimes see prerequisite courses as nothing more than hurdles to be gotten over in order to take the courses they really want to take. Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics are the two such courses I teach. They are the entry-level courses to the economics major. If students don’t learn the fundamentals, it’s going to be much harder when they get into the upper level courses.   It’s like trying to build a house without a foundation. Can you learn SPAN 102 without taking SPAN 101? You can, but it’s harder to do.

Only a small fraction of my students go on to be economics majors, but many major in business administration, international affairs, environmental science or other disciplines that have principles of economics as a prerequisite. What that means is that the major department believes that knowing economics will help students succeed in their major. It means that not learning economics well will make the major harder.  So prerequisite courses are not merely courses students have to take, but investments in their major. In my experience, few students see this.

In this blog, I made what was, even for me, a radical statement:

What if teachers believed that all of their students could learn enough to be successful in their class? How would teaching practice be different?

(Ironically, no one commented on that post.)  Rosa Perez-Isiah points out that “Our words impact [students’] mindsets”.  Yes, they do.  Imagine how a first semester first year student, perhaps the first in their family to attend college, hears these two statements from an instructor:

  1.  This is the course that weeds out the students who aren’t serious about [this discipline]. or
  2. I believe that every student can be successful in this course at a high level.

What would a course look like that was designed around mastery? How can one do that in a system with fixed semester lengths? Do students know what it takes to achieve mastery? How can instructional design help students believe they can be successful? We are learning more about how to answer these questions.

Technologies can be part of the answer. Let me explain. From an economist’s perspective, technology doesn’t mean digital or high tech, it means methods. The existing technology is the available knowledge about how to do something. Which means that we should be talking about technologies—all the different methods, and different technologies represent different methods or tools. By this definition, lecture is a technology, as is chalk and a blackboard, as is Blackboard or some other LMS. In short, an important part of instructional design is the choice of technologies used in a course. You can’t avoid it.  Not making a choice is still a choice.  It just may not be the best one for your class.

The key question for instructional design is what combination of technologies or design features work best for a given course, with a given group of students with a given instructor? Instructional designs that work well for one course, may not work as well for others. Instructional designs that work well for one group of students may not work as well for another, and instructional designs that work well for one instructor may not work well for another. In short, effective teaching is a tapestry, not a single recipe or bulls-eye.

Anya Kamenetz had a recent post on NPR, which offers an instructive example, or rather, counter-example. Her post explores personalized learning, which offers one philosophical approach to teaching and learning, one element of instructional design. I don’t object much to anything Kamenetz said, but rather to one of her underlying assumptions. Someone unfamiliar with personalized learning might think that Kamenetz’ definition of personalized learning is definitive, but it’s not. Personalized learning is a version of what teachers have long known as differentiated instruction. Is there only one way to offer differentiated instruction? Of course not. Kamenetz suggests that personalized learning is the entire learning design for a course. That certainly fits the examples she profiled.  But that’s like asking which tool is the toolbox? Personalized Learning isn’t or need not be the entire course. It can be simply one component .

One of the conclusions I’ve come to is teachers need to teach all students as individuals. One of the problems with schools focusing on aggregate metrics is that individuals can become left behind. Some students need different help than others. Some need more help than others. It’s not enough to raise the mean grade, if in the process we leave some individuals behind. What would this look like in practice? How can we make this a both/and, raising the mean grade but without leaving anyone behind. Given a finite amount of time and energy, how can one differentiate instruction in a college course?

Returning to my thesis, suppose there was an instructional design that could improve learning outcomes for most students. Could the instructor reallocate his or her time to focus on helping those individuals who otherwise would fall behind so that with both of these innovations all students could be successful?

LumenWaymaker-400x80Digital courseware could help in certain courses. Lumen Learning’s Waymaker is a type of digital courseware, based on mastery learning. It can also be described as personalized. There are other types of personalized & adaptive courseware, but Waymaker is the one I know best so that’s what I’ll talk about here. I am an unabashed proponent of Waymaker. I helped develop the content, and I have worked with it for more than 5 years. Most importantly, it has worked well for my students, better than a traditional textbook. I’ll report on my latest statistical results in another post.

Waymaker is best understood not as a course replacement, but as a text replacement. What does Waymaker do? It helps students learn more effectively and it identifies those students who need instructor help.

Assessment in Waymaker is integral to the learning process. It’s not just, or even primarily, about grades. Rather, assessment is designed to make students interact more deeply with the content & interact in a more intelligent way.

Waymaker is divided into modules that are analogous to chapters in a book. Waymaker embeds assessment in the content at a very granular level. The student reads a bit of text, or watches a video, or engages in a simulation, and then is immediately confronted with a short formative quiz. If the student achieves mastery on the quiz–the default mastery rate is 80%, but the instructor can adjust that–the “gate” opens and the student moves forward to the next section of content. If they fail, they are encouraged to review the content again before retaking the quiz. They can take the quiz as many times as they wish, but each time, the quiz draws random questions from a test bank so they questions are different.

At the end of each module, the student takes a longer module quiz.  If the student fails to achieve mastery on a mastery quiz, the instructor is notified. This allows the instructor to reach out to offer help & encouragement to students who need it. In any given week, Waymaker allows me to know which students are struggling – so I can reach out to only those students who need my help; and also what topics the class is struggling with – so I can spend scarce class time on the material students need help with, rather than the material they already know. In short, Waymaker gives me a better feel for the effectiveness of my teaching & student learning.

So what is the punch line? It’s that Waymaker provides another model of personalized learning, which is only part of my course

Yesterday, I’m spent time in class explaining how Waymaker works and explaining the ideas behind mastery learning. Waymaker isn’t magic or marketing-speak. It’s a combination of instructional design, learning science and regular assessment of the courseware and improvement. This is a very different way of learning, but those students who buy-in to the program and follow Waymaker’s recommendations will find it makes them successful in my course. I told them I believed this.

You may be skeptical.  But if it works, what will you think?

Image Credits:

A.Davey The Battle of Grunwald 1410-2010 via Flickr

Lumen Learning

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The Critical Importance of Instructional Design

I attended the OLC Accelerate conference last fall in Orlando, and as is often the case, I got more out of the conversations between sessions than I got from the sessions themselves. What follows is the first of a series of posts on my thinking.

Is delivery of content the primary responsibility of a college instructor? The purpose of this post is to argue that it is not. Content, at least at the introductory level, is largely a commodity. If you think your students get the content for your course from your lectures or the textbook, you might be surprised. Increasingly, students go online to find “easier” or “quicker” explanations of the content for their courses; e.g. a YouTube video. An experienced instructor can still provide an explanation of the content that works better for their students than a textbook or even YouTube, but that doesn’t make it their most important responsibility. If a student doesn’t come to class that day, what good is your explanation?

I believe the most important responsibility for teachers today is instructional design. Instructional design means intentionally creating a learning environment that makes students in a particular course want to engage with the material and with others in the course, inducing them to participate in activities that lead to deep learning.  That may include coming to class 😉

When I began teaching, I didn’t think much about the design of my courses. I adopted a textbook recommended by my department chair. I gave a midterm exam, a final exam and sometimes a term paper. I lectured about the content, and assumed that by reading the text and assimilating my lectures students would learn what they needed to be successful on the exams. After all, that’s what I did. Over time I discovered that most students didn’t learn as well as I thought they should. I also discovered that students learn best from doing economics, not reading about economics or listening to me lecture on it.  How then could I reorganize my courses to help students learn more deeply? This is a question of instructional design, something that I, like most college faculty, had little training in.

It was not until I started teaching online that I really considered the design of the learning environment in my courses. As I’ve said before, teaching online has improved my face-to-face teaching. My first formal foray in instructional design came after more than 30 years of teaching experience, during the 2017 Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute. HT to @amcollier & @slayams.

A given instructional design creates a path through a course; it both enables and constrains how students interact with content, other students, and the instructor, that is, the instructional design enables and constrains how students learn in a course.  Did you get that?  A poor instructional design may constrain how students learn?  If an instructor doesn’t think carefully and critically about the instructional designs of the courses they teach, the default is still an instructional design. It just may not be an effective way to accomplish the course learning goals.

How can one design a learning environment that genuinely engages students in a course? What are the impediments to student engagement?

If students don’t know how to be successful in a college course, I suspect that could limit their engagement. I’ve noticed that this seems to be true of weaker students. They do certain activities, like skimming and highlighting the text, but have little sense of how much they are learning or how well they have done on assessments (e.g. upon taking an exam or submitted a paper). Learning is sort of a mystery to them. This is often true of first year students just starting college.  More generally, the stronger the student, the better they understand how to learn in a given course.

Here’s a hypothesis: Students coming to college assume that learning in college will follow the same process as in their secondary education. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve demonstrated that they can win at the game of school, where grades are the point.

{Side note: Instead of students seeing learning as instrumental towards the goal of good grades, how can we make grades the instrument towards the goal of good learning? That’s an instructional design question for a future post.)

Another hypothesis: Students assume that learning in a course will follow the same process as learning in other college courses they have taken. Again, why wouldn’t they assume this? Yes, there is some recognized variation across disciplines and instructors, but the basic model is the same.

Suppose these hypotheses about student assumptions are accurate, but the  assumptions are wrong—that is, students believe learning in college is similar to learning in secondary school, but in fact it is substantially different. If so, what should we as instructors do about it? How would our teaching practice be different if we did? How would our students’ learning practice and learning performance be different? Do we have a professional obligation to change our practice?

Have you ever felt your students were unprepared for college-level work?  How often do we, as instructors, teach our students how to learn in our courses? How much do we know about how students learn? How often do we teach college-level writing? How often do we teach college-level reading? How often do we teach college-level research skills? Or do we just assume that students already know these things? In other words, they learned them in secondary school or in earlier college courses?

How can we convince students that they can be successful if they trust the process that we teach them, especially if the process is different from what they are used to? It’s not enough to just tell them.

To be continued…

Image Credit: Thomas Stromberg, Pizza Hut Delivers By Motorcycle, via Flickr.com

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Education Needs to be Inconvenient

Seth Godin is one of the most thought-provoking thinkers I know.  Here’s a recent blog post of his that FSEM students might find interesting: https://seths.blog/2018/09/education-needs-to-be-inconvenient/

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Imagination and Education

At one of the first sessions of my First Year Seminar this year, we brought in Naomi De la Tour, via Zoom conference from the Institute for Advanced Teaching & Learning at Warwick University to lead  a discussion on imagination, risk-taking and education.  Naomi did a fantastic job.  Regretfully, the internet connection was less than ideal, cutting out fairly regularly during the session.  As a result, Naomi provided a post script to the discussion, which I include here:

 

Dear all,

I’m sorry I wasn’t able to participate in the class as smoothly and seamlessly as I would have liked. We seem to be having some issues with the wifi here.

I enjoyed hearing your stories of transformative learning experiences. Thank you for sharing them. One of the things I would like to invite you to think about following the seminar is the difference between how we experience our own learning and the way it is understood or described by the system in which we learn or those working within it. As I listened to your stories, the words ‘failure’ and ‘success’ or their synonyms came up a number of times. For example, one of the stories I heard on Friday described how one of you (forgive me; I didn’t hear the name) felt that a significant learning experience had been not doing as well in a spelling bee as hoped; they described learning the lesson that sometimes success doesn’t correlate to effort, and you can fail even if you have worked hard. This is a lesson I find I keep having to learn in different situations as my life goes on (I’m trying to move away from a conception of learning as something you tick off when you’ve ‘studied’ it and towards an idea of recognising the value — and inevitability — of learning apparently the same thing many times over, sometimes because the circumstances are different and sometimes because I am understanding the nuances or applications differently) but I’d also like to gently challenge the idea that such a learning experience was a ‘failure’. If we don’t get as good a mark in something, or place as high as we would like in a competition as we would like, do we need to use the language or emotion of failure to describe it? If we have learned something that has altered our understanding or way of seeing the world might it be that, in addition to the experience of failure, we can have a sense of gain or learning? This might sound semantic, but the language we use to tell stories of our learning experiences can create or reinforce ways of imagining what ‘good’ learning is, and we can embed those in our approaches to our own interactions with learning, success and failure and our own identities.

Below, I’ve offered a few prompts and questions as an invitation to you to think about the difference between ‘official’ or ‘institutional’ learning, (perhaps this might include learning that’s listed on a lesson plan, in learning outcomes or that we might be tested on officially in exams at the end of a semester or year) and ‘unofficial’ or implicit learning that might go unrecognised or unacknowledged. It was interesting to me how many of the learning experiences you described happened outside the ‘official’ environment of a classroom, for example. This is an opportunity to reflect on your experiences and insights as ‘expert’ learners who have succeeded in the system well enough to be studying at a prestigious university.

  1. This poem by Mary Oliver is set in a classroom.

The Poet Dreams of the Classroom

Mary Oliver

I dreamed

I stood up in class

and I said aloud:

Teacher,

why is algebra important?

Sit down, he said…..

Then I dreamed

I stood up once more and said:

Teacher, my heart is falling asleep

and it wants to wake up.

It needs to be outside.

Sit down, he said.

What is your response to reading it? What do you think the student in the poem is learning in the described interactions? Given the teacher’s responses, what do you think he has internalised and learned as being important in the context of this class? How is he teaching that to the student?

2. In this excerpt from Lynda Barry’s graphic novel ‘What it is’ she talks about her schooling teaching her to ask two questions of herself whenever she draws. What do you think of her questions and the way she describes learning them? What questions have you learned to ask of yourself in relation to your learning or about something that you love to do?

3. In Nick Sousanis’s book Unflattening (first chapter here), he looks at the homogenisation and standardisation that underpins some education and makes an argument for how we internalise that within ourselves. Do you feel this is relevant to your experience of education? If so, how? If not, why?

Finally, a few more questions for you to reflect on in relation to your own experiences

  • How has your educational experience shaped your understanding of what ‘good learning’ is?
  • What do you wish to do with your life,? What do you believe a life lived well would look like for you? In what ways has learning and education helped or hindered you with this so far?
  • How you can you notice the stories you tell about your education?
  • In what ways might you think about further developing your own autonomy and agency in your education experiences?

Thank you again for inviting me to join you on Friday. I wish you a learning journey of surprise and transformation as you go through your university life. Though, as surprise and transformation rarely happen easily or in spaces of intellectual comfort, you may not thank me for that wish for you 😉

Other readings that might challenge your thinking about education:

bell hooks: Engaged Pedagogy in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

Sean Michael Morris and Lora Taub-Pervizpour: Ethical online learning: Critical Pedagogy and Social Justice

James and Brookfield: Engaging Imagination: Helping students become creative and reflective thinkers (Intro)

Neil Postman: End of Education

Paulo Freire: Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Maxine Greene: Releasing the Imagination

Best wishes,

Naomi de la Tour

 

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What Makes a Compelling Faculty Development Opportunity?

This post is going to be short and I hope sweet. The best faculty development opportunities I’ve experienced in my career haven’t been designed primarily (or explicitly?) for faculty development:  Examples include UMW’s Faculty Academy, ELI Annual Conferences, at least in the early years, the SERC project, and OpenEd Conferences, to name just a few.   What have they had in common? They were rich scholarly experiences, rather than training per se. That workshop on Excel may have taught me a few tricks with the software, but they didn’t fundamentally change the way I teach or think about teaching. The best faculty development opportunities were framed in a way that drew me in, that made me think the question they were exploring was interesting, even if I came in thinking the opposite. (I could name some of these, but I don’t wish to upset any of my friends.  What you should remember is that I ended up in the right place.) These opportunities became intellectually compelling so that for a while (an hour, a day, a few days—whatever the length of the event) I forgot about real life and immersed myself in the problem at hand. And then, much to my surprise, I found myself thinking of ways this exploration could be applied to my teaching.  In short, these activities were about scholarly learning rather than training.

That’s what I’ve found rewarding about #OpenLearning17-18.  There were several topics in #OpenLearning17 that I didn’t think would interest me, but somehow I was carried along by the interest of my co-learners, and then found that I was interested as well.  Part of it was the journey–the fact that I was studying a topic with a group of colleagues who, in the process, became friends.  I wanted to contribute to our collective learning, so I had to take the process seriously.  This is especially true in an open learning environment.  Part of it was the conference effect–that what was happening was occurring outside of my normal work.  That’s why going away, either literally or virtually, matters.  With open learning, the colleagues I worked with included people I might never have had a chance to meet in real life.  Yes, non-economists! 😉  That diversity (of place, of discipline) made the experience much richer for me.  And it continues to do so.

 

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Tolstoy, Economics and OER

OpenStax - $ Contribution page

David Wiley wrote a recent blog post that had me scratching my head. In the post, David argued that OER is in a feature of the resource, not who is providing it and whether the provider is offering it for free. This whole thing got me thinking about OER, commercial publishers and non-profit providers.

I know there are people who are opposed in principle to publishers who charge for their products in order to make a profit. I don’t have a problem with profit. If a chef opens a restaurant in my community and offers good food at a reasonable price, I am happy if they make a profit with the business, because that means they are likely to stay around. What I do have a problem with is excess profit. My favorite example, which some of you will remember, is Blockbuster Video. Blockbuster offered lousy service and charged too much. But they were the only game in town, so if you wanted to watch a video that night, you pretty much had to go to Blockbuster.

The first rule of economics is that nothing is produced for free; if it’s free to use, someone else is paying. This is not a moral judgment. Rather, it’s a fact of life. Everything (or almost everything) has a cost to produce. Image of Leo Tolstoy dressed in peasant clothing

Leo Tolstoy gave up the copyright to his early novels, and adopted a peasant lifestyle.   I can’t imagine what his family thought of that. Most of us are not like Tolstoy. We all need to provide for ourselves, and our families. When I helped write OpenStax’ Principles of Economics, I was paid a reasonable stipend to compensate me for the time. It didn’t make me rich, but it was enough. If I was one of those heroic authors, like my colleague Caitie Findlayson, who writes an open textbook without the support of any publisher, I would be able to do it only because I had the luxury of time as part of my professional responsibilities as a tenured faculty member. In other words, I would be implicitly compensated by my institution, but the cost would be the other scholarly work I wasn’t able to do in that time. There is always an opportunity cost. If I was working 9 to 5 somewhere, I wouldn’t be able to do the project at all.

OpenStax is a nonprofit organization. Where did they get the money to pay me, and to pay the other expenses of producing the book? The answer is grant funding. Grants are great, but they run out. Then what? How does OpenStax pay for the servers on which the book resides? How do they pay for updates and corrections? How do they pay for new editions? This is a perpetual challenge for non-profits. As far as I can tell, OpenStax has a four-pronged approach:

  1. They ask for donations. I don’t know how successful this us, but I suspect it’s not much.
  2. Ten percent of their adoptions are in print form. They sell these at slightly over cost, which means those copies generate some revenue.
  3. They look for more grants, but granting agencies prefer to fund new books to maintaining existing ones.
  4. They find commercial partners to work with, like Sapling Learning. Sapling offers the OpenStax text with online end-of-chapter problem sets and quizzes. In return, Sapling gives OpenStax a modest kickback, and then OpenStax markets the Sapling option. (I mention Sapling because I used their product after I adopted OpenStax. OpenStax has many more partners than Sapling.)

Do people criticize OpenStax because of their affiliation with Sapling who charges a fee for the book plus ancillaries? I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. Do they criticize OpenStax for openly allowing Sapling to use their open texts? I’ve not heard that criticism. Have people criticized Sapling for exploiting the open license of OpenStax? I haven’t heard that either.

The elephant in the room is commercial publishers who are beginning to offer OER wrapped in a package for a price. Traditional proponents of OER are rightly suspicious of commercial publishers who are new to the OER field. Commercial publishers have a long history of charging very high prices for textbooks, higher than can be justified by costs.

Take “Inclusive Access” for example. If you’re not familiar, Inclusive Access is a marketing venture by commercial publishers to rent digital texts to an entire class for a discounted price. Students are on the hook to their university for the bill, unless they opt out, so the “nudge” is in the wrong place. Inclusive Access strikes me as akin to OpenWashing. While the digital text is cheaper than a new print edition, at my school at least it’s not very cheap, coming in a bit under $100. It’s a pretty good deal for the commercial publishers, since the marginal cost of a digital copy is about zero. And Inclusive Access is certainly not OER since the access goes away at the end of the term.

When is it legitimate to charge for OER? Like any product, charging is appropriate if the product adds value, in this case to the OER. Sapling added value to OpenStax Principles of Economics because it offered a feature that OpenStax didn’t have. The problems & quizzes helped students learn better than just with the text alone. Similarly, Lumen Learning adds value in its Waymaker platform for the same reason.

Of course, one can argue that the value added isn’t worth the price. In the older model of commercial publishers, they charged for the book and then offered the ancillary products, including online quizzes and problems for free. But the package was pricey. Cengage is currently charging over $200 for their market leading Principles of Economics book.  That price has come down from its original $385.  Sapling charged about $40 for its product, which included OpenStax Principles of Economics. Lumen Learning charges $25 for its Waymaker Principles of Economics. Sapling struck me as a bargain for what it offered my students. Waymaker, which I’ve used for the last three years, is even better, especially since my own statistical analysis has shown that the average student does at least as well with Waymaker as with the previous commercial text I used. Perhaps more importantly, Waymaker seems to help weaker students more than stronger ones.

Commercial publishers have traditionally charged too high a price for their books two reasons: First, because they have a higher cost structure (due to their large sales force). Second, they have exploited their market power to charge more than a reasonable price for their products. Netflix mailing envelope w/DVD insideMonopolies often fall when a technological improvement creates better alternatives. Thus, Netflix supplanted Blockbuster.  Only when OER came on the scene did cracks appear in the commercial textbook oligopoly. (For non-economists, an oligopoly is an industry dominated by a small number of firms that exploit their joint monopoly power.) Newcomers like Sapling brought textbook prices down to under $50. And Lumen Learning brought them down to $25. Is $200 too much to ask a student to pay for a textbook? In my opinion it is, especially given the alternatives. Is $25 too much to ask? I’ve asked my students that question every semester that I’ve used Waymaker, and no student has ever said yes.

Lumen Learning deserves some kudos: For every course for which they offer their Waymaker value-added OER, they also offer a free version of the Waymaker content without the added features. This free version is openly licensed to include the 5Rs. It’s hard to ask more than that.

Disclosure: I’m the lead subject matter expert for Waymaker Principles of Economics and I’ve taught with Waymaker for the last three years.

 

Image credits:

OpenStax website

Image By Ilya Repin – ugFXC9F7-NWM9Q at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21854099

Image Netflix courtesy of Abhijit Bhaduri via flickr.com

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The nicer the hotel, the higher the price for Wi-Fi

Free WiFiThis is a response to a question posted on Twitter from @rharneson, with a nod to @BryanAlexander–the title is an application of Alexander’s Iron Law of Hotel Connectivity.

I tweeted “how annoying it was to pay for hotel Wi-Fi.”  @rharneson replied:

The nicer the hotel, the higher the price for Wi-Fi. Please explain the economics.

I’m not a micro economist, but let me try to understand and explain this. I admit that I’m using my own experience as an example, but I suspect it’s not un-typical.

People with money (either personally or on business travel) are more likely than people without money to stay in nicer hotels. This is me when I attend conferences. When I travel with family for fun, we are more likely to stay in a less expensive hotel.

People with money are more likely to need or desire connectivity.   I know that I mostly live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity. When I am home or in the office my laptop and Kindle are connected, making them work better. When I am in the car, my phone is connected. Email & social media follow me wherever I go. When I find myself in a place without connectivity, I am always surprised. Why can’t I look up a word from the eBook I’m reading on my Kindle? Of course, there are work-arounds, but they require additional effort that I don’t usually have to put in. When I travel to a conference, I tend to work a lot in my room. In such a setting, the value of internet access is significant to me.

When I travel for fun, I’m visiting friends or going to a place (e.g. beach, mountains, etc.). The hotel is a place to sleep, little more. I don’t expect to need Wifi, since I’m not there to work.

What is the price of hotel Wifi? I paid $9.95 per day last week at an otherwise nice conference hotel I won’t name. While it was aggravating to pay, the fee was less than 5% of my $200 hotel room. For that price, the convenience was worth it. (Note to hotels:  If the Wifi price is more than modest, I will consider alternatives; e.g. Wifi hotspot from my cell phone.)

Suppose the cost of offering Wifi is modest and largely fixed, whether one is supplying one room or ten. Then if, as a hotelier, you’re going to offer Wifi, but few people are willing to pay for it, the revenues brought in are likely to be minimal. So you might as well offer it for free, and offer it as a feature. Even though few people would pay for it, more people will use it and feel good about your hotel. On the other hand, if most people are willing to pay for it, you might as well charge them as long as you keep the price modest.

Image Credit: WIFI FREE! LLIURE! GRATIS! by paco, reme y nina roman pomares via Flickr.

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A Cautionary Tale about Expectations

I was talking the other day to a fairly senior administrator in academic affairs about OpenLearning18.  This administrator has been very supportive of our institution’s open initiative, and so I was just bringing him/her up to date on things open.

I made a comment about his/her boss only seeming interested in OER, but not the other “opens.” The admin looked chagrinned and said, “I’m not sure I understand any of the opens besides OER.”  I was, in a word, surprised.   I have been talking with this admin for years about the various aspects of open that I’ve been involved with, and I just assumed he/she understood what I was talking about.  Though in retrospect, I guess most of what I’d talked about in detail was OER.

I wonder how many academic leaders, that each of us interact with, do we think understand the various dimensions of open, but who really don’t.  Could that be a reason it’s been difficult to get traction?  How can we best address these wrong expectations, or more precisely, how can we better educate our leaders on the range of opens?

Something to think about!

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A Conceptual Framework?


I participated in OpenLearning17 and am back for OpenLearning18.  Why you ask?  Because I learned enough last year to articulate better questions this year.  Last year, I went in somewhat blind.  (There might be something we can learn as teachers here
about the experience of our students.) This year, I have a much better sense of what’s in store for me and how to get the most out of it.

To prepare for Week 1, I read the excerpts from Doug Englebart, “Augmenting Human Intellect“.  When I’ve read it before, I found it to be powerful but abstract.  This time around, though, I saw it as a conceptual framework for OpenLearning18.  Which is to say, my experience last year helped me understand what Englebart was saying in 1962.  And what Englebart said, has informed me about what we will be doing starting tomorrow.

Image Credit: Alex Handy from Oakland, Nmibia – Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart Uploaded by Edward

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Introduction to Learning Science: Helping students study less & learn more

In a moment of weakness, I agreed to lead a discussion on learning science, something which I find fascinating and which I’ve learned a little bit about.  Once I dug into the subject, I realized that one could teach a semester on learning science and still not cover it all.  I know–that’s naive.  So given that I only had an hour plus to present, here is what I came up with:

Video (unedited):

Powerpoint:  Intro-to-Learning-Science-2

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