Category Archives: E-learning

MicroTeaching Challenge to STEM Folks on Digital Learning Day

On Digital Learning Day, give some of your time to a teen in need. Got STEM Smarts? Help a struggler in Math. Your 10 mins could make the difference between a future scientist and a janitor.   We know about micro payments, what about micro service? Microteaching?

There are 1000 questions in math alone, looking for an explanation. Plenty of help needed in Physics, Chemistry and Biology as well. Hundreds of good people are already helping.  Have you done your share?

Are you really a good teacher?  Think your explanations of Lenz’s law are outstanding? Well try it out on an unknown learner in North Dakota, home schooled, and at home.  What about an ESL learner?  Is it Raoult’s Law that they don’t’ understand or can’t do algebra?  Are they in middle school or college?  Here is a true test of your ability to articulate an explanation on the fly!

Go on, take the challenge.  Let’s see how you can handle this! is an NSF SBIR project.


Meet the Rock Star of Math Help on OpenStudy

“Hi, my name is amistre64, and I am a mathaholic.

Why do I use OpenStudy?  I came across it in March.  It was free and looked like something I could use to both teach and learn about math, and math related accessories 🙂

I used to be in construction work, but now I am going to college to get a Master’s in math to become a college math teacher.”

Amistre is on OpenStudy a lot.  He is always there.  He has achieved the level of 100, the highest attainable level on OpenStudy. There are few at this level.  He will help you only if you care to learn.  The “Give me an answer and let me be gone” attitude does not work for him.  His explanations in calculus are a joy to behold.  Here’s an image of an explanation, midway through one of his conversations.  You can see the entire conversation here

Why does he do it?  His answer is, quite simply, “to help”. Amistre is proof that altruism still thrives, that people passionate about learning are willing to teach our hapless teens.  We don’t pay Amistre.  The community “pays” him through their regard and appreciation.

He has over 800 fans, which means there are hundreds of students on our system who appreciate him, who gave him a signal of their regard and respect, who want to get to know him.  When someone appreciates his help, they give him a medal.  He has earned that again and again, more than 6,000 times in Math.

What does that tell us?  In contrast to reports of high schoolers’ apathy to math and to studying, we have evidence that high schoolers do care about learning. When provided the right framework, when someone takes the time to talk to them and help them solve a math problem, they truly appreciate it.  With typical teenage fervor, they shower Amistre with tokens of their appreciation.  By “fanning” him they are saying that he is a Rock Star of Math—the Justin Bieber of Math Help on OpenStudy!

For me, every time a kid thanks Amistre, I see another vote for learning.  The way Amistre sees it, every time he gets a medal, he turns the light bulb on for a kid, and he’s got his reward.

Hacking education again on OpenStudy: Communities of Practice


Sasogeek put that comment on OpenStudy, unasked and unsolicited.  You can see it for yourself.

As I read his note, I was reminded of Lave and Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice.

I first came across Lave and Wenger’s work in the Gilfus publications (thank you Stephen Gilfus and the smart people at Gilfus Foundation) and we consciously tried to articulate and build these principles into the social learning platform of OpenStudy.

Lave and Wenger explained their concept with an example of tribes gathering to learn some skill like hunting the sabre-toothed tiger. “Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor. “ In a Community of Practice, a group of people who share a passion for something get together to learn how to do it better (see the blog,

An effective Community of Practice integrates three elements:  (i) The Domain. The group has a shared domain of interest, which gives it an identity and gives rise to the concept of Membership.  Members are committed to the domain and share their competencies with others in the group. (ii) The Community. Members have to work together, help each other, and share information, interact and build relationships that enable them to learn from each other.  (iii) The Practice. Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short, a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction (from Wenger’s website).

And voilá, that is what has happened in Saso’s case.

He is now a member of a marvelous, completely online community  of practice, a global, online, virtual community, where no one has seen the other, that transcends geography, race, and politics. Everyday Saso gets online from Ghana to discuss math and computer science with his online friends. Somehow through these unscripted interactions, with no “teacher” or official “advisor”, no College provided “mentor” or Advising Office, he has gained the confidence to take his test.  As an educator, I find that humbling.  This community has empowered its members in the best tradition of the “Houses” of Harvard or Yale or Princeton!

There are 70,000 registered users of OpenStudy in over 500 study groups.  Their call to action is to seek help and to give help.  And though some flit in for an answer and out again, many remain to band together and grow into a true community of practice. They help one another, advise, support, sympathize, encourage, serve as role models—in short, offer everything we would want our students to encounter.  I am convinced the online nature of this environment, the 24/7 availability of this community, the easy informality, maybe even the lack of prominent power figures all contribute to fostering this new manifestation of a community of practice.  But what blows me away is that help is now within reach for all those who cannot go to a Harvard or a Yale, who work two jobs and then go to school, who cannot linger after class to seek the advice of an instructor, or who are taking courses online with no study hall to meet friends and advanced year students.

These Communities of Practice empower the individual learner to create their own academic support, and further hack away at the establishment.  Don’t you agree?

Badges for Retention: Why not?

Let’s face it.  This is the generation that grew up on world of Warcraft and Simcity.  We gave them the pokemons, the Nintendo DSs, the Halos and the laptops. So no big surprise that our digital millenials have short attention spans and hyperactive fingers.

Nowhere is the problem more acute than in online courses.  While bricks and mortar ivies can boast of near perfect 4 year retention (>90%), consider by stark contrast retention in online programs and courses.  In a recent study, it appears that retention of 30-40% across the board would be considered good(Cite).  And this is when students have paid for the courses.  It is hardly surprising that retention in free and open courseware, where learners are accessing the content, without having paid anything, with no fear of exams or grades or other pressures to keep them motivated and in the course, retention is more like 1-2%.

There are many reason we would want to increase the retention numbers for free and open courseware: it is easy to access, completely affordable, and offers a dazzling range of extremely high quality content.  Open courses can compensate for example for  weak school systems, ill trained teachers, limited course offerings, and rural schools. Can offering badges then provide a solution to the retention problem?

Kids like badges. The concept of badges is intricately woven into the philosophy of gamefication: levels, medals, achievements, finding and hoarding “stuff” as a reward when you attain a level and more.  In a learning game framework, a badge that stands for an accomplishment, one that is not easy to attain till a certain level of competency is demonstrated could be very desireable.  If the badge can be displayed on the owner’s social networking sites to their friends, it will have even greater value.

Would badges then be the key to keeping our young learners working through MIT OCW 6.00 Intro to Python programming?  After all we trained them on World of Warcraft and Pokemon, why not take the next logical step and let them collect badges in their quest for knowledge?  Want to hear more about OpenStudy’s take on badges, I’ll be talking with P2Pu and OER U on a panel moderated by Alastair Creelman(@alacre)at the EFQUEL conference tonight.  There is a webinar at an unearthly hour for me, but it promises to be very interesting. Check it out.

GT opens the classroom doors to the world

Under the leadership of  C21U Director Rich DeMillo, current Distinguished Professor and former dean of the Georgia Tech College of Computing, GT is offering its first MOOC class.  In addition to the GT students taking it for credit, DeMillo has invited everyone and anyone to join in this learning journey with the GT students.  The GT course follows the Change MOOC being offered by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier.  What this means is that students of this course will read, discuss, collaborate and otherwise study the content being curated by the trio.  They will encounter not only thought leaders from around the world, but classmates from around the world.  How will they do all this?  Blogs, twitter, posts, emails, and all that and their very own truly global study group on OpenStudy to groupthink and share.

But what a amazingly good idea!  Take a few minutes to appreciate the magnitude of this step.  Allowing GT students, the traditional registered kind to mingle, partake of, study with, and otherwise co-learn with nonGT and folks from wherever.  Has this been done before?  Are we not knocking at the traditionally walled gardens of colleges and universities?  This folks is a true leadership moment, and both GT and DeMillo are to be commended.  It is dangerous territory for a traditional educational institution, untested waters for sure, and like with any disruption, could lead anywhere.  Where do you think it will lead?

Open Social Learning aka Massively Multiplayer Online Learning

Access to education is a major problem for most governments.  How big is this problem? According to Sir John Daniel (1996), “More than one-third of the world’s population is under 20. By 2006, 100 million qualified to enter a university will have no place to go.  To meet this staggering demand, a major university needs to be created each week.”  Today, that is about 4 universities a week. Clearly that is not happening.  How then do we educate the millions?

OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCWC) and the Open Education movement is addressing this question of access by providing millions access to high quality courses developed in the best institutes of higher learning like MIT and Johns Hopkins.  And yet is that enough?  Anyone, whether educator or student, knows that learners always need help, and learning alone is, well, boring.  In the Gates Foundation “Silent Epidemic” study, 88% of the dropouts studied had passing grades.  They could have passed, but even in a school were too bored to finish.  When you consider distance or online learning you just ring in the death knell.  As George Siemens says of online courses, “Great video and talented presenters. My only complaint: I’d like to interact with others who are viewing the resources. Creating a one-way flow of information significantly misses the point of interacting online.” In the same Gates Foundation study, researchers learned that 47% of dropouts say “classes are not interesting.” Other studies show 60% find video lectures “boring” and 60% read less when using e-textbooks.  These are the key problems of education: how to bring help to online learners, how to scale it, and how to add interaction so learners are kept engaged.

In my talk at OCW Consortium Global 2011 meeting last week at MIT, I raised these issues. I talked about the notion of Open Social Learning and how it could solve these two problems.  The solutions are based on some wonderful and established work in the learning sciences.  Leve and Wenger (1991) proposed the theory of a community of practice where members come together with a common passion or a need to do something, to learn something.  In such a community, learning is enhanced through interactions, encouragement, role models and support.  Peer-to-peer learning allows learners to help one another, benefitting both the learners and the tutors (Fuchs, 1997). Best of all, it is scalable to the millons.

Our Open Social Learning solution to these three problems of education is therefore elegantly simple. In this solution OpenCourseWare courses are augmented by a community of learners who help one another, support one another and learn together as they socialize and spend time together online. Not only is this solution validated by educational research, it is also eminently scaleable because you are not dependent on hiring tutors or teachers to spend time assisting self learners.  The community helps one another.  Open Social Learning also fits right in with what our digital millenials want to do: hang out online for hours!  Why not get them talking about math instead of … well, let’s not go there.

Our solution is available at  We think of it as Massively Multiplayer Online Learning. What do you think?

UofPeople challenges universities

Meet University of the People. They call  themselve’s the world’s first tuition-free online academic institution dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education. I am not sure if they are the first, but there is certainly a lot to admire about them and their CEO, Shai Reshef.  For one, I admire is their focus on peer to peer learning as the vehicle for promoting learning.  Like most educators, I value p2p learning and so am glad to see a university built on this value.  Certainly, as I have been saying, p2p can address the issue of scaling help for e-learning.  To think of hiring tutors to help and engage the millions of self directed learners, in this country and globally, is unthinkable.  Moreoever, peer to peer tutoring helps both the learner and the peer tutor learn better.

Next, the timing of their classes must win them other admirers. Classes start at midnight!  That must seem like a relief for all the bleary eyed teenagers who come to life between 6 pm and 5 am.  Most of all, I admire this non-profit’s willingness to take on HE, Higher Education with a capital H and capital E, on their own turf, seeking accreditation to provide a low cost but high quality alternative to a college education.  I wish them well on this quest, though it appears to be a daunting one.

After all,we need new models of education and new ways of thinking that challenge the status quo. A model that broadens access and breaks down barriers of geography and cost seems to be a no brainer.  Right?

Altruism or why do teens help one another online?

“Facebook and Twitter may topple autocratic regimes, but it will be blended learning that empowers hundreds of millions of youth to lead healthy and more productive lives.”   — Tom Vander Ark

Online courseware by itself does not offer a supportive learning experience or the engagement and motivation needed to keep students in schools and colleges. Studies show 60% of students find video lectures “boring” (Mann, 2009), and 60% of students read less when using e-textbooks (Rickman et al, 2009).  In the Silent Epidemic studyfunded by the Gates Foundation, 47% of dropouts said a major reason for dropping out was that “classes were not interesting” and they were “bored”. Remarkably, 88% of dropouts had passing grades (Bridgeland et al, 2006). These students are not failing out of school; they are simply disengaging.

Therein lies the core problem: How to engage a generation of learners, who live on the Internet yet tune out of school, who seek interaction on Facebook yet find none on iTunes U, who need community yet are only offered content.  Clearly the answer has to have a digital element – because we know that is where our cyberteens live 24/7.  But online learning alone can’t keep them engaged, and we have plenty of studies that prove that.  Here is where the recent studies on “Blended learning” provide encouraging results.

Blended learning adds a human element, through faculty or teaching assistants to keep learners engaged.  But how do you scale this solution to the millions of self directed learners online, or  reach out globally?  The answer has to be peer-to-peer: empower, enable, facilitate conversations around learning, so learners can help each other.  It is social, you can chat about stuff, it is timely, someone around the world is sure to be online to answer, and often the help may often be more useful than what teacher or instructor may provide.

You may say, “I can understand the panicky teen asking for help before a test, but will there be someone to help? And why would they bother? ” If you have a minute, take a look at the Mathematics group on OpenStudy. (

Yes, questions are posted in rapid succession, but you will find people taking time to  use the equation editor to craft a solution to a problem.  There is always someone wanting to help.  Altruism is certainly alive and doing well amongst these cyberteens.  And it is through these conversations facilitated by blended learning, that we will engage and empower millions of learners, everywhere.

For AP Calc Teachers, a MIT OCW + OpenStudy Course to prepare you!

Where is a teacher to turn when he or she is assigned to teach an AP course, in Calculus.  Well, try one of the OpenCourse ware courses says, Susan Gilleran, a seasoned educator from Ann Arbor Michigan.  She recommends MIT OCW’s Introduction to Calculus.  (

What is OpenCourseWare you ask? The concept of sharing educational resources freely around the world, referred to as “open education resources (OER)” or “open courseware“, is now gaining mainstream acceptance both inside and outside of the academy and has been adopted by over 200 higher education institutions worldwide.   According to the OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCW), open education has three main advantages: access and distribution of knowledge to regions of the world where higher education is not readily available; recruitment and retention of students, as well as curriculum development and research collaboration among faculty; and sustainability of interest in and access to higher education.  The OCW Consortium offers thousands of free, high-quality courses, developed by hundreds of faculty, used by millions worldwide. OCW is attractive to students (42%), self-learners (43%), and educators, with large numbers (46%) of users from the US.

The largest OER provider is the OpenCourseWare (OCW) Consortium, which includes over 200 universities that are making thousands of courses and other materials available online via web sites, iTunes U, and YouTube EDU. Some of the world’s best institutions of higher learning offer their courses on OCW, MIT, Yale, Berkeley, University of Korea, Johns Hopkins, U Michigan, U. Delft to name a few. These courses are immensely popular; MIT’s well-known OCW site gets 9 million unique visitors.  About 40 to 45 percent of OCW users are traditional students (15-24 years old), another 40 to 45 percent are professionals and independent learners, and the rest are teachers, educators, and others.

For the K-12 community, Open Educational Resources and the OCW content offer educational enhancement opportunities at several levels.  Course material on all manners of subjects is freely available and downloadable in different formats and can help teachers better prepare themselves or improve and enhance their instructional content.   Consider this:

  • For teachers being asked to teach a relatively new subject or just reenergize, (a Math teacher being asked to teach Physics- does it ever happen?)
  • For students wishing to prepare for AP exams or college level courses
  • For high school students wanting to explore a new subject, anthropology?
  • For college-bound students in the process of applying, wishing to learn about the institution and its academic environment, well, you have the insider’s view now.

What is missing on OCW courses are the people to answer questions and chat with.  Recently, OpenStudy, a company that I co-founded, offers way for learners on OCW to meet and chat and learn together and fills that  very need.  Why study alone when you can study together?  There are 5000 others like you studying Single Variable Calculus on OpenStudy’s study group for this course.  Check it out and let me know. (

What I learned in B School…

Certainly, too much for one post. But since a lot my colleagues have asked me this, presumably because I am a scientist/educator/dean/ let me try to address that.

New strategies for problem solving and decision making would be my number one. everyone encounters problems to solve and decisions to make. I now have many more strategies in my toolbox.

Lessons in leadership would be as important.  This topic sounds touchy feely but is so critical. It was great to have an opportunity to think about it and to learn about it.

Finally, I relearned what it was to be a student.  It was wonderful to go through the cohort experience, to learn together from others, to ask for help, to be ready to accept help from a fellow sufferer, to give help, to work together on assignments, that would have been impossible alone.  This shared experience builds lasting bonds.

An educator who loses touch with being a student, loses touch with reality.  It was a compelling opportunity to rethink learning and review teaching.  Lesson learned: Too often educators ignore the social component of learning instead of harnessing its power.  Big mistake.  Everyone wants to get help and give help and a successful educational experience incorporates that element.