A variety of educational models from which to choose


I was in a meeting yesterday where we were discussing different ways that we (as a school, or as faculty) might innovate in educational delivery. I felt I was flying a bit blind, bumping around in the dark, hunting for answers. I needed some type of landmarks for navigating this journey. The following are some of the high level organizational ideas that helped me think about the possibilities.

Available models

The models that I could come up with varied in several ways:

  • Are students learning at the same time?
  • Are students learning in one big group, or alone, or in “pods”?
  • Are students in the same place as the teacher?
  • Is the intermediary technology of extremely high quality or not?

I’m sure there are other ways that this pizza can be sliced, but this was helpful for me as I considered the possibilities…

Bored students are not the fault of the student
Same time, same place

This is the traditional method of teaching as practiced by universities and just about everyone else for hundreds of years. Before computing and communication technologies, there really weren’t any alternatives to this to speak of. Now, if traditionalists in the higher-ed community want to continue to offer this model, then the benefits of having students all in the same room with the teacher have to outweigh the serious costs and inconveniences of making that happen. Too often, students get lectured at in a classroom when they could have gotten just as much out of it on a YouTube video (given the chance he/she actually had to interact with the faculty or students). If universities want to continue to deliver this model, they are going to have to up their game.

Education delivered under this model certainly varies tremendously based on the number of students. We have everything from a small seminar with maybe 5 students, to a small classroom with 15 students, to a medium-sized class where everyone knows everyone else in the class, to a huge lecture hall filled with anonymous students.

Global education, any time, any place
Different times, different places

Of all the alternative models, this is the slow pitch over the heart of the plate (for those of you who understand “baseball”). Or the “gimme” for the golfers among us. Khan Academy has seemingly taken the world by storm with its self-paced tutorials on (seemingly) just about anything. My parents even asked me about them.

The myriad tools that make this model possible are widely (and cheaply) available. When professors create these resources to teach the “basic facts” of their course, this could free up class time for more valuable activities. It would also allow students to learn the concepts at their own pace and also ask questions before the class in which the concept is used, thus allowing more students to have a positive contribution to the activity.

Every professor should see this these technologies as a way of making his/her own teaching in a classroom better right now. It shouldn’t take a school initiative — just go do it.

Same time, single remote place (standard quality)

Here at Ross we have been doing this for nearly two decades in our Global MBA Program and now our ExecMBA Program (among others). The professor is in one place and the students are sitting in some classroom far, far away. This is fairly easy to do moderately well. The problem is the limited bandwidth between the teacher and the students in the class. It is really hard to get a dynamic classroom environment going — subtle clues are difficult to pick up, and it’s hard to get a quick give-and-take discussion going.

This model gets harder to implement well as the number of students increases, or the size of the display screen on either end decreases! All subtlety is lost in this type of environment.

Same time, single remote place (telepresence)

Telepresence is defined in wikipedia as:

Telepresence refers to a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance of being present, or to have an effect, via telerobotics, at a place other than their true location.

The idea here is that the recipient end (classroom with students) has some pretty high-end video and audio technology which enables the students to get a much better sense of the professor being in the classroom (although she might be continents away). Most of the technologies today are related to conference rooms, but it is fairly easy to project that larger-scale implementations would give the impression of a faculty member lecturing at the front of the class (from the students’ side of things) and a faculty member seeing a roomful of students (from the faculty member’s side).

For now, this would be a relatively high-end, expensive undertaking; however, soon enough it will be expected. It is a nearly perfect tool for projecting a high end brand (e.g., a superstar professor from a highly reputable university) to classrooms all around the world. The professor could be in some production room anywhere (becoming more common all the time) and the students could be anywhere that the university is able to project its brand, to attract a large enough body of its students. Further, there’s no reason that all of these students would have to be in the same classroom. Why couldn’t there be a pod of students in Shanghai, another in Los Angeles, and a third in Sao Paolo?

If universities are worried about other universities moving into “their territory” now, they haven’t seen anything yet.

Yes, you could actually take classes in your pajamas
Same time, multiple remote places (singles)

This is a model that I described in a previous post, supported by tools such as LectureTools. The idea here is that students don’t necessarily need to come to a specific classroom in order to learn the material — all they have to do is watch, and participate in, the “broadcast” of the lecture. Under this model (practiced at the University of South Florida, among other places), students could either be attending a traditional university and taking the online class along with their other face-to-face classes, or they could be physically at home but attending summer classes back at school, or they could be “joint enrolled” in a class taught at another university.

Same time, multiple remote places (groups)

This is a variant of the previous model. It emphasizes the fact that there are benefits to having multiple students in the same room going through the process together. Maybe they work on exercises together; maybe they have group activities; maybe they have small group discussions at specified times during the class; maybe they have different skill levels so that one person can help mentor the other students. Any of a variety of circumstances might be applicable but, in any case, here we have the same remote educational process but students are attending the session in groups.

Blended models

Finally, the “unit of analysis” need not be a full semester class. It could be that a teacher organizes the class so that it meets once every couple of weeks in person and meets remotely during the other weeks. Or maybe there would be one in-person meeting at the beginning and then lots of smaller different time and different place learning activities for a month, followed by same time, multiple place sessions. The possibilities are endless — but only if teachers learn to think about applying the right teaching method to the right desired learning outcome.


Certainly, the above taxonomy doesn’t cover all of the interesting dimensions that are available. A couple, right off the top of my head, are the number of students enrolled in the class (i.e., is this a MOOC?), whether or not the student’s performance is graded, and whether or not the student’s performance or capabilities are certified. All of these matter, but they are for me to think about at another time and place (ha! little joke!).

Let me know what you think about the above. Does it help you think about the possibilties? Any other big dimensions I should include in my thinking?

Technologies for broadcasting your class

Last week at Enriching Scholarship here at the University of Michigan, Perry Samson — Thurnau Professor, founder of the Weather Underground, and co-founder of LectureTools — discussed a set of technologies for broadcasting your class. He uses these technologies to broadcast to remote students while other students are simultaneously in his classroom. I was so intrigued by his demonstration, I asked for, and today I received, a demonstration in my office by one of the sales people with the company. What follows are my impressions of the system, based on both his presentation and her demonstration.

These are the tools that Perry uses in his class:

These tools fit together well, but it was a bit confusing for me to get my head around. I’’ll try to give you a sense of what each piece does.

Splashtop is the easiest for me to understand, and the one that most people probably have the most immediate use for. At the most basic level, it mirrors your computer’s desktop on your iPad. In a classroom, it allows you to use your iPad as you walk around the room as the ultimate remote. You can control slide navigation while also being able to annotate the slides through your iPad’s interface. I never go anywhere without my Kensington wireless presentation remote; I appreciate being untethered from the lectern. However, walking around with the whole interface in my hands sounds like a real win-win.

LectureTools is more complicated to understand. This is a cloud-based service to which a professor uploads a PowerPoint or Keynote file. The professor, over the course of a semester, can upload all of his or her slides for a class. The service reads in the presentation file. In addition, the professor can insert what are called “interactive slides.” On these slides, the professor puts either a multiple choice question, a free response text question, a list of items (that students are to then rank order), an image (that students can point on), or a multimedia slide. At the appropriate time, the professor makes the slide visible to the class, and each student participates in the class by indicating an answer, writing a response, ordering the items, or pointing out an important part of the image. As the students are submitting their answers, LectureTools is collecting and/or summarizing these responses. The professor can them immediately share the students’ answers with the class and comment on anything interesting that pops up. This is quite a useful tool. It’s like a clicker on steroids.

Students, remote and local either log into the LectureTools Web site or use the iPad application to access the service. This gives the student access to a cloud-based copy of the presentation. This then gives the students the ability to do several things:

  • The student can take notes in a text area to the right of the slide area. These are not shared with anyone.
  • The student can draw directly on the slide; again, this information is not shared with anyone.
  • The student can type in a question that is immediately transferred to the professor’s dashboard. The student can see a list of all the questions (and associated answers, if the professor or an aide has provided any) that she has asked as well as those asked by other students. This ability to ask questions anonymously in this way has dramatically increased the number of students who ask questions during class according to the results of some experiments Perry has run.
  • The student can click on an icon to indicate that he/she is confused by the slide. The professor can see for any particular slide what percentage of students are confused.
  • The student can click on an icon to bookmark the slide if he/she thinks it is important to review later.

I found LectureTools to be a compelling tool. It is a bit rough around the edges, and is clearly still being developed, but I wouldn’t have any issues with using it in its current state in any class that I am presenting with PowerPoint or Keynote files.

Finally, Wirecast and Wowza are a program and a service that seem to go hand-in-hand. Wirecast allows the professor to produce live webcasts. You would either have to be fairly technically literate or have an assistant helping you out during a class, but this program would allow you to either broadcast from a classroom or anywhere on the road — on location at a company, in a hotel room, while interviewing someone at their work site…whatever you want. It’s a highly capable piece of software. Wowza is the service that broadcasts the stream to the Internet audience; it acts as the broadcast station on which your show (Wirecast) appears.

I can see the usefulness of a couple of these separately and all of them together. What alternatives are there? What am I missing? Have any of you had any experience with these, or competing, technologies? I would love to hear from you.

Questions related to coming changes in higher education

At the session “Public Online Social Learning Environments” led by Patricia Anderson (mind map for session at UMTTC), we discussed a mind-blowingly expansive set of alternative educational (or teaching or learning) models. Also recently, Alex Summers at Edudemic wrote a nice article titled “The 10 Biggest Trends in Online Education Right Now”. Below I briefly recount a few of the issues mentioned; however, I focus my writing on the questions raised for MRFIHL (major research-focused institutes of higher learning — e.g., the University of Michigan, where I work).

Themes related to coming changes

These themes kept popping up during her talk and our discussion (I can tell you right now that none of these have anything to do with visiting beautiful old buildings on beautiful campuses):

  • Personalization: How can teaching be personalized to the needs of each specific learner? How is the educational program, plan, or content be specialized to the needs of that learner? Students are far less interested in taking the standard class (sequence, or program) and much more interested in taking what, specifically, is best for the student at this particular time.
  • Social: How can students link what they’re doing to the rest of the people in their lives, or at least to the other people going through the same learning process?
  • Free: Lots of really great educational resources are available for free online, with many from reputable sources (many universities world-wide, TED conferences, community organizations; more on this in a future post). How can a university justify (and thereby enable it to pay my salary) charging students such high fees?
  • Localization: Why should students have to come to one specific room in one specific campus in order to learn some material? Why can’t they learn from wherever they happen to be?Lots of technologies are available that allow this type of geographic dispersion to work fairly well.
  • Asynchronous: Why should students have to come together at a specific time to learn the material? If it is just to hear a lecture and not to interact with the other people in the classroom or the professor at the front, then what’s the purpose?
  • Qualifiable: Is the “teacher” or “organizer” qualified to lead the class? How do you know? Maybe more importantly, how does your future employer know, and does he/she care?
  • Transferrable: How can you get credit for what you have learned at a place other than where you learned it?
  • Open: Can anyone have access to the materials (assignments, lectures, learning tools) for the class? Or is there an application mechanism?

Online education specifically

Rather than recount Alex’s list here, I’’ll focus on the questions posed by a subset of those for MRFIHL:

  • Online education becoming more valued by employers: The perception of online education is improving. The benefits of online education are real — it isn’t always better than in-person education, but it does have benefits. Why shouldn’t a MRFIHL provide some online education when it is appropriate?
  • Hybrid courses are becoming more available: Hybrid courses, those that are delivered with a mixture of in-person and online, can be seen in a few more traditional universities. Again, there are benefits here, both in efficiency to the professor and student and in increasing the types of material and collaborators that can be brought to class. Why not start exploring this space and sharing our successes and failures?
  • Remote collaboration is a key benefit (teaching): Experts live all around the world, both in academia and in the RL, and it should be considered possible that they may not want to travel to Ann Arbor in the depth of winter (from November-April). If we integrate remote technologies into our classes, we could then get more used to involving these experts in our classes, and not have it be some type of special occasion. In theory this should raise the quality of the classes.
  • Remote collaboration is a key benefit (learning): Students come from all around the world. Technologies enabling remote collaboration have come a long way in the last few years, getting to the point where they are even non-remarkable (Skype, Google Docs, Google Hangout). Use of these tools should enable students to live anywhere where a reasonable telecommunications infrastructure exists and effectively participate in classes back at the MRFIHL. Why shouldn’t we use these technologies to reach out to this far-flung audience?
  • Digital content distribution is easily done: In contrast to paper- or book-based distribution, digital distribution is quite straight-forward. A whole industry and set of technologies exist to simplify this process (ebooks, PDFs, Kindles, LMSs, etc.). All of this allows students to access and interact with that content wherever they might be, as long as they are near a phone, tablet, or computer. And what student doesn’t have his or her phone nearby? So far, the reason that this isn’t done more frequently is that students still have work habits that are better supported with paper. If the benefits of electronic distribution were better taken advantage of, analog distribution would disappear quickly. What student wants to carry around a huge backpack of books?
  • Online education encompasses lots of choices: This isn’t just ebooks or a talking head in a video. As Summers points out, “These days students have a wide variety of tools at their disposal, including text chat, immersive multimedia, virtual classrooms, and digital whiteboards.” Why not experiment with these different delivery mechanisms and see what we learn about them? We may find that we enjoy using them; we may find that students appreciate the options and variety it gives them; we may actually find out that students learn just as well with these tools as with in-person classrooms.
  • Social media can be integral to online education: Students are certainly active with social media. Well, it turns out that social media (at least Twitter, blogging, Google Hangouts, and Pinterest) can be quite supportive of the educational process, too. Why wouldn’t a professor want students to be interacting with the course material at many touch-points throughout their lives instead of just in a textbook or during a lecture? Why not facilitate many types of discussions in many contexts in order to show the variety of ways that the class material can affect the student?


So, what does this mean to me? Well, that will have to wait for a future post. This one is long enough (ummm, maybe it’t too long, Scott). For now, I would love to hear how you and/or your organization is addressing this. Are you using one-off experiments with individual faculty members simply doing it and asking for forgiveness rather than permission? Or is there an organizational push to get faculty to do this? I would love to hear your responses!