Commentary: July 2012 Archives

Sloan-C Merlot Conference Review

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Last week, I went to the Sloan-C/Merlot Emerging Technology Conference to present a tutorial on accessibility issues. Below is a report of some of the themes from the conference.

Note: The Sloan Consortium (aka Sloan-C) is an organization devoted to "quality online instruction. Penn State is a member, so anyone at ETS can establish an account and access many of the online services. The Merlot repository is a curated collection of learning objects and Websites. Certain Penn State ETS Websites have been included in the past.


The issue of accessibility was on Sloan-C and Merlot's mind as both organizations worked to provide information and future infrastructure to member institutions. Merlot has established an accessibility information area at and Sloan-C hopes to also start a special interest group. The National Federation of the Blind co-presented a session as part of this effort.

Drexel sponsored a particularly compelling session featuring students needing accommodation. Each spoke about his or needs and challenges. Two interesting cases were a woman with carpal tunnel and another with a speech production deficit. The second student mentioned video recording assignments were very time consuming because he could not just record his thoughts on the fly, but had to edit his recording based on multiple attempts.

Good news for Penn State - the moderator of the student panel pointed out as a quality resource.

My session was a tutorial for instructors and instructional designers and was nominated for a Best in Track and a Sloan-C Best Practice award.

The Place of the MOOC

Probably the biggest focus of the conference was the role of MOOCs and badges and how they are impacting traditional academia. There was certainly plenty of buzz, but also concern that MOOCs not be a regression to the old information dump model.

Two speakers from the Khan Academy demoed their Art HIstory site which is a comprehensive suite of video lectures on different art history topics. I will admit that the content is well done (although they need captions), but it is essentially a well-performed lecture.

On the other hand, an instructor who does not have access to information on certain art periods could find these invaluable. And Devil's Advocate - a lecture (i.e. a well structured informative narrative) is a very effective method to present the context to help students understand historical content (this is Art History).

When presented with (ahem) a human instructor, the videos can also be good points of departure for further discussion. And even if a student is working independently, viewing more than one discussion of any period would be essential towards gaining the multiple perspectives needed.

I think the interesting question is when does a person need to interact more fully with humans instead of just books and videos.

Just to expand on that, I do think learning from resources like these is an important skill - sometimes you just can't get to an SME. In fact, all the Cornish (a Celtic language) I have learned was from books. There are just NO Breton courses in the U.S.

On the other hand, if I really wanted to be a Cornish expert, I would have to interact with human Cornish language experts, most of whom are in the U.K. This may be where Skype and e-mail become the crucial technologies...although I would never say no to a trip to the Cornwall coast.


On a side note, while I was attending a session about the needs for students to have rich, meaningful interactions with content within a context of a community of practice the following question occurred to me - What happens when a student doesn't want to bother with all that?

Depending on what I am teaching (phonetics, accessibility, copyright law...) I often hear students/administrators/busy faculty ask "Can you just list what I need to know on a single page?" It's usually because the person is not especially interested in a topic but is forced by circumstances to deal with it. Motivation is definitely an important element of learning.

Will I be able to persuade everyone needing to learn accessibility to be an "a11y" guru monitioring multiple listservs and attending webinars? Probably not. But that's not the level of expertise needed...or is it?

My Takeaways

The theme of the conference is open resources, but the question continues to be what kind of open resource? I think a number of viable models are available, but any design needs to consider which one is the best.

Ultimately the most common model will probably be the "content" model in which a content provider posts information to a Website for others to freely use. This is the model of Wikipedia, YouTube knitting videos and the Kahn academy. When done well, this is an effective means of distributing unique content cheaply and efficiently.

Note: I would agree that putting up a set of lecture notes is NOT good design even in this model because they have not been edited for a remote audience who cannot communicate directly with the instructor.

There is another model that's important and that is one that allows for students to interact with each other. This has the potential for expanding the student experience, but I find that the logistics have to be thought VERY CAREFULLY.

One version of this model is the topic Listserv, but as research has shown, this format is often dominated by a small percentage of active users and a large percentage of lurkers...just as in any large classroom.

Another model breaks out a MOOC community into smaller discussion groups, but if that is not planned well, students can get frustrated very quickly, as seen in this rambling blog entry of my experience of the New Media Reader MOOC experiment and more in my October 2010 archives. In order for this model to work, there has to be a method to ensure that group leaders are confident with the material. If not, then the group leader might want to bring in some back up doughnuts.

An possible model to look at might be the bookclub model in which pre-framed questions are given to reading groups. Is this too dumbed down though or is the structure needed?