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Open Assembly is cloud-based platform for collaborative knowledge creation with open educational resources (OER)

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Annals of an Adjunct: Open Assembly Test Drive

To better engage her students, this adjunct details how she used our platform to track their progress (and find out whether they were really paying attention in class).

This summer I had the opportunity to take the Open Assembly platform for a demo in my image-based humanities course at a large urban public institution.

As a teacher for 14 years in some way or another, I have developed my own style of teaching that I’ve honed over the semesters. I’ve found that as my confidence in my voice grew, I abandoned the podium to which I originally found myself tethered. Because of this style of instruction, I did not teach directly from the OA platform, but I did spend many hours crafting the course within OA using information that reinforced what we covered in class.

While some students are able to take notes and still follow along, for others this proves difficult.  This summer I had two foreign students who were somewhat new to the U.S. Their writing was fine, but when speaking with me, it became clear that they did not understand everything I was saying. This is problematic in an accelerated course where content is covered quite rapidly. Both of these students greatly benefited from reviewing the content on our OA course page, where they could review the learning materials at a slower pace and re-watch the video content until they understood.

This brings up the way I enjoyed using Open Assembly the most during these courses: taking advantage of the ANALYTICS function to track students’ access to resources that I uploaded for the course. Through blank stares and low test scores, I had a hunch that certain students were not following along. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw that they had not accessed either the readings or the modules on the OA platform. While it seems a little “Big Brother,” it is a useful tool that allowed me to follow up with students who were not accessing the course materials.

Another significant benefit of Open Assembly was that for the first time, every one of my students had access to the assigned textbook. Prior to this semester, I had not used an open textbook before. I found an excellent open educational resource (OER) alternative to the (somewhat costly) textbook I had been using before, and assigned it to my latest crop of students. For once I had a level playing field in my classroom, with every student being able to afford this (free & open) textbook.

One of the ways that I plan to use the Open Assembly platform in the future is for constructing debate and assignments that can take place outside of class time. Case in point: there is immense debate over a group of sculptures known as the Elgin marbles or Parthenon marbles. These relief sculptures decorated the interior and exterior of the Parthenon temple that sits on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Acquired by Lord Elgin during his time as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century, they are now on display in the British Museum. This debate involves repatriation of artifacts and the question of who rightfully “owns” the Parthenon marbles. The Greek government contends that they were taken out of the country illegally, and there are numerous documents and video clips giving alternate sides of the argument.

In a group-based discussion exercise, students often need prompting to start the debating, but once started, many join the conversation. Unfortunately there is not enough time in the semester to devote a whole class to this exercise, so this is how I plan to use the Open Assembly platform: through videos integrated within my curriculum, students will be able to form their opinions about the status of these sculptures, then make a statement through the COMMENTS interface, forcing them to take a position. This is followed up with a formal writing assignment where the student has to make a statement and then defend that decision in a two- to three-page written response. I’m really excited about the debate possibilities that Open Assembly can bring to my classroom.

Competency-Based Education and the Higher Ed Act

Earlier this month Congress made its first moves in rewriting the Higher Education Act, including the House of Representatives’ passing a bill that would create greater federal support for and investigation of competency-based education.

The Education Department already allows some institutions to explore alternative teaching methods, including competency-based education and prior learning assessment, and recently decided to award some student-based aid for such programs. In green-lighting experimental school sites, the Obama administration wants to see whether these innovations would ultimately

“improve student persistence and academic success, result in shorter time to degree, including by allowing students to advance through educational courses and programs at their own pace by demonstrating academic achievement, and reduce reliance on student loans.”

We love the idea of students working at their own speed and taking advantage of consumer and educational technology to plot their individual learning paths, especially if such personalized learning can help save money on tuition and textbooks over time. Some have said that competency-based education could work particularly well for older and part-time students who may not be able to spend as many hours in lectures or classroom discussions as full-time students.

Yet competency-based education has inspired criticism because of a perception that it could lower academic standards or turn colleges into diploma mills. How would schools assess student mastery in, say, the tough-to-quantify humanities fields? How do you determine competency in degree programs that don’t train students for an explicit career path, such as nursing or IT? There’s also the challenge of ensuring that individualized learning will allow for developing skills that today’s employers—large and small, corporate and non-profit, startup and legacy—expect from graduates, including collaboration, writing and communication across multiple formats, and content and media literacy.

The House has approved two other bipartisan bills that would mandate financial counseling for federal student-loan borrowers and simplify how the government provides college information to prospective students. The three bills passed so far highlight the difference between the way House Republicans and Senate Democrats have approached revising the Higher Education Act: bit-by-bit changes versus comprehensive reform. It’s unlikely that Congress will reauthorize the HEA before it expires at the end of this year.

Higher Education Act’s Stamp of Approval on Edtech Innovation

HigherEdStamp
This work is used under CC-PD-Mark

Recent legislative plans to overhaul education came in two forms: jumbo and bite-sized. Senate Democrats presented a 785-pages-long bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, while a House committee, equal parts Republican and Democrat, offered 11 pages of targeted proposals for reform.

When it comes to digital innovation in education—especially as it relates to Open Assembly’s mission with regard to open educational resources (OER)—here are the three sections worth checking out.

1) Section 795E recommends an innovations fund for minority-serving institutions to boost student success, in part, by assessing the needs of any given institution, then researching and prototyping educational innovations that can improve student outcomes. Those innovations can and should include OER and digital content.

2) Section 796D offers grants to states that are able to greatly increase access to higher education for and foster the success of low-income students by 2020—especially students facing such barriers to college as having no high school diploma and working more than 25 hours a week. To qualify, states have to present plans that, among other things, promote technology to increase personalized learning and student retention. This includes blended- and flipped-learning innovations.

3) Section 932 outlines ways to provide accessible learning tools to students with disabilities, though we believe that the recommended reforms must apply to all students. The proposal calls for efficiently developing and delivering these materials to post-secondary students with print disabilities, such as open textbooks and other digital resources. States would need to compete for public or private grants and contracts to implement these improvements.

The House and Senate have their mark-up period in the weeks ahead, during which they’ll add amendments to their respective proposals before they leave for their August recess. Ever a hopeful bunch, Congress hopes to vote on the Higher Ed Act reauthorization before the mid-term election.

CEO Domi Enders Presents at EdLab Demo Night 4/1/14

Do the Right Thing: Pay for Feedback

I am behind on my reading, I admit, and only just got to Hack Education’s March 15 post “(How) Should Startups Compensate Schools and Teachers for their Feedback?”. I do indeed have some experience with this question, having prototyped Open Assembly v1.0 with adjunct instructors in community colleges last summer.

Let me first say that having been an adjunct did not in any way make it easier for me to reach my former colleagues and interest them in our platform and what we’re up to in general. It’s a tough and lonely crowd.

But having been an adjunct, I did understand the necessity to offer proper incentive to get instructors to a) take the time to try out a new product in their classroom, even for just a few weeks, and b) complete a detailed feedback survey after the fact. After all, the first question is always, and rightfully, “What’s in it for me?”

My very first prospect let me know that he considered testing, even so much as “glancing” at our interface, to be contributing to the IP of the company–for which he should be royally compensated and publicly recognized. Literally. For one crazy second, desperate for feedback and having no other prospects on the horizon that week, I actually considered giving him founder stock.

Equity? That would have been a better deal for me than for him. Equity in a startup is fool’s gold to an instructor, whose horizon is only a semester long, one semester at a time.

Our product is specifically focused on addressing the needs of adjuncts (and their students). This means:

  • It must truly save them time in the exercise of their teaching activities or it’s just bunk

  • It must not require any special training (our motto is “no manual required,” the gold standard of a good UX/UI, and glaringly absent from most edtech offerings)

  • It must at least show that it has the potential of improving student engagement and learning outcomes

All of this is a tall order, and without the participation of and honest reviews from our prime end-user, the adjunct, there’s no way we can come even close to creating a platform or service that they want and will use–so that their students also will benefit.

A choice between money or a seriously good piece of mobile hardware: yes, that’s what it took to get my “pilot adjuncts” on board. It makes sense. After all, I was asking them to spend time to set up courses and share their valuable observations in an extensive survey. We offered a sum that was significant enough to attract interest, but not too big to break the (startup) bank.

As a result, we received crucial, detailed feedback that helped us understand where we were on the right track, and where we were not. Without that feedback, we would not be where we are today: gearing up to publicly release our beta (Open Assembly v2.0, currently in soft release) that so far delights our early (adjunct) adopters.

Adjuncts are the backbone of the college instructional corps, the majority teaching impacted introductory classes. Adjunct faculty now make up a majority of the higher education instructors nationwide, in a reversal from just a few decades ago. In some departments it’s 100%, according to a 2013 research study, yet part-time faculty members make about one-fourth what a full-time faculty member gets paid per course, as reported in another 2008 study.

In a recent post Fabian Banga, (tenured) professor and department chair at Berkeley City College describes the financial and professional uncertainty overshadowing the lives of adjuncts: “…[L]ittle or no security of employment. Budget cuts affect the whole campus population but especially adjunct instructors. They are always the first to be cut when there is a reduction in the number of classes. They do not have the benefit of the academic freedom associated with tenure…[yet] they are also active in other curriculum development areas involving the adoption and assessment of materials and classes, the creation of OERs and the support and counselling of students. In a very cruel irony, many of them are very supportive of the department and do many extracurricular activities to gain the appreciation of students, of tenured professors and deans, with the hope of a security of employment that, in many cases, never materializes.”

I truly feel that adjuncts are the unsung heroes of higher education, and very much underserved. Long-term subs in K-12 schools (7% nationwide) are treated and compensated far better, even receiving benefits.

The build-measure-learn feedback loop with educators is crucial to successful product development, “successful” meaning a product that actually addresses the needs of instructors and learners. Unless you’re in edtech for the wrong reasons.

So do the right thing: 1) invite adjuncts and other instructors into your development process, and 2) compensate them properly. In the same way, pay teachers and schools for their invaluable feedback.

Open Education Week 2014

A movement and opportunities it creates in teaching and learning worldwide. Submit your contribution by February 28!

There are many ways you can contribute to Open Education Week: upload an informational or inspirational video, host an event in your community, send links to resources about open education, hold a webinar, and promote open education week in your social media networks. To contribute a video or resource, or to have your event or webinar featured on the Open Education Week Events calendar, use the submission form at openeducationweek.org. Multiple resources or events can be submitted. Click here to fill out a form for your contribution.

Deadline for submissions is 28 February 2014.

What If a Community College or Technical School Degree Were Free?

Tennessee’s governor has an amazingly brilliant idea: make two years of community college and technical school free for all students. He believes it’s the best way to build a more competitive work force in his state.

Ticket price? The governor estimates $34 million a year for TN, paid for by diverting surplus revenue from the state lottery. That’s (10) 30-second ad spots for one Super Bowl, or the price of Sir Stirling Moss’s recently sold apple-green 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, or two-and-a-half Air Force drones (MQ-9 Reaper)…..

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