Part 1 is here.

In the afternoon our College Unbound User Test Day really got interesting. We were testing and modeling some different methods of social learning. One of my goals with this book is to spell out the steps of some implicit processes and heuristics–rules of thumb–that successful learners have developed for learning online, so that everyone knows how to do them. There are all kinds of courses on “study skills” for traditional class and testing formats, but when it’s time to go beyond highlighters and notebooks into the virtual world, we are operating without a safety net.

So first, Mike McCarthy walked us through his use of P2PU study groups. P2PU of course is the free peer-to-peer online university. In addition to their classes, they’ve been experimenting with a program called Lernanta to allow people to form study groups over common interests. Mike’s been using it to improve his skills with video. He also joined an open book group that is, fittingly, reading Ivan Ilich’s Deschooling Society.

Study groups are really important. They bring the social element back into learning online. They can provide motivation and a means of self-testing. Lots of research shows the importance of collaborative study in conventional learning settings, for motivation, encouragement, and “elaboration” of learning.

However, we couldn’t form or join an effective online study group in an afternoon. So I asked the students to go to a bunch of different sites and post a question that was relevant to their studies. I then encouraged them to look through the questions already posted and see if they could answer anything.

Ask Metafilter- this online community, I didn’t realize, charges $5 for joining plus a week long waiting period. However, some students still enjoyed searching through the existing questions&answers. “On Metafilter I read ‘What is the moral obligation that the wealthy have toward the less well off?’” reported Talia. “There were good points on both sides. I really enjoyed seeing different people’s perspectives.”

Quora – also good for philosophical discussions, but a bit harder to search.

Twitter – Twitter is one of the best places to build a learning community online. But it takes time to build. I had the students ask a question to my Twitter followers, and we got some good answers back. We also coached them through searching hashtags to find relevant information, and @-replying someone to make sure they see your question. Despite the lack of instant gratification, half the students took the initiative to open Twitter accounts for the first time, and they seemed to get the hang of following people who matched their interests. Twitter’s suggestions help.

OpenStudy- This was the students’ favorite site for asking and answering questions. Freddy, whose conversation is listed above, was the first to call out, “I’m getting an answer!” There’s a large robust community on it and helpful answers were almost instant. The answers and groups are organized around topics, which can be hard to find or hard to understand sometimes. It might be a good idea to form your own group if you have a topic of interest that’s not represented here.

Wikianswers Yahoo! Answers these two are more superficial, though helpful for some practical queries.

Google –When all else fails, you can always Google your question. Harry figured out the trick of Googling his question plus the word “forum” to find out if it had been asked on a message board. There are hundreds of these around the Internet on every imaginable topic.

BigThink is a website full of interesting remarks from a panoply of fascinating talking heads from Danah Boyd to Will Shortz. I was proud to join their ranks.

However, I couldn’t disagree more with the headline “Simulating Higher Education On the Web.”

It’s so snobby! It’s ridiculous! Is water polo a simulation of polo with ponies? Is photography a simulation of watercolor? No, they are two entirely different media with different affordances, strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, as I increasingly try to emphasize, no higher education today takes place entirely WITHOUT the web. I would venture that .01% of college students live their lives and write their papers entirely innocent of Wikipedia or their friends’ news feeds on Facebook. The question and the challenge is how much we will integrate the web with its unique qualities of access to the world’s information and ease of connection into the incredibly important enterprise of higher ed.

I spent yesterday with the wonderful community of College Unbound in Providence, RI. Dennis Littky, a 40-year veteran educational innovator, started this program last year and currently has 13 students who are primarily low income and the first in their families to go to college. They are each designing their own curricula around an internship, area of special interest, and/or business they want to start, all while they live together in a learning community that has a strong emphasis on mutual respect and caring. Littky wants to expand the model nationwide and he knows he has to incorporate significant use of technology to get it to scale, bring the cost down, and to meet the learning demands of the 21st century. Meanwhile I wanted to get an audience with varying experience and comfort levels with technology to test some of the sites I’m writing about in the Edupunk’s Guide to a DIY Credential. These students represent the book’s target audience: Savvy individuals without a lot of money who want to design an education that fits their personal needs.

So together we decided to spend the day user testing websites for open courseware & social learning. Here’s some of the student’s comments and reactions.

Open Courseware Sites: The task was to find material relevant to their major/ academic focus, and to compare at least two sites. We worked on this for 45 minutes, did a quick check in, and then dived in for another hour, with everyone reporting back.

Academic Earth –”One of the sites that I really liked was Academic,” says Andrea.
“I’m visual and they have all these different videos that people have done. I was researching educational policy, theory & philosophy. I ended up finding tons of videos.”
Creative Commons DiscoverEd search engine / –the consensus was that this site is too buggy to be useful.
Khan Academy- – For students with an interest in math, this site held some appeal.
“Khan Academy sent me to a search engine called Infolink,” said a student named Harry, “Which brought me to more relevant information–I even got a circuit board design I can take right from the Internet and mill out.” Another student, who is interested in starting a business, liked that the site had very basic math on it, but she thinks the videos are better for review rather than learning all-new concepts.

MIT Open Courseware
Open Courseware Consortium
“I used my time to compare and contrast MIT and OCWC because they have a lot of similarities,” said Alex.
“I like MIT more because MIT houses and hosts everything in their own website, and OCW from what I found offers links to other sites. Clicking around to 3 different sites I could get disheartened. I just think as far as quickness and ease goes MIT offers more straightforward coursework. I was able to find an hour long lecture on architecture that I want to watch.”

While was seen as the “most powerful” and “most robust” open courseware website, students found a couple of design tweaks that could make it far more useful. There’s no search bar on the main page–in order to search the courses you have to go to the “Courses” tab, which is a silly barrier to entry. Also, there’s two options for searching–”look for variations of what I type” or “look for exactly what I type”–but those options are not revealed until you get to your first page of web results. Mike McCarthy looked for courses in “epistemology” (his interest is philosophy) and the search engine returned courses in “epidemiology”. Funny evidence of bias against the humanities? Some students filled out the feedback survey so hopefully OCWCconsortium will get the memo on this.

Open Learning Initiative- This site was intriguing to some, but downloading the video software was a cumbersome barrier to entry.
Open University’s OpenLearn- Some students were interested in the course descriptions, but the site’s confusing to navigate between the regular Open University site, and the “Learning Space” chat room areas. Would take some time to really delve in.
Saylor Foundation – “Saylor I felt really had everything kind of right there in front of you,” says Elicia. “I was looking up business management. I found that it gives you all the readings, lectures, final exam, breakdown what the purpose of the course was and whether it was 100% complete on the website or not.”

One student had a great suggestion that could benefit the program as a whole: currently, students design personal learning plans in consultation with an instructor. They’re dependent on that instructor for subject matter expertise. These open courseware sites provide entire suggested courses of study, instantly unlocking the possibilities for what students might want to incorporate within their personal learning plans.

Tomorrow I”ll post about what we did in the afternoon with social learning sites and how we explored some techniques I learned from talking to a star P2PU facilitator.

Henry Hernandez did the work of syncing the audio from my talk to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges earlier this month with the slideshow. I am interested in what people think is really happening innovation-wise in the world of accreditors. Although I think WASC says all the right things I’m not so sure what they’re actually doing, and as I look at examples of colleges that are doing really innovative things with accreditation, many of them are in the Northeast, not accredited by WASC (Western Governor’s, a national example of innovation, is not accredited by WASC).

Learning, Freedom and the Web, the book I wrote with the Mozilla community on the future of open education, is really coming together! It’ll appear sometime around the end of May in print-0n-demand, as a free, downloadable PDF, and possibly as some kind of tablet version, and will carry a Creative Commons license.

Here are some of the wonderful preliminary designs from Chris Appleton, who writes:

“We set out to capture the energy of a movement and share practical tools for people working at the intersection of learning and the open web. We all know the web is changing how we learn. This book seeks to provide leverage at this inflection point, building upon and supporting the momentum of those working on solutions.”

It has been so fun, interesting and collaborative working on this project with the Mozilla community, and I am looking forward to getting creative with the production and launch phases! You can see more, read some community feedback on the designs, and post some of your own at Matt Thompson’s blog.