Are High Impact Practices Available Online?

I am still wrestling with my unease with MOOCs and I think I’ve finally figured out why: High impact educational practices, as we understand them today, are unlikely at best and impossible at worst in MOOCs and other similar online environments.

First, it’s helpful to understand that “high impact practice” (HIP) is a term of art.  Although the phrase is probably very common, in the past ten years or so the term has taken on special significance in U.S. higher education.  Popularized by George Kuh and emerging partly from research using data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), this phrase has come to mean a particular set of activities that many higher education researchers believe are especially effective in promoting important and lasting changes in undergraduate students: First-Year Seminars and Experiences, Common Intellectual Experiences (i.e. core curricula), Learning Communities, Writing-Intensive Courses, Collaborative Assignments and Projects, Undergraduate Research, Diversity/Global Learning, Service Learning, Community-Based Learning, Internships, and Capstone Courses and Projects.

Unfortunately, we sometimes place too much focus on these particular activities without understanding why these activities have a high impact.  As originally described by Kuh in 2007, these practices share six characteristics:

  1. HIPs “demand that students devote considerable amounts of time and effort to purposeful tasks (p. 7)”
  2. HIPs place students in circumstances that require they “interact with faculty and peers about substantive matter (p. 7)”
  3. HIPs greatly increase the likelihood that students will interact with people who are different from themselves
  4. HIPs provide students with very frequent – sometimes continuous – feedback from faculty and peers
  5. HIPs require students to operate in intellectually complex ways by connecting knowledge in different courses and applying it in different contexts e.g. confronting complex real-world issues, investigating unfamiliar research problems
  6. HIPs occur in the context of a “coherent, academically challenging curriculum (p. 8)”

I am particularly interested in focusing on these characteristics of high impact practices as I will be helping lead a discussion on my campus next month focused on student engagement.  Most of the participants will be faculty and much of our focus will be on activities that faculty are using or can use in their curricula to promote student engagement.  Given that focus, I don’t think it would be helpful to focus on the specific activities identified as HIPs as those are often beyond the resources and purview of an individual faculty member.  Instead, we will focus on why those activities have a high impact so we can apply those principles to the activities within the power and resources of individual faculty.

That is what was on the forefront of my mind when I “attended” an EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) online conference last week that focused on MOOCs.  The conference had some very active discussions among participants and as I participated in those discussions it occurred to me that one of the primary reasons I am uncomfortable with MOOCs is that it is difficult or impossible to apply much of what we know about good teaching in that environment.

Look back up at those six principles of high impact practices.  How do we do apply those principles in a MOOC?  More pointedly, can we apply those principles in a MOOC?  I despair that the answer is mostly “no.”  I pray that it is a simple lack of imagination on my part, a misunderstanding of what we can do in a MOOC, or that this is a fatal flaw of the dominant MOOC model that others will quickly recognize and fix or use to abandon that model.  I also confess that I don’t completely understand all of the discussions about “xMOOCs” and “cMOOCs” on anything but a very theoretical and abstract level and I have a sneaky suspicion that I’m missing something very important in how cMOOCs address some of these principles.

There is another interesting and hopeful way to think about this.  Another ELI conference attendee – I’m sorry that I don’t remember who – suggested that there may be other paradigms of effective educational practices that MOOCs might better fit.  Although I am a little bit skeptical that our understanding of effective education is going to be radically upended, this recommendation to not be too constrained by our current thinking is a very good one.  In fact, that is one important reason why I will be trying to steer our discussion here on my campus next month away from the specific activities and toward the broader principles so we can compare our thinking about student engagement with that of others’.  The idea isn’t to impose the model on my campus but to use it as a common starting point that must be adapted to our unique needs and resources.

That, of course, is what we’ll need to do with MOOCs: Use our best understanding of effective teaching and shape it to this unique environment with unique affordances.  I don’t know how to do that and I don’t know if that is what is being done.  I am wary that much of what is being done is not methodical and not built on what we know about how people learn.  I am especially skeptical that we can provide the kind of demanding and socially and intellectually connected experiences that we know provide some of the best learning.  I hope that people smarter than I are figuring this out, though, and working out how MOOCs can provide high impact educational practices.

ELI 2010: Liveblogging Palfrey’s Keynote

I love Palfrey’s book and I’m taking notes anyway so might as well share them…

John Palfrey, author of Born Digital.

  • Today’s USA Today: breathless article about youths’ use of technology
  • Wrote BD to “bust myths” and combay fears (“this can’t be good”)
  • Not all young people use technology in the same way; carefully defined their subject as a subset of the entire population, not an entire generation, including the digital divide and participation gap
  • Creating a culture where students can develop technology skills (i.e. reducing/eliminating the participation gap) is our biggest challenge
  • Social media opportunities: digital identities, interoperability, and creativity
  • Will spend much of talk on the fears and negative dialogue
  • Youths don’t see a difference between their offline and online lives
  • Many tools are starting to work together; “it’s less wrenching [to get students to use new tools]”
  • Social media problems: security, privacy, intellectual property, credibility, and information overload
  • Common fears: use of social tools makes kids vulnerable (especially to sexual predators) or make available to them “bad” information
  • Review of literature for Internet safety task force: no increase in sexual predation due to social media use
  • Kids need to be able to identify bad situations/people on- and offline; don’t blame the technology
  • Not a significantly greater likelihood of kids finding “bad” information (unless they’re already looking for it)
  • Bullying is something that is on the increase online; may not be an increase in bullying but an increase in its visibility and the creation of records of bullying
  • Use of public backchannel in Palfrey’s classroom this month resulted in nasty, anonymous comments
  • Kids share too much information about themselves online; they have unintended audiences, replicability, searchability, and persistence (nice reference to “digital tattoos” that they might want to remove later) (explicit references to danah boyd)
  • Myth: Kids don’t care about privacy.  Not true!  They just think about it differently.  And many of them just aren’t sophisticated or mature (they’re kids!).
  • Myth: Kids “steal” music and movies.  True.  Those who legally purchase music do so because they were gifted it (i.e. iTunes giftcards).
  • Kids presume that the media are free.  And they know that it’s unlawful.
  • Lots of confusion about the legality of reuse and remixing.
  • Palfrey is defending Shepard Fairey (the artist who created the Obama “HOPE” image using a photograph) to help reduce the confusion about fair use.  Some of Palfrey’s Harvard Law colleagues disagree with Palfrey so even the “experts” disagree/exhibit confusion.
  • Credibility problem: With the vast amount of information out there, how do we what’s credible?  (Authorship is a confounding problem.)
  • Consistent with other research, Palfrey’s subjects reported that they would use Google as their first stop to learn about new things, looking for the Wikipedia article first.  Broad deviation after that step (some skeptics thought their classmates may arrive there first and change the information :) ).  Few would look at history or Talk tabs but many look at the cited sources.
  • Some “advanced” students would go further: grazing, deep dive, then feedback.
  • Asked audience how many edit Wikipedia.  About 20% in this audience, the highest Palfrey has ever seen.  But none of the students in his study make more than trivial edits; they’re consumers, not creators, of Wikipedia.
  • Probably some truth to the concerns about information overload.
  • We can’t just think about things at the tool level; we have to think of the system.  We have to figure out our vision of the ideal learning environment in a fast-moving time (hence the broad focus).
  • The trick: Take the cue from architects and plan the design.
  • Ended talk with video created by one of his students.  The printed version of Born Digital is only one way to present the information.  This video is an alternative presentation of one of the chapters.
  • “We have to have the guts to trust these kids.  We have to give them the opportunity to show us how wonderful they are.”
  • Question: The students have the capabilities.  But what about the faculty?
  • Answer: Hugely challenging issue.  The key is to make it easier for them.  Maybe 5 of the 100 Harvard Law faculty really, really want to do this.  But most will only do if it’s easy and useful.  Emphasizing the “gee whiz” factor won’t sell the faculty.  Work with the faculty who are willing.
  • Question: “Born Digital” was an excellent synthesis of a great deal of very good research. What ongoing research or new researchers are you keeping an eye on now?
  • Answer: Mimi Ito’s new book and research.  Most interesting work being done by the MacArthur Foundation DML group.  Follow links from DML hub. (This was my question.  I was hoping that he would share something new to me but his answers are spot on even if they’re not new.)
  • Question: Does the Socratic method preclude the use of new media?
  • Answer: No.  Can use media to provide background information.  And the method can be used via technology.  But there are times when technology is not needed and may not improve things.

Check out ELI’s official resource page for this talk; it includes a link to a video recording of the entire talk.