Instructional Technology

Jeannie Crowley Brings Meaningful Learning Online

Posted by Nick Gray on April 09, 2013

Jeannie CrowleyAs online learning grows more commonplace in higher education, tech-savvy educators are moving away from justifying its viability and toward the more nuanced question of which models work best.

Jeannie Crowley, Bank Street’s Director of Digital Media and Learning, has opened a lot of eyes to the potential of online learning at the College. She led the effort to help faculty adapt to online learning environments; faculty members also regularly seek her guidance in employing social media to their students’ benefit.

As an early adopter of Course Builder—Google’s foray into online education—Jeannie now plays a direct role in helping the company develop the next generation on online learning tools. She spoke with us about her work with Google and the potential for tools like these at a place like Bank Street.

Follow Jeannie on Twitter to learn more, and, on April 29 at 1:00 p.m., you can follow her Campus Technology Forum presentation with #coursebuilder.

When Google released its Course Builder platform last September, you were among the first to use it to test an open, online course. What appealed to you about the platform?

When people think of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), they often focus on the massive scale of the courses. MIT and Stanford, for example, are running courses that have tens of thousands of students enrolled.

It’s not the size of MOOCs that interests me, it’s their potential for open learning and how students can be more active participants in the learning path. In an open learning environment, the learner has the ability to easily contribute to the course content, shape learning goals, initiate new topics for exploration, and become leaders within the community.

The tools you use can really help or hinder the effort to increase learner agency. I was intrigued by Course Builder because I saw a lot of potential to create an environment where learners and facilitators were situated as equals within the environment, and participants didn’t have to ask for special technical permission to contribute to the course.

Essentially, I was looking for a learning space that helped break down the traditional (and often unintended) power dynamics you experience in a formal Learning Management System where the course admin has to “approve” learner actions.  

What was your course?

The topic was creating online courses that are deeply engaging and learner centered, which is something I teach as a workshop to Bank Street faculty.

There are a lot of articles out right now about online ed, specifically about the lack of engagement for students. They watch lectures and respond to quizzes, not much more. I wanted to use Course Builder to help educators looking to deepen their online practice, so this course was for them.

The course was also a great space for subject matter experts in fields other than education to get an introduction to learner-driven courses.

block quoteI saw in the Google platform an opportunity for us to rethink online education to be more like the progressive education practices we celebrate at Bank Street.end block quote

What’s the biggest misconception people have about online learning? Do you see those ideas shifting?

I think a lot of online faculty feel like we're recreating the wheel. We're taking traditional pedagogy and putting it online, and not really taking advantage of the amazing social tools out there. I saw in the Google platform an opportunity for us to rethink online education to be more like the progressive education practices we celebrate at Bank Street: informal, learner-driven, experimental, self-paced, different participation styles, etc.

But I think once we stop trying to make online education be a substitute for face-to-face, once we realize that it's a totally different space with its own affordances, then we'll be on the right track. Some of the biggest critiques of MOOCs stem from the comparison to courses: low participation, small number of students completing the course, lack of rigorous evaluation, etc. But, if we compare MOOCs to open communities of practice, they actually stand up quite well: learners becoming leaders, aggregating content, developing their own self-assessments, initiating small group projects, sharing best practices, and continuing beyond the official “end date” of the experience.  

Your course garnered a lot of attention from Google, and you became a “Top Contributor.” How did that happen?

I participated in the Course Builder forums, answering non-technical questions. I also reworked the original Course Builder environment to meet my needs for the online faculty MOOC. I stripped out some of the language that didn’t match my needs and added a few community features. Through word of mouth in the Course Builder forum and Google+, we ended up with over 200 participants from 27 countries.

Google was excited about some of the adjustments I had made and was eager to have an educator’s perspective.  Too often, tools are built by developers and after it’s finished the educators are asked to evaluate it. By that time, it’s too late to make substantive changes to the technology. This is a really neat opportunity to be part of the growth of the tool and to have input on how the tool can support progressive pedagogy. 

At the end of April, you’re presenting a seminar at the Campus Technology Forum in San Diego. Tell us about that.

I’m going to share what I learned from my MOOC experience. I’ll show participants what a student-centered, constructivist online course looks like and how they can set up learner-driven environments. I’ll also talk about the relationship between the teaching and technology while discussing the pros and cons of Course Builder. Luckily, I won’t have to delve too deeply into the technical questions because the Course Builder staff has generously agreed to answer questions on Twitter that are beyond my expertise. I’m eager to see how that element, the remote answering of questions via Twitter, will work and if we could apply it to other Bank Street presentations.