Posts tagged education

A Tuition-Free Higher Education School Opens for Enrollment

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World Education University (WEU)A new online university I’ve been involved with for several weeks just opened for enrollment. Based out of Palm Springs, California, World Education University is a for-profit, tuition-free, online school. It was founded on the belief that everyone in the world should have access to higher education without cost, bypassing socioeconomic barriers that would normally prevent people from engaging in important learning opportunities, and elevate them into higher-class lifestyles. It joins the company of other free online learning communities like Coursera, edXUdacity, and the University of the People, who offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). However, there’s an important difference between World Education University (WEU) and other learning communities: WEU is set up as a standalone institution, and has been awarded degree-granting status by the state of California. And they are restlessly pursuing fulfillment of accreditation requirements. So instead of partnering with different colleges that offer college credit for MOOCs, like the University of Antioch has done with Coursera or Colorado State has done with Udacity, everything will happen in-house.

While the structure is probably most similar to University of the People, WEU is taking the for-profit route, instead of non-profit. Tuition costs are subsidized through advertising and forming business partnerships, rather than through donors. Every student will have a marketing profile. Very few people would ever claim to like ads, but sitting through a few ads and an occasional marketing survey in exchange for a college degree? Who wouldn’t do that?

I’m optimistic. With the recent news that 40 more public universities started offering college credits for free MOOCs, I think the time is right for an endeavor like this. There’s a few obstacles WEU is aggressively striving to overcome so it can sustain itself as a valid and effective institution of higher learning in the long run.

Instructor Involvement and Peer-to-Peer Learning

In a MOOC I participated in recently, one person noted, “A MOOC is very illustrative of what self-directed learners can do. There is, very purposefully, I believe, little intrusion from a teacher in the traditional sense as the participants start to create their own meaning. In this way new knowledge on the given topic evolves.” I love the peer-to-peer approach to learning. It encourages socialization and collaboration, deeply involves students in the educational process, and empowers students to take control of their own learning. An online environment is especially suited for peer-to-peer learning, because it tends to level the playing field. Educators have noted before that shy students tend to open up to their teachers and classmates in an online class, and say things and voice thoughts they’d never have the initiative to communicate in a face-to-face situation.

Light BulbStudents can’t be left in the dark. There must be a structure, and typically in an online learning environment an instructor or facilitator assumes that role. However, in a MOOC, this can be a little trickier. To help address this, WEU is implementing an adaptive learning system which facilitates educational experiences unique to the individual’s learning styles. And if WEU can successfully emphasize the best aspects of its peer-to-peer approach to learning, it will really soar in the quality of its learning material and how its students engage the courseware and their classmates.

Validity of Degrees

Certainly, it is a prime time to implement a higher-ed business model like WEU. The economy is still recovering, unemployment rates are high in many areas, and college tuition rates are continuing to rise faster than inflation. People recognize the need for marketable knowledge and skills a college setting can provide, but it’s not within everyone’s grasp financially. The attraction of zero-cost education is growing, as evidenced by the constant rise in MOOCs, and the attention they’ve received from accredited universities.

But how attractive will this be to students? I can understand why it’s hard for some to rationalize spending time on a course for which they don’t receive a tangible benefit, such as a raise or an industry-recognized diploma. In the U.S., accreditation is especially a big deal. For example, according to the course catalog, WEU is offering a Masters in K-8 Instructional Mathematics. Many K-12 schools and districts offer raises, tuition reimbursement, and added recognition for teachers who complete extra degrees. But if it’s not accredited, teachers may not receive these benefits.

However, this is not always the case overseas, especially in developing countries. In a place like Thailand or Malaysia, a degree from an American college is valuable no matter the accreditation status. Such a degree is evidence the graduate is knowledgeable and fluent in English…both highly marketable skills in such an area. WEU will undoubtedly be extremely attractive to students from countries with a lower socioeconomic status.

Fortunately, WEU has a full-time staff actively working on fulfilling the requirements for accreditation. As soon as they make more headway in this area — and I’m confident it’s just a matter of time — you can bet I’m going to enroll in a degree program, but that’s not stopping me from participating in a few other classes as a non-credit student for my own edification and personal enhancement.

I highly recommend visiting World Education University’s web site to learn more about this unique school, its mission, goals, and the courses it offers.

 

Undersea Observatory Available for Download and Featured at VWBPE

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Version 0.9 of my Undersea Observatory for OpenSim is available for download. It’s available as a standalone OAR, which can be imported into your own OpenSim server, or another OpenSim host like Kitely. There’s also a standalone version packaged with Sim-on-a-Stick that you can basically just unzip and run. I’ve noticed a few bugs already in the sim, which I’ll fix. The permissions seem to be incorrect for the mini-submarine, so I don’t think visiting avatars can use it. Somehow my install got corrupted, and I can’t even modify the submarines, so I’ll have to figure something out. And I’m still working on scripting the squid and the kiosks, so I removed those from this version. They will be added in the 1.0 release.

I have a poster session exhibit set up at the VWBPE 2012 Conference, too, which is running from March 15-17: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/EduCommons%20Bravo/84/41/26

UPDATE 2012-03-16: My exhibit was nominated for the award for Best Example of Educational Practices in a Virtual World!

Thoughts on Student Safety and Using OpenSim for Education

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OpenSim is making headway as a viable alternative to Second Life. About 98% of the functionality of Second Life is present in OpenSim. The remaining 2% primarily deals with vehicle physics. Although it is still considered “alpha” software, OpenSim hosting is sold, and teachers, students, and businesses are taking advantage. The alpha status reflects more on the rapidly changing nature of the virtual world market, than the stability of the software itself. Microsoft and IBM have some backing in it. Intel operates its ScienceSim experiments with OpenSim, and has made headway in providing models for ubiquitous shareable content and massive user connections.

3rd Rock Grid: Natural History Museum

There are definitely some measures being taken to address educators’ needs. The Jokaydia and 3rd Rock Grids have been around for several years, and they are largely education-oriented. Last year, Firesabre launched its own Starlight Grid, which provides private hosting for educators. And Kitely is starting to establish itself as the premiere third-party choice for educators, and provides the option for making user-created regions private. However, as hypergridding becomes more stable and common, this can be the vehicle to unite different grids into a single education-related hypergrid. The common “education hypergrid” should blend the most relevant content for students and teachers into a singularly accessible virtual space. There should never be any reason for a teacher or student to log out of their viewer and log back into another grid with a whole new avatar. But we need to think about how to make such a hypergrid suitable for students, especially K-12 since there’s often a litany of additional laws and policies governing online interactions and access for them.

A few thoughts and ideas come to mind:

  1. It is more productive to include students rather than solely use teachers to create content. Many teachers already do this, since with their often beyond-full-time jobs they simply don’t have the time to both learn the skills needed for building in a virtual world, and actually construct the content alone. We should use the skills of the young tech-savvy generation, and develop constructionist class projects that appeal to our students.
  2. Activities should directly tie in with the curriculum. This is rather obvious, but it would be useful if virtual world activities were tagged with the relevant standards and/or objectives they address. This way, others in the same state, province, or country can find relevant material, without having to wonder if it actually addresses the necessary learning content or is just another topical sim.
  3. To address safety issues, different approaches have been taken. I mentioned above how FireSabre and Kitely provide private regions. For educators, they don’t want inappropriate content to drift in, or outside trolls to visit the region and cause havoc while students are using it. While securing a sim for exclusive private access is well-intentioned, they miss out on the community-produced educational content. Whether this is on Second Life, OSGrid, or any other virtual world system, a significant strength of the virtual world is in its shared content. We should avoid having to recreate the wheel each time.
  4. One solution could be to script a session monitor. Those who wish to join the education hypergrid can be required to place a script inside each region which connects to a server and monitors participants. Teachers who wish to use a particular region (or group of regions) for learning but are worried about others coming in and disrupting the class can reserve a session, and either enter their students’ avatar names, or have the students sign up themselves. The script would monitor anyone entering or currently in the region and kick out anyone not registered for the session. A publicly viewable calendar in the regions and on the web would let others know what time slots are open.
  5. We need to provide a venue for coordinating with educators and organizations who are considering investing actual time or money in the development of a sim. If similar goals and objectives can be identified, pooling resources together may help alleviate the burden for all parties involved.
  6. Regions such as the "Foul Whisperings, Strange Matters" Macbeth sim in Second Life could be added to an educator-maintained whitelist so the viewer knows it's student-appropriate

    One solution to the problem of inappropriate content and the ability to provide a safe gateway to Second Life for students 16+ may be to build a custom viewer that uses whitelists. Ideally based on Viewer 2/3 (e.g. Kokua and Firestorm are two viewers being developed off this branch), it would access a server-maintained whitelist of regions appropriate for students. Anything not on the whitelist would not be accessible from the viewer. This can cross over to OpenSim as well. Though some regions on different grids may be “education-appropriate” and suitable to be hyperlinked to, other regions may not be. A mechanism in the viewer could prevent teleporting to regions that aren’t specifically part of the education hypergrid. This doesn’t prevent the usage of other viewers from bypassing these client security measures, but it’s still one measure that could help, and may meet the security policies of many schools and districts. Another option is to implement a teleport-restricting module on the server side so it limits access to educational regions, but since OpenSim is still in alpha, requiring it be included in all upgrades may be inconducive, unless a separate fork of OpenSim is made (much like OSGrid or Diva Distro).

  7. When appropriate, content should be Creative Commons-licensed. This isn’t entirely necessary, and I believe there is tremendous value in reinforcing the commercial OpenSim goods market. But any CC content could be provided as OARs and IARs (compressed archives of OpenSim content), so it can be installed on private servers. Direct links to OARs and IARs should be posted inside the regions themselves, when possible.
  8. We should create an open, zero-cost (for the end user) conference region. This can be accessed from anywhere in the hypergrid, and can be reserved for school events or professional development as needed.

Hopefully I’m not too far off base with some of these thoughts. I believe as we move forward it will become increasingly important to standardize how educational simulations are maintained so they can meet the policies and safety standards of most school systems.

This article was reprinted in Hypergrid Business.

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