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Jarl Jonas Director of CourseSites by Blackboard reflects on first MOOC
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Introduction...The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that I did with Blackboard people using CourseSites officially ended a week or 2 ago. It now has over 4,000 participants. Registration will remain open. So, now it is time to do some reflections on it in my blog (TravelinEdMan) as well as on MOOCs in general. Mixed in is an interview of Jarl Jonas, the Director of CourseSites, as well as the full (i.e., unabridged) version of the interview that Jeffrey Young of the Chronicle of Higher Education did with me that appeared back on June 11th (briefer Chronicle version). Those interviews start and end this sequence of blog postings.

Below is MOOC blog Post #1. The first of 5 such posts:
Day One (June 13): Jarl Jonas Director of CourseSites by Blackboard reflects on first MOOC
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And here are the posts that I made later in the week...
Day Two (June 14): The EvoLLLution from Toronto to a Global MOOC
Day Three (June 15): Reusable MOOC: When massive sync is lasting async
Day Four (June 16): Twenty Thoughts on the Types, Targets, and Intents of MOOCs
Day Five (June 17): Unabridged Interview on MOOC for Chronicle of Higher Education
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"Reflections on Blackboard, CourseSites, and the MOOC"

An Interview with Jarl Jonas Director for CourseSites by Blackboard, by Curtis J. Bonk, Professor, Indiana University, USA

This past weekend, I had an email conversation Jarl Jonas about the Massive Open Online Class (MOOC) I helped with last month, “Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success.” While I say "helped," as noted in a post in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week, I was the instructor of record. But that is really all anyone can do in a MOOC. You help or assist in the learning process. I had much assistance from others. Jarl was among those providing the help. For that, I am quite thankful.

The course, which I have discussed in many previous posts, has now attracted over 4,000 participants; as of today, there are 4,010 people enrolled in it and it keeps growing despite the fact that the synchronous sessions ended two weeks ago and my role is winding down. People can still go in and register and then learn from the content and forums and so on. As noted below, those that do can earn a badge. If interested in the course or in a badge, Jarl Jonas, or his assistant, Sarah Bishop Root, can help.

Who is Jarl Jonas you ask? Well, Jarl is Director for CourseSites by Blackboard, a free, hosted online course creation and facilitation service for individual instructors. Jarl is also an adjust faculty member for Excelsior College teaching Business Communications and am a former Secondary Language Arts teacher. Perhaps more importantly, he is an educator and life-long learner excited about the use of technology to enhance student engagement and achievement.

Amazing, he responded to my questions from 30,000 feet on my way to Austin (by way of Dallas). Below are my questions and his responses. You can also find his reflections on the MOOC in a blog post he made last month.

Curt Q1: What is CourseSites? How long has it existed? Why was it created? In what ways is its mission different from the more profit-oriented side of Blackboard? And how is it part of the mission?

Jarl: CourseSites is a free, hosted online course creation and facilitation service that empowers individual K–12 teachers, college and university instructors and community educators to add a Web–based component to their courses, or even host an entire course on the Internet. The service is powered by Blackboard’s latest learning management, mobile, SMS, and synchronous communication technology and is intended to help teachers establish what we like to call ‘one learning landscape.’ Many instructors are sending students to multiple sites to obtain information, interact, and complete assignments, which can cause confusion, frustration, and disengagement. With CourseSites, we provide most, if not all tools necessary to support all aspects of instruction.

CourseSites has existed since 1999, but it’s taken on a few different forms. In February of 2011, we launched the current free version to support Blackboard’s mission of “Everyone Educated.” By providing CourseSites, we remove a common barrier of access to technology and offer educators and their students a space to experiment with and/or use technology to enhance the teaching and learning process. To ensure the experience is successful and that the technology does not hinder learning, we include training and support for instructors and students. As well, with this updated, no cost service, we hope to establish a community of e-Learning practitioners who can help one another and discuss best practices, ideas, and challenges of teaching in this realm. This community includes Blackboard, and as such, CourseSites serves as a wonderful vehicle for students and instructors to voice their positive and constructive opinions about the software and experience that we can feed back to the Blackboard Product Development team with the intent of continuous improvement.

Curt Q2: Personally, I see CourseSites as sort of a goodwill arm or effort of Blackboard. If I am correct, can you describe other such goodwill efforts underway within Blackboard? For instance, I heard that there were some mobile learning initiatives for third world or developing countries in which Blackboard is involved. In fact, my son, Alex Bonk, has gone on two trips with Paul Kim from Seeds of Empowerment to help with literacy training in remote southern Tanzania and with indigenous youth in northern Argentina. He also did the documentaries and photography (see Facebook). In both cases, representatives from Blackboard also were part of the team. Did you know about this? Is Blackboard reaching out with CourseSites and other ways that people might not be aware of?

Jarl: One of the things I like most about working at Blackboard is the caliber of my colleagues and the ideas they have to help advance education around the world.  As you describe, the Seeds of Empowerment project has had a profound impact on many individuals at different levels and is a working example of the passion that Blackboard has for improving the quality of life for all. You can read a bit more about some of the results here.

CourseSites is a wonderful resource in itself, but for my colleagues and I, that is not enough. Last Fall, we worked closely with Creative Commons to provide instructors with a way to publish their course as an Open Educational Resource (OER.) to their instructor homepage. Course packages become available in Common Cartridge and Blackboard format and get tagged with a CC-BY license for all to consume, remix, and reuse. Then, this Spring, we announced our open enrollment feature, along with our CourseSites Open Course Series: Empowering Learning Through Community. The open enrollment features enable instructors to offer open courses of any kind to any number of students. To lead by example, we launched the open course series with your first course on Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success. Thank you for helping to launch the series and make such an impact!

Aside from these initiatives, Blackboard supports volunteerism and community service. We often participate in local service days to help give back to the communities in which we work and are provided 8 hours to volunteer with a charity of our choice.

Curt Q3: What are the most interesting and rewarding aspects of your job?

Jarl: My biggest passion in life is helping others to reach their full potential. The next is a thirst for knowledge. I can fulfill these passions in many ways, but being a part of CourseSites enables me to fulfill these on a much larger scale, all while broadening my perspective. I get to interact daily with individuals from around the world and hear how about their challenges and successes. I am able to give them a voice in our development to help them overcome certain obstacles and increase their student achievement.

As you know, the realm of instructional systems technology is ever-changing. This is both exciting and frustrating for all of us. I am a constant student in this job which helps keep me on my toes! I like to see what’s happening ‘out there’ and see what I can do to bring that to our users through functionality, or perhaps through educational programs. I work with equally passionate individuals and we have a lot of fun. I look forward to providing more and more opportunities for learning, experimentation, and advancement with CourseSites users and beyond for years to come!

Curt Q4: Why did Blackboard/CourseSites decide to offer this course? What interested you in doing this project?

Jarl: As former high school teacher, faculty development coordinator, online course developer, and Blackboard consultant, and as a current online instructor at Excelsior College, I’ve personally struggled and have seen many other educators wrestle with how to engage students — with or without technology. An enormous tool chest now awaits educators and designers to help motivate students to learn and achieve, but many are still overwhelmed and have little access to professional development resources, or someone who can help them make some sense of the theories and tools. Knowing that this need exists, among many, my colleagues and I began to think how we could leverage CourseSites to not only provide free and open access to some of these tools, but to educate teachers and instructors on how to use these and many others effectively – at no cost. Undoubtedly, there is a host of information that instructors can access on their own, but our experience also tells us that some professionals like a ‘structured’ learning experience. This is evidenced by the response and participation levels we saw.

Curt Q5: Was there anything else?

Jarl: We also wanted to try and see how an open course might work in an environment like CourseSites, as a place to start the conversation. We didn’t aim to mimic the MOOCs provided to date, but wanted to create an open opportunity for individuals to learn how they want (i.e., readings vs. live class), interact with whom they want, and choose the tools with which they were most comfortable (i.e., blogs/wikis/discussions.) We also created some opportunities for networking and were very pleased to see the number of groups and discussions established. Many have continued to interact even after the course has ended which could give rise to an ongoing community of practice.

Curt Q6: How supportive have Blackboard (the for profit company) been of this free online course and new venture? Do you have any examples of support that you can share? What benefits does a MOOC like this reap for Blackboard and CourseSites? Did anyone high up the food chain at Blackboard express any doubts or concerns about such a course or initiative? Are people up the food chain even aware of it? Stated another way, what has been the response internally at Blackboard HQ in DC?

Jarl: Blackboard and its’ executives are very supportive of CourseSites and the open course series. As I mentioned earlier, these initiatives help us to fulfill our mission of Everyone Educated, and provide fun, innovative opportunities to learn more individually and as a company. Many were very excited about the course launch and followed its progress closely including our CEO, Michael Chasen and President of Academic Platforms and CTO, Ray Henderson. Since joining Blackboard, Ray has been vocal proponent of advancing Blackboard openness initiatives and recognized our open enrollment capability and open course as further opportunities to accomplish that.

Curt Q7: What’s it like so far? Has it met your expectations and vision?  

Jarl: The course has now ‘officially’ ended, but is still open for anyone to enroll or return to access, review, and download learning resources. Looking back, I would say the course well exceeded our expectations. We had nearly 4,000 participants signed up. Over half of these participated in the discussion boards, blogs, and/or wikis contributing to the 6,000+ interactions with these tools. In our live sessions, we had over 500 in the first session, and then over 300 on average in subsequent sessions. For this time of year, at least in the US with terms ending and holidays beginning, I was very pleased with the turn-out and engagement. Additionally, individuals have formed over 20 groups on their own to network and connect about the course material within certain subjects or contexts and thus have formed their own community of practice. We were really hoping for this type of organic experience. I recently looked at our survey results for the course and over 90% agreed that they would take a course with us again. We will work hard to improve that percentage next time, but feel that is a good indicator of our success, along with the response that we’ve been getting such as:

“I'd like to express my gratitude to Mr. Bonk and everyone who paid lots of time and efforts to make it work. It was a great chance to learn from each other and grow professionally. I had an opportunity to participate in different MOOCs, but this one was the best I ever experienced to join. The platform and scheduling as well as the manner of running the Course was unbelievably great and well prepared. I enjoyed all the webinars run by Dr Bonk, though the time didn't fit me, as it was always after midnight. Anyway, the opportunity to watch the recording makes it even better.”
Nina Lyulkun, Associate Professor, Business Foreign Languages Department,
Khmelnitsky National University, Khmelnitsky, Ukraine (May 31, 2012)

Curt Q8: You and Sarah Bishop-Root have helped me out a lot in this course. Can you describe a typical “day” of online teaching in this MOOC-like experience? What do you tend to do?

Jarl: Initially, Sarah and I built the asynchronous environment we used to support the learning experience. The live sessions were meant to be the centerpiece, and we designed the CourseSites environment to provide alternative and supplemental resources, suggested reflective activities, and networking opportunities. Once the course began, Sarah and I split duty and had the assistance of our intern Nina Uqdah and your TAs. Sarah helped to monitor the course Twitter feed and I helped to monitor questions inside the course about the use of the platform, course structure, the badge, etc. As needed, we reached out to you for content-specific questions, and collected questions for the live session’s Q&A portion. Once we added the TAs, they assisted you with responding to participants regarding the content and questions that they may have had regarding application.

While we attempted to design each week in advance prior to launch, we were updating each week with further resources, such as adding the live session recordings and discussion/blog/wiki/chat summaries. As well, early on we ran a few tests with you to ensure that the live sessions would run smoothly and worked with our Blackboard Collaborate group to make adjustments as necessary. This surely became our main focus for six weeks, but we planned that accordingly amidst other ongoing job obligations at Blackboard. Sarah and I were also trying to be students in the course as well. Admittedly, we learned on many levels, but I need to go back to review the live session and resources to focus on the content as we were mainly focused on the experience for participants first and foremost.

Curt Q9: Did you ever imagine in school teaching days ever imagine a world or a course such as this?

Jarl: Instead of describing again, you might read or listen to the interview that Sarah Bishop Root and I did a couple of weeks ago with Amrit Ahluwalia that appeared in the Evolllution. MOOCs Making Waves with Nontraditional Students, June 2012 (longer audio file).

You might also read the one that came out earlier today that you and Sarah joined in on. The Potential for MOOCS, by Amrit Ahluwalia, The Evolllution. June 13, 2012 (longer audio file). (Note: This was the fourth and perhaps final interview that Amrit did on our MOOC.)

Curt Q10: What were your goals coming into this? Did you have any success factors in mind?

Jarl: Our main goal was to connect educators with information and other professionals that could help them increase student motivation, engagement, and achievement. We expected about 2,000 to enroll and participate and received double that. Along the way we expected and facilitated ways for participants to interact with one another so they could continue the dialogue well beyond the course environment and timeline. The aforementioned numbers are a good indicator of the initial interest, and the continued participation has been better than expected. All this has been happening at a crucial time during the typical US-based term (finals, graduation) and we’ve still seen good numbers.

Curt Q11: How is learning evident or indicated in the MOOC? What about connections?

Jarl: Participant learning has been evident by the conversations we’ve seen in the discussions and blogs, along with the resources and ideas shared in the wikis. Connections, on the other hand, are evident by the self-formed groups, along with the dialogue outside of the course in individual blogs and other social media. Some of the blog posts have been phenomenal in terms of how they have applied the examples and models presented.

There are many other signs of success. For instance, we have received much positive feedback from participants. This feedback is found in many forms of social media, including Facebook and Twitter posts, email, and much more. One of the most recent notes that caught our attention was from Professor June Klees from Bay College in Escanaba, Michigan. She said:

“I’ve greatly enjoyed participating in this class as part of my continuing professional development in online teaching! It's been the exact type of refresher that I've been craving, with the added bonus that it has very much validated my work as an online educator. I think what I will use the most is the videos as anchors and review, which will be incorporated more in my online, on-campus, and blended (to be created) classes. I highly recommend that all online educators, seasoned or newbie, join in the learning fun!”

And about halfway through the course, Lana Hiasat, Instructor at Dubai Men’s College in the UAE sent you a note that matched our hopes for the course:

“I am really enjoying your Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). It is so well structured and I’m getting so many ideas out of it to implement next semester. I will be trying wikibooks in the next few weeks.”

And after the course, she sent this update:
"I would like to thank you again for a very positive experience. After we finished the course I went on to plan my next year’s course design to include many of the tools that I have learned from your course. I think the main success of your course was that you managed to keep me--a quite busy teacher--motivated to do the weekly readings and listen to your presentations. It is very difficult to keep online learners engaged and interested in keeping up with the workload and you did that. Thanks again!”

Curt Q12: Has anything surprised you about the “students” who signed up for and participated in the course e.g., location, title, educational sector, etc.)?

Jarl: We knew that a wide variety of participants would sign up in terms of levels of experience with online learning, but I’m not sure we expected the varying levels of professionals (IDs, teachers, VP, Provosts). This shows us there is still much ground to cover at every level to ensure we are providing the best educational experiences for students at all levels and ages.

Also, we are tallying the exact number of countries represented now, but had some great response from around the world! Participants mainly came from the US, but we had many students from the Ukraine, UAE, France, South Africa, Belgium, Ecuador, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Mexico, the UK, and Saudi Arabia.

Curt Q13: Do you have any concerns going into the course -- about format, implications for universities, or any other aspect of this unusual venture?

Jarl: Despite all of the hoopla about MOOCs recently, I think we are far away from moving beyond our current higher education structure. That’s not to say what we have is optimal, but open education has many open questions and areas for exploration and maturity. Opportunities such as this open course help to augment over-burdened faculty development staff and provide some context and structure to the volume of research being published about learning in this paradigm.

Curt Q14: What are the motivators from this course? What is working in that regard?

Jarl: Badges are in their infancy, but quickly becoming somewhat of an accepted achievement indicator. As such, we decided to offer a Bonk Open Course badge to help encourage enrollees to participate in the suggested reflective activities and interact beyond the live sessions. As well, we are providing a way for users to store their achievement in the Mozilla Open Badge Backpack. Mozilla is leading the way regarding badge standardization and display. Otherwise, the participants can display this badge proudly on their blog or personal site as way of letting others know they met the stated requirements of the course and have acquired new skills to motivate and engage students in online and hybrid courses.

Curt Q15: So, time for a final question...what might you do next and when in terms of another MOOC-like experience from you guys? What might we be looking for from CourseSites and Blackboard in the not-too-distance future?

Jarl: Well, as I mentioned, your course was the first in the open course series so you can expect more learning experiences to be provided this year. During the live session in the past course we polled participants on some areas of interest. Universal Design and Accessibility were topics of interest. We are exploring how to address that need, along with other open education topics. We’d also love to have you offer another course after you’ve had some well deserved rest!

In the immediate future, we’ve partnered with the National Repository for Online Courses and are offering a webinar on their design framework this week. Anyone interested can learn more and register here.

Announcing Webinar: Designing Effective Resources for Online Learning
Date: June 14th
Time: 2 p.m. ET
Session Presenter: Ruth Rominger, Director of Learning Design - National Repository of Online Courses (NROC)

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About Me

Name: Curt Bonk
Home: Bloomington, Indiana, United States
About Me: I am a former accountant and CPA and a former educational psychologist. I am now Professor of IST at Indiana University and also adjunct in the School of Informatics. I founded and later sold SurveyShare. As president of CourseShare, LLC, I run around the world training instructors to teach online and give motivational talks about emerging learning technologies. I also write and edit books related to e-learning and blended learning. See bio and vita.

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