SMAC it!

The current decade has started to witness a fast changing landscape in technological innovations, some of which have brought about sweeping changes in everyday activities. If you look at a typical day in the life of a tech-savvy individual (either a college-going student or a working professional), you will find them operating in ways you’d not imagined a few years ago. Now come on, did you foresee people around you move about carrying a computer chip in their eyeglasses or wrist watches? At least two of my techie colleagues are seen donning the Google Glass in office these days, and I know of at least one friend—a fitness fanatic—working out with all these fancy wearable gadgets and checking in his progress on Facebook.

To take stock of the changes—small and big—that have stealthily crept in and comfortably fitted into our everyday life, let’s meet with Susan, a sales executive from a multinational corporation.

So, what does a typical day in her life look like? Let’s sneak a peek …


Looks familiar, doesn’t it? Like any other digitally savvy individual, Susan’s daily routine is strongly influenced by elements of the social and mobile worlds. Then, a crucial question that comes tom my mind as a learning designer is why should her learning environment be any different? Why can’t Susan’s learning use these very elements and mimic her real life?

Picture this …


Wouldn’t the merging of her personal and learning spaces result in an enhanced experience?

Accept it—the 21st century modern learners are clearly very different from what we’ve seen in the past. Their life is largely influenced by the Social, Cloud, and Mobile worlds. Add “Analytics” to this list and you get what is now a popular and fairly impactful acronym—SMAC—in the IT services world.

SMAC is influencing this digital generation so much that they now have shorter attention spans and, therefore, end up demanding information in smaller bites, albeit very fast and preferably on the go. When these new-age learners look for learning, they go to Google, YouTube, TED talks, Khan Academy, and, for the last couple of years, MOOCs! Increasingly, these learners want their learning experiences to match the pace and style of their life.

Undoubtedly, the Social and Cloud-based learning environments powered by Analytics and Mobile First design are characterizing and influencing the way learners learn today. These individuals increasingly want to merge their personal and learning spaces, so that their leaning experiences mimic their everyday life. Most importantly, these learners foster a culture of continuous and continual learning by:

  • Learning from a constant stream of knowledge and information
  • Collaborating to share knowledge, experiences, ideas, and resources as part of their everyday life
  • Extracting learning from their everyday activities both at work and in their personal life

And how best can learning design address the needs of the SMAC learner?

At the least, we need to start attempting to change, to swing around, and to shift elements in our design thinking. We need to move from a narrow “design a training” approach to thinking holistically in terms of “providing an integrated learning ecosystem” that should, at the least, provide for the following:

  • Unique learning experience
    • Self-driven and personalized paths
    • Micro (byte-sized) and pervasive learning
    • Peer to peer collaboration
    • Integration of social media and/or social media-like elements
    • Curation and dynamic building of content
    • Live projects and practical application
  • Scalability and Cost effectiveness
    • Should cost less to develop (by integrating open resources)
    • Longer shelf life and sustainability of training materials
    • Option for an Instructor-less delivery
    • Cloud-based deployment
    • Flexible and easy access via mobile devices

Simply put, we need to SMAC it!

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MOOCs as an Experiment

From among the providers of MOOCs, edX is more actively focused on treating MOOCs as an experiment—to better the quality of education. And, as a step forward in their endeavor, they recently announced a partnership with Google to build and operate, an open source learning platform. Read the press release or visit for more.

Coming back to the mission of improving learning, let’s run through the many initiatives—some predicted as disruptive—currently buzzing in the higher ed world. MOOCs and Adaptive Learning (and therefore learning analytics) usually top the list; another effort that is notable is the move toward competency-based education, and catching up with these efforts are digital badges for informal learning. Incidentally, WCET, the Mozilla Foundation, Blackboard, Inc., and Sage Road Solutions LLC are running a 6-Week long MOOC exploring badges as the emerging currency for professional credentials.

Additionally, the Innovating Pedagogy Report (2013) by the Open University lists the following themes: Seamless Learning (which I’d call “learning on the go”), Crowd Learning, Digital Scholarship, Geo Learning, Learning from Gaming, Maker Culture, and Citizen Inquiry.

Of all the innovations listed, the report clearly outlines MOOCs and Learning analytics with silver linings but also goes on to note that for these innovations to succeed, they need to complement formal education, rather than disrupt it.

“By bringing together MOOCs (as massive test beds for experiment outside traditional education) and learning analytics (as the means to provide dynamic evidence of the effectiveness of different teaching and learning methods) there is an opportunity for rapid, evidence-informed innovation on a grand scale” concludes the report. It describes MOOCs as an innovating pedagogy that brings together other innovations. Indeed, the integration of all these innovations so as to make them work in tandem is what forms the blueprint of the future learning ecosystem.

So let’s look at some of the various on-going experiments with MOOCs …

1. Awarding Badges: Early this year, the OLDS MOOC focusing on curriculum design for OERs experimented with awarding badges, which were also compatible with the Mozilla Open Badge Backpack. In a way, badges serve MOOCs well as they help recognize learner efforts (and achievements) in the course (thereby taking away the burden of formalizing every single MOOC with certification) and also help enhance the engagement levels, which in turn should improve completion rates. Badges have multiple uses – from the learning provider side, badges can help faculty and universities identify the right candidates for enrolment and further engagement to prepare them for careers; from the learner side, they will be able to demonstrate skills and granular learning, even the learning acquired on the job.

2. Integrating Social Media: From using hashtags to facilitate discussions on Twitter, to sharing on a variety of platforms such as Flickr, and forming online communities, faculty have already started to experiment with social media in their classrooms and online courses. Given that the millennials live and breathe social media, teachers have found this as a means to engage students actively in the learning and to help them generate newer ideas. A recent post titled “5 technologies to promote creative learning” on the Learning with ‘e’s blog by Steve Wheeler (an Associate Professor at Plymouth University) presents some good examples of how infusing wikis, twitter, and video mashups can take the learning experience a step further.

3. Mobile Learning: FutureLearn, the UK-based MOOC provider, has already announced that their MOOCs will be optimized for mobile devices, and in a recent interview, Daphne Koller stated that Coursera has started building up a mobile-devices team. Making a full course available on a mobile device and designing for mobile, however, are two different things. My colleague Tanya D’souza from Tata Interactive Systems has made an attempt to differentiate between the two in her white paper on “Creating Mobile Learning That Works.”

4. Gamification: Anant Agarwal of edX often talks about integrating the principles of gaming and interaction into MOOCs. In my white paper on “Designing MOOCs,” I’ve also listed some benefits of integrating sophisticated e-learning technologies such as games, simulations, and 3D into learning. Here’s a useful video I found on YouTube of Amy Jo Kim, CEO, Shufflebrain, talking about core concepts for smart gamification.

5. Learning Analytics: The current MOOC platforms are all capturing volumes of student data and claiming to using this data for research and examining the fundamentals of learning. The NMC Horizon Report of 2011 noted that the time to adoption for learning analytics will be about 4-5 years. A lot has happened since then. Here’s a blog post that delves into details, of particularly two components: machine grading and learning analytics, of edX’s technology platform.