Thursday, December 26, 2013

Flop of the year - MOOCs?

As another "year of the MOOC" draws to a close it's worth stepping back a little and see what impact the phenomenon has really made on the world of education. Anyone who is part of the global edtech community has been eating, breathing and sleeping MOOCs for at least the last two years and it's easy to believe that the rest of the world is equally excited and involved in the discussion. However I still meet lots of clever updated students and teachers who've never heard the term and when it comes to friends outside education it doesn't even get a blip on the radar.

Infoworld has an article revealing the tech flops of the year, The worst tech predictions of 2013 -- and two that hit the mark, and guess what makes the flop list - yes MOOCs! A surprising choice given all the publicity and impressive numbers (Coursera's 5.8 million students) but a few million here and there don't add up to a hill of beans in this crazy world (to quote Bogart in Casablanca). There's a lot of activity and experiment but MOOCs are not yet reaching the lives of the real target audience, those with no access to regular higher education. The article presents the familiar evidence of few learners lasting more than a week or two on the majority of MOOCs:

Despite the unending hype, MOOCs have not taken off. A study of more than 1 million MOOC enrollees, released in December by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, found that on average only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses.

The mere inclusion of MOOCs in a list of flops gives food for thought and invites us in the edtech community to step back a few paces and consider what real effects this alleged revolution has really had. I suspect that 2014 will see the term MOOC beginning to disappear and a more mature terminology evolving. There will be a wide flora of online education with wide-ranging interpretations of the word "open" and we will see some models make significant inroads in offering educational opportunities for people unable to participate in the traditional higher educational system. The full impact however of this movement will take several years to become fully apparent. Some present MOOC models will become purely commercial whilst others will embrace openness and innovation. They will complement not replace the traditional education system and hopefully contribute to its development. 

Maybe MOOC has become a bit too big for its boots and needs to be taken down a peg. A place on the flop of the year list may not be a bad move at all. Time for the trough of disillusionment anyone?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reading on paper or screen - what's the difference?

IMG_4227 by Jemimus, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by Jemimus

I often get into discussions about the pros and cons of reading print or screen texts. It's an emotional issue as many book lovers feel threatened by a digital takeover and the possible demise of books and newspapers. Many find screen reading a strain and prefer to print longer texts they find on the net. Many find digital formats lack the feel and soul of the print version and enjoy the tactile appeal of a book. I read both varieties and although I still prefer print I realize that it's largely a matter of what you are accustomed to. I can't see printed media disappearing in the near future though just take a look at the music industry to see an equally radical change that took place without many people really noticing - our music collections have moved from the shelves of our living rooms to our mobiles and record stores have almost disappeared from most high streets. Certainly there is discussion about how the sound quality of digital mp3 files is far inferior to that of vinyl records but for the vast majority that doesn't seem to matter. So what about the differences between print and screen reading?

I found an article from last year by Cindy Orr called Paper Vs. Screen—Does It Matter Anymore? She reviews research evidence for a significant difference between screen and print reading and finds that previously perceived differences are slowly disappearing.
  • We're reading much faster on the screen today than a few years ago and studies indicate that the gap is narrowing into insignificance.
  • Comprehension levels are about the same even if many people think they understand a print text better.
  • We feel much more comfortable with screen reading especially with the advent of tablets.
  • Our reading behaviour, in terms of eye movements, is very similar between print and screen.
A BBC article, Young people 'prefer to read on screen', describes the rapid shift to screens among children, with over 50% preferring screen to print, and how this affects reading ability.

"Younger children who read printed books as well as used computers were more likely to have higher reading levels than those who only read on screen, the study said. Although this gap did not apply to those children who used tablet computers or e-readers."

If the differences are melting away our perceptions are not changing as fast. Maybe there are other factors that affect our attitude to screen reading. A good summary of such factors is presented in an article by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. One important aspect is the tactile aspects of a print book or magazine. We can feel the weight of the book, easily see how far we have progressed and can quickly flick the pages to see where the present chapter ends. We also have spatial aspects of print reading, remembering where we were in the book when something happened or remembering the layout of a particular page. Screen reading is often seen as putting a strain on the eyes and affecting concentration but new studies suggest that these problems occur when using a computer where scrolling and mouse clicks are necessary. The latest tablets reproduce the feeling of a print book much more realistically and few find reading a strain on such screens.

Another interesting factor is that maybe we treat screen content as somehow less "serious" than print and are not prepared to concentrate as hard. Digital content has lots of tempting links to check and your are likely to have other applications open at the same time leading to all the tempting distractions of social media and e-mail that I wrote about in last week's post.

"An emerging collection of studies emphasizes that in addition to screens possibly taxing people's attention more than paper, people do not always bring as much mental effort to screens in the first place. Subconsciously, many people may think of reading on a computer or tablet as a less serious affair than reading on paper. Based on a detailed 2005 survey of 113 people in northern California, Ziming Liu of San Jose State University concluded that people reading on screens take a lot of shortcuts—they spend more time browsing, scanning and hunting for keywords compared with people reading on paper, and are more likely to read a document once, and only once."

Despite all this I still feel that reading is reading whatever the delivery medium. I'm sure you can read as deeply on a screen as you do in a print book but you have to make a conscious decision to concentrate. Digital reading can be distracting if you choose to keep the distractions active but the same is true with print. If you try to read a complex print book with the TV on, music in your headset or with friends or family in the same room your concentration will be equally impaired. Once again it's about focus.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Learning to focus

Focus by toolstop, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by toolstop

The topic of multitasking and our inability to concentrate on one thing at a time is a recurring topic in the media and on this blog (while writing this sentence an e-mail and a few Twitter messages rolled into my laptop with accompanying bleeps - must switch them off!). Our obsession with mobiles and social media is not a simple generational issue since parents and teachers are often just as likely to be distracted by the lure of their mobiles as teenagers are. If you think teenagers have difficulty concentrating in class just sit at the back of any conference room and see what adult professionals are doing on their laptops while someone is speaking on stage. Basically when it comes to digital technology we're all like cows who have just been let out into the field after a long cold winter. Few are able to control our desire for recognition, self-promotion and communication that technology offers us and we haven't yet had time to calm down and wonder what we're really doing.

So maybe the ability focus attention will become a key competence in schools in the near future. We need to explicitly practice the skill of focusing on one task like deep reading or simple silent reflection and learn to switch off all the bleeping distractions. This is the topic of an article in Mindshift, Age of Distraction: Why It’s Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus, that interviews Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. The ability to focus is a key factor behind all high level performers. Top artists and athletes all have the ability to focus completely on their task and in some cases enter into an almost trance like state. Today's love for multitasking and switching constantly between different activities can lead to us never acquiring this vital skill.

“This ability is more important than IQ or the socio economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health,” Goleman said. That could be a problem for students in the U.S. who often seem addicted to their devices, unable to put them down for even a few moments. Teachers say students are unable to comprehend the same texts that generations of students that came before them could master without problems, said Goleman. These are signs that educators may need to start paying attention to the act of attention itself. Digital natives may need help cultivating what was once an innate part of growing up.

How and when to use digital tools and devices is an essential part of the school curriculum today and that includes knowing how and when to switch off and focus. I'm not sure that having tech-free days is particularly useful because technology is ubiquitous today. Instead we should try to foster a wise use of technology. If you're focusing on writing an assignment you must of course use your laptop or tablet but you need to learn to only use the tools essential for that job and switch off the distractions. Switching off everything is an unnecessary "cold turkey" solution. We need to develop a mature relationship with technology and this will take time.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

MOOCs - the tip of the iceberg?

Iceberg by dnkemontoh, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by dnkemontoh

A new survey of almost 35,000 Coursera students has revealed that the vast majority of them already have university level education, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, MOOCs Are Largely Reaching Privileged Learners, Survey Finds. The study has been carried out by a group from the University of Pennsylvania and although it has only surveyed that university's MOOC students the number surveyed is large enough from which to draw some overall conclusions (read the study: The MOOC Phenomenon: Who Takes Massive Open Online Courses and Why?). The results show that the vast majority using MOOCs are those who are already well educated and digitally literate. This is further confirmed by Edinburgh University's recent survey of their MOOC students (see article in MOOC News and ReviewsWhat Do We Know About MOOC Students So Far?: A Look At Recent User Data).

The promise of MOOCs democratizing higher education is still to be fulfilled and it would seem that MOOCs are at present only preaching to the converted. Nothing surprising really though some critics will certainly use it as ammunition to shoot down the whole concept. The real impact of MOOCs relies on many factors that the MOOC providers can't really influence. Participation in any online course, regardless of acronym, demands a high level of digital literacy, good study skills,  plenty self-confidence and access to a computer and broadband internet access. The people who would benefit most from open access to education are not in that position yet and radical changes in education policy and infrastructure are required before they can participate in any significant numbers. Even in most developed countries the clear target group for open education is not even aware that such opportunities exist, far less participate in such courses.

I believe that open education (not necessarily MOOCs) can and will enable millions to access educational opportunities that are denied to them today but it's going to take more time than we might hope. Open resources are available, open courses are ready but the participants aren't ready yet. They need government initiatives in digital literacy and support from libraries, schools and learning centres to learn how to learn in an online environment and be able to find the courses they need. For now MOOCs are full of early adopters and  members of the online learning community. Shouldn't we be investing more in digital literacy and net access for all. Are we concentrating too much on the tip of the iceberg and not investing enough in the mass under the surface?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lectures can be good for you

I'll admit a little secret; I actually enjoy lecturing. I also enjoy and learn a lot from a well-delivered lecture from an enthusiastic and knowledgeable speaker. I know I've written and spoken many times about the limits of the lecture and how new pedagogies are needed to facilitate more student-centred learning but sometimes I find the anti-lecture rhetoric in some articles rather too dismissive. Statements about the death of the lecture or the end of universities as we know them simply polarise opinion and only lead to unnecessary conflict between traditionalists and innovators that divert attention from the real issues. I wrote about this back in June, In defence of the lecture, and this week I read an interesting article by Abigail Walthausen in The AtlanticDon't Give Up on the Lecture, showing that, when done well, there is a strong case for the lecture to continue as an important feature in education.

One point in the article stood out for me. Many want the focus to shift from the information transfer of the traditional lecture to more student interaction in the form of seminars (face-to-face or online). Although I agree with this we need to question whether seminars or tutorials are always effective learning arenas. Often they are dominated by the most vocal students and the structure can be rather loose and chaotic for quieter students. I remember being overawed by some of my fellow students in tutorials and as a result I could never find anything clever enough to say and therefore kept quite. As Walthausen remembers from her own student days:

As a college student, I was often advised by well-meaning adults to sign-up for seminars rather than lectures in order to get “face time.” To be perfectly honest, though, the lecture format, far more than the noisy seminar, enabled me to think deeply about a topic rather than being distracted by poorly planned and redundant comments from peers (often aggravated by a teacher who is reluctant, for fear of being too top-down in terms of pedagogy, to deflect them). Besides frustration with the dominant participants in many a seminar class, I have also wasted time distracted by the anxiety that I had to race others to an appropriate comment in order to accumulate those necessary class participation points.

Some learn a lot from seminar discussion and others find them intimidating and unrewarding. Same goes for lectures. Traditional educational methods should not be categorically dismissed. The world is full of creative and intelligent people who were educated in the traditional system so it can't be all wrong. There is a place for lectures and many other traditional concepts as long as we realize that the toolbox is so much bigger today and teachers need to be able to mix and adapt all these tools to their students' needs. Don't throw the baby out with the dishwater.

There is no one method of education that fails across the board, only the occasional rigid ideology that criticizes “one-size-fits-all education” while discontinuing a few of the less popular sizes.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Staying the course

This week's main  MOOC story has been an article by Max Chafkin on Fast CompanyUdacity's Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course, revealing that Sebastian Thrun is having second thoughts about his Udacity initiative. Having rocketed to world fame with the astounding success of the Stanford University artificial intelligence course in 2011 he founded Udacity with a mission to make higher education freely available to all. The MOOC hype revved into top gear and the rest is history. Now Thrun seems disillusioned with the MOOC concept as a disruptive factor in higher education and intends to focus more on the corporate training sector which will appeal more to the venture capital investors who are backing Udacity.

The main reason behind this abrupt change is the low completion rates in Udacity's courses and the realisation that no amount of attractive graphics, production and design is persuading learners to complete the courses. The dream of replacing expensive university education and offering it free to the world was simply unrealistic, at least in this version.

"We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product," Thrun tells me. "It was a painful moment." Turns out he doesn't even like the term MOOC.

He's not alone in disliking the term MOOC. It was once an apt term for a genuine form of collaborative learning that has now been twisted into a diffuse variety of interpretations and the term itself has become an empty cliché. Massive open learning is about developing learning networks and communities and investigating the potential of such arenas for learning. We need to really start investigating what massive and open really mean to education rather than repackaging traditional models as Bonnie Stewart writes in her post: in the wake of MOOC hype, what shall we talk about?

Yet the institutional structures and norms that dominate our society and particularly our education system do not foster networked identities. In the midst of all the pressure for educators to somehow prepare students for this mythical “21st century” we seem to be both living in yet still casting as the eternal and exotic future, the whole fact that schooling practices are broadly structured to create herd identities of compliance and uniform mastery rather than networked identities of differentiation is…well…not surprising. But definitely a disconnect.

However I'd like to dwell on the last element in the MOOC acronym; the concept of a course. When we speak of completion rates or more negatively drop-out rates it assumes that a student somehow breaks a contract. The course is a preset unit that a student makes a commitment to either by applying for admittance, by paying a fee or both. Once admitted there is strong motivation for the student to complete the course and hopefully be rewarded by some form of hard currency (certificate, grade) at the end. Dropping out is a significant decision since you are breaking a contract (however weak) and not fulfilling your side of the bargain. Since most MOOCs are free and completely voluntary there is no pressure to complete the course other than your own self-discipline. Being one of thousands means that your absence will pass completely unnoticed. Maybe you're only really interested in one part of the course, maybe you simply don't have time or most commonly life simply gets in the way with work demands, family responsibilities and so on always taking priority. Those who devise the course may see it as a coherent unit that should be completed but most participants will see it as something to dip into, test, learn from and then leave when their own curiosity has been satisfied. MOOCs may look like courses and are certainly designed as such but they are not seen that way by the majority of learners. They offer a package of learning materials that can be accessed for a myriad of reasons, like a good reference book, and learners will dip into whatever interests them. Most will not buy into the whole course concept that the institution has devised. Can we therefore compare MOOC completion rates with regular course completion rates?

I think there is a place for even the most traditional information transfer xMOOCs as long as they are honest about what they are and what they intend to do. Many people learn a lot this way and if this type of course inspires thousands of people to learn more or maybe motivate them to more formal studies then that's a worthwhile contribution. At this level the MOOC is part of a lifelong learning framework with the aim of awakening interest and in this context completion rates stats are totally irrelevant. Udacity could easily continue to offer their courses as part of this context as a way of inspiring people to learn more but that sort of activity does not offer any return on investment for the investors.

The keys to completion are active participation, a sense of belonging to a community and a shared purpose (see more on this in my article in a recent issue of EURODL, Completion Rates – A False Trail to Measuring Course Quality?). This requires a different approach than many of the current xMOOCs and in the well-developed field of for-credit online learning there are plenty of excellent examples of courses that have high completion rates. There is a tendency to confuse MOOCs with online learing and maybe it's time for the MOOCs to learn from successful online for-credit courses. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Lighting the fire of webinar participation

This week I and three colleagues arranged a webinar with the challenging title Running an effective webinar - experience and opportunities. It was part of a long series of webinars we've run over the last two years and the idea behind this one was to share our experience of webinars and invite participants to contribute their experience. We did not intend this webinar to be a masterclass(that would be tempting fate) but as an exchange of ideas and possibly the establishment of a community around the topic. About 160 people took part out of 244 registered and many more will watch the recording. Once again the most striking feature of the webinar is the high level of audience participation. Opening sound and video to such a large number of participants can lead to technical problems so interaction is largely limited to the chat window.

The use of the chat function in webinars intrigues me. A few months ago I wrote a post here about the problem of effective communication in webinars (Effective Communication in a webinar) and especially the issue of multitasking where the chat session competes with the speakers for attention. It's easy for a webinar to be a simple lecture with little of no interaction and sometimes there is merit in keeping things that simple. However to meet demands for audience involvement there is usually a chat window open for participants to ask questions, make comments or provide relevant links. This chat is almost always highly relevant to the topic being discussed and is mostly inspired by comments from the speakers but opinions differ on whether this type of parallel discussion is a positive contribution to the webinar or an irritating or even rude distraction.

Even if I have become a habitual "multitasker" and admit that it simply means that I can do several things rather badly, I also believe that we need to focus on a speaker to really understand their message. We've tried to limit the distraction factor by making the chat window extremely small when all focus should be on the speaker and explaining that after a short input the chat window will be enlarged to show that the focus is now on the participants' views. I thought that was a nice and tidy solution and that the multitasking could be limited by visual hints. However in our last two webinars this tactic has not worked. The chat is like a fire; once you get it started it just keeps burning and it's almost impossible to stop. This is precisely the lesson I have learned from this webinar. You simply can't control the interaction once it gets going and even if we reverted to a small chat window for the next chunk of input the chat just kept burning.

I can see both sides of the coin here. I agree that we are losing the ability to concentrate on what one person is saying and many people have become accustomed to having a buzz of communication about them all the time. This has a negative effect on our ability to really listen and reflect because our distractions are too loud. Howard Rheingold's work on attention (Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies, Educause Review 2010) as a key digital skill is relevant here. On the other hand there is already a tradition of chatting in a webinar as a way of creating a sense of community and participation. People expect to be able to chat while the webinar is in progress and once the chat starts it's hard to stop. Even if you take the chat window away I'm sure people will quickly find another channel to use. We need to make it clear to participants that this parallel communication will take place and that it's important to decide whether to concentrate on the speakers and ignore the chat or participate in the chat to the detriment of the speakers. Some can cope with both but not many. If you ignore the chat in the live session you can concentrate on it in the recording.

Have a look at the webinar below and see if you agree with the advice and experience that was shared. During the webinar we started a Facebook group in order to extend the discussion beyond the webinar. You're welcome to join us.

Friday, November 8, 2013

How much does free cost?

Free is the norm on the net. You expect to access just about everything for free and if someone tries to put up a paywall around their content most of us simply don't visit that site any more. At the same time we are acutely aware of the bombardment of advertising that accompanies most websites and some are so full it's hard to actually read the content. There's a lot of quality content out there that costs time money and professional expertise to produce and neither of the present models (free with ads or paywall) work very well. I'd be happy to pay for quality content if there was a flexible and painless way to do so. I'm not interested in paying a subscription to a newspaper when I only read a handful of its articles each month but I recognize that good journalism costs money.

A BBC article, Are the days of free content on the net numbered? questions whether the present advertising-driven free content model is sustainable. Signs are that revenues are falling and that news sites in particular will be unable to continue unless they can find a new revenue model. The answer would seem to be some kind of micropayment system where you are charged a tiny sum every time you read an article or watch a film on certain sites. Web content produced by individuals without commercial interest (blogs, wikis, hobby sites, clubs etc) will of course remain free but newspapers, TV sites and so on will get paid per click in a similar system to paying artists whose music is streamed via Spotify. If this means that serious journalism is available without paywalls or irritating advertising then I'm all for it. Otherwise we risk losing such media and our view of the world will be controlled by blatantly commercial media channels.

The article quotes web pioneer Robert Cailliau:

Mr Cailliau thinks that monthly subscriptions are too expensive and restrictive. He says the pay-as-you-go mobile phone model is a great one for online content.
"When you send an SMS, you pay a small amount of money. Each individual action should be billed individually," he says.
"My browser should pay you automatically a cent or two cents per page without me feeling it. I should not have to prepay a large amount of money."
"Why re-invent? The telephone already does that. We already have a worldwide system that's capable of billing the customer for every move he makes."

It isn't easy getting people to pay for something that has been free but maybe the model will be to pay a small flat rate to help pay for quality content but also for the right to avoid drowning in ads. If this helps to pay for serious journalism then it's worth trying.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Credentials for experience

CHN East Chapel Hill Graduation 2008 by Oberazzi, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by Oberazzi

University has always been a rite of passage; a period of your life devoted to study and network building before entering the world of employment. If you attend for three years you get a batchelor's degree and if you stay a year or two longer you get a master's degree. The focus is on the time spent on campus and the intangible assets of "student life" that can only be gained by being there. This time-based institution has therefore great difficulty accepting that some people can learn the same things without physically uprooting themselves and living on or around campus for the allotted time. No matter how well online students perform there's always suspicion that they have not gained the full benefit of higher education and that off-campus learning can never match "the real thing" (see my last post for more on that topic).

However, as university fees soar in many countries there are more and more new paths to higher education (MOOCs, for-credit online courses etc). The rite of passage aspect is also less relevant, especially for the growing ranks of lifelong learners who need small and regular injections of higher education but have no interest in actually attending a brick and mortar institution.

An article in the New York Times by Anya Kamenetz, Are You Competent? Prove It.
Degrees Based on What You Can Do, Not How Long You Went, discusses the demand for credits for experience and the concept of fast-tracking a degree for people with extensive experience in the subject area. Some colleges are offering students the chance to complete courses as fast as they want and get due credit for validated practical workplace experience.

College leaders say that by focusing on what people learn, not how or when they learn it, and by taking advantage of the latest technology, they can save students time and lower costs. There are 37 million Americans with some college but no degree, and political leaders at the local, state and national levels are heralding new competency-based programs as the best way to get them marketable diplomas.

We need to develop credible systems for giving talented people recognition for work experience and informal learning without having to return to campus of take on crippling loans. This is a potentially massive new market for universities but is viewed with extreme suspicion since it means offering credit to students who haven't attended the college in the traditional sense. One institution that is working on this is the University of Wisconsin who are offering flexible courses that can be completed at the student's own pace. According to Kevin P. Reilly who's in charge of the university's flexible initiative:

“It’s scary for faculty,” Dr. Reilly says. “There’s a continuing sense that students can and do draw on so many sources of information that are now available at their fingertips. They don’t need to come to the monastery for four years and sit at the feet of the monks.”

This week saw the long awaited official launch of  OER University which offers a serious alternative to the hyped xMOOC consortia. OER University are a partnership of 37 universities and organisations under the auspices of UNESCO and Commonwealth of Learning that offer truly open online courses using open educational resources and learners can get their learning assessed for real credits at a fraction of the cost of attending campus. Students need to pay a fee to get their learning and experience validated and credits awarded but it's a fraction of the cost of the full campus experience.

The rite of passage campus experience is not going to die out. It's still attractive for many but is only possible when you're between 18 and 25 and if you can afford it. For everyone else we need to offer other paths that may not give you that all-round learning experience of campus but are more practical and give recognition for the skills and knowledge that people gain at work and in leisure time. Will universities dare to award credentials to someone else's students? The members of OER University say they are willing and let's see who joins in.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Next best thing

book store by tom.belte, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by tom.belte

We have enormous respect for the written word. Reading a book has high cultural status that is somehow linked to the fact that it is printed on paper. However other means of telling a story never attain the level of respect that printed texts have. Even reading the digital version somehow has a lower status to reading a "real" book. Further down the respect list come listening to an audio book, watching a film of the book or playing the game. If a child sits all day reading a book we praise them but spending all day watching films or playing complicated interactive computer games is regarded as less praiseworthy and can even be seen as a problem. Somehow the written word is the "real thing" whereas all other media are seen as less serious versions; the next best thing.

I started thinking about this after hearing a talk from a colleague, Anette Svensson of Jönköping University, who has been studying attitudes to different forms of storytelling in schools and how we always give priority to text. This is strange since the written word was originally the next best thing to the spoken word. The oral tradition of ancient civilisations was all about spell-binding narrators who could tell inspiring tales that could last for hours. These were passed down from generation to generation as spoken narratives before finally being written down by poets like Homer. The written form of the Iliad was therefore a pale copy of the real thing which lacked the expression, drama, gestures and eye contact of the live performance. The art of storytelling is seldom practiced in schools unfortunately.

The point is that we should value different media and treat them on their own merits. There are always arguments about whether the film was as good as the book but it's better to discuss whether or not it was a good film. In education all focus is on written communication and success is dependent on mastering this skill. Of course it is important but in today's multi-media world it's surely time to accept examination assignments as films, games or podcasts which often demand a wider understanding of the subject matter than simply writing a text.

There has been a similar attitude to distance and online learning; a substitute for the "real thing" - classroom teaching. As a result we have tried to construct online equivalents of the traditional teaching environment with virtual classrooms, recorded lectures and lots of school vocabulary with e- on the front. Online courses are not respected highly in universities and often it's the most inexperienced faculty members who teach them, though now with the advent of MOOCs all the top professors want to get in there since there's a potential audience of millions out there.

We need to concentrate on learning using different media and different spaces (physical and online) rather than seeing one as a substitute for the other. There are different physical learning spaces that are great for some activities and poor for others. The same applies online. The key is to see how each space can facilitate learning and meaningful interaction. The classroom is not default any more, there are other arenas too just as we should not simply focus on text communication and neglect all other media. Judge each on their own merits.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

MOOCs and higher ed - can they live happily together?

I don't believe that MOOCs are going to replace universities in a tsunami revolution or other such headline-grabbing claims. I see MOOCs as primarily about informal lifelong learning rather than part of the credit-gathering formal education system, complementing rather than competing against it. They're another variant of all the online education that has been going on for the last 15 years or more. Different types of MOOC (or whatever they will be called in the future) fill different niches in a new educational ecosystem. However an interesting question is where MOOCs can be integrated into the formal system? I suspect we'll see varying degrees of integration and adaptation rather than massive disruption as touted by the headline makers.

One aspect is using the MOOC format to provide pre-university courses to get students on track and familiarise them with university study skills, information literacy, academic writing, source criticism and so on. These are skills that are supposed to permeate all courses but are often not explicitly taught and providing free pre-university courses would benefit both students and universities. There are already many examples of this in place but cooperation between universities is essential to prevent each one developing roughly the same course .

Another interesting idea comes from Martin Weller's post MOOCs As 1st Year Undergrad Replacement. He gives due credit to many of the xMOOCs in that they provide a good grounding in their subject area and could possibly replace many first year undergraduate courses which often have well over 100 students and where teacher-student interaction on campus is minimal.

"I know from doing my first degree in Psychology that the first year is really spent bringing everyone up to speed. A second year could then start on the assumption that all of the above is known to all students. This is where a conventional (campus or distance) university can step in. The MOOCs only take you so far. They're good at getting across content, but not so good at developing skills."

The idea is that a student could study an number of recommended MOOCs from various universities to get that first year grounding and then start start on campus for year two. The MOOC work would have to be validated and maybe some kind of examination task could be set to assess what has been learnt. The motivation here would be to save tuition fees for the first year and thereby making university more affordable. That's no motivation here in Sweden where there are no fees in higher education but in many other countries this makes a lot of sense. Many students will still want to study their first year on campus anyway but this option provides more flexibility. 

However, Weller closes by wondering:

"One parting thought - if this model was used successfully I wonder how long before the MOOC providers started charging for their courses to be used in this way?"


Thursday, October 24, 2013

The new oil

20111210_K7_P19529-dt_03.jpg by cclark395, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by cclark395

Every day we happily agree to sharing enormous amounts of information about ourselves to a wide range of companies. All those club cards we carry around which register every purchase we make and gather various kinds of bonus points that some day can be cashed in for discount. The reward to the company is tons of data about our preferences, purchasing habits and spending power that can then be used for targeted advertising and as statistical data for marketing analysis. Free has a price tag.

The same goes for all the free web services we know and love, bringing you, among millions of other things, this blog. The price of free is offering a vast amount of raw data that companies can then analyse to then offer services back to us or as strategic marketing data. As the saying goes "if it's free, you're probably the product." Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and all the others are collecting all our clicks for future harvesting and it's not hard to see that maybe that is one of the main drivers behind the MOOC trend. There's a lot of speculation about MOOC business models and although there are a few already in place they are probably not the reason the major MOOC players have attracted impressive amounts of venture capital.

An excellent presentation by Audrey Watters, Student Data is the New Oil: MOOCs, Metaphor, and Money (Hack Education 17 October), raises possible the real motivation behind MOOCs, namely the promise of data mining. Data it seems is the new oil and we are only just beginning to be able to refine it and put it to use. By storing all your clicks, which sites you visit, browsing patterns, videos watched, tweets sent, test scores and so on you can build up incredibly detailed profiles of every user. This can be used to be able to suggest new content specially for you, predict how you will behave, assess your learning and so on. Learning analytics has been on the radar of the Horizon Report for a few years now but the technology to fully realise the potential is only beginning to emerge.

Student data could well be digital oil and companies that can store the most will soon be able to refine it into useful commodities and Watters suggests that the scramble to own the oil reserves has only just begun. Until now this data was stored in many separate silos but these are being linked together and the next stage of web development will see completely new ways of utilizing and monetizing the raw data. Learning analytics promise personalized education where the net will guide you through customized learning paths suggesting material and methods suited to what works best for you. There are almost unlimited opportunities here but there's also a more sinister side if all this data gets into the wrong hands. Watters quotes from journalist Jer Thorp:

"Perhaps the “data as oil” idea can foster some much-needed criticality. Our experience with oil has been fraught; fortunes made have been balanced with dwindling resources, bloody mercenary conflicts, and a terrifying climate crisis. If we are indeed making the first steps into economic terrain that will be as transformative (and possibly as risky) as that of the petroleum industry, foresight will be key. We have already seen “data spills” happen (when large amounts of personal data are inadvertently leaked). Will it be much longer until we see dangerous data drilling practices? Or until we start to see long term effects from “data pollution”?

The analogy with oil is an excellent warning of the potential and dangers of digging too deep. Here's Audrey Watters' slideshow that accompanies the talk.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Bite-sized learning

Bite sized tapas by Smaku, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by Smaku

I've written several times about why completion rates are not particularly relevant when it comes to MOOCs. Most of the students are studying out of pure interest in their limited spare time and if more important things happen in their lives they will naturally drop the course. However if you really want to keep most students' attention for the full duration of your course the answer is to make the course as short as possible. Given people's busy schedules it's best to break learning into bite-sized modules where you can "complete" a course after say 2-3 weeks while your enthusiasm lasts and momentum is up. Instead of offering a 12 week course, divide it into say 4 x 3 week modules. Short term targets feel more achievable. My MOOC efforts haven't lasted past the week 3 mark yet so I can identify with this model. I simply can't commit my evenings to a MOOC for many weeks in advance but 2-3 weeks would probably work.

This is the subject of an article by George Anders in LinkedIn, Education Pioneer's Advice: Beat the Clock. It seems Andrew Ng, co-founder of MOOC provider Coursera, has drawn the conclusion that Coursera's courses should be short and sweet instead of simply following academic tradition with twelve week courses that inevitably suffer from very low completion rates, no matter how good the course material and pedagogical approach.

"Why not take a fresh look? Internal Coursera data shows that drawn-out classes consistently suffer from higher dropout rates. The actual teaching may be impeccable. But as Ng puts it, "life gets in the way" for many of Coursera's students. The site attracts learners in all walks of life, from cab drivers to corporate vice presidents. Full-time students represent only a minority of the overall enrollee population. So class-takers typically struggle to clear out time in the midst of on-the-job demands, business travel, family illnesses and car repairs."

The global success of TED talks is further proof of our preference for shorter chunks of input. The 10-15 minute lecture can captivate and inspire in a way that the traditional academic 45-60 minute version patently fails to do. Shorter courses or modularisation of longer courses provide clear short-term goals for even the busiest learners. Many campus courses are also being divided into bite-sized chunks by awarding badges for successful completion thereby encouraging students to focus on one step at a time. Learning - one bite at a time.

See also George Anders' article in ForbesCoursera's Online Insight: Short Classes Are Education's Future.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Quality and openness

An article in Inside Higher Ed, Puzzling peer reviews, highlights supposed dangers of open access publications. John Bohannon of Harvard University wrote a deliberately flawed biology article using a fictitious name and non-existent institution and submitted it to over 300 open access publications. It was accepted by about half of them (read a longer description of the experiment can be found in ScienceWho's afraid of peer review?). The article was written as part of a survey to see how much peer review was involved in the rapidly expanding open access journal market and the results cast a serious shadow over many of them. It contained serious scientific flaws that would be obvious to any academic in the field so the journals who accepted it had clearly not carried out any sort of serious peer review. Interestingly it was not only obscure journals that failed the test, even journals run by the big academic publishers fell for the trap.

"Acceptance was the norm, not the exception. The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious academic institutions such as Kobe University in Japan. It was accepted by scholarly society journals. It was even accepted by journals for which the paper's topic was utterly inappropriate, such as the Journal of Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction."

This is clearly unacceptable, though I find it hard to believe that so many people would fail to at least check the credentials of Ocorrafoo Cobange of the Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara. The basic principles of Howard Rheingold's Crap detection seem to have been overlooked here (Is this a credible source? What other publications come from this person/institution?). But does this mean that the open model is inherently flawed and that the traditional closed journal system is more credible?

All journals, open or closed, rely on peer review for the credibility of their publication. In neither model do the reviewers get paid for their services so the crucial factors must be the integrity and experience of the reviewers and the rigour of the process. Those were clearly lacking in the journals that accepted this fake article but I wonder what the success rate would have been if submitted to a large number of traditional journals. I suspect that even there there are some whose quality assurance processes are inadequate.

This is not really an openness issue but more a quality issue that can affect any publication open or closed. Those whose peer review and editing routines are not sufficiently rigorous will lose credibility. The reason so many open access journals seemed to fail this particular test could be because there are so many new journals on the scene who are still trying to establish themselves and have not developed quality assurance routines in their peer review processes. There are of course many extremely dubious publications out there, often based in developing countries but with titles that begin with "The American Journal of ...". These offer publication at a price and often succeed in luring academics into paying for publication. These deserve to be named and shamed as they are in Jeffrey Beall's List of predatory publishers 2013.

However it is important that we are not be tempted into thinking that openness means poor quality. The two are simply not related as David Wiley points out in an article, On quality and OER. Copyright or a price tag are no guarantees of good quality, whether we're talking about educational resources or academic publications. There are excellent open resources and excellent proprietary resources and their excellence depends on quality assurance routines and professionalism.

"Because quality is not necessarily a function of copyright status, neither traditionally copyrighted educational materials nor openly licensed educational materials can exclusively claim to be “high quality.” There are terrific commercial textbooks and there are terrific OER. There are also terrible commercial textbooks and terrible OER. Local experts must vet the quality of whatever resources they choose to adopt, and cannot abdicate this responsibility to publishing houses or anyone else."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

MOOCs - copyright confusion

In an ideal world where educators and institutions share resources with Creative Commons licenses that regulate reuse and adaptation there would be no problems with digital rights in MOOCs. The original connectivist MOOCs were all based on open educational resources and participants were well versed in the principles of openness. However the newer MOOC variations come in 50 shades of openness and there are suddenly complex copyright issues that participating institutions and educators need to be aware of.

There's a timely reminder of these issues in an Educause article entitled Copyright Challenges in a MOOC Environment. The article is the result of interviews with university leaders and legal experts about agreements with MOOC providers. Copyright agreements within a university regarding teachers' rights to their material may not apply when the course is globally distributed as a MOOC. Some material that may be used for educational purposes within the confines of a campus course may not be used when freely available on line. Some MOOC providers claim copyright on the content of the MOOCs they distribute.

"Each MOOC provider, for example, establishes a proprietary claim on material included in its courses, licenses to the user the terms of access and use of that material, and establishes its ownership claim of user-generated content. This conflicts with the common institutional policy approach that grants rights to faculty who develop a course. Fair-use exceptions to traditional copyright protection face challenges as well, given a MOOC’s potential for global reach."

If a university offers an open MOOC with the best of intentions and then offers the course via a MOOC consortium, that openness may be threatened. If that consortium sells the MOOC to other universities in a sort of franchising agreement the consortium will profit from selling rights that are inherently open. If money is made from a MOOC then shouldn't those responsible for creating the content get some kind of reward too?

An even more problematic area is that of user-generated content; the assignments that students submit for evaluation on the course forum or other repositories. Are those contributions automatically the property of the MOOC provider and are students aware of this? If you're taking a for-credit MOOC and you submit a longer paper for assessment who does that work belong to: the MOOC provider, the university or the student? Can the MOOC provider use student material from one course on future courses? The article raises many interesting questions that cannot be fully answered today but it concludes by stating that the legal discussion about MOOCs is inevitable given the pioneering nature of the movement.

"MOOCs present complex copyright questions that can challenge the relationship between the institution and its faculty and students. Creation of and/or participation in MOOCs do not always fit comfortably within the terms of standard institutional policies. Involving all stakeholders in open and flexible discussions should enhance the development of a shared copyright vision in the emerging MOOC environment for the greater benefit of higher education today."

The moral of the story is that universities need to consider very carefully the legal implications of  an agreement with a MOOC provider and discuss concerns openly before committing. It's going to take time to establish a new framework and maybe new perspectives of digital rights will emerge. The crucial factor is that all parties discuss as openly as possible and try to find answers to all these questions.

Monday, October 7, 2013

E-mail generation

E-mail is the default tool for digital communication in most organisations. You simply can't work without it and since most people have mobile access to their work account the mails just keep rolling in 24/7. The sheer volume of e-mail leads to considerable stress and I've seen colleagues with over 100 unread mails in their inbox. Even if most users complain about the volume and have problems clearing the backlog very few dare to use other services even if they are patently better at doing some of the jobs that e-mail fails to do. We somehow see e-mail as more trustworthy than other types of communication such as instant messaging, shared work spaces or collaborative documents despite the often-reported fact that over 90% of all e-mail is spam and so many viruses, trojans and other malware are transmitted by e-mail. It's a complicated love-hate relationship.

Students however have abandoned e-mail, according to an article the New York Times, Technology and the College Generation. Students seldom check their student e-mail accounts and this leads to a communication breakdown between them and their e-mail generation teachers and administrators. In the past there were often complaints about the university forcing students to use university accounts rather than letting them use their own private e-mail addresses but today's students don't even have an e-mail account. Some only have an account because many services like booking concert tickets or downloading a game demand an address in order to register. Using e-mail for communication is virtually unknown.

So students have abandoned e-mail whilst most people over 25 is hooked on it. That doesn't mean we're any good at using it. We misuse e-mail all the time, using it for tasks it simply is no good at. Most people still edit texts by mailing dozens of updated copies back and forth to each other when Google Drive or other collaborative tools do the job so much better. Many meetings take 50 e-mails to arrange (all using the dreaded Reply all button) instead of using a service like Doodle. Long discussions between members of a group (using Reply all to a group of thirty members) can fill your inbox in no time when the whole debate would be more efficiently run in a discussion forum.

The article also points out that faculty use of e-mail is not exactly exemplary:

“Faculty and staff love to blame students for not checking e-mail instead of owning up to the fact that no one ever got that good at using e-mail in the first place,” he said, citing vague subject lines and (exaggerating to make his point) 36-paragraph e-mails from faculty in which the crucial information is in paragraph 27. “How are they going to learn to use e-mail when that’s the model, and why would they want to?”

E-mail, like most tools, is good for some things and not so good at other things. Over the last 15 years we've used it for just about every type of transaction. Maybe we should listen to the students and try new ways of communicating, leaving e-mail to deal with what it's good at. Maybe if we were less addicted to it the spammers might also have top reconsider.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Integrating the e- into learning - EFQUEL Innovation Forum 2013

Open University of Catalonia
This year's EFQUEL Innovation Forum 2013 was held at the Open University of Catalonia in Barcelona 26-27 September. This is always an enjoyable event and being on the EFQUEL board and the programme committee I am kept pretty busy before and during the conference. This year's conference had the theme Refocusing quality in e-learning and the aim of reviewing the progress made so far in defining quality in the field as well as examining quality criteria for new areas of open education, in particular MOOCs.

My highlights of the conference
  • We are at last moving from a divided view of quality in education (traditional/e-learning) to a single concept of learning and teaching. Representatives of the major European higher education organisations ENQAEUAEURASHE and ESUwere all active contributors and ready to start a common discussion about how the area of e-learning quality can be integrated into traditional quality assurance criteria for higher education. This feels like a major breakthrough and hopefully specialist e-learning quality organisations will be able to contribute actively to the development of mainstream quality assurance in higher education.
  • MOOCs have taken the discussion of e-learning into the spotlight and will force even the most traditional universities to review the way they use technology and focus on quality. Even if MOOCs are mostly about informal learning the hype has made universities think about how they work with online learning in general and MOOC lessons will be applied to campus courses.
  • The tyranny of university ranking systems that focus only on high profile research universities could soon be over as new more comprehensive ranking systems that include vital criteria such as quality of teaching, student satisfaction, internationalisation and regional engagement. One such system was highlighted in Barcelona, U-Multirank.
    MOOCathon in progress
  • The three session long MOOCathon that I ran together with my board colleagues Ulf Ehlers and Ebba Ossiannilsson was a success with all seats taken all the way. My fears that it would be like a real MOOC with standing room only at the start and then only a handful left at the end proved to be unfounded though we did have a number of participants who opted in and out during the day but the total number remained fairly constant. We are now compiling and reviewing all the ideas and comments from the session for a new post on the MOOC Quality Project site and hope to write an article about the whole process in the near future.
  • Isn't it time for us to review and redefine our own terminology? We all use terms like e-learning, net-based learning, distance learning, online learning, technology enhanced learning etc sometimes interchangeably. If we are not clear about what we mean it's no wonder that other people get confused. Let's work together and define our terminology. At the same time I hope we can soon dump MOOC as a confusingly all-embracing term for many different types of learning arena.

Main conference hall
Some good quotes

  • How can openness contribute to a quality learning experience rather than be seen as a second rate option? - Ulf Ehlers, President EFQUEL.
  • The quality of online education and provisions are pivotal to the quality of an institution - Josep Planell, Vice Chancellor Open University of Catalonia.
  • MOOCs will lead to higher quality in for-credit university education.- Sir John Daniel, Commonwealth of Learning.
  • MOOCs can stimulate elearning if institutions develop policies for online teaching and execute them determinedly.- Sir John Daniel
  • Don’t assume that students are automatically attracted to online learning. They want something that will get them where they want to go. - Sir John Daniel
  • Recognition of prior experiential learning must be included in QA.- Guy Haug
  • E-learning is not the revolution. The real revolution is in teaching. - Josep Grifoll, ENQA
  • National QA Agencies don't consider e-learning priority, since its not in legislation. - Josep Grifoll
  • Quality Assurance labels should be included in EQAR together with QAAs. - Josep Griffoll
  • There is no such thing as the best car, wine or university in the world - Jon File, U-Multirank
  • The digital revolution in education is actually about moving to choice based education - are we fit for the choice based mode? - Antonio Teixeira, President EDEN

  • Let's hope the momentum can be maintained and we can have more detailed discussions next year when we meet in Crete, 7-9 May.

    I also made a Scoopit magazine for the conference with many of the presentations and related articles as well as a selection of mini interviews I did with some of the key speakers and other participants.

    Friday, September 27, 2013

    Connected learners need connected teachers

    Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano creates some excellent presentations and here's a new one dealing with the need for teachers to become globally connected. Read also her related blog post, Global learning - what do you mean?

    It's a simple message but for some reason it is taking a long time to reach all parts of the education system. If students are going to succeed in a global knowledge society they need teachers who are able to guide them. Assuming that students are digital natives and don't need support with digital literacy is resigning responsibility. Using today's social media and net-based tools require very little, if any, technical expertise; often much simpler than using the average washing machine or TV set.

    We need to move away from seeing digital media as mysterious technology only for the initiated, to integrating them into education as natural communication tools. Maybe we need to stop calling it all technology because doing so gives many an escape clause: "I'm a teacher not a technician".
    In the past when computers were deskbound and clumsy there were legitimate fears that students would be pacified in front of screens all day but today's "technology" is mobile and ubiquitous. Learning can take place anywhere rather than being confined to the classroom. But first we need to learn how to connect.

    Tuesday, September 24, 2013

    Shop window MOOCs

    Festival Walk Shopping mall Hong Kong by dcmaster, on Flickr
    Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by dcmaster

    There have been plenty metaphors for the MOOC movement; some very apt, some rather exaggerated and a few downright silly. An article by Martin Weller about the launch of the UK MOOC consortium FutureLearn, FutureLearn & The Role Of MOOCs, defines MOOCs as a shop window for higher education in a similar way as open educational resources. They offer millions a chance to learn from top universities and will stimulate an interest in learning and a thirst for more. They're not going to smash the system but will settle into a necessary and worthwhile niche once the hype dust has settled.

    "The MOOC hype is settling down now, and I feel that FutureLearn is really an indication of what it may well end up being. Forget the "end of universities as we know them" rhetoric, ignore the "all education will be this way one day" commercial wet dream - MOOCs will be as OERs. And that's a good thing. OERs are now available from providers all over the globe, they make a big difference to the way many people work. But they haven't really fundamentally changed what we do in education, they've allowed new models and enhanced others."

    MOOCs should be seen rather as marketing campaigns that benefit both the university and the thousands of learners who will study them. The success of a marketing campaign is decided by how many people that are more attracted to your institution as a result, not by the number who didn't react. MOOCs are not competing with regular courses, they are marketing the benefits of education. It's essential that they are well designed and offer a quality educational experience but the number of learners who complete such courses is not particularly relevant to judging their worth.

    Weller's closing remarks are spot on:

    "If a million learners every year get to experience some good online teaching material, and a smallish percentage of these then go on to study other MOOCs, or enter formal education, that's a positive outcome for universities, society and the individual learners. It probably isn't a model that will get venture capitalists excited though."

    Sunday, September 22, 2013

    Learning to deal with free - don't put all your eggs in the same basket

    We often hear that if you don't pay for something then you are the product, especially in connection with social media and cloud computing. Companies offer attractive services for free in return for information about ourselves that can then be used for targeted advertising or to tempt us into buying a more advanced version of the service (so called freemium). However there's nothing new with this concept. We've had many years of commercial radio and TV who offer their services "free" and the cost is being subjected to sometimes rather intense advertising. Many magazines which we pay good money for are over 50% pure advertising and many of the articles are slightly more discrete lifestyle advertising. Most of us have loyalty cards that give us discount at the cost of giving the company information about every purchase we make. Read more on this in an article from 2012, Stop Saying 'If You're Not Paying, You're The Product'.

    The concept of free raises a lot of integrity issues, especially when cloud services are used in an educational context. An article in Inside Higher EdTeaching Ethically with the Free Web, raises many relevant questions about using services like Google Apps, Facebook, Dropbox, WordPress and iCloud in schools and colleges. Many of these are excellent for collaborative writing, discussion, project work and reflection and are more user-friendly and attractive than more closed environments such as learning management systems. However they all have different policies for privacy and ownership of content and each has to be examined and discussed. Another issue is that some are not compatible with tools that improve accessibility for those with visual impairments.

    However the article advises teachers to become more aware of the implications of using open services and discussing them with their students. For example the documents you store on a cloud service are probably your own intellectual property but the information you put in your profile is probably not. Becoming aware of the conditions is the first step to taking control of your digital footprint and this is an essential classroom discussion that needs to be repeated and refined over the years. The article offers the following practical advice to teachers working with cloud services and social media.
    • Inform ourselves about the technologies we are using with students and our responsibilities as their teachers—both legally according to FERPA and ethically according to our beliefs and our students’ best interests. To that end, I’ve provided links to the policy and privacy statements of all of the apps and technologies mentioned in this post in the fact box above.
    • Engage our students in conversations about whatever apps or technologies we will be using in our courses, including conversations about what will be done with their personal information or content.
    • Offer options whenever possible as alternatives to particular web services. This gets tricky when using reminder or organizational applications, but you can always use multiple reminder services (Twitter and Remind101, for example) to keep students up-to-date on changes to the syllabus, or give groups options for online collaboration when they are completing collaborative projects.
    The advantages of using free social media and cloud-based services are too many to simply ignore but we need to be aware of the conditions and actively discuss the issues when using them in teaching. And don't put all the eggs in the same basket.

    Tuesday, September 17, 2013

    MOOCs - more glacier than tsunami

    About a year ago Stanford University president John L. Hennessy made a much publicized presentation comparing MOOCs to a tsunami about to hit higher education. It certainly intensified the discussion of online learning and helped to put MOOCs on the front pages of some glossy publications. However one year later and we maybe should change the metaphor. Although the various MOOC players have made a dramatic impact on the educational landscape I don't see the wave sweeping away any campuses just yet. No ivory towers have crashed down and curiously the most active proponents of MOOCs are those universities with the most ivory towers to defend.

    Maybe MOOCs are part of an educational glacier that will eventually lead to radical changes but as a slow grind rather than a massive impact. In that case the MOOC is simply one of many concepts that will be tested and developed as the glacier grinds over the landscape. Although I often compare what's happening to education with changes in publishing or the music industry there are fundamental differences. An article by Jonathan Tapson, MOOCs and the Gartner Hype Cycle: A very slow tsunami, points out that choosing to download an album instead of buying it in a shop is an undramatic and instant decision and meant that the music industry changed radically in a very short period. Education however is a major life decision and students are unlikely to opt for new options until they offer a recognized and proven improvement on the traditional model.

    "Undertaking a university degree is not an impulse purchase, like a book, or a song, or a newspaper; even a periodical or cable TV subscription only lasts a year or two, and involves moderate cost and no time commitment. A traditional university degree is a minimum three-year, whole-of-life experience, which results in a career-defining outcome and a mountain of debt, or cash spent, or some equivalent outlay. Not entirely unlike getting married, in fact."

    For students today MOOCs are not an alternative to college and they are unlikely to be that for several years. Most colleges will continue with business as usual for many years but slowly the alternatives will become more serious and appealing to an increasing number of students. The article projects that the real effects of this change will not really be felt until around 2023, quoting Bill Gates, “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten”

    There's a lot happening in education today and MOOCs are just one of many important new elements being experimented with. They're all part of the glacier but I don't believe that one element will lead to real change. The MOOC concept will fade into something else and we'll see plenty of tsunami scares before we finally realize that change is more organic and less dramatic but the effects will be radical.