Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Someone to watch over me


One of the main arguments for online education is that it allows you to study at your own pace. Course material, asynchronous discussion and collaborative tools let you study whenever you want and wherever you are. This works for those who have the necessary self-discipline and study skills but it could be claimed that this flexibility is the Achilles heel of online education. Most people lack the necessary skills to take advantage of online education and as long as those skills are not developed in schools, adult and vocational education this mismatch will continue.

Laura Vanderkam questions whether we are overestimating our self-study skills in her article on Fast CompanyCan people really learn at their own pace?. The article's focus is on corporate training but the conclusions are relevant even to higher education and in particular MOOCs. An increasing amount of training is carried out online and the flexibility and scalability of online training clearly appeals to top management since it allows training to take place whenever the staff have time and does not demand costly formal training days. However when left to our own devices it's hard to prioritise online learning since there are always more pressing tasks that demand attention. Independent online learning can work if there is a clear link to tangible career-enhancing rewards or you have high internal motivation. Otherwise it's hard to keep up the momentum and the result is that we drop out or slowly fade out of the course. I suspect that many of the people who fail to complete a MOOC simply didn't have the positive momentum that is provided by clear rewards, supportive teachers and a sense of belonging to a learning community.

Even if I feel perfectly comfortable with independent self-study I still find it hard to stay focused on an online course. I have a number of self-study projects that I start up with great enthusiasm but which fade away after a few weeks of admirable concentration. I've started studying many new languages this way acquiring a few basics but then when it gets more complicated I tend to find other things to do instead. A couple of years ago I signed up for a very traditional evening course in Arabic for beginners with the aim of at least learning the alphabet and basic phrases. The teacher was friendly but the teaching methods were extremely old-fashioned and uninspiring. I achieved my objectives mostly due to self-study but what kept me going was the "fear" of not keeping up with the class and "disappointing" the teacher. Despite my advancing years I became a schoolboy again and the simple motivation of not wanting to be worst in the class meant that I kept studying during the week. There was no interest in a continuation course so I thought I could go on independently using all the open learning opportunities I write so often about. The problem was that there was noone to impress, no class to keep up with, no teacher to please. It sounds incredibly childish but it points to a key problem with self-study.

The challenge for all online education, including MOOCs, is providing the support, encouragement, challenge and sense of common purpose needed to keep learners on track. I don't think it matters so much whether you meet a teacher face-to-face or online but most of us need to feel that someone is watching over us and has expectations. That person is often a teacher but it could also be a peer group. The most important factor is that someone out there wants me to succeed and wants to check how I'm getting on. Someone to watch over me.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Your book just tweeted

I always like to find examples of how digital and analogue can interact with and complement each other and that there is not always a conflict between the two. Penguin Books in Brazil have gained considerable media attention recently by releasing a smart bookmark that communicates with you via Twitter (see article in Springwise, Smart bookmark lets authors tweet at readers who have neglected their novel). The premise is that we are so distracted by social media today that it's easy to start a book and then forget it. Now the book gets a voice in the digital cacophany.

The concept is well demonstrated in the video below but basically it's a physical bookmark that contains a light sensor, timer and a nano-processor with wifi. You leave it in your book and if you don't open the book for a while the bookmark will tweet you a gentle, witty reminder in the style of the book's author. If you still don't pick up your book you will continue to receive regular reminders. Exactly how the tweets come in the style of the book's author is not explained in the articles I have read but I suspect that each book comes with its own bookmark preloaded with that author's potential reminders. You probably can't use that bookmark in any other book though an interesting development could be allowing the bookmark to register the new book via its barcode.

Yet another example of the internet of things where just about everything in our lives will be able to communicate.


PENGUIN BOOKS | Case Tweet For a Read from Rafael Gonzaga on Vimeo.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Learning is about relationships - and it's complicated

network by michael.heiss, on Flickr
CC BY-NC-SA Some rights reserved by michael.heiss 
An article by David L. Kirp in the New York Times, Teaching is not a business, criticizes two high-profile trends: the market approach to education with a focus on accountability, testing and league tables as well as the over-belief in disruptive technology. Turning schools and colleges into competitive businesses may be a politically popular strategy but he sees little evidence that it actually works. Competition simply widens the gap between winners and losers and strangles the vital roles of collaboration, community and support.

Firing teachers, rather than giving them the coaching they need, undermines morale. In some cases it may well discourage undergraduates from pursuing careers in teaching, and with a looming teacher shortage as baby boomers retire, that’s a recipe for disaster. Merit pay invites rivalries among teachers, when what’s needed is collaboration. Closing schools treats everyone there as guilty of causing low test scores, ignoring the difficult lives of the children in these schools — “no excuses,” say the reformers, as if poverty were an excuse.

This marketization of education is a quick fix that is easy to understand and provides superficial evidence of success with "good" schools and colleges rising to the top and "bad" ones closing down. The underlying factors behind students' underachievement are seldom given much attention.

While these reformers talk a lot about markets and competition, the essence of a good education — bringing together talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum — goes undiscussed.

Although the article deals mainly with the problems of treating education as a market the author also sees technology as a similar smokescreen that prevents us from dealing with the real issues in education. All the focus is on new tools and devices and far too little attention is given to discussing teacher development, student support and building a culture of learning. Despite my interest in e-learning and the role of technology in education I don't believe that it is the answer to better education. No amount of mobiles, laptops, tablets, social media, MOOCs or open educational resources will lead to better learning because learning is fundamentally about relationships. Many of the most crucial elements of learning are intangible: a sense of belonging, a safe and supportive environment with teachers and colleagues who inspire and support you, giving you regular feedback and challenging you. Technology however can help to create such a supportive environment.

Technology is important because it is so embedded in our workplaces and everyday life that to ignore it would risk making our education system irrelevant. Technology enables us to collaborate in ways that were simply not possible before and gives all schools access to knowledge and resources that were previously locked away or only accessible to a privileged few. The key question today is how do we create positive and supportive learning environments both in the classroom and online. There's a lot of focus on the drop-out rates in online courses but millions drop out of classroom education; even if they are still physically in the room they have dropped out mentally. Let's forget these endless and pointless discussions about whether classroom is better than online and look at how to make all forms of education more supportive, inclusive and empowering. All forms of education can be effective if the teachers and students are given the support and tools they need.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Unbundling and rebundling education

Lego Porn by EJP Photo, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by EJP Photo

A popular theme of the last few years has been the unbundling of higher education. This refers to the move from the all-inclusive model where a university offers degree programmes, courses, examination, support, tutoring, guidance etc to the unbundled model where a wide range of different institutions, companies and networks offer different parts of the package and students have the option of customizing their education. This has prompted much discussion on the advent of do-it-yourself education and a new educational ecosystem where the learner is free to choose the learning path that is most suitable. I have often written on this topic here and see many advantages with the unbundling process; enabling greater learner participation, widening access to education, offering more choice and greater flexibility.

Now even the notion of a course is being unbundled, as illustrated in an article by Jeffrey R Young in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Are Courses Outdated? MIT Considers Offering ‘Modules’ Instead. Noting that MOOCs work best when broken into short modules of 1-2 weeks, MIT are investigating offering a wide range of short modules that can be assembled by students into courses using a similar logic to the playlists we create for our online music. Both online and campus courses could be modularized according to the article and the benefits of this move are summarized as:
  • Students could retake any module they have trouble with before moving to the next concept in a sequence.
  • A modular approach would make it easier for professors to teach a course together, since faculty members could tackle a section rather than a whole course.
  • Updating a module when new information emerges is easier than redesigning an entire course.
Maybe this is not as revolutionary as it seems since a modular courses have been around for a long time. The difference today is the potential option to mix modules from different institutions though that would require the modules to conform to common quality criteria and for learners to be highly skilled in selecting suitable learning paths.

The problem with unbundling is that in the end it simply becomes too confusing to handle and the learner becomes paralyzed in an overwhelming abundance of choice. The pendulum starts then to swing towards rebundling; helping learners to make the right choices and find a path through the educational jungle. When choice becomes too complex we need someone who can help us to choose. This rebundling movement is introduced in an article in the latest edition of eCampus News, Unbundling and re-bundling in higher education.

... too few are thinking about how to help students make sense of and navigate this emerging, unbundled world and integrate the modular pieces together in ways that help them carve out a coherent and sensible life path. This is critical because it appears that in a personalized learning future, every single learner will have a custom fit educational pathway.

The movement could of course go full circle and the university will provide this rebundling but from a very different perspective from today's. Instead of offering everything under the same roof the future university will guide students to find personalised learning paths using courses or modules from a wide variety of sources, internal and external. If there are recognised quality criteria and metadata for all those resources it will be possible to put them together into a coherent path. The university's role will be as a guarantor of quality and provider of qualified tuition, guidance and mentorship.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Open and closed - students need to learn to handle both


Is there an inverse relation between the use of learning management systems (LMS) and social media in education? There does seem to be a certain conflict since they represent two very different types of learning environment for students. The LMS offers a secure all-inclusive enclosed arena with all services under one roof whereas social media offer a diverse, uncontrolled and highly personalised arena that the school/university has little influence over. The two would seem to be incompatible.

This question is discussed in an article by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, A Threat of Higher Ed's Love Affair with Closed-LMSs. She notes the paradox that the LMS culture is strongest in higher education, where you might expect more freedom and trust, whereas schools, who you would expect to strongly favour controlled environments, are in general more willing to experiment with social media. Schools are working much more with blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many other social tools and there are numerous very active discussion groups for teachers on both Facebook and Google+. There are of course similar activities in higher education but I haven't found anything like as many. One concern is that by focusing on the protected LMS environment universities are not really preparing students for their future workplaces many of which are already driven by social media and where it is essential to know how to manage your digital identity and how to use social media responsibly.

One's digital footprint is an opportunity to do be one step ahead in life at graduation. And the continuous reliance on the closed-LMS environment continously constructs a mental model for faculty, instructional designers, administrators, all members of higher education that using social media is, in essence, the wrong thing to do. Moving forward, the mainstream use of closed LMS environments is creating yet another digital divide.

However I feel this simplifies the issue somewhat. While many companies use social media as an integral part of their operations they also have closed environments as well, such as project management tools and internal discussion boards. Students must learn to live in a digital working environment that mixes open and closed depending on the context. Most LMS today provide social media integration and students can move almost seamlessly between LMS functions and public tools and networks. The LMS is no longer the walled garden it is so often accused of being. As usual we shouldn't see this as an either/or issue but we have to learn to work in different environments using the best tools for each job. In an earlier post (LMS - from red giant to white dwarf?) I suggested that the LMS will evolve into a strong core service offering secure storage of student data, assessment and examination whilst discussion, reflection and collaboration take place outside the core in a variety of social media. Both in school and higher education students need to learn to handle both open and closed environments.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

True confessions - digital or analogue?

10:10:10 on 10/10/10 - ”Give Me A Little by Jill Clardy, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Jill Clardy

I often get comments from colleagues that I must spend all my waking hours in front of a screen and do I ever have time for non-digital activities. While I admit to spending a considerable part of each day online and that the borderline between work and leisure time disappeared a long time ago, I thought I'd reveal just how analogue and retro I can be in certain circumstances. So here is my summer confession - I'm not as digital as I might seem.

BOOKS or MOOCs. I write a lot about MOOCs and am fascinated by the whole phenomenon which twists and turns every week. I've tested quite a few (actually completed one of them) and have written over 80 blog posts and several articles on the subject. However I must admit that I'm a book lover and have an ever-expanding library at home. I cannot contemplate not having at least one book on my bedside table and they are mostly non-fiction, generally history or nature. I learn a lot that way and am not prepared to sacrifice my book time to take a MOOC. Another factor that restricts my participation in MOOCs is that I spend so much time reading articles, writing blog posts and articles and engaging in online discussions that I feel I am participating in a never-ending personal MOOC so when I do sign up for a course it gets in the way of my normal work flow. Maybe I could be accused of not practicing what I preach but I like my own personal learning strategy and prefer it to the imposed schedule of a course.

E-books. I should say that books are books and whether they are on paper or on a screen matters very little but although I happily read both formats, there is a crucial difference in favour of paper that is based purely on my collector instinct and probably also a hint of vanity. I like to add a newly read book to my bookshelves (ie trophy cabinet) as evidence of my reading. There's still a certain status and satisfaction of having rows of crammed bookshelves and I can proudly claim to have read at least 90% of the contents. On the other hand no one notices your e-book collection, if indeed you can collect something as intangible. Admittedly this used to be equally true of the music collection that once occupied many shelves but has now completely disappeared into the cloud. Books may well go the same way but I still get great satisfaction out of owning a book rather than simply having access to one. Call me old-fashioned ...

Newspapers and magazines. One of my most important daily rituals is eating breakfast while reading the morning paper. I go through it from start to finish and read whatever seems interesting. Once breakfast is over I rarely look at the paper again. If for some reason there is no morning paper I'm rather lost. I check my iPad instead but it's not the same process. In the paper version I check all the headlines and often come across something interesting that I would never have clicked on in a digital version. I still subscribe to several print magazines each month and I read them from cover to cover (I even save them in long lines of boxes on the bookshelves!). I have cancelled a few subscriptions over the years with the intention of reading them on the net instead but that simply doesn't work. I even subscribed to a wonderful service called Readly which allows you unlimited access to a couple of hundred magazines for a monthly fee of about €10. I cancelled that when I realised I have ever used it. Somehow I have different reading strategies for print and digital formats; I skim/surf through digital content often in a non-linear manner whilst I read print from start to finish and tend to read more deeply. With digital content there are always exciting distractions just a click away whereas when I'm reading print copy those distractions are much further away. I realise there is no good reason why I shouldn't go digital but I don't, not yet anyway.

Tickets. Yes I still print out rail and air tickets and take them on my travels rather than use my mobile. I've tried using my mobile and of course it works but I don't completely trust the battery power of my mobile. If I have my tickets only on the mobile and the battery dies when I need to show the tickets what do I do then? A new mobile might be the answer but I still like to have the "real" tickets with me as a comfort.

I could probably add several more categories but the moral of the story is that we all adapt to the digital world in different ways and the presence of a digital solution does not always mean the end of the "analogue" version. We all find our own mix and that applies both in our private lives and in education. I wish we could move away from pointless arguments about whether digital is better than print, e-learning better than classroom and so on and instead focus on how technology is creating new opportunities.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The trouble with acronyms

Alphabet miso. by revbean, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by revbean

Martin Weller has written a timely post wondering why we don't talk so much about PLEs (Personal Learning Environments) today compared with a couple of years ago, Why don’t we talk about PLEs anymore. PLE is all about using your own mix of digital tools (blogs, wikis, Twitter, Diigo, RSS-readers, Facebook, Flickr etc) rather than pre-packaged learning management systems like Moodle or Blackboard (also known as VLE or LMS!). Weller features a Google Trends graph showing a fall and then levelling off in search results for PLE over the last couple of years and speculates on possible reasons for this trend.

"...  you could argue that the PLE was a success, it made itself redundant as a term, which illustrates it reached penetration. For others you could argue it was maybe a case of academics inventing something that wasn’t really there. For me, I found it a useful way to think about these new tools and moving away from pre-packaged solutions, but that’s become second nature now."

There is of course still considerable discussion and research among the PLE community (see especially this year's PLE conference in Tallinn) but one reason for the fall off in PLE discussion could be that, like many other interesting edtech concepts, it has probably drowned in a sea of MOOCs. Although many students (but far from all) already use PLEs without knowing that there is a name for their practice, a large proportion of educators have simply not discovered the concept yet and are still grappling with trying to use the traditional learning management system in a meaningful way. I think that the term PLE has simply not moved out of the innermost circle of pioneers whereas the general concept is more widely used but without the acronym.

The trouble with acronyms is that they exclude, giving an unnecessarily complicated name to an often relatively simple concept. Whenever we start talking about PLE, VLE, LMS, MOOC etc we automatically alienate the people we would really like to influence. It all sounds far too technical and all those acronyms simply blur into each other. My own completely unscientific hunch is that when an acronym fades into obscurity only then can the concept become mainstream. As long as a concept is still in development and in the laboratory stage then it probably needs a snappy acronym but once it becomes common practice it's time to move away from the alphabet soup.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Texting is still king


Despite the wide range of engaging social media available today it never ceases to amaze me that the undisputed king of communication in the net is the humble text message (SMS Short Message service) of 160 characters. It originally emerged as a signalling service in the 2nd generation mobile telephone system GSM in the early 1990s, used at first only for telling you that there was a voicemail message waiting for you. Given its limitations (160 characters, text only, low priority in the network, no guarantee of immediate delivery etc) its rise to fame was largely accidental. The idea of using it to communicate developed because mobile calls were expensive whereas texting was, at least in some countries, much cheaper. The rest is history but it's an excellent case of a service that became successful by accident. No company foresaw its popularity. Later the MMS was developed allowing you to send photos but it never took off in the same way.

Even today, despite the impressive numbers produced by Facebook and Twitter, the SMS is still the choice communication method of young people who weren't even born when the service first took off. An article in The Atlantic, The Most Popular Social Network for Young People? Texting, shows the results of a recent survey of young people's media habits and all social media are in the shadow of texting. Classic voice telephony is now relegated to being an optional extra.

So why does texting still beat Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the others?
  • Firstly and most importantly it's not owned by a company and you don't have to sign up for it. No company owns the messages you send and they're not searchable. 
  • Texting is available to all regardless of device, model, network etc. No updates, incompatible versions etc.
  • Texting works everywhere with mobile coverage.
  • In today's incomprehensible telecoms market unblimited texting is usually thrown into every deal and that adds to the attraction.
A further factor is the "good enough" concept. Successful services often have lower quality than competitors but due to their simplicity they are considered good enough. Listening to music as mp3 files is not particularly uplifting in terms of audio quality but the format wins in terms of its versatility and universitality. Texting has no bells or whistles, no fireworks or wow factor - it's simply good enough.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Passport for learning

Let’s Go! - Passport by LucasTheExperience, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by LucasTheExperience

The holy grail of open learning at the moment is finding a sustainable and reliable model for the validation of non-traditional learning (open courses, MOOCs, practical work experience, self-tuition etc). These forms of learning may be openly documented but have little or no formal credibility when applying to study at a university or applying for a job. Universities and employers have generally little knowledge of open learning and are naturally suspicious of the credibility of previously unknown certifications. Recognition of prior learning is of course relatively established in most universities but it is often a time-consuming and costly process that is more the exception than the rule. How can we help institutions to recognize open learning without making the task too cumbersome?

One interesting model is being tested in the project VM-Pass which aims to implement the recognition of virtual mobility and OER-learning through a learning passport. The idea is that a learner has a digital learning passport (like an e-portfolio if you like) with certificates from all the open courses they have completed as well as MOOCs and in-company training. This is similar to the badges backpack that Mozillas Open Badges concept uses where all your digital certificates are included in the backpack/passport. The key to VM-Pass is the validation process that is based on combination of peer review and crowdsourcing. The passport contains information from the course provider on the certificate the learner has earned with transparent links to all criteria. In addition there is the learner's own profile. When the learner goes to a university and asks for them to recognize his/her certificates it is far too demanding for each institution to investigate every certificate. Instead VM-Pass propose a clearinghouse solution where participating institutions can store their validations of open learning certificates. An administrator can look in the database and see if any other institution has validated the certificate in question. If there is already an entry then a good deal of the job is done, if not then the full validation process must be carried out. However if that process is documented in the system the next institution to query that certificate will not need to check so thoroughly.

These activities together will provide recognition offices a tool which will reduce the bureaucracy involved in recognition processes, allow them to share experiences with peers and compare their recognition decisions’ with other institutions – thus promoting harmonisation of recognition. All of this together, should make it easier for students to have their VM learning recognised, and thus increase the volume of students taking advantage of this flexible learning pathway, without increasing the administrative burden on their home institutions.

The major barrier here is getting universities to actually consider recognising open learning and using such a clearinghouse. The project is at present recruiting willing test pilots in a living lab to see whether the solution is feasible. Clearly there are methods and tools for integrating informal and formal learning. As usual the technology is not the problem. Changing attitudes and traditions are much harder challenges.

Read the booklet Open learning recognition which provides a foundation to the VM-Pass model.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Time for nanodegrees?

Microscope Stage 2 by tncountryfan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by tncountryfan

Last year Sebastian Thrun, head of MOOC-consortium Udacity caused quite a stir by announcing that his company would be changing focus; leaving the higher education MOOC market and focusing on corporate training (see article). This change provoked a lot of "I told you so" rhetoric from the MOOC skeptics; evidence that the concept was not compatible with higher education. Now after a few quiet months Udacity are launching the concept of nanodegrees which offer highly practical MOOC-like training in cooperation with a number of high profile companies like AT&T. The MOOC format is still recognizable but the focus is on helping learners get necessary work-related skills to make themselves more attractive to employers. The nanodegrees will take 6-12 months to complete depending on the pace the learner chooses. As described on the Udacity blogAnnouncing nanodegrees: a new type of credential for a modern workforce:

We are designing nanodegrees as the most compact and relevant curriculum to qualify you for a job. The sole goal is to help students advance their career: whether it’s landing their next job, their next project, or their next promotion. It should take a working student about 6-12 months to complete without having to take time off. We will teach all the necessary skills together with why those skills matter along with career guidance. In other words, you won’t just learn *how* to code, but also *why.*

The first courses have just been announced and you can already sign up to receive further information as it becomes available: Front-end web developer, iOS developer, Back-end web developer and Data analyst. I'm not sure what sort of business model they have in mind but I can imagine that there will be the familiar layered approach already used in higher education MOOCs; free to participate but tuition, assessment and credentials at a fee. It's interesting that although these nanodegrees will have no academic validity they have chosen an academic name for the concept. If there are no university credits involved why use the term degree? Academics may object to the concept on the grounds that a degree involves long-term in-depth study and that if you shorten this process as radically as Udacity do it cannot be called a degree. It's like calling a 5 km race a nanomarathon. Let's see how the debate goes.

The big question is whether employers will accept new credentials like these nanodegrees or similar initiatives. It would be interesting to see if Udacity would consider using Open Badges in their forthcoming courses since that would give added impetus to the initiative. They have been working closely with some major companies who plan to offer internships to selected nanodegree students but the crunch will come when such qualifications square up to regular degree certificate on a candidate's CV.

The validity of open learning is questioned in an article in the Guardian, Will a degree made up of Moocs ever be worth the paper it's written on? and the main criticism of open learning here is that it lacks the dialogue and personal contacts between teacher and student that occur on a campus programme. Here I think there is a danger of over-estimating campus education. Many universities have extremely large undergraduate courses and quality interaction with a faculty member can be as minimal as on many MOOCs just as there are many examples of online courses with extensive teacher-student interaction. Education at scale is not feasible on campus but is clearly possible online and the fascinating side of the MOOC movement is how different actors are trying to find ways of providing interaction, assessment and feedback. A degree (or even nanodegree) made up of MOOCs can and probably will be worth the digital badge it's written on but may not be equivalent to a full-time campus degree. It's not a matter of either ... or ... but different qualifications for different needs and target groups.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Norwegian MOOC commission


Norway became the first country in the world to appoint a government commission to examine the potential of MOOCs from a national perspective. In June 2013 the Ministry of Education appointed a committee of academics and educational experts to investigate the opportunities and challenges that the rapid growth of MOOCs pose to Norwegian higher education. The commission has now (16 June) presented its first full report and since it is at present only available in Norwegian it might be of interest to the rest of the world to get an overview of the conclusions (read the Norwegian version).

The commission defines MOOCs in very loose terms; online, scalable and open. As often mentioned every letter in the acronym MOOC is negotiable and the report does not restrict itself to any particular variation on the MOOC concept. This can cause confusion since the divisions between MOOCs, other forms of open education and regular e-learning often get blurred but the commission decided to cover all forms of the concept. The focus is however mostly on the high profile xMOOC interpretations of Coursera, edX etc rather than on the more undercover collaborative MOOCs offered by networks of teachers.

The report comes quickly to the point providing its main recommendations in chapter 3 with all the hard data and background coming afterwards. The recommendations are divided into two areas.

Main recommendations at government level:
  • A major national investment of up to €16-47 million annually in the coordinated development of online education in the country. This includes the formation of at least one national MOOC platform, research-based competence and knowledge development, cooperation between higher education and industry in using MOOCs for work-related training and research into learning analytics.
  • Create a clear Norwegian MOOC profile and cooperate in the Nordic region.
  • Active promotion of open educational resources (OER).
  • MOOCs that lead to credits should be included in the national educational system.
  • Focus on raising the quality of online higher education and competence development for teachers.
  • Questions about online examination security must be resolved.
  • A national review of validation of informal learning and workplace experience.
  • An inquiry on whether MOOC students should qualify for study loans and grants.
  • The establishment of financial incentives for collaboration between universities in the development of online education.
Main recommendations at institutional level:
  • The wide experience of quality online learning that is already present in the country’s institutions should be the base for any MOOC initiatives.
  • Institutions need to invest in digital competence development for all staff.
  • Institutions actively promote the use and creation of open educational resources.
  • Improved routines and opportunities for recognition of prior learning and competences.
  • Institutions should use MOOCs to leverage national and international collaboration.
To support these conclusions the commission then makes a chapter by chapter analysis of the following topics:
  • MOOCs in society (background, relevance, international and Norwegian contexts)
  • From flexible education to MOOCs (online learning history)
  • Evolution of MOOCs
  • MOOC participants and their motivation
  • Documentation of achieved competence
  • MOOCs in Norwegian higher education
  • Quality and learning outcomes
  • MOOC delivery forms
  • Copyright issues and openness
  • Workplace learning
  • Continuing education
  • Discussion on the interpretation of “free”
  • Government study grants and funding
  • Financial consequences of the commission’s proposals
The report gives a thorough and balanced analysis of the international development of MOOCs and acknowledges that MOOCs are only part of a wider development of open education and online learning. The background is well documented and happily also includes the origins of the term in the connectivist courses (cMOOCs) developed and still run by pioneers like George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, David Wiley, Bryan Alexander and many more. They also take into consideration the fact that there is no clear standard MOOC model and that even within the major consortia like Coursera there is considerable variation in pedagogy, student interaction, assessment and structure. They have not fallen into the trap of simply looking at the mainstream hype but point to how MOOCs have opened people's eyes to the future role of online learning in all educational sectors. The positive effect of the MOOC hype has been that it has pushed a discussion of online learning on to the agendas of top management. Norway (and several other European countries) differs from leading MOOC nations like the USA in that higher education is free and not subject to high fees. Due to this the report feels that MOOCs will affect Norwegian higher education in different ways than in the USA and England. The accessibility of global MOOCs will stimulate Norwegian institutions to improve their own online courses and this quality focus will naturally also improve campus programmes. National and international collaboration will be another positive result of the opening up of education that MOOCs have been the catalyst for. However none of this will happen without strategic funding, incentives and strategies.

One aspect that is not covered here is that there are many examples of open online learning that don't (often deliberately) call themselves MOOC but share many common characteristics. The OER university partnership is mentioned but maybe deserves more attention since it attempts to provide a framework for offering credible credentials for non-formal and informal learning. A Norwegian member of the partnership would be a significant move to legitimize open learning in Norway for example. I have not found any mention of other open learning platforms like P2PU (Peer 2 Peer university) who have been facilitating MOOC-like collaborative learning for several years as well as platforms like Udemy that allow teachers and specialists to create and market their own courses. However a report cannot cover everything and the important point about this one is that it has been produced at governmental level, showing clearly that open learning has at last reached the corridors of power.

An English version of the report is promised in the near future.

Monday, June 16, 2014

E-learning - the prism effect

PRISM 1 by refeia, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by refeia

After last week's EDEN conference in Zagreb I had an interesting discussion with a colleague that got me thinking. She had not been to so many conferences in the field of e-learning and although we agreed that this conference had been rewarding she found the lack of focus rather disconcerting. The problem was that most academic conferences focus clearly on a specific discipline or more likely a specialised area of a particular discipline. If you go to a conference in pedagogy you can safely assume that the participants will be professionals in that field and will have common reference points. However in the field of e-learning we tend to gather people from many disciplines who have a common interest in e-learning but who otherwise have few common points of reference. In most e-learning conferences you will meet specialists in pedagogy, IT, management, psychology, policy, administration and others. The result is that the sessions contain a wide range of disciplines and it is hard to see where the focus lies. A session that seems to deal with pedagogical questions can be lead by specialists in other areas and this can seem very messy for those accustomed to mainstream academic conferences.

I see clear parallels with independence movements in politics. Being Scottish this is a highly topical matter but if you look at similar political movements you see the pattern. The common objective is independence and as long as that lies in the future the movement unites a wide range of political shades. However once the objective is attained the movement may then split into its constituent parts since the common glue no longer exists. As long as e-learning and related concepts are still not mainstream in education we have a common goal to strive towards but when we have achieved that I suspect we will all return to our respective disciplines. The advantage of the present e-learning movement is that it brings such diverse groups together and that can be very productive and invigorating. However it does mean that discussions can be messy with non-specialists leading discussions on fields they have not fully studied and that can lead to misunderstandings when specialists and generalists mix.

As for me I generally call myself an enthusiast and am one of those who knows a bit about most things but have no particular speciality. Therefore I enjoy the multi-disciplinary tone of these conferences but I do understand why the specialists can find the rainbow e-learning movement rather unfocused. Maybe we have to be clearer about declaring our specialities (or not) to avoid disappointing.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Arenas for learning, workshop at EDEN 2014

What characterizes a dynamic learning environment and how does this affect our choice of learning environments and tools? These were the questions behind a workshop I organised with my colleague from Linnaeus University, Linda Reneland-Forsman, at this week's EDEN conference in Zagreb, Croatia.

Summary of our discussions on Padlet
The workshop grew out of an article we wrote last year, Completion Rates – A False Trail to Measuring Course Quality? (EURODL 2013), where we suggested that we tackle the issue of completion rates by focusing on enhancing student interaction and creating truly dynamic learning arenas. We found that courses with low completion rates had several key features in common: too much focus on text-based communication, no guidelines for students, no synchronous meetings, static course environment, invisible individual processes. How do we design courses that make learning processes more visible and foster a dynamic and supportive community?

After our brief input on these themes we divided the participants into groups. The conference participants formed their face-to-face groups and we also had an online group who were following the workshop via Adobe Connect. The results of the discussions can be viewed on our common Padlet page which also includes some useful links and our presentation slides.

So how do we make a difference? How do we make courses more dynamic and collaborative and thereby significantly raise the level of student engagement? Here is a summary of conclusions:
  • Synchronous helps build community faster than asynchronous
  • Social presence is important, building up a digital identity.
  • Make the course collaborative and co-operative, also encourage engagement.
  • Reflection by all at the end of each unit (on own experience and on the learning process)
  • Authentic assessment that relates to work situations.
  • Get everybody on board - even the "observers" 
  • Teamwork: assignments that require interactions. For example the jigsaw method where each student has different information about a problem and only by collaborating can they solve it).
  • Create a debate within students – contextualize (how do you do it in your own world?)
  • Number of interactions and richness of types of interactions as an indicators of engagement.
  • Importance of feedback, both from teacher and from fellow students. Giving feedback needs to be trained from the start. Variety of feedback also vital (more audio and video).
  • Rethink how we handle traditional tasks.
Regardless of whether a course is on campus, blended or completely online we need to create a feeling of community and collective responsibility from the very start. Each student needs to feel acknowledged and supported with clear information and guidance to each part of the course. Assessment and feedback is a collective responsibility and assignments must be relevant to real practice. To assist in this there are many tools and methods, both digital and "analogue", and the crucial factor is being able to use the right mix for each course. Let's move away from a pointless "blame game" about completion rates in online education and focus on making all courses as engaging and challenging as possible. Then the completion rates should take care of themselves. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

How many devices do you need in a classroom?

Cuddling with multiple devices by adactio, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by adactio

How many devices do you need in a classroom? I imagine the standard answer would be one device per student since so many schools and colleges in the world have invested in one laptop/device per student schemes. However there is a problem with this approach as Edna Sackson describes through personal experience in a post entitled Too many iPads .... She had a special guest in her classroom, none other than the father of the school in the cloud concept Sugata Mitra. He gave the class a task which involved them finding out as much as they can about a concept without any teacher guidance, using tablets, mobiles or laptops to search the net for relevant information. Because they all had their own devices the task resulted in silence as each pupil started searching on their own.

Interestingly, the children initially stay in their own seats and investigate on their individual devices. No-one has told them not to move or converse. In fact Sugata spent some time before the question chatting with them about how often and why they move seats.

After some prompting they did start discussing and solving the problem together but the lesson here was that collaborative work can sometimes be inhibited in a one-to-one classroom. Indeed one of the key principles of Sugata Mitra's work is having around four pupils sharing one device since that forces them to discuss. This is good news for cash-strapped schools who wonder how to afford a one-to-one investment but when all pupils have their own devices and some have several devices, how can we encourage them to look up from their screens and discuss with each other? It depends on the task but I think it's perfectly feasible to agree in advance that for this particular exercise there will only be one device active in each group and let them see it as a challenge to complete the task this way. The key is learning to adapt technology use to suit the situation. Sometimes the focus is on discussion and collaboration and therefore devices can be shared and at other times the focus may be on gathering information and analysis of sources and then everyone will need their own devices.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Accentuating the MOOC positives


After so much MOOC criticism focusing on the low completion rates (a subject I've written on many times) it was refreshing to read a more positive angle from a teacher. Guy M Rogers (Professor of Classics and History at Wellesley College) ran a MOOC on edX on the life of Alexander the Great (see the archived course on edX) and reflects on the course's success in an article in Inside Higher EdAlexander the MOOC Lands, The course attracted 17,500 students from over 130 countries between the ages of 12 and 86. Rogers was well aware of the challenges facing every MOOC team and set three questions to be answered:

... whether a Massive Open Online Course could be as intellectually rigorous as a brick and mortar history course; whether a MOOC could serve as a portal for both teaching and historical research; and whether an online course could engage and inspire students. The data are in and the answer to all three questions is an emphatic yes.

On the surface this course demonstrates the usual low completion rate with 1162 students taking the final exam but Rogers decides to focus on the fact that those students who actually followed the course succeeded impressively. Firstly more students passed the course than had passed all other courses he had taught in the last ten years. In addition 862 of them passed with over 90% test scores and this compares very favourably with results from the campus version of the course. Even more surprising is that this was achieved in a course lasting a whopping 15 weeks, three times longer than most MOOCs.

What this example demonstrates so well is that the students who really engaged in the course learned a lot and performed as well as traditional students. The 16,000 participants who didn't finish were not failures or drop-outs, they were probably just curious about the course and tested it for a while. Once the initial dust has settled you see how many real participants your MOOC has and if you start with that figure the completion rate is generally pretty good considering it's free and the students have made no commitment whatsoever to completing it. The course described in this article was certainly rigorous and demanded a variety of skills, just like a traditional campus course. Basically the course was a success for those who committed to it. The others might come back another day or have maybe continued reading on their own. MOOCs are lifelong learning.

Inspiring engagement, passion, and a love of learning are of course harder outcomes to measure. At the end of our course however we asked the students to fill out course Evaluation Surveys and a very high percentage of the students highly recommended both the course and the instructor. Without any prompting from EdX or WellesleyX students also decided to form ongoing Alexander study groups, requested more history courses like the Alexander course, and asked if we could organize a study tour overseas to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. We also received many unsolicited letters from students telling us how much our course had inspired them.