Monday, February 1, 2016

Swedish MOOC report is published

Slightly revised version 2 Feb 2016.
Sweden has been rather late in reacting to the MOOC boom and only in the last two years have a handful of universities started offering courses both on the major MOOC platforms Coursera and EdX but also more home grown channels. Last spring the government commissioned the Swedish Higher Education Authority the task of writing a report with recommendations on how MOOCs could be promoted within the framework of Swedish higher education, outlining opportunities as well as barriers. I was invited to join the reference group for this report and on 27 January it was time to publish the report with an accompanying seminar for invited guests in Stockholm. The report is at present only available in Swedish so I will provide here a summary of the main findings as well as adding my own comments and conclusions.
Download the report here (in Swedish).


The report was based on a survey that was sent to every state-funded higher education institution in the country during autumn 2015 asking about experience with MOOCs so far, plans to launch MOOCs, motives for investing in MOOCs (or not) as well as potential benefits and drawbacks. Six institutions have so far officially offered MOOCs but there are several others who have offered massive open courses without actually labeling them as MOOCs. There is still considerable uncertainty as to what exactly a MOOC is. Swedish universities have for the last 20 years offered a wide range of short online for-credit courses (usually 7-15 credits) as part of the higher education system. There are no fees but you have to apply for admission and fulfil the prerequisites for admission. Many understandably see MOOCs as simply massive versions of what we have been doing for years and wonder what the fuss is all about.

The question to be answered in the report is really about whether MOOC development should be financed by tax-payers' money, how they can be incorporated into the educational system and if so how much funding should go to this new area. The report offers the following recommendations to the government (my own abridged translated summary).

The report is positive to the development of MOOCs within the state-funded education system and Swedish institutions should be encouraged to develop open courses in line with international development. The main reasons for this are to showcase and raise the international profile of Swedish universities and higher education, reach out to new student categories and contribute to lifelong learning. Furthermore, it is hoped that MOOC development can lead to improvements in universities' regular online courses, both technically and pedagogically. The report also recommends a greater focus on pedagogical development in e-learning.

Proposals to the government

  • Institutions should be free to develop MOOCs and other open courses and therefore new regulations concerning this form of higher education should be drawn up. However MOOC participants cannot be considered as students in the legal sense of the term and there is no question of participants gaining credits from Swedish MOOCs.
  • Institutions are allowed to use a certain amount of their state financing to develop and run MOOCs. It is up to each institution how much of this should go towards MOOC development. 
  • All institutions should be able to develop open online courses and to achieve this funding should also be available to cover professional development in digital pedagogy.
  • Although MOOCs are free it should be possible for institutions to charge fees for certificates, as often required in many international MOOC consortia.

Proposals to higher education institutions

Existing experience of developing and running MOOCs should be shared between institutions. The report identifies three possible lines of development for open online education:
  • Institutions who wish to develop and offer MOOCs should be free to do so.
  • Institutions may also develop hybrid courses which are available both as part of regular for-credit courses and as open non-credit courses (MOOCs).
  • Institutions should be encouraged to collaborate to produce open, national versions of introductory courses and skills courses that today are duplicated by many institutions. The common online course material can then be complemented at each institution by on-site seminars and support.
The authority believes that these recommendations will lead to higher quality and increased efficiency however it will be up to each institution to decide the extent to which they will follow the guidelines.

Discussion points

This report offers universities the opportunity to develop MOOCs and join international consortia but does not dictate exactly what they should do or how they should do it. The authority simply wants to remove potential barriers to MOOC development in Sweden but leave the strategic decisions up to the institutions. Many are wary of entering the MOOC arena due to uncertainty about legal aspects such as where course material and student information are stored and how that information can be used by third parties. These issues are still unresolved but maybe the coming debate around the report will result in some new initiatives.

The report finally gives MOOCs official recognition in Swedish higher education and that the further development of such courses can benefit regular degree programmes, reach out to new groups of learners and showcase Swedish education on a global level. I suspect however that the report will loosen the lock on Pandora's box and that there will then be a number of important issues to resolve such as openness, sharing, recognition of prior learning, competence-based degrees etc. The report does not offer any new guidance in terms of copyright issues (that was not within the scope of the commission) but points out some of the areas that need further investigation and urges universities to work together to find a common praxis. This, I think, is a pity because I don't think that type of collaboration will happen without a catalyst from above. I believe we need a national policy on openness recommending that educational resources financed by the state should be available to all under a Creative Commons license. Without that we will continue to produce hundreds of variations on the same theme and reinvent the wheel at the taxpayers' expense. However, the report opens the door to universities collaborating to produce national MOOCs in subject areas that are common to all students, eg study skills, academic writing, scientific methodology.

One of the trickier points in the report is allowing universities to charge fees for MOOC certificates. This breaks a central principle of Swedish higher education, that it should be free from tuition and examination fees. Many will feel that this move could set a dangerous precedent but the reason for the change is to allow universities who are part of the major consortia like Coursera, EdX and FutureLearn to follow consortium policy. Most MOOC consortia today charge for certification and allowing learners with Swedish universities to get free certificates would create conflict within those consortia. This issue is likely to become even more complicated with Coursera's recent moves to make many of its courses fee-paying by default with free participants only entitled to view a restricted amount of the course content (see article in Inside Higher Ed, Limits of open).

In addition many institutions are worried about the implications of awarding certificates in their name to MOOC participants where it is almost impossible to verify that the participant has actually done the coursework themselves. Secure forms of online examination are still an issue and as a consequence the recognition of MOOC certificates for students applying for regular university courses presents challenges that require national and international coordination.

Finally many of the unresolved issues here boil down to a crucial issue; quality. If we can agree to implement existing quality assurance guidelines on all open online courses we can establish criteria by which to assess the validity of courses and set requirements for recognising certificates.

An English summary of the report will be available in the near future but otherwise you'll need to run the present version through Google Translate to get the gist of it. I hope my summary here has at least given you the main points.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The distraction society

We live in a world where distraction is default and uninterrupted concentration a luxury that few are able to find. I'm writing this in a cafe with rather irritating and hard to ignore music in the background (it's almost impossible to find a silent cafe) as well as screens showing brightly coloured adverts and the usual billboards and logos on everything. Add to this the siren's call of my mobile buzzing to alert me to a new e-mail, text or update and it's clear that you need enormous willpower to shut out the distractions and really concentrate. We've become so used to distractions that we don't even realise their effect.

A post in Inside Higher Ed, Digital Distractions, describes the findings of a new article on digital distractions in class and student attitudes to them, Digital Distractions in the Classroom Phase II: Student Classroom Use of Digital Devices for Non-Class Related Purposes (Journal of Media Education). Most students admit there are disadvantages to multitasking in class, even resulting in lower grades, but simply can't stop themselves, citing the main reasons as wanting to keep updated and fighting boredom. However the vast majority believe that they can handle the distractions and are completely against banning devices from the classroom. The comments to the article show divided opinions among teachers from those who advocate banning mobiles completely in class to more pragmatic attitudes of allowing but trying to promote more enlightened use. I think the answer lies in the whole class agreeing on a common class culture of how to deal with distractions even if this can take time to establish. The difficulty is that society is built on distractions, digital or otherwise, and its a mindset that is hard to break.

Digital media and devices have indeed increased the distraction level significantly but there are many more forms of distraction built into today's society so the digital element is not the villain of the peace but simply a symptom of a wider trend. Digital tends to magnify existing trends in society but is not the root cause. Ubiquitous music, news updates, advertising and the ludicrously overwhelming range of shops, products and services that clamour for our attention mean that distraction is now default, especially for those born in the last thirty years or so. We simply accept distraction as perfectly normal and the problem for education is helping students to find ways of escaping and consciously creating their own bubbles of concentration. In all levels of education as well as in workplaces we need to discuss issues like distraction, attention, focus and work on consciously creating such concentration bubbles for ourselves where we allow ourselves time to think and concentrate. This is a real 21st century skill and takes time and courage to develop.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Credit for peer review

365: day 141 by Nick in exsilio, on Flickr
"365: day 141" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Nick in exsilio
As researchers gain more visibility by publishing articles in open access journals and expand their networks through social media and research communities it's time the reviewers also received more public recognition. Peer review is the foundation of all scientific research but those who do the work get little reward for their efforts apart from a thank-you e-mail from the publisher. Being asked to review for a scientific journal is a considerable merit but it has so far been difficult to show publically. Reviewing is a demanding and time-consuming unpaid task often squeezed into reviewer's evenings and weekends. Can peer review be made more open and can reviewers get visible credit?

One solution to this that has been in operation for a few years now is called Publons. This is a community of over 50,000 reviewers who can register their verifiable peer review assignments and make their experience visible in their profiles (so far 281,239 reviews in 16,192 journals). Publons' aim is to allow members to:

Record, verify, and showcase your peer review contributions in a format you can include in job and funding applications (without breaking reviewer anonymity).

Most reviews are of course anonymous and cannot be published publically except when all parties agree and such cases can be read on Publons. Otherwise the service is based on the recognition e-mails from the publisher which are also verified in cooperation between Publons and the major publishers. Registered reviews can also have their profiles automatically updated if the review for a publication that is a Publons partner. The result is that reviewers have a verified profile that can be used in funding applications or when applying for a new position. You decide how your information is presented and the level of detail.

Services like this are giving long-awaited recognition to the vast amount of previously invisible work that lies behind every published article and even if there are still no financial rewards at least reviewers have reliable evidence of their expertise. 

Read more about Publons in an article from Nature, The scientists who get credit for peer review.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

MOOCs and crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is a method of sharing work between a theoretically unlimited amount of people and allows enthusiasts from all over the world to collaborate on a project. The most famous example is Wikipedia where millions of people have contributed to varying degrees to produce the largest reference work ever and now available in hundreds of languages. Projects like this would be impossible using conventional methods but have succeeded through contributors' dedication and willingness to contribute to a common purpose, without a thought of financial gain. If open crowdsourcing (there are more commercial variations too) can achieve so much could there be implications for massive online learning? Many crowdsourcing projects involve massive collaboration over a limited space of time to achieve a clear objective and the similarities between this and a MOOC are striking.

This is the subject of an intriguing new article by John Prpić, James Melton, Araz Taeihagh and Terry AndersonMOOCs and crowdsourcing: Massive courses and massive resources (First Monday, Volume 20, Number 12). The original connectivist cMOOCs explored the potential of large groups of hundreds or even thousands of learners exploring a subject together, sharing knowledge, co-creating new resources and forming networks to investigate further. This type of educational ecosystem sometimes lasted well beyond the confines of the original course and became a variation on the crowdsourcing concept. The later more massive xMOOCs (Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn etc) form massive communities but seldom extend beyond the framework of the typically 6-8 week course format.

The article outlines a number of similarities between cMOOCs, xMOOCs and open collaboration crowdsourcing such as how IT is used for collaboration, different levels of openness, different types of crowd (general or specialised) and the size of crowd. The authors investigate potential areas of development for MOOCs based on crowdsourcing. One interesting avenue is to crowdsource feedback and formative assessment where large numbers of volunteers could each provide valuable interaction with learners as microtasks.

For example, already existing rubrics could be transposed into microtasks, or one entire microtask, to be put to virtual labor market crowds for evaluation. Then, given that virtual labor markets allow the massively parallel undertaking of tasks at low cost, virtual labor market evaluation of student work could provide almost instant assessment feedback. Though some may doubt a crowd’s ability to render accurate assessments, the research indicates that in some very complicated venues a crowd can perform as well or better than experts (Lee, 2013; Mitry, et al., 2013; Mortensen, et al., 2013).

Considering the dedication shown by Wikipedia contributors without any tangible recognition or payment as motivation there could be potential in crowdsourcing MOOC evaluation. However given the commercial nature of the main MOOC consortia (compared to the non-commercial, open, sharing culture of say Wikipedia) any MOOC solution should include some system of micropayments as motivation. Alternatively I can see space for microcredentials such as badges for those who volunteer to help MOOC learners. Students could earn badges for contributing to a MOOC that can enhance their CVs, showing professional engagement and proof of facilitation and assesment skills. This idea is no threat to teachers since they have no chance of even attempting to provide personal feedback to learners on a course with thousands of participants. Today's automatic testing provides basic feedback but direct contact with a human facilitator could provide the spark that can enhance completion rates. The challenge for MOOC-providers is to harness the potential of crowdsourcing and develop facilitator communities, possible by recruiting successful participants from previous MOOCs and providing attractive incentives.

Could a MOOC be run as a crowdsourcing project, offering a collaborative space to allow large communities to investigate and discuss a common topic? Where do we draw a border between a MOOC and a community or do we even need to define borderlines? Maybe the C in MOOC could stand for either course (a structured and limited format of guided instruction) or community (a less structured arena for collaboration around a common topic). The ideal scenario would be that a successful course seamlessly evolves into a dynamic community that takes over after the course ends.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

MOOCs - the price of recognition

Freemium : payer plus pour des services by louisvolant, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by louisvolant

The freemium model (try out for free but then you have to pay) for MOOCs is gaining ground rapidly and price tags are appearing on everything except basic access to the material. Until now you could get a free certificate on completion of a MOOC but not anymore according to an article in Class CentralMOOC Trends in 2015: The Death of Free Certificates. Udacity, Coursera and FutureLearn all charge for even the basic course completion certificate and now EdX have announced that they will follow suit. Of course the free certificates did not really translate into credential hard currency but were a nice recognition of course completion. Now it seems the major MOOC consortia see even the most basic certificates as a source of income, indicating that investors are looking for higher returns after the initial free education for all rhetoric has died down. It can also be an attempt to answer the criticism that certificates for simple course completion were not worth the pixels they were written on, given that there are no guarantees that the person receiving the certificate actually did the work. Does the payment of a fee raise the value of the credential? If I have to pay for something that was previously free there should be added value.

It seems that we have reached an interesting point in the MOOC saga. The open and free part is shrinking and without completion certificates the plain vanilla MOOC becomes a collection of not-so-open educational resources that you are welcome to use for your own development but without any kind of recognition. Mainstream MOOCs are now officially commercial operations but you can access the material if you want. There's certainly nothing new here since many universities have shared their resources as open courseware for many years (MIT OCW, OpenLearn etc) and you are free to access the material whenever you want. The MOOCs provide a structure for you to follow but if you need recognition you will have to pay. In some cases the price of recognition is increasing with certificates (of varying levels of dignity) ranging between $25 - $300 per course. It's still cheaper than the for-credit options but then again the credits are valuable hard currency compared to MOOC certificates.

Paying customers are more likely to complete the course and as we move to a more layered model for MOOCs we will see completion rates based only on the numbers of paying participants whilst the free learners merely demonstrate the level of general interest. As I have written before I think it really is time to stop using the term MOOC and find more realistic descriptions. On the one hand we have a largely commercial field offering massive online courses for fees with a variety of certificates and even credits. On the other hand we have the field of genuinely open courses run as collaborative projects or as part of a community. These are open in terms of access as well as offering material for reuse and adaptation. They may not be as glossy and polished as the commercial courses but they are non-profit and run on enthusiasm and pioneer spirit. Both options serve a purpose and will continue to evolve but let's stop confusing the two and pushing them both into the uncomfortable box labelled MOOC.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The challenge of self-directed learning

studying up by presta, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by presta

We learn all through our lives almost unconsciously by watching, reading, listening, testing, failing and persevering. In fact most people don't realize the value of informal learning since it takes place as a natural part of everyday life. We have a natural ability to acquire new skills and the process is mostly social, learning from others, getting advice, copying and adapting. This takes place without anyone planning or leading the activity. However when we want to acquire more advanced skills we turn to formal education which is planned and lead by skilled professionals, teachers. Some people are able to acquire even advanced skills informally as self-directed learners but most of us are dependent on teachers to lead us through the process. The role of the teacher is so crucial that it can either inspire us or make us avoid the subject for the rest of our lives. This teacher dependence is possibly both the strongest and weakest factor in formal education.

When we scale education, either in large campus cohorts of 200 plus students in a large lecture hall or in a MOOC on the net, we tend to emphasize the role of the charismatic teacher, leading the course from the stage (physical or digital) but lose the the benefits of close contact and guidance that works so well in small groups . I've written many times about the problem facing MOOCs, and indeed large campus clases; how to scale interaction and the beneficial influence of good teaching. When you have one or a few teachers leading a massive course the link between them and the learners becomes weak and learners must fend for themselves. Learners either have to develop strategies for effective self-study or take the initiative to establish a study group for mutual support. These are skills that few have since we are so dependent on learning being organised for us.

Most MOOCs are run like formal courses with fixed start and finish dates and a linear progression through a pre-set package of content. This fixed structure provides a clear framework, opportunities for interaction (at least between peers), a sense of participation and the deadlines that many people need to keep on track. However, the downside is that many drop out when other priorities disrupt the tight course schedule. An alternative approach that is growing in popularity is that of self-paced MOOCs where you are free to study at your own pace and you can start the course whenever you want. Here the advantages of flexibility and convenience are offset by the challenges of self-study and lack of support. Self-paced MOOCs are discussed in an article on Class Central, MOOC Trends in 2015: Rise of Self Paced Courses.

Self paced courses are a clear boon to those students who want scheduling flexibility, but they also remove key elements that have been part of the “MOOC” formula that has been so popular. Such elements include the benefits of tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) students taking the course together and learning at the same pace. According to Class Central user Greg Hamel, who has completed more than one hundred MOOCs: “Lack of schedule means students are not all learning the same material at the same time. This makes it harder to get help and discuss course content.

However regardless of the model, massive courses suffer from a low sense of belonging and are therefore best suited to self-directed learners, a rare commodity outside academic circles. A self-paced MOOC sounds attractive but without deadlines only experienced self-directed learners will complete them. As more and more education becomes "on demand" the need to explicitly teach self-directed learning will increase. Until then the vast majority still need the guidance and supervision that a teacher-lead course offers and the question in how to offer this in a massive online course.

One solution to this is to offer learners local or regional teacher-supported groups to complement the MOOC, as described in a new article in the journal IRRODL (Nov 2015), Using MOOCs at Learning Centers in Northern Sweden, Here in Sweden there is a network of municipal learning centres that provide support for distance learning as well as hosting distributed courses. This article describes an attempt to offer local support for a global MOOC where local participants in the MOOC could meet regularly and discuss the course topics in Swedish with support and a university teacher who examined them at the end of the course so they could get a university certificate as well as the MOOC-provider's certificate. This hybrid solution could benefit both learners and universities. By having access to a small local study group and support the learners are more likely to complete the course and gain the additional benefit of getting a certificate that has more local recognition than the one provided by the MOOC provider. An increase in course completion will also benefit the provider. MOOCs should welcome third party add-on services like this. It can be a lifeline for all those who are not self-directed learners.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Reading around the world

Inuit Language by pietroizzo, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by pietroizzo

I can recommend that you watch this TED talk by Ann Morgan (below), My year reading a book from every country in the world. She decided to read a book from every country in the world and here she describes how she succeeded. It was not an easy task since only a fraction of the world's published fiction ever gets translated to English whilst the best-selling titles in English tend to be translated to almost every other language. She considered herself very well read but realised that her perspective was of course almost exclusively that of the English speaking countries, in particular the UK and the USA. Her challenge was a daunting one since many countries had little or no accessible literature for speakers of English or other major western languages. She succeeded thanks to networking, spreading the word on social media and benefitting from some remarkable crowd-sourcing when stories were translated into English but volunteer enthusiasts.

This is a heart-warming success story and a tribute to the collaborative and open culture on the net that so seldom gets media coverage. It also highlights the potential of crowd-sourced translation to bring literature from developing countries to a global audience. Very few, if any, commercial publishers will risk commissioning English translations of works from, say, Burkino Faso, Kazakhstan or Laos but groups of students, teachers or writers could share the task and produce open e-books, not for commercial gain but as showcase for the country's writers. It's a similar model to sites like Jamendo that offer free music with Creative Commons licenses that can be downloaded and reused. The musicians make no money from this but can gain global reputation and recognition that may result in commercial opportunities later on. Time for an open literature movement to promote world literature?

Another difficulty in reading around the world is that the vast majority of world languages are not even on the net yet according to an article in The Atlantic, The Internet Isn't Available in Most Languages.

At the moment, the Internet only has webpages in about five percent of the world's languages. Even national languages like Hindi and Swahili are used on only .01 percent of the 10 million most popular websites. The majority of the world’s languages lack an online presence that is actually useful.

So even if the infrastructure and technology are available there is simply very little to read there for millions of people. The popular social media lack instructions and templates in most languages making them impossible to use. We need to find innovative strategies to widen the linguistic range of the internet and ensure that there is relevant content for all. The notion that open educational resources, MOOCs and so on can make education accessible for all will not happen until those resources are available in many more languages than today. The lack of linguistic diversity on the net deserves more attention and we need to find ways to stimulate the development of digital content in all languages. A lot can be done by volunteer grassroots initiatives, providing free open platforms, training and support, but more stimulus, especially financial, is required from national and international organisations.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Is the customer always right?

Education at all levels is awash with evaluation forms and needs analysis surveys. We all want feedback but are we asking the right questions? Development projects are based on needs analysis, assuming that we should only develop services that customers/staff/students really require. The problem with this approach is that you don't need what you don't know. If we only designed products and services that people needed we would never have had cars, television, computers, mobiles or the internet. No-one needed them until they had been developed. So asking for needs can help but is often not the right approach for innovation. The same applies to student satisfaction. We assume that if students are satisfied with a course then the teacher has done a good job and the students have learnt a lot. Or have they?

Education, unlike products and services, cannot be judged on simple customer satisfaction. Students are satisfied if they get a good grade but that doesn't always mean that they have learnt very much or that the course was well designed. An article on The Conversation, Students don’t know what’s best for their own learning, highlights the problems of judging education by satisfaction. Students tend to give good evaluations to teachers who don't demand too much, are entertaining and give them good grades. Those who make them work hard and don't serve all the answers on a plate are generally less popular. Teachers who try innovative new methods that force students to take charge of their learning and really grapple with working out concepts for themselves often face negative evaluations and possibly a resultant stern talk from their head of department. Many students (and teachers) mistake content for learning.

That is why many students assume that reading or highlighting passages in their text-book, or merely listening to a lecture, is enough to produce learning. They mistake the ease of the task with greater knowledge. Time-consuming and effortful tasks, like self-testing their knowledge, are consequently seen by students as less efficient for their learning, despite the fact that the more difficult tasks produce the most learning.

Student evaluations can therefore be dangerously misleading and result in "easy" courses being encouraged and more demanding courses modified to please the customers. Lectures are still popular because they provide the "answers" in one easily digestible session and many still equate lecturing with teaching. As a result students will generally give positive evaluations to teachers who give them what they expected. Seeing this as a measure of course quality can have serious consequences according to the article.

... universities that rely on student evaluations are likely to punish good teachers and encourage those who simply make it easy for students. Most universities have codes of conduct that require decisions to be made on valid evidence. Any manager discussing student evaluations when reviewing lecturers’ performance is probably breaching that part of their own job requirements. Given the evidence, student evaluations are a distraction from the responsibility to provide the best possible education for the nation.

Of course it is good to find out what students thought of a course but we need to steer away from simply measuring satisfaction and provide them with a new set of rubrics that allow them to gauge their effort, collaboration, acquisition of new skills and how they have met new challenges. This type of evaluation takes time to learn but that way we will get more reliable criteria for assessing course quality. At the end of a good course you may feel rather tired, maybe irritated and sore but you also realise that you've achieved something. We need to learn to appreciate teaching that challenges us and pushes us forward even if it hurts a bit. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Recorded lectures - what's the point?

Press Play by realjv, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by realjv

A college of mine raised an interesting question. Why do we automatically record so many lectures and meetings that no-one ever watches? Just because we can easily record and store events doesn't mean that we have to. The problem is that many universities are now recording all their lectures without really pausing to think why they are doing so. Many are watched by a very small number of people, often only for a few minutes per person, and some are never watched at all. Should we maybe think more carefully about what we record and how long it should be available?

It's part of our passionate and rather tragic love affair with lecturing - breaking up is indeed very hard to do. It's is the backbone of most university teaching; it's easy to do, it's very scalable and it feels like teaching. Lecture capture systems are extremely popular, probably because we can continue lecturing as usual but feel modern because they're all available online as well. Nothing has changed, just a nod in the direction of some kind of modernity. Then there's the flipped classroom approach which in its simplest interpretation means pre-recording the lecture and letting students view it as preparation for discussion or workshops in class. That at least avoids gathering students to simply listen to one-way communication but the point here is if you are going to flip the class, why is the lecture the option of choice? I'm certainly guilty of recording quite a few sessions like this and admit that viewing figures are far from viral. Do we really learn so much from lectures and could we use that time more fruitfully?

I don't mean that the lecture should be completely abandoned. A really polished and well delivered lecture can certainly inspire and provoke discussion and reflection but maybe it should be used sparingly, as an event that cannot be missed. Instead we could focus more on shorter inputs on the lines of a TED talk, offering insights but also asking questions that the students should find out for themselves. Critics will warn that such an approach risks simplifying everything into convenient and easily digested "sound-bites". But the point here is to replace the lecture with something else, not a just a shorter version. Instead we should record a short introduction to the subject that raises questions and issues for the students to investigate and process. Start a discussion, provoke deeper thought, inspire investigation, instead of providing all the answers. The lecture represents a spoon-feeding approach that is certainly appreciated by students who want to be fed but as long as we continue to lecture, face-to-face or online, it is hard to move towards student-oriented learning.

So before you decide to press that record button stop and think about the value of your lecture. Do I need to demonstrate how much I know or do I want to encourage the students to investigate for themselves, search for information, compare sources, analyse results and present their findings? The answer is clear but I have a feeling it's going to be a difficult detox process.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

MOOCs as open ecosystems

I'm still waiting for the day we can assign the term MOOC to the acronym graveyard (let's discuss open education instead of a cryptic four letter term that is far too vague and open to many interpretations). In the meantime the courses keep coming and the debate continues. The public image of MOOCs is that of the high-end expensive and highly polished courses coming from the major players (Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn etc) and the public perception is that of recorded lectures, self-study and automated self-testing. Little attention is given to all the open, collaborative learning that takes place under the radar without the use of expensive platforms, franchising and tall budgets. So often MOOCs and online education are seen as synonyms rather than the former being a small but highly visible subset of the latter. One recent article by three Stanford professors in Inside Higher Ed, What We’ve Learned From MOOCs, draws conclusions from that university's MOOC ventures in recent years. The article contains few surprises but it's worth discussing some of the points they make.

MOOCs do not replace regular university courses and seldom attract the traditional university target group (19-23 year-olds). Instead we should consider MOOCs as ... a new instructional genre - somewhere between a digital textbook and a successful college course. This comparison with an advanced digital textbook is very apt when applied to the xMOOC sector that Stanford represents. I see great potential in letting other institutions use the material and structure of a MOOC as the backbone of a local course that could include face-to-face or online meetings and tutorials. The key factor here is whether the MOOC provider is willing to openly license the course for reuse and even adaptation or offer some kind of franchising agreement. MOOCs could certainly be used on campus and for credit if the content and structure is complemented by tuition, support, assessment and examination. The main problem is the massive aspect. The academic ideal of small tutorial groups and teacher-student contact is not very scalable on campus (that's why classes of over 100 students tend to be lecture-based). Online you can create lots of smaller study groups with facilitators and this approach is widely used today but once the course gets massive even this approach gets too complicated.

MOOCs in their present form are not the answer to wider access to higher education.
So far they have mostly attracted professionals in developed countries and have not reached those who have no access to traditional higher education. The issue here is providing better support to new student groups, for example by allowing local institutions to provide technical support and help with study skills in the local language, Universities can't provide all the support that inexperienced online learners need and so they need to offer an open interface so that local support structures can easily be added to the ecosystem. Remember that the vast majority of the world has never heard of MOOCs and are often not even aware of online education. They won't find a MOOC unless someone (a local school, community centre, library) tells them about it. Their participation and success will very much depend on the local support they receive and no amount of video guides, FAQ pages or user forums from a far-off university can really replace this. Let's try this approach more and see if the accesibility vision for MOOCs can be realised. We have only just started to address this issue.

Recorded lectures do not lead to effective learning
This is really a no-brainer since the over-reliance on lecturing are exactly what's wrong with traditional higher education. The problem both on campus and online is that universities focus on lecturing not because it enhances learning but because it's easy and cheap to do. Lecturing is very scalable whereas tutoring and interaction are not. This is not just a problem for online courses, many campus students have very little interaction with their teachers. However there are many online courses today that are built around collaboration and interaction and many MOOCs today are experimenting with methods to increase engagement.

MOOCs have raised awareness of the potential on online learning
This is certainly true since so many elite universities have suddenly discovered the field after many years of denial. Martin Weller points out in a short but insightful post, Lessons from the MOOC investment gold rush, that the motivation for many top universities entering the MOOC fray was the fear of been seen as out of date. MOOCs certainly put online learning in the media spotlight and consequently on the boardroom agenda. The problem however was that the MOOC boom failed to build on the lessons learned from years of successful online education at thousands of universities worldwide. The pointlessness of simply stacking up recorded lectures, pdf-files and PowerPoints on a web site and the importance of creating learning communities and fostering peer engagement were well-known before mainstream MOOCs came along (especially in the early collaborative MOOCs of Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Alexander etc). Maybe now the strands can be linked.

MOOCs have not fixed higher education, but they are poignant reminders of the urgent problems of college cost and access, potential forerunners of truly effective educational technology, and valuable tools for advancing the science of learning. That’s progress.

MOOCs certainly haven't fixed anything but they have widened the discussion that was previously restricted to the pioneers and enthusiasts. MOOCs are one element in an ongoing process of experimentation and innovation as education comes to terms with digitalisation and since this is work in progress it's wrong to dismiss the conecpt as failed. It hasn't really started yet. However, one thread running through my comments above is the need to stop seeing MOOCs as the product of one institution or one platform. If you offer a MOOC and you really want diversity, accessibility and higher levels of learner engagement you need to open up the concept and let other institutions and initiatives add auxiliary services, provide local support, adapt to local language and culture and offer alternative forms of engagement. That way I think there is a future for MOOCs. Let's just change the name please.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Online IS "in real life"

We seem to have a love-hate attitude to digital technology. On the one hand we're buying and intensively using all the shiny devices we can get our hands on but at the same time we seem to be terrified of them. Mobiles and tablets are often portrayed as dangerous obsessions that are killing human interaction and turning us into zombies. We all enjoy jokes about people gazing into their mobiles, oblivious of the world around them, and long for the good old days when people spoke to each other. It's easy to criticize but maybe we should consider what people are actually doing when they're looking at their screens.

An excellent article by Héctor L. Carral, Stop saying technology is causing social isolation, is the perfect myth-buster. When we see everyone on a train staring into their screens many people feel provoked, claiming that mobiles are enslaving us. Why don't we talk to each other anymore? But if we cast our minds back 30 years or so I don't remember any spontaneous discussions with fellow commuters then either. We all buried out heads in the morning paper or a book - what's the difference? I used to get really bored standing at cold windy stations or bus stops with nothing to do but gaze into space. Today I use that time to listen to wonderful music or podcasts, see how my friends are doing, admire photos from friends, take part in a discussion or check my e-mails. We probably communicate more than ever before thanks to digital technology.

My main premise is that I don’t think smartphones are isolating us, destroying our social lives or ruining interactions. I see smartphones as instruments for communication. Instruments that enable interaction on ways that just weren’t possible before, connecting us with people all around the world, via Twitter, instant messaging or other services. Some may say that if you want to interact with people, you should interact with the ones around you, and that is probably true on certain occasions. But, on other occasions, I’m just not able to comprehend why should we be forced to interact with those physically close to us instead of with the people that we really want to interact with.

One reason for this suspicion of technology is the fact that many still only use it for entertainment and passing the time. We worry that we are becoming passive consumers of trivial entertainment rather than acknowledge the active, communicative and creative opportunities of digital technology. There's also the idea that communicating with friends digitally is not "real" communication and becomes the opposite of "in real life". Somehow your online contacts are labelled as virtual or in some way "unreal". In the past people discussed anonymously in chat rooms using pseudonyms and with cartoon characters as avatars. Here you had no idea who you were actually talking to and it was understandable that this was not seen as real communication. However today we mostly communicate with people we know and use real photos and profiles of ourselves to establish trust. When identities are clear and trust is established online communication is definitely "in real life" and I can have just as intensive face-to-face discussions with online colleagues using tools like Skype as I can have if we were in the same room. I see their faces, eye movements and body language.

As digital literacies are developed so will our perceptions of online behaviour. When we make the leap from being consumers to being producers and collaborators we will hopefully lose these negative stereotypes that are still so prevalent today. It's time to drop expressions like IRL, cyberspace, virtual and everything beginning with e- and realise that it's all about real human communication, but using the opportunities offered by new media. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Fine tuning

I've written many times about the issue of silent learners, also known as peripheral or even drive-by learners. In all forms of education there are learners who stay in the background and remain almost invisible throughout the course. This can be due to a lack of confidence or even lack of interest but is often because the learner simply prefers to listen, observe and then reflect alone. Some people simply don't want to take part in group work or perform in front of peers. Should we try to encourage them to participate more or should we give them space to learn on their own? In the classroom this can be more easily tackled by having a chat but in an online setting, especially in a MOOC, these learners simply disappear.

I've just started a project with some colleagues from the Nordic region to investigate whether silent learners are simply "lurking" or whether they are really learning and whether we should design courses to offer space for a more silent and solo learning path (see project description). Are silent learners more or less likely to complete a course? I believe that many learners adapt their learning strategies according to the situation and that the same person can be a highly active collaborative learner in one course and then a silent learner on the next. It depends often on a conscious decision on how much you want or need to engage.

This idea was reinforced by a blog post by Simon Broek on the European adult learning portal EPALE, Thoughts on the concept of learning. Your level of engagement depends on why you take the course. If you see the course as the key to a new career you will engage wholeheartedly whereas if it is simply "good to know something about" then you will not be prepared to invest so much energy. Learning can have different intensities and purposes and the two are interrelated.

I would like to start thinking about the concept of learning by looking at different purposes and intensities of learning.
  • Learning is a broad concept having different intensities, such as adding bits of new knowledge to your body of knowledge and overthrowing everything you once understood as being true.
  • In addition, learning can have different purposes; for instance being able to answer a question, to carry out a task, or using your knowledge and understanding to develop new knowledge and start innovations.
Learning depends a large number of variable factors and all can be fine-tuned according to the situation.We all move up and down these scales even during the same course with certain periods when we are deeply involved and collaborative followed by quieter more passive periods. One week's task can inspire me to work really hard but the following week's task or material is less inspiring. One week I've got other pressures that dominate and my attention to the course suffers as a result. Maybe I joined the course without any clear reason and once it got going I felt I should tag along but with the minimum effort; maybe I'll learn something from it.

How can we help to raise learners' commitment levels without too much simple carrot and stick? An article in Edutopia, Strategies to Build Intrinsic Motivation, suggests several methods to encourage learners to set their own goals and level of commitment. Asking learners to rate how likely they are to complete the course, getting them to write public goals about their commitment to the course or the week's topic, drawing up a learning contract and getting the group to write class rules can all be ways of raising intrinsic motivation rather than relying on the rewards and rules that the teacher traditionally imposes.

In the end however I think we have to accept that learning depends on so many variables and we all adjust these constantly just like a sound studio technician. We will seldom get the mix perfect but we can at least try to create the right prerequisites.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The invisible campus - part-time online students

parallel shadows by Hamed Parham, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Hamed Parham

If you look at most university websites you get the clear impression that their target group is between the ages of 18 and 23. That of course is the traditional target group but is far from reality at many institutions as the demand for higher education among the population over 23 grows rapidly. Many universities have been working with extension programmes and professional development for many years but still there are seldom photos of older students studying at home or in the workplace. Somehow the traditional university profile is the preferred one and the one most institutions identify most closely with. The younger students are of course the ones who fill the campus and use the often expensive and impressive buildings and classrooms. Furthermore they commit themselves to at least three years of full-time on campus studies which also forms the basis of the university's funding. Basically campus degree programmes and research are what the institutions are designed for. Everything else is an optional extra (though I'm fully aware there are glowing exceptions, but all too few).

Despite an increasing worldwide demand for more part-time online courses those are the ones being cut as governments and institutions economize and the result in many countries is that institutions are focusing on the supposed core business of campus degrees. An article in The Conversation called Part-time students feel squeezed out by universities obsessed with teenagers, spotlights the situation in England where the number of part-time students almost halved between 2010 and 2014. One reason for this is the sharp increase in fees that have been particularly steep for the part-time segment but the trend is also evident in many other countries such as here in Sweden. A recent report (in Swedish) by the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees showed a significant downturn in part-time courses for professional development and called for a change in government policy. It feels like this potentially major sector for higher education is simply not being prioritised.

The problem is that there is often no clear strategy for this form of higher education and it is provided to the extent each institution feels is justified. It is an optional extra that doesn't make any impact on rankings or funding and therefore is always vulnerable when funding is low. This category of students is radically different to traditional students: studying part-time but often combining studies with full-time work, family and other commitments with no option of moving to a university campus. They generally don't identify themselves as students at all and have seldom any connection to student organisations. This in turn means that their views are not voiced when elected student representatives meet with faculty and administration. This means that part-time students are largely invisible and according the the article in The Conversation they feel increasingly marginalised.

This is an extremely important sector for higher education that deserves more attention. These students need short, flexible courses, mostly online, to enhance their career opportunities or enable them to apply for new jobs or change career. This market is more interested in sub-degree credentials rather than full-blown 3-4 year degrees and there is a growing interest in varieties of competence-based degrees, nano-degrees, badges and other forms of recognition.

Part-time higher education has a crucial role to play in social mobility. Opportunities to study part-time are at the forefront of widening access to the most disadvantaged adults, those vulnerable non-traditional students attempting a tentative first step into higher education. Part-time study has a positive affect on the economy, with mature students (the vast majority of whom are in full-time employment) seeking better careers in a global economy.

This niche has enormous potential but sadly there are few incentives for universities to focus on it. National strategies and funding are needed as well as ways of recognising and rewarding institutions that succeed. We need more institutions who see part-time, online study as their core business rather than a little sideline.

If the part-time sector is not to be inadvertently left to wither away, politicians need to create incentives for universities and colleges to prioritise part-time higher education as an attractive choice to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged students.

The alternative is that if higher education cannot meet the demand then someone else will.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Conferences as personal development

Mingle at FITC by Dan Zen, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Dan Zen

I go to quite a lot of conferences, project meetings and other academic gatherings and feel privileged to be able to do so. I meet so many talented people and get lots of ideas for my own work. Very often the seeds of new projects and cooperation are sown at these gatherings. I often put a lot of time and effort into writing reports and blog posts about the events I attend and hope others will be suitably inspired (my last post on this blog is a perfect example). However I have also realised that colleagues at home are seldom as interested in my discoveries as I used to expect  - they have other things on their minds quite simply.

An article by Karen Dillon in the Harvard Business Review, It’s OK If Going to a Conference Doesn’t Feel Like Real Work, had me nodding in recognition all the way through. She used to feel obliged to make copious notes at conferences and write lengthy reports full of useful links for her colleagues in order to prove that she had been working hard while away from the office. There's a certain feeling of guilt involved in not being at your desk or in the classroom that requires you to over-compensate. However, noting that her colleagues were not exactly captivated by all her reports and tips, she realised that she had to change her perspective.

Once I gave up being the “super attender,” I started to engage with fellow attendees completely differently. I remember them, personally, and their areas of enthusiasm. For years now, I’ve been able to connect people—helping colleagues or peers find just the right person to talk to because I remembered meeting someone at a conference, absorbed their perspective in the moment, and kept it in mind (rather than recording their credentials in a report).

Basically the benefits of participating in events are mostly personal, widening your network, making connections, gaining understanding and getting new ideas. As a manager Dillon has adopted a policy of letting her staff go to conferences and enjoy the experience rather than feel they have to pay for it through reporting back. The pay-off for the organisation may come later when you are able to put a colleague in touch with someone you met at a conference or are able to use your network to solve a local problem. The benefit to your institution is that you get a chance to grow. You shouldn't need to prove that it was worth the time.

This seems to be part of a bigger issue. We are still rather constrained by feelings that we only really work when we're in our workplace and that any time away from there is an easy option. It seems we are in a rather long period of transition between traditional models of working/teaching/learning and new models. From office hours and desk time to flexible working, from teaching content to facilitating learning, from testing memory to solving problems. Many organisations and people are caught between these models and both can confusingly apply in the same organisation, often in the tension between the organisation's vision and reality. In theory we support flexibility but there's still the deep-seated belief in traditional values. Teachers can try innovation but risk getting bad evaluations from students who expect the teacher to "teach" i.e. lecture. So when we go to a conference or anything that's away from the office we still feel we need to compensate for not "being at work". Old habits die hard and this transition period is likely to continue for some time.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Can openness empower smaller languages?

How can open learning and open educational practices empower smaller, regional and minority languages? That was the question behind the seminar arranged 7-8 October in Leeuwarden, Friesland, by the EU-financed project LangOER that I am involved in. The title of the seminar was Open Learning in Minority Languages: Chances and Perspectives (see programme) and you can see all the slideshows, discussion notes, recorded webinar and interviews with speakers and participants on our conference Padlet page.

Padlet page with conference highlights
One refreshing point for me was the fact that the conference was not simply a meeting of open learning advocates but a meeting with another field, that of regional and minority languages, where issues of open learning were not familiar. The scope of the project is broad and we include many national languages that have millions of speakers but whose access to open educational resources pale in comparison to those available in English, Spanish, French etc.

We got insights into impressive national repositories for open educational resources such as the Greek Photodentro, Dutch Wikiwijs and Norwegian NDLA and Welsh OER Wales Cymru. These have had considerable impact in their respective countries with NDLA reporting around 60,000 visits per day and 60% of teachers in Norway using the repository regularly. They offer a wide selection of Creative Commons licensed resources (video, audio, text, photos, animations) all of which are tagged and related to the national curriculum. Considerable support and coordination is also provided; in the Greek case there are almost 300 experts and technicians who maintain the system, add metadata and provide quality control. All three have worked a lot building trust and support among teachers. The key is creating a culture of sharing – daring to share - and this involves recognising innovative teachers and providing time and resources for development. One interesting concept was gathering teachers together for intensive workshops to produce resources together, for example a group of teachers could work over two days to write a short course book together.

The growth of such repositories where teachers share materials obviously meets with opposition from publishers who see public money subsidising the production of free resources. There are often options for publishers to include commercial content in such repositories but I'm not sure if this has really worked anywhere and how users pay for access. Another difficulty has been including higher education in a national repository. OER Wales Cymru is a strategic cooperation between all Welsh universities whereas the Dutch, Greek and Norwegian examples are mostly resources for schools. It seems difficult to create a sharing environment that offers a bridge between schools and higher education.

These solutions are certainly impressive but they have been built with government and EU financing and have thereby gained legitimacy among teachers. In the case of regional and minority languages the situation is very different as we also learned at the conference. Being in the province of Friesland the example of Frisian was prominent. The language has grown in status in recent years and now has an established academic and cultural community, including Fryske Akademy, researching, supporting teachers and promoting the language. However integration into schools is not easy since there is always a mix of pupils who use Frisian as a native language, those who only use it at home, those who only have a passive knowledge and those who have moved to the area who do not speak it at all. There is also a lack of qualified teachers who speak fluent Frisian. A Frisian OER repository, EduFrysk, is being developed and there is even a prototype MOOC to teach basic Frisian.

But what about minority languages which have previously been marginalised and whose voices are only now returning to the education system? We heard about the status of Manx on the Isle of Man which is now taught again in some schools but whose speakers have to produce learning resources from scratch since there are very few publications in the language. A small number of educators and other enthusiasts are busy producing digital resources such as the site Learn Manx so there are encouraging signs. The case of the Arbëresh language in southern Italy brought home the challenges facing many minority languages. With almost no written tradition apart from religious texts, all educational material has to be written from the start and awareness of the opportunities of open educational resources and digital tools is still very low. The creation of an OER repository in these languages would seem to be a distant vision but far from an impossible one.

Some ideas for using open educational resources and practices to empower smaller, regional and minority languages:
  • Open resources in English and other major languages should always include functions that facilitate translation, dubbing and the overlay of subtitles.
  • Provision of free and open course platforms such as Commonwealth of Knowledge's MOOC for development project to enable smaller language communities to offer open online courses on a low budget.
  • Communities of translators can create projects to translate at least some of the resources available on TED, Khan Academy and open courseware repositories, for example TED Open Translation project. See also the conference presentation Open Educational Practices in small languages: the role of community engagement.
  • Networks of teachers, students and experts can work on building the language's Wikipedia footprint, focusing initially on areas most relevant to their culture and development. there are several good examples of this but the process can be a catalyst for empowerment.
  • These networks would probably need funding to get up and running but initially it would be mostly in the hands of volunteer enthusiasts. Some kind of national or European funding should be made available to enable networks to get started.
  • Developing communities of practice between different language communities for mutual support and inspiration. Far too many work in isolation and would benefit from benchmarking with other communities in similar positions, even if the languages have little in common linguistically. Smaller languages can thereby support each others' development.
Some seeds were sown during this meeting and the project intends to hold a larger conference in Brussels next autumn aimed both at policymakers and practitioners.