Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Webinars and wifi - not a happy couple

Conference Audience, Anno 2010 by Adriaan Bloem, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Adriaan Bloem on Flickr

A very common complaint about webinars and other synchronous online meetings is poor audio and video quality. This is generally caused by a number of factors, for example not checking your computer's audio and video settings and putting too much trust in wireless connections (wifi). I am involved an a lot of webinars, as organiser, host, speaker and participant, and this is a recurrent issue that causes lots of badwill towards online meetings. The wifi issue is particularly tricky since wifi access is now so popular and it's hard to convince people that it presents serious issues for synchronous high bandwidth communication.

There's an excellent post on this topic on Ken Molay's webinar blog, WiFi Wreaks Webinar Woes. He explains why wifi is not ideal for webinars, especially for those who need to be seen and heard in the session. Wifi is fine for participants but far too inconsistent for hosting.

The problem with WiFi for streaming content is that it is inconsistent. Even running the standard pre-webinar quality tests is no guarantee of performance thirty minutes (or thirty seconds) later. A little bit of interference from other signals on the same channel, a small shift in your device's antenna orientation, or instantaneous local load as your neighbor starts to stream a movie or download a giant email attachment can interrupt the flow of data to your system.

I've had quite a few webinar flops at conference venues who assured me that they had an excellent wifi connection and there was no need for wired internet connections. However once you assemble a couple of hundred eager e-learning experts, each with at least two devices, in a conference venue the available bandwidth for a single user often gets strangled. A webinar tool like Adobe Connect that streams video, audio, presentation slides, chat, participant lists, polls and more, chews up an awful lot of bandwidth and is very sensitive to delays. The success of the webinar depends on everyone seeing and hearing the same thing at the same time and being able to answer polls and chat questions. If some are experiencing delays everything gets out of sync. The result is a session with long delays making interaction impossible and often wild variations in sound and video quality. Sometimes it simply gives up and crashes. I always insist on a wired connection when hosting webinars from conference venues but even then there can be trouble just around the corner. At one venue I had a wired connection that worked very poorly and after enquiries I found out that the wire simply went to a wireless router and a wifi connection! At another conference the audience was asked to stop using their devices for a while because the keynote speaker couldn't show a film due to lack of bandwidth. In such cases there should be a separate internet connection for speakers so they don't get mixed up with the conference buzz.

I am not an expert on the technical side so I'm sure there are factors in this that I haven't realised but I think one of the problems here is that we have become so accustomed to everything working all the time that we take bandwidth for granted. As soon as we get more bandwidth we use even more of it and quickly reach congestion level again. E-meeting tools are constantly trying to find new ways of compressing sound and video but unless they can use a dedicated link with guaranteed bandwidth the troubles will probably continue. Ken Molay's article offers no real solution to this problem at present. However it would be good to increase awareness of the limitations of bandwidth and why the problems that are often linked to webinars are often not the fault of the tools or the organisers. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

MOOCs for development

Keeping Goats and also Texting by Ikhlasul Amal, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by Ikhlasul Amal on Flickr

The original idea of a MOOC back in 2008 was that anyone can start a course and create a learning community around a subject of common interest. Open tools and platforms should be used so that there are no technical barriers to participation. Basically if you and some colleagues would like to investigate a particular subject or test some ideas you can invite the world to join in. There are still plenty of truly open grassroots MOOCs, more or less massive, but the vast majority today are highly polished professional productions from major universities and often extremely expensive to produce. As a result many smaller institutions, especially in developing countries, are discouraged from even considering open education. If the role model is a slick multimedia course from a high status university with over 100,000 participants it's easy to fell overwhelmed.

But a MOOC doesn't have to be so massive and the production costs can be kept low without compromising pedagogical quality. The promise of MOOCs was to widen participation and access to higher education especially for those who cannot afford a regular campus course. The problem with the high profile MOOCs is that all the video content, animations and other bandwidth heavy content puts them out of the reach of millions in developing countries.

Commonwealth of Learning (CoL) has now launched a free and open MOOC platform to enable smaller organisations in developing countries to run MOOCs without needing to invest so much money. The concept is called MOOC4D (MOOCs for development) and is built on the platform mooKIT offering a low bandwidth solution that is free to use for courses of up to 10,000 participants. The concept is that running a MOOC should be as easy as taking one. The platform offers participants the chance to download text and audio content for offline use and none of the content should use much bandwidth. At present there is only a limited range of courses available (Mobiles for development, ICT Basics, Climate change in the Pacific, Teacher training in the Seychelles and a MOOC on MOOCs) but the potential for this kind of platform is immense. The first course, appropriately a MOOC on MOOCs, has now been evaluated and a report is now available with analysis and conclusions, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on MOOCs: Course Evaluation. Here's an introduction video to the mooKIT platform.



Another fine example of low-tech online learning is a MOOC on horticulture taught in Hindi and run by the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur with support from CoL. This MOOC uses only mobile phones for distribution with regular short audio lessons being stored on voice mail and always accessible. Tests in the form of quizzes are also carried out by phone. The prototype course with over 1000 participants has been evaluated and a report has been published about the results with recommendations for future development, MobiMOOC - a massive open online course on horticulture - an effectiveness study, Uttar Pradesh State, INDIA.

The exciting thing with this type of initiative is providing a simple, open platform that enables institutions in developing countries to offer open courses that are adapted to the technical limitations of the areas they serve. It can also mean that more MOOCs are produced in smaller languages and thus offer a tool to empower local language and culture. Surely the real benefit of the MOOC movement is enabling everyone to participate in online learning.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Goodbye MOOC, hello microcredentials

Blended learning (Biology) by queensu, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by queensu

MOOC spin-offs are coming thick and fast as the term starts to dissolve into lots of new concepts. The free plain vanilla MOOCs are still flourishing but they've now developed a layered structure where you opt to pay for tutoring, assessment and even credits. Coursera's signature track option now offers verified credentials for a fee and this has spawned equivalent solutions in most MOOC consortia. These are not university credits but they are verified by the awarding university.

Slowly the term MOOC is fading and being replaced by terms like microcredentials and nanodegrees with students being able to study a series of short online courses that lead to verified certificates or badges whose real value on the job market is yet to be established. They aren't degrees or credits but they may be the next best thing and many hope they may create a new niche. Short online course modules offered by MOOC consortia are being packaged into a new qualifications shorter and more accessible then the traditional degree. Coursera offers what they call Specializations, EdX offers XSeriesUdacity offers nanodegrees and there are a number of other solutions such as Udemy for business. Many of these non-credit programmes are developed in close cooperation with major corporations (in particular Udacity's range) and are marketed as teaching students exactly the skills they need for employment. Most seem to be aimed at graduates as part of their professional development rather than trying to offer an alternative to traditional degrees but who knows how this will play out. If employers accept these new credentials then who knows.

Many institutions are now prepared to let others build their MOOCs instead of devoting so much internal resources to course design and creation. The Dutch company MOOC Factory offers universities and corporate customers expertise and an attractive platform to build online courses and course modules that use methods and tools from the MOOC movement but that now may not be so open or massive. The lessons learned from the first years of MOOCs are now being refined and developed in less massive closed online environments.

An article in Inside Higher Ed, Establishment Goes Alternative describes a new initiative from a group of seven US universities to offer skills-based microcredentials by offering a range of online modules, skills assessment and tutoring under the banner of University Learning Store. The venture is not yet in operation but the article describes the plans to create an alternative credential solution that offers sub-degree qualifications.

The idea is to create an “alternative credentialing process that would provide students with credentials that are much shorter and cheaper than conventional degrees,” said David Schejbal, dean of continuing education, outreach and e-learning at Wisconsin Extension.

What's interesting with University Learning Store is that it is driven by the universities and colleges themselves, thus creating a new tier of higher education that may other compete with or complement the traditional degree system. The other players, although involving the higher education sector, are generally driven by commercial interests and venture capital. I suspect that the main target group for microcredentials are those who already have a university education and are looking for career development courses that are not as long and demanding as regular post-graduate qualifications like a masters degree. This also links in with the growth in competence-based degrees where professionals can progress more quickly to degrees by getting credits for proven skills at work and where assessment is based on real work projects.

These new types of credentials will I believe only enrich the education sector and provide people with alternative paths to learning new skills. Maybe it's time for universities to offer alternatives to traditional degrees such as microcredentials before that niche is taken by the corporate sector.


Saturday, August 1, 2015

Flipping meetings

StaffMeeting by ransomtech, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by ransomtech on Flickr

The concept of flipping the classroom is rapidly spreading to other contexts. The underlying principle is to make sure that when we ask a group of people to come to a face-to-face meeting, the time should be spent on interaction and constructive activities rather than passive information transfer. The information can easily be sent to participants in advance as a video or audio file or in document form and this can apply equally well in all types of meetings. Valuable meeting time can then be spent on discussion and group work where the participants have had time to consider their opinions and can offer more informed comments than the spontaneous reactions heard at meetings where the information is delivered traditionally. Schools, conferences and meetings all suffer from the outdated belief that the only way to inform people is by gathering them all in a room and lecturing them.

In schools this concept is already well-established but now the focus is moving to reinventing the dreaded staff meeting. An article on TeachThought, 5 Challenges We Overcame Moving To A Flipped Staff Meeting, offers advice to managers who realise that their staff meetings have become stale rituals.

What if teachers could go to staff meetings and be actively collaborating? What if teachers looked forward to going to staff meetings? What if teachers could leave a staff meeting having been fully engaged for its entire duration? What if staff meetings were the place to learn, innovate, and transform teaching practices?

Some people may of course appreciate being passive for a while and getting the information they need in one convenient meeting. However what I notice today is that the information provided at meetings is more relevant to some than to others and as a result many people check their e-mails, prepare coming activities or simply get nervous as they realise they have many better things they could do with their time. I'm sure all meetings would benefit from a flipped approach and that active participation and involvement would also eliminate most multi-tasking. If people are actively involved then they won't have time to even think of multitasking.

However the article warns that attitudes are hard to change and that shifting to more active and meaningful meetings means abandoning past practices. There will be objections at first; the traditional meeting is comfortable and passive. You're asking people to do extra work and to come to meetings we--prepared rather than just showing up at the last minute. But if the extra work results in more informed and committed staff (or students) who see staff meetings as an opportunity for learning and development then the effort is well worthwhile.

Changing the way you do staff meetings is going to be a mindset shift for everyone. Attending a traditional staff meeting, although boring, tends to be pretty easy. You just have to sit there. And now teachers will not only have to be active during the staff meeting, but also watch a screencast prior to the meeting. My advice is to trust the process. Once everyone realizes the benefits of flipping staff meetings, people’s mindset will begin to change.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Me and my avatar

My Twitter Background by Ken-Lee, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Ken-Lee on Flickr

What sort of profile photo or avatar do you use on your social networks? Do you use the same one everywhere or do you use a variety, one for each network? Do you use a photo of yourself and is it passport style, in profile, only part of your head, upside down, from behind, in sunglasses, only your legs? Do you use an impersonal avatar in the form of a cartoon character, a symbol, a logo? Or do you simply use the anonymous default silhouette avatar that all networks offer? How do you react to different avatars in your networks? Do some seem more trustworthy than others? Do you tend to follow people with photo avatars or does it make no difference what avatar people use?

A recent post by David HopkinsDoes your avatar matter?, caught my attention. David is a rare exception to one of my own rules - I tend not to follow people without a photo of themselves. David has previously used a cartoon character as his trademark in social networks (especially Twitter) and in the blog post he explains how he has experimented with different types of avatar over the years. He now uses a photo instead of the cartoon but the transition took time, first by showing part of his face and then a blurred version and now a full-face view. Even if the cartoon avatar had become a sort of trade mark he realised that his students had a right to see him in person. First impressions are important and your choice of avatar says a lot about you; even a non-choice is a choice.

The post has not surprisingly sparked a good discussion. Many people see their avatar as a trade mark and a selection of their personality and are of course reluctant to change that strong image for a mere photo. Many people involved in political opposition and other sensitive issues have very good reasons for not revealing their true identity and for many it is indeed dangerous and foolhardy to do so. It is often important to draw a line between me as a person and my political/professional role. Many politicians who tweet or blog have one avatar for their official role and another for their personal networks. If your account is mostly used for professional purposes it can be confusing for your network if you intersperse that with highly personal information, party photos etc. Such accounts can also be manna for the tabloid press.

I have always used a photo of myself and update only occasionally. Changing too often can cause confusion. Especially in professional networks I think it's only right to show who I am. Otherwise it's like turning up to a meeting with a paper bag on my head. When I choose who to follow, the avatar does influence me. I'm least likely to follow people with default avatars and cartoon characters because I'm unsure of who they are and of their credibility. The crucial factor of course is their profile information and the value to me of what they offer. I always check profiles to see how they describe themselves and then check their latest messages to see that they are relevant for me. Those with a good reputation will be followed almost regardless of avatar but those of us who are less known need to win trust and anonymity is not the best way to achieve that.

But one thing is clear, your choice of avatar does matter.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

MOOCs for teacher development


Traditionally teachers seldom get a chance to watch each other and share experience. Teaching has been an individualistic rather than collective career where you work out your own strategies, create your own courses and learn from your own mistakes. Even with the advent of online learning, courses tended to be centred around one teacher and the course material was locked into a virtual classroom to which other teachers seldom had access. Of course there is widespread use more collaborative teaching, especially in schools, but in higher education the lone teacher approach still dominates.

An article in the Atlantic, The (Accidental) Power of MOOCs, looks at new statistics on MOOC demographics that not only confirm previous findings that most participants already have a university education but also reveal that as many as 39% are teachers. The attraction is obvious; a chance to see how other teachers work and an opportunity to learn new methods and tools that can then be applied in your own teaching.

That they would voluntarily participate in an online-learning experience focusing on a field they already know isn’t that surprising; as practitioners of education, teachers may also have an interest in the processes and applications of MOOCs, studying how questions, assignments, and tests are handled in online teaching environments, for example. Nor is it surprising that teachers are interested in pedagogy—watching and learning how an applauded instructor delivers a lesson.

For many the subject matter will probably be familiar so they take the course as part of their professional development, especially if they are themselves teaching in an online context. MOOCs can also enable teachers to expand their professional networks and so the MOOC can be a springboard to future international collaboration. It may not have been the outcome the MOOC providers intended but the article sees the professional development of teachers as an accidental effect of the MOOC movement. Thus MOOCs are inspiring traditional teachers to rethink their own classroom practices and use digital media to enrich their own teaching.

But it's not only that teachers are learning by following courses in their subject area, there are a growing number of MOOCs about using technology in education and these are filling competence gaps that many institutions and authorities fail to provide for their teachers. A European project called Handson ICT have recently published a guide for teachers looking for a suitable MOOC to learn about using technology in education, MOOCs as Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in Educational Practice. A practical guide for educators. Here they examine quality criteria for these courses and present a thorough benchmarking overview of currently available MOOCs for educators.

... there are increasing numbers of MOOCs on the market and while the richness of the options is exciting, it may also be overwhelming, especially to those new to online CPD. This document, therefore, aims to help any educator wishing to undertake a MOOC as part of their professional development to an enriching learning experience.

The project also runs its own professional development MOOC, Learning Design Studio for ICT-based Learning Activities, and the next course starts in late October. Here's the preview video for the course.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Supporting new learners in open education

Help! by GotCredit, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by GotCredit

Last week I attended a conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm called MOOCs in Scandinavia which was an opportunity to take stock of the development so far and hopefully create a springboard to future development. Scandinavia is a rather late arrival on the MOOC front and there are still only a handful of institutions offering courses in the major consortia but there are also many examples of off-piste open courses that haven't got the MOOC label but are extremely interesting nonetheless. The highlight of the event was of course the final keynote from George Siemens, MOOCs and Learning Sciences: Where we have been. Where we are going, who concluded by claiming that MOOCs are actually rather irrelevant but that they raise important issues about how higher education needs to adapt to the digitalisation of society. A welcome perspective to warn against focusing on just one interpretation (or misinterpretation) of open learning.

However, although I thoroughly enjoyed George's lecture and it gave me several new avenues to investigate further there was another talk that gave me immediate food for thought. Sandra Milligan and colleagues at the University of Melbourne have been researching student data from MOOCs and looking at factors that affect learners' course completion. Their work is presented on the blog Crowd-sourced learning in MOOCs. They see a clear correlation between previous learning experience and depth of involvement in an open course. They describe five types of open learners (expert, competent, emergent, beginner and novice) and the research examines the following hypotheses:

  • there is a complex, latent ‘21st century’ skill required by MOOC participants to crowd-source their learning in MOOC forums;
  • individuals possess this skill to differing degrees and these differences explain in part differences in learning outcomes;
  • forum activities such as posting, voting, and viewing do not in and of themselves generate learning, but skilled learners are adept at using them in particular ways to generate learning; and
  • measurement theory and its associated methodologies make possible a mapping of patterns of forum activity onto a learning progression describing the hypothesised latent skill, and this mapping can be used to infer individuals’ level of skill.
Novices and experts have totally different ways of approaching a MOOC. Novices tend to see the course material as content to be consumed and will only look at the prescribed material and nothing else. They will not contribute to or even read the discussions in the forum and will not build a peer network to help them learn. They expect to be lead by the teacher and do not know how to take charge of their own learning. Experts, however, know how to dig deeper, read beyond the stipulated pages and above all take an active part in discussion. They have learnt how to learn. The research team in Melbourne have produced a useful rubric sheet for assessing a learner's level of participation and this can be used for learner self-assessment and can help to guide learners towards more active involvement..

This leads me into thinking about factors that affect learner involvement in open courses:
  • Study skills
    Those who succeed in online courses tend to be those with good study skills. This means they can find information, check sources, take notes and reflect on what they have found. Online learning today differs greatly from the classroom tradition that most people were raised on and requires new skills that take time to acquire. If we want open learning to really reach out to new categories of learners there must be local support available to help them acquire these skills. Here there is a major role for libraries, learning centres and other further education institutions but they need funding and a clear national strategy. 
  • Learning confidence
    It's not just study skills that affect participation it's also the confidence of the learners. Many new learners are hesitant about participating in a course that they might feel is too advanced for them. The slightest problem or misunderstanding will confirm to them that they are "too stupid" for this sort of course and they will immediately drop out. What happens when confident, experienced practitioners mix with novices in a discussion forum? It's not unusual for experts to participate in a MOOC simply to see how it is run and to get ideas for their own courses. If experts start posting in the forums, as they generally do, the effect on novices can be disastrous. The novices are naturally daunted by the high level of discussion, feel that they have nothing to contribute and are afraid of asking "stupid" questions.
    Here we also need careful scaffolding to give new learners more confidence; progress maps that make learning more visible, mini-certifications like badges,teaching self- and peer evaluation, facilitating collaboration around tasks etc.
  • Language skills
    As I have written earlier I think proficiency in English is a significant factor in online learning. If you are not reasonably fluent you will tend not participate in discussions or complete assignments. English language MOOCs can provide more support for non-native speakers with subtitled videos and transcripts but more importantly the course material could be published under an open licence so that local institutions could provide translated and adapted versions more suited to local issues and culture.
If we really want education to be available to all we need to focus on developing support structures, both online and face-to.-face.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

How sticky are your courses?

Glue goo by Sam-Cat, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Sam-Cat

How sticky are your courses? What sort of glue is required to keep learners involved? How do we awaken interest and create the critical momentum and engagement that are needed to guarantee completion? It all depends on what type of course we're talking about and the glue needed on an open online course is fundamentally different from the glue traditionally applied.

Traditional post-secondary education is often selective and exclusive. The institution clearly states the prerequisites for application (required qualifications and grades, previous experience etc), the curriculum, required workload, schedule and expected outcomes and the student, by applying, agrees to abide by these. Of those who apply only a select group make the cut and they generally have to apply for a loan or grant to pay the fees and the costs of studying. This group has therefore invested greatly in the course and has agreed to the terms and conditions. Dropping out is a major decision and so the completion rates will naturally be high. The rewards are also clear in the form of a degree, certificate and job prospects. Basically there is a lot of glue holding the students and the course together and this will hold even if the course design and pedagogy are less than ideal. The high completion rates of many campus courses are perhaps an illusion in terms of course quality; for many students dropping out is simply not an option.

On the other hand non-traditional post-secondary education in the form of open online courses do not have these extrinsic motivating factors. The greater the openness and flexibility the weaker the extrinsic motivators and the course has to rely on the students' intrinsic motivation and the design and pedagogy of the course to keep them on board. Learners participate because they want to learn and because the process is stimulating and engaging. The glue needed here is all about inspiring intrinsic motivation by good course design and skilled teaching and facilitation.

A post on Edugeek Journal called What If The Problem Isn’t With MOOCs But Something Else? develops this idea and provides a new angle on the old theme of MOOC completion rates. Maybe it's not the MOOCs that are failing but that the traditional system has made us dependent on grades, exams and credits and we cannot imagine education without them. We have focused too much on the stickiness of extrinsic motivation that we have neglected the preconditions for real learning. Maybe MOOCs are simply revealing a flawed system?

What if the problem is not with the learners, but the way they have been programmed through the years? Grades, credits, failure, tuition, fees, gold stars, extra recess for good grades, monetary rewards, etc are all programmed into learners from a young age.
You can say MOOCs are failing because they lack sufficient “student motivation,” but what if it was actually the case that society has been failing for decades and MOOCs are just exposing this?


We assume so often that only by offering extrinsic rewards can we win students' loyalty and so when those rewards are stripped away, as they are in a non-formal educational context the only glue we have is the fundamental joy of learning and teaching.

Traditional education has typically sought for a “suspension of laziness” – looking for ways to get learners to get off their rears and learn (because we always assume that when they don’t want to learn it is their motivation instead of our design). Newer ideas like MOOCs are going past that, to what I guess could be called “suspension of extrinsic motivation” (for lack of better words). What does learning design look like when you remove all of these carrot sticks (or actual paddling sticks) and leave learners to just pure learning? Well… maybe purer learning than what we had.

So it's time to stop comparing these two fundamentally different learning contexts and see open education as a challenge where the focus is fully on course design, pedagogy and enthusiasm.

Friday, May 29, 2015

MOOCs at the movies

CC BY-SA Some rights reserved by Jrosenberry1 on Wikimedia Commons
You've seen the movie now do the MOOC ... This was the heading of a post I wrote back in 2013 and now the prediction has come true. I proposed that film companies could cooperate with universities to produce short open courses providing deeper insight into the topic of a new movie. A movie based on a famous novel could spark interest in studying the author's works and a MOOC could offer the right level of study for the newly inspired learners. We underestimate the power of popular media to awaken interest in a subject and we should take the opportunity to build on that enthusiasm and curiosity. That casual interest could develop into academic studies or a career.

Now TV film channel TCM have teamed up with Ball State University to produce a MOOC based on the channel's film noir season this summer, TCM Presents Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir.

This course will run concurrently with the Turner Classic Movies "Summer of Darkness” programming event, airing 24 hours of films noir every Friday in June and July 2015. This is the deepest catalog of film noir ever presented by the network (and perhaps any network), and provides an unprecedented opportunity for those interested in learning more to watch over 100 classic movies as they investigate “The Case of Film Noir.”

Both the course and the associated films will enrich your understanding of the film noir phenomenon—from the earliest noir precursors to recent experiments in neo-noir. You will be able to share thoughts online and test your movie knowledge with a worldwide community of film noir students and fans.


You might think that course participation would depend on subscribing to TCM but the course description makes it clear that there will be links to lots of film noir examples that are freely available on YouTube. Having access to TCM is simply a convenience but not a precondition but of course TCM are hoping to influence course participants to sign up, just as Ball State might hope to attract new students.

I see this as an exciting development of the mainstream xMOOC model, offering universities a chance to connect with new types of learners, showcase their expertise and link higher education with popular culture in innovative ways. MOOCs can be offered to provide an informed insight into themes raised by films, books, TV series, major events and anniversaries. There is of course a fine line between the scientific impartiality of higher education and the dangers of commercialism but as long as the partnerships are clearly explained, as in the above example, then I think that universities can only gain from such activities. Just let's stop calling them MOOCs please.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Lights, camera, action ..

 by cessemi, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by cessemi

When Ronald Reagan ran for president way back in the eighties there were many sceptics who couldn't accept that a movie actor could lead a nation. Whatever you think of his politics there's no doubt that even if his political background was weak his ability to deliver a message effectively and appeal to the voters was undeniable. As an actor he could play the part in a convincing way and even today he is still seen by many as one of the most popular presidents in history. Much greater politicians with far more ability and knowledge failed to communicate with the voters and struggled to convey a credible message.

So if an actor can be president why not let them lecture on university courses? That is exactly what Purdue University are testing in their professional development courses just now according to an article in Campus TechnologyWhen Actors Replace Instructors as On-Camera Talent; replacing faculty experts with professional actors to deliver more polished video lectures. Many teachers are uncomfortable recording the increasingly polished mini lectures that are so popular, especially in mainstream MOOCs, and the reasoning is that an actor can deliver a script in a more polished and convincing manner. They are comfortable on camera and know how to address an audience. Furthermore they don't introduce themselves at all so that they will not been seen as the subject experts, they simply deliver the message that has been prepared and checked by the real experts. But how did the students react?

The feedback was conclusive: Students still preferred the actor. "We didn't say who was who," Maris remarked. "But they could tell right away. They were telling us, 'Go with the actors. We love our instructor, but we love what she does in the course content. Go with the actors because we love to watch them.' We got the feedback we were hoping for without directly soliciting it."

I can imagine that this idea will provoke outraged reactions from faculty around the world and the discussion thread accompanying the article is filling up fast. However if you clear away the smoke and dust of the shocked reactions maybe it's not so crazy after all. Fronting a video explaining some basic concepts is not the true role of the teacher. Some do that sort of thing well but many do not. Teaching is not simply presenting information, it's more about supporting, mentoring, inspiring and challenging students as well as designing and running courses that lead to learning. Actors aren't going to replace teachers but they may offer a solution to tasks that teachers may not wish or need to do. I don't see this as the beginning of a major trend but I don't find the story particularly alarming.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Fragmented reality

Please Keep Your Laptops in an Upright a by cogdogblog, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by cogdogblog on Flickr

Whenever a new scandal breaks involving celebrities or politicians you hear the accused person claiming that their comments were taken out of context. If we had only heard the full conversation or read a previous article we would have realised that their intentions were good even if one small quote could be misinterpreted. The problem is that today we only hear the sound bites or choice quotes and almost no-one has time to check the context. If you make a statement, give a lecture, take part in an interview or panel debate you can never know which string of words will be picked up and take on a life of their own. Someone in the audience will happen to hear one sentence, write it down with one or two unconscious changes and broadcast it on Facebook or Twitter. Once out there anything can happen in a digital game of Chinese whispers. No matter who you are you need to realise that your audience only receives a nugget or two of your message and more often than not what they understand is out of context. Many read only part of a blogpost or see a tweet quoting a few words and then use that to support their own opinions.

I have developed over the years my own structured communication plan using different channels (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc) for specific purposes. It all makes sense to me and naively assumes that there are people out there that will follow the whole concept. If anyone did they would be so impressed by my well-crafted approach to disseminating my observations and news ;-)
Similarly organisations and companies meticulously plan their their media channels to create a coherent communication strategy on the assumption that someone out there will see that coherence.
But sadly nobody does! We zap quickly from one source to another and pass on fragments to friends who pass on fragments of those fragments.

The message is never to assume that anyone is really listening and that you need to continually reinforce your message on many channels hoping that some of your message will stick. This is nicely highlighted in a post by Harold Jarche called nobody pays attention.

In a world of general attention deficit disorder, understanding that nobody has understood what you have produced is a critical foundation for communication, especially in business. Assume that nobody has read what you have written. For those rare exceptions, assume they have interpreted it in a manner other than intended.

So how does this apply to education? We can't assume that students have all approached the topic in the same way and share a common foundation. With so many sources to choose between they will click on the links that intrigue them most and follow the leads offered by their networks. The selected readings that you choose with great care may or may not be read. You have less time than ever before to catch students' attention and there are always more attractive distractions competing for their attention. In some ways this is a healthy situation in that students are now able to find their own sources and access a wider range of opinions and perspectives than before. However in this fragmented reality it is more important than ever to focus on three critical literacies: filtering, source criticism and attention. It is essential to be able to filter the content we find, check its credibility and cross-check with other sources and finally develop the ability to sometimes switch off all our distractors and concentrate on an article, book, discussion or lecture. We can't turn the clock back to a more manageable past but need to ensure that students (and ourselves) have the tools to make sense of our increasingly fragmented and distraction-filled world.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The year of the ROOC?

Rook 2 by scyrene, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  Rook by scyrene on Flickr

At the risk of introducing yet another silly acronym into a world drowning in such things, maybe this can be the year of the ROOC - Really Open Online Courses. The problem with most MOOCs is that they are very seldom really open. The structure, templates and material are usually copyright and are not open for reuse and adaptation. While it's understandable that the owners want to protect their material it could benefit so many more people if it could be translated and adapted to other languages and cultures. The word open can be interpreted in so many different ways and this leads to a lot of confusion. The key to ROOCs is open licenses that allow others to use and adapt the course and its constituent parts to be more relevant to local culture and context.

One of the often repeated benefits of the MOOC movement was to make quality higher education available to all and the rather colonial vision of students in developing countries avidly following classes from the top professors at Harvard, Stanford, MIT etc. The problem here is that although the glossy high-end MOOCs are well produced and academically sound they are very much rooted in a western perspective and have little relevance to students in many other parts of the world. This one-size-fits-all approach has been widely criticized and if we genuinely want to use online learning to widen participation in higher education the present proprietary model of most MOOCs must be changed.

So what are the ingredients of a really open online course (massive or not)?
  • All course material has an open Creative Commons license permitting reuse and adaptation so that institutions and educators in other countries can make the course more relevant to local issues and culture.
  • Design sustainable resources - not context-specific, easy to add subtitles, avoid locked proprietary software, standard templates, compatible formats etc.
  • Build the course on a platform that is freely available to others.
  • Create a community around the course to open up the development process from the beginning and then provide support in the future.
If designed in this way even a very small course could grow into a massive one. The initial iteration may not have a massive target group but maybe an institution in, say, India sees the potential to adapt it and serve a massive target group there. Alternatively a small course could be adapted into hundreds of equally small but locally important courses on a global scale. The true power of open education lies in sharing and developing resources together but today's proprietary models simply reinforce traditional structures rather than democratising education. 

If you are still wondering about the photograph above, the bird is a rook!


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

MOOCs for credits revisited

Credit by GotCredit, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by GotCredit on Flickr

Martin Weller suggested in 2013 that MOOCs could be used to replace the first year of undergraduate study, MOOCs As 1st Year Undergrad Replacement. Now two years later this prediction is coming true as Arizona State University announce a first year undergraduate programme made up of MOOCs and with full credits available for a fee, according to an article in Education NewsArizona State Offers Freshman Year Online For Credit. ASU are teaming up with MOOC consortium EdX to form Global Freshman Academy, offering real credentials at a price of $200 per credit. Furthermore you don't have to pay unless you successfully complete the course.

The entire first year of study can be taken completely online and although you have to pay to be assessed for credits, the fees for your first year of study will amount to half of the cost for the campus equivalent, excluding accommodation and food. As far as I can see the full campus option will still be available but by offering an online alternative the university hopes to attract over 100,000 additional students worldwide.

“We’re going to have 12 new courses, of which students will take eight,” said Arizona State president Michael Crow. “They have to be constructed at a fantastic level of digital immersion, not just talking heads. This is a general education freshman year, not a series of disconnected courses, so they have to be thought through together.”

This certainly seems to offer a more affordable entry into higher education for many students who aren't sure they want to invest in the full campus deal. Try the first year online at a lower cost and see how it goes before committing to campus for tear two. It's an interesting experiment but I wonder how they will deal with 50,000 online students all wanting credits and choosing to sign up for year two on campus? Where do successful online students go from there since only a fraction of the expected MOOC students will be able to start year two on campus? What is actually on offer here for the thousands of online students - your first year completed online and then what?

The offer also promises to solve the thorny issue of low MOOC retention rates with the logic that if you offer credits then students will complete the course. That tactic has been tried already several times with spectacularly unimpressive results. Very few MOOC participants seem interested in credits at all and you could say that the whole appeal of MOOCs is the joy of learning for the sheer sake of it and if you throw credits into the mix it all gets too serious. I don't think the MOOC community will be attracted by this scheme though some might complete the odd course out of interest. The target group here is probably prospective students who intend to go to university but are looking for a more flexible path and a chance to test the waters before committing to high fees and moving to campus.

So it sounds revolutionary but it isn't really so different from many other MOOCs for credit schemes. Good luck all the same and I look forward to reading some results in 2016. Have a look at George Siemens' post on the subject, Nothing new here: Arizona State and edX partnership.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Not lurking but learning

Lurking evil beneath the waters . . . . by 酷哥哥, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by 酷哥哥 on Flickr

I'd like to return to one of my favourite topics of late - online participation or the lack of it. Just as it is quite normal to appreciate music without dancing or singing along, we need to accept the fact that many people can learn a lot without actively taking part in discussions and group work. In fact one important phase in learning is a period where you silently observe and listen to those with more experience and tune into the field you are studying.

I enjoyed therefore reading a post on this theme by Dave White called Elegant lurking where he argues that we all need periods of silent learning before daring to participate. This is especially true in online communities.

All successful Social Media platforms allow for Lurking in some form. It allows individuals to tune into the ‘dialect’ of a particular network or community so that when they first decide to say something they’re reasonably confident it will be in an acceptable tone. Some learners will choose never to speak-up though, especially if they are following an intimidating network of venerable ‘thought leaders’ or if they assume they won’t be responded to.

The same applies of course in face-to-face groups, courses or clubs. New members may attend several meetings getting accustomed to the group culture before they dare to speak up. Some may never contribute but will follow the discussions with great interest and will learn a lot without needing to demonstrate the fact to the others. This is what is meant by elegant lurking; quiet low-key participation where learning is not overtly demonstrated. 

Supporting students to move towards this transition should be central to the overall trajectory of our pedagogy in more nuanced ways than simply assigning marks to the act of blog posting. Elegant Lurking is an important ingredient in the subtle business of becoming a member of a community.

The crucial moment is when you dare to make that first comment or ask that possibly "stupid" question. This is your official membership application and the reaction of the community can make the difference between your full participation or dropping out. It's so important that the teacher(s) or other leading members recognize a newcomer's first contribution and provide supportive feedback as soon as possible. Many will doubt their own competence and so any negative replies or lack of response will be seen as proof that they do not belong and result in that person leaving the group. At the same time we shouldn't pressurize everyone to contribute but accept that many will learn a lot by elegantly lurking. When they feel like joining in they will.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Learning is perpetual beta

Cyclic horns by fdecomite, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by fdecomite

Jay Cross has written an interesting article, Should Learning Content be in Perpetual Beta? The concept of perpetual beta is several years old now and typifies the innovation spirit behind a lot of the dotcom boom. Beta versions used to be test versions of a product that only a select few could use in order to iron out problems before official release. Only a fully tested product could be sold to customers. However in the rush to keep ahead of the competition companies started releasing beta versions for public use, generally for free, encouraging users to test and give feedback on the faults. Google became very clever at making these beta tests by invitation only and the chosen few felt privileged to be test pilots.

When something is labeled beta, you expect it to have errors and are happily surprised if you don’t find any. Finding and helping correct flaws is one of the psychic rewards of the implicit bargain which makes the customer a happy co-developer.

Today we're used to products never making it beyond beta; once the beta version is fixed an even cooler product sweeps it away and we start the process again. Perpetual beta flips traditional sales logic on its head. If the product is officially released to paying customers they will react negatively to any flaw. However if they are told it's a beta version they feel part of the development process and almost enjoy reporting problems.

For example, suppose I release a campaign or report clearly marked Beta. I invite you to partner with me to make things better. I summon your help. We bond. We are amigos. We sit on the same side of the table. If I’d labeled that same report Final, you’d have been all over me about typos.

Learning is also embracing perpetual beta by involving students in course design and resource development. Traditional courses are finished products before students register and they naturally expect everything to work smoothly. If there are flaws they'll soon react. However as more courses encourage student to become co-creators of both content and design this generates in turn a sense of ownership and responsibility in the course. The students' transition from consumers to co-creators leads to deeper involvement and learning.

All education is perpetual beta since there are always new discoveries to be made, new angles to examine and new questions to ask. Every course can be run as a voyage of exploration and discovery where the students and teacher refine existing content and add new elements that are then handed on to the next group for further development. We're seeing this iterative approach to learning not only in courses but also in the development of open educational resources and open text books. The most dangerous tactic is to claim that the product is finished.