Friday, June 15, 2012

Playing safe

AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Andrea Baldassarri
Real innovation in online education is not coming from the established universities, at least not in officially supported initiatives. Most universities have teachers who are breaking new ground with net-based learning but they are seldom part of a coherent strategy from the university leadership. The current explosion of MOOC-like offerings in the form of EdX and Coursera are exciting developments but follow a traditional educational format of delivering content rather than fostering interaction and collaboration.

The interesting development seems to be taking place off piste in more informal learning environments such as Peer 2 Peer University and the collaborative MOOCs run by people like George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier to name but a few. These are university staff offering their expertise either voluntarily or as part of a research project and the courses are not part of the universities' official prospectus.

Despite most universities claiming that they embrace innovation and offer a wide range of online courses there are few who are really innovative in the field. This is picked up nicely in an article by Peter Klein in the Christian Science Monitor, Are universities scared of the online learning movement?

"Mainline universities loudly proclaim their love of online learning — and pedagogical innovation more generally — while doing everything possible to retard it. The strategy has been to make a few easy, low-cost, conservative moves that preserve the status quo, such as putting some existing courses online, while trying to suppress the innovative outsiders like Phoenix, DeVry, TED, Kahn Academy, etc. It’s a classic example of what Clayton Christensen calls sustaining innovation — incremental changes that keep the existing market structure intact. The last thing the higher-ed establishment wants is disruptive innovation that challenges its dominant incumbent position"

This reluctance to fully exploit the opportunities of online education is sometimes attributed to financial or technical constraints or even seen as a conspiracy to defend traditional structures at all costs. But maybe, as argued by Justin Marquis in an article Are universities afraid of online learning?, the reason is simple convenience. Why change a system that has worked so well for hundreds of years?

"Perhaps higher education is suffering from a philosophical innovation obstruction which may be the cause of the sustaining innovation rather than a symptom of it. Since the industrial revolution, education has been based on a factory model where the emphasis has been on producing as many graduates as possible, as efficiently as possible, rather than on catering to individual needs or ensuring that people learn as much as possible. This philosophy, more than any sinister conspiracy to uphold the status quo, is more likely than not the root cause of the lack of innovation in online higher education."

Playing safe is always easier than leaping into the unknown so we shouldn't be surprised that the giant supertanker that is education takes many years to change course. We all have our comfort zones and it takes a real threat or unmissable opportunity to force most of us to change. I don't expect the established universities to take the lead in changing education but hope that they can heighten their awareness of what's going on outside their domain and be able to react in time.

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