Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The emperor's old clothes

Back and already hard at work! by clemsonunivlibrary, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  clemsonunivlibrary

I've always thought that Hans Christian Andersen's story The emperor's new clothes was one of the most relevant things to read in order to understand how modern organisations work. We can all relate tales of great new trends, initiatives and projects at work that didn't quite work out but few were brave enough to criticize. It's vital to have that child who can break the spell by daring to say that the emperor is actually naked.

However we also need the ability to question traditions and realize that some of the practices we've been doing for years are not actually useful any more. Maybe the emperor's old clothes are the problem, not the new ones. This is why I enjoyed reading an article by G. Kim Blank in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Let's kill the term paper. Why do we continue to ask students to write essays that almost never say anything new or insightful and that do not lead to any real learning? The term paper/essay, like the lecture and the examination hall, are all integral parts of university tradition but it is high time we reassessed their true contribution to learning. Do we persist with them  simply because they are easy to administer?

"Could it be for the convenience of generating a mark and for reproducing a template that can be used for all kinds of courses? Could it be that this whole writing business, with the essay as its poster child, has become a self-justifying industry, fueled largely by never-changing textbooks and ever-changing adjuncts? Is there a lurking irony—could it be that these courses are in fact self-sustaining by not achieving their ostensible mandate?"

In their future careers these students are highly unlikely to ever have to carry out the tasks that are so highly valued at university. Does anyone ever need to write essays at work or carry out a task without access to information or colleagues? Admittedly essays, examinations and lectures demand self-discipline and the ability to organize and present information but they have little or no relevance for students' careers.

"... the term paper or even plain essay has no relationship to the work-world in which college grads will find themselves earning a living."

The way forward, according to Blank, lies in reading, discussing and summarising examples of good academic writing. Summarising is a vital skill in today's information society and demands a clear understanding of the text to be summarised. Before you can accurately summarise you need to analyze the text in question and by summarising you hone your own writing skills in ways that term papers do not.

So let's re-examine more of the emperor's old (and new) clothes and build a new and more meaningful wardrobe.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Learning by Facebook

facebook by English106, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  English106

Many learning management systems today try to make their discussion forums resemble Facebook  since that has become the default social network of the vast majority of students and teachers. It's logical then to try and see if a Facebook group could be used as a replacement for the LMS at least on a course basis. That's exactly what a group of Israeli university teachers have written about in a new article in IRRODL (International review of research in open and distance learning), Facebook groups as LMS: A case study (Hagit Meishar-Tal, Gila Kurtz, and Efrat Pieterse).

"This paper describes a pilot study in using Facebook as an alternative to a learning management system (LMS). The paper reviews the current research on the use of Facebook in academia and analyzes the differences between a Facebook group and a regular LMS. The paper reports on a precedent–setting attempt to use a Facebook group as a course website, serving as a platform for delivering content and maintaining interactions among the students and between the students and the lecturer. The paper presents findings from the students’ self-assessments and reflections on their experience. The students expressed satisfaction with learning in Facebook and willingness to continue using these groups in future courses."

They decided to replace the university LMS with Facebook and added Google Docs for collaborative writing, presentations and assignments. The Facebook group was a closed one which meant that students and teachers did not also have to be friends in Facebook as a whole in order to interact in the group. Although Facebook is less ordered and controlled than a standard LMS, the study suggests that student interaction increases significantly and the communication became less hierarchical than in a traditional LMS.

"An interesting finding emerged from the research which is the student’s perception of the Facebook group as a stimulator of participation, both proactive or reactive. Students felt that Facebook encouraged them to express themselves. Even passive students had the ability to express their presence on the Facebook group by indicating “like” on chosen posts."

One major objection to using platforms like Facebook is that the course is the property of a company and is stored by that company. It is also debateable whether a university can demand that students sign up to a commercial platform in order to take a particular course. However, studies like this show that courses can be successfully run outside the walled garden of the LMS and that there may be significant advantages of letting the discussion and interaction take place outside the LMS.

Maybe the LMS is becoming a white dwarf rather than a red giant. A white dwarf which looks after course administration, examination and assessment, all of which are governed by legal requirements on the university, but where the interaction and creative work takes place on other platforms and tools.

Facebook groups as LMS: A case study, Hagit Meishar-Tal, Gila Kurtz, Efrat Pieterse (IRRODL, Vol 13, no. 4, 2012) 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Teaching is about asking questions

Here's the latest in a long line of inspiration videos about how technology is changing education. It's called The future of learning, Networked society and has been created by Ericsson to show the benefits of a connected society but is completely free from any obvious commercial content. It features comments from well-known figures in the field such as Seth Godin and Sugata Mitra as well as focusing on platforms such as the adaptive learning platform Knewton and the MOOC consortium Coursera.

I would have liked them to mention more genuinely innovative educational initiatives such as the network-based MOOCs of Siemens, Downes and friends or the collaborative learning platform Peer 2 Peer University but films like this are very useful for raising awareness among coleagues and students. In particular I like Sugata Mitra's comments that teaching is about asking questions. Ask the right questions and let the students work out the answers by searching, collaborating and creating. Stimulate the students' curiosity and amazing things can happen.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Education - the disruption has only just started

massive change by 416style, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  416style

A new post by media guru Clay Shirky entitled Napster, Udacity, and the Academy traces disruption in the music industry and then draws parallels with education. When digital disruption first hit the music industry in the shape of Napster the industry reacted strongly by shutting it down. However despite winning that one battle the disruption had already occurred and before long mp3s were everywhere, sold legally at low prices via iTunes, LastFM and now Spotify. The industry changed radically and is still trying to work out what happened.

The same disruption has been happening in education for several years but this year the explosion of free university courses under the working name MOOCs has pointed the way forward and has provoked reactions of denial and dismissal similar to those of the music industry several years ago. The fact that the education sector is full of extremely clever people has not made much difference, as Shirky notes:

"We have several advantages over the recording industry, of course. We are decentralized and mostly non-profit. We employ lots of smart people. We have previous examples to learn from, and our core competence is learning from the past. And armed with these advantages, we’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did."

Many academics make defensive statements that things like MOOCs can never replace the quality of traditional face-to-face education but they miss the real point. Of course they're not going to replace the elite universities simply because attending them is a passport to success and provides a network for life. However, the teaching that goes on there is not always top class. Universities' reputations are based on the quality of their research - very few invest as heavily in fostering top class teaching. Even at the elite universities most of the actual teaching is conducted by postgraduates and adjuncts who are often provided with very little pedagogical training. Most contact time at universities is taken up by lecturing, something that is supremely suited for the net.

The opening for MOOCs and other disruptive phenomena in education is that they can provide good enough education for free or at low cost to a mass market, the vast majority of whom could never dream of attending a top university. This concept of  "good enough" means that we are perfectly happy to accept lower quality if it does the job to a reasonable standard. Take mp3 music files that are poor quality when compared to a good old vinyl record on a top level stereo system but who cares since it's so much more portable and convenient. Same thing goes for text communication with the seriously retro SMS format. Even if you can today send video messages and use all sorts of other instant messaging services the old SMS is still king simply because it works everywhere and reaches virtually every mobile ever invented.

MOOCs and their offspring will provide mass education whenever you need it and we're seeing a new educational ecology taking shape to challenge, seriously disrupt and in part replace the traditional system. Some will provide the courses, others will provide validation and certification and others will offer meeting places, tuition, study groups and mentoring. The one-stop shop of the traditional university is being dismantled. These new services may well have plenty faults at first but since they are open these faults are dealt with in public and are often remedied immediately, in stark contrast to shortcomings in traditional universities which can take years to be dealt with, if ever.

Shirky argues that MOOCs etc are not replacing the traditional system but are creating a whole new game, as the mp3s did for music. The problem for the education system is realizing what's happened in time to do anything about it.

"In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true."

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Blue skies ahead?

CC BY Some rights reserved by Dennis Wong
Open Educational Resources (OER) have been long viewed with extreme suspicion by textbook publishers as a major threat to their business. maybe we can celebrate OER's coming of age this week as publishing giant Pearson launch their ambitious and innovative project Blue Sky. If you're a teacher looking for good online resources for a new course you simply enter your key search words and Blue Sky provides you with relevant OER from the main repositories and sources. The novel approach here is that Blue Sky will also find relevant resources from Pearson's vast range of for-profit educational resources. So when you search you will be presented with both free resources and those with a price tag.

The thinking behind this move is that teachers will be tempted to buy Pearson's resources in combination with the best OER and that the price tags on the Pearson material will be suficiently tempting. By providing a one-stop search for OER Pearson hope to attract income from teachers who might otherwise never search the publisher's catalogue. According to Don Kilburn, vice chairman of Pearson’s higher education division, in an article in Inside Higher Ed, Pearson's open book:

Pearson says it is confident that facilitating OER discovery will not undermine the company’s own products. “We clearly believe our content is superior to OER content… but we recognize there is a place for OER in the current environment. If we can’t compete effectively there, we have a bigger problem,”

The article even speculates that Pearson may consider opening up Blue Sky to rival publishers and let educators choose between open and proprietary resources in the same mix.
As open learning gains momentum we're seeing more and more examples of major companies mixing commercial and open practice. We've seen The world's high status universities offering MOOCs for free, Instructure and Blackboard offering open LMS solutions for MOOCs and now the publishers are helping us search for OER. Never a dull moment!

Here's Pearson's introduction film for Blue Sky:

Monday, November 5, 2012

Inspiring encounters

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing two inspiring educators: Dave Cormier (University of Prince Edward Island) and Helen Keegan (University of Salford). It was at a major conference/exhibition for Swedish schools, Skolforum 2012, in Stockholm and we appeared in an event known cosily as The Cage.

Dave Cormier has featured in several posts on this blog before as the man who gave the world the acronym MOOC (working with George Siemens an Stephen Downes) way back in the days when the concept denoted an experiment in connectivist pedagogy rather than the mass market packaged commodity it has recently become in the hands of major university consortia. Helen is famous for innovative experiments in mobile learning and the use of social media in education.

I include three videos below so you can see Dave's and Helen's presentations followed by the interview show I hosted. Sadly we didn't get to sit in real chat show sofas and there was no house band but a fascinating discussion took place.

Here are some notes I made with snippets of wisdom from both of them. First from Dave Cormier's presentation which describes the thinking behind the MOOC movement and the power of the community in education:
  • Prepare students to deal with uncertainty.
  • You can’t collaborate alone.
  • MOOCs are about forming networks around shared interests.
  • Stop measuring learning
  • The community becomes the curriculum
  • MOOCs are community generators
  • 5 steps to succeed in a MOOC: orient yourself, declare who you are, network with peers,form clusters,focus.

Helen Keegan looked at how we can drive student learning by awakening their curiosity and described a highly innovative course she ran in the form of an alternate reality game (ARG):

  • Build education around curiosity.
  • Hashtag has been the biggest gamechanger. Course number with # becomes metadata. Courses as hashtags.
  • All about forming connections. Connections lead to internally motivated learning. Connections create engagement.
  • Network and media literacies. Educator as broker – modelling behaviour.
  • Get out there and things will happen.
  • Howard Rheingold's 5 literacies: attention, critical thinking/filtering, participation, collaboration, network smartness.
  • Losing control can lead to more learning.
  • Learners driving the curriculum.

And finally the interview with them both.

The films are all licensed under Creative Commons CC BY

Friday, November 2, 2012

It's raining MOOCs

MOOC! by AJC1, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  AJC1

If you're a MOOC watcher you simply can't afford to look away for a few days. This week has been particularly dramatic with yet another distribution channel plus the emergence of a new licensing model offering credit for MOOCs.

Firstly there's a new kid on the MOOC block. Instructure's open source LMS platform Canvas has started it's own MOOC-hosting service called Canvas Network. Universities and other educational organisations already using the Canvas LMS can offer a course as a MOOC via Canvas Network and allow anyone to join the course. The course runs on the university's own platform and Canvas Network is the shop window where the course can be marketed. Already the site offers a range of intersting courses from institutions like Ball State University, University of Washington, University of Utah as well as other providers. One particularly interesting course in the initial offering is Introduction to Openness in Education, featuring David Wiley, one of the foremost figures in the open education movement.

Here's the Canvas Network introduction video:

Audrey Watters comments on this news in an article The LMS Instructure Enters the MOOC Fray stating that Canvas Network offers institutions the chance to test the MOOC water without having to buy into a completely new environment, as in edX or Coursera. Universities can stay in the familiar environment of their own learning management system but still run a MOOC.

“MOOCs are a feature of, but they’re not the only future of education,” ... That might be quite a reassuring message to universities worried about how they should respond to this latest MOOC craze. With Canvas Network, they’ll be able to respond using tools they’re familiar with — tools they’ve paid for. That places them in a very different relationship with their open online course offerings than does the agreements schools are signing with Coursera.

MOOCs with credits

So with yet another MOOC channel in the fray there's still the question of getting credible credentials for informal learning. Already a few colleges are offering to validate student work from a MOOC and offer the option of submitting supplementary work to get credits (at a fee of course). However this week's biggest piece of MOOC news was the deal between Antioch University and Coursera whereby students at Antioch can study a Coursera MOOC with extra tuition and guidance from an Antioch teacher leading to real credits (see press release).

"Antioch University is the first US institution to receive approval from Coursera to offer college credit for specified Coursera MOOCs (massive open online courses). Through this new partnership, Antioch University and the Antioch University Los Angeles campus can reduce student costs to complete a four-year degree and expand course offerings through free online courses offered by the highly respected universities that have partnered with Coursera. This course access will directly benefit learners that Antioch University serves and is a demonstration of Antioch University’s long commitment to innovation, experiential learning and student engagement through high-quality education."

Students at Antioch can choose to study a facilitated MOOC where the entire course has been devised by a Coursera partner university but where Antioch offers the added value of guidance and tuition. The attraction for the student will be lower fees compared to a standard campus course fully provided by the university. This is a further twist to the disaggregation of higher education. Instead of a university being a one-stop shop offering course material, teaching, assessment, examination and certification we're seeing more and more specialists taking care of one aspect and leaving the rest to others.

This trend raises many questions as summarised in an article in Inside Higher EdDid MOOCs Just Make Landfall? 10 Questions to Consider. If MOOCs can be licensed to several universities, will this lead to many institutions offering the same courses from edX, Coursera, Udacity etc. How will teachers at the smaller universities feel providing support to someone else's course? It may not be so negative however since the quality of tuition/facilitation will become the competitive force instead of the quality of the material, thus allowing teachers to focus on teaching (facilitation, constructive criticism, mentorship, guidance) rather than instruction (provided online by the content provider). Are we seeing a further stratification of education with a wide variety of paths to choose between but with a high variation in certification status? 

Read more on the Antioch deal in another article from Inside Higher Ed, MOOCs for credit

We all await the next instalment.