|University of Graz|
The conference featured two inspirational keynote speakers, Anant Agarwal (Professor at MIT and CEO of EdX) and Pierre Dillenbourg (Professor at EPFL Lausanne), and the rest of the time was devoted to practitioner experience, research findings and workshops. Agarwal gave an infectiously enthusiastic presentation of the EdX consortium's progress and future direction, stressing the need for MOOCs to break the sonic barrier of credits. This demands of course increased accountability. MOOCs should be as good if not better than traditional courses and this is achieved by innovative solutions, virtual proctored exams, social learning, project teams, tutoring and teacher grading in combination with peer assessment and guided studies that have become a hallmark of the genre. Verified certificates have increased course completion rates to around 60% whilst more advanced verification and course packages have given even higher rates.
The frequently voiced concerns about the credibility and security of online examinations may well be addressed by the practice of virtual proctoring through companies such as Software secure and Proctor U. These companies have centres where virtual proctors monitor thousands of online examinations using webcam, microphone and screen surveillance. Student computers are locked down and only allow the examination application and the webcam will register any activities like checking a mobile under the table. The software registers all exceptional behaviour and movements both on screen and in the room and these can later be investigated if there is any suspicion of cheating. This is already in practice in MOOCs for credit as well as in regular for-credit online courses though as far as I could gather had not really been tested extensively in Europe. I can imagine that European universities will be unwilling to risk such extensive surveillance data being stored outside the EU but I'm sure there will be a solution. The claim is that this technology will make online examinations at least as secure as traditional on-site exams (ie. not completely cheat-proof but probably good enough).
The conference closed with a thought-provoking speech by Pierre Dillenbourg who called on European universities to agree on how to recognize each others' MOOCs and open the way for real virtual mobility through a kind of virtual Erasmus programme. He argued that we already have the key ingredients in place; we have a common academic currency in terms of the Bologna agreement and ECTS, we have publicly funded universities giving around 4000 potential testing centres and we have cultural diversity so why can’t we offer credits for MOOCs? He urged universities and university associations to start discussing this and there were several representatives in the hall who immediately agreed to investigate further. The conference Twitter feed immediately informed us that there is already a cooperation in place between a few universities for exactly this sort of virtual mobility called Opening universities for virtual mobility.
My one concern with all this is that that the potential of MOOCs to truly open up education is being tamed and adapted to fit nicely into the traditional model. The focus now seems to be on the value-added layers and the promise of examination and credits. The wider potential of open networked learning I believe will be the task of non-traditional educational organisations rather than the higher education sector.
There were of course many other extremely interesting presentations and discussions and I may well return to them in a later post as I may do about my own contribution.
Download the full proceedings of the conference.