Showing posts with label peer learning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label peer learning. Show all posts

Friday, January 24, 2014

Bursting the MOOC bubble

After a couple of years basking in the spotlight the tide seems to have turned in MOOCland and we seem to be heading for the dreaded trough of disillusionment (now that's what I call a metaphor-rich opening!).

Diana Laurillard, Five myths about Moocsbursts some of the inflated claims made about MOOCs in recent months. The main point is that education is not mass production. MOOCs offer a well-designed content package for self-study but providing thousands of students with qualified guidance and facilitation simply does not scale. Many MOOC providers are experimenting with peer learning, encouraging participants to give feedback to each other and assess each other's work. While it is true that more experienced students are able to provide competent peer review and assessment, this is not true of inexperienced learners unused to both higher education and the online environment. Students are not as self-sufficient as we sometimes imagine. In reply to this it could be argued that many undergraduate campus courses are not so good at providing qualified feedback and face-to-face tuition. All higher education requires the student to be highly self-sufficient and success depends very much on developing good peer networks for discussion and feedback. MOOCs of course take this self-sufficiency to an extreme. However as the focus in education moves towards learning how to learn I believe we will certainly see future generations becoming more self-sufficient and better at peer learning. We aren't there yet but that movement has already started.

"The simple fact is that a course format that copes with large numbers by relying on peer support and assessment is not an undergraduate education. Education is not a mass customer industry: it is a personal client industry. The significant initial investment required in the preparation of educational resources can be distributed over very large student numbers and repeated runs of the course, but education is fundamentally about learning concepts and skills that we do not acquire naturally through our normal interaction with the world. And this takes time. It requires personalised guidance, which is simply not scalable in the same way. This is what the private educational sector continues to ignore, and it is why every new idea for solving the problem of mass education with technology falls flat."

Then there are the claims that MOOCs are going to solve the problems of expensive undergraduate education or educational scarcity in emerging economies. This myth is already exposed as studies show that the vast majority of MOOCers are graduates and only a tiny minority live in developing countries. However, just as I agree that we should expose some of the wilder claims around the MOOC phenomenon we have no idea as yet where this movement is taking us. As I've written many times, it's time to discard the term MOOC and look at what openness (in many different shades) can offer education and learning. MOOCs are simply one of many experiments in the development of using technology to widen access to education. No one model is going to solve these problems but many variations on the theme may well lead to opening up education. It's a glacial change not a tsunami and don't expect miracles overnight.

Martin Weller's article, The Dangerous Appeal Of The Silicon Valley Narrative, discusses how the the media and many educators locked on to the appealing idea that education was broken and that it could only be saved by radical change lead by innovative entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. This was the narrative behind the explosion of xMOOCs that began with the Stanford Artificial Intelligence course back in 2011 and which hogged the media spotlight at the cost of more low-profile but much more innovative projects within the education community like Peer2Peer University, OER university and all the connectivist MOOCs.

"This analysis also reveals why other open education initiatives haven’t garnered as much attention. They often seek to supplement or complement education, thus ruining the education is broken argument. Similarly, they are often conducted by those who work in higher education, which undermines the narrative of external agents promoting change on a sector that is out of touch. And lastly, they are supported by not-for-profit institutions, which does not fit the model of new, disruptive businesses emerging."

So where are we today? I see this year as the year when the MOOC as a concept melts into something else as the hype-seekers move on. The MOOCs will keep on coming but the rhetoric will change and they will find a place in the educational eco-system. They are after all simply one part of a longer evolutionary process. What is clear is that there will be a wide range of paths to learning; some very traditional, some radical and experimental and others on a scale between the two. The problems occur when we start comparing apples with pears and claim that the new will sweep away the old. The new will complement the old and offer more choice and new opportunities that will benefit more people than the present system does.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Prepare to be MOOPhD

Moo Cows by miseldine, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by miseldine

With Georgia Tech offering a degree programme in MOOC-format (or at least as an online degree) the next step in the process must surely be massive open online research. A fascinating article by Jon Dron of Athabasca University, MOOCs are so unambitious: introducing the MOOPhD takes up precisely this challenge; a massive open online PhD. It's not such a crazy idea but there are many important considerations and limitations.

Firstly the MOOPhD is not about awarding doctorates but providing resources to help students write articles and learn research skills. MOOCs can be provided to help teach research skills, improve academic writing, assessment skills, support for gaining funding as well as providing a wide network of peers to learn from and share experience. It's about providing scaffolding for the research process that is isn't always available on campus, at least to the same extent.

"A MOOPhD would, of necessity, be highly modular, offering student-controlled support for all parts of the research process, from research process teaching, through initial proposals, through project management, through community support, through paper writing etc. Students would choose the parts that would be of value to them at different times. Different students would have different needs and interests, and would need different support at different points along the journey. For some, they might just need a bit of help with writing papers. For others, the need might be for gaining specific skills such as statistical analysis or learning how to do reviews. More broadly, the role of a supervisory team in modelling practice and attitudes would be embedded throughout."

The MOOPhD would complement the formal process not compete with it. The post-grads would still have to publish peer-reviewed articles and write their thesis but would get considerable support from their peer network. The MOOC element could save universities from having to provide their own research skills courses. Dron also suggests crowd-funding as a possible source of research backing. 

It sounds promising but the last part of the article lists a number of barriers; from ethical issues to start-up costs and gaining academic acceptance. This one is not going to happen overnight but it shows yet another way the MOOC boom might benefit higher education, not through conflict nut through integration and enhancement.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Putting MOOCs into perspective

CC BY Some rights reserved by NJ..
MOOCs are still at the crest of the hype cycle and some of the headlines are getting rather tiresome. There's also a growing polarisation in the discussion between the overblown claims that MOOCs will replace the traditional university system and the counterclaims that they are irrelevant gimmicks with no academic quality. An article by Cathy N. Davidson in University World News, Stop polarising the MOOCs debate, tries to put the hype into perspective. 

Open courses provide new opportunities for study to people who are not able to enroll on a traditional university course. University education is still only for an elite few in a global perspective and the spread of MOOCs gives millions access to at least a taste of higher education. Even if there are now avenues for converting MOOC experience into credits, that path is hardly a threat to the established university system. Regular students are not dropping out of their full-time studies to go MOOC:

"There is no evidence that students are dropping out of brick-and-mortar universities in droves in order to enrol in online courses. On the contrary, the typical online course student is someone who would not otherwise have access to higher education."

The article sees no evidence that MOOCs are likely to drive down tuition fees either. It may be that the traditional system will continue unaffected by MOOCs and open education (remember that MOOCs are not as open as they may claim). Those who need the status and credentials of a recognised university degree will continue to pay for it but the difference is that all those who cannot afford that have now got access to an alternative. It may not have the same status but it may well develop into something that is good enough, especially if some kind of credentials are available such as Open Badges.

As Cathy Davidson concludes:

"Indeed, in many cases MOOCs will not solve the problem of the high cost of tuition fees at face-to-face institutions; but, in the end, they may help more people who have never conceived of attending a ‘real’ college participate in the higher education that, the numbers show, is coveted, prized, valued, sought after.And thus – for MOOC lovers and MOOCs haters alike – an important rhetorical point we should all be emphasising, in every conversation: in the complex, changing world in which we live, advanced learning is necessary. Not a luxury. It deserves the public support of other necessities. Advanced education is far too important to price out of the market for all but the global 1%."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Space to think

We learn through collaboration, discussion and sharing. However we also learn by quiet contemplation and by the often solitary processes of reading and writing. Most levels of education today, both classroom and online, stress the importance of group work and our ability to function in groups is highly valued. However there's a risk that we are forgetting the importance of working alone and thereby losing the opportunity to think deeply.

This is the theme of an excellent TED talk by Susan Cain called The power of introverts where she argues the case of all introverts who aren't comfortable with group work and seldom contribute to class discussions. This is not because they have nothing to contribute - often quite the contrary - but that they need time to think before expressing themselves. Classroom discussions are generally dominated by a few confident students and group work is also dominated by those who enjoy speaking and being the centre of attention. Crowds are not always as wise as we think and are sometimes easily lead to the wrong conclusions by dominant or manipulative members, both in class and online. She argues that society puts too much emphasis on groups and social interaction and sees solitary activities as negative. Offices are now mostly open landscapes and few people have the luxury of a quiet space to work. Open spaces can be creative but creativity also needs peace and quiet.

A teacher's perspective on this issue is presented in a blog post by Monica EdingerIn the Classroom: A Few Classroom Teaching Suggestions from an Introverted Teacher. She presents a selection of strategies to enable the less vocal students have a say in class discussions. This involves waiting for answers in silence rather than always feeling obliged to say more. It also involves not giving the dominant speakers so much space to dominate, doing much less group work and giving students more time and space to think. Written communication, often as an online private dialogue between student and teacher, gives more introvert students a more appropriate channel to reflect and discuss their learning.

The main idea behind the concepts of flexible or blended learning is that we have the tools and methods to let students learn the way that suits them best. There is a need for dynamic group work and that must be available but we shouldn't forget that many people learn best on their own and need more space to learn. The secret is in the mix.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Completion rates in online education

I'm concerned that we continue to discuss the issue of low completion rates in online courses and see the online delivery form as the problem. Lower completion rates are seen as evidence that online education is inherently inferior to the traditional classroom model and that we must simply accept it as "the next best thing". By using terminology such as distance learning, e-learning and net learning we accept that this type of education is a sub category of the wider concept of "learning" which normally takes place in a classroom with teacher and students in the same physical room. Online learning is assumed to be mostly self-study and students lack the dynamic discussion and interaction of a live classroom. I think the vast majority of teachers and especially academic decision makers still think this is true and see educational technology as something only relevant to so-called distance learning. However the factors behind high completion rates are the same regardless of whether the course is on campus or completely online; namely social interaction, a sense of belonging and a supportive learning environment.

A new article by Jacqueline Aundree Baxter of the UK's Open University in IRRODL (International review of research in open and distance learning),Who am I and what keeps me going? Profiling the distance learning student in higher education, links the issue of completion rates to factors such as group dynamics, teamwork and the teacher's role as mentor and facilitator.

"The research revealed insights into factors linked to the expectations, identities, and support of students which proved influential in terms of their resilience and motivation to remain on course."

It's interesting to read how most students in this study expected their course to be mostly self-study and were positively surprised when online collaboration was expected of them. Here the popular image of online education affects student expectations. Every student will bring with her/him their own preconceptions, fears, insecurities and previous academic experience and the success of each student depends on establishing a sense of belonging, a supportive environment and a can-do attitude. Students have widely varying levels of experience in online collaboration and some may feel inadequate at first. The teacher's role of setting the tone and providing reassurance to the hesitant is crucial in the early stages.

"Expectations and beliefs about work and study roles have been found to be important in the retention of students and professionals. Initial expectations which are not well managed can lead to a sense of let-down and erosion of confidence and feelings of agency, which if not addressed lead rapidly to attrition."

Some of the key factors described in the article for boosting completion rates, regardless of delivery form, are:
  • Creating realistic expectations and a clear structure from the outset. The teacher's role in this is crucial.
  • Reducing factors that make students doubt and increasing factors that make students want to stay .
  • Building a sense of community is essential and, once established, students will support and encourage each other to continue even when the going gets tough.
  • Timely teacher interventions when students feel inadequate to the task in hand are worth their weight in gold.
It's not the form of the course that is crucial. It's not about campus versus distance or dividing education into convenient compartments. It's about creating a sense of belonging where students learn how to learn in a supportive environment and where no one ever needs to feel they're on their own. This environment can be created and facilitated with the help of educational technology but it can also be created in a more traditional classroom environment. The basic ingredients are the same and it's that we should be discussing more. Let's talk about learning and take the e- as default.

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

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Looking over the fence

Looking Over The Fence by born1945, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  born1945

I read so many articles and reports on issues around the integration of technology in education and nearly every one singles out professional development for teachers (or the lack of it) as the key issue. It's not enough to just hope that teachers keep up to date with the latest pedagogical theories and the latest trends in educational technology. This has been the general policy for many years and the result is a widening digital gap between teachers who are already using technology in innovative ways and those who simply haven't even investigated the qyestion at all. It's not enough either to offer the occasional training day in the hope of inspiring action. There needs to be a coherent strategy for professional development for all teachers to ensure that they are all able to take advantage of new methods and tools in a pedagogical way.

This is the theme of an excellent post by Tom WhitbyHow do educators get to know what they don’t know?. He remarks that professional development (PD) needs to be radically rethought, needs investment and needs support. It must be seen as simply an integral part of the job and time must be allotted for discovery, testing, collaboration and discussion. Teachers need time to look over the fence at what's going on outside the classroom.

"We need to change PD. It must be part of an educator’s work week, and that includes administrators. We need educators to connect with other educators to collaborate and maintain relevance. Educators need to explore their needs and address them with solutions of their choosing after exploring the options. Faculty meetings can address procedures in shared documents with educators, while using the time in meetings to discuss pedagogy, methodology, best practices and new ideas. Educators need to be supported in trying new endeavors. When we address PD as evolving and continuous, and not as a teacher workshop day, we will begin to bring relevance back to education. Schools that do this now will be the first to tell us this. Of course, we need to connect with them for that to happen. Connecting educators is a first step."

It is of course important that technology meets the needs of teachers. But needs are generally based on past practices and if a teacher is happy using tried and tested methods then there are no needs that technology can meet. However there are often new opportunities available to enhance teaching and learning that the individual teacher has not even dreamt of. If we simply based all development on meeting present needs we would never have invented television, cars, computers, mobiles etc etc. No-one actually needed those things. We were all perfectly happy with horses, radio, landline phones and so on.

We need to develop a learning environment at work where people are encouraged to look over the fence and see what is happening in the world outside. New technologies and methods should be met with curiosity instead of being dismissed offhand. "What if ..." instead of "Yes but ...". Words like curiosity, innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity are often used in schools' and universities' glossy strategy documents but the hard part is creating a climate for such qualities.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Getting a degree used to be a passport to a well-paid job but not any more. When well over half of all school leavers go to university a college degree is anything but exclusive. Furthermore students all over the world are putting themselves in serious debt to pay for this not so exclusive commodity. Employers are less and less impressed by degrees and increasingly interested in soft skills like creativity, teamwork, initiative and grit (as mentioned in my last post). Many students do not feel that traditional educational institutions foster these soft skills and prefer to drop out and go their own way.

One such student is Dale Stephens, featured in an article in the Dutch web magazine SURF (September 2012). He represents the concept of uncollege, a variant on the unschooling model, where you take charge of your own learning and development but in collaboration with peers both in your neighbourhood but mostly on the net. He has founded the site Uncollege which features advice on alternative educational paths, networking skills, reading lists and the chance to join the Uncollege Hackademic Camp in January 2013.

Stephens isn't against universities and schools and isn't planning a revolution. He simply wants to show that there are other roads to a fulfilling career than via your nearest university. Those who don't fit into the often narrow path of higher education need relevant new alternatives. Maybe universities can reinvent themselves to create learning environments more tuned to fostering creativity and entrepreneurship.

"Colleges should provide access to opportunities. My ideal college looks like a gym – it’s not something you drop out of, but rather a physical space you drop into. you go there when you want to learn something, you can take out a subscription to use a laboratory, you can meet your professor, who acts as a life coach and points you in the right direction. ideally, universities should provide directories of people with similar interests, they should focus on forming communities of students around topics. in short: they should serve the student as a user."

Here's a TEDx presentation by Stephens from last year.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Peer reviewed teaching

Peer Review by AJC1, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  AJC1

In a discussion at the EFQUEL Innovation Forum in Granada this week we talked about the difficulties of creating a sharing culture in education. Teachers are traditionally expected to be self-sufficient; creating their own courses, managing their classes and writing their own course material. The idea of sharing your material with other teachers is still viewed with suspicion and sometimes even hostility. Letting other teachers and students see your material or watch your lessons and then provide feedback is the exception rather than the rule.

Let’s contrast this private and closed practice with established academic research practice. Research is constantly subjected to peer review and must be thoroughly referenced and justified. Once published you can expect critical review and debate around your conclusions. Isn’t it strange that the rules for research are not applied in the equally academic discipline of teaching? Why are learning resources hidden away on teachers’ hard drives or in desk drawers rather than being made accessible and subject to peer review and open for reuse?

The arguments for opening up educational and making resources open and freely available should focus on enabling a peer review system for teaching and learning. If courses are more open then students will be able to interact with other experts and lessen the dependency on one teacher whose view will inevitably be limited. If material is open it is reviewed and rated by students and teachers. The best material will be recommended, enhanced and reused. Poor material will often get feedback for improvement or at worst be ignored. The same goes for recorded lectures. We create a dynamic quality assurance system built around open discussion. Other more academic quality criteria can of course also be applied to the process but the principle is that openness can lead to higher quality.

Opening up our teaching for review and criticism is not a revolutionary idea. It is simply applying the rigour of research review to the field of teaching which for too long has been allowed to hide from public view. If we want to improve the quality of education, classroom or online, then we must dare to share.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cut and paste

copy culture by Will Lion, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Will Lion

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that many cases of plagiarism have been discovered on free, open courses run by Coursera: Dozens of Plagiarism Incidents Are Reported in Coursera's Free Online Courses. This is no real surprise since the nature of massive open online courses is freedom and flexibility and of course the opportunities for cheating would seem to be enormous. The puzzling point here is that these courses do not lead to university credits so what's the point of cheating?

However some students are cheating and one professor has already made a plea to curb plagiarism and there is talk of using plagiarism-detection software in the future (as is standard at many universities already). The main point of the Chronicle article is that the these cases have been discovered by other students through peer assessment rather than being left to the teachers to detect. Students have raised suspicions of plagiarism and taken them to the professors but instead of dishing out punishments many teachers see this as a teachable moment:

In an interview this week with The Chronicle, Mr. Rabkin, who is also an English professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said he sees the plagiarism incidents as a "teachable moment." He said one student wrote him soon after he posted his letter and confessed to submitting a plagiarized essay, but the student said he had not realized that copying and pasting from other sources was wrong. The student asked that his essay be withdrawn and that he be disqualified from receiving a certificate, but Mr. Rabkin said he wrote to Coursera officials saying the student should be given a second chance.

Although there are cases of deliberate plagiarism I think most cases are due to a lack of awareness of what constitutes plagiarism and many cases could be avoided with some hands-on training. An excellent example of how to increase awareness of plagiarism is described in an article in Faculty Focus: An Assignment that Prevents Plagiarism. Here students were given a sample essay written by the teacher and fully referenced but which contained 10 examples of different types of plagiarism. The students' task was to spot the plagiarism and rewrite the essay correctly and finally adding their own referenced conclusion. By doing this excercise the students became more aware of what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. According to the study this type of work reduces plagiarism radically.

There are of course stern warnings against plagiarism in every syllabus and college regulations but the whole concept is still abstract and poorly defined in the minds of the students. Only by raising the issues in a practical manner as described above can students grasp what is allowed and develop a sensitivity for what is not acceptable. The fact that plagiarism has been discovered in a MOOC says nothing really about the nature of the course itself, simply that this is an issue that few students today have a clear grasp of.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Can you cheat in a MOOC?

Attribution Some rights reserved by cogdogblog
The explosion of net-based learning and in particular so-called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) with thousands of students participating online for free has of course inspired many writers to warn against the dangers of cheating and plagiarism. Of course there are few control mechanisms in massive online courses and the whole concept is based very much on trust and mutual respect. However since MOOCs are voluntary, informal and do not lead to regular university credits the issue of cheating on such a course would seem rather irrelevant. Who are you cheating on such a course? What is the point of cheating?

This is the topic of a good blog post by Debbie Morrison, Cheating in a MOOC - an oxymoron. The point is that since MOOCs are all about informal learning and not about the pursuit of grades there is no hard currency worth cheating for.

"You can’t cheat in a MOOC. Well let me clarify, you can cheat while completing an auto-scored quiz or exam, or on an essay that might be peer reviewed, but it’s pointless. In this instance cheating does not serve any purpose. The courses are free, you can’t earn college credit, and are not part of a credential [at this point]. Furthermore MOOCs depend upon the learner being self-motivated, to learn for the sake of learning."

Cheating in such an environment is a bit like cheating in a hobby like bird watching. You can claim to have seen all sorts of rare species but the only way to gain real credibility is to be able to prove it, by showing photos or being able to describe in detail the distinguishing features of the bird you have seen. In bird watching it is essential that other people in the same geographical area also see the bird. You need evidence and witnesses.

In the most collaborative MOOCs (ie those run by Siemens, Downes, Cormier and co) there is constant interaction and whatever you post will be read and reviewed by other participants. If you cheat you will probably be revealed sooner or later. It may well be harder to cheat in this type of learning arena since it builds on reflection and debate rather than on clear-cut answers.

However, as soon as hard currency credentials are at stake some people will always be tempted to take short cuts. MOOCs are popular because participation is driven by internal motivation. Do we automatically pollute them if we introduce external motivators into the mix?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What learning is all about

Here's a short inspiring video that I discovered from a Twitter contact. It ties in the post I wrote last week about internal and external motivation and illustrates the limitations of an education system based on regulation, standardisation and efficiency. I'm not sure about who's behind the film but the message is compelling. Only by stimulating internal motivation can formal education become truly relevant and, despite many good intentions, the effects of testing and result-based financing are nearly always negative when it comes to learning.

It's all about two conversations; one you have with yourself and one you have with your community.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

From resources to practices

The concept of open educational resources (OER) has been around for ten years or so and has gained a foothold in most countries' educational systems. However the abundance of free educational resources available today has not resulted in  mainstream acceptance by schools and universities who are tightly bound to closed, proprietary publishing traditions. Principles of open access (free access to research articles) and the sharing and reworking of teachers' content threaten established and profitable business models as well as challenging the fundamental traditions of the academic world. So it's no surprise that the OER movement meets with resistance and skepticism.

It's not enough to simply amass vast silos of resources; we need strategies and policies for how they can be accessed, assessed and used. After years of grassroots enthusiasm and creativity it's time to address the decision makers and find a top-down approach to match the bottom-up creativity. We are now moving from open educational resources to open educational practices (OEP) and that's the focus of an important new publication Mainstreaming Open Educational Practice - Recommendations for Policy by my colleagues from EFQUEL, Anthony Camilleri and Ulf Daniel Ehlers as part of the OPAL Initiative.

This short publication (only 10 pages so you've no excuse for not having a quick look) identifies a number of challenges facing the mainstream implementation of OER/OEP and makes recommendations as to how these challenges might be resolved. The main challenges are in the following fields:

  • Enabling legislation to facilitate OEP - changes needed in copyright legislation to facilitate sharing of educational resources as well as incentives to teachers/authors to make their work freely available (with some rights reserved)
  • Empowering learners to take up OEP - making it easier to find and access resources and establishing ways of recognizing informal learning.
  • Strengthening the evidence base of OEP - studying the effects of OER/OEP to find scientific evidence that the concepts are sustainable.
  • Culturing innovation through networks - creating a European lead-organisation for "openness" and encouraging collaboration between all educational levels.
  • Improving trust in OEP - Moving from pilots to operational activities, demonstrating that community peer review and open citation can challenge the established closed systems for academic performance.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A market for MOOCs?

Attribution Some rights reserved by cogdogblog
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) just keep on coming and it's getting hard to keep up with developments. Hot on the heels of the MITx initiative comes Stanford University's  Coursera solution. Coursera is at present a basic presentation of a range of free online courses that the university is offering this term and is not dissimilar to the Udacity venture started by ex-Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and colleagues. So if you're looking for free university level courses there has never been a better time but how on earth are potential students expected to find these courses?

Enter Class Central, a potential gateway to the MOOCs. This site presents an overview of currently available courses from MITx, Coursera and Udacity and simply points you in the right direction. MITx hasn't really got started yet so the course list is still limited but the potential is clear. As the volume of open online courses grows someone has to try and tie it all together. What's missing with Class Central are all the courses available outside the MIT/Stanford sphere but it would help the movement if a reliable gateway site could be developed so that students would have a one-stop shop for open learning. I suspect someone is already working on this.

Monday, January 30, 2012

2012 - the year of the MOOC?

Is 2012 the year of the MOOC? It certainly seems so since I'm discovering new providers of free open learning every week. The latest to turn up on the radar is a new development from Udemy offering university teachers a chance to offer courses for free. Udemy has been around for a year or two now and their main aim is to provide people with a platform for creating and marketing courses in just about anything. Create your course, place an ad for it in Udemy and see if it takes off. Courses may be free but most have small course fees attached.

The new venture for Udemy is called the Faculty Project. Here university teachers can make their own courses open to all, including video lectures, presentation material and texts. Students enroll for free and progress at their own rate through the material using a discussion forum for collaboration with other students and even with the teacher according to the information. The initial list of courses available covers a wide range of subject areas from Operations management to Ancient Greek Religion and this is planned to expand as rapidly as they can recruit new teachers. They promise to keep the courses freely available indefinitely.

Here's yet another example of people getting together to offer free education to a global audience. The course material itself can teach you a certain amount but by adding the input of a mentor/teacher and gathering students together into study groups using discussion forums or even better through all the other collaborative learning tools available today (eg VoiceThread, Skype, Google Docs, OpenStudy etc). Different students will learn different things; some will take the whole course, others will take selected parts. You learn what you need to learn.

There may not be any university credits on offer for all these open courses but tangible rewards may still be available. The open badges initiative that I have written about several times is gaining momentum and a new article in none other than the business establishment magazine Forbes highlights the potential of alternative credentials: Why Get a Pricey Diploma When Badges Tell Employers More? They see the potential of badges to harness the energy of informal learning but point rightly to concerns about validity and quality assurance. If these concerns are addressed a real power shift in education will take place:

"... once we find empirical ways to verify competency via accredited and ranked badge providers, not only might traditional education brands and their pals in the standardized test industry lose their monopoly on credentialing, but badges themselves might gain the widespread legitimacy they currently lack. If that happens, we will be a step closer to destroying the time-consuming, budget-busting, bubble-inducing myth that everyone must have a four-year college degree to succeed in America."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Research on MOOCs and PLE

As interest increases in massive open online courses and personal learning environments I often get asked if there is any research into this field. Of course these concepts are still in their infancy but I was pleased to stumble across a blog post by researcher Rita Kop (National Research Council of Canada) called Research publications on Massive Open Online Courses and Personal Learning Environments. Since Rita is probably the most active researcher in this field the list has a lot of her papers but it's a good place to start as more researchers begin focusing on how these massive online courses function as well as how learners are building personal learning environments instead of relying on the standard learning management systems of most universities and colleges.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Next Generation University

New alternative paths towards higher education are opening up every month. The growth of open educational resources mean that the content for a course is freely available and does not need to be developed by the university or school. Collaborative learning means that students learn in groups and through their own personal learning networks. The missing ingredients in the mix are the teacher's role of facilitator/guide/mentor and role of examiner. Those elements do not necessarily have to be provided by the same institution and thus courses can be offered free of charge and based around a flexible and personalized infrastructure. Students of the future will be able to follow personalized learning paths following courses provided by a variety of providers, sometimes completely net-based, sometimes work-based and sometimes more traditional campus-based courses. In the end the student's e-portfolio can be presented to a university or accreditation institute for assessment and a degree can be awarded.

Study by Kevin McShane, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  Kevin McShane

This model has been adopted by another player in the open education field called Next Generation University. NGU has dubbed itself "the world's first free university" though this seems a debatable issue since University of the People and Peer 2 Peer University have been active for the past two years. Information on the site is still rather sparse but the list of collaborators and funders is certainly impressive. They plan to start by offering a limited range of courses, mostly in health sciences.

"NextGenU's learning model builds on educational best practices, including using high-quality online learning materials (e.g., text, videos, images), interactive peer activities (e.g online chat rooms, and creating and assessing peer-generated case studies, images, and multiple choice questions), and hands-on mentored experiences (e.g., seeing and discussing patients). This model mirrors and expands on the traditional university experience through interacting with peers and experts in the field of study, while learning basic knowledge on one's own via online learning materials. It does not have active faculty involvement (that's part of how we can offer the trainings for free), though course creators, advisory committee members, and other experts will participate some in chat rooms."

Students work their way through the open course material and discuss and interact online. Every student is urged to recruit a mentor qualified in the subject being studied either in the student's geographic vicinity or online. These mentors receive mentoring guidelines from NGU and are then expected to offer guidance and be part of the assessment process. This process is a mix of self-assessment, peer assessment, mentor assessment and tests. At the end of a course the student should be able to offer a portfolio of work to a nearby university for assessment and hopefully credentials. In this way NGU does not need to provide any credentials but must make sure the students' work can be validated by a "regular" university.

I've already written several times about the OER university initiative which certainly seems more robust and sustainable than this one but whether or not NGU manages to take off it is clear that we're only at the start of an innovation wave in higher education and further initiatives in this direction are in the pipeline.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

MIT up the stakes in open education

Open online courses at university level are gaining momentum. There are the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) run by George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier and colleagues, a wide range of open courses facilitated by Peer 2 Peer University and now Stanford University's headline grabbing Artificial Intelligence course with over 50,000 students. They all offer exciting new arenas for collaborative learning and offer people a chance to participate in a stimulating and challenging learning environment. However none of them offer full university credentials - yet.

The free students on the Stanford course took the full course but were not eligible for university credits. Instead they received a certificate from the teachers but without the Stanford stamp of approval. P2PU are experimenting with badges as a means of acknowledging student achievement and this may well lead to new ways of giving credibility to informal learning. Several universities are experimenting with MOOCs but noone is putting their name on any grades.

MIT and Boston by opencontent, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  MIT campus by  opencontent 

Enter MIT. As pioneers of open educational resources MIT have been openly publishing their course material for several years now via the OpenCourseWare initiative and anyone can access it and work their way through the courses. However there has so far been no support from the university nor have there been any credentials on offer. This week came the announcement of the formation of a new online learning initiative called MITx (see article MIT launches online learning initiative). A range of courses are to be offered free via a new online interactive learning platform; the course material, virtual labs, assignments and study guides will all be available online and students study together as in many MOOCs. At the end those who pass will get an MITx certificate. It's not quite the real McCoy but the MIT name is there. They insist that assessment will be as rigorous as on the full campus version and the MITx certificates will not become short cuts to credentials. The full university experience is still number one for MIT but for many people MITx will be the next best thing. Plus you don't have to move to Boston to study.

It's part of a clear strategy to extend the global reach of MIT. According to MIT President Susan Hockfield:

“MIT has long believed that anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage MIT coursework should have the opportunity to attain the best MIT-based educational experience that Internet technology enables. OpenCourseWare’s great success signals high demand for MIT’s course content and propels us to advance beyond making content available. MIT now aspires to develop new approaches to online teaching.”

The learning software will be open and other educational institutions are free to develop their own versions. One aim of MITx may well be to use it as an experimentation area for new learning technologies and methods with students and other institutions contributing to development. One question that springs to mind is whether the MITx certificates will become more sought after than those from smaller universities. Is there a risk that the MITx label could in some places have more credibility than local certificates?

A two tier structure is emerging in higher education. The mainstream system with both campus and online courses and a parallell open system free to all but without the same level of tuition and support. The latter form is the university's contribution to global lifelong learning. This is the rationale behind another exciting initiative, the OER University, that is being launched by a partnership of 14 universities. The demand for higher education is growing so fast today that we simply can't build or staff enough universities to keep up. Offering these free open courses does not involve great costs to the university, does not compete with the core business but helps meet the global demand for higher education. Then of course there's a good helping of positive marketing for the university included in the deal.

Read more in an article in Inside Higher Ed, Advancing the open front.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Adding the spark

I stumbled upon an old article in The Guardian earlier this week, Why do 60% of students find their lectures boring?. It is based on a 2009 study of student attitudes to teaching by Dr Sandi Mann and Andrew Robinson of the University of Central Lancashire. I've written several times about the limitations of lectures and the need to spend classroom time on more interactive activities and let students access lectures on their computers or mobiles. This article breaks no new ground by criticising dull lectures but the interesting part was that students find even lab sessions uninspiring. According to the study the practical work sessions were even worse than the lectures.

"We might expect more hands-on practical sessions to be more engaging but, surprisingly, lab work and computer sessions achieved the highest boredom ratings in our study. One of the problems with lab studies is that the experiments the students conduct are often just controlled exercises where the results are already known"

The main reason for this is the fact that although the students were practising necessary skills the sessions were merely exercises following strict guidelines (ie. do it like this) and without any element of discovery and creativity. Doing is simply not enough, we need to be more engaged in the process and feel that we are discovering new skills for ourselves or in collaboration with our peers. Prescriptive workshops are similar to lectures in that they are clearly teacher-centred. The shift towards learner-centred activity is not an easy one for teachers raised on the traditional paradigm and it is all too easy to revert to old habits.

So what kinds of activities then will inspire students and pupils? How do we create engagement and enthusiasm? A superb example can be seen in an article and film on Mind/Shift, Technology Adds Spark to Science Education. The film, produced by KQED Education in conjunction with Northwestern University’s iLab, shows pupils using various laptops and tablets to perform virtual science experiments, create their own simulations and studies and interact with complex experimental equipment in labs on the other side of the world. The enthusiasm and creativity is clear and the fact that they can perfom experiments that could never be performed in the classroom (dangerous radioactivity experiments demanding extremely expensive equipment for example) adds to the interest. Instead of controlled and predictable training exercises they are interacting with the real world and with the teacher's help reflecting on their experience and learning together.

I just wish they would stop using terms like cyber-learning as if it was something just landed from outer space. It's about learning - with the tools and media available today.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Off course

My first Arabic story!
During the spring I started learning Arabic at an evening class in town. I did most of the learning at home and on train trips but the weekly lesson time was a good reminder to keep working and gave me a framework for my learning. We all need a bit of structure in our lives and activities without deadlines tend to get pushed down the to-do list. I continued on my own over the summer but at a much slower pace and very irregularly. I'd like to continue the course but it was cancelled because there were too few participants. I write so often here about self-directed learning that I should be able to continue without the help of a course but I realise that I need those deadlines and a bit of pressure.

How many people sign up for courses at all levels only to be told that there aren't enough participants to start the course? People with ideas, plans and lots of interest. How many give up their dreams there and then? How many come back next term? Here's the limitation of building learning around the classroom paradigm; if the course doesn't run, no learning. It's a supply and demand market but should learning be dependent on such forces? If the course doesn't run just find a group on the net with a similar interest and learn together. Those are the skills that will be needed in future and need to be taught all through school. The art of helping yourself, networking and learning together.

I'm sure there are opportunities on the net to continue my studies. I've got lots of self-study material as well as podcasts and so on but I realise that I need the motivation provided by regular meetings/checkpoints (face-to-face or online) to push me onwards. Any suggestions?