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 24, 2012

MOOCs get more massive

Remember the course in artificial intelligence that Stanford University offered as a MOOC (Massive open online course) last year? It attracted about 150,000 students from all over the world though the actual number who really participated varies from article to article. Now, according to an article in Wired CampusTenured Professor Departs Stanford U., Hoping to Teach 500,000 Students at Online Start-Up, the teacher from the AI course is heading a start-up aiming at spreading open education even further. Sebastian Thrun, professor of computer science at Stanford, has announced that he is leaving the university after discovering the potential of mass online learning.

Udacity is the name of the latest in a fairly long line of open education providers aiming to provide online lifelong learning to a global audience. This spring they're offering two courses: Building a search engine and Programming a robotic car. According to the article, Professor Thrun hopes to attract hundreds of thousands of participants and provide free education on a global scale. They've already assembled a team of teachers and technical experts and are recruiting more.

"We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we've connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students in almost every country on Earth. Know Labs was founded by three roboticists who believed much of the educational value of their university classes could be offered online for very low cost. A few weeks later, over 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled in our first class, "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence." The class was twice profiled by the New York Times and also by other news media. Now we're a growing team of educators and engineers, on a mission to change the future of education."

Last week I noted the appearance of Next Generation University and now along comes Udacity. The MOOC concept is developing rapidly and more variations of the theme will follow.

Here's the preview video for the search engine course:

Friday, January 20, 2012

Apple take aim at textbook market

The last couple of days have been dominated by Apple's announcement of its new iBooks2 app and the iBook Author tool. The reviews came thick and fast from news sites and bloggers and 24 hours later it's not easy to find a new angle to write about. The main points of all the hype are:
  • Apple will distribute interactive multimedia "textbooks" for schools and colleges via iBooks for $14.99 or less.
  • The textbooks are optimized for iPads.
  • iBooks Author will be available free for teachers, writers and students to write their own interactive textbooks and publish them.
As you can see in the video below it certainly looks impressive and throws down the gauntlet to the academic publishing industry that has so far been rather reluctant to leave its printed comfort zone (at least here in the Nordic region). The ability to take notes, highlight and compile revision material and flash cards is extremely attractive and the ability to access all your course material on a device lighter than many standard textbooks is extremely attractive to students. As so many schools invest in one laptop/iPad/tablet per pupil the race is on to fill these devices with compelling and immersive learning resources. Apple of course wants to dominate this sector and by rolling out iBooks2 they hope to persuade more local authorities, schools and colleges to join the Apple family.

It's probably the authoring tool that has attracted most attention and controversy. The fact that teachers and students will be able to publish their own multimedia e-textbooks is extremely empowering and can very well leed to a major shift in the production and use of course literature. Schools can save a lot of well-needed cash by not needing to buy class sets of textbooks every year and the teachers can publish their own material. One article that was particularly positive to the opportunities of iBooks Author was 5 Ways iBooks Author Changes the Education Landscape.

However the big catch is that once created the content is tied in to Apple and cannot be distributed outside their walled garden. I simply can't share my book to anyone who cannot use iBooks and my content cannot be given a Creative Commons license. This is a point that many bloggers find unacceptable, for instance Marshall Kirkpatrick on ReadWriteWeb:

"It's hard to wrap my brain around the cold cynicism of Apple's releasing a new tool to democratize the publishing of eBooks today, only to include in the tool's terms and conditions a prohibition against selling those books anywhere but through Apple's own bookstore. There's just something so achingly awful about it."

Audrey Watters, as ever highly insightful, takes the discussion one step further in her blog post Apple and the Digital Textbook Counter-Revolution. She sees the whole concept of textbooks as increasingly irrelevant as we are able to access a vast range of material directly on the net. Why do we need prepackaged textbooks at all when we should be encouraging students to fins sources for themselves and use the vast amount of resources that are freely available?

"Once you've recognized that textbooks are just an assemblage of resources and that, in a digital world, there's no reason to bind it together and publish these en masse, then I think you can see a path to liberation from that industry model. You can disassemble, reassemble, unbundle, disrupt, destroy the textbook. It is truly an irrelevant format."

Once again Apple have succeeded in putting a cat among the pigeons and whatever you think about proprietary solutions and walled gardens there is no doubt that this model will inspire competitors to respond. Whatever solution wins the future of education is digital.

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.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Teaching to learn

Learning is all about motivation. If you really want to learn something you will. If you don't want to learn you find excuses. This I think is particularly applicable to the use of the net in education. Today's web-based tools, communities and communication channels do not demand very much, if any, technical knowledge and if you really want to learn it's not so hard. However many teachers are reluctant to take the plunge and examine the opportunities for learning that open up once you attain a reasonable level of digital competence.

 CC BY Some rights reserved by cogdogblog
Two articles on this subject have caught my eye in the last few days. First one by Jim Salsich called Do Teachers Need to Relearn How to Learn? He sees a mismatch between our expectations that students are able to learn independently and teachers'ability to learn new tools for teaching. If we are not curious and interested in learning new ways to teach then how can we expect our students to show a curiosity for learning?

If we expect our students to use “critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making” (ISTE student nets 4) and “apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes” (ISTE student nets 1.a), shouldn’t we be able to do the same as teachers? If we can’t apply these skills in our own learning, how can we teach our students to use them?

So many teachers wait for training sessions to learn new net tools and applications but maybe the most important training is to learn how to be a self-directed learner, just as the students should be. If teachers are not interested in learning, experimenting and changing, how can they expect students to do so?

"Learners are no longer dependent on learning directly from an expert, the information is literally at their fingertips, they just need to know how to access it. And most important, learners of all ages need to be the drivers of their learning. Just like our students, teachers need to seek answers through active exploration. Again, if we are not independent learners, how can we expect our students to be?"

Steve Wheeler's excellent blog, Learning with 'e's, has a new post, We learn by teaching, where he elaborates on the idea that teaching is learning and that teachers may well learn as much as their students on a course.

The real magic occurs when we are all learning together, and I would like to argue that this should be the case in any learning environment. In his 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire wrote 'Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.'

Of course we all have stressed schedules and it's hard to devote time to experimenting and exploring new web tools, but when there's a will there's a way. As Salisch writes in his post many of us have simply started exploring new possibilities on the net, not because of any training initiative at work or because the boss has told us but because we are simply curious and interested in testing new ideas. That is the driving force behind learning - for students and teachers alike.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Smart windows (not the Microsoft variety)

Take a window in your house or office and embed a touch screen. You can either look out at the world outside or transform the window into an interactive computer screen. That's the vision presented in this short video showing Samsung's Smart Window. People on the other side of the window can't see what you're doing on the screen so there's no security problem.

The big question is can you run Windows on your window?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Facebook pulls the plug on historical members

A few days ago I reported on a fascinating experiment where students from the University of Nevada class of 1915 became Facebook users (see earlier post Facebook as a time machine). The experiment came to an abrupt halt a couple of days ago when the curator of the students' accounts, Donnelyn Curtis, was met with a message from Facebook that their accounts had been suspended. She very kindly wrote a comment to that effect on this blog which was much appreciated. The reason, not surprisingly, was that only real living people can have Facebook accounts and they must use their real identity.

This new twist is covered in more detail by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Facebook Deletes University’s History Project for Violating Social Network’s Rules. The next stage is to recreate the 1915 students as a Facebook page rather than as a profile in the same ways as groups, organisations, fan sites and companies do. The sad part of the story is that all the correspondence and comments that was linked to the original profiles are now lost since Facebook gave no warning of the suspension. The new form may not feel as real as the first incarnation but hopefully the experiment will find new openings and spawn other innovative uses for social networking.

"Although the suspension presents a temporary setback for the project, Ms. Curtis said she’s encouraged by the amount of attention the couple received. “From what I saw, there are a lot of people interested in learning history from simulated real people,” she said."

 I wonder if Google+ would be interested?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Play it again Sam

Back in about 1994 I was at a conference where they demonstrated a piano that could be played over the net. The piano was in the room with us and was then "played" by a pianist in another town using the net connection. The idea was to demonstrate the possibilities of remote music teaching and we were all suitably impressed. However I never heard any more of remote piano playing. Music was often cited as one of the subject areas (like science and languages) that just wouldn't work as distance learning but is now flourishing. My university has for several years now offered highly popular online courses in piano and guitar using video lessons and with students sending in own recorded sessions for comment.

piano by tamaki, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  tamaki 

Today I read an article in the New York Times, With Enough Bandwidth, Many Join the Band, about the popularity of music lessons via Skype. The photo in the article shows a guy practising the bagpipes in front of a laptop, connected to his teacher (watch a video of a virtual bagpipe lesson).

"Students who used to limit the pool of potential teachers to those within a 20-mile radius from their homes now take lessons from teachers — some with world-class credentials — on other coasts or continents. The list of benefits is long: Players of niche instruments now have more access to teachers. Parents can simply send their child down the hall for lessons rather than driving them. And teachers now have a new way to build their business."

The same applies to all sorts of private tutoring. It seems that Skype and other e-meeting tools are more exploited within informal learning than in the formal system. Whilst many schools and colleges are only just starting with such online tutoring it's flourishing privately. I admit that music lessons on Skype are not as good as face-to-face; the sound quality and synchronisation are never perfect. But compared to no lessons at all they offer enormous opportunities to students and teachers alike.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Facebook as a time machine

I've just read about an intriguing project from the University of Nevada. According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (On Facebook, Librarian Brings 2 Students From the Early 1900s to Life), staff at the university have created Facebook profiles for two former students from 1915. These students died many years ago but their student lives have been recreated on Facebook as a way of giving present day students a glimpse into the university's heritage and student life almost 100 years ago. Facebook user Joe McDonald and his future wife Leola Lewis now "post" updates on their student life based on archive material and have already won a large following.

Relatives were of course consulted before this project got off the ground and Donnelyn Curtis, director of research collections and services at the University of Nevada at Reno, tries to keep their digital lives consistent with reality, as a glimpse at their profiles will show.

“It’s been hard to walk the line between being historically accurate and making it interesting for college students,” she said. To help keep the pair’s virtual personalities consistent, Ms. Curtis composes all of their updates. Mr. McDonald’s favorite activities are boxing and “hanging out with friends,” while Ms. Lewis’ include ranching and shopping.

According to the article they plan to introduce other characters quite soon to create more period interaction. A new Facebook trend in the making perhaps? This is of course not quite in line with what Facebook would like to see. Since the whole point of Facebook is to provide advertisers with information about our habits and preferences the presence of ficticious characters undermines their business concept. How many other examples like this are out there? Can Facebook do anything about it and should they even try? New opportunities open up all the time.