Saturday, July 27, 2013

Drowning in freedom

Today there is a vast range of free open courses and communities where you can learn just about anything; if you know how to take advantage of them. Although MOOCs and open learning offer new paths to learning for people who otherwise have no access to higher education there is still a high threshold for participation. You need a high level of digital literacy to find the courses, sign up and especially to participate. You need to be a proficient self-learner with high motivation and confidence in your ability to succeed. You need to be open to new methods and have a wide range of learning strategies. It's not surprising then that most MOOC participants already have a degree and are at home on the net. Even if we feel overwhelmed by the MOOC hype, out there in the "real" world few people have ever heard the term.

An excellent article by Keith Brennan in Hybrid Pedagogy examines how connectivism and MOOCs fail to support inexperienced learners and those with low self-esteem in education: In Connectivism, No One Can Hear You Scream: a Guide to Understanding the MOOC Novice. He identifies key factors for student success: self efficacy, cognitive load and prior knowledge. Self efficacy is the belief that you will succeed and this is essential in courses like MOOCs which lack the scaffolding and encouragement of more traditional courses. This belief is also essential for dealing successfully with the cognitive load, the volume of new information and assumed skills, the you are faced with in many online courses. Many MOOCs and connectivist courses assume a high level of prior knowledge, in particular when it comes to using social media and digital tools. If you lack these skills you will find such courses bewildering and there is a high probability that you will give up.

Inexperienced learners need lots of encouragement, feedback, guidance and quick support responses and these are generally missing in MOOCs (both c and x varieties). Of course there is plenty of peer support but I can imagine that even contributing to discussion forums  can be daunting for inexperienced learners. Seeing peers succeed can be a motivating factor if you already have a positive attitude to your own ability but if not the sight of others succeeding where you feel confused can have a demotivating effect. Brennan gives a list of demotivating factors:
  • Watching others succeed while you don't
  • Too much information delivered in a chaotic environment (Twitter hashtags, blog feeds, RSS, discussion forums etc)
  • Decentralisation of the learning process (too much choice, "drowning in freedom")
  • Complex tasks with little or no guidance
All this can be stimulating for some but not everyone is comfortable with this level of freedom.

"Not everyone knows how to be a node. Not everyone is comfortable with the type of chaos Connectivism asserts. Not everyone is a part of the network. Not everyone is a self-directed learner with advanced metacognition. Not everyone is already sufficiently an expert to thrive in a free-form environment. Not everyone thinks well enough of their ability to thrive in an environment where you need to think well of your ability to thrive."

Courses need to have clear pre-course information of what skills you need to participate fully (maybe linking to pre-course training or courses that will teach you these skills) and a clear description of the kind of teaching and learning that the course will employ. The new learners that so many MOOCs claim to be aiming at need help to get on board and more help to keep them there. Self-service is great if you know what you want but confusing if you're used to being served.

"MOOCs are littered with the drowned, who want to participate, but see their sense of possibility get sucked under by an experience designed to, in part, ensure they sink."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The MOOC debate reaches calmer waters

ripples by lanier67, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by lanier67

“I don’t see the MOOC that I teach as a threat to traditional universities or to the discipline, rather just the opposite. It’s the sort of thing a public university should be doing: broadcasting its knowledge.”

This quote from Dr. Matt McGarrity of the University of Washington in an article on e-Learning Industry, University of Washington instructor dives into MOOC spotlight, sums up what I believe is the essence of the MOOC movement. Most universities are funded by public money, at least to some extent, and all have policies for outreach activities and involvement with the society they serve. Allowing the world access to the course material they use is part of this outreach and a way of showing the taxpayers what they're paying for. As I've written many times I don't think that MOOCs are so much a threat to education as an extremely welcome complement, offering new groups of students access to new paths for learning. These courses can have varying degrees of pedagogical innovation, some will work and others will flop, but they will make higher education more accessible than ever before, whether or not any credits are available from them.

Another quote in this interview with McGarrity that I liked was this one about the MOOC dropout rate:

"To some degree, so much of the talk about dropout rate misinterprets the initial enrollment figure, right? The threshold one must cross to sign up for the course is a button click. So they’re talking about the button click, which may not be a genuine enrollment. It’s like Facebook accounts—maybe there are so many million, but a lot of them are empty. So, the question is of those enrollments, is active students from Week 1 to Week 10. That’s probably a better way to look at it."

We should be looking at how many students completed the course and focus on that rather than those who "dropped out". Many of the dropouts probably never even dropped in: they simple clicked on the enroll button and forgot about it. If 1,000 people complete the course that's pretty impressive and what happened to the other 4,000 is probably not so relevant. It certainly can't be compared with dropping out of a campus course that has cost you a lot of money and is a major life commitment - something has to be seriously wrong to drop out of a 4-year degree program.

It's good to read more and more realistic and thoughtful views on the whole MOOC movement. Maybe we're moving out of the initial hype phase.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

MOOCs for credit - few takers so far

Any which way but loose... by Ian Wilson, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by Ian Wilson

When MOOCs first appeared there were many who criticized them for not offering university credits to successful students. The main providers like Coursera, Udacity, EdX etc only provided certificates of completion that were not educational hard currency and so the search began to find ways of offering MOOCs for credits. One of the earliest initiatives on this front was Colorado State University who offered successful MOOC students from Udacity the opportunity to complement their studies by paying to sit a supervised examination with the reward of university credits. The fees for this were a fraction of the price of taking the equivalent cost on campus and many thought that this would open up a new business model for higher education with major universities producing course content and structure and other universities offering validation and examination opportunities.

The Chronicle of Higher Education writes this week that the scheme at Colorado State has been a total flop so far with no students applying for MOOC validation in the past year: see article A University's Offer of Credit for a MOOC Gets No Takers. Although this sounds like a serious failure I think we should reserve judgement until we get statistics from other similar schemes and when the MOOCs for credit model is more mature. The question at the moment is whether current MOOC participants are even interested in credits; the Udacity students who had the option of going to Colorado State for examination were clearly not interested. A lot of stats I've seen indicate that most are already graduates and are studying out of interest and that MOOCs are mostly a part of lifeline learning rather than seriously competing against traditional higher education. Those of us involved in e-learning and education in general may feel that MOOCs have been hyped to death but out in "the real world" I'm not sure that so many people even know that MOOCs exist. The concept has not reached the people MOOCs are attempting to reach; namely those who have no access to higher education.

So what about MOOCs for credit? If we award credits we need learning outcomes, curriculum, assessment, examination, identity control, administrative requirements etc and once all that's in place isn't this really a regular online university course? I believe that there will be a massive growth in informal learning, encompassing MOOCs and many other forms, and that the demand for validation will increase accordingly but at the moment the demand for crossover (from MOOCs to formal credentials) is simply not there. Evolution takes time and the MOOC wave will develop into new structures and new opportunities but right now we need patience to let organisations try out different solutions.

This is a sentiment that is developed in an article from Inside Higher EdBeyond MOOC Hype, where leaders in higher education call on everyone to take a step back from the hype and examine the MOOC phenomenon more critically. It's too soon to make categorical judgements one way or the other but it is time for all parties to seriously examine the opportunities available.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Self-service learning

Stolovaya-57 - Soviet Style Self Service by Kwong Yee Cheng, on Flickr
CC BY-NC-SA Some rights reserved by Kwong Yee Cheng
Take courses from the world's best universities featuring their top professors completely free! That's what we've been hearing about MOOCs for the past two years or so and many articles I've read have swallowed this message almost without question, making claims that MOOCs will sweep away expensive higher education and revolutionize universities. Let's calm down a little now and ask why they are free and what the differences are between MOOCs and the regular university courses (campus or online) that cost money and are based on students meeting entry requirements.

Comparing MOOCs to regular courses is a bit like self-service compared to table service. All the ingredients are in there and you make your own way through the material on your own or in the company of friends. If you have questions there's generally no responsible member of staff available to answer but often someone else in the queue can help since they've eaten here before. The food is generally good but it's up to you how you compose your meal and there's not much guidance available. Some people don't take a full 3-course meal and some only drop in for a coffee but everyone is welcome to drop in when they can. It's much cheaper than a restaurant with table service and highly trained staff and is perfectly adequate in many circumstances. But sometimes we want that special treatment, advice, quality, atmosphere, comfort and exclusivity and we're willing to pay for it. It's not a question of one or the other but they both fill important roles.

There's an excellent article on this theme by Jason Boyers in the Huffington Post, Why MOOCs Miss the Point With Online Learning. He describes how regular online university courses differ from  MOOCs by offering qualified support, clear learning objectives, interaction, engagement and of course examination. It's wrong to say that MOOCs are offering top university education for free - you get some good content and a structure but without the elements that add valuable quality.

"The premise is that you are paying for the same thing you might otherwise get for free, but you are not. There are few things that are equal between a MOOC and high quality online education. You are paying for an engaged faculty member, who is working with you toward course completion. You are paying for meaningful feedback on assessments and documented growth in a higher level of understanding about a topic. You are paying to learn alongside students who all exhibit relatively the same investment in the learning experience as you, and who will likely be there tomorrow to respond to your discussion post. You are paying for an administration that is committed to your course completion because they are accountable for your success. You are paying for content that is part of a larger whole; this course is but one along a journey toward a degree or certificate."

The main point here is that it has taken 10-15 years to develop quality online learning. MOOCs, at least in their high profile form, offer exciting opportunities to make elements of higher education accessible to all but they are not replacing quality online learning any time soon.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Open or closed?

There's a fascinating interview with Harvard professor Clayton Christensen in the Economist that I would like to quote as food for thought, Clayton Christensen: Still disruptive. Christensen is the man behind the concept of disruptive innovation from his 1997 book The Innovator's Dilemma and has some radical views about the role of universities in the post-MOOC world. It is not the technology that is disruptive it's what they enable people to do with it. MOOCs are opening up educational opportunities for millions of people who would otherwise be excluded from higher education. Technology is making mass education possible and affordable and will inevitably affect enrollments at traditional universities. Christensen claims that we are likely to see universities going bankrupt in the near future as competition increases.

However the part of the interview that interests me most concerns research, the main focus of the academic world. In a world already drowning in content we keep producing more and for increasingly small audiences. Christensen questions universities' investment in research which seldom has much impact outside the confines of a narrow research community.

"We are awash in content that needs to be taught, yet the vast majority of colleges give a large portion of their faculties’ salaries to fund research.
The problem is the research that most of them generate isn't useful to anyone except other academics. In business there are five ‘A’ journals in which you have to publish to get promoted to tenure. In one of those five the average article is read by 12 people. If only one in every five research universities stopped doing research, society wouldn't be impaired in the least."

Harsh words there and many will object. But for me the main point here is the dangers of the closed academic system producing ideas and results that remain behind the walls of copyrighted academic journals. In such silos research becomes an exclusive commodity for a restricted audience. However he also offers the promise of increasing openness in education, enabling wider participation and stimulating more meaningful research.

"Almost always great new ideas don't emerge from within a single person or function, but at the intersection of functions or people that have never met before. And most universities are organised so you don't have those intersections. They are siloed. Universities think people come up with great ideas by closing the door. The academic tenure process, where you have to publish to journals which are very narrow, stands in the way of great research."

Read the article: Clayton Christensen: Still disruptive.