Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Just over the next hill ... is a new hill

We live in an age of reorganisation, makeovers, re-engineering and reinvention. Just over the next hill, after this reorganisation, when we've implemented the new quality assurance system ... we will find the promised land where everything works and everyone knows exactly their role. From a personal to a societal level we are constantly chasing our own tails in the hope that we can finally make it to Nirvana. There's a constant stream of books, courses, models and systems that can help us change and a thriving industry in inspirational lectures and conferences. We all naturally want to succeed but maybe we need to realise that we will never reach that ultimate perfection. Basically life is work in progress and we never really get beyond a beta version (though it may be an exceptionally good version), at least this time round.

This is nicely illustrated in a post by David Truss, Perpetual beta, on the subject of teaching where examples of best practice are held up as ideals. He finds this concept rather misleading because it suggests that there is an answer rather than best practice being the best available right now for a particular group in a particular situation. Your best practice may not work for me and vice versa. Again it's work in progress and practice is constantly being refined and tweaked. Truss sums this up as best practice is still just practice.

" ... we shouldn’t necessarily be talking about best practice. More practice can always help us improve on the best way(s) that we currently know of. So, in effect, the current ‘best’ usually isn’t the future best practice. This leads us to being in perpetual beta, experimenting and doing things differently."

Of course we learn from others and we can gain inspiration from good examples but maybe the adjective best is the illusion. Best can always be better.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

You've seen the film, now do the MOOC!

CC BY-NC Some rights reserved by Sara Roegiers
Could MOOCs develop into an interesting media spin-off? Today it's not enough to write a book or make a film, you need to add the interactive game, the soundtrack album, tee-shirts, toys and all other merchandising. So why not add on a MOOC to the package allowing you to investigate the subject matter in more detail? The MOOC could offer a pathway for people to move from enjoying a good film/book to really investigating the issues behind it. Combine the game with the MOOC and a whole new educational genre awaits us.

This seems to be a bit of the thinking behind a new MOOC featured in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sabato’s Kennedy MOOC Has a Companion Book and a TV Special. A new Coursera course offered by the University of Virginia, The Kennedy half century, looks like attracting considerable global interest. Professor Larry J. Sabato who will teach the course about the political career of President John F Kennedy is tying the new MOOC to his recently published book on the subject, The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy, as well as a new TV documentary. There is of course a hint of self promotion here but by tying the different media channels together you get a compelling package. Have a look at the course trailer film below.

However it isn't this particular example that interests me. The idea is that an open online course could become a common add-on to films and books allowing people whose interest has been aroused to gain a deeper insight into the issues raised. Historical films, biographies, films from literature and so on could come with a follow-up MOOC to study what really happened, read more of the author's works, investigate a political career etc. The courses could range from academic studies to pure general interest. Why not MOOCs for kids linked up with popular films? It's a long way from Harvard but if it encourages more people to be curious and study more then I'm in favour.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Fly-on-the-wall lecture capture doesn't work

A lot has been written about the power of MOOCs to democratize education, making courses from the world's elite universities available to all at the click of a mouse. This is true to a certain extent since the key players in the mass-MOOC market are the likes of Harvard, MIT and Stanford but the problem is that the rest of the world is still on the outside looking in. True we can now gain an insight into how courses are taught at the top universities but only by pressing our faces against the shop window. The real courses are still elite and exclusive and we certainly don't get any credentials from these institutions for completing their online courses.

An article in Mindshift, Is Online Education Widening the Digital Divide? sees these MOOCs as leading to a wider division between the elite and the rest rather than the reverse. The article takes the case of teachers at San Jose State University who were asked to use material from a Harvard MOOC with their students and refused. The problem was that the course material consisted of recorded lectures and interaction between the teacher and the Harvard class. This type of fly-on-the-wall lecture filming is of course simple and cheap to produce but it reinforces the feeling of exclusion for the online student. The teacher addresses a visible audience of elite students and not the wider online audience. The online students are looking through a window at the elite students and their teacher rather than directly being involved.

According to Peter Hadreas, professor and Philosophy Department Chair at San Jose State University:

“We have a very diverse student body and we’re very proud of that,” Hadreas said. “But they would watch Michael Sandel teach Harvard students and he would interpolate into his talks and dialogues how privileged they were. And they were for the most part, certainly to a greater extent, white than our student body. So we’ve got, on the one hand, this strange sort of upstairs/downstairs situation where the lower-class people could look at how the upper-class people were being educated. We thought that was just flat out insulting, in a way, to the students and certainly not pedagogically reinforcing.”

The classroom session works well just there in the room but loses all its impact when filmed because the classroom interaction is missing for the online audience. Many universities are moving away from classroom lecture capture, replacing one hour lectures with a series of short lecture segments recorded direct in front of the camera so that the teacher is speaking to the online learner without classroom students in front of them. That eye contact can make a lot of difference and create the feeling that the teacher is addressing me.

What works in the classroom does not usually work online. Filming a classroom session is only useful to that class as a record of their work and as revision material. Don't show it to online students.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Too much cake

I wrote recently about self-service learning and how MOOCs offer a convenient complement to formal education. The analogy of the self-service cafeteria where learners can compose their own blend of short courses is very attractive and I believe that we are seeing the emergence of a much more varied and flexible ecosystem for learning combining the benefits of short, just-in-time online courses with longer formal courses and programmes. You choose the option that best fits your current lifestyle and needs.

However there is a danger of letting everyone compose their own education by piecing together dishes from a gigantic buffet. What happens if you only choose the cakes and miss out the vegetables? This is the theme of an article in the Washington Post by Robert F Bruner: Commentary: Without structure, learning crumbles. He's worried that the new educational buffet will mean that people will only learn what they want to learn and thus will miss the less attractive but essential details that put everything into context. It's a bit like the problem of personalization on the web. If we can tweak our preferences so that we are only exposed to news and information that we agree with we will simply live in a bubble, unaware of other points of view or sheltered from unpleasant information. Our own preferences are not enough. Someone has to ensure that we have a balanced diet.

"Too much dessert and not enough broccoli. Students who simply follow their appetites will eventually find some educational candy: courses that may gratify an immediate interest, but don’t really build one’s capabilities. Like a healthy diet, a great education consists of a balance of intellectual nutrition. Eat your vegetables. They are good for you."

How do we make sure students "eat their greens" as well as benefitting from the flexibility and diversity of today's learning environment?

Friday, August 2, 2013

Copyright Bermuda Triangle

Whirlpool by Dave Stokes, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by Dave Stokes

The book shops of the world are crammed with titles and more books are published today than ever before. However once a book has been available for a few years it disappears from the shelves and unless the publishers think it worth a new edition it will become extremely difficult to read the book unless your local library happens to have a copy. This is one major problem with current copyright law. Popular titles will of course be republished regularly but the vast majority will not be worth a publisher producing a new edition and as a result they will become unavailable outside a few libraries or second-hand bookstores. Millions of books are lost until the copyright period expires.

This problem is well illustrated by recent research summed up in an article by Rebecca J Rosen in The Atlantic, The Hole in Our Collective Memory: How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish.

"A book published during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur has a greater chance of being in print today than one published during the time of Reagan."

The article examines research by Paul J. Heald at the University of Illinois who has analysed all books available on Amazon to see how different decades in the last 150 years are represented. The copyright Bermuda Triangle is clear in the statistics presented. Books available from the 1850's are double the number of titles from the 1950's. Basically you can buy and access millions of currently published titles plus just about everything pre-1923 but very little in between. So millions of books are hidden away because they're not worth republishing and copyright prevents them from being published digitally. Heald sums up the situation:

"Copyright correlates significantly with the disappearance of works rather than with their availability ... Shortly after works are created and proprietized, they tend to disappear from public view only to reappear in significantly increased numbers when they fall into the public domain and lose their owners."

Since no-one is going to make any money from selling this vast resource why not let them be available as simple e-books for free? At least they will be available and read by some. Maybe they could be sold for micro-payments, a bit like the music service Spotify, where subscribers pay a low monthly fee and can read whatever they want. That way the authors could at least earn a little from their title instead of zero if it is out of publication as at present. I'm not suggesting that we do this for best-sellers but for the millions of forgotten books that are now languishing in the Bermuda Triangle of copyright.