Tuesday, November 26, 2013

MOOCs - the tip of the iceberg?

Iceberg by dnkemontoh, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by dnkemontoh

A new survey of almost 35,000 Coursera students has revealed that the vast majority of them already have university level education, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, MOOCs Are Largely Reaching Privileged Learners, Survey Finds. The study has been carried out by a group from the University of Pennsylvania and although it has only surveyed that university's MOOC students the number surveyed is large enough from which to draw some overall conclusions (read the study: The MOOC Phenomenon: Who Takes Massive Open Online Courses and Why?). The results show that the vast majority using MOOCs are those who are already well educated and digitally literate. This is further confirmed by Edinburgh University's recent survey of their MOOC students (see article in MOOC News and ReviewsWhat Do We Know About MOOC Students So Far?: A Look At Recent User Data).

The promise of MOOCs democratizing higher education is still to be fulfilled and it would seem that MOOCs are at present only preaching to the converted. Nothing surprising really though some critics will certainly use it as ammunition to shoot down the whole concept. The real impact of MOOCs relies on many factors that the MOOC providers can't really influence. Participation in any online course, regardless of acronym, demands a high level of digital literacy, good study skills,  plenty self-confidence and access to a computer and broadband internet access. The people who would benefit most from open access to education are not in that position yet and radical changes in education policy and infrastructure are required before they can participate in any significant numbers. Even in most developed countries the clear target group for open education is not even aware that such opportunities exist, far less participate in such courses.

I believe that open education (not necessarily MOOCs) can and will enable millions to access educational opportunities that are denied to them today but it's going to take more time than we might hope. Open resources are available, open courses are ready but the participants aren't ready yet. They need government initiatives in digital literacy and support from libraries, schools and learning centres to learn how to learn in an online environment and be able to find the courses they need. For now MOOCs are full of early adopters and  members of the online learning community. Shouldn't we be investing more in digital literacy and net access for all. Are we concentrating too much on the tip of the iceberg and not investing enough in the mass under the surface?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lectures can be good for you

I'll admit a little secret; I actually enjoy lecturing. I also enjoy and learn a lot from a well-delivered lecture from an enthusiastic and knowledgeable speaker. I know I've written and spoken many times about the limits of the lecture and how new pedagogies are needed to facilitate more student-centred learning but sometimes I find the anti-lecture rhetoric in some articles rather too dismissive. Statements about the death of the lecture or the end of universities as we know them simply polarise opinion and only lead to unnecessary conflict between traditionalists and innovators that divert attention from the real issues. I wrote about this back in June, In defence of the lecture, and this week I read an interesting article by Abigail Walthausen in The AtlanticDon't Give Up on the Lecture, showing that, when done well, there is a strong case for the lecture to continue as an important feature in education.

One point in the article stood out for me. Many want the focus to shift from the information transfer of the traditional lecture to more student interaction in the form of seminars (face-to-face or online). Although I agree with this we need to question whether seminars or tutorials are always effective learning arenas. Often they are dominated by the most vocal students and the structure can be rather loose and chaotic for quieter students. I remember being overawed by some of my fellow students in tutorials and as a result I could never find anything clever enough to say and therefore kept quite. As Walthausen remembers from her own student days:

As a college student, I was often advised by well-meaning adults to sign-up for seminars rather than lectures in order to get “face time.” To be perfectly honest, though, the lecture format, far more than the noisy seminar, enabled me to think deeply about a topic rather than being distracted by poorly planned and redundant comments from peers (often aggravated by a teacher who is reluctant, for fear of being too top-down in terms of pedagogy, to deflect them). Besides frustration with the dominant participants in many a seminar class, I have also wasted time distracted by the anxiety that I had to race others to an appropriate comment in order to accumulate those necessary class participation points.

Some learn a lot from seminar discussion and others find them intimidating and unrewarding. Same goes for lectures. Traditional educational methods should not be categorically dismissed. The world is full of creative and intelligent people who were educated in the traditional system so it can't be all wrong. There is a place for lectures and many other traditional concepts as long as we realize that the toolbox is so much bigger today and teachers need to be able to mix and adapt all these tools to their students' needs. Don't throw the baby out with the dishwater.

There is no one method of education that fails across the board, only the occasional rigid ideology that criticizes “one-size-fits-all education” while discontinuing a few of the less popular sizes.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Staying the course

This week's main  MOOC story has been an article by Max Chafkin on Fast CompanyUdacity's Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course, revealing that Sebastian Thrun is having second thoughts about his Udacity initiative. Having rocketed to world fame with the astounding success of the Stanford University artificial intelligence course in 2011 he founded Udacity with a mission to make higher education freely available to all. The MOOC hype revved into top gear and the rest is history. Now Thrun seems disillusioned with the MOOC concept as a disruptive factor in higher education and intends to focus more on the corporate training sector which will appeal more to the venture capital investors who are backing Udacity.

The main reason behind this abrupt change is the low completion rates in Udacity's courses and the realisation that no amount of attractive graphics, production and design is persuading learners to complete the courses. The dream of replacing expensive university education and offering it free to the world was simply unrealistic, at least in this version.

"We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product," Thrun tells me. "It was a painful moment." Turns out he doesn't even like the term MOOC.

He's not alone in disliking the term MOOC. It was once an apt term for a genuine form of collaborative learning that has now been twisted into a diffuse variety of interpretations and the term itself has become an empty cliché. Massive open learning is about developing learning networks and communities and investigating the potential of such arenas for learning. We need to really start investigating what massive and open really mean to education rather than repackaging traditional models as Bonnie Stewart writes in her post: in the wake of MOOC hype, what shall we talk about?

Yet the institutional structures and norms that dominate our society and particularly our education system do not foster networked identities. In the midst of all the pressure for educators to somehow prepare students for this mythical “21st century” we seem to be both living in yet still casting as the eternal and exotic future, the whole fact that schooling practices are broadly structured to create herd identities of compliance and uniform mastery rather than networked identities of differentiation is…well…not surprising. But definitely a disconnect.

However I'd like to dwell on the last element in the MOOC acronym; the concept of a course. When we speak of completion rates or more negatively drop-out rates it assumes that a student somehow breaks a contract. The course is a preset unit that a student makes a commitment to either by applying for admittance, by paying a fee or both. Once admitted there is strong motivation for the student to complete the course and hopefully be rewarded by some form of hard currency (certificate, grade) at the end. Dropping out is a significant decision since you are breaking a contract (however weak) and not fulfilling your side of the bargain. Since most MOOCs are free and completely voluntary there is no pressure to complete the course other than your own self-discipline. Being one of thousands means that your absence will pass completely unnoticed. Maybe you're only really interested in one part of the course, maybe you simply don't have time or most commonly life simply gets in the way with work demands, family responsibilities and so on always taking priority. Those who devise the course may see it as a coherent unit that should be completed but most participants will see it as something to dip into, test, learn from and then leave when their own curiosity has been satisfied. MOOCs may look like courses and are certainly designed as such but they are not seen that way by the majority of learners. They offer a package of learning materials that can be accessed for a myriad of reasons, like a good reference book, and learners will dip into whatever interests them. Most will not buy into the whole course concept that the institution has devised. Can we therefore compare MOOC completion rates with regular course completion rates?

I think there is a place for even the most traditional information transfer xMOOCs as long as they are honest about what they are and what they intend to do. Many people learn a lot this way and if this type of course inspires thousands of people to learn more or maybe motivate them to more formal studies then that's a worthwhile contribution. At this level the MOOC is part of a lifelong learning framework with the aim of awakening interest and in this context completion rates stats are totally irrelevant. Udacity could easily continue to offer their courses as part of this context as a way of inspiring people to learn more but that sort of activity does not offer any return on investment for the investors.

The keys to completion are active participation, a sense of belonging to a community and a shared purpose (see more on this in my article in a recent issue of EURODL, Completion Rates – A False Trail to Measuring Course Quality?). This requires a different approach than many of the current xMOOCs and in the well-developed field of for-credit online learning there are plenty of excellent examples of courses that have high completion rates. There is a tendency to confuse MOOCs with online learing and maybe it's time for the MOOCs to learn from successful online for-credit courses. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Lighting the fire of webinar participation

This week I and three colleagues arranged a webinar with the challenging title Running an effective webinar - experience and opportunities. It was part of a long series of webinars we've run over the last two years and the idea behind this one was to share our experience of webinars and invite participants to contribute their experience. We did not intend this webinar to be a masterclass(that would be tempting fate) but as an exchange of ideas and possibly the establishment of a community around the topic. About 160 people took part out of 244 registered and many more will watch the recording. Once again the most striking feature of the webinar is the high level of audience participation. Opening sound and video to such a large number of participants can lead to technical problems so interaction is largely limited to the chat window.

The use of the chat function in webinars intrigues me. A few months ago I wrote a post here about the problem of effective communication in webinars (Effective Communication in a webinar) and especially the issue of multitasking where the chat session competes with the speakers for attention. It's easy for a webinar to be a simple lecture with little of no interaction and sometimes there is merit in keeping things that simple. However to meet demands for audience involvement there is usually a chat window open for participants to ask questions, make comments or provide relevant links. This chat is almost always highly relevant to the topic being discussed and is mostly inspired by comments from the speakers but opinions differ on whether this type of parallel discussion is a positive contribution to the webinar or an irritating or even rude distraction.

Even if I have become a habitual "multitasker" and admit that it simply means that I can do several things rather badly, I also believe that we need to focus on a speaker to really understand their message. We've tried to limit the distraction factor by making the chat window extremely small when all focus should be on the speaker and explaining that after a short input the chat window will be enlarged to show that the focus is now on the participants' views. I thought that was a nice and tidy solution and that the multitasking could be limited by visual hints. However in our last two webinars this tactic has not worked. The chat is like a fire; once you get it started it just keeps burning and it's almost impossible to stop. This is precisely the lesson I have learned from this webinar. You simply can't control the interaction once it gets going and even if we reverted to a small chat window for the next chunk of input the chat just kept burning.

I can see both sides of the coin here. I agree that we are losing the ability to concentrate on what one person is saying and many people have become accustomed to having a buzz of communication about them all the time. This has a negative effect on our ability to really listen and reflect because our distractions are too loud. Howard Rheingold's work on attention (Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies, Educause Review 2010) as a key digital skill is relevant here. On the other hand there is already a tradition of chatting in a webinar as a way of creating a sense of community and participation. People expect to be able to chat while the webinar is in progress and once the chat starts it's hard to stop. Even if you take the chat window away I'm sure people will quickly find another channel to use. We need to make it clear to participants that this parallel communication will take place and that it's important to decide whether to concentrate on the speakers and ignore the chat or participate in the chat to the detriment of the speakers. Some can cope with both but not many. If you ignore the chat in the live session you can concentrate on it in the recording.

Have a look at the webinar below and see if you agree with the advice and experience that was shared. During the webinar we started a Facebook group in order to extend the discussion beyond the webinar. You're welcome to join us.

Friday, November 8, 2013

How much does free cost?

Free is the norm on the net. You expect to access just about everything for free and if someone tries to put up a paywall around their content most of us simply don't visit that site any more. At the same time we are acutely aware of the bombardment of advertising that accompanies most websites and some are so full it's hard to actually read the content. There's a lot of quality content out there that costs time money and professional expertise to produce and neither of the present models (free with ads or paywall) work very well. I'd be happy to pay for quality content if there was a flexible and painless way to do so. I'm not interested in paying a subscription to a newspaper when I only read a handful of its articles each month but I recognize that good journalism costs money.

A BBC article, Are the days of free content on the net numbered? questions whether the present advertising-driven free content model is sustainable. Signs are that revenues are falling and that news sites in particular will be unable to continue unless they can find a new revenue model. The answer would seem to be some kind of micropayment system where you are charged a tiny sum every time you read an article or watch a film on certain sites. Web content produced by individuals without commercial interest (blogs, wikis, hobby sites, clubs etc) will of course remain free but newspapers, TV sites and so on will get paid per click in a similar system to paying artists whose music is streamed via Spotify. If this means that serious journalism is available without paywalls or irritating advertising then I'm all for it. Otherwise we risk losing such media and our view of the world will be controlled by blatantly commercial media channels.

The article quotes web pioneer Robert Cailliau:

Mr Cailliau thinks that monthly subscriptions are too expensive and restrictive. He says the pay-as-you-go mobile phone model is a great one for online content.
"When you send an SMS, you pay a small amount of money. Each individual action should be billed individually," he says.
"My browser should pay you automatically a cent or two cents per page without me feeling it. I should not have to prepay a large amount of money."
"Why re-invent? The telephone already does that. We already have a worldwide system that's capable of billing the customer for every move he makes."

It isn't easy getting people to pay for something that has been free but maybe the model will be to pay a small flat rate to help pay for quality content but also for the right to avoid drowning in ads. If this helps to pay for serious journalism then it's worth trying.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Credentials for experience

CHN East Chapel Hill Graduation 2008 by Oberazzi, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by Oberazzi

University has always been a rite of passage; a period of your life devoted to study and network building before entering the world of employment. If you attend for three years you get a batchelor's degree and if you stay a year or two longer you get a master's degree. The focus is on the time spent on campus and the intangible assets of "student life" that can only be gained by being there. This time-based institution has therefore great difficulty accepting that some people can learn the same things without physically uprooting themselves and living on or around campus for the allotted time. No matter how well online students perform there's always suspicion that they have not gained the full benefit of higher education and that off-campus learning can never match "the real thing" (see my last post for more on that topic).

However, as university fees soar in many countries there are more and more new paths to higher education (MOOCs, for-credit online courses etc). The rite of passage aspect is also less relevant, especially for the growing ranks of lifelong learners who need small and regular injections of higher education but have no interest in actually attending a brick and mortar institution.

An article in the New York Times by Anya Kamenetz, Are You Competent? Prove It.
Degrees Based on What You Can Do, Not How Long You Went, discusses the demand for credits for experience and the concept of fast-tracking a degree for people with extensive experience in the subject area. Some colleges are offering students the chance to complete courses as fast as they want and get due credit for validated practical workplace experience.

College leaders say that by focusing on what people learn, not how or when they learn it, and by taking advantage of the latest technology, they can save students time and lower costs. There are 37 million Americans with some college but no degree, and political leaders at the local, state and national levels are heralding new competency-based programs as the best way to get them marketable diplomas.

We need to develop credible systems for giving talented people recognition for work experience and informal learning without having to return to campus of take on crippling loans. This is a potentially massive new market for universities but is viewed with extreme suspicion since it means offering credit to students who haven't attended the college in the traditional sense. One institution that is working on this is the University of Wisconsin who are offering flexible courses that can be completed at the student's own pace. According to Kevin P. Reilly who's in charge of the university's flexible initiative:

“It’s scary for faculty,” Dr. Reilly says. “There’s a continuing sense that students can and do draw on so many sources of information that are now available at their fingertips. They don’t need to come to the monastery for four years and sit at the feet of the monks.”

This week saw the long awaited official launch of  OER University which offers a serious alternative to the hyped xMOOC consortia. OER University are a partnership of 37 universities and organisations under the auspices of UNESCO and Commonwealth of Learning that offer truly open online courses using open educational resources and learners can get their learning assessed for real credits at a fraction of the cost of attending campus. Students need to pay a fee to get their learning and experience validated and credits awarded but it's a fraction of the cost of the full campus experience.

The rite of passage campus experience is not going to die out. It's still attractive for many but is only possible when you're between 18 and 25 and if you can afford it. For everyone else we need to offer other paths that may not give you that all-round learning experience of campus but are more practical and give recognition for the skills and knowledge that people gain at work and in leisure time. Will universities dare to award credentials to someone else's students? The members of OER University say they are willing and let's see who joins in.