Friday, June 27, 2014

Passport for learning

Let’s Go! - Passport by LucasTheExperience, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by LucasTheExperience

The holy grail of open learning at the moment is finding a sustainable and reliable model for the validation of non-traditional learning (open courses, MOOCs, practical work experience, self-tuition etc). These forms of learning may be openly documented but have little or no formal credibility when applying to study at a university or applying for a job. Universities and employers have generally little knowledge of open learning and are naturally suspicious of the credibility of previously unknown certifications. Recognition of prior learning is of course relatively established in most universities but it is often a time-consuming and costly process that is more the exception than the rule. How can we help institutions to recognize open learning without making the task too cumbersome?

One interesting model is being tested in the project VM-Pass which aims to implement the recognition of virtual mobility and OER-learning through a learning passport. The idea is that a learner has a digital learning passport (like an e-portfolio if you like) with certificates from all the open courses they have completed as well as MOOCs and in-company training. This is similar to the badges backpack that Mozillas Open Badges concept uses where all your digital certificates are included in the backpack/passport. The key to VM-Pass is the validation process that is based on combination of peer review and crowdsourcing. The passport contains information from the course provider on the certificate the learner has earned with transparent links to all criteria. In addition there is the learner's own profile. When the learner goes to a university and asks for them to recognize his/her certificates it is far too demanding for each institution to investigate every certificate. Instead VM-Pass propose a clearinghouse solution where participating institutions can store their validations of open learning certificates. An administrator can look in the database and see if any other institution has validated the certificate in question. If there is already an entry then a good deal of the job is done, if not then the full validation process must be carried out. However if that process is documented in the system the next institution to query that certificate will not need to check so thoroughly.

These activities together will provide recognition offices a tool which will reduce the bureaucracy involved in recognition processes, allow them to share experiences with peers and compare their recognition decisions’ with other institutions – thus promoting harmonisation of recognition. All of this together, should make it easier for students to have their VM learning recognised, and thus increase the volume of students taking advantage of this flexible learning pathway, without increasing the administrative burden on their home institutions.

The major barrier here is getting universities to actually consider recognising open learning and using such a clearinghouse. The project is at present recruiting willing test pilots in a living lab to see whether the solution is feasible. Clearly there are methods and tools for integrating informal and formal learning. As usual the technology is not the problem. Changing attitudes and traditions are much harder challenges.

Read the booklet Open learning recognition which provides a foundation to the VM-Pass model.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Time for nanodegrees?

Microscope Stage 2 by tncountryfan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by tncountryfan

Last year Sebastian Thrun, head of MOOC-consortium Udacity caused quite a stir by announcing that his company would be changing focus; leaving the higher education MOOC market and focusing on corporate training (see article). This change provoked a lot of "I told you so" rhetoric from the MOOC skeptics; evidence that the concept was not compatible with higher education. Now after a few quiet months Udacity are launching the concept of nanodegrees which offer highly practical MOOC-like training in cooperation with a number of high profile companies like AT&T. The MOOC format is still recognizable but the focus is on helping learners get necessary work-related skills to make themselves more attractive to employers. The nanodegrees will take 6-12 months to complete depending on the pace the learner chooses. As described on the Udacity blogAnnouncing nanodegrees: a new type of credential for a modern workforce:

We are designing nanodegrees as the most compact and relevant curriculum to qualify you for a job. The sole goal is to help students advance their career: whether it’s landing their next job, their next project, or their next promotion. It should take a working student about 6-12 months to complete without having to take time off. We will teach all the necessary skills together with why those skills matter along with career guidance. In other words, you won’t just learn *how* to code, but also *why.*

The first courses have just been announced and you can already sign up to receive further information as it becomes available: Front-end web developer, iOS developer, Back-end web developer and Data analyst. I'm not sure what sort of business model they have in mind but I can imagine that there will be the familiar layered approach already used in higher education MOOCs; free to participate but tuition, assessment and credentials at a fee. It's interesting that although these nanodegrees will have no academic validity they have chosen an academic name for the concept. If there are no university credits involved why use the term degree? Academics may object to the concept on the grounds that a degree involves long-term in-depth study and that if you shorten this process as radically as Udacity do it cannot be called a degree. It's like calling a 5 km race a nanomarathon. Let's see how the debate goes.

The big question is whether employers will accept new credentials like these nanodegrees or similar initiatives. It would be interesting to see if Udacity would consider using Open Badges in their forthcoming courses since that would give added impetus to the initiative. They have been working closely with some major companies who plan to offer internships to selected nanodegree students but the crunch will come when such qualifications square up to regular degree certificate on a candidate's CV.

The validity of open learning is questioned in an article in the Guardian, Will a degree made up of Moocs ever be worth the paper it's written on? and the main criticism of open learning here is that it lacks the dialogue and personal contacts between teacher and student that occur on a campus programme. Here I think there is a danger of over-estimating campus education. Many universities have extremely large undergraduate courses and quality interaction with a faculty member can be as minimal as on many MOOCs just as there are many examples of online courses with extensive teacher-student interaction. Education at scale is not feasible on campus but is clearly possible online and the fascinating side of the MOOC movement is how different actors are trying to find ways of providing interaction, assessment and feedback. A degree (or even nanodegree) made up of MOOCs can and probably will be worth the digital badge it's written on but may not be equivalent to a full-time campus degree. It's not a matter of either ... or ... but different qualifications for different needs and target groups.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Norwegian MOOC commission

Norway became the first country in the world to appoint a government commission to examine the potential of MOOCs from a national perspective. In June 2013 the Ministry of Education appointed a committee of academics and educational experts to investigate the opportunities and challenges that the rapid growth of MOOCs pose to Norwegian higher education. The commission has now (16 June) presented its first full report and since it is at present only available in Norwegian it might be of interest to the rest of the world to get an overview of the conclusions (read the Norwegian version).

The commission defines MOOCs in very loose terms; online, scalable and open. As often mentioned every letter in the acronym MOOC is negotiable and the report does not restrict itself to any particular variation on the MOOC concept. This can cause confusion since the divisions between MOOCs, other forms of open education and regular e-learning often get blurred but the commission decided to cover all forms of the concept. The focus is however mostly on the high profile xMOOC interpretations of Coursera, edX etc rather than on the more undercover collaborative MOOCs offered by networks of teachers.

The report comes quickly to the point providing its main recommendations in chapter 3 with all the hard data and background coming afterwards. The recommendations are divided into two areas.

Main recommendations at government level:
  • A major national investment of up to €16-47 million annually in the coordinated development of online education in the country. This includes the formation of at least one national MOOC platform, research-based competence and knowledge development, cooperation between higher education and industry in using MOOCs for work-related training and research into learning analytics.
  • Create a clear Norwegian MOOC profile and cooperate in the Nordic region.
  • Active promotion of open educational resources (OER).
  • MOOCs that lead to credits should be included in the national educational system.
  • Focus on raising the quality of online higher education and competence development for teachers.
  • Questions about online examination security must be resolved.
  • A national review of validation of informal learning and workplace experience.
  • An inquiry on whether MOOC students should qualify for study loans and grants.
  • The establishment of financial incentives for collaboration between universities in the development of online education.
Main recommendations at institutional level:
  • The wide experience of quality online learning that is already present in the country’s institutions should be the base for any MOOC initiatives.
  • Institutions need to invest in digital competence development for all staff.
  • Institutions actively promote the use and creation of open educational resources.
  • Improved routines and opportunities for recognition of prior learning and competences.
  • Institutions should use MOOCs to leverage national and international collaboration.
To support these conclusions the commission then makes a chapter by chapter analysis of the following topics:
  • MOOCs in society (background, relevance, international and Norwegian contexts)
  • From flexible education to MOOCs (online learning history)
  • Evolution of MOOCs
  • MOOC participants and their motivation
  • Documentation of achieved competence
  • MOOCs in Norwegian higher education
  • Quality and learning outcomes
  • MOOC delivery forms
  • Copyright issues and openness
  • Workplace learning
  • Continuing education
  • Discussion on the interpretation of “free”
  • Government study grants and funding
  • Financial consequences of the commission’s proposals
The report gives a thorough and balanced analysis of the international development of MOOCs and acknowledges that MOOCs are only part of a wider development of open education and online learning. The background is well documented and happily also includes the origins of the term in the connectivist courses (cMOOCs) developed and still run by pioneers like George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, David Wiley, Bryan Alexander and many more. They also take into consideration the fact that there is no clear standard MOOC model and that even within the major consortia like Coursera there is considerable variation in pedagogy, student interaction, assessment and structure. They have not fallen into the trap of simply looking at the mainstream hype but point to how MOOCs have opened people's eyes to the future role of online learning in all educational sectors. The positive effect of the MOOC hype has been that it has pushed a discussion of online learning on to the agendas of top management. Norway (and several other European countries) differs from leading MOOC nations like the USA in that higher education is free and not subject to high fees. Due to this the report feels that MOOCs will affect Norwegian higher education in different ways than in the USA and England. The accessibility of global MOOCs will stimulate Norwegian institutions to improve their own online courses and this quality focus will naturally also improve campus programmes. National and international collaboration will be another positive result of the opening up of education that MOOCs have been the catalyst for. However none of this will happen without strategic funding, incentives and strategies.

One aspect that is not covered here is that there are many examples of open online learning that don't (often deliberately) call themselves MOOC but share many common characteristics. The OER university partnership is mentioned but maybe deserves more attention since it attempts to provide a framework for offering credible credentials for non-formal and informal learning. A Norwegian member of the partnership would be a significant move to legitimize open learning in Norway for example. I have not found any mention of other open learning platforms like P2PU (Peer 2 Peer university) who have been facilitating MOOC-like collaborative learning for several years as well as platforms like Udemy that allow teachers and specialists to create and market their own courses. However a report cannot cover everything and the important point about this one is that it has been produced at governmental level, showing clearly that open learning has at last reached the corridors of power.

An English version of the report is promised in the near future.

Monday, June 16, 2014

E-learning - the prism effect

PRISM 1 by refeia, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by refeia

After last week's EDEN conference in Zagreb I had an interesting discussion with a colleague that got me thinking. She had not been to so many conferences in the field of e-learning and although we agreed that this conference had been rewarding she found the lack of focus rather disconcerting. The problem was that most academic conferences focus clearly on a specific discipline or more likely a specialised area of a particular discipline. If you go to a conference in pedagogy you can safely assume that the participants will be professionals in that field and will have common reference points. However in the field of e-learning we tend to gather people from many disciplines who have a common interest in e-learning but who otherwise have few common points of reference. In most e-learning conferences you will meet specialists in pedagogy, IT, management, psychology, policy, administration and others. The result is that the sessions contain a wide range of disciplines and it is hard to see where the focus lies. A session that seems to deal with pedagogical questions can be lead by specialists in other areas and this can seem very messy for those accustomed to mainstream academic conferences.

I see clear parallels with independence movements in politics. Being Scottish this is a highly topical matter but if you look at similar political movements you see the pattern. The common objective is independence and as long as that lies in the future the movement unites a wide range of political shades. However once the objective is attained the movement may then split into its constituent parts since the common glue no longer exists. As long as e-learning and related concepts are still not mainstream in education we have a common goal to strive towards but when we have achieved that I suspect we will all return to our respective disciplines. The advantage of the present e-learning movement is that it brings such diverse groups together and that can be very productive and invigorating. However it does mean that discussions can be messy with non-specialists leading discussions on fields they have not fully studied and that can lead to misunderstandings when specialists and generalists mix.

As for me I generally call myself an enthusiast and am one of those who knows a bit about most things but have no particular speciality. Therefore I enjoy the multi-disciplinary tone of these conferences but I do understand why the specialists can find the rainbow e-learning movement rather unfocused. Maybe we have to be clearer about declaring our specialities (or not) to avoid disappointing.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Arenas for learning, workshop at EDEN 2014

What characterizes a dynamic learning environment and how does this affect our choice of learning environments and tools? These were the questions behind a workshop I organised with my colleague from Linnaeus University, Linda Reneland-Forsman, at this week's EDEN conference in Zagreb, Croatia.

Summary of our discussions on Padlet
The workshop grew out of an article we wrote last year, Completion Rates – A False Trail to Measuring Course Quality? (EURODL 2013), where we suggested that we tackle the issue of completion rates by focusing on enhancing student interaction and creating truly dynamic learning arenas. We found that courses with low completion rates had several key features in common: too much focus on text-based communication, no guidelines for students, no synchronous meetings, static course environment, invisible individual processes. How do we design courses that make learning processes more visible and foster a dynamic and supportive community?

After our brief input on these themes we divided the participants into groups. The conference participants formed their face-to-face groups and we also had an online group who were following the workshop via Adobe Connect. The results of the discussions can be viewed on our common Padlet page which also includes some useful links and our presentation slides.

So how do we make a difference? How do we make courses more dynamic and collaborative and thereby significantly raise the level of student engagement? Here is a summary of conclusions:
  • Synchronous helps build community faster than asynchronous
  • Social presence is important, building up a digital identity.
  • Make the course collaborative and co-operative, also encourage engagement.
  • Reflection by all at the end of each unit (on own experience and on the learning process)
  • Authentic assessment that relates to work situations.
  • Get everybody on board - even the "observers" 
  • Teamwork: assignments that require interactions. For example the jigsaw method where each student has different information about a problem and only by collaborating can they solve it).
  • Create a debate within students – contextualize (how do you do it in your own world?)
  • Number of interactions and richness of types of interactions as an indicators of engagement.
  • Importance of feedback, both from teacher and from fellow students. Giving feedback needs to be trained from the start. Variety of feedback also vital (more audio and video).
  • Rethink how we handle traditional tasks.
Regardless of whether a course is on campus, blended or completely online we need to create a feeling of community and collective responsibility from the very start. Each student needs to feel acknowledged and supported with clear information and guidance to each part of the course. Assessment and feedback is a collective responsibility and assignments must be relevant to real practice. To assist in this there are many tools and methods, both digital and "analogue", and the crucial factor is being able to use the right mix for each course. Let's move away from a pointless "blame game" about completion rates in online education and focus on making all courses as engaging and challenging as possible. Then the completion rates should take care of themselves. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

How many devices do you need in a classroom?

Cuddling with multiple devices by adactio, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by adactio

How many devices do you need in a classroom? I imagine the standard answer would be one device per student since so many schools and colleges in the world have invested in one laptop/device per student schemes. However there is a problem with this approach as Edna Sackson describes through personal experience in a post entitled Too many iPads .... She had a special guest in her classroom, none other than the father of the school in the cloud concept Sugata Mitra. He gave the class a task which involved them finding out as much as they can about a concept without any teacher guidance, using tablets, mobiles or laptops to search the net for relevant information. Because they all had their own devices the task resulted in silence as each pupil started searching on their own.

Interestingly, the children initially stay in their own seats and investigate on their individual devices. No-one has told them not to move or converse. In fact Sugata spent some time before the question chatting with them about how often and why they move seats.

After some prompting they did start discussing and solving the problem together but the lesson here was that collaborative work can sometimes be inhibited in a one-to-one classroom. Indeed one of the key principles of Sugata Mitra's work is having around four pupils sharing one device since that forces them to discuss. This is good news for cash-strapped schools who wonder how to afford a one-to-one investment but when all pupils have their own devices and some have several devices, how can we encourage them to look up from their screens and discuss with each other? It depends on the task but I think it's perfectly feasible to agree in advance that for this particular exercise there will only be one device active in each group and let them see it as a challenge to complete the task this way. The key is learning to adapt technology use to suit the situation. Sometimes the focus is on discussion and collaboration and therefore devices can be shared and at other times the focus may be on gathering information and analysis of sources and then everyone will need their own devices.