Saturday, February 28, 2015

Glocal MOOCs

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Similarly we can offer MOOC students discussion forums but we can't make them discuss. The topic of learner engagement in online courses (not just MOOCs) has been a recurring theme over the last twenty years and it's clear that meaningful discussions don't just happen, they need to be nurtured and managed. Simply providing a space to comment leads to either complete silence or streams of unconnected random comments ranging from supportive to abusive and distasteful.

In online education students are generally reluctant to participate in discussion forums unless there is a clear value in doing so. Discussions work when there is a limited number of participants who already have a sense of community and trust and where the purpose of discussion is clear to all. In a MOOC where there are thousands of participants the forums become crowded, disorganised and above all daunting for newcomers. A post on the site MOOC Lab, Why MOOC forums fail to deliver highlights another factor inhibiting MOOC forums:

The forums also tend to be dominated by a small group of avid participants, isolating the “masses” who feel too intimidated to join the conversation. The percentage of students registered on a course who participate in the forums is minute.

How can we create learning communities in a course with thousands of participants? One gigantic forum for all clearly doesn't work but it's also extremely difficult to herd participants into smaller discussion groups. That was tried with disastrous effects by Georgia Tech on their aborted course Fundamentals of Online Learning a couple of years ago. They tried to get participants to form smaller study groups; a noble plan but a case of trying to herd cats. Since then many other universities have been grappling with the same problem but rewarding discussion doesn't seem to scale.

David Hopkins (Learner engagement in MOOCssuggests designing MOOCs with a rolling schedule with a new group starting each week.

Instead of having a MOOC that runs twice a year with 10,000 learners each cohort, would it be better suited to run every week with 2-300 learners each week? The learners would progress with those other learners who started in the same time frame as them, therefore building more meaningful relationships with their fellow learners. 

This would avoid the chaos of mass forums but there is still the problem of organisation. It's hard enough running a standard 6 week MOOC but starting a new one each week would add to the university's costs and there is still the problem of how to foster meaningful discussion even in these smaller forums.  Someone has to manage the discussion. Someone has to lead the way, keep the discussion on track, encourage and question. Uncertain participants need to feel that their contributions are welcome and that it's safe to enter the discussion. Faculty are unlikely to have time to manage these discussions so maybe students could be recruited to do so. As long as there is someone who clearly manages and can establish trust among the participants.

What we're all searching for is a way to combine scale with intimacy. Can we design glocal MOOCs combining the advantages of education at scale with a sense of community and small group discussion? What sort of scaffolding and forum management can be provided without significant expense. Could local actors like further education colleges and libraries be involved in creating a local context to global courses? I'm sure it's possible but it will require opening up the MOOC concept outside the confines of the host university or consortium. Universities can't provide all the support themselves so why not open up the concept and allow others to contribute? MOOCs need an open API so that other actors can build support services, offer local variations, translate content and so on. Then maybe we can see open education really taking off.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Designing for MOOC accessibility

MOOCs attract large numbers of learners from all over the world and the vast majority of them are in English to cater for that global audience. However many participants are far from fluent in English and many others are unused to studying online. Clearly a major factor for not completing a MOOC is not having the language or study skills to keep up. Many of courses are challenging enough for native speakers so for non-native speakers to have a chance of keeping up with the pace there is a need for some language support. If we want to improve MOOC completion rates we need to provide scaffolding for these learners.

Stella Li writes about this in Inside Higher EdTranslating MOOCs, stating that the language barrier is one of the three most common reasons for Chinese students dropping out of a MOOC. Once they start the course they find the material simply too demanding; the spoken language in the video lectures is too fast and complex and the forum discussions are dauntingly full of confident English users. Those who are new to online education need clear instructions and information from the very start and need to feel welcome and safe in the new environment. The risk otherwise is that whenever they get stuck they will assume that they are not good enough for the course and disappear.

Many people register for a course not only to learn the subject but also to improve their English and this is a motivator that should be acknowledged more. MOOCs could therefore develop an interesting by-product if designed accordingly; as a medium for teaching English as a second language. Stella made a study of 20 MOOCs from a number of consortia and presents a number of course design strategies that would provide linguistic scaffolding for non-native speakers. One key factor is writing in plain English and avoiding idiomatic or over complex language, especially in the course description, instructions, guides and support information. Pre-course information should clearly explain how non-native speakers and learners with disabilities are catered for. There should always be alternative forms of accessing the content. Videos can easily be sub-titled in English allowing learners to both read and listen. Audio and video material can also have a downloadable text version as many will prefer to print out the text to read on the bus or train. Basically it's a matter of designing for accessibility.

So far studies have indicated that the majority of MOOC participants are graduates with good study skills but if universities are really interested in reaching beyond this group then accessibility must be top priority. Using plain English benefits everyone and even native speakers will appreciate subtitled videos and printable text versions of video and audio material. If MOOCs really want to contribute to lifelong learning for a global audience they must be designed with that diverse audience in mind rather than simply adopting the language and design principles of campus education.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Horizon Report 2015

It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future, as the great baseball player and coach Yogi Berra is reputed to have said. However every year at the start of February New Media Consortium unveil the influential NMC Horizon Report on technology trends influencing higher education. Each year the eagerly awaited report features six trends, technologies and challenges and divides them according to an estimated time to implementation. This year's report has the following line-up:

Short-term: increased use of blended learning, redesigning learning spaces
Mid-term: measuring learning, proliferation of open educational resources
Long-term: advancing cultures of change and innovation, increasing cross-institution collaboration

: blending formal and informal learning, improving digital literacy
Difficult: personalised learning, teaching complex thinking
Wicked: rewards for teaching, competing models of education

Short-term: flipped classroom, bring your own device
Mid-term: makerspace, wearable technology
Long-term: internet of things, adaptive learning technologies

Most of these trends are no surprise to anyone involved in e-learning and regular readers of the report recognize some issues that have been on the list for many years, always just around the corner but never quite going mainstream. Concepts like flipped classroom, blended learning and open educational resources do not seem particularly new but I think the justification for including them is that they will finally move from being pioneer projects to full acceptance. The influence of the digital revolution on education does not move in a predictable linear progression but comes in fits and starts with a number of Gartner hype cycles all intertwining with each other. As a result trends that seem to be on the near horizon suddenly appear further away and other ones can suddenly appear right in the foreground from nowhere. A bit like quantum physics ...

However for me the report has two very important roles. Firstly it's a solid report that can be used to influence decision-makers, outlining clearly the key challenges for universities in the next 5-10 years without being too unwieldy. It can be read in under an hour and provides a good foundation for strategic discussions. Secondly I appreciate all the references to current projects and initiatives in each of the fields covered. Each year I discover real pearls in these lists that can be used to inspire others. I haven't clicked on all the links yet (and maybe never will) but here are some excellent take-aways from this year's report:
  • Competency-Based Education Network - A network of 33 US universities working in the growing field of competency-based education - recognising workplace skills and combining academic and professional education. 
  • Code of practice for learning analytics (JISC) - As the field of learning analytics finally begins to mature many institutions are concerned about student data being in the hands of commercial interests. This handbook from JISC provides a sound foundation on the legal and ethical questions involved.
  • Blended Synchronous Learning Handbook - Result of a recent Australian project investigating how web-conferencing and virtual worlds can be used to unite campus and online students.
  • Learning Space Rating System - The development of flexible and creative physical learning spaces is very much in focus as many universities consider redesigning their campus. This is a set of criteria for assessing how well your classrooms facilitate active learning activities.
  • ePortfolios & Open Badges Maturity Matrix - Result of a recent European project ( that provides criteria for assessing the maturity and validity of inplementing e-portfolois and badges in an institution.
The trends and challenges are of course essential reading but it's the practical examples that make it worthwhile. 

Photo: CC BY Some rights reserved. Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Breaking up is hard to do

sas-ipad by zandwacht, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by zandwacht

Tradition is a powerful factor in slowing the uptake of new methods and tools in education. It's hard to say goodbye to old trusted friends and even if new solutions are clearly more effective we simply have invested too much time and effort in the old ones to let go without a struggle. This is especially true with services like e-mail which is so ingrained into almost all workplaces as the default method of communication that we keep on using and abusing it even when more effective and communicative solutions appear. The benefits of new solutions are often only evident when the old one has been fully replaced and running two rival solutions in parallel is simply ineffective. But making the clean break with tradition is traumatic.

The same is true with another old friend (or enemy for some) the pdf file. Pdf is the format of choice in most scientific publications and remains firmly entrenched despite its age (been around for 24 years!) and limitations. Once an article is in pdf format it is trapped in a format that cannot be changed and which denies peers the opportunity to comment and review. In addition pdf is a proprietary format that requires users to download a reader and this can be a barrier to many. Ijad Madisch makes a plea for change in a Guardian article, Researchers: it's time to ditch the PDF.

The PDF is the digital equivalent to the desk drawer – a place where scientific results are hard to find and easily forgotten. And yet the PDF is still the default way for scholarly publishers to disseminate research on the web.

There are many much more attractive and flexible reading formats available that could allow readers the opportunity to engage with the author but once again I think tradition is the main factor for the pdf's longevity.

The solution is to embed research results into their natural – their social – context. Publications are only small snippets of a researcher’s knowledge. To get the full story you need to connect with the researcher. This way, authors get feedback on their work and readers an idea of its impact.

Proprietary formats like pdf have become so accepted that more open alternatives struggle to gain acceptance despite clear advantages (above all not requiring users to download extra software). We continue to use pdf, Word, PowerPoint, e-mail simply because we always have. I don't think there are necessarily any ulterior motives here except the power of tradition and the fact that breaking up is so hard to do.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Learning by degrees

Higher education is steeped in tradition and although many are fine and noble it's healthy to question even the most ingrained ones. Seventy years ago a university education was only possible for a relatively small section of the population and many of those who got a degree went on to an academic research career. It was essential therefore to make sure that 3rd and 4th year students were well grounded in research methods and degrees were designed to lead students towards research. Today, when in many countries over 50% of the population study at university level, this structure is clearly inappropriate and maybe it's time for change.

One radical change is suggested by David Colquhoun in the Guardian, Honours degrees aren't for all – some unis should only teach two-year courses. Offer shorter first degrees taken at a more intensive pace (similar to secondary school) and then have specialist research universities to offer more advanced levels of study. Many students today study at unnecessarily advanced levels and maybe it's better to get a grounding in two years, start working and then top up with more advanced courses as they become necessary.

I believe that all first degrees should be ordinary degrees, similar to those offered by US liberal arts colleges, and these should be less specialist than what is now offered. Some institutions should specialise in teaching such degrees, others should become predominantly postgraduate institutions and have the time, money and expertise to do proper advanced teaching.

The division of higher education into teaching institutions who offer a wide range of ordinary degrees and research institutions offering advanced research-based education would certainly cause considerable uproar in the academic world since the role model of almost every university is the high status research university. However many claim that professional training has become too academic and needs to be more skills-oriented. Maybe it's time to question some traditions. Why must degrees take a certain amount of time? How can we shift the focus from knowledge to skills? How can we integrate education and the workplace? How can we allow people to gain their qualifications without having to move from their home area (combating the brain drain in remote areas)? How can we make it easy for people to retrain, switch career focus and develop their professional competence?

Many current educational trends like MOOCs, open educational resources, competency-based degrees, peer learning and nanodegrees should be seen as part of a quest to find new models and structures for learning and education. Models are constantly being tested; some will succeed, some will fail and some will be reworked and evolve into something new. The idea of two year degrees should not be simply dismissed. It doesn't need to change the system completely but maybe some alternative structures are necessary. We need more people to start asking "What if ...?"

Monday, February 2, 2015

Giving credit

pelotón de fusilamiento by kinojam, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by kinojam on Flickr

We live in the age of ubiquitous photography. I remember the days when I wondered if I should take one or two film rolls with me on holiday and the cost of developing 50 photos was considerable. Today I just snap everything I see and come home with hundreds of photos, some of which are quite good. An astounding amount of photos are stored and publicly shared in various cloud repositories like Flickr or Picasa and once there they can then be shared and reused by thousands. Once your photos are out there they develop a life of their own and you no longer control your creations.

In a world full of mashups and remixes we borrow from a wide range of sources and create new works. However it is seldom you see the original creators getting any credit and although the practice doesn't result in a copyright lawsuit it would be only fair to give credit to those who have inspired you. Professional photographers are generally good at protecting their work and being explicit about rights but the hordes of good but not professional photographers are often less careful and their work is then reused without credit. Putting a Creative Commons license on your work makes it clear how you would like your work to be used and always demands that reusers clearly credit the owner of the work and link back to the original. The problem is that people need help to give credit in the right way and that's where new tools are needed.

A new service called is hoping to help people acknowledge their sources. has been started by a Swedish guy called Jonas Öberg, who describes himself as "a technologist, teacher, software developer, project manager, non-profit serial entrepreneur, husband and father."The service that allows you to search for the source of any photo you find on the net and generates a ready format for acknowledging that source. The aim is to encourage a sharing culture where credit is freely given to people who are willing to share their work. This should be common practice in schools and universities where citing text sources is obligatory academic practice but where photos are often used without credit, especially in PowerPoint presentations. But it's not just about giving credit. hopes to help build a community of photographers and offer a community service where everyone contributes and benefits. Since it's an open source solution the field is open for new add-ons and developments.

This isn't limited to photographs: knowing who authored something is essential to be able to give credit to that person. In school, we've come to learn and appreciate the need to cite our sources, to give reference and credit to the authors whose work we use. When others cite you and give credit to you, they help you build your reputation, something that's vital if you are to succeed with your ambitions, whether you're a budding writer, journalist, photographer or scientist.

At present the app is available for Chrome and Firefox. The service is still in its early stages and although the present volume of photos covered by is considerable it needs money to keep expanding. That's why they have started as a crowd-funding project so you're welcome to donate to the cause. Here's the introduction film to give you an idea of what Elog-io has to offer.