Wednesday, April 29, 2015

MOOCs for credits revisited

Credit by GotCredit, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by GotCredit on Flickr

Martin Weller suggested in 2013 that MOOCs could be used to replace the first year of undergraduate study, MOOCs As 1st Year Undergrad Replacement. Now two years later this prediction is coming true as Arizona State University announce a first year undergraduate programme made up of MOOCs and with full credits available for a fee, according to an article in Education NewsArizona State Offers Freshman Year Online For Credit. ASU are teaming up with MOOC consortium EdX to form Global Freshman Academy, offering real credentials at a price of $200 per credit. Furthermore you don't have to pay unless you successfully complete the course.

The entire first year of study can be taken completely online and although you have to pay to be assessed for credits, the fees for your first year of study will amount to half of the cost for the campus equivalent, excluding accommodation and food. As far as I can see the full campus option will still be available but by offering an online alternative the university hopes to attract over 100,000 additional students worldwide.

“We’re going to have 12 new courses, of which students will take eight,” said Arizona State president Michael Crow. “They have to be constructed at a fantastic level of digital immersion, not just talking heads. This is a general education freshman year, not a series of disconnected courses, so they have to be thought through together.”

This certainly seems to offer a more affordable entry into higher education for many students who aren't sure they want to invest in the full campus deal. Try the first year online at a lower cost and see how it goes before committing to campus for tear two. It's an interesting experiment but I wonder how they will deal with 50,000 online students all wanting credits and choosing to sign up for year two on campus? Where do successful online students go from there since only a fraction of the expected MOOC students will be able to start year two on campus? What is actually on offer here for the thousands of online students - your first year completed online and then what?

The offer also promises to solve the thorny issue of low MOOC retention rates with the logic that if you offer credits then students will complete the course. That tactic has been tried already several times with spectacularly unimpressive results. Very few MOOC participants seem interested in credits at all and you could say that the whole appeal of MOOCs is the joy of learning for the sheer sake of it and if you throw credits into the mix it all gets too serious. I don't think the MOOC community will be attracted by this scheme though some might complete the odd course out of interest. The target group here is probably prospective students who intend to go to university but are looking for a more flexible path and a chance to test the waters before committing to high fees and moving to campus.

So it sounds revolutionary but it isn't really so different from many other MOOCs for credit schemes. Good luck all the same and I look forward to reading some results in 2016. Have a look at George Siemens' post on the subject, Nothing new here: Arizona State and edX partnership.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Not lurking but learning

Lurking evil beneath the waters . . . . by 酷哥哥, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by 酷哥哥 on Flickr

I'd like to return to one of my favourite topics of late - online participation or the lack of it. Just as it is quite normal to appreciate music without dancing or singing along, we need to accept the fact that many people can learn a lot without actively taking part in discussions and group work. In fact one important phase in learning is a period where you silently observe and listen to those with more experience and tune into the field you are studying.

I enjoyed therefore reading a post on this theme by Dave White called Elegant lurking where he argues that we all need periods of silent learning before daring to participate. This is especially true in online communities.

All successful Social Media platforms allow for Lurking in some form. It allows individuals to tune into the ‘dialect’ of a particular network or community so that when they first decide to say something they’re reasonably confident it will be in an acceptable tone. Some learners will choose never to speak-up though, especially if they are following an intimidating network of venerable ‘thought leaders’ or if they assume they won’t be responded to.

The same applies of course in face-to-face groups, courses or clubs. New members may attend several meetings getting accustomed to the group culture before they dare to speak up. Some may never contribute but will follow the discussions with great interest and will learn a lot without needing to demonstrate the fact to the others. This is what is meant by elegant lurking; quiet low-key participation where learning is not overtly demonstrated. 

Supporting students to move towards this transition should be central to the overall trajectory of our pedagogy in more nuanced ways than simply assigning marks to the act of blog posting. Elegant Lurking is an important ingredient in the subtle business of becoming a member of a community.

The crucial moment is when you dare to make that first comment or ask that possibly "stupid" question. This is your official membership application and the reaction of the community can make the difference between your full participation or dropping out. It's so important that the teacher(s) or other leading members recognize a newcomer's first contribution and provide supportive feedback as soon as possible. Many will doubt their own competence and so any negative replies or lack of response will be seen as proof that they do not belong and result in that person leaving the group. At the same time we shouldn't pressurize everyone to contribute but accept that many will learn a lot by elegantly lurking. When they feel like joining in they will.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Learning is perpetual beta

Cyclic horns by fdecomite, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by fdecomite

Jay Cross has written an interesting article, Should Learning Content be in Perpetual Beta? The concept of perpetual beta is several years old now and typifies the innovation spirit behind a lot of the dotcom boom. Beta versions used to be test versions of a product that only a select few could use in order to iron out problems before official release. Only a fully tested product could be sold to customers. However in the rush to keep ahead of the competition companies started releasing beta versions for public use, generally for free, encouraging users to test and give feedback on the faults. Google became very clever at making these beta tests by invitation only and the chosen few felt privileged to be test pilots.

When something is labeled beta, you expect it to have errors and are happily surprised if you don’t find any. Finding and helping correct flaws is one of the psychic rewards of the implicit bargain which makes the customer a happy co-developer.

Today we're used to products never making it beyond beta; once the beta version is fixed an even cooler product sweeps it away and we start the process again. Perpetual beta flips traditional sales logic on its head. If the product is officially released to paying customers they will react negatively to any flaw. However if they are told it's a beta version they feel part of the development process and almost enjoy reporting problems.

For example, suppose I release a campaign or report clearly marked Beta. I invite you to partner with me to make things better. I summon your help. We bond. We are amigos. We sit on the same side of the table. If I’d labeled that same report Final, you’d have been all over me about typos.

Learning is also embracing perpetual beta by involving students in course design and resource development. Traditional courses are finished products before students register and they naturally expect everything to work smoothly. If there are flaws they'll soon react. However as more courses encourage student to become co-creators of both content and design this generates in turn a sense of ownership and responsibility in the course. The students' transition from consumers to co-creators leads to deeper involvement and learning.

All education is perpetual beta since there are always new discoveries to be made, new angles to examine and new questions to ask. Every course can be run as a voyage of exploration and discovery where the students and teacher refine existing content and add new elements that are then handed on to the next group for further development. We're seeing this iterative approach to learning not only in courses but also in the development of open educational resources and open text books. The most dangerous tactic is to claim that the product is finished.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Sometimes I just want to learn on my own

Maybe I'm weird but when I'm at a concert and the singer says "come on everyone clap your hands!" or "everyone get up and dance" I instinctively dig in my heels and refuse. I simply don't like being told to enjoy myself or being forced to participate. If I want to I will but I don't like being ordered to.

The same applies sometimes to learning. Of course learning is largely a social process where we test ideas, discuss, reformulate, copy, adapt and create but there are times when we simply want to be alone. A colleague of mine, who is a major MOOC enthusiast, confessed to being tired of contrived group activities and enjoyed being able to work through the material at her own pace and on her own terms. The effort of joining a group and dealing with often wildly diverse expectations and skills is sometimes greater than the payback and when you have many other commitments you need to be able to focus on course activities exactly when it suits you best. For people with good study skills and the ability to focus, participation can simply get in the way of learning.

Webinars are another arena where many people prefer to remain passive. I'm currently involved in a project that is examining how to make webinars more interactive and engaging instead of the traditional lecture format. There are many methods for stimulating participation but I just wonder if everyone really wants to get involved. I have arranged, moderated and participated in many webinars in recent years and usually enjoy contributing to the chat session and taking an active part. However sometimes I attend a webinar that is only of marginal interest, just in case something interesting crops up. Here I choose to sit right at the "back of the class" and listen with one ear whilst checking e-mails and doing other work. It's like interesting background music and even if I miss a lot I often focus when something catches my attention. Maybe I only really listen for 5 minutes or so but those short sound bites can be very rewarding. I have learnt something from a session that I actually didn't have time for but thanks to having it in the background I picked up a little pearl of wisdom. Does that mean I'm a poor participant? Has the webinar failed because I didn't get up and dance?

Maybe we have to consider that participants on courses or in webinars all have different levels of commitment, from passive background listeners to fully active learners. We all move up and down this sliding scale and we all need to spend sometime sitting at the side.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

E-books - managing the transition

Every time a report indicates that cherished traditional concepts like classroom teaching, printed books, writing with pen and paper or reading printed newspapers are more effective than their digital equivalents you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief that maybe we can soon return to the world we once knew before all this new technology came along. We all have an instinctive fear of the new and an often illogical love of the practices we grew up with. I have my own blind spots when it comes to new concepts whereas I fully embrace some of them. Maybe the results of some studies are affected by the fact that the test group was more used to the traditional method then the digital version. In the early days of say the motor car you would probably have found that the majority preferred horse carriages until the new invention had matured and the advantages became self-evident. It's funny how we have happily abandoned some media (vinyl LPs, audio cassettes, VHS, letter writing, film cameras) but hang on passionately to others (above all books).

An interesting article by Dan Cohen, What’s the matter with ebooks? In our praise for print, we forget the great virtues of digital formats, calls for some balance in the debate between printed and digital literature. Even if reports show sales of e-books leveling off this is really a mirage since a great deal of e-reading is not traceable. There are vast amounts of e-literature available from open publishers as well as private publication and the mainstream surveys only track sales of commercially published e-books. I read vast amounts on the net but almost never commercial e-books and I'm sure millions of others do likewise. As the technology improves and new business models emerge (many present models almost actively discourage e-reading) the present analogue/digital debate will become largely irrelevant.

... jump forward 10 or 20 or 50 years, and you should have a hard time saying that the e-reading technology won’t be much better—perhaps even indistinguishable from print, and that adoption will be widespread.

Reading will become digital even if the transition will not be as abrupt as the move from analogue audio or from fixed to mobile telephony. Digital reading offers an enhanced reading experience with advanced referencing and notetaking functions as well as multimedia support. Future digital reading interfaces could well be able to reproduce the feel of leafing through a first edition or ancient manuscript in a way that would be impossible in print today unless you are privileged enough to have access to the right library. The present arguments in favour of print will probably evaporate as digital publishing matures. Cohen argues that we should shift the focus from preserving tradition to embracing digital publication and focusing more on how to successfully manage the transition.

I’m a historian, not a futurist, but I suspect that we’re not going to have to wait anywhere near forty years for ebooks to become predominant, and that the “plateau” is in part a mirage. That may cause some hand-wringing among book traditionalists, an emotion that is understandable: books are treasured artifacts of human expression. But in our praise for print we forget the great virtues of digital formats, especially the ease of distribution and greater access for all—if done right.