Friday, May 29, 2015

MOOCs at the movies

CC BY-SA Some rights reserved by Jrosenberry1 on Wikimedia Commons
You've seen the movie now do the MOOC ... This was the heading of a post I wrote back in 2013 and now the prediction has come true. I proposed that film companies could cooperate with universities to produce short open courses providing deeper insight into the topic of a new movie. A movie based on a famous novel could spark interest in studying the author's works and a MOOC could offer the right level of study for the newly inspired learners. We underestimate the power of popular media to awaken interest in a subject and we should take the opportunity to build on that enthusiasm and curiosity. That casual interest could develop into academic studies or a career.

Now TV film channel TCM have teamed up with Ball State University to produce a MOOC based on the channel's film noir season this summer, TCM Presents Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir.

This course will run concurrently with the Turner Classic Movies "Summer of Darkness” programming event, airing 24 hours of films noir every Friday in June and July 2015. This is the deepest catalog of film noir ever presented by the network (and perhaps any network), and provides an unprecedented opportunity for those interested in learning more to watch over 100 classic movies as they investigate “The Case of Film Noir.”

Both the course and the associated films will enrich your understanding of the film noir phenomenon—from the earliest noir precursors to recent experiments in neo-noir. You will be able to share thoughts online and test your movie knowledge with a worldwide community of film noir students and fans.

You might think that course participation would depend on subscribing to TCM but the course description makes it clear that there will be links to lots of film noir examples that are freely available on YouTube. Having access to TCM is simply a convenience but not a precondition but of course TCM are hoping to influence course participants to sign up, just as Ball State might hope to attract new students.

I see this as an exciting development of the mainstream xMOOC model, offering universities a chance to connect with new types of learners, showcase their expertise and link higher education with popular culture in innovative ways. MOOCs can be offered to provide an informed insight into themes raised by films, books, TV series, major events and anniversaries. There is of course a fine line between the scientific impartiality of higher education and the dangers of commercialism but as long as the partnerships are clearly explained, as in the above example, then I think that universities can only gain from such activities. Just let's stop calling them MOOCs please.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Lights, camera, action ..

 by cessemi, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by cessemi

When Ronald Reagan ran for president way back in the eighties there were many sceptics who couldn't accept that a movie actor could lead a nation. Whatever you think of his politics there's no doubt that even if his political background was weak his ability to deliver a message effectively and appeal to the voters was undeniable. As an actor he could play the part in a convincing way and even today he is still seen by many as one of the most popular presidents in history. Much greater politicians with far more ability and knowledge failed to communicate with the voters and struggled to convey a credible message.

So if an actor can be president why not let them lecture on university courses? That is exactly what Purdue University are testing in their professional development courses just now according to an article in Campus TechnologyWhen Actors Replace Instructors as On-Camera Talent; replacing faculty experts with professional actors to deliver more polished video lectures. Many teachers are uncomfortable recording the increasingly polished mini lectures that are so popular, especially in mainstream MOOCs, and the reasoning is that an actor can deliver a script in a more polished and convincing manner. They are comfortable on camera and know how to address an audience. Furthermore they don't introduce themselves at all so that they will not been seen as the subject experts, they simply deliver the message that has been prepared and checked by the real experts. But how did the students react?

The feedback was conclusive: Students still preferred the actor. "We didn't say who was who," Maris remarked. "But they could tell right away. They were telling us, 'Go with the actors. We love our instructor, but we love what she does in the course content. Go with the actors because we love to watch them.' We got the feedback we were hoping for without directly soliciting it."

I can imagine that this idea will provoke outraged reactions from faculty around the world and the discussion thread accompanying the article is filling up fast. However if you clear away the smoke and dust of the shocked reactions maybe it's not so crazy after all. Fronting a video explaining some basic concepts is not the true role of the teacher. Some do that sort of thing well but many do not. Teaching is not simply presenting information, it's more about supporting, mentoring, inspiring and challenging students as well as designing and running courses that lead to learning. Actors aren't going to replace teachers but they may offer a solution to tasks that teachers may not wish or need to do. I don't see this as the beginning of a major trend but I don't find the story particularly alarming.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Fragmented reality

Please Keep Your Laptops in an Upright a by cogdogblog, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by cogdogblog on Flickr

Whenever a new scandal breaks involving celebrities or politicians you hear the accused person claiming that their comments were taken out of context. If we had only heard the full conversation or read a previous article we would have realised that their intentions were good even if one small quote could be misinterpreted. The problem is that today we only hear the sound bites or choice quotes and almost no-one has time to check the context. If you make a statement, give a lecture, take part in an interview or panel debate you can never know which string of words will be picked up and take on a life of their own. Someone in the audience will happen to hear one sentence, write it down with one or two unconscious changes and broadcast it on Facebook or Twitter. Once out there anything can happen in a digital game of Chinese whispers. No matter who you are you need to realise that your audience only receives a nugget or two of your message and more often than not what they understand is out of context. Many read only part of a blogpost or see a tweet quoting a few words and then use that to support their own opinions.

I have developed over the years my own structured communication plan using different channels (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc) for specific purposes. It all makes sense to me and naively assumes that there are people out there that will follow the whole concept. If anyone did they would be so impressed by my well-crafted approach to disseminating my observations and news ;-)
Similarly organisations and companies meticulously plan their their media channels to create a coherent communication strategy on the assumption that someone out there will see that coherence.
But sadly nobody does! We zap quickly from one source to another and pass on fragments to friends who pass on fragments of those fragments.

The message is never to assume that anyone is really listening and that you need to continually reinforce your message on many channels hoping that some of your message will stick. This is nicely highlighted in a post by Harold Jarche called nobody pays attention.

In a world of general attention deficit disorder, understanding that nobody has understood what you have produced is a critical foundation for communication, especially in business. Assume that nobody has read what you have written. For those rare exceptions, assume they have interpreted it in a manner other than intended.

So how does this apply to education? We can't assume that students have all approached the topic in the same way and share a common foundation. With so many sources to choose between they will click on the links that intrigue them most and follow the leads offered by their networks. The selected readings that you choose with great care may or may not be read. You have less time than ever before to catch students' attention and there are always more attractive distractions competing for their attention. In some ways this is a healthy situation in that students are now able to find their own sources and access a wider range of opinions and perspectives than before. However in this fragmented reality it is more important than ever to focus on three critical literacies: filtering, source criticism and attention. It is essential to be able to filter the content we find, check its credibility and cross-check with other sources and finally develop the ability to sometimes switch off all our distractors and concentrate on an article, book, discussion or lecture. We can't turn the clock back to a more manageable past but need to ensure that students (and ourselves) have the tools to make sense of our increasingly fragmented and distraction-filled world.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The year of the ROOC?

Rook 2 by scyrene, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  Rook by scyrene on Flickr

At the risk of introducing yet another silly acronym into a world drowning in such things, maybe this can be the year of the ROOC - Really Open Online Courses. The problem with most MOOCs is that they are very seldom really open. The structure, templates and material are usually copyright and are not open for reuse and adaptation. While it's understandable that the owners want to protect their material it could benefit so many more people if it could be translated and adapted to other languages and cultures. The word open can be interpreted in so many different ways and this leads to a lot of confusion. The key to ROOCs is open licenses that allow others to use and adapt the course and its constituent parts to be more relevant to local culture and context.

One of the often repeated benefits of the MOOC movement was to make quality higher education available to all and the rather colonial vision of students in developing countries avidly following classes from the top professors at Harvard, Stanford, MIT etc. The problem here is that although the glossy high-end MOOCs are well produced and academically sound they are very much rooted in a western perspective and have little relevance to students in many other parts of the world. This one-size-fits-all approach has been widely criticized and if we genuinely want to use online learning to widen participation in higher education the present proprietary model of most MOOCs must be changed.

So what are the ingredients of a really open online course (massive or not)?
  • All course material has an open Creative Commons license permitting reuse and adaptation so that institutions and educators in other countries can make the course more relevant to local issues and culture.
  • Design sustainable resources - not context-specific, easy to add subtitles, avoid locked proprietary software, standard templates, compatible formats etc.
  • Build the course on a platform that is freely available to others.
  • Create a community around the course to open up the development process from the beginning and then provide support in the future.
If designed in this way even a very small course could grow into a massive one. The initial iteration may not have a massive target group but maybe an institution in, say, India sees the potential to adapt it and serve a massive target group there. Alternatively a small course could be adapted into hundreds of equally small but locally important courses on a global scale. The true power of open education lies in sharing and developing resources together but today's proprietary models simply reinforce traditional structures rather than democratising education. 

If you are still wondering about the photograph above, the bird is a rook!