Sunday, June 28, 2015

MOOCs for teacher development

Traditionally teachers seldom get a chance to watch each other and share experience. Teaching has been an individualistic rather than collective career where you work out your own strategies, create your own courses and learn from your own mistakes. Even with the advent of online learning, courses tended to be centred around one teacher and the course material was locked into a virtual classroom to which other teachers seldom had access. Of course there is widespread use more collaborative teaching, especially in schools, but in higher education the lone teacher approach still dominates.

An article in the Atlantic, The (Accidental) Power of MOOCs, looks at new statistics on MOOC demographics that not only confirm previous findings that most participants already have a university education but also reveal that as many as 39% are teachers. The attraction is obvious; a chance to see how other teachers work and an opportunity to learn new methods and tools that can then be applied in your own teaching.

That they would voluntarily participate in an online-learning experience focusing on a field they already know isn’t that surprising; as practitioners of education, teachers may also have an interest in the processes and applications of MOOCs, studying how questions, assignments, and tests are handled in online teaching environments, for example. Nor is it surprising that teachers are interested in pedagogy—watching and learning how an applauded instructor delivers a lesson.

For many the subject matter will probably be familiar so they take the course as part of their professional development, especially if they are themselves teaching in an online context. MOOCs can also enable teachers to expand their professional networks and so the MOOC can be a springboard to future international collaboration. It may not have been the outcome the MOOC providers intended but the article sees the professional development of teachers as an accidental effect of the MOOC movement. Thus MOOCs are inspiring traditional teachers to rethink their own classroom practices and use digital media to enrich their own teaching.

But it's not only that teachers are learning by following courses in their subject area, there are a growing number of MOOCs about using technology in education and these are filling competence gaps that many institutions and authorities fail to provide for their teachers. A European project called Handson ICT have recently published a guide for teachers looking for a suitable MOOC to learn about using technology in education, MOOCs as Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in Educational Practice. A practical guide for educators. Here they examine quality criteria for these courses and present a thorough benchmarking overview of currently available MOOCs for educators.

... there are increasing numbers of MOOCs on the market and while the richness of the options is exciting, it may also be overwhelming, especially to those new to online CPD. This document, therefore, aims to help any educator wishing to undertake a MOOC as part of their professional development to an enriching learning experience.

The project also runs its own professional development MOOC, Learning Design Studio for ICT-based Learning Activities, and the next course starts in late October. Here's the preview video for the course.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Supporting new learners in open education

Help! by GotCredit, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by GotCredit

Last week I attended a conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm called MOOCs in Scandinavia which was an opportunity to take stock of the development so far and hopefully create a springboard to future development. Scandinavia is a rather late arrival on the MOOC front and there are still only a handful of institutions offering courses in the major consortia but there are also many examples of off-piste open courses that haven't got the MOOC label but are extremely interesting nonetheless. The highlight of the event was of course the final keynote from George Siemens, MOOCs and Learning Sciences: Where we have been. Where we are going, who concluded by claiming that MOOCs are actually rather irrelevant but that they raise important issues about how higher education needs to adapt to the digitalisation of society. A welcome perspective to warn against focusing on just one interpretation (or misinterpretation) of open learning.

However, although I thoroughly enjoyed George's lecture and it gave me several new avenues to investigate further there was another talk that gave me immediate food for thought. Sandra Milligan and colleagues at the University of Melbourne have been researching student data from MOOCs and looking at factors that affect learners' course completion. Their work is presented on the blog Crowd-sourced learning in MOOCs. They see a clear correlation between previous learning experience and depth of involvement in an open course. They describe five types of open learners (expert, competent, emergent, beginner and novice) and the research examines the following hypotheses:

  • there is a complex, latent ‘21st century’ skill required by MOOC participants to crowd-source their learning in MOOC forums;
  • individuals possess this skill to differing degrees and these differences explain in part differences in learning outcomes;
  • forum activities such as posting, voting, and viewing do not in and of themselves generate learning, but skilled learners are adept at using them in particular ways to generate learning; and
  • measurement theory and its associated methodologies make possible a mapping of patterns of forum activity onto a learning progression describing the hypothesised latent skill, and this mapping can be used to infer individuals’ level of skill.
Novices and experts have totally different ways of approaching a MOOC. Novices tend to see the course material as content to be consumed and will only look at the prescribed material and nothing else. They will not contribute to or even read the discussions in the forum and will not build a peer network to help them learn. They expect to be lead by the teacher and do not know how to take charge of their own learning. Experts, however, know how to dig deeper, read beyond the stipulated pages and above all take an active part in discussion. They have learnt how to learn. The research team in Melbourne have produced a useful rubric sheet for assessing a learner's level of participation and this can be used for learner self-assessment and can help to guide learners towards more active involvement..

This leads me into thinking about factors that affect learner involvement in open courses:
  • Study skills
    Those who succeed in online courses tend to be those with good study skills. This means they can find information, check sources, take notes and reflect on what they have found. Online learning today differs greatly from the classroom tradition that most people were raised on and requires new skills that take time to acquire. If we want open learning to really reach out to new categories of learners there must be local support available to help them acquire these skills. Here there is a major role for libraries, learning centres and other further education institutions but they need funding and a clear national strategy. 
  • Learning confidence
    It's not just study skills that affect participation it's also the confidence of the learners. Many new learners are hesitant about participating in a course that they might feel is too advanced for them. The slightest problem or misunderstanding will confirm to them that they are "too stupid" for this sort of course and they will immediately drop out. What happens when confident, experienced practitioners mix with novices in a discussion forum? It's not unusual for experts to participate in a MOOC simply to see how it is run and to get ideas for their own courses. If experts start posting in the forums, as they generally do, the effect on novices can be disastrous. The novices are naturally daunted by the high level of discussion, feel that they have nothing to contribute and are afraid of asking "stupid" questions.
    Here we also need careful scaffolding to give new learners more confidence; progress maps that make learning more visible, mini-certifications like badges,teaching self- and peer evaluation, facilitating collaboration around tasks etc.
  • Language skills
    As I have written earlier I think proficiency in English is a significant factor in online learning. If you are not reasonably fluent you will tend not participate in discussions or complete assignments. English language MOOCs can provide more support for non-native speakers with subtitled videos and transcripts but more importantly the course material could be published under an open licence so that local institutions could provide translated and adapted versions more suited to local issues and culture.
If we really want education to be available to all we need to focus on developing support structures, both online and face-to.-face.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

How sticky are your courses?

Glue goo by Sam-Cat, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Sam-Cat

How sticky are your courses? What sort of glue is required to keep learners involved? How do we awaken interest and create the critical momentum and engagement that are needed to guarantee completion? It all depends on what type of course we're talking about and the glue needed on an open online course is fundamentally different from the glue traditionally applied.

Traditional post-secondary education is often selective and exclusive. The institution clearly states the prerequisites for application (required qualifications and grades, previous experience etc), the curriculum, required workload, schedule and expected outcomes and the student, by applying, agrees to abide by these. Of those who apply only a select group make the cut and they generally have to apply for a loan or grant to pay the fees and the costs of studying. This group has therefore invested greatly in the course and has agreed to the terms and conditions. Dropping out is a major decision and so the completion rates will naturally be high. The rewards are also clear in the form of a degree, certificate and job prospects. Basically there is a lot of glue holding the students and the course together and this will hold even if the course design and pedagogy are less than ideal. The high completion rates of many campus courses are perhaps an illusion in terms of course quality; for many students dropping out is simply not an option.

On the other hand non-traditional post-secondary education in the form of open online courses do not have these extrinsic motivating factors. The greater the openness and flexibility the weaker the extrinsic motivators and the course has to rely on the students' intrinsic motivation and the design and pedagogy of the course to keep them on board. Learners participate because they want to learn and because the process is stimulating and engaging. The glue needed here is all about inspiring intrinsic motivation by good course design and skilled teaching and facilitation.

A post on Edugeek Journal called What If The Problem Isn’t With MOOCs But Something Else? develops this idea and provides a new angle on the old theme of MOOC completion rates. Maybe it's not the MOOCs that are failing but that the traditional system has made us dependent on grades, exams and credits and we cannot imagine education without them. We have focused too much on the stickiness of extrinsic motivation that we have neglected the preconditions for real learning. Maybe MOOCs are simply revealing a flawed system?

What if the problem is not with the learners, but the way they have been programmed through the years? Grades, credits, failure, tuition, fees, gold stars, extra recess for good grades, monetary rewards, etc are all programmed into learners from a young age.
You can say MOOCs are failing because they lack sufficient “student motivation,” but what if it was actually the case that society has been failing for decades and MOOCs are just exposing this?

We assume so often that only by offering extrinsic rewards can we win students' loyalty and so when those rewards are stripped away, as they are in a non-formal educational context the only glue we have is the fundamental joy of learning and teaching.

Traditional education has typically sought for a “suspension of laziness” – looking for ways to get learners to get off their rears and learn (because we always assume that when they don’t want to learn it is their motivation instead of our design). Newer ideas like MOOCs are going past that, to what I guess could be called “suspension of extrinsic motivation” (for lack of better words). What does learning design look like when you remove all of these carrot sticks (or actual paddling sticks) and leave learners to just pure learning? Well… maybe purer learning than what we had.

So it's time to stop comparing these two fundamentally different learning contexts and see open education as a challenge where the focus is fully on course design, pedagogy and enthusiasm.