Wednesday, December 16, 2015

MOOCs - the price of recognition

Freemium : payer plus pour des services by louisvolant, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by louisvolant

The freemium model (try out for free but then you have to pay) for MOOCs is gaining ground rapidly and price tags are appearing on everything except basic access to the material. Until now you could get a free certificate on completion of a MOOC but not anymore according to an article in Class CentralMOOC Trends in 2015: The Death of Free Certificates. Udacity, Coursera and FutureLearn all charge for even the basic course completion certificate and now EdX have announced that they will follow suit. Of course the free certificates did not really translate into credential hard currency but were a nice recognition of course completion. Now it seems the major MOOC consortia see even the most basic certificates as a source of income, indicating that investors are looking for higher returns after the initial free education for all rhetoric has died down. It can also be an attempt to answer the criticism that certificates for simple course completion were not worth the pixels they were written on, given that there are no guarantees that the person receiving the certificate actually did the work. Does the payment of a fee raise the value of the credential? If I have to pay for something that was previously free there should be added value.

It seems that we have reached an interesting point in the MOOC saga. The open and free part is shrinking and without completion certificates the plain vanilla MOOC becomes a collection of not-so-open educational resources that you are welcome to use for your own development but without any kind of recognition. Mainstream MOOCs are now officially commercial operations but you can access the material if you want. There's certainly nothing new here since many universities have shared their resources as open courseware for many years (MIT OCW, OpenLearn etc) and you are free to access the material whenever you want. The MOOCs provide a structure for you to follow but if you need recognition you will have to pay. In some cases the price of recognition is increasing with certificates (of varying levels of dignity) ranging between $25 - $300 per course. It's still cheaper than the for-credit options but then again the credits are valuable hard currency compared to MOOC certificates.

Paying customers are more likely to complete the course and as we move to a more layered model for MOOCs we will see completion rates based only on the numbers of paying participants whilst the free learners merely demonstrate the level of general interest. As I have written before I think it really is time to stop using the term MOOC and find more realistic descriptions. On the one hand we have a largely commercial field offering massive online courses for fees with a variety of certificates and even credits. On the other hand we have the field of genuinely open courses run as collaborative projects or as part of a community. These are open in terms of access as well as offering material for reuse and adaptation. They may not be as glossy and polished as the commercial courses but they are non-profit and run on enthusiasm and pioneer spirit. Both options serve a purpose and will continue to evolve but let's stop confusing the two and pushing them both into the uncomfortable box labelled MOOC.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The challenge of self-directed learning

studying up by presta, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by presta

We learn all through our lives almost unconsciously by watching, reading, listening, testing, failing and persevering. In fact most people don't realize the value of informal learning since it takes place as a natural part of everyday life. We have a natural ability to acquire new skills and the process is mostly social, learning from others, getting advice, copying and adapting. This takes place without anyone planning or leading the activity. However when we want to acquire more advanced skills we turn to formal education which is planned and lead by skilled professionals, teachers. Some people are able to acquire even advanced skills informally as self-directed learners but most of us are dependent on teachers to lead us through the process. The role of the teacher is so crucial that it can either inspire us or make us avoid the subject for the rest of our lives. This teacher dependence is possibly both the strongest and weakest factor in formal education.

When we scale education, either in large campus cohorts of 200 plus students in a large lecture hall or in a MOOC on the net, we tend to emphasize the role of the charismatic teacher, leading the course from the stage (physical or digital) but lose the the benefits of close contact and guidance that works so well in small groups . I've written many times about the problem facing MOOCs, and indeed large campus clases; how to scale interaction and the beneficial influence of good teaching. When you have one or a few teachers leading a massive course the link between them and the learners becomes weak and learners must fend for themselves. Learners either have to develop strategies for effective self-study or take the initiative to establish a study group for mutual support. These are skills that few have since we are so dependent on learning being organised for us.

Most MOOCs are run like formal courses with fixed start and finish dates and a linear progression through a pre-set package of content. This fixed structure provides a clear framework, opportunities for interaction (at least between peers), a sense of participation and the deadlines that many people need to keep on track. However, the downside is that many drop out when other priorities disrupt the tight course schedule. An alternative approach that is growing in popularity is that of self-paced MOOCs where you are free to study at your own pace and you can start the course whenever you want. Here the advantages of flexibility and convenience are offset by the challenges of self-study and lack of support. Self-paced MOOCs are discussed in an article on Class Central, MOOC Trends in 2015: Rise of Self Paced Courses.

Self paced courses are a clear boon to those students who want scheduling flexibility, but they also remove key elements that have been part of the “MOOC” formula that has been so popular. Such elements include the benefits of tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) students taking the course together and learning at the same pace. According to Class Central user Greg Hamel, who has completed more than one hundred MOOCs: “Lack of schedule means students are not all learning the same material at the same time. This makes it harder to get help and discuss course content.

However regardless of the model, massive courses suffer from a low sense of belonging and are therefore best suited to self-directed learners, a rare commodity outside academic circles. A self-paced MOOC sounds attractive but without deadlines only experienced self-directed learners will complete them. As more and more education becomes "on demand" the need to explicitly teach self-directed learning will increase. Until then the vast majority still need the guidance and supervision that a teacher-lead course offers and the question in how to offer this in a massive online course.

One solution to this is to offer learners local or regional teacher-supported groups to complement the MOOC, as described in a new article in the journal IRRODL (Nov 2015), Using MOOCs at Learning Centers in Northern Sweden, Here in Sweden there is a network of municipal learning centres that provide support for distance learning as well as hosting distributed courses. This article describes an attempt to offer local support for a global MOOC where local participants in the MOOC could meet regularly and discuss the course topics in Swedish with support and a university teacher who examined them at the end of the course so they could get a university certificate as well as the MOOC-provider's certificate. This hybrid solution could benefit both learners and universities. By having access to a small local study group and support the learners are more likely to complete the course and gain the additional benefit of getting a certificate that has more local recognition than the one provided by the MOOC provider. An increase in course completion will also benefit the provider. MOOCs should welcome third party add-on services like this. It can be a lifeline for all those who are not self-directed learners.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Reading around the world

Inuit Language by pietroizzo, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by pietroizzo

I can recommend that you watch this TED talk by Ann Morgan (below), My year reading a book from every country in the world. She decided to read a book from every country in the world and here she describes how she succeeded. It was not an easy task since only a fraction of the world's published fiction ever gets translated to English whilst the best-selling titles in English tend to be translated to almost every other language. She considered herself very well read but realised that her perspective was of course almost exclusively that of the English speaking countries, in particular the UK and the USA. Her challenge was a daunting one since many countries had little or no accessible literature for speakers of English or other major western languages. She succeeded thanks to networking, spreading the word on social media and benefitting from some remarkable crowd-sourcing when stories were translated into English but volunteer enthusiasts.

This is a heart-warming success story and a tribute to the collaborative and open culture on the net that so seldom gets media coverage. It also highlights the potential of crowd-sourced translation to bring literature from developing countries to a global audience. Very few, if any, commercial publishers will risk commissioning English translations of works from, say, Burkino Faso, Kazakhstan or Laos but groups of students, teachers or writers could share the task and produce open e-books, not for commercial gain but as showcase for the country's writers. It's a similar model to sites like Jamendo that offer free music with Creative Commons licenses that can be downloaded and reused. The musicians make no money from this but can gain global reputation and recognition that may result in commercial opportunities later on. Time for an open literature movement to promote world literature?

Another difficulty in reading around the world is that the vast majority of world languages are not even on the net yet according to an article in The Atlantic, The Internet Isn't Available in Most Languages.

At the moment, the Internet only has webpages in about five percent of the world's languages. Even national languages like Hindi and Swahili are used on only .01 percent of the 10 million most popular websites. The majority of the world’s languages lack an online presence that is actually useful.

So even if the infrastructure and technology are available there is simply very little to read there for millions of people. The popular social media lack instructions and templates in most languages making them impossible to use. We need to find innovative strategies to widen the linguistic range of the internet and ensure that there is relevant content for all. The notion that open educational resources, MOOCs and so on can make education accessible for all will not happen until those resources are available in many more languages than today. The lack of linguistic diversity on the net deserves more attention and we need to find ways to stimulate the development of digital content in all languages. A lot can be done by volunteer grassroots initiatives, providing free open platforms, training and support, but more stimulus, especially financial, is required from national and international organisations.