Sunday, February 28, 2016

MOOCs going mainstream? Reflections from eMOOCs 2016

University of Graz
Social learning, secure online examination, new pathways to credentials, unbundling and the application of learning analytics. These are some of the main themes of lat week's eMOOCs 2016 conference in Graz, Austria, that I attended together with MOOC practitioners mostly from Europe but some from further afield. Earlier conferences attracted many policy makers and managers but now the focus was very much on sharing experience and moving MOOCs to a new level. The overall tone of the conference was that MOOCs are beginning to mature and the earlier criticisms of instructivist pedagogy, low completion rates and hyped glossiness are now being addressed. Many MOOCs now offer virtual proctoring to enable MOOCs for credits, micro-credentials though badges are improving learner motivation and the focus is now on social learning rather than self-study. The business models of the main consortia are built around a freemium model with only access to course material available for free and a host of layered value-added options available at a price.

The conference featured two inspirational keynote speakers, Anant Agarwal (Professor at MIT and CEO of EdX) and Pierre Dillenbourg (Professor at EPFL Lausanne), and the rest of the time was devoted to practitioner experience, research findings and workshops. Agarwal gave an infectiously enthusiastic presentation of the EdX consortium's progress and future direction, stressing the need for MOOCs to break the sonic barrier of credits. This demands of course increased accountability. MOOCs should be as good if not better than traditional courses and this is achieved by innovative solutions, virtual proctored exams, social learning, project teams, tutoring and teacher grading in combination with peer assessment and guided studies that have become a hallmark of the genre. Verified certificates have increased course completion rates to around 60% whilst more advanced verification and course packages have given even higher rates.

Conference begins
Offering MOOCs as a stepping stone to campus studies is already in place, notably the Global Freshman Academy initiative between EdX and Arizona State University. This involves replacing the freshman year with MOOCs with open admissions. When you sit the course exams you only pay for credit if you pass. Admission to campus studies from year two is available for those who pass their year one courses and pay for the credits, what Agarwal referred to as inverted admissions. The big question here is whether more universities will accept this concept and give learners access to year two of a degree programme on the basis of credits gained from other universities' MOOCs, even with proctored examination. A similar concept is that of micromasters, bundles of MOOCs with tutoring, project work and proctored examination, which are being developed in cooperation with major companies (see also for example Coursera's specializations concept and  project-based courses). These micromasters can be counted as half of a regular masters degree thus allowing learners to complete their masters degree at half the normal price. The partner companies are on board but it remains to be seen whether this approach will gain acceptance throughout the higher education sector and widespread employer recognition.

The frequently voiced concerns about the credibility and security of online examinations may well be addressed by the practice of virtual proctoring through companies such as Software secure and Proctor U. These companies have centres where virtual proctors monitor thousands of online examinations using webcam, microphone and screen surveillance. Student computers are locked down and only allow the examination application and the webcam will register any activities like checking a mobile under the table. The software registers all exceptional behaviour and movements both on screen and in the room and these can later be investigated if there is any suspicion of cheating. This is already in practice in MOOCs for credit as well as in regular for-credit online courses though as far as I could gather had not really been tested extensively in Europe. I can imagine that European universities will be unwilling to risk such extensive surveillance data being stored outside the EU but I'm sure there will be a solution. The claim is that this technology will make online examinations at least as secure as traditional on-site exams (ie. not completely cheat-proof but probably good enough).

The conference closed with a thought-provoking speech by Pierre Dillenbourg who called on European universities to agree on how to recognize each others' MOOCs and open the way for real virtual mobility through a kind of virtual Erasmus programme. He argued that we already have the key ingredients in place; we have a common academic currency in terms of the Bologna agreement and ECTS, we have publicly funded universities giving around 4000 potential testing centres and we have cultural diversity so why can’t we offer credits for MOOCs? He urged universities and university associations to start discussing this and there were several representatives in the hall who immediately agreed to investigate further. The conference Twitter feed immediately informed us that there is already a cooperation in place between a few universities for exactly this sort of virtual mobility called Opening universities for virtual mobility.

My one concern with all this is that that the potential of MOOCs to truly open up education is being tamed and adapted to fit nicely into the traditional model. The focus now seems to be on the value-added layers and the promise of examination and credits. The wider potential of open networked learning I believe will be the task of non-traditional educational organisations rather than the higher education sector.

There were of course many other extremely interesting presentations and discussions and I may well return to them in a later post as I may do about my own contribution.

Download the full proceedings of the conference.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Amazon goes OER

Are we in the midst of a major change in the distribution and sharing of open educational resources?
Just as I had published my previous post on the platform panOpenI read that even Amazon are entering the OER arena. Amazon have announced a new platform called Amazon Inspire that will allow schools to search for, share and manage resources in an environment that will to some extent resemble the massively successful Amazon website. They promise that the service will be completely free for all schools and a beta version will come online for pilot testing in the next few weeks.

An article on Edweek Market Brief, Amazon Education to Launch New Website for Open Education Resources, describes the platform:

- Users of the site will be able to add ratings and reviews, and to receive recommendations based on their previous selections. Educators will be able to curate open resources, self-publish material they have developed, and put a school’s entire digital library that is open and freely available online.

This sounds very similar to the platform offered by panOpen except there's no mention of the twist that they offer; charging students for access and offering revenue sharing to contributing teachers. The difference is of course the sheer clout behind Amazon in terms of being able to sweep the board if their idea hits the soft spot. Schools and teachers can upload their resources and make them available to all, assumedly with Creative Commons licenses, and Amazon offers powerful search, analytics and safe storage. The problem with OER has always been the lack of consistent metadata making many resources extremely hard to find as well as the lack of efficient search tools that can harvest suitable material from the myriad of OER repositories that exist. If anyone is able to pull it all together then Amazon seems like a good bet given the success of their business so far with recommendations based on previous searches and preferences.

Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed is enthusiastic about the new venture, Amazon OER? He sees a similarity between Amazon's interest in OER and Apple's interest in podcasting when it launched iTunes and the iPod. Most of the podcasts available on iTunes are, like OER, largely free and produced by enthusiasts but the impact of some podcasts is global thanks to the power of the iTunes platform. Similarly hundreds of universities already offer over 2 million lectures free to download on the iTunes U channel. 

In the best of all possible worlds, the podcast analogy comes to fruition. Apple was the first to bring podcasts to scale, and itunes is still the most popular place to find and distribute them. But there’s no shortage of alternatives. (I’m a fan of Pocket Casts, fwiw.) It’s easy now to listen regularly to a host of podcasts without ever dipping a toe in the Apple universe. If enough alternatives come along to Amazon that it can’t control the market, even if it remains prominent within it, we could all win.  

The inevitable question is what Amazon gets out of offering this platform. There must be a business model in there despite their insistence that they will never put it behind a paywall. The logical conclusion is that they will try to sell commercial resources based on your preferences and this was indeed the logic behind Pearson's Open Class venture a couple of years ago. It will be up to the user to decide whether the openr resource is better than the commercial one but I don't think it needs to be an either-or issue. In some cases the commercial resource will offer opportunities that no open reosurce can match and then the price is justified. There must be room for commercial high-quality material as long as we can make wise choices. The other attraction for Amazon must be big data. A platform like this if it takes off will get millions of clicks and the user data must be worth quite a bit for developers. Amazon, like the other giants (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook etc), are drilling for the new oil, data. The rewards are in how you refine that crude oil into new products and services.

Could 2016 be the year OER go mainstream and at what cost?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Open for business?

Openness is in the eye of the beholder and new variations on the theme seem to pop up every week. The open component in a MOOC has become very flexible indeed, sometimes meaning something as restricted as being accessible only to those who register and log in. MOOCs are now commonly offered in layered versions with a plain vanilla view-only version available free of charge. The problem with open and free is how to build sustainability beyond grassroots volunteer work. Open education depends on enthusiasts and volunteers who earn money somewhere else and are willing to work extra for the sheer enjoyment of it. Is there a business model for openness and how can you reconcile that with the original concept?

The field of open educational resources (OER) depends on educators sharing their openly licensed resources on public repositories, mostly without reward or career recognition. Is there a business opportunity even here? One answer to that question is a platform called panOpen where open textbooks and OER can be gathered and offered to students in a convenient package of services. Many of the resources are aggregated from other repositories but panOpen offers a convenient channel with attractive functions for educators such as LMS integration, data analysis, gradebook syncing, quizzes and note-taking functions. The twist to the concept is that they offer revenue sharing to educators who provide new content to the platform, no doubt attractive to those who commit months of work to write an open textbook. Teachers or schools can upload content, adapt existing resources (according to the Creative Commons license terms) and create customised repositories for their students. The platform guarantees quality by peer review of all resources and users are encouraged to add own reviews and comments to material.

The business model for all this is to pay educators for their work and charge students for access. Students pay $25 per course for access and this income is hoped to sustain the teacher commitment to add new resources. This has of course caused a stir in the open education community since open resources suddenly have a pricetag. This is especially tricky for material that has the Creative Commons Non-commercial requirement . Open is no longer free. PanOpen explains this as follows:

“Open” does not necessarily mean “free.” Not all OER materials are free and likewise, not all free materials are considered OER. Usage rights - not cost - primarily define OER. That said, when there is a cost, OER are typically significantly cheaper than textbooks - a factor students especially appreciate.

The argument is that the resources are available elsewhere for free but that panOpen provides the aggregation, LMS integration and quality control and that is what the students pay for. Compared to buying their textbooks the costs for students are radically cut. In an article in Inside Higher Ed from 2014, OER Beyond Voluntarism, panOpen founder Brian Jacobs states the rationale behind the new venture.

A better way forward is to compensate the stakeholders -- faculty, copyright holders, and technologists, principally -- for their contributions to the OER ecosystem. This can be done by charging students nominally for the OER courses they take or as a modest institutional materials fee. When there are no longer meaningful costs associated with the underlying content, it becomes possible to compensate faculty for the extra work while radically reducing costs to students.

The definition of open takes yet another turn as new business models are tested in an attempt to build a sustainable framework for OER. We will undoubtedly see many more new interpretations of the word in the future, some of which will succeed whilst many will flop. Somewhere along the line someone has to pay for the work involved, as part of teachers' regular work or by incentives from the educational authority or another organisation like panOpen. What is evolving is a layered approach to OER whereby you have open and free access to all resources if you are willing to search through various repositories but you may have to pay to access value-added services such as those offered in panOpen. If you want a good analysis of the future of openness in education you should have a look at Martin Weller's excellent book The battle for open (free to access online).

Monday, February 1, 2016

Swedish MOOC report is published

Slightly revised version 2 Feb 2016.
Sweden has been rather late in reacting to the MOOC boom and only in the last two years have a handful of universities started offering courses both on the major MOOC platforms Coursera and EdX but also more home grown channels. Last spring the government commissioned the Swedish Higher Education Authority the task of writing a report with recommendations on how MOOCs could be promoted within the framework of Swedish higher education, outlining opportunities as well as barriers. I was invited to join the reference group for this report and on 27 January it was time to publish the report with an accompanying seminar for invited guests in Stockholm. The report is at present only available in Swedish so I will provide here a summary of the main findings as well as adding my own comments and conclusions.
Download the report here (in Swedish).


The report was based on a survey that was sent to every state-funded higher education institution in the country during autumn 2015 asking about experience with MOOCs so far, plans to launch MOOCs, motives for investing in MOOCs (or not) as well as potential benefits and drawbacks. Six institutions have so far officially offered MOOCs but there are several others who have offered massive open courses without actually labeling them as MOOCs. There is still considerable uncertainty as to what exactly a MOOC is. Swedish universities have for the last 20 years offered a wide range of short online for-credit courses (usually 7-15 credits) as part of the higher education system. There are no fees but you have to apply for admission and fulfil the prerequisites for admission. Many understandably see MOOCs as simply massive versions of what we have been doing for years and wonder what the fuss is all about.

The question to be answered in the report is really about whether MOOC development should be financed by tax-payers' money, how they can be incorporated into the educational system and if so how much funding should go to this new area. The report offers the following recommendations to the government (my own abridged translated summary).

The report is positive to the development of MOOCs within the state-funded education system and Swedish institutions should be encouraged to develop open courses in line with international development. The main reasons for this are to showcase and raise the international profile of Swedish universities and higher education, reach out to new student categories and contribute to lifelong learning. Furthermore, it is hoped that MOOC development can lead to improvements in universities' regular online courses, both technically and pedagogically. The report also recommends a greater focus on pedagogical development in e-learning.

Proposals to the government

  • Institutions should be free to develop MOOCs and other open courses and therefore new regulations concerning this form of higher education should be drawn up. However MOOC participants cannot be considered as students in the legal sense of the term and there is no question of participants gaining credits from Swedish MOOCs.
  • Institutions are allowed to use a certain amount of their state financing to develop and run MOOCs. It is up to each institution how much of this should go towards MOOC development. 
  • All institutions should be able to develop open online courses and to achieve this funding should also be available to cover professional development in digital pedagogy.
  • Although MOOCs are free it should be possible for institutions to charge fees for certificates, as often required in many international MOOC consortia.

Proposals to higher education institutions

Existing experience of developing and running MOOCs should be shared between institutions. The report identifies three possible lines of development for open online education:
  • Institutions who wish to develop and offer MOOCs should be free to do so.
  • Institutions may also develop hybrid courses which are available both as part of regular for-credit courses and as open non-credit courses (MOOCs).
  • Institutions should be encouraged to collaborate to produce open, national versions of introductory courses and skills courses that today are duplicated by many institutions. The common online course material can then be complemented at each institution by on-site seminars and support.
The authority believes that these recommendations will lead to higher quality and increased efficiency however it will be up to each institution to decide the extent to which they will follow the guidelines.

Discussion points

This report offers universities the opportunity to develop MOOCs and join international consortia but does not dictate exactly what they should do or how they should do it. The authority simply wants to remove potential barriers to MOOC development in Sweden but leave the strategic decisions up to the institutions. Many are wary of entering the MOOC arena due to uncertainty about legal aspects such as where course material and student information are stored and how that information can be used by third parties. These issues are still unresolved but maybe the coming debate around the report will result in some new initiatives.

The report finally gives MOOCs official recognition in Swedish higher education and that the further development of such courses can benefit regular degree programmes, reach out to new groups of learners and showcase Swedish education on a global level. I suspect however that the report will loosen the lock on Pandora's box and that there will then be a number of important issues to resolve such as openness, sharing, recognition of prior learning, competence-based degrees etc. The report does not offer any new guidance in terms of copyright issues (that was not within the scope of the commission) but points out some of the areas that need further investigation and urges universities to work together to find a common praxis. This, I think, is a pity because I don't think that type of collaboration will happen without a catalyst from above. I believe we need a national policy on openness recommending that educational resources financed by the state should be available to all under a Creative Commons license. Without that we will continue to produce hundreds of variations on the same theme and reinvent the wheel at the taxpayers' expense. However, the report opens the door to universities collaborating to produce national MOOCs in subject areas that are common to all students, eg study skills, academic writing, scientific methodology.

One of the trickier points in the report is allowing universities to charge fees for MOOC certificates. This breaks a central principle of Swedish higher education, that it should be free from tuition and examination fees. Many will feel that this move could set a dangerous precedent but the reason for the change is to allow universities who are part of the major consortia like Coursera, EdX and FutureLearn to follow consortium policy. Most MOOC consortia today charge for certification and allowing learners with Swedish universities to get free certificates would create conflict within those consortia. This issue is likely to become even more complicated with Coursera's recent moves to make many of its courses fee-paying by default with free participants only entitled to view a restricted amount of the course content (see article in Inside Higher Ed, Limits of open).

In addition many institutions are worried about the implications of awarding certificates in their name to MOOC participants where it is almost impossible to verify that the participant has actually done the coursework themselves. Secure forms of online examination are still an issue and as a consequence the recognition of MOOC certificates for students applying for regular university courses presents challenges that require national and international coordination.

Finally many of the unresolved issues here boil down to a crucial issue; quality. If we can agree to implement existing quality assurance guidelines on all open online courses we can establish criteria by which to assess the validity of courses and set requirements for recognising certificates.

An English summary of the report will be available in the near future but otherwise you'll need to run the present version through Google Translate to get the gist of it. I hope my summary here has at least given you the main points.