Thursday, June 30, 2016

How would you like your course?

CC0 Public Domain on Pixabay
Pretty well every MOOC provider today builds in some kind of arena for interaction and collaboration and although many participants still operate in self-study mode there are many who see the course as a networking opportunity and simply learn better in the company of peers. Interaction and collaboration have long been seen as the key to raising the completion rates in MOOCs. The problem is that we all have our own preferences when it comes to interaction; some enjoy synchronous video or audio meetings whilst other prefer asynchronous chat or discussion threads. We also have cultural differences in how willing we are to discuss with strangers and seeing learning as a collaborative process. Add to this the linguistic difficulties many non-native English speakers experince especially when entering an advanced academic discussion with highly eloquent native speakers. Just offering an arena and hoping people will discuss simply doesn't work. But maybe if we first ask the participants how they would like to learn?

A new study from Penn State University, highlighted in an article on Campus Technology, Grouping MOOC Students by Communication Mode Doesnt Help Completion, offered MOOC participants a choice of how they would like to interact with peers in their MOOC and put them into study groups according to those preferences.

A team of seven researchers undertook an examination of participants in a Penn State MOOC, "Creativity, Innovation and Change," which was delivered on Coursera and drew 200,000 people from 190 countries in 2013 and 2014. Volunteers in the course were asked to fill out a pre-course survey online to provide demographic information and designate their learning preferences: Did they prefer to be part of a group that used asynchronous text posts, synchronous text chats, or synchronous video and audio as their primary channels for communication?

The results were not particularly encouraging as far as raising completion rates was concerned but the study does offer new insights into interaction preferences. For example participants over 40 were more likely to complete the course than younger participants and female participants were more interested in study groups than males. Further study in more courses will hopefully be made.

Statistically significant relationships were found between learners’ preferred communication modes and their level of English proficiency, gender, level of education, and age. Although placing learners in groups based on their preferences and introducing them to each other did not improve course performance or completion, our findings on preferred communication modes, combined with more formal instruction of how to function as group members may prove to enhance learning and engagement in MOOCs.

Since MOOCs are free and without formal demands it is unlikely that completion rates will ever be particularly high but I'm sure that creating a sense of community is a key factor to helping more participants stay the course. One area that needs to be developed is not just asking about collaboration preferences but providing support on collaborative literacy. Many people simply don't know how to work collaboratively, especially online and some kind of pre-course guide on how to get the most out of your course followed by a choice of participation options could help a lot. Study groups could be offered around synchronous or asynchronous interaction, self-study, geographic location, native language or a mix. Can we somehow offer supportive and safe study groups as a complement to massive openness then maybe that will lead to more people benefitting from this type of education.

Exploring the communication preferences of MOOC learners and the value of preference-based groups: Is grouping enough? Qing Zhang, Kyle L. Peck , Adelina Hristova, Kathryn W. Jablokow, Vicki Hoffman, Eunsung Park, Rebecca Yvonne Bayeck.  Educational Technology Research and Development pp 1-29 (March 2016).

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Where do old MOOCs go when they die?

After a MOOC is over the course material and the learners' own material are available for future reference but the the question is for how long? How long can old courses be archived and should there be a best before date? Questions like this have arisen after Coursera's announcement that they are migrating to a new platform. The new platform will certainly offer many new features and better user experience but there is a little catch as outlined in an article on Class Central's blog, Coursera is Removing Hundreds of Courses. Here is a Guide To Get Them While You Can. The old platform will be shut down completely on 30 June and not all courses will be migrated to the new one. Class Central claims that hundreds of courses will be affected whereas Cousera's blog reassures users that losses will be minimal:

There are a few dozen courses on the old platform that will not migrate to the new platform, and thus will not be available after June 30th. These include courses that are out of date (e.g., medicine and technology courses that do not reflect recent research and development breakthroughs), courses that have been updated and relaunched under another title on the new platform, and a few courses that our university partners have chosen to discontinue for other reasons.

The Class Central guide however advises users who want to save the course material and own work from the endangered courses to do so as soon as possible since there is no indication from Coursera as to whether they will be migrated at all. There's a good step-by-step guide for downloading the courses so if you want access to any old Coursera courses, please check the guide as soon as possible.

MOOC critics will certainly voice concerns about the risk of courses and learners' material disappearing like this (though it must be stressed that it is unclear exactly whether the courses will disappear of not). Certainly the risk of all "free" services is that you are at the mercy of the service provider and there is always the risk that terms can change at short notice, price tags get added or the provider goes bust. Coursera are making a major upgrade of their service and have decided, along with the responsible universities, not to migrate courses that are no longer relevant. Maybe MOOC providers should have an archiving policy clearly stating how long material will be available and what rights the participants has in terms of accessing their material after the course is over and making it easy for them to download what they want to keep for the future. Alternatively let the responsible university take care of archiving.

Then again is this so unusual really? How long are students able to keep their LMS log-in after their degree is completed and can they easily download the course material? Universities are legally bound to archive old courses for several years but I'm not sure if any have archiving policies for MOOCs. As long as MOOCs are free and non-credit then maybe you can't expect them to be accessible forever but now that credits and other credentials are being awarded as well MOOCs being presented for recognition of prior learning it's time to develop archiving policies. A course shouldn't simply disappear.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Taking charge of your professional development

For many education professionals competence development is still mostly locked into attending internal training sessions either on campus or at a conference centre before the start of the new academic year. Sometimes these sessions are excellent and many can gain inspiration from them but often they miss the mark. The session can never be relevant for everyone; some already know what is being taught and others find it completely over their heads. Competence development is highly personal and so a classroom approach is always going to fall short. Maybe the most valuable group trining initiatives are workshops on how to take charge of your owbn professional development. Instead of waiting for a suitable on-site course to be arranged we can all benefit from learning how to find educational resources, join communities of practice, develop personal learning networks, find open courses to join amd develop skills in online collaboration. The range of opportunities is vast but sadly very few teachers are aware of them so awareness raising workshops are a good start.

Steven W Anderson writes about this in a recent post, Taking Control Of Your Professional Development. He recommends teachers to widen their horizons by reading educational blogs, attending free webinars, joining Twitter chat sessions and attending edcamps. The links he provides are all USA-oriented but similar resources and communities are available in most countries. The key skill in professional development is learning how to learn online. Professional development is available to all if you know where to find it.

The fact of the matter is educators, no matter their position, can no longer rely on their schools and districts to provide the targeted professional development every educator needs and deserves.

There are of course many more sources of inspiration and here are my additions to Steven's list.

Social networks.
Search for teacher groups on Facebook or Google+, both in your own country and internationally. There are thousands of professional groups that you can join but the trick is to find the ones that are relevant for you and are active. Check the group and see how active it is and whether the discussions are relevant for you before asking to join. Most professional groups are protected to some extent and you have to ask for membership but most let you view their activity without being a member. If the administrator sees that you are serious you will be admitted. Here it is important that you have a good profile description and photo that show you are real. Spammers normally have bizarre profile photos, no friends and no signs of interaction with others.

There are many benefits of participating in such professional groups. You widen your professional network, participate in a wider discussion and if you share your knowledge and help others new opportunities will emerge such as invitations to join a project, develop a course, write an article etc. Many people join communities as passive members but the fact is that the more you put in the more you get out. Get involved and see where it takes you. If the group gets too quiet just leave and find a more lively group. If you're wary of Facebook or Google+ then there are thousands of professional groups and networks on LinkedIn. Just search and join the ones that appeal.

Open courses
There are thousands of free open courses out there and not all are called MOOCs. There are lots of open courses for teacher development and the best place to start is to search on MOOC aggregators like Class Central, EMMA or Openuped where you can find courses from most of the major consortia. Some courses are mostly guided self-study but most offer discussion forums and other opportunities for interaction and once again getting involved means you can build your international contact network. The main thing to remember is not to take these courses lightly. Many demand at least 8 hours of study per week and if you want to learn you need to make an effort. Still too many people assume that an online course is for some strange reason a light option.

There are also many open online courses that don't mention that four-letter acronym, offering both self-study and collaborative models, such as Peer 2 Peer University, OERuniversity, Udemy and many more.

Open educational resources
There is of course a vast range of OER that can provide inspiration and professional development. The difficulty is that all this courseware is distributed over hundreds of repositories and it's hard to make fully aggregated searches. Furthermore OER tend to be single resources that don't link to related material so putting them together into a coherent self-study course structure may not be easy. If you looking for resources in English try searching for "teaching" or "pedagogy" in the Open Education Consortium search function. Another source of lectures and course material from thousands of institutions worldwide is iTunesU and you can download the material free to any device though you first need to download the iTunes app.  Furthermore many universities share their lectures and course material on open courseware sites like MIT Open courseware, Open University's Open Learn etc. There are of course similar resource banks in most countries and in many languages.

Monday, June 6, 2016

When does a MOOC become a regular online course?

What's the difference between a MOOC and a regular online course? The answer seemed obvious a couple of years ago and most institutions made it very clear that the two should not mix. MOOCs had no entry requirements or tuition fees and only gave certificates of completion, often without even the logo of the university on the certificate, to ensure that they should not be seen by employers as university qualifications.  Today, however, as more and more universities are offering MOOCs for credit by offering proctored examinations either on a campus or online, the two forms are beginning to merge. In addition the main consortia are packaging courses into specialisations or nanodegrees with graded final project assignments that lead to new forms of credentials that are not credit equivalent but may form a new layer of credentials below degree level.

University of Leeds and the Open University recently announced that they will be offering MOOCs for credit through the FutureLearn consortium according to an article in the Guardian, Moocs to earn degree credits for first time in UK at two universities. This will costs you a bit but less than taking the course on campus.

To complete programmes that attract an academic credit or offer a qualification, students may have to pay and pass an assessment module. Universities will award credit against the grade achieved which will then count towards a degree ... In the Leeds offering, for example, each course certificate will cost £59 and there are five taught courses; the sixth assessment course, which leads to 10 credits, is priced at £250 – making a total cost of £545 – which will also cover access to online library content.

Arizona State University have a scheme called Global Freshman Academy on the EdX platform giving students the chance to replace their first year of study with a selection of MOOCs and those who pass can then apply to start their campus programme from the start of year two. Here we see MOOCs doing the job of regular online courses so where's the difference? The outcomes and content are converging but the openness of application process is what differentiates the two forms. ASU are opening up entry to study by allowing anyone to start their MOOCs and then seeing who succeeds before accepting them on to year two. Similar thinking lies behind the two UK examples.

Basically regular for-credit courses are starting to absorb some of the MOOC concept. The effect could be that students will be able to test higher education by taking a selection of first year courses and deciding during the course whether they want to take the examination for credit. The selection process is thus moved to the the end of each course. Many will still choose to complete the course without credit as pure competence development whilst others will opt for credit and continue towards full-time study. The entry to university studies can either be a full commitment from the start with full-time campus studies from year one but also an alternative path that is more open and flrxible and most importantly less expensive. Four year campus studies is simply too expensive in many countries and inconvenient for many older students who do not wish to move from their home areas due to work and family. For them any way of cutting the time on campus and increasing flexibility is very welcome.

I expect to see more for-credit courses taking a MOOC approach to recruitment by opening up admission and then allowing the most motivated the option of paying to take the examination. This doesn't mean that regular online courses will simply become like MOOCs but they will adopt some of features just as MOOCs (or whatever they will be called in the future) will adopt many featurs of regular courses. The interest in MOOCs as pure lifelong learning will continue but only if the institutions providing them can find a sustainable financing model and an alignment with the mainstream would seem the safest route.