Sunday, January 27, 2019

Online degrees and physical presence

Online degrees are still not even recognised in many countries and even when they are, they are generally viewed with a degree of suspicion. The reasons for this suspicion are understandable. The whole field of online education is still evolving and so there is a much higher degree of experimentation and remodeling, with subsequent successes and failures, than in traditional campus education. Online courses over the years have been largely based on self-study with very little interaction or teacher presence and this model still dominates the public perception. Online education tends to be part-time, home-based and in combination with work and family and students do not benefit from the many advantages of being on campus: developing contacts, social interaction, strong student identity, academic community. The courses may cover the same topics and have equally high demands but the campus version still has higher status because of the added value of these intangible elements.

The question of whether online degrees will ever be seen as equivalent to campus degrees is examined in an article by Eric Stoller in Inside Higher Ed, Online Degrees: Prestige, Acceptance, and the Big Picture. Even if there are excellent examples of collaborative and engaging online education, the value of a course or degree is closely tied to the reputation of the awarding institution.

Online degree prestige at present is directly connected to the perceived prestige of the brick-and-mortar institution that's offering the program.

This argument is particularly true for MOOCs, where courses from high-status universities attract the most attention, even if that particular institution has never previously been recognised as a provider of quality online education. The global ranking systems that focus on research funding and citation impact do not always correspond to pedagogical excellence but prestige is still what counts when assessing the value of a course or degree. So a MOOC or online course from the likes of Harvard or Stanford will always attract more learners and have a higher perceived value than one from an obscure college, even if the actual course at the smaller institution is better designed and more engaging.

Perception is everything when it comes to prestige and certain institutions have an almost insurmountable amount of prestige.

Place and tradition are extremely important in human society. A university needs a physical presence and a long history to instill trust and credibility, even if it offers online degrees. This physical footprint creates a sense of permanence and a demonstration of its commitment. You can go there to see the staff, researchers and students going about their daily work. The more online an institution, the more invisible it becomes and the harder it gets to visualise what goes on there. We still tend to value online courses from well-known physical institutions with a long history higher than virtual institutions with little physical presence and a very short history. Association with a physical footprint makes a difference.

The key to the future of online degrees is that they are subject to the same rigorous quality assurance as all degrees and that this is communicated clearly to the public. Online education is unlikely to match the prestige of a campus education, even in the future, but Stoller stresses the need for accreditation to ensure that your online degree will allow you to pursue your chosen career.

If you get an online-based degree twenty years from now, I would hope that as long as it comes from a reputable institution (regardless of its perceived prestige) that's been accredited by a legitimate accreditor that your credential allows you to do whatever you hope to do with it regardless of the crest atop the gate at XYZ university.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Goodbye Google+

Google are pulling the plug on their social network Google+ with as little ceremony as possible. It's not even clear exactly when the lights will be switched off but it will probably be in April. It is no big surprise to many users since the service has been largely left to wither over the last few years with few signs of any loving care from its owners. It now follows a line of Google services that have been quietly laid to rest over the years when they failed to gain the impact that their often over-hyped launches promised. Remember Google Wave for example? It was the platform that would revolutionise online communication and was introduced cleverly by invitation only in 2009. Invitations to try Google Wave became status symbols and expectations were sky-high. However the platform didn't meet these expectations and was quietly phased out a mere two years later.

There's a good eulogy to Google+ by Gideon Rosenblatt, Can You Fall in Love with a Social Network?, where he tracks the rise and fall of the platform and explains why he embraced it so enthusiastically, as did many others including myself. Although it is often presented as Google's challenge to Facebook, Google+ offered a different approach built on forming interest groups based on circles of friends and colleagues. I've been using it for several years as a platform for our online course Open Networked Learning, both as a community for the whole course and for small communities for each of the study groups in the course. It has worked very well and has an attractive layout that is easy to work with. A few years ago Google+ was fully integrated with Google Hangouts, the web-conferencing tool, and this made group work extremely easy, allowing all participants to arrange and run events in the form of a Hangout. Sadly Hangouts was suddenly disconnected from Google+ a few years ago and we have had to find other conferencing tools instead. Hangouts still lives on as a service, but it is very much under the radar and I hardly know anyone who uses it any more. Another case of a good service dying through neglect.

The main lesson here is that platforms and tools come and go. That means you will always need a plan B and somewhere safe to store the data you value.

The main lesson of Google+ is that it’s time to stop trusting our creations and our relationships to companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, in the hopes that they will do the right thing with them. They will do the right thing as long as it maps to their primary purpose, which is maximizing returns for their shareholders. When that stops being true, well, then, that assumption of trust disappears. Google+ demonstrates this problem more vividly than any product or service shutdown that I can remember.

I will miss Google+ but not in the form it has taken in recent years, where it became less useful with every so-called update. It lost its spark a few years ago and instead of being a place for innovative new functions and dynamic communities it became a slowly stagnating backwater. Our online course is now using BuddyPress, a WordPress plug-in, to create communities and this looks like a more reliable solution that we have greater control over and can run on our own server.

If you want to see how you can save at least some of your content on Google+, I can recommend a post by Sue Beckingham, Google+ is now closing in April 2019 – How to download what you have curated.