Sunday, January 23, 2022

Back to the classroom - risk for a post-pandemic backlash?

Photo by Changbok Ko on Unsplash

Over the last year or so there have been countless articles and blog posts about how the pandemic has finally brought online education to the forefront and how education will now be able to take a leap forward as we fully integrate more collaborative and active learning with the help of digital platforms and tools. This is linked to similarly optimistic forecasts of how work culture will change radically as working from home becomes mainstream. Of course there will be changes in the way we teach and learn but don't underestimate the power of tradition and the desire to return to familiar ingrained practice. 

Several posts in the past week have featured the risk of a backlash against the online transformation narrative. Politicians in many countries are increasingly focusing on the need to get students back on campus and return to traditional teaching. This is understandable but it is often combined with a bias against online education as a poor substitute - the assumption that education is always best in the physical classroom. This point is discussed by Martin WellerWhy do education secretaries hate online learning? with reference to recent remarks by UK politicians.

I mean, it’s weird, right? On the one hand, all Governments like to berate education for not fully preparing students for the modern workplace. They unveil plans about how they will be a modern, 21st century, digital economy. And yet, successive education secretaries have berated online learning, which one would think was an essential component in realising both of the previous aims. And not just offer up some valid criticisms around issues of retention or engagement, say, but they use terminology that portrays online learning as, at best, a lazy, cheap option and at worst, some form of abuse.

I wish we didn't always play off the one form against the other. It would be nice to hear that the progress in online teaching gained during the pandemic will now be integrated into classroom practice in order to offer greater flexibility and active learning opportunities for students. But somehow the rhetoric of back to the traditional classroom appeals to voters and any changes to the well-worn system are viewed with suspicion.

On a similar theme is a post by James ClayPredicting is hard, and we can get it wrong, commenting on an article from HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute), Five common predictions about COVID and education that now appear to be wrong. It outlines how several predictions have been proved wrong: the number of students has not been reduced because of covid, test results in most subjects have not suffered, drop-out rates have not increased significantly and the graduate work market has not suffered either. Despite all this, Clay notes that attitudes to online education from those in power have not responded.

One prediction made at the start of the pandemic by many involved in education technology was that the forced working from home would (post-pandemic) be a catalyst for more blended and online learning in higher education. The prediction was that following people being forced to use tools such as the VLE, Teams, Zoom, lecture capture, that this would embed such technologies into future teaching and learning. Well we know from the press this week that this may not be the case, with Nadhim Zahawi talking in the Daily Mail that “Students made to pay tuition fees for Zoom lectures should revolt”. This kind of rhetoric makes any (current and future) use of online technologies challenging for universities.

Will the experience of the pandemic period simply be seen as a temporary diversion? If we really want to change education it will require major investments in professional development as programmes are redesigned to integrate more flexible and collaborative models. Institutions will need to change their organisation and strategies, teachers will need to learn new methods and students will also have to adapt. This all costs time, effort and money as opponents will be quick to point out. With many institutions under financial pressure, the temptation is strong to return to familiar practice. 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Waiting for the storm to pass is not a solution - dealing with uncertainty

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

We used to believe that we could plan for a relatively predictable future, a clear linear pathway for our medium and even long-term strategies. Today however the future is wildly unpredictable and just about anything can happen, as the pandemic has clearly shown. We continue to plan for the day when the pandemic disappears and we can get back to normal, but how realistic is this, especially given the increasingly serious effects of the climate crisis and the growth of political instability around the world? This pandemic could continue for years, returning in new variants and, if that is not enough, climate and political instability will lead to further crises. The only way forward is to plan for dealing with constant uncertainty. We cannot put changes on hold until the pandemic dies down. 

This theme turned up in two articles I read this week. The first is by Debbie McVitty in the journal Wonkhe, Making peace with uncertainty in 2022. Many people in education leadership are trying to revert to normality and restore order in the disorder of the last two years. Universities look to the government to lead the way back to normality and unpredictability but what if that state never returns? One positive side to the present crisis is that it has forced us to rethink processes and practices that we have always taken for granted.

When things are uncertain, it becomes necessary to ask more searching questions about the various things that might happen – and in doing so gain an insight into the way things work and how they might work differently or better – like the many teaching and learning innovations that arose from the uncertain environment of online and hybrid learning. Uncertainty also means learning to deal with unexpected consequences – like student over-recruitment – a nice problem to have certainly, but also one that requires serious creative thinking to ensure students get what they’ve been offered in an acceptable way.

In fact there is a great danger in pretending that we can manage and control the future, ... the illusion of certainty may be more dangerous than confronting the reality of ambiguity. When the virus died down last year many universities joyfully reverted to the old order as soon as possible. For example, experiments with online examination were put aside as we reopened the examination halls again. We need to continue developing alternative methods rather than putting them back on the shelf because we simply don't know when we will have to handle the next crisis.

One area that needs to be developed is that of risk analysis and contingency planning and it's time to employ people to lead this work. This is highlighted in an article by Javeria Salman in The Hechinger ReportHow to plan for a future of education where disruption is the norm, describing the work of one such person, Andrew Smith, chief administrative and strategic planning officer for the Rowan-Salisbury School District in North Carolina. He gets management to develop plans for a variety of scenarios so that the organisation develops a certain crisis resilience. 

The leaders asked: What is the worst that could happen? What is the risk to schools, teachers and students? Then they asked whether the district was prepared to handle each scenario. Smith said they considered questions like: “What happens if kids never come back? Or if staff aren’t allowed in the buildings?” They even asked seniors for ideas in planning for socially distant graduation ceremonies.

We have been able to test many alternative solutions for teaching and learning over the last two years and we need to continue with this rather than waiting for the storm to pass.

Schools can’t keep waiting for an end to the pandemic for problems to go away, the solution “has to be now, not later,” Smith said. “Because every time you keep waiting for the end … how many hours kids are waiting for you?”

Sunday, January 9, 2022

MOOCs - so much more than course completion

I started this blog way back in 2008 and that happened to be the year when the term MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was coined after the ground-breaking course at the University of Manitoba, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, lead by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Not surprisingly I have written a lot of posts on this topic and have tried to follow and reflect on the complexities of designing online courses at scale. The term MOOC is used today to cover a very diverse range of course models from very traditional content transfer to collaborative and flexible learning spaces that can be better defined as communities rather than courses. The old adage that every letter in the acronym MOOC is negotiable is more true than ever today, especially O for open. However, despite claims that the MOOC boom of the last decade is over, the form continues to thrive with a massive upswing in interest during the pandemic (see article in EdSurge). 

I have just read an interesting review of recent MOOC research in an article by Aras Bozkurt in Open PraxisSurfing on Three Waves of MOOCs: An Examination and Snapshot of Research in Massive Open Online Courses. It is described as a systematic review of the empirical MOOC publications from 2016 to 2018, a total of 633 articles. The article examines four themes and how these themes have been described in the research.: (I) MOOCs as a mainstreaming learning model in HE, (II) motivation and engagement issues in MOOCs, (III) assessment issues in MOOCs, and (IV) MOOCs for social learning

The author describes three waves of MOOC development: the first wave of connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) in the spirit of the pioneers (Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Alexander, Belshaw etc), the highly commercialised second wave based on global consortia and elite universities and the present third wave that is a kind of mix of the previous waves. These waves are given time spans that feel a bit too tidy for me. All three are still present. The so-called first wave did not simply stop in 2011 with the advent of  Coursera, EdX and Udacity. Connectivist inspired open courses (not necessarily massive) have continued to thrive but under the media (and research) radar, recruiting through networks and communities rather than through global consortia. Many have stopped labelling themselves as MOOCs and thus evade radar detection.

One overarching trend in the article is the focus shift from the early qualitative emphasis on openness and community-building to a quantitative focus on massiveness and course completion statistics. The author points out how the focus on completion rates and student numbers has missed one of the main objectives of the whole concept, as a contribution to lifelong learning.

Studies have therefore suggested that the success of MOOCs cannot be measured based on drop-out or completion rates, but rather, on the learning behaviors of the participants (Kahan et al., 2017). The advantage of MOOCs, in terms of social learning, is their ability to form social learning communities (Gallagher & Savage, 2016) that “would arise around the course, would remain over time, and involve participants contributing to with new proposals” (de Lima & Zorrilla, 2017).
Somehow, when MOOCs became mainstream in 2011, they were conveniently mapped into the known models of higher education with measurable learning outcomes and assessment criteria. The potential of the original connectivist model to promote collaborative inquiry and community-building became restricted in the confines of the traditional notion of a course where the course structure and objectives are decided by the course organisers and participants are assumed to embrace these and follow the course to its conclusion.
While the first wave MOOCs was a fertile territory for leisure learners, and learning was associated with perceived learning, the second and third wave MOOCs strived to keep the learners in the MOOC, and thus, motivation and engagement have become a trending hot topic.
MOOCs are constantly compared to regular for-credit university courses and have been marketed as alternative paths to higher education with MOOC-based degrees as well as new credential forms like nano-degrees, specialisations and micro-masters. However the motivation of many MOOC participants is not to gain credentials but to widen perspectives, learn something new or sheer curiosity. Each participant has their own motivation to learn and that will often not coincide with the course organiser's narrow view of a course. Research has so far not investigated learner motivation sufficiently.
One area of concern, however, is that the perceived learning in MOOCs has been neglected as a focus of research. This is important to note because learning goes beyond quantified learning objectives.
Then there is the learning that can occur after the MOOC is officially over. Many people study MOOCs asynchronously outside the timescale of the course and some MOOCs have developed into self-directed communities. I have taken several courses over the last couple of years and all of them were long after the dates of the actual course. Does my course activity count when studying the success or failure of the course? Many people learn a lot without making much of a footprint (if any) and their learning is extremely hard to detect even if it may be significant for them as individuals. 
However, it is noted that not all learners learn by visible interaction (e.g., lurkers or legitimate peripheral participants) or wish be a part of the entire MOOC (e.g., drop ins). Interestingly, some MOOCs help learners to form a learning community, and these communities provide more learning opportunities, even outside of the defined MOOC concept. The problematic view according to the studies in the research corpus is when social learning is framed around predefined MOOC dates alone, ignoring their contribution to lifelong learning. This perhaps stems from the influence of HE, which tends to resist change, and from interpreting MOOCs from a strictly structured HE view.
Finally the author recommends a renewed focus on the potential of open courses (can't we finally lose the acronym?) to promote lifelong learning, widened access to education and community-building rather than trapping a good concept into the narrow domain of traditional higher education.
Based on the research findings and the impressions gained from the examined publications, this study argues that the real potential of MOOCs cannot be quantitatively measured, but rather, this potential should be considered in terms of the qualitative contributions provided by MOOCs. To this end, it is suggested that MOOC providers focus more on the 
social justice and widening participation aspects of MOOCs.

When an institution offers a regular for-credit course the structure, outcomes and pedagogical model are decided and students sign up to follow those with credible credentials as a reward. When you offer an open course without preconditions the participants are under no obligation to accept the institution's success criteria. They participate in line with their own ambitions and learning objectives that may coincide with the institution's but generally don't. The "success" of the course lies in the eyes of the beholders. 


Bozkurt, A. (2021). Surfing on Three Waves of MOOCs: An Examination and Snapshot of Research in Massive Open Online Courses. Open Praxis, 13(3), 296–311.