October 21, 2014

The cost of being a student in Canada – and where to find online courses

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The Cost of Being a Student in Canada

vouchercloud is a Canadian discount coupon website and they have just launched a selection of student specific coupons. They have produced the above infographic focusing on the cost of being a student in Canada. (Note the date: fees change over time).

My advice for Canadian students: shop around for online programs from established and recognized Canadian universities and colleges, even if they are out of province. For instance, some high quality professional online masters programs can be found at less than these prices, although finding fully online undergraduate programs at a lower cost will be more difficult.

Athabasca University, in Alberta, and Thompson Rivers University’s Open Learning in British Columbia offer both undergraduate and graduate programs online. Royal Roads University in British Columbia offers mainly masters programs online, with a residential component. None of these universities requires you to be resident within their province.

For students in Ontario, try Contact North’s Ontario Online Learning Portal for Students

For students in Alberta, try: e-Campus Alberta

For students in British Columbia, try: CoursesBC (note: shows only courses, not programs)

For Manitoba, try: Campus Manitoba

Québec is a bit more complicated, but if you are francophone, try REFAD’s liste de cours à distance en français au Canada.

Other provinces are small enough that it’s not difficult to check with each institution. For instance, both Nova Scotia Community College and New Brunswick Community College have their own portals for online courses, but Nova Scotia’s universities (and there are quite a few) do not yet have a single portal.

However, not all institutions list their online and distance courses/programs on these portals (although most two-year colleges do), so you should also check with individual institutions, using ‘online courses’ or ‘distance education’ as search terms. In most cases, institutions in Canada charge the same fee for online as for campus courses/programs – but not always, so check.

Also check on the ability to transfer credits and qualifications across provinces, if you register for an ‘out-of-province’ course or program. Ontario can be particularly difficult about transferring in qualifications from other provinces – or even between institutions within Ontario. Alberta and British Columbia on the other hand have extensive credit transfer arrangements between their institutions.

Lastly, if you don’t want a full degree, look at the online programs being offered as certificates or diplomas from the Continuing Education or Extension departments of the individual institutions. These are more ‘open’ than the undergraduate and masters programs, although they are not always cheaper. Also, the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta, and the University of Toronto offer a small number of MOOCs (massive open online courses) for free, but these are not for credit.

If you are a student outside Canada, you are likely to be charged a great deal more for taking online programs that lead to degree qualifications than Canadian students, and may not be accepted – this will depend on your other qualifications. You will need to contact the Registrar at each institution. And do not ask me to recommend an individual university or college in Canada. If it’s a public university funded by the provincial government – and this covers most universities in Canada – it will be reputable.

Lastly, have I missed any province or territory’s online portal? If so, let me know.

Also, let me know your experience in trying to find online courses or programs in Canada.

Perhaps in time, there will be a one-stop shopping portal for all Canadian online courses from public universities and colleges, but it’s a federal system where provinces have complete autonomy regarding post-secondary education, so don’t hold your breath.

 

Examining the potential and reality of open educational resources: the 2013 COHERE conference

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Panel: Robert Clougherty; George Veletsianos; Johan Fridell; Diane Salter; Rory McGreal

Panel: Robert Clougherty; George Veletsianos; Johan Fridell; Diane Salter; Rory McGreal

COHERE (Collaboration for Online Higher Education and Research) runs one of my favourite annual conferences. It is relatively small (around 75), the participants are mainly leading practitioners in online learning, and the sessions are excellent, usually encompassing leading developments in online learning, research reports, and extensive discussion from people in the front line of online learning. (Click here for a report on the 2012 conference.)

This year, the conference, jointly sponsored by the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education (CSSHE), and held at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Richmond campus in British Columbia, focused on ‘Open Resources, Open Courses: their Impact on Blended and Online Learning’.

The two main keynote speakers this year were Cable Green, the Director of the Creative Commons, and David Porter, the Director of BC Campus. Here is a summary of my closing remarks which aimed to review the conference (although I was able to attend only 25% of the parallel sessions – I can do any time, anywhere, but not yet two places at the same time).

To get copies of the slides of presenters, you will need to get a Dropbox invitation from Stacey Woods. I don’t have my own slides – just the notes below.

Creative Commons

This seemingly simple idea, of an ‘author’ creating a license enabling people to freely access and adapt copyright material, without charge or special permission, is one of the great ideas of the 21st century. This does not take away someone’s copyright but enables that copyright holder to give permission for different kinds of use of their material without charge or any bureaucracy. There is no real legal or technical barrier now to making educational material free. It does though require a particular mindset among both copyright holders – i.e. the creators of materials – and users – i.e. teachers and instructors who could use this material in their teaching. Thus the main challenge is one of cultural change.

The spectrum of Creative Commons licenses

The spectrum of Creative Commons licenses

Open textbooks

In some ways, open textbooks are a no brainer. There’s probably no greater racket than the school and college textbook industry (other than the research journal industry.) Often these textbooks are not ‘original’ work, in the sense of new knowledge, but carefully written and well illustrated summaries of current thinking in the different subject areas.

Students and governments, through grants and financial aid, pay billions of dollars each year on textbooks produced by people who are largely already employed in the public education sector (and who in any case are lucky to get 10% of any revenue generated). A student in Canada spends on average about $800 a year on textbooks, even more in the USA. In some subject areas, the cost is well over $1,000 a year per student.

Nothing seems more absurd to me than the sight of hundreds of students lining up for up to an hour every day for the first week of the semester at the UBC bookstore to buy their books. This is time lost studying. Cable Green pointed to research that shows that when first year math students have their textbooks from the first day, they do much better than students who often don’t get the key textbook until three weeks into the course. He also pointed to research from Florida Virtual Campus that indicates that many students (over 60%) simply do not buy all the required textbooks, for a variety of reasons, but the main one being cost. Indeed, students are often reluctant to take their books to campus in case they lose them (although he was referring to k-12 children here).

So why shouldn’t government pay the creators of textbooks directly, cut out the middleman (commercial publishers), save over 80% on the cost, and distribute the books to students (or anyone else) for free over the Internet, under a Creative Commons license? What’s not to like (unless you’re a publisher)? In his presentation, Cable Green came up with a great ‘vision’ for open textbooks: 100% of students have 100% free, digital access to all materials on day one.

So it was good to hear from David Porter that BC Campus is developing 40 open textbooks for first and second year university courses, and another 20 for two year college vocational and technical courses. BC is also collaborating with Alberta in Canada, and Washington State and Oregon, in the USA, to avoid duplication and to increase sharing of open textbooks. Explore the BC Campus web site: at the time of writing this post there are already seven open textbooks available, and perhaps more significantly, faculty from 20 of the 24 post-secondary institutions in B.C. are participating in the creation of open textbooks. Someone asked the question: what is Ontario (Canada’s largest province) doing about open textbooks? The answer to date is: nothing.

However, there were some cautionary concerns from some of the participants about open textbooks:

  • Elizabeth Murphy, from Memorial University, questioned the whole idea of textbooks, whether open or not. She saw textbooks as a relic of 19th century industrialism, a form of mass broadcasting. In the 21st century, students should be finding, accessing and collecting digital materials over the Internet. Textbooks are merely packaged learning, with the authors doing the work for students. Nevertheless, it has to be recognized that textbooks are still the basic currency for most forms of education, and while this remains the case, open textbooks are a much better alternative for students
  • others (including myself) questioned the likely impact of ‘open’ publishing on creating original works that are not likely to get subsidized by government because they are either too specialized, or are not yet part of a standard curriculum for the subject; in other words would it impact on the diversity of publishing? What is the incentive for someone now to publish a unique work, if there is no commercial reward for the effort (especially if you believe that open publishing will eventually wipe out commercial publishing, as I do)? Writing an original, single authored book remains hard work, however it is published.
  • although there is now a range of  ‘open’ publishing services, there are still costs for an author to create original work. Who will pay, for instance, for specialized graphics, for editing or for review? How can these costs be recovered? In particular, in what format (pdf, html, Word, ePub, xml, a wiki) should original work be created so that it can become interactive, easily re-purposed, and multimedia? Much more work still needs to be done to support the open publishing of original work in book format, at least – or is the book itself a relic of another time? If so, what does that mean for how knowledge is created, disseminated and preserved? (Answers on a – digital – postcard, please).

Although these are all important concerns, they seem to me to be manageable. Just getting a proportion of the main textbooks available to students for free is a major step forward.

Openstax open textbooks

Openstax open textbooks

Getting faculty to use OERs

Increasingly faculty are creating open educational resources, or making resources freely available for others to use under a Creative Commons license. There are increasing numbers of depositories or portals where faculty can access open educational resources. Faculty have a number of choices:

  • create your own digital resources, and make them available to others (there are plenty of guides on how to do this.)
  • take OERs selectively from elsewhere, and incorporate or adapt them into your own teaching
  • take a whole course from elsewhere (e.g. a MOOC) and provide learner support and teaching around those materials (such as San Jose State University is doing, or as in the Carnegie-Mellon Open Learning Initiative.)

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the take-up of OERs by instructors is still minimal. Diane Salter of Kwantlen Polytechnic University led a discussion on how best to get faculty to incorporate OERs into their teaching. Many of the suggestions made will be familiar to anyone concerned with change management in higher education: there was the discussion of the need for the move to be both top-down and bottom up; I argued the importance of these kinds of decision being made at a program level; faculty development and workshops are essential.

However, Keith Hampson raised a much more important barrier and that is how university faculty see themselves. They don’t see themselves as ‘just’ teachers, but creators and disseminators of new or original knowledge. Therefore their teaching needs to have their own stamp on it, which makes them reluctant to openly incorporate or ‘copy’ other people’s work. We can argue that this is absurd – we all stand on the shoulders of giants – but it’s the self-perception that’s important, and for research professors, there is a grain of truth in the argument. It makes sense for them to focus their teaching on their own research. But then how many Richard Feynmans are there out there? The problem is that OERs can easily be associated with ‘packaged’, reproductive knowledge, and not original work, changing faculty from ‘artists’ to ‘artisans’.

One practical step that could increase greater adoption of OERs would be some open course design templates into which OERs could be dropped, with examples, and places for instructors to add their own resources. These design templates could range from more didactic teaching somewhat similar to an open LMS (some of which exist already), to more open or more flexible designs where students find, analyse and apply open resources within an overall teaching framework. I would hope such templates would include spaces for student activity, and multimedia resources. This would take something like CoursePacker to the next level.

The problem remains though that even when faculty adopt OERs, they are often inside a closed teaching environment, such as an LMS. What the OERu is doing is opening up this whole process so that students can openly access whole programs and receive full qualifications from the participating institutions. In fact, the OERu was launched yesterday at Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, British Columbia (more on this in another post).

The panel responding to David Porter’s presentation also raised several interesting points. While open education activities were reported from both Memorial University and the University of Ottawa, they tended to be outside actual course design, focused on library initiatives or open publishing in journals. Incidentally it seems bizarre to me that institutions are paying up to $3,000 an article for publishers to make the article open access within a journal, when the research has been publicly funded (what David Porter described as ‘openwashing’).

Ron Owston reported on the dead hand Access Copyright has had on using secondary sources for teaching, having taken York University to court over its interpretation of fair dealing. This is a must win case for Canadian universities and if York is successful it should sue Access Copyright for wasting the court’s time and the university’s resources after an earlier clear decision by Canada’s Supreme Court.

Ron also raised the question of the poor quality of much of the OERs available a the moment – reams of text with no interaction, course design, or media other than text, often in PDFs that cannot easily be changed or adapted. If OERs are to be taken up, they will need to be better designed.

Research and development on MOOCs

Ah, MOOCs. Funny how these came up. Well, there were some interesting presentations on this topic.

WideWorld Ed

WideWorld Ed is a new Canadian, online open education platform, the main driving force behind which is Jenny Heyman, who gave an interesting presentation at the conference (declaration of interest: I’m on the Academic Advisory Board). Its first MOOC is a six week course: Online Instruction for Open Educators, which opened on October 14. The instructors include some famous names: Terry Anderson, Athabasca University; Dave Cormier, University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI); Bonnie Stewart, UPEI; Jenni Hayman, Wide World Ed; and Sean Gallagher, Wide World Ed. Interestingly, sponsorship for the course comes from Desire2Learn.

WideWorld Ed’s mission is to deliver well-designed and effective online courses and open education resources to diverse learners around the world. In particular it hopes to attract course providers from Canadian institutions and organizations, a Canadian edX.  In particular, I can see a real market for NGOs, charitable institutions wishing to get better outreach for their services, and public institutions seeking wider audiences.This is a brave start-up effort, and I hope it gets the support it deserves from Canadian universities and colleges, venture capitalists and other sponsors. Now if we just had a Federal Department of Education to put some money behind it…..

WideWorldEd

Athabasca University’s research on MOOCs

Marti Cleveland-Innes gave a presentation on Athabasca University’s research program examining MOOCs, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This is just starting and the aim is to address the research gap by evaluating MOOCs, and how they impact teaching, learning, and education in general. There has been an rfp for proposals administered by Athabasca University, and the successful applicants will be presenting their proposals at a forthcoming conference at the University of Texas Arlington December 5-6

Research into students’ experience of MOOCs

George Veletsianos, who recently moved from the University of Texas at Austin to Royal Roads University, BC, and who is a leading researcher on emerging educational technologies, has also been conducting research on MOOCs, from the learners’ perspectives. George’s take on MOOCs is interesting. He sees the MOOC phenomenon as a result of chronic failures in the post-secondary education system (I’m not sure if he was talking generally, or just the USA). Among a range of failures he cites the lack of impact of educational technology research on course design, and the failure of educational technologists to make any impact on practice (ah, well, there’s a lifetime’s work down the toilet). It’s hard to disagree with him, though, given his results from interviewing MOOC students: that MOOCs suffer from a lack of course design, that instructor’s presence during the course (beyond a recorded lecture) is important, etc., results that to be honest are highly predictable from the research that was done before MOOCs were launched.

But is that the fault of educational technologists, or computer science professors who blindly failed to do any literature research into online learning or how students learn, or even talk to educators before launching their products? Talk about arrogance and ignorance combined, especially given Keith Hampson’s comment that the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative, based on cognitive science research and best instructional design practices, generally leads to a minimum of 25% improvement in student performance when colleges follow their approach (results also found by Carol Twigg’s course redesign studies.) To re-quote G.K. Chesterton, it’s not that research into educational technologies has been applied and failed – it’s never been applied by most instructors. That’s because we don’t train them in teaching, not because we don’t disseminate the results.

It’s great that both Athabasca and George are doing research on MOOCs. This is sorely needed. However, they are applying evidence-based research and rational analysis to a phenomenon that is political, emotional and largely irrational. For a true understanding of the MOOC phenomenon, we probably need a socio-cultural analysis, so their research could easily end the way that George has portrayed previous research into educational technology: ignored, though it is highly relevant.

Is open education becoming a tool of the right?

So here’s my socio-cultural analysis, for what it’s worth.

The reason that MOOCs have received such media hype is because the USA in particular has been destroying its own public higher education system through budget cuts and an unwillingness to pay taxes. If elite universities can deliver MOOCs for free, why do we need crappy state universities? The risk is a sharply divided two tier system, with a relatively small number of elite universities catering to the rich, and the masses going to MOOC-delivered courses with state universities providing minimal and low cost learner support for such courses.

This would be both a social and economic disaster, because it would fail to produce learners with the high-level skills that are going to be needed for good jobs in the the coming years – unless you believe that automation will remove all paid jobs except for a tiny elite (is this the hidden agenda?).

It should be noted that even for credit-based online program, content accounts for less than 15% of the total cost over five years; the main costs required to ensure high quality outcomes and high rates of completion are spent on learner support, providing the learning that matters most. The kind of MOOCs being promoted by politicians and the media fail spectacularly to do this.

We do need to be careful that the open education movement is not used as a stick by those in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who are deliberately trying to undermine public education for ideological and commercial reasons. Open content, OERs and MOOCs do not automatically lead to open access to high quality credentials.

In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for the majority of the population. Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within that system. Open education and its tools offer a most promising way to bring about some much needed improvements. That is my main take-away from this excellent conference.

Welcome back and a review of online learning developments in July and August

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UBC campus fall

Here in Canada, tomorrow is the start of a new academic year. I know, because our garbage cans are full and the back lane is full of discarded furniture as the new students move into new lodgings behind our house and all the garbage and awful furniture left by the former student residents is thrown out. Next week the student parties will start.

On a more positive note, I hope you all had a wonderful summer, turned off your digital devices for as long as possible, and enjoyed the fresh air. So for those who are mentally healthy but feeling a little lost about what may have happened in the blogosphere in July and August, here is a quick summary. (Just click on the links for the articles of interest).

Productivity and online learning

With governments everywhere concerned about getting more for less in education, the focus is turning increasingly to whether online learning can improve productivity in higher education. The mania around MOOCs is largely driven by the promise that these will enable higher education to reach the masses at a much lower cost. But for every action there is a reaction, and MOOC mania is resulting in some hard questions being asked about what productivity in higher education really means.

I started a conversation about this with a post about the need for more theory or, as Stephen Downes suggested, clearer models of productivity in online learning, and followed it by looking at whether flexible learning leads to more productivity, and if so, how it would be measured. Sir John Daniel provided a review of William Bowen’s book that aims to answer the question: Could the growth in online courses slow the rising cost of college and help solve the crisis of affordability?

Thus the publication in August of Tom Carey and David Trick’s report for HEQCO (the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) on productivity and quality in online learning was very timely. I reviewed and critiqued the report, and Tom Carey has used this blog to provide some thoughtful reflections that were more speculative and hence not included in the report. In particular, Tom has raised the important question of what elements of online learner support can be scaled up without loss of quality, and what should not or cannot be scaled so easily. (There will be more discussion of this issue in later posts on this site).

Lastly, I questioned why many universities and colleges charge more for online courses, arguing that if done properly, online learning should cost no more and indeed can be done less expensively than on-campus teaching..

The issue of productivity and online learning will be the topic of further posts on this site through the fall, as I strive to identify models and principles of educational productivity and the role of online learning.

MOOCs

The mania continued during the summer, with San Jose State trying a new model to improve – somewhat successfully – their completion rate for MOOC-based credit courses. What the research shows is that learners taking MOOCs are often very different demographically from those taking credit courses in state universities (surprise, surprise).

WCET (the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies) has published a series of blog posts over the summer reflecting experiences in MOOC development, delivery and accreditation.

In a very thoughtful paper, Michael Peters attempts to set MOOCs within ‘a wider set of socio-technological changes that might be better explained within a theory of postindustrial education focusing on social media as the new culture.‘ This is one of the best papers I have read about where MOOCs fit into the broader ecology of education and society.

Copyright

Michael Geist reports that AUCC (the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada) has just developed guidelines ‘that offer more detailed, specific recommendations for many common copyright uses within education environments.‘ I argue that through its legal action against York University, Access Copyright is deliberately clouding the clear principles around fair dealing laid down by recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions, and that as a result the AUCC guidelines appear to be more restrictive than necessary.

Building successful consortia

One way in which productivity could be improved is by avoiding waste and duplication in online learning, with universities and colleges working together rather than in competition. Two publications came out in the summer that looked at what made for successful collaboration or co-ordination across state /provincial systems.

WCET’s e-Learning Consortia Common Interest Group collected profiles and contact information for 48 consortia in both the USA and Canada (more are likely to be added.). For each consortium that responded, the profile includes their mission, a brief description, services that they offer, initiatives and interests, organizational documents, and contact information, including websites and social media.

University Business published an excellent article in August that sets out how four states in the U.S.A. – Georgia, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Florida – are co-ordinating their higher education online offerings from state institutions. I provided an extension of examples in Canada.

And apparently there was a meeting in Toronto in July between Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MCTU) bureaucrats and university and college presidents at which the setting up of a not-for-profit consortium to develop and deliver online degrees and diplomas across the province was discussed. However, this is strictly a rumour – there has been to date no official announcement about this.

iPads

Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the USA, will hand out to students 31,000 free iPads in September under a new $30 million program launched by the district. The plan is that all 640,000 students in the LAUSD will receive their own iPad by 2014.

Calls for papers

Two interesting calls for papers came out in the dog days of summer:

Forthcoming conferences

Myself, I’ll be speaking at:

End note

There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now you can get on with your real work: educating students and changing the world. Good luck!

And if you have anything to add to significant developments over the summer – this is a very personal list – please do so. Sharing is good.

An explanation of how ACE accredits MOOCs

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ACE2 Book, P. (2103) ACE as Academic Credit Reviewer–Adjustment, Accommodation, and Acceptance WCET Learn, July 25

Over the next few weeks, WCET will publish a series of blog posts on Massively Open Online Courses. This, the first in the series, provides a detailed explanation of how ACE (the American Council on Education) assessed five Coursera courses.

ACE represents the presidents of U.S. accredited, degree-granting institutions, which include two- and four-year colleges, private and public universities, and nonprofit and for-profit entities.

Pat Book, the author of the post, is a Former Assistant Vice President at the American Council on Education, and led the process for assessing the courses.

Highlights from the process

For those of you who wonder how the accreditation process works in the USA, this is fascinating reading. Here are some highlights from Pat Book’s post:

ACE finds itself in the awkward position of advocating for the best interests of their institutional members while at the same time serving as a shadow accrediting body distributing the ACE imprimatur (defined by those very member institutions) to a host of newly emerging for-profit ventures whose mission and goals are very different.

Reviewing academic courses taught by faculty at top tier universities was a new venture for ACE as its CREDIT recommendation service was not designed for nor … ever had been deployed for this type of review.  ACE leadership was anxious, as was Coursera, to address the major topic of discussion last year about whether or not MOOCs were credit-worthy.

The initial courses subject to ACE review were selected by Coursera in consultation with their partner universities (which included the University of California at Irvine, and Duke).  Coursera and the partner universities chose courses that were already offered on campus or were using content similar to an on-campus course.

All five courses reviewed received credit recommendations based on ACE’s review criteria.  The five courses received math and science recommendations, one at the developmental math level, that is, three-credits of pre-college, three at the lower division baccalaureate level, all three credits, and one two-credit recommendation at the  upper division baccalaureate level.  Faculty reviewed all course exhibits including learning outcomes, competencies, and assessment methods.  Faculty made suggestions regarding perquisites and offered other notes.  While ACE has recommended academic credit, it is up to each university or college to review these credit recommendations and determine how they may align with their general education requirements or degree programs.  There is no guarantee that any university of college will accept the ACE credit recommendations.

 ….it seems like a foregone conclusion that the courses Coursera self-selected for review would be highly likely to receive an ACE CREDIT® recommendation.  They were courses developed by faculty and already reviewed for credit in their university system in some cases and just being offered in a new delivery method albeit to a massively scaled audience.

The review process doesn’t evaluate learning outcomes, but is a course content focused review thus obviating all the questions about effectiveness of the pedagogy in terms of learning outcomes. 

 MOOCs currently serve largely an international audience who already hold college degrees and have reasons other than degree attainment motivating them.   The jury is still out on the value for the vast majority of American students who need developmental education and/or are seeking affordable access to college credentials.

Comment

First, thanks to Pat Book for making this process transparent. We are better informed about the meaning of ACE’s accreditation for MOOCs as a result.

My concern though is that ACE accreditation misleadingly suggests that Coursera courses have been approved by the American post-secondary system (represented by ACE). In fact what the ACE accreditation does (as explained by Pat Book) is merely accredit courses from institutions that are already accredited. However, it seems that a commercial organization (Coursera) has consequently received enormous marketing value for almost no cost (the article makes it clear that reviewers are paid almost nothing to do the reviews.)

More importantly, the article makes it clear that the MOOCs were accredited solely on the quality of the content. This though does nothing to address the main criticisms of MOOCs: that they employ unsuitable pedagogy for online delivery, and that the student assessment process is fundamentally flawed. ACE accreditation in essence does nothing to assure learners that they might actually be able to complete successfully such courses, or that if they do so their certificate will be transferable for credit within regular programs.

I think that we really need to squash the idea that Coursera MOOCs offer a meaningful, radical alternative to conventional higher education, and focus on their value as educational broadcasting, notwithstanding their important value in forcing many elite institutions to take much more seriously for the first time the potential role of credit-based online learning.

MOOCs, MIT and Magic

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MOOC panel: Dan Hastings, Anant Agarwal, Tony Bates, Sanjay Sarma, John Daniel

In my previous post, there were two sessions at the LINC 2013 conference that referred specifically to MIT’s own strategies for technology-enabled learning within MIT. These resulted in my asking the following question towards the end of the conference:

Why is MIT ignoring 25 years of research into online learning and 100 years research into how students learn in its design of online courses?

This post then will discuss both why I think this is the case, based on MIT’s own presentations at the conference, and the broader implications for educational research and instructional design.

MOOCs, MIT and Magic

The first session at the LINC conference was on four perspectives on MOOCs. There were four speakers before the coffee break, then the four speakers formed a panel to respond to questions from the audience after the coffee break. All four presentations are available in full from here, so I will provide a very brief summary of the main points made by each presenter. The session presenters were introduced by Richard Larson, Director of LINC.

First though, MIT’s Chancellor, Eric Grimson, laid out the reasons why MIT is making such a large commitment to OpenCourseWare, MOOCs and edX, and these reasons were reinforced by other MIT speakers:

  • to rethink the campus experience in the light of developments in online learning
  • increase access to learning worldwide by making MIT resources and courses available to anyone, anywhere
  • to conduct research on learning, especially by mining and analyzing the large amount of data generated by MOOCs
  • Anant Agarwal, the Director of edX, also later added: to develop an open source platform for (massive) online learning.

Sanjay Sarma, Director of MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, opened the session. He made the distinction between MOOCs as open courses available to anyone, reflecting the highest level of knowledge in particular subject areas, and the ‘magic’ of the on-campus experience, which is distinctly different from the online experience. He argued that it is difficult to define or pin down the magic that takes place on-campus, but referred to ‘in-the-corridor’ conversations between faculty and staff, hands-on engineering with other students outside of lectures and scheduled labs, and the informal learning that takes place between students in close proximity to one another. Not mentioned but implicit was also the very high standard of students admitted to MIT, and the impact of continuous contact on campus between student and professor, none of which of course is available to MOOC students. MOOCs however as well as providing a route to high quality learning for self-directed learners can be also be re-used and incorporated by other instructors in other institutions for credit.

Sir John Daniel took a much more critical view of MOOCs, suggesting, using the Gartner ‘hype cycle’, that MOOCs would soon enter the ‘trough of disillusionment’ and reflected on whether or how MOOCs will reach the “plateau of productivity”. He also pointed out that open and virtual universities in both developed and developing countries have been providing open and distance learning on a massive scale for over 40 years, and these initiatives have provided high quality and recognized qualifications.

Professor Anant Agarwal, the President of edX, provided some facts and figures about edX MOOCs, and mentioned that MIT had awarded a scholarship to the 15 year old Mongolian student who scored 100% on the final exam of an MIT MOOC course (although he will not receive credit for it). He pointed out that although over 150,000 learners enrolled in edXs first MOOC, 26,000 did the first activity, and 7,000 went on to complete successfully the certificate based on an online exam. (This woud provide a completion rate of approximately 28%, which is probably the most valid way to calculate completion rates for MOOCs.) More importantly, Agarwal defined the pedagogical ‘innovations’ in MOOCs as follows:

  • active learning: short video lectures interspersed with student tests/activities
  • self-paced learning
  • instant feedback
  • simulations/online labs to teach design of experiments
  • peer-to-peer learning.

Some of this has been made possible by MIT engineers building original software for automatic grading or feedback, including enabling students to write formulae as answers.

Me, MOOCs and pedagogy

I was the last speaker in this session and focused on the pedagogy of MOOCs, and suggested some ways in which they could be improved, based on 25 years of research in online learning. In summary the basic points I made are as follows:

  • MOOCs face several challenges, in particular low completion rates, problems with student  assessment, especially for assessment that requires qualitative or essay-type answers, and poor Internet access in developing countries
  • there is 25 years of experience and research into what works and what doesn’t in online learning
  • by and large, this knowledge is not being applied to the design of edX or Coursera MOOCs, which are based mainly on video recordings of classroom lectures
  • paying more attention to pedagogical issues and instructional design could help mitigate some of the challenges
  • in particular more attention needs to be paid to skills development, knowledge construction/deep learning and learner support
  • research should focus on course designs that focus on skills development rather than the transmission of information, on how to scale up learner support and oncosting models that provide resources for improved learner support
  • MOOCs should not be ‘second best’ for developing countries, replacing more locally based provision
  • for all this to happen, computer specialists and educators/instructional designers need to work together as equals

A copy of my presentation can be obtained by sending me an e-mail (tony.bates@ubc.ca) and I will send you an invitation via Dropbox to download the slides.

Technology-enabled learning: what’s going on at MIT?

This was the title of another session that described in more detail MIT’s other technology-enabled activities besides MOOCs. First I need to describe how MIT organizes its technology-enabled teaching and learning, based on the Executive Director of OpenCourseware, Cecilia d’Oliveira’s, clear presentation about 10 years history and the organizational structure of educational technology initiatives at MIT.

The Office of Digital Learning

Most of the better known MIT activities in this area come under the umbrella of the Office of Digital Learning, whose Director is Dr. Sanjay Sarma, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

Within this division is MIT OpenCour.seWare, which collects and provides a portal for video recordings of lectures and support materials that faculty have agreed can be shared openly. Currently MIT OCW offers materials from 2,150 MIT courses, plus courses from more than 300 universities worldwide. However, these are open educational materials (OERs), not full courses. Cecilia d’Oliveira, whose background is mainly in IT, is the Exective Director of MIT OpenCourseWare.

Also within the Division of Digital Learning is MITx, which works with faculty and academic departments to develop MOOCs (massive online courses, including currently 16 available at the moment through edX), and is responsible for the platform used not only for its own online courses but also for other edX courses. Some of these courses are available to MIT students for credit, as well as being open to other learners (but without credit).

While edX uses the MITx platform (which is open source and open to other developers) for its courses, edX is a ‘portal’ or stage for bringing together the MOOCs from MIT, Harvard and other partners in edX, such as UC Berkeley. There are currently 26 universities contributing MOOCs to edX, which is a non-profit organization supported mainly by a grant of $60 million from MIT and Harvard. Professor Anant Agarwal is the President of edX, and is Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and was formerly Director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Media Production Services has approximately 25 staff who help with the video capturing and production for online courses, OCW, and other technical services.

Lastly, the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology (OEIT) is also within the Office of Digital Learning. OEIT works with faculty, staff and students to enable and promote the development and dissemination of innovative uses of technology in teaching and learning. Its focus is on innovative software and hardware to support learning and teaching. For instance, the ARTEMiS project is developing high-quality visualizations by applying the principles of visual communication and using the tools of modern computer graphics to create visualizations that accurately portray scientific and technological concepts. OEIT also maintains four physical Experimental Learning Environments (ELE) and a small pool of laptops for flexible deployment for innovative curricula.  These spaces are intended as incubators for testing new or different technologically enhanced pedagogical paradigms.  These physical spaces host a suite of technologies, applications and tools. The Director of OEIT is Dr. M.S. Vijay Kumar, who has a doctorate in academic computing in education.

Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education

Also, within the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education, the Teaching and Learning Laboratory (TLL) collaborates with faculty, teaching assistants, and students to promote excellence in teaching and learning throughout the Institute, assisting with MIT-wide innovations in pedagogy, curriculum, and educational technology in STEM teaching and learning.  It also conducts research in teaching at MIT. Dr. Leslie Breslow, Senior Lecturer, Sloan School of Management, is the Director.

The Office of Faculty Support, provides support to help the faculty develop and coordinate the undergraduate curriculum and educational programming and provides grants and opportunities for faculty development . Professor Diana Henderson, Professor of Literature, is the Director.

Ten years of learning technology innovation at MIT

Research into teaching and learning at OEIT

There has been over 10 years of research and experimentation in teaching with technology at MIT. Brandon Murumatsu of OEIT described two current research projects. The first was the development of an online version of an MIT ‘hard’ course in mechanics and materials, traditionally delivered in class mainly by one hour 25 minute lectures and supported by problem sets that are done as homework. In the distance version, the lectures are recorded with a TA taking notes on the different topics or ‘chunks’ addressed during the lecture. This enables  the online video to be embedded in an interactive web page that is indexed and linked to the different ‘chunks’ of the lecture (see diagram below). Students can therefore search quickly for different parts of the lecture, slow down, speed up or repeat each ‘chunk, etc. No information was given on how successful this was.

The second experiment was a take a ‘flipped’ lecture class and embed assessment with immediate feedback into the lecture, through the use of simple multiple choice questions. This enabled a large set of data to be collected and anlyzed about how students responded to the different parts of the lecture. It was reported  that students love or even dream of getting the green checkmark when they get the answers right.

MIT student responses to online learning

The last session was in some ways the best of the conference. Three MIT students presented on their experiences of online learning. Sam Shames reported how he used online learning for his project work, exploring the ‘universe’ of online, open resources (in particular OCW) to help with problem-solving and project work, and in particular the opportunity it provides for students to find individual pathways through online OERs.

Ethan Solomon reported on his experience of taking four MOOCs. The good:

  • the ability to go over materials again and again
  • ability to go at one’s own pace
  • immediate feedback

The bad:

  • the limitation of multiple choice questions
  • MOOCs are mainly just lectures
  • difficulty of organizing massive numbers of students, especially in discussions.

Comments

I found the conference fascinating, for many reasons, but here are the main points I came away with.

1. MIT is making genuine efforts to open up its teaching, its materials and opportunities for learning across the world. It has invested very heavily in this, and many institutions, instructors and learners outside MIT are taking advantage. The quality of the content is often outstanding.

2. MIT is still tied though to the lecture as the main means of delivery for online learning. In fact, the MIT students on the panel showed that they understand the need to adopt a different approach to online learning better than the faculty.

3. MOOCs are the consequence of lecture capture technology. This technology makes it easy to move teaching online, but without changing the design of the teaching. This usually results in information transmission becoming the primary pedagogy, without addressing the many limitations of lectures, except the ability for asynchronous access, which is an important improvement on the ‘live’ lecture.

4. MIT  is using a behaviourist approach to its online learning, based mainly on Skinnerian thinking and research. Long lectures are still a core part of its campus pedagogy as well, but there is additional ‘magic’ provided on campus (informal and experiential learning and close contact with faculty) which is not available to its online learners. In my view, it is a mistake to believe that such ‘magic’ cannot be created online. It can, but it needs good course design based on sound educational principles.

5. If instructional designers exist at MIT, they play a minor role or have little power. This shows in both the design of its MOOCs and in the research being conducted.

6. In my view, MIT will struggle to make an impact on educational research if it continues to ignore the potential contribution of educators. It is as if researchers such as Piaget, Bruner, Vigotsky, Carl Rogers, Gagné, and many later researchers had never existed. Can you imagine anyone trying to develop a new form of transportation while deliberately ignoring  Newtonian mechanics? Yet this is what MIT is doing in its educational research. In fact, as the research described above shows, they are re-inventing the wheel. It was admiited that many of the results they are getting are not new but have been known for many years.

For me this is a tragedy. MIT’s engineers have so much to offer in helping to improve educational technology but it needs to be informed and embedded in theories of learning, and must take account of prior research, for it to gain traction and be of value. This means working in a team with educators who have the design and research knowledge and experience, and working with them as equal partners.

Of course, MIT does not need this advice. It is immensely successful and will continue to produce great engineers. But it could also do so much more.

Having said all that, I learned a great deal from the conference, was treated with immense courtesy, and I am very grateful for the invitation to attend.