March 7, 2015

My five wishes for online learning in 2015

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Image: © greatinternational students.blogspot.com, 2013

Image: © greatinternational students.blogspot.com, 2013

Predictions, schmedictions. No-one can guess the future but we can at least say what we would like to see. So here are my five wishes for 2015, with a guess at the odds of them happening.

1. Open textbooks.

My wish: faculty will start adopting open textbooks on a large scale in 2015. This is probably the easiest and best way to bring down the cost of education for students.

BC’s open textbook project should be in full swing in 2015, with the top 40 subject topics/disciplines covered with at least one text book per topic by the end of 2015. These topics cover both university and college programs, including apprenticeship and trades training (got to get those pipe fitters and welders  for LNG). All these books will have been peer reviewed by BC faculty.

These open textbooks will of course be available not only to BC institutions but any institution in the world that wants to use them. It will be fascinating to see who actually adopts these books. We could have the ridiculous situation where everyone else BUT BC universities and colleges are using them.

I have to declare an interest here, though. My own open textbook for faculty, teachers and instructors, Teaching in a Digital Age, will also be available. Already I know of at least three institutions already using it as a set book for courses, and it’s only two-thirds finished.

So my prediction:

  • the chance of  every one of the BC open textbooks being used in at least one institution world wide by the end of 2015: 99%
  • the chance of every BC public post-secondary institution using at least one of the open textbooks by 2015: 5%
  • I’ll be happy with at least 50% of Canadian post-secondary institutions using at least one open textbook in 2015. Open textbooks will then start to take off.

2. Open educational resources

My wish: faculty in each province or state will develop agreed province wide curricula for OERs. This may seem an odd wish, but what I see happening, at least in some Canadian provinces, is a huge amount of duplication of OER production, and on the other hand, very little cross-institutional adoption.

Let’s take an example: statistics. This is a subject often taught badly (sorry, where students often have difficulties) that crosses many subject disciplines: math, physics, psychology, sociology, biology, epidemiology, engineering, etc. So what are some institutions doing: developing core modules that can be shared within the institution across departments. So far, so good. But then it stops there.

Now at least in BC we have subject articulation committees that do a good job working out transfer agreements etc. Why not set up articulation committees for OERs? Instead of investing in new OERs in each institution, why not pool resources and either find existing or develop really good new OERs that combined would make up a sensible curriculum in statistics that can be shared by institutions across the system? Get people from stats departments in all the partnering institutions to work on it so they are more likely then to use the OERs themselves. (No, it doesn’t have to be every institution – just those that can work together.) No new money is needed for this as the money would have been spent anyway in developing online materials or courses.

The chances of this happening:

  • in at least one province: 50%

3. A brand new Canadian digital college

My wish: a new ‘green-field’, designed and built from scratch, institution that is conceived around the idea of digitally-based education designed to meet the learning needs of a digital age.

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a really new type of post-secondary institution in Canada: Tech University of BC (died in 2003); Ryerson University (2001); UOIT (2002); Royal Roads University (1995) Any suggestions for the last one?

A lot has happened in the last 20 years. Do we need such fixed battleships as campus-based institutions when what is really needed are fast destroyers? If you can swallow the premise that at least half of all studying within the next five years will be done online, even at the most traditional campus-based institution, what would a new college built around the idea of digital education look like? Emily Carr University of Art and Design should certainly be thinking about this as it moves to new premises in Vancouver in 2017. However, it is focusing on raising huge amounts of money for – yes, a new campus.

Now what if the government said: we will increase your annual operating budget by say 5-10 per cent if you can reduce the capital budget (once off) by 50 per cent? (Some creative accountancy needed here, of course, but hey, this is Canada). Or what if we took a green field site and looked for proposals based on that formula? What would learning spaces look like on such a campus? What would the learning look like? Where and how would students study? What kind of instructors or teachers would be needed? What kind of programs and delivery methods will make sense in 30 to 50 years time? It’s about time we created institutions that will be fit for the 22nd century and they need to be designed from scratch, using what we know today about media, technology and learning.

The chances of this happening (the commitment) in 2015:

  • in Alberta; 30%
  • in BC: 20%
  • in Ontario: 5%

4. A national research and development centre on digital education

My wish: a national research and development centre on digital education

In Canada, the Federal government has no jurisdiction over education: that is a provincial responsibility (and thank goodness for that – we get more innovation and diversity in a decentralised system)). However the Federal government does have responsibility for research and development. Now if you think, like I do, that Canada overall doesn’t do a bad job in developing and applying innovative approaches to teaching and learning (cMOOCs, anyone?), and that the future lies in effective digitally-based learning, it might be a strategic priority to ensure that Canada remains/becomes a world leader in this area.

At the moment though, there is hardly any sustainable research or development centre in online or digital education in this country (with all due respect to CIDER, which does a fantastic job with almost no resources – see what I mean?) Now you can build a hockey arena for $20 million and still  not get an NHL team, so why not put $100 million over five years into a world class research and development centre equivalent to say the Triumf project (particle physics) which got $222 million over five years in 2014.

This would have to be done right, though. No micro-managing from Ottawa, please. Write good terms of reference, hire good people, throw the money over the wall, and review the program after four years. Locate it preferably where innovation is happening (Atlantic Canada – Memorial University would be good – or the West – anywhere west of Kenora).

Here’s what I would like to see in its terms of reference:

  • develop, in conjunction with Stats Canada, an annual national survey of online and other forms of digital learning in post-secondary (and possibly k-12) education, similar to the Babson survey or even better the US Dept of Education IPEDs report
  • set up a joint advisory or governing board that includes representatives from related Canadian industry (e.g. Desire2Learn, Hootesuite), as well experts in online and digital education
  • spend as much on development as on basic research (most of which would be contracted out, following a research and development agenda developed through national, online consultation);
  • set some clear ‘deliverables’, such as regular reliable data and information on new innovations in Canadian digital education, new software or apps that become self-sustainable, testing and guidelines for faculty on emerging technologies, and above all successful, tested and evaluated design models for digital education
  • use the UK JISC as a model in terms of organisation (minimal central organization, networked and outsourced R&D).
  • hire me as Director (no, just kidding – I’m retired – really).

The chances of this happening in 2015:

  • with me as Director: 0.001%
  • without me as Director: 0.002%

5. Online International Students Canada (MOOCs for credit)

My wish: An online university preparation program for international students. This is a very simple idea. Offer free online programs for high school students anywhere in the world. The students with the best grades in the online program get automatic admission to a Canadian university and grants from the Canadian government to come to Canada and study, with half the time in Canada and the rest studying online from their home country. Target: 20,000 students a year. Total cost: $100 million a year (roughly).

There are literally millions of students who would probably qualify for a Canadian university, given the chance, but can’t afford either the education needed to reach the qualifications or the cost of coming to Canada. This program would offer online courses for the equivalent of the last year of high school in Canada, to enable international students to get the grades needed for entry to a Canadian university. The online courses would be offered free, but students would pay a small fee to take the online examinations, most of which would be computer graded.

The main costs in the program would be administrative (marketing, building a web site, finding existing online high school courses, and setting up the examination system), plus the real costs of travel for successful students and living and tuition costs while in Canada.

The advantages of the plan:

  • opens access to at least some low income or poor people in developing country who have access to some form of Internet access
  • simple to administer (the most difficult part will be getting Canadian universities to participate, even though there will be no direct cost)
  • real costs are lowered by students living at least half the time in their own country
  • students are more likely to remain in their home country after graduation and help build their own nation
  • Canadian universities would get some of the best students from developing countries at no or little direct cost
  • possibilities of stronger trading relations with emerging economies as a result.

The program would be funded by Foreign Affairs Canada (the former CIDA branch) and managed by the AUCC.

The chances of this happening in 2015:

  • 10% (well, it is an election year).

And your wishes for 2015?

Let me know what you would like to see in online learning in 2015 – and whether my ideas are as dumb as they look at first glance.

Students as a criterion for media selection in online learning

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The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2015

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced in 2012 that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines
Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2012

Decisions are being made every day by government, institutions, teachers and students about technology use in education. How are these decisions made? What criteria are used?

In my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I am suggesting using the SECTIONS model for media selection based on an examination of the following criteria:

  • tudents
  • E ase of use
  • osts
  • eaching functions
  • I nteraction
  • rganisational issues and Open-ness
  • etworking and Novelty
  • peed and Security.

Here is my first draft on questions about students and their needs:

At least three issues related to students need to be considered when choosing media and technology:

  • student demographics;
  • access; and
  • differences in how students learn.

Student demographics

One of the fundamental changes resulting from mass higher education is that university and college teachers must now teach an increasingly diverse range of students. This increasing diversity of students presents major challenges for post-secondary teachers. It requires that courses should be developed with a wide variety of approaches and ways to learn if all students in the course are to be taught well.

In particular, it is important to be clear about the needs of the target group. First and second year students straight from high school are likely to require more support and help studying at a university or college level. They are likely to be less independent as learners, and therefore it may be dangerous to expect them to be able to study entirely through the use of technology. However, technology may be useful as a support for classroom teaching, especially if it provides an alternative approach to learning from the face-to-face teaching, and is gradually introduced, to prepare them for more independent study later in a program.

On the other hand, for students who have already been through higher education as a campus student, but are now in the workforce, a program delivered entirely by technology at a distance is likely to be attractive. Such students will have already developed successful study skills, will have their own community and family life, and will welcome the flexibility of studying this way.

Third and fourth year undergraduate students may appreciate a mix of classroom-based and online study or even one or two fully online courses, especially if some of their face-to-face classes are closed to further enrolments, or if students are working part-time to help cover some of the costs of being at college.

Lastly, within any single class or group of learners, there will be a wide range of differences in prior knowledge, language skills, and preferred study styles. The intelligent use of media and technology can help accommodate these differences. This will be discussed further below (Section 9.2.3).

Access

Of all the criteria in determining choice of technology, this is perhaps the most discriminating. No matter how powerful in educational terms a particular medium or technology may be, if students cannot access it in a convenient and affordable manner they cannot learn from it. Thus you may believe that video streaming is the best way to get your great lectures to students off campus, but if they do not have Internet access at home, or if it takes four hours to download, then forget it. (This is a particular weakness in the argument for using xMOOCs in developing countries. Even if potential learners have Internet or mobile phone access, which 5 billion still don’t, it often costs a day’s wages to download a single YouTube video – see Marron, Missen and Greenberg, 2014).

If you are intending to use computers, tablets or mobile phones for students, then you need answers to a number of questions.

  • What is your or your department’s policy with regard to students’ access to a computer, tablets or mobile phones?
  • Can they use any device or is there a limited list of devices that the institution will support?
  • Is the medium or software you are using compatible with all makes of mobile phones?
  • Is the network adequate to support any extra students your class might add?
  • Who else in the institution needs to know that you are requiring students to use particular devices?

If students are expected to provide their own devices (which increasingly makes sense),

  • what kind of device do they need: one at home with Internet access or a portable that they can bring on to campus – or one that can be used both at home and on campus?
  • What kind of applications will they need to run on their device(s) for study purposes?
  • Will they be able to use the same device(s) across all courses, or will they need different software/apps and devices for different courses?
  • What software skills will students need?
  • Will they need to know how to use a particular software before taking a course, or will they be taught this during the course?

Students (as well as the instructor) need to know the answers to these questions before they enrol in a course or program. In order to answer these questions, you and your department must know what students will use their devices for. There is no point in requiring students to go to the expense of purchasing a laptop computer if the work they are required to do on it is optional or trivial. This means some advance planning on your part.

  • What are the educational advantages that you see in student use of a particular device?
  • What will students need to do on the device in your course?
  • Is it really essential for them to use a device in these ways, or could they easily manage without the device?
  • What technology skills will they need, and will most students have these skills?
  • If students do not have the skills, would it still be worth their learning them, and will there be time set aside in the course for them to learn these skills?

It will really help if your institution has good policies in place for student technology access (see Section 9.7 below). If the institution doesn’t have clear policies or infrastructure for supporting the technologies you want to use, then your job is going to be a lot harder.

The answer to the question of access and the choice of technology will also depend somewhat on the mandate of the institution and your personal educational goals. For instance, highly selective universities can require students to use particular devices, and can help the relatively few students who have financial difficulties in purchasing and using specified devices. If though the mandate of the institution is to reach learners denied access to conventional institutions, equity groups, the unemployed, the working poor, or workers needing up-grading or more advanced education and training, then it becomes critical to find out what technology they have access to or are willing to use.

For instance, the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal conducted a study on how best to improve the communication of health information and education for ‘hard to reach’ patients. These were defined as patients or clients with low levels of literacy, those who face language and cultural barriers, and those who have difficulties processing information because of physical or cognitive disabilities. The study found that most of these patients do not, and do not want to, use computers, even though many Canadian hospitals and health care centers are increasingly relying on computer-mediated information systems for patients (Centre for Literacy, 2001). If an institution’s policy is open access to anyone who wants to take its courses, the availability of equipment already in the home (usually purchased for entertainment purposes) becomes of paramount importance.

If students do not already have personal access to specific technologies, alternatives are to provide the necessary equipment on campus, or through access at local community centres or the workplace. However, the use of local centres may limit another important factor with regard to access, and that is flexibility. If students have to travel to a local centre, or if the centre is open only at certain times, then this will reduce flexibility and increase the barriers to learning. Also, costs can escalate rapidly if the institution has to provide hardware and software for students.

Another important factor to consider is access for student with disabilities. This may mean providing textual or audio options for deaf and visually impaired students respectively. Fortunately there are now well established practices and standards under the general heading of Universal Design standards. Universal Design is defined as follows:

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, refers to the deliberate design of instruction to meet the needs of a diverse mix of learners. Universally designed courses attempt to meet all learners’ needs by incorporating multiple means of imparting information and flexible methods of assessing learning. UDL also includes multiple means of engaging or tapping into learners’ interests. Universally designed courses are not designed with any one particular group of students with a disability in mind, but rather are designed to address the learning needs of a wide-ranging group.

Brokop, F. (2008)

Most institutions with a centre for supporting teaching and learning will be able to provide assistance to faculty to ensure the course meets universal design standards.  A good guide is available here.

Student differences with respect to learning with technologies

It may seem obvious that different students will have different preferences for different kinds of technology or media. The design of teaching would cater for these differences. Thus if students are ‘visual’ learners, they would be provided with diagrams and illustrations. If they are auditory learners, they will prefer lectures and podcasts. It might appear then that identifying dominant learning styles should then provide strong criteria for media and technology selection. However, it is not as simple as that.

McLoughlin (1999), in a thoughtful review of the implications of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material, concluded that instruction could be designed to accommodate differences in both cognitive-perceptual learning styles and Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle. In a study of new intakes conducted over several years at the University of Missouri-Columbia, using the Myers-Briggs inventory, Schroeder (1993) found that new students think concretely, and are uncomfortable with abstract ideas and ambiguity.

However, a major function of a university education is to develop skills of abstract thinking, and to help students deal with complexity and uncertainty. Perry (1984) found that learning in higher education is a developmental process. It is not surprising then that many students enter college or university without such ‘academic’ skills. Indeed, there are major problems in trying to apply learning styles and other methods of classifying learner differences to media and technology selection and use. Laurillard (2001) makes the point that looking at learning styles in the abstract is not helpful. Learning has to be looked at in context. Thinking skills in one subject area do not necessarily transfer well to another subject area. There are ways of thinking that are specific to different subject areas. Thus logical-rational thinkers in science do not necessarily make thoughtful husbands, or good literary critics.

Part of a university education is to understand and possibly challenge predominant modes of thinking in a subject area. While learner-centered teaching is important, students need to understand the inherent logic, standards, and values of a subject area. They also need to be challenged, and encouraged to think outside the box. This may clash with their preferred learning style. Indeed, the research on the effectiveness of matching instructional method to learning styles is at best equivocal. For instance, Dziuban et al. (2000), at the University of Central Florida, applied Long’s reactive behavior analysis of learning styles to students in both face-to-face classes and Web-based online classes. They found that learning style does not appear to be a predictor of who withdraws from online courses, nor were independent learners likely to do better online than other kinds of learners.

The limitations of learning styles as a guide to designing courses does not mean we should ignore student differences, and we should certainly start from where the student is. In particular, at a university level we need strategies to gradually move students from concrete learning based on personal experience to abstract, reflective learning that can then be applied to new contexts and situations. We shall see in Section 9.5 that technology can be particularly helpful for that.

Thus when designing courses, it is important to offer a range of options for student learning within the same course. One way to do this is to make sure that a course is well structured, with relevant ‘core’ information easily available to all students, but also to make sure that there are opportunities for students to seek out new or different content. This content should be available in a variety of media such as text, diagrams, and video, with concrete examples explicitly related to underlying principles. We shall see in Chapter 10 that the increasing availability of open educational resources makes the provision of this ‘richness’ of possible content much more viable.

Similarly, technology enables a range of learner activities to be made available, such as researching readings on the Web, online discussion forums, synchronous presentations, assessment through e-portfolios, and online group work. The range of activities increases the likelihood that a variety of learner preferences are being met, and also encourages learners to involve themselves in activities and approaches to learning where they may initially feel less comfortable. Such approaches to design are more likely to be effective than courses in multiple versions developed to meet different learning styles. In any case developing multiple versions of courses for different styles of learner is likely to be impractical in most cases. So avoid trying to match different media to different learning styles but instead ensure that students have a wide range of media (text, audio, video, computing) within a course or program.

Lastly, one should be careful in the assumptions made about student preferences for learning through digital technologies. On the one hand, technology ‘boosters’ such as Mark Prensky and Don Tapscott argue that today’s ‘digital natives’ are different from previous generations of students. They argue that todays students live within a networked digital universe and therefore expect their learning also to be all digitally networked. It is also true that professors in particular tend to underestimate students’ access to advanced technologies (professors are often late adopters of new technology), so you should always try to find up-to-date information on what devices and technologies students are currently using, if you can.

On the other hand, it is also dangerous to assume that all students are highly ‘digital literate’ and are demanding that new technologies should be used in teaching. Jones and Shao (2011) conducted a thorough review of the literature on ‘digital natives’, with over 200 appropriate references, including surveys of relevant publications from countries in Europe, Asia, North America, Australia and South Africa. They concluded that:

  • students vary widely in their use and knowledge of digital media
  • the gap between students and their teachers in terms of digital literacy is not fixed, nor is the gulf so large that it cannot be bridged
  • there is little evidence that students enter university with demands for new technologies that teachers and universities cannot meet;
  • students will respond positively to changes in teaching and learning strategies that include the use of new technologies that are well conceived, well explained and properly embedded in courses and degree programmes. However there is no evidence of a pent-up demand amongst students for changes in pedagogy or of a demand for greater collaboration;
  • the development of university infrastructure, technology policies and teaching objectives should be choices about the kinds of provision that the university wishes to make and not a response to general statements about what a new generation of students are demanding;
  • the evidence indicates that young students do not form a generational cohort and they do not express consistent or generationally organised demands.

Graduating students that have been interviewed about learning technologies at the University of British Columbia made it clear that they will be happy to use technology for learning so long as it contributes to their success (in the words of one student, ‘if it will get me better grades’) but the students also made it clear that it was the instructor’s responsibility to decide what technology was best for their studies.

It is also important to pay attention to what Jones and Shao are not saying. They are not saying that social media, personal learning environments, or collaborative learning are inappropriate, nor that the needs of students and the workforce are unchanging or unimportant, but the use of these tools or approaches should be driven by a holistic look at the needs of all students, the needs of the subject area, and the learning goals relevant to a digital age, and not by an erroneous view of what a particular generation of students are demanding.

In summary, one great advantage of the intelligent application of technology to teaching is that it provides opportunities for students to learn in a variety of ways, thus adapting the teaching more easily to student differences. Thus, the first step in media selection is to know your students, their similarities and differences, what technologies they already have access to, and what digital skills they already possess or lack that may be relevant for your courses. This is likely to require the use of a wide range of media within the teaching.

References

Brokop, F. (2008) Accessibility to E-Learning for Persons With Disabilities: Strategies, Guidelines, and Standards Edmonton AB: NorQuest College/eCampus Alberta

Centre for Literacy of Québec (2001) Needs assessment of the health education and information needs of hard-to-reach patients Montréal: Centre for Literacy of Québec

Dziuban, C. et al. (2000) Reactive behavior patterns go online  The Journal of Staff, Program and Organizational Development, Vol. 17, No.3

Jones, C. and Shao, B. (2011) The Net Generation and Digital Natives: Implications for Higher Education Milton Keynes: Open University/Higher Education Academy

Kolb. D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall

Laurillard, D. (2001) Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Marron, D. Missen, C. and Greenberg, J. (2014) “Lo-Fi to Hi-Fi”: A New Way of Conceptualizing Metadata in Underserved Areas with the eGranary Digital Library Austin TX: International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata Applications

McCoughlin, C. (1999) The implictions of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material Australian Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 15, No. 3

Perry, W. (1970) Forms of intellectual development and ethical development in the college years: a scheme New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital natives, Digital Immigrants’ On the Horizon Vol. 9, No. 5

Schroeder, C. (1993) New students – new learning styles, Change, Sept.-Oct

Feedback

As always, feedback will be much appreciated. In particular:

  1. It seems obvious that students should be the first consideration in any educational decision. However, apart from student access to technology, student differences do not seem to me to be a very strong determinant of media choice, because there is so much variability in their needs. Do you agree?
  2. Linked to this, where do you stand on learning styles and media selection? You see I have been cautious about this and have fallen back on a general statement of ensuring a wide mix of media within a course. What are your views on this?
  3. One of the great benefits of the Internet is that it enables/includes nearly all media (text, audio, video, computing) – so do we really need a decision model? If we do, why?
  4. Any other comments, suggestions about appropriate graphics or video to illustrate this section, or examples of how you make decisions about choice of media, will be welcomed.

Next

Ease of use and costs as criteria.

Why the fuss about MOOCs? Political, social and economic drivers

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Daphne Koller's TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)

Daphne Koller’s TED talk on MOOCs (click to activate video)

The end of MOOCs

This is the last part of my chapter on MOOCs for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. In a series of prior posts, I have looked at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. Here I summarise this section and look at why MOOCs have gained so much attention.

Brief summary of strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs

The main points of my analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs can be summarised as follows:

Strengths

  • the main value proposition of MOOCs is that through the use of computer automation and/or peer-to-peer communication MOOCs can eliminate the very large variable costs in higher education associated with providing learner support and quality assessment
  • MOOCs, particularly xMOOCs, deliver high quality content from some of the world’s best universities for free to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection
  • MOOCs can be useful for opening access to high quality content, particularly in Third World countries, but to do so successfully will require a good deal of adaptation, and substantial investment in local support and partnerships
  • MOOCs are valuable for developing basic conceptual learning, and for creating large online communities of interest or practice
  • MOOCs are an extremely valuable form of lifelong learning and continuing education
  • MOOCs have forced conventional and especially elite institutions to reappraise their strategies towards online and open learning
  • institutions have been able to extend their brand and status by making public their expertise and excellence in certain academic areas

Weaknesses

  • the high registration numbers for MOOCs are misleading; less than half of registrants actively participate, and of these, only a small proportion successfully complete the course; nevertheless, absolute numbers of successful participants are still higher than for conventional courses
  • MOOCs are expensive to develop, and although commercial organisations offering MOOC platforms have opportunities for sustainable business models, it is difficult to see how publicly funded higher education institutions can develop sustainable business models for MOOCs
  • MOOCs tend to attract those with already a high level of education, rather than widen access
  • MOOCs so far have been limited in the ability to develop high level academic learning, or the high level intellectual skills needed in a knowledge based society
  • assessment of the higher levels of learning remains a challenge for MOOCs, to the extent that most MOOC providers will not recognise their own MOOCs for credit
  • MOOC materials may be limited by copyright or time restrictions for re-use as open educational resources

Why the fuss about MOOCs?

It can be seen from the previous section that the pros and cons of MOOCs are finely balanced. Given though the obvious questions about the value of MOOCs, and the fact that before MOOCs arrived, there had been substantial but quiet progress for over ten years in the use of online learning for undergraduate and graduate programs, you might be wondering why MOOCs have commanded so much media interest, and especially why a large number of government policy makers, economists, and computer scientists have become so ardently supportive of MOOCs, and why there has been such a strong, negative reaction, not only from many traditional university and college instructors, who are right to be threatened by some of the claims being made for MOOCs, but also from many professionals in online learning (see for instance, Bates, 2012; Daniel, 2012; Hill, 2012; Watters, 2013), who might be expected to be more supportive of MOOCs

It needs to be recognised that the discourse around MOOCs is not usually based on a cool, rational, evidence-based analysis of the pros and cons of MOOCs, but is more likely to be driven by emotion, self-interest, fear, or ignorance of what education is actually about. Thus it is important to explore the political, social and economic factors that have driven MOOC mania.

Massive, free and Made in America!

This is what I will call the intrinsic reason for MOOC mania. It is not surprising that, since the first MOOC from Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller attracted 270,000 sign-ups from around the world, since the course was free, and since it came from professors at one of the most prestigious private universities in the USA, the American media were all over it. It was big news in its own right, however you look at it, especially as courses from Sebastian Thrun, another Stanford professor, and others from MIT and Harvard followed shortly, with equally staggering numbers of participants.

It’s the Ivy Leagues!

Until MOOCs came along, the major Ivy League universities in the USA, such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley, as well as many of the most prestigious universities in Canada, such as the University of Toronto and McGill, and elsewhere, had largely ignored online learning in any form.

However, by 2011, online learning, in the form of for credit undergraduate and graduate courses, was making big inroads at many other, very respectable universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, and the University of Maryland in the USA, and also in many of the top tier public universities in Canada and elsewhere, to the extent that almost one in three course enrolments in the USA were now in online courses. Furthermore, at least in Canada, the online courses were often getting good completion rates and matching on-campus courses for quality.

The Ivy League and other highly prestigious universities that had ignored online learning were beginning to look increasingly out of touch by 2011. By launching into MOOCs, these prestigious universities could jump to the head of the queue in terms of technology innovation, while at the same time protecting their selective and highly personal and high cost campus programs from direct contact with online learning. In other words, MOOCs gave these prestigious universities a safe sandbox in which to explore online learning, and the Ivy League universities gave credibility to MOOCs, and, indirectly, online learning as a whole.

It’s disruptive!

For years before 2011, various economists, philosophers and industrial gurus had been predicting that education was the next big area for disruptive change due to the march of new technologies (see for instance Lyotard, 1979; Tapscott, undated; Christensen and Eyring, 2011).

Online learning in credit courses though was being quietly absorbed into the mainstream of university teaching, through blended learning, without any signs of major disruption, but here with MOOCs was a massive change, providing evidence at long last in the education sector to support the theories of disruptive innovation.

It’s Silicon Valley!

It is no coincidence that the first MOOCs were all developed by entrepreneurial computer scientists. Ng and Koller very quickly went on to create Coursera as a private commercial company, followed shortly by Thrun, who created Udacity. Anant Agarwal, a computer scientist at MIT, went on to head up edX.

The first MOOCs were very typical of Silicon Valley start-ups: a bright idea (massive, open online courses with cloud-based, relatively simple software to handle the numbers), thrown out into the market to see how it might work, supported by more technology and ideas (in this case, learning analytics, automated marking, peer assessment) to deal with any snags or problems. Building a sustainable business model would come later, when some of the dust had settled.

As a result it is not surprising that almost all the early MOOCs completely ignored any pedagogical theory about best practices in teaching online, or any prior research on factors associated with success or failure in online learning. It is also not surprising as a result that a very low percentage of participants actually successfully complete MOOCs – there’s a lot of catching up still to do, but so far Coursera and to a lesser extent edX have continued to ignore educators and prior research in online learning. They would rather do their own research, even if it means re-inventing the wheel. The commercial MOOC platform providers though are beginning to work out a sustainable business model.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Of all the reasons for MOOC mania, Bill Clinton’s famous election slogan resonates most with me. It should be remembered that by 2011, the consequences of the disastrous financial collapse of 2008 were working their way through the economy, and particularly were impacting on the finances of state governments in the USA.

The recession meant that states were suddenly desperately short of tax revenues, and were unable to meet the financial demands of state higher education systems. For instance, California’s community college system, the nation’s largest, suffered about $809 million in state funding cuts between 2008-2012, resulting in a shortfall of 500,000 places in its campus-based colleges. Free MOOCs were seen as manna from heaven by the state governor, Jerry Brown.

One consequence of rapid cuts to government funding was a sharp spike in tuition fees, bringing the real cost of higher education sharply into focus. Tuition fees in the USA have increased by 7% per annum over the last 10 years, compared with an inflation rate of 4% per annum. Here at last was a possible way to rein in the high cost of higher education.

Now though the economy in the USA is picking up and revenues are flowing back into state coffers, and so the pressure for more radical solutions to the cost of higher education is beginning to ease. It will be interesting to see if MOOC mania continues as the economy grows, although the search for more cost-effective approaches to higher education is not going to disappear.

Don’t panic!

These are all very powerful drivers of MOOC mania, which makes it all the more important to try to be clear and cool headed about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. The real test is whether MOOCs can help develop the knowledge and skills that learners need in a knowledge-based society. The answer of course is yes and no.

As a low-cost supplement to formal education, they can be quite valuable, but not as a complete replacement. They can at present teach conceptual learning, comprehension and in a narrow range of activities, application of knowledge. They can be useful for building communities of practice, where already well educated people or people with a deep, shared passion for a topic can learn from one another, another form of continuing education.

However, certainly to date, MOOCs have not been able to demonstrate that they can lead to transformative learning, deep intellectual understanding, evaluation of complex alternatives, and evidence-based decision-making, and without greater emphasis on expert-based learner support and more qualitative forms of assessment, they probably never will, at least without substantial increases in their costs.

At the end of the day, there is a choice between throwing more resources into MOOCs and hoping that some of their fundamental flaws can be overcome without too dramatic an increase in costs, or whether we would be better investing in other forms of online learning and educational technology that could lead to more cost-effective learning outcomes. I know where I would put my money, and it’s not into MOOCs.

Over to you

This will be my last contribution to the discussion of MOOCs for my book, so let’s have it!

1. Do you agree with the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs that I have laid out? What would you add or remove or change?

2. What do you think of the drivers of MOOC mania? Are these accurate? Are there other, more important drivers of MOOC mania?

3. Do you even agree that there is a mania about MOOCs, or is their rapid expansion all perfectly understandable?

References

Bates, T. (2012) What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs, Online learning and distance education resources, August 5

Christensen, C. and Eyring, H. (2011), The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education, New York, New York, USA: John Wiley & Sons,

Daniel, J. (2012). Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility.Journal of Interactive Media in Education, Vol. 3

Hill, P. (2012) Four Barriers that MOOCs must overcome to build a sustainable model, e-Literate, July 24

Lyotard, J-J. (1979) La Condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir: Paris: Minuit

Tapscott, D. (undated) The transformation of education dontapscott.com

Watters, A. (2013) MOOC Mania: Debunking the hype around massive, open online courses The Digital Shift, 18 April

A New Zealand analysis of MOOCs

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NZ MOOCs 2

Shrivastava, A. and Guiney, P. (2014) Technological Development and Tertiary Education Delivery Models: The Arrival of MOOCs  Wellington NZ: Tertiary Education Commission/Te Amorangi Mātauranga Matua

Why this paper?

Another report for the record on MOOCs, this time from the New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission. The reasoning behind this report:

The paper focuses on MOOCs [rather than doing a general overview of emerging technologies] because of their potential to disrupt tertiary education and the significant opportunities, challenges and risks that they present. MOOCs are also the sole focus of this paper because of their scale and the involvement of the elite United States universities.

What’s in the paper?

The paper provides a fairly standard, balanced analysis of developments in MOOCs, first by describing the different MOOC delivery models, their business models and the drivers behind MOOCs, then by following up with a broad discussion of the possible implications of MOOCs for New Zealand, such as unbundling of services, possible economies of scale, globalization of tertiary (higher) education, adaptability to learners’ and employers’ needs, and the possible impact on New Zealand’s tertiary education workforce.

There is also a good summary of MOOCs being offered by New Zealand institutions.

At the end of the paper some interesting questions for further discussion are raised:

  • What will tertiary education delivery look like in 2030?

  • What kinds of opportunities and challenges do technological developments, including MOOCs, present to the current policy, regulatory and operational arrangements for tertiary teaching and learning in New Zealand?

  • How can New Zealand make the most of the opportunities and manage any associated risks and challenges?

  • Do MOOCs undermine the central value of higher education, or are they just a helpful ‘updating’ that reflects its new mass nature?

  • Where do MOOCs fit within the New Zealand education and qualifications systems?

  • Who values the knowledge and skills gained from a MOOC programme and why?

  • Can economies of scale be achieved through MOOCs without loss of quality?

  • Can MOOCs lead to better learning outcomes at the same or less cost than traditional classroom-based teaching? If so, how might the Government go about funding institutions that want to deliver MOOCs to a mix of domestic and international learners?

  • What kinds of MOOC accreditation models might make sense in the context of New Zealand’s quality-assurance system?

Answers on a postcard, please, to the NZ Tertiary Education Commission.

Comment

Am I alone in wondering what has happened to for-credit online education in government thinking about the future? It is as if 20 years of development of undergraduate and graduate online courses and programs never existed. Surely a critical question for institutions and government planners is:

  • what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs over other forms of online learning? What can MOOCs learn from our prior experience with credit-based online learning?

There are several reasons for considering this, but one of the most important is the huge investment many institutions, and, indirectly, governments. have already made in credit-based online learning.

By and large, online learning in publicly funded universities, both in New Zealand and in Canada, has been very successful in terms of both increasing access and in student learning. It is also important to be clear about the differences and some of the similarities between credit-based online learning and MOOCs.

Some of the implications laid out in this paper, such as possibilities of consortia and institutional collaboration, apply just as much to credit-based online learning as to MOOCs, and many of the negative criticisms of MOOCs, such as difficulties of assessment and lack of learner support, disappear when applied to credit-based online learning.

Please, policy-makers, realise that MOOCs are not your only option for innovation through online learning. There are more established and well tested solutions already available.

Getting ready for the EDEN Research workshop

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Oxford: City of Dreaming Spires (Matthew Arnold)

Oxford: City of Dreaming Spires (Matthew Arnold)

I’m now in England, about to attend the EDEN Research Workshop on research into online learning that starts tomorrow (Sunday) in Oxford, with the event being hosted by the UK Open University, one of the main sources of systematic research in online learning. (EDEN is the European Distance and e-Learning Network)

This is one of my favourite events, because the aim is to bring together all those in Europe doing research in online learning to discuss their work, the issues and research methods. It’s a great chance for young or new players in the field to make themselves known and connect with other, more experienced, researchers. Altogether there will be about 120 participants, just the right size to get to know everyone over three days. I organised one such EDEN research workshop myself several years ago in Barcelona, when I was working at the Open University of Catalonia, and it was great fun.

The format is very interesting. All the papers are published a week ahead of the workshop, and each author gets just a few minutes in parallel sessions to briefly summarise, with plenty of time for discussion afterwards (what EDEN calls ‘research speed dating’). There are also several research workshops, such as ‘Linking Learning Design with Learning Analytics,’ as well as several keynotes (but not too many!) I’m particularly looking forward to Sian Bayne’s ‘Teaching, Research and the More-than-human in Digital Education.’ There are also poster sessions, 14 in all.

I am the Chair of the jury for the EDEN award for the best research paper, and also the workshop rapporteur. As a result I have been carefully reading all the papers over the last week, 44 in all, and I’m still trying to work out how to be in several places at the same time so I can cover all the sessions.

As a result I’ve had to put my book, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, on hold for the last few days. However, the EDEN papers have already been so useful, bringing me the latest reviews and updates on research in this area that it is well worth taking a few more days before getting back to the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. I will be much better informed as a result as there are quite a few research papers on European MOOCs. I will also do a blog post after the conference, summing up what I heard during the three days.

So it looks like that I won’t have much time for dreaming in the city of dreaming spires.