September 2, 2015

Ease of use as a criterion for technology selection in online learning

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Image: © Daily Express, 2012

Reliability is important! Image: © Daily Express, 2012

I felt myself cringing as I wrote this section for my book on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’. Talk about do what I say and not what I do, especially the part about spending a small amount of time in properly learning about a technology before using it. I was almost half way through writing this book, before I worked out that ‘Parts’ were in fact introductions to ‘Chapters’ and ‘Chapters’ really were sections of chapters, in Pressbook terminology. I also didn’t work out until this week how to actually publish it once it was available in html format.  Oh, that’s what this button is for!

However, ease of use is a critical criterion for media selection. Who wants to spend hours fiddling with the technology when teaching or learning, unless you’re a geek or a computer scientist? ‘Transparency’ is the key word. So here’s my contribution, under the letter ‘E’ in the SECTIONS model.

9.3 The SECTIONS Model: Ease of Use

In most cases, the use of technology in teaching is a means, not an end. Therefore it is important that students and teachers do not have to spend a great deal of time on learning how to use educational technologies, or on making the technologies work. The exceptions of course are where technology is the area of study, such as computer science or engineering, or where learning the use of software tools is critical for some aspects of the curriculum, for instance computer-aided design in architecture, spreadsheets in business studies, and geographical information systems in geology. In most cases, though, the aim of the study is not to learn how to use a particular piece of educational technology, but the study of history, mathematics, or biology.

Computer and information literacy

If a great deal of time has to be spent by the students and teachers in learning how to use for instance software for the development or delivery of course material, this distracts from the learning and teaching. Of course, there is a basic set of literacy skills that will be required, such as the ability to read and write, to use a keyboard, to use word processing software, to navigate the Internet and use Internet software, and increasingly to use mobile devices. These generic skills though could be considered pre-requisites. If students have not adequately developed these skills in school, then an institution might provide preparatory courses for students on these topics.

It will make life a lot easier for both teachers and students if an institution has strategies for supporting students’ use of digital media. For instance, at the University of British Columbia, the Digital Tattoo project prepares students for learning online in a number of ways:

  • introducing students to a range of technologies that could be used for their learning, such as learning management systems, open educational resources, MOOCs and e-portfolios
  • explaining what’s involved in studying online or at a distance
  • setting out the opportunities and risks of social media
  • advice on how to protect their privacy
  • advice on how to make the most of connecting, networking and online searching
  • how to prevent cyberbullying
  • maintaining a professional online presence.

If your institution does not have something similar, then you could direct your students to the Digital Tattoo site, which is fully open and available to anyone to use.

It is not only students though who may need prior preparation. Technology can be too seductive. You can start using it without fully understanding its structure or how it works. Even a short period of training – an hour or less – on how to use common technologies such as a learning management system or lecture capture could save you a lot of time and more importantly, enable you to see the potential value of all features and not just those that you stumble across.

Orientation

A useful standard or criterion for the selection of course media or software is that ‘novice’ students (i.e. students who have never used the software before) should be studying within 20 minutes of logging on. This 20 minutes may be needed to work out some of the key functions of the software that may be unfamiliar, or to work out how the course Web site is organized and navigated. This is more of an orientation period though than learning new skills of computing.

If we do need to introduce new software that may take a little time to learn, for instance, a synchronous ‘chat’ facility, or video streaming, it should be introduced at the point where it is needed. It is important though to provide time within the course for the students to learn how to do this.

Interface design

The critical factor in making technology transparent is the design of the interface between the user and the machine. Thus an educational program or indeed any Web site should be well structured, intuitive for the user to use, and easy to navigate.

Interface design is a highly skilled profession, and is based on a combination of scientific research into how humans learn, an understanding of how operating software works, and good training in graphic design. This is one reason why it is often wise to use software or tools that have been well established in education, because these have been tested and been found to work well.

The traditional generic interface of computers – a keyboard, mouse, and graphic user interface of windows and pull-down menus and pop-up instructions – is still extremely crude, and not isomorphic with most people’s preferences for processing information. It places very heavy emphasis on literacy skills and a preference for visual learning. This can cause major difficulties for students with certain disabilities, such as dyslexia or poor eyesight. However, in recent years, interfaces have started to become more user friendly, with touch screen and voice activated interfaces.

Nevertheless a great deal of effort often has to go into the adaptation of existing computer or mobile interfaces to make them easy to use in an educational context. The Web is just as much a prisoner of the general computer interface as any other software environment, and the educational potential of any Web site is also restricted by its algorithmic or tree-like structure. For instance, it does not always suit the inherent structure of some subject areas, or the preferred way of learning of some students.

There are several consequences of these interface limitations for teachers in higher education:

  • it is really important to choose teaching software or other technologies that are intuitively easy to use, both by the students in particular, but also for the teacher in creating materials and interacting with students;
  • when creating materials for teaching, the teacher needs to be aware of the issues concerning navigation of the materials and screen lay-out and graphics. While it is possible to add stimulating features such as audio and animated graphics, this comes at the cost of bandwidth. Such features should be added only where they serve a useful educational function, as slow delivery of materials is extremely frustrating for learners, who will normally have slower Internet access that the teacher creating the materials. Furthermore, web-based layout on desktop or laptop computers does not automatically transfer to the same dimensions or configurations on mobile devices, and mobile devices have a wide range of standards, depending on the device. Given that the design of Web-based materials requires a high level of specialized interface design skill, it is preferable to seek specialist help, especially if you want to use software or media that are not standard, institutionally supported tools. This is particularly important when thinking of using new mobile apps, for instance;
  • third, we can expect in the next few years some significant changes in the general computer interface with the development of speech recognition technology, adaptive responses based on artificial intelligence, and the use of haptics (e.g. hand-movement) to control devices. Changes in basic computer interface design could have as profound an impact on the use of technology in teaching as the Internet has.

Reliability

The reliability and robustness of the technology is also critical. Most of us will have had the frustration of losing work when our word programming software crashes or working ‘in the cloud’ and being logged off in the middle of a piece of writing. The last thing you want as a teacher or instructor is lots of calls from students saying they cannot get online access, or that their computer keeps crashing (if the software locks up one machine, it will probably lock up all the others!). Technical support can be a huge cost, not just in paying technical staff to deal with service calls, but also in lost time of students and teachers.

This means that you do not want to be at the ‘bleeding’ edge in your choice of technology, if it is to be used in any significant and regular form of teaching. It is best to wait for at least a year for new apps or software to be fully tested before adopting them. It is wise then not to rush in and buy the latest software up-date or new product – wait for the bugs to be ironed out.  Also if you plan to use a new app or technology that is not generally supported by the institution, check first with IT services to ensure there are not security, privacy or institutional bandwidth issues.

A feature of online learning is that peak use tends to fall outside normal office hours. Thus it is really important that your course materials sit on a reliable server with high-speed access and 24 hour, seven days a week reliability, with automatic back-up on a separate, independent server located in a different building. Ideally, the servers should be in a secure area (with for instance emergency electricity supply) with 24 hour technical support, which probably means locating your servers with central IT services. Increasingly online learning materials and courses are being located ‘in the cloud’, which means it is all the more important to ensure that materials are safely and independently backed up.

However, the good news is that most commercial educational software products such as learning management systems and lecture capture, as well as servers, are very reliable. Open source software too is usually reliable but probably slightly more at risk of technical failure or security breaches. If you have good IT support, you should receive very few calls from students on technical matters. The main technical issue that faculty face these days appears to be software up-grades to learning management systems. This often means moving course materials from one version of the software to the new version. This can be costly and time-consuming, particularly if the new version is substantially different from the previous version. Overall, though, reliability should not be an issue.

In summary, ease of use requires professionally designed commercial or open source course software, specialized help in graphics, navigation and screen design for your course materials, and strong technical support for server and software management and maintenance. Certainly in North America, most institutions now provide IT and other services focused specifically on supporting technology-based teaching. However, without such professional support, a great deal of your time as a teacher will be spent on technical issues, and to be blunt, if you do not have easy and convenient access to such support, you would be wise not to get heavily committed to technology-based teaching until that support is available.

Questions for consideration

Some of the questions then that you need to consider are:

  1. How intuitively easy to use is the technology you are considering, both by students and by yourself?
  1. How reliable is the technology?
  1. How easy is it to maintain and up-grade the technology?
  1. The company that is providing the critical hardware or software you are using: is it a stable company that is not likely to go out of business in the next year or two, or is it a new start-up? What strategies are in place to secure any digital teaching materials you create should the organisation providing the software or service cease to exist?
  1. Do you have adequate technical and professional support, both in terms of the technology and with respect to the design of materials?

Feedback

  1. I guess my main concern with this section is whether it is still needed these days. Most institutions, at least in Canadian post-secondary education, have moved in recent years to make sure there is professional IT support for technology for teaching as well as for communications and administration. Much of the newer technologies, such as apps, use relatively simple programming and hence tend to be much more reliable. Some advances have been made in interface design. Faculty themselves have become more tech savvy and learners of course have grown up using digital technologies. Does this all make ‘Ease of Use’ as a criterion redundant now? If not, is this section far too cautious? Should I be encouraging faculty to take more risks?
  2. Is the criterion that ‘novice’ students (i.e. students who have never used the software before) should be studying within 20 minutes of logging on a valid and useful criterion when selecting a platform for teaching and learning?
  3. I actually wrote ‘we can expect in the next few years some significant changes in the general computer interface with the development of speech recognition technology, adaptive responses based on artificial intelligence, and the use of haptics (e.g. hand-movement) to control devices‘ in 2003 (Bates and Poole, 2003). Here we are 11 years later. Will things still be the same in another 11 years time – or will real progress be made in the next few years in interface design? Is Siri the future?
  4. you do not want to be at the ‘bleeding’ edge in your choice of technology’. Do you agree?
  5. Any other comments? In particular do you have examples of good practice that could strengthen this section that I could use?

Up next

Cost as a criterion for media selection. This one will be fun.

A ‘starter’ bibliography on MOOCs

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Image: © educatorstechnology.com, 2014

Image: © educatorstechnology.com, 2014

For the increasing number of students doing Masters’ dissertations or Ph.D’s on MOOCs I have collected together for convenience all the references made in my chapter on MOOCs for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital World.’ However, there are many other publications – this cannot be considered a comprehensive list. Also note the date of this blog post: anything published after this will not be here, unless you let me know about it.

In return, I would really appreciate other suggestions for references that you have found to be valuable or influential. I’m now less interested in ‘opinion pieces’ but I am looking for more papers that reflect actual experience or research on MOOCs.

Balfour, S. P. (2013). Assessing writing in MOOCs: Automated essay scoring and calibrated peer review. Research & Practice in Assessment, Vol. 8.

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley and Co

Bates, T. (2012) What’s right and what’s wrong with Coursera-style MOOCs Online Learning and Distance Education Resources, August 5

Bayne, S. (2014) Teaching, Research and the More-than-Human in Digital Education Oxford UK: EDEN Research Workshop (keynote: no printed record available)

Blackall, L. (2014) Open online courses and massively untold stories, GoogleDocs

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

Chauhan, A. (2014) Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS): Emerging Trends in Assessment and Accreditation Digital Education Review, No. 25

Christensen, C. (2010) Disrupting Class, Expanded Edition: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns New York: McGraw-Hill

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

Christensen, C. and Weise, M. (2014) MOOCs disruption is only beginning, The Boston Globe, May 9

Collins, E. (2013) SJSU Plus Augmented Online Learning Environment Pilot Project Report San Jose CA: The Research and Planning Group for California Colleges

Colvin, K. et al. (2014) Learning an Introductory Physics MOOC: All Cohorts Learn Equally, Including On-Campus Class, IRRODL, Vol. 15, No. 4

Daniel, J. (2012) Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility Seoul: Korean National Open University

Dillenbourg, P. (ed.) (1999) Collaborative-learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches. Oxford: Elsevier

Dillenbourg, P. (2014) MOOCs: Two Years Later, Oxford UK: EDEN Research Workshop (keynote: no printed record available)

Downes, S. (2012) Massively Open Online Courses are here to stay, Stephen’s Web, July 20

Downes, S. (2014) The MOOC of One, Valencia, Spain, March 10

Engle, W. (2104) UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and Delivery Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

Falchikov, N. and Goldfinch, J. (2000) Student Peer Assessment in Higher Education: A Meta-Analysis Comparing Peer and Teacher Marks Review of Educational Research, Vol. 70, No. 3

Firmin, R. et al. (2014) Case study: using MOOCs for conventional college coursework Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

Friedland, T. (2013) Revolution hits the universities, New York Times, January 26

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Haynie, D. (2014). State Department hosts ‘MOOC Camp’ for online learners. US News,January 20

Hernandez, R. et al. (2014) Promoting engagement in MOOCs through social collaboration Oxford UK: Proceedings of the 8th EDEN Research Workshop

Hill, P. (2012) Four Barriers that MOOCs Must Overcome to Build a Sustainable Model e-Literate, July 24

Ho, A. et al. (2014) HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1), January 21

Hollands, F. and Tirthali, D. (2014) MOOCs: Expectations and Reality New York: Columbia University Teachers’ College, Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education

Hülsmann, T. (2003) Costs without camouflage: a cost analysis of Oldenburg University’s  two graduate certificate programs offered  as part of the online Master of Distance Education (MDE): a case study, in Bernath, U. and Rubin, E., (eds.) Reflections on Teaching in an Online Program: A Case Study Oldenburg, Germany: Bibliothecks-und Informationssystem der Carl von Ossietsky Universität Oldenburg

Jaschik, S. (2013) MOOC Mess, Inside Higher Education, February 4

Knox, J. (2014) Digital culture clash: ‘massive’ education in the e-Learning and Digital Cultures Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

Kop, R. (2011) The Challenges to Connectivist Learning on Open Online Networks: Learning Experiences during a Massive Open Online Course International Review of Research into Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 12, No. 3

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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

Mackness, J. (2013) cMOOCs and xMOOCs – key differences, Jenny Mackness, October 22

Milligan, C., Littlejohn, A. and Margaryan, A. (2013) Patterns of engagement in connectivist MOOCs, Merlot Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 9, No. 2

Piech, C., Huang, J., Chen, Z., Do, C., Ng, A., & Koller, D. (2013). Tuned models of peer assessment in MOOCs. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University.

Rumble, G. (2001) The costs and costing of networked learning, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 5, No. 2

Suen, H. (2104) Peer assessment for massive open online courses (MOOCs) International Review of Research into Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 15, No. 3

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

University of Ottawa (2013) Report of the e-Learning Working Group Ottawa ON: The University of Ottawa

van Zundert, M., Sluijsmans, D., van Merriënboer, J. (2010). Effective peer assessment processes: Research findings and future directions. Learning and Instruction, 20, 270-279

Watters, A. (2012) Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends of 2012: MOOCs Hack Education, December 3

Yousef, A. et al. (2014) MOOCs: A Review of the State-of-the-Art Proceedings of 6th International Conference on Computer Supported Education – CSEDU 2014, Barcelona, Spain

Note:

I’m glad I called this a ‘starter’ list. See the comment section for many more references, but especially Katy Morgan’s MOOC Research Literature Browser, which has many more articles published in peer review journals. Thanks to Jim Ellis, UKOU, for directing me to this, and above all to Katy Morgan for doing a much more thorough coverage of the literature than I have.

Thanks also to all the others who have made suggestions for this list.

Why MOOCs are only part of the answer for higher education

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Formal education is the necessary launchpad for successful MOOCs

Formal education is the necessary launchpad for successful MOOCs

OK, except for the next post, which will be a list of publications on MOOCs for graduate students studying the topic, and a scenario for a ‘good’ MOOC, this will be my last post on MOOCs for a while.

This is the conclusion to my chapter on MOOCs for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘. This whole chapter is now published here. There will be a scenario illustrating what I define as a ‘good’ MOOC to go with this conclusion. Here is the extract:

The importance of context and design

I am frequently categorised as a major critic of MOOCs, which is somewhat surprising since I have been a longtime advocate of online learning. In fact I do believe MOOCs are an important development, and under certain circumstances they can be of tremendous value in education.

But as always in education, context is important. There is not one but many different markets and needs for education. A student leaving high school at eighteen has very different needs and will want to learn in a very different context from a 35 year old employed engineer with a family who needs some management education. Similarly a 65 year old man struggling to cope with his wife’s early onset of Alzheimers and desperate for help is in a totally different situation to either the high school student or the engineer. When designing educational programs, it has to be horses for courses. There is no single silver bullet or solution for every one of these various contexts.

Secondly, as with all forms of education, how MOOCs are designed matters a great deal. If they are designed inappropriately, in the sense of not developing the knowledge and skills needed by a particular learner in a particular context, then they have little or no value for that learner. However, designed differently and a MOOC may well meet that learner’s needs.

The potential of cMOOCs

So let me be more specific. cMOOCs have the most potential, because lifelong learning will become increasingly important, and the power of bringing a mix of already well educated and knowledgeable people from around the world to work with other committed and enthusiastic learners on common problems or areas of interest could truly revolutionise not just education, but the world in general.

However, cMOOCs at present are unable to do this, because they lack organisation and do not apply what is already known about how online groups work best. Once we learn these lessons and apply them, though, cMOOCs can be a tremendous tool for tackling some of the great challenges we face in the areas of global health, climate change, civil rights, and other ‘good civil ventures.’  The beauty of a cMOOC is that they involve not just the people who have the will and the power to make changes, but cMOOCs give every participant the power to define and solve the problems being tackled.

But socially transformative MOOCs will almost certainly benefit from the resources of strong institutions to provide initial impetus, simple to use software, overall structure, organization and co-ordination within the MOOC, and some essential human resources for supporting the MOOC when running. At the same time, it does not have to be an educational institution. It could be a Public Health Authority, or a broadcasting organization, or an international charity, or a consortium of organisations with a common interest. Also, of course, we need to recognise the danger that even cMOOCs  could be manipulated by corporate or government  interests. Finally, I don’t see cMOOCs as being a replacement for formal education, but as a rocket that needs formal education as its launch pad.

The limitations of xMOOCs

The real threat of xMOOCs is to the very large face-to-face lecture classes found in many universities at the undergraduate level. MOOCs, at a cost of around $20-$50 a student, are a more effective way of replacing such lectures. They are more interactive and permanent so students can go over the materials many times. I have heard MOOC instructors argue that their MOOCs are better than their classroom lectures. They put more care and effort into them.

However, we should question why we are teaching in this way on campus. Content is now freely available anywhere on the Internet – including MOOCs. What is needed is information management: how to identify the knowledge you need, how to evaluate it, how to apply it. MOOCs do not do that. They pre-select and package the information. My big concern with xMOOCs is their limitation, as currently designed, for developing the higher order intellectual skills needed in a digital world. Unfortunately, xMOOCs are taking the least appropriate design model for developing 21st century skills from on-campus teaching,  and moving this inappropriate design model online. Just because the lectures come from elite universities does not necessarily mean that learners will develop high level intellectual skills, even though the content is of the highest quality. More importantly, with MOOCs, relatively few students succeed, in terms of assessment, and those that do are tested mainly on comprehension and limited application of knowledge.

We can and have done much better in terms of skills for a digital age with other pedagogical approaches on campus, such as problem- or inquiry-based learning, and with online learning using more constructivist approaches in online credit courses, but these alternative methods to lectures do not scale so easily. The interaction between an expert and a novice still remains critical for developing deep understanding, transformative learning resulting in the learner seeing the world differently, and for developing high levels of evidence-based critical thinking, evaluation of complex alternatives, and high level decision-making. Computer technology to date is extremely poor at enabling this kind of learning to develop. This is why credit-based classroom and online learning still aim to have a relatively low instructor:student ratio and still need to focus a great deal on interaction between instructor and students.

I have no problem however with xMOOCs as a form of continuing education or as a source of open educational materials that can be part of a broader educational offering. They can be a valuable supplement to campus-based education. It is when the claim is made that they can replace both conventional education or the current design of online credit programs when I become really concerned. As a form of continuing education, low completion rates and the lack of formal credit is not of great significance. However, completion rates and quality assessment DO matter if MOOCs are being seen as a substitute or a replacement for formal education, even classroom lectures.

Undermining the public higher education system?

The real danger is that if we are not vigilant, MOOCs will undermine what is admittedly an expensive public higher education system. 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 privileged, and developing the knowledge and skills that will provide rich rewards, 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 enough 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 decently paid jobs except for a tiny elite (bring on the Hunger Games).

It should be noted that even for credit-based online programs, content accounts for less than 15 per cent 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 in general, and MOOCs in particular, are not used as a stick by those in the United States 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 for everyone. 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. MOOCs, open education and new media offer promising ways to bring about some much needed improvements. However, that means building on what we already know from the use of credit based online learning, from prior experience in open and distance learning, and designing courses and programs in a variety of ways appropriate to the wide range of learning needs. MOOCs can be one important part of that environment, but not a replacement for other forms of educational provision that meet different needs.

Key Takeaways

1. MOOCs are forcing every higher education institution to think carefully both about its strategy for online teaching and its approach to open education.

2. MOOCs are not the only form of online learning or of open educational resources. It is important to look at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs within the overall context of online learning and open-ness.

3. There are considerable differences in the design of MOOCs, reflecting different purposes and philosophies.

4. MOOCs are at still a relatively early stage of maturity. As their strengths and weaknesses become clearer, and as experience in improving their design grows, they are likely to occupy a significant niche within the higher education learning environment.

5. There are still major structural limitations in MOOCs for developing deep or transformative learning, or for developing the high level knowledge and skills needed in a digital age.

6. MOOCs could well replace some forms of traditional teaching (such as large lecture classes). However, MOOCs are more likely to remain an important supplement or alternative to other conventional education methods. They are not on their own a solution to the high cost of higher education, although MOOCs are and will continue to be an important factor in forcing change.

7. Perhaps the greatest value of MOOCs in the future will be for providing a means for tackling large global problems through community action.

Next

I am now trying to finish Chapter 6, on design models. I will be writing about (a) personal learning environments and (b) flexible design models based on sound educational design principles.

As always, I welcome comments on either this final section on MOOCs, or on the Chapter as a whole. You can use either the comment page here or the one at the end of the Chapter.

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

The strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs: Part 2: learning and assessment

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The writing of my book, Teaching in a Digital Age, has been interrupted for nearly two weeks by my trip to England for the EDEN Research Workshop. As part of the first draft of the book, I have already published three posts on MOOCs:

In this post, I ask (and try to answer) what do participants learn from MOOCs, and I also evaluate their assessment methods.

What do students learn in MOOCs?

This is a much more difficult question to answer, because so little of the research to date (2014) has tried to answer this question. (One reason, as we shall see, is that assessment of learning in MOOCs remains a major challenge). There are at least two kinds of study: quantitative studies that seek to quantify learning gains; and qualitative studies that describe the experience of learners within MOOCs, which indirectly provide some insight into what they have learned.

At the time of writing, the most well conducted study of learning in MOOCs has been by Colvin et al. (2014), who investigated ‘conceptual learning’ in an MIT Introductory Physics MOOC. They compared learner performance not only between different sub-categories of learners within the MOOC, such as those with no physics or math background with those such as physic teachers who had considerable prior knowledge, but also with on-campus students taking the same curriculum in a traditional campus teaching format. In essence, the study found no significant differences in learning gains between or within the two types of teaching, but it should be noted that the on-campus students were students who had failed an earlier version of the course and were retaking it.

This research is a classic example of the no significant difference in comparative studies in educational technology; other variables, such as differences in the types of students, were as important as the mode of delivery. Also, this MOOC design represents a behaviourist-cognitivist approach to learning that places heavy emphasis on correct answers to conceptual questions. It doesn’t attempt to develop the skills needed in a digital age as identified in Chapter 1.

There have been far more studies of the experience of learners within MOOCs, particularly focusing on the discussions within MOOCs (see for instance, Kop, 2011). In general (although there are exceptions), discussions are unmonitored, and it is left to participants to make connections and respond to other students comments.

However, there are some strong criticisms of the effectiveness of the discussion element of MOOCs for developing the high-level conceptual analysis required for academic learning. To develop deep, conceptual learning, there is a need in most cases for intervention by a subject expert, to clarify misunderstandings or misconceptions, to provide accurate feedback,  to ensure that the criteria for academic learning, such as use of evidence, clarity of argument, etc., are being met, and to ensure the necessary input and guidance to seek deeper understanding (see Harasim, 2013).

Furthermore, the more massive the course, the more likely participants are to feel ‘overload, anxiety and a sense of loss’, if there is not some instructor intervention or structure imposed (Knox, 2014). Firmin et al. (2014) have shown that when there is some form of instructor ‘encouragement and support of student effort and engagement’, results improve for all participants in MOOCs. Without a structured role for subject experts, participants are faced with a wide variety of quality in terms of comments and feedback from other participants. There is again a great deal of research on the conditions necessary for the successful conduct of collaborative and co-operative group learning (see for instance, Dillenbourg, 1999, Lave and Wenger, 1991), and these findings certainly have not been generally applied to the management of MOOC discussions to date.

One counter argument is that at least cMOOCs develop a new form of learning based on networking and collaboration that is essentially different from academic learning, and MOOCs are thus more appropriate to the needs of learners in a digital age. Adult participants in particular, it is claimed by Downes and Siemens, have the ability to self-manage the development of high level conceptual learning.  MOOCs are ‘demand’ driven, meeting the interests of individual students who seek out others with similar interests and the necessary expertise to support them in their learning, and for many this interest may well not include the need for deep, conceptual learning but more likely the appropriate applications of prior knowledge in new or specific contexts. MOOCs do appear to work best for those who already have a high level of education and therefore bring many of the conceptual skills developed in formal education with them when they join a MOOC, and therefore contribute to helping those who come without such skills.

Over time, as more experience is gained, MOOCs are likely to incorporate and adapt some of the findings from research on smaller group work for much larger numbers. For instance, some MOOCs are using ‘volunteer’ or community tutors (Dillenbourg, 2014).The US State Department has organized MOOC camps through US missions and consulates abroad to mentor MOOC participants. The camps include Fulbright scholars and embassy staff who lead discussions on content and topics for MOOC participants in countries abroad (Haynie, 2014). Some MOOC providers, such as the University of British Columbia, pay a small cohort of academic assistants to monitor and contribute to the MOOC discussion forums (Engle, 2014). Engle reported that the use of academic assistants, as well as limited but effective interventions from the instructors themselves, made the UBC MOOCs more interactive and engaging. However, paying for people to monitor and support MOOCs will of course increase the cost to providers. Consequently, MOOCs are likely to develop new automated ways to manage discussion effectively in very large groups. The University of Edinburgh is experimenting with automated ‘teacherbots’ that crawl through online discussion forums and direct predetermined comments to students identified as needing help or encouragement (Bayne, 2014).

These results and approaches are consistent with prior research on the importance of instructor presence for successful for-credit online learning. In the meantime, though, there is much work still to be done if MOOCs are to provide the support and structure needed to ensure deep, conceptual learning where this does not already exist in students. The development of the skills needed in a digital age is likely to be an even greater challenge when dealing with massive numbers. However, we need much more research into what participants actually learn in MOOCs and under what conditions before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

Assessment

Assessment of the massive numbers of participants in MOOCs has proved to be a major challenge. It is a complex topic that can be dealt with only briefly here. However, Chapter 5.8 provides a general analysis of different types of assessment, and Suen (2014) provides a comprehensive and balanced overview of the way assessment has been used in MOOCs to date. This section draws heavily on Suen’s paper.

Computer marked assignments

Assessment to date in MOOCs has been primarily of two kinds. The first is based on quantitative multiple-choice tests, or response boxes where formulae or ‘correct code’ can be entered and automatically checked. Usually participants are given immediate automated feedback on their answers, ranging from simple right or wrong answers to more complex responses depending on the type of response they have checked, but in all cases, the process is usually fully automated.

For straight testing of facts, principles, formulae, equations and other forms of conceptual learning where there are clear, correct answers, this works well. In fact, multiple choice computer marked assignments were used by the UK Open University as long ago as the 1970s, although the means to give immediate online feedback were not available then. However, this method of assessment is limited for testing deep or ‘transformative’ learning, and particularly weak for assessing the intellectual skills needed in a digital age, such as creative or original thinking.

Peer review

The second type of assessment that has been tried in MOOCs has been peer assessment, where participants assess each other’s work. Peer assessment is not new. It has been successfully used for formative assessment in traditional classrooms and in some online teaching for credit (Falchikov and Goldfinch, 2000; van Zundert et al., 2010). More importantly, peer assessment is seen as a powerful way to improve deep understanding and knowledge through the rating process, and at the same time, it can be useful for developing some of the skills needed in a digital age, such as critical thinking, for those participants assessing the work of others.

However, a key feature of the successful use of peer assessment has been the close involvement of an instructor or teacher, in providing benchmarks, rubrics or criteria  for assessment, and for monitoring and adjusting peer assessments to ensure consistency and a match with the benchmarks set by the instructor. Although an instructor can provide the benchmarks and rubrics in MOOCs, close monitoring of the multiple peer assessments is difficult if not impossible with the very large numbers of participants in MOOCs. As a result, MOOC participants often become incensed at being randomly assessed by other participants who may not and often do not have the knowledge or ability to give a ‘fair’ or accurate assessment of a participant’s work.

Various attempts to get round the limitations of peer assessment in MOOCs have been tried such as calibrated peer reviews, based on averaging all the peer ratings, and Bayesian post hoc stabilization, but although these statistical techniques reduce the error (or spread) of peer review somewhat they still do not remove the problems of systematic errors of judgement in raters due to misconceptions. This is particularly a problem where a majority of participants fail to understand key concepts in a MOOC, in which case peer assessment becomes the blind leading the blind.

Automated essay scoring

This is another area where there have been attempts to automate scoring. Although such methods are increasingly sophisticated they are currently limited in terms of accurate assessment to measuring primarily technical writing skills, such as grammar, spelling and sentence construction. Once again they do not measure accurately essays where higher level intellectual skills are demonstrated.

Badges and certificates

Particularly in xMOOCs, participants may be awarded a certificate or a ‘badge’ for successful completion of the MOOC, based on a final test (usually computer-marked) which measures the level of learning in a course. The American Council on Education (ACE), which represents the presidents of U.S. accredited, degree-granting institutions, recommended offering credit for five courses on the Coursera MOOC platform. However, according to the person responsible for the review process:

what the ACE accreditation does is merely accredit courses from institutions that are already accredited. 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.’ (Book, 2013)

Indeed, most of the institutions offering MOOCs will not accept their own certificates for admission or credit within their own, campus-based programs. Probably nothing says more about the confidence in the quality of the assessment than this failure of MOOC providers to recognize their own teaching.

The intent behind assessment

To evaluate assessment in MOOCs requires an examination of the intent behind assessment. As identified earlier in another chapter of my book, there are many different purposes behind assessment. Peer assessment and immediate feedback on computer-marked tests can be extremely valuable for formative assessment, enabling participants to see what they have understood and to help develop further their understanding of key concepts. In cMOOCs, as Suen points out, learning is measured as the communication that takes place between MOOC participants, resulting in crowdsourced validation of knowledge – it’s what the sum of all the participants come to believe to be true as a result of participating in the MOOC, so formal assessment is unnecessary. However, what is learned in this way is not necessarily academically validated knowledge, which to be fair, is not the concern of cMOOC proponents such as Stephen Downes.

Academic assessment is a form of currency, related not only to measuring student achievement but also affecting student mobility (e.g. entrance to grad school) and perhaps more importantly employment opportunities and promotion. From a learner’s perspective, the validity of the currency – the recognition and transferability of the qualification – is essential. To date, MOOCs have been unable to demonstrate that they are able to assess accurately the learning achievements of participants beyond comprehension and knowledge of ideas, principles and processes (recognizing that there is some value in this alone). What MOOCs have not been able to demonstrate is that they can either develop or assess deep understanding or the intellectual skills required in a digital age. Indeed, this may not be possible within the constraints of massiveness, which is their major distinguishing feature from other forms of online learning, although the lack of valid methods of assessment will not stop computer scientists from trying to find ways to analyze participant online behaviour to show that such learning is taking place.

Up next

I hope the next post will be my last on this chapter on MOOCs. It will cover the following topics:

  • the cost of MOOCs and economies of scale
  • branding
  • the political, economic and social factors that explain the rise of MOOCs.

Over to you

As regular readers know, this is my way of obtaining peer review for my open textbook (so clearly I am not against peer review in principle!). So if I have missed anything important on this topic, or have misrepresented people’s views, or you just plain disagree with what I’ve written, please let me know. In particular, I am hoping for comments on:

  • comprehensiveness of the sources used that address learning and assessment methods in MOOCs
  • arguments that should have been included, either as a strength or a weakness
  • errors of fact

Yes, I’m a glutton for punishment, but you need to be a masochist to publish openly on this topic.

References

Bayne, S. (2014) Teaching, Research and the More-than-Human in Digital Education Oxford UK: EDEN Research Workshop (url to come)

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

Colvin, K. et al. (2014) Learning an Introductory Physics MOOC: All Cohorts Learn Equally, Including On-Campus Class, IRRODL, Vol. 15, No. 4

Dillenbourg, P. (ed.) (1999) Collaborative-learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches. Oxford: Elsevier

Dillenbourg, P. (2014) MOOCs: Two Years Later, Oxford UK: EDEN Research Workshop (url to come)

Engle, W. (2104) UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and Delivery Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

Falchikov, N. and Goldfinch, J. (2000) Student Peer Assessment in Higher Education: A Meta-Analysis Comparing Peer and Teacher Marks Review of Educational Research, Vol. 70, No. 3

Firmin, R. et al. (2014) Case study: using MOOCs for conventional college coursework Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

Haynie, D. (2014). State Department hosts ‘MOOC Camp’ for online learners. US News,January 20

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Ho, A. et al. (2014) HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1), January 21

Knox, J. (2014) Digital culture clash: ‘massive’ education in the e-Learning and Digital Cultures Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

Kop, R. (2011) The Challenges to Connectivist Learning on Open Online Networks: Learning Experiences during a Massive Open Online Course International Review of Research into Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 12, No. 3

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Milligan, C., Littlejohn, A. and Margaryan, A. (2013) Patterns of engagement in connectivist MOOCs, Merlot Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 9, No. 2

Suen, H. (2104) Peer assessment for massive open online courses (MOOCs) International Review of Research into Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 15, No. 3

van Zundert, M., Sluijsmans, D., van Merriënboer, J. (2010). Effective peer assessment processes: Research findings and future directions. Learning and Instruction, 20, 270-279