February 25, 2017

What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs

 

TED Talks: Daphne Koller: What we’re learning from online education

Daphne Koller, one of the two founders of Coursera, describes some of the key features of the Coursera MOOCs, and the lessons she has learned to date about teaching and learning from these courses. The video is well worth watching, just for this.

However I’m probably going to suffer the same kind of fate of the Russian female punk band, Pussy Riot, by spitting on the altar of MOOCs, but this TED talk captures for me all that is both right and wrong about the MOOCs being promoted by the elite US universities.

Let me start by saying that I actually applaud Daphne Koller and her colleagues for developing massive open online MOOCs. Any attempt to make the knowledge of some of the world’s leading experts available to anyone free of charge is an excellent endeavour. If only it stopped there.

What I object to is the hubris and misleading claims that are evident in this TED video. As someone once said about one of Sigmund Freud’s lectures, what is new is not true, and what is true is not new.

Myth 1: MOOCs increase access to higher education in developing countries

She starts by using the example of students being trampled to death trying to get into the line for the very few places left open by the campus-based University of Johannesburg in South Africa. This is a particularly maladroit example. Yes, there is a desperate shortage of conventional university places in South Africa. But South Africa has probably the oldest distance and open teaching university in the world, UNISA, currently with over 160,000 students. Just providing not for credit open online learning from the USA will not solve South Africa’s access problems (especially as most of those seeking university places do not have home Internet access). Indeed, to suggest that Coursera is an alternative to conventional university education takes the pressure off governments such as South Africa’s to find their own, indigenous solutions to access to higher education.

If Stanford or MIT gave credit for these courses to students from South Africa who succeeded in the exams, and then awarded them full degrees, then that might be different. But these elite universities continue to treat MOOCs as a philanthropic form of continuing education, and until these institutions are willing to award credit and degrees for this type of program, we have to believe that they think that this is a second class form of education suitable only for the unwashed masses.

Myth 2: new pedagogy

Second, the teaching methods used by most of the Coursera courses so far are based on a very old and outdated behaviourist pedagogy, relying primarily on information transmission, computer marked assignments and peer assessment.  Behaviourist pedagogy has its value, especially where there are right and wrong answers, facts or procedures that must be learned, or students lack higher level cognitive processing skills. In other words it works reasonably well for certain levels of training. But it is extremely difficult if not impossible to teach higher order skills of critical thinking, creative thinking, and original thinking using behaviourist pedagogy, the very skills that are needed in a knowledge-based society. (It should be noted that the ‘Canadian’ MOOCs of Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier do not suffer from this fault).

Third, and this is the most enraging part of the presentation for me, Daphne Koller talks as if she invented online learning, and that nothing was known beforehand about works and doesn’t work in online learning. So she has discovered that students learn better if they are active, so there are lots of tests and activities in the courses. It is better to break up monolithic one hour lectures into smaller, more digestible chunks. Both these strategies in fact date back to the UK Open University print packages forty years ago and it has been standard practice to incorporate such strategies in most online learning since it began on a serious scale 20 years ago.

Her comparisons are all with the weaknesses of lecture-based teaching. For this we should perhaps be thankful but again this is not new – online educators have been making this point again for over 20 years. And now Coursera is creating local or online study groups: again standard practice in other forms of online learning.

Myth 3: big data will improve teaching

One example used in the video was how computer-tracking of student activities can identify weaknesses in the teaching. The example was over 2,000 students giving the same wrong answer to a multiple choice question. In other words, Coursera is using trial and error as a form of teaching: try something, and if it doesn’t work, correct it the next time round. However, if they followed good design principles from the outset – for instance working with an instructional designer who could spot such errors or pre-testing material before it goes out to hundreds of thousands of guinea pig students – many of these ‘errors’ in teaching would be avoided in the first place. It is far, far better to avoid errors in teaching than to try to correct them afterwards: unlearning is much harder. With massive numbers of online students, the negative impact is equally massive.

Myth 4: Computers personalize learning

No, they don’t. They allow students alternative routes through material and they allow automated feedback but they do not provide a sense of being treated as an individual. This can be done in online learning, but it needs online intervention and presence in the form of discussion, encouragement, and an understanding of an individual student’s needs. The TED lecture omitted any discussion of completion rates. Again, this should not be the measure of MOOCs, but if you are going to argue that this form of teaching is superior to other forms of online learning, then discussion of completion rates becomes valid.

Daphne Koller’s final comment is telling:

‘We should spend less time at universities filling our students’ minds with content by lecturing at them, and more time igniting their creativity … by actually talking with them.’ 

However, that requires the presence of a teacher, either in the class or online.

Conclusion

I am sad having to write this. Daphne Koller gave a good lecture. Even these MOOCs are valuable, because, coming from elite universities, they have woken up the media in particular, and brought online learning to the attention of the public. I believe MOOCs have great potential for higher education: but not these MOOCs. And please, is it too much to ask for a little humility? (Probably, from so-called elite institutions).

Lastly, be careful what you wish for. Underlying all this is a fundamental question: is online learning best left to computer scientists or to teachers (or even students)? I know where I stand on this. What about you?

Some other reading

See also Lloyd Armstrong’s excellent post: Coursera and MITx: sustaining or disruptive? Changing Higher Education, August 6

What should we do about MOOCs? The Board Discusses

Is online learning really cracking open the public post-secondary system? 

Thoughts on the pedagogy of Coursera-style MOOCs 

Qué está bien y qué está mal en el estilo MOOC- Coursera (Spanish translation):

 

 

European report on the future of learning

Redecker, C. et al. (2011) The Future of Learning: Preparing for Change Seville Spain: Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, JRC, European Commission

What the report is about

From the preface:

To determine how education and training policy can adequately prepare learners for life in the future society, there is a need to envisage what competences will be relevant and how these will be acquired in 2020-2030. The report identifies key factors for change that emerge at the interface of the visions painted by different stakeholder groups and arranges them into a descriptive vision of the future of learning in 2020-2030. In a second step, the report discusses future solutions to pending challenges for European Education and Training systems and outlines policy options

The vision

From the executive summary:

Personalisation, collaboration and  informal learning will be at the core of learning in the future.  The increased pace of change will bring new skills and competences to the fore, in particular generic, transversal and cross-cutting skills….

With the evolution of ICT, personalised learning and individual mentoring  will become a reality and teachers/trainers will need to be trained to exploit the available resources and tools to support tailor-made learning pathways and experiences which are motivating and engaging, but also efficient, relevant and challenging…

Most importantly, traditional E&T institutions  – schools and universities, vocational and adult training providers – will need to reposition themselves in the emerging learning landscape . They will need to experiment with new formats and strategies for learning and teaching to be able to offer relevant, effective and high quality learning experiences in the future. 

Policy implications

The visions presented in this report are not necessarily new or radical….. but to reach the goals of personalised, collaborative and informalised learning, holistic changes need to be made (including, among others: curricula, pedagogies,assessment, teacher training, leadership) and mechanisms need to be put in place which make flexible and targeted lifelong learning a reality and support the recognition of informally acquired skills.

Some of the challenges the report tries to address

  • an aging labour market in Europe
  • need for a higher proportion of knowledge workers and decline in jobs requiring minimal education or training
  • high youth unemployment associated with lack of appropriate educational qualifications and lack of jobs for unskilled/trained workers
  • immigration and multiculturalism

Implications for education and training

  • technology enabled lifelong learning (from cradle to grave, any time anywhere)
  • shift of focus from institutions to individuals: Institutions will need to re-create themselves as resilient systems with flexible, open, and adaptive infrastructures, which engage all citizens and re-connect with society
  • a shift from public to private funding based on individual rather than institutional needs: the responsibility for the provision of individual education will increasingly move from the state to the individual and family groups. While state involvement in early years’ educational provision will remain central, the influence of the private sector on curriculum and policy will continue to grow.

Comments

First, this is a very important, interesting and stimulating report. It raises fundamental questions about the nature of learning and of the institutions that support learning. It warrants careful reading in full by anyone concerned about the future of learning.

As the report itself notes, ‘the visions in this report are not necessarily new’, but its recommendations are a major challenge – indeed I would say threat – for existing educational institutions, and in particular, for universities.

There are parts of this report with which I strongly agree, and other parts where I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of learning, particularly at a post-secondary level. I agree with setting an ambitious and broad general vision for the future of learning – it’s just that I disagree with or don’t like some elements of the vision.

What I agree with in the report

I agree completely with the need to make learning more relevant, more engaging for young people, and more heavily dependent on the intelligent use of technology for teaching and learning. Lifelong learning is essential, and so is the need for major institutional change to adapt to the learning needs of the 21st century. We are heading for disaster socially and economically by failing to meet the needs of young people who are increasingly being shut out of the labour market at a time when the workforce is aging. Part of the reason for this is external: globalization, and a particularly short-sighted and uncontrolled version of capitalism. But part is also due to the failure of our institutions to adapt to the changes in society, in particular the technological revolution and the changing nature of our students, and thus far too many young people drop out or underqualify because formal education is not seen as relevant or motivating.

More specifically I agree that technology offers the potential for the personalization of learning and this is highly desirable but the reality of making that happen on a mass scale is another matter. Collaborative learning is also critical for the future, but although I accept the importance of informal learning, I will argue later that it does not meet all learning needs.

What I disagree with or missed in the report

The first disagreement is with the assumption that all levels of education will require the same changes and the same vision. First we need a multiplicity of visions because predicting the future is fraught with difficulties and it would be foolish to put all our eggs in one basket. Also there is not a universal set of needs for learning for the future. There will need to be different goals and different solutions. I would prefer to have seen a document that looked at different markets or needs for education and training, that dealt with a diversity of learning needs.

The second is more an omission. The report is very weak on the infrastructure or organizational changes needed to implement the vision. For instance, take the personalization of learning and particularly the goal of individual mentoring. How would this be organized and paid for? It is one thing to set a vision; it’s quite another to find sustainable ways to pay for it. How would or should institutions respond to this? I understand that the important thing about a vision is to define it, but there also has to be some suggestions about how it could be realised.

Although I fully agree with the need to emphasise the development of ‘soft’ skills such as problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, reflection, I disagree that these are generic, transversal skills (what an ugly Europeanization of English). Problem-solving is not the same in medicine as in business, for example. Not only is the knowledge base (the information needed to solve a problem) different, but so is the method (one is science-based and deductive, the other is more intuitive and with more willingness to accept risk). These skills need to be embedded within a specific domain (although I do agree that we need more interdisciplinary studies, which is not the same as developing transversal skills).

Lastly, I do wish people would realise that there is a difference between scientific or academic knowledge and everyday knowledge. Academic learning is about generalization, abstraction, hypothesising, testing and critical thinking. It is about questioning and challenging, based on logic and evidence. I am not arguing that this is more important than everyday knowledge, but it is different and there is a strong need for academic learning, because it takes us into areas that would not imaginable otherwise. The report does not deal with this issue, assuming that all learning needs in the future will be the same.

And this brings me to my concern about an over-emphasis on informal learning. Informal learning will be increasingly important in the future, but on its own it will not meet all learning needs. Learners often need a structure and guidance, feedback and assessment, to know what standards of learning are expected, etc. This means the demand for formal learning will still be there in the future (although its provision may/should be very different). The real challenge is whether we should combine both formal and informal approaches or whether they will be more effective if kept separate. This decision has major implications for how our institutions should be organized. (It would also help if we had a less ambiguous and more detailed understanding of what we mean when we talk about formal and informal learning respectively).

Above all, this report should force our universities to think very carefully about what their core values and beliefs are, to what extent these can or should be modified to meet changing needs, but also what they should not give up or lose, because those values or principles are critical for a free, open and knowledge-based society based on reason and evidence.

Conclusion

Despite these criticisms, this is an excellent report. It should stimulate a really useful debate about the future of learning, and how educational institutions need to change, or whether new models of organization that may not be institutionalized will need to be developed. Although it is set in a European context, the issues it raises are common across developed countries and also relevant for developing countries. I just wish it had come up with some concrete proposals or models for how these forms of learning that they are proposing would be established and sustained.

Note

For those of you with a LinkedIn account there is a discussion of this report at: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Future-Learning-3960155.S.78957225?view=&gid=3960155&type=member&item=78957225&trk=eml-anet_dig-b_nd-pst_ttle-cn