© Ron Niebrugge MOOCs are just one species in the online digital forest - and a big and clumsy one

© Ron Niebrugge, 2013 MOOCs are just one species in the online digital forest – and a big and clumsy one

Earlier this week I was in Washington DC, at a conference called Transatlantic Science Week, aimed at promoting collaboration between research, innovation and educational institutions and organizations in the U.S.A, Canada and Norway. The main themes for the conference were International Security, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Cyber Security and Education Policy/Education Research. (No prizes for guessing which theme I was invited to contribute to, although I have to say the others looked more interesting.) This year’s conference was organized by the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, with guidance from the Research Council of Norway.

The focus in the education theme is the digitalization of higher education, although in practice the focus is almost entirely on MOOCs. One reason for this is that Norway has set up a public commission ‘to inquire into the possibilities and challenges that accompany the development of MOOCs and similar offers.‘ The conference provides an interesting way to examine the current thinking on MOOCs of policy makers both in the U.S.A. and in Norway.

Because this is a rather long post, I’m posting the conclusions first, with more details about the conference which I hope will justify my conclusions.

Main take-aways

The value of this conference is that it brought together politicians, policy wonks, researchers and educational practitioners to share ideas and experiences. In particular, it gave me an insight into why MOOCs have resonated so much with policy-makers and others who are not embedded within the higher education system. It was clear from questions and discussions outside the sessions that policy makers remain convinced that MOOCs do offer the possibilities of lowering the cost of post-secondary education. At the same time, I find myself at conferences about MOOCs like the small boy running around shouting ‘The emperor has no clothes’ – and about as effectively.

So here are my main take-aways from the conference.

  • Houston, we have a problem – ‘we’ being universities and colleges. Publicly funded post-secondary institutions are perceived by important policy-makers as being unnecessarily expensive and perhaps even more importantly, not adapting fast enough to meet the demands of the 21st century
  • as a result, politicians and policy-makers are only too willing to grasp at anything that might disrupt the perceived complacency within the system. MOOCs fit this requirement to perfection
  • there is a growing tendency to conflate MOOCs with online learning in general. This suits of course the elite universities who have come 20 years late to the party – they are re-defining online learning according to their own interests
  • even re-designing a large class in a highly selective institution is now considered to be a MOOC, so as well as the conflation with online learning, MOOCs are now being equated with any large class delivered online. The concept of open-ness runs the risk of being lost, with the focus switching to free or cheap
  • if they can get past the hubris, Ivy League universities have a lot to offer online learning. There were several examples in the conference of innovative approaches to online learning from some of the top universities in the USA, but they weren’t MOOCs as most of us would understand the term. We need to bridge the gap between the Ivy League newcomers and those who have been working in online learning elsewhere. We will all benefit from this
  • as a profession we have failed miserably to disseminate best practices in online learning to busy practitioners/instructors. This is not entirely our fault. If there is no requirement for pre-service training to teach in a university, there is no opportunity to bring these best practices to the attention of all faculty. Training new faculty in modern teaching methods, including online learning, based on good pedagogy and cognitive science, is the best way to address the perception that universities and colleges are failing to adapt to the 21st century.

Above all, universities need to be more cost-effective, and if they aren’t, they are going to have methods forced on them that may not have the best outcomes, either for the institutions, or for the rest of us. How each country responds to MOOCs could well define which countries will end up more equal than others, and which will succeed or fail economically and socially in the latter part of this century.

The digital democratization of universities

This was the topic of the first parallel session in the education theme . The first speaker was Norway’s new Minister of Education and Research, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, who has been in the job for less than one month, and is the youngest member of the cabinet, at 35. In his speech he demonstrated that he was well briefed on MOOCs and their potential, and is therefore looking forward to the Commission’s report (even though the commission was set up by the previous government). He raised some thoughtful questions about MOOCs, which makes me think he is keeping an open mind on the issue, in the best sense of the word.

The Rector of the University of Bergen gave a straightforward talk about the pros and cons of MOOCs, which would come as no surprise for anyone familiar with MOOCs, but was essential for providing a common understanding among all participants. There was the usual American hyperbole about MOOCs from no less than a representative from the American Science Foundation, e.g. ‘the important thing about MOOCs is they allow for the quantifiable measurement of learning on a massive scale‘. This from an electrical engineer, the world experts on educational measurement. I’m sorry, but qualitative assessment is not ‘bad’ but essential in many areas of higher education. There is more than one epistemology.

The most interesting presentation in this session came from Cathy Sandeen, the VP, Education Attainment and Innovation, at the American Council of Education. She reported that currently 18-24 year olds constitute less than 25% of all post-secondary students in the USA. Students aged 24-34 constitute 65% of all students now, most of whom are working at least part-time, and many of whom have children. Even more importantly, the U.S.A. participation rate in post-secondary education is now only 42%, putting it in the bottom quartile of OECD countries, whereas 20 years ago it was top. To catch up, it would need to add another one million places. She ended with a brief account of ACE’s efforts at accrediting MOOCs (for my take on this, see an earlier post.)

In short, I didn’t hear anything in this section that suggested that MOOCs or online learning were doing anything to ‘democratize’ higher education – they may be, but no evidence came out of this session.

MOOCs and the re-inventing of higher education

I was on a great panel, with Chris Dede, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and one of the best researchers in educational technology, taking the lead. The other panelists were Berit Kjelstadt, the chair of Norway’s public commission on MOOCs, and Wendy Newstetter, a cognitive scientist/engineer from Georgia Institute of Technology. Wendy got our panel organized. The whole day to date had been wall-to-wall presentations with no time for questions even, so we organized the session with plenty of time for questions and discussion.

Chris Dede was the lead speaker. He argued that high quality teaching required at least three conditions: cognitive knowledge, situated learning (learning embedded in context), and a community of learners (social learning). He pointed out that most MOOCs were able to scale only the cognitive knowledge element effectively (as he put it ‘old wine in new bottles’). He argued that virtual immersive environments or virtual worlds allowed for the other two elements to be scaled, and showed a video of EcoMUVE, a virtual reality eco pond,  a multi-user virtual environment in which students are immersed in a virtual environment and interact with avatar-based identities to investigate an ecosystem. More can be found on this approach here.

In my presentation I thought it important to place MOOCs within the broader framework of online learning, because it was clear that many participants seemed to be equating MOOCs with all online learning. I briefly summarized what was happening in credit-based online learning (high completion rates when best practice is used), hybrid learning, mobile learning, OERs, virtual worlds, remote labs, social media and learning, etc., and then argued that xMOOCs were re-inventing the wheel, and so far the wheel is square. Conclusion: MOOCs are just one species in the online learning forest, and a big and clumsy one at that.

More provocatively, I also argued that xMOOCs are more likely to increase inequality, by undermining publicly funded education, leaving an elite of campus-based universities for the very rich, resulting in high paid knowledge-worker employment for them, and massive information transmission delivered to the rest, who will be confined to low-wage service jobs because of their lack of high-level critical thinking skills. (For a copy of the slides, send me an e-mail (tony.bates@ubc.ca) and I will send an invitation to download them via Dropbox).

Berit Kjelstadt gave a brief summary of her commission’s mandate, then Wendy responded to the three presentations, with a particular emphasis on the need for problem-based approaches to education, particularly in science and engineering. The following questions and responses were lively, with a focus on the high costs of post-secondary education, and whether MOOCs will be a means by which to drive down costs.

The Gatsby curve - will MOOCs increase or reduce inequality? (© Globe and Mail, 2013)
The Gatsby curve – will MOOCs increase or reduce inequality? (© Globe and Mail, 2013)

Is blended learning the future in academia?

The program framed ‘blended learning’ as follows: ‘MOOCs provide an opportunity to …combine different learning practices, for instance, classroom instruction in Oslo, supplemented with streamed lectures from Stanford and online interaction with other students on and off campus.’ However, the speakers in this session didn’t quite see it this way.

Glynda Hull, of the University of California, Berkeley, described a really neat multimedia platform for collaborative learning designed and developed at UC Berkeley, linked to a Canvas LMS. This enables students to create and share multimedia objects and work collaboratively on projects. This looked a nice software development based on sound educational principles (although I suspect the same could be done, perhaps less elegantly, with a combination of WordPress, Mahara and Moodle), and the presentation was marred only by the usual hubris from faculty from elite universities and their re-writing of online learning history (‘Online learning to date has failed to enable effective collaborative learning…‘. Roll over Turoff, Hiltz, Scardamalia, Harasim, Pratt and Paloff, Salmon, etc. – and of course cMOOCs never existed. I was too transfixed with absorbing this to ask whether this tool was an open educational resource.

Bent Kure from the University of Oslo described how they have redesigned a first year philosophy class (mandatory for all students) into a MOOC-like course for the 2,000+ students a year who had previously studied this as self-directed learning ( ‘Here’s the textbook – turn up at the exam.’), because there was no way to fit them all into a lecture hall. The new version consisted of 8-10 minute videos+textbook+online discussion+mobile app+online tests. Well, ANYTHING would be better than the previous arrangement, wouldn’t it? And surprise, the other students who were privileged to attend the lectures also were using the stuff. But is this a MOOC? (and does it matter?).

The last session was about how George Washington University was designing its MOOC on the history of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, and especially how they were using professional-standard video rather than talking heads (probably wise since the participants include Bernanke, Greenspan and Volker). It seems to me that this will be one of the new generation of MOOCs in that it has involved instructional designers and a team approach that is often found in credit-based online courses.

Yes, blended learning is the future in academia, especially for very large first and second year classes. However, the external MOOC integrated into local teaching is probably not the model that will dominate. I suspect experience will show that better results can be obtained by careful re-design, including the flexible incorporation of a wide range of OERs, not only MOOCs. In particular, copyright issues need to be recognized, since Coursera and Udacity MOOC materials are not open for re-use without permission.

Technology-enhanced learning: what do we know and what is yet to be learned

The Research Council of Norway issued a contract for a complete review of the literature on technology-enhanced learning (the European term for information and communications technologies in education) over the last 20 years, covering the whole range from pre-school to post-secondary education to lifelong learning. This involved a trawl of over 1,000 journals (an example of how scattered the research is in this area), using the Thomson Reuters and Google Scholar indexing databases. The aim was to do an objective review of the research, based on a quantitative count of citations used.

Barbara Wasson and Konrad Morgan, the two contractors, gave a detailed presentation of the methodology and preliminary findings. This report when published will be extremely useful, but because of their desire to be totally objective, they were reluctant to ‘editorialize’. However, it is clear that a number of conclusions can be drawn already from this study:

  • there is a long history of research in this field, dating back over sixty years
  • some themes, such as computer aided instruction/CBL, collaborative learning, and robotic intelligent tutoring, have continued right through to today
  • just counting citations has its limits: for instance an ‘in-group’ can boost its count by cross-referencing each others’ work, without really impacting on practice or even the dissemination of knowledge to a wider group
  • the great majority of research is extremely short-term, with low samples: funding agencies should concentrate on more longitudinal studies and bigger samples
  • researchers are often isolated, working alone or in small groups, and therefore have little overall impact
  • a great majority of research is tool-based which goes quickly out of date as new tools arrive; researchers fail often to learn from earlier research on similar tools
  • there is a huge problem with aggregating, summarizing and disseminating the often very useful research to practitioners: it is largely inaccessible

As readers will know, I am not afraid to editorialize, summarize or disseminate, so I ended the session with my take on how prior online learning research could inform and improve the design of MOOCs (the same presentation I made to the MIT LINC conference.)

Where was Canada?

The conference attracted over 300 participants, two government ministers from Norway, including the Minister of Education and Research, one congressman from the USA, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Education, and leading academics from some of the USA’s most prestigious universities and higher education organizations, with of course heavy representation from the Ministry of Education and Research, the Research Council, and universities in Norway.

By contrast, Canada was virtually unrepresented. From the participants list, it appears that only two Canadians attended, myself (invited by the Research Council of Norway), and Barbara Wasson, a Canadian researcher living and working in Norway. Where has the Canadian Embassy in Washington been on this event? There were as many representatives listed from the  Macedonian and Serbian embassies as from Canada, and I never found the Canadian Embassy person. No doubt Washington Canadian Embassy staff have been working to rule, as part of a widespread industrial dispute in Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, but since the conference next year is scheduled to be held in Toronto, the lack of Canadian representation at this conference was shocking, especially since Canada has some of the most knowledgeable people on MOOCs (and I’m not one of them), cyber security and emergency preparedness. It is Canada’s loss that we were not better represented at this most valuable conference, which is why I have spent so much effort on this post.




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