November 18, 2017

Talking numbers about open publishing and online learning

Screen shot from my blog site analytics today

Screen shot from today’s analytics page from my blog site

Please forgive me here for a little self-indulgence. By sheer coincidence, two statistics converged yesterday.

2 million blog post hits

First, I passed the 2 million mark for the number of hits on this web site. This is by no means a challenge to Justin Bieber or Donald Trump, or even Stephen Downes, but I think it is a reasonable accomplishment for a relatively serious blog devoted to rather lengthy posts about online learning and distance education.

The web site is just under eight years old, having started in July 2008, and currently is averaging about 35,000 hits a month (which is remarkable as I have been posting less than once a week over the past few months, thus defying the first rule of blogging – publish daily). However, the continued activity despite the lack of many new posts in the last year is particularly satisfying, because it means that the site is being used as a resource, a place to go to regularly for information on online learning and distance education.

The table below gives a list of the most popular posts, but it should be remembered that the older the post, the more hits it is likely to get:

All time hits 2

For instance, ‘Recommended graduate programs in e-learning’ and ‘What is Distance Education?’ were posted on the original web site when it first opened. The largest supplier of free online learning (posted in April, 2012) is ALISON, and the number of hits reflects potential students looking for (objective?) information about ALISON, especially what its certificates are worth. In this case, the comments from ALISON users are probably more valuable than the original article.

A short history of educational technology‘ is a much more interesting phenomenon, being posted as recently as December, 2014, as a draft for my online textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’. At the moment it is getting over 200 hits a day, and it appears that it is a set reading for one or more online courses.

On the other hand, ‘Can you teach real engineering at a distance?’ is seven years old, but is still very active from student comments, including yesterday. This post in particular reflects many potential students’ frustration with the lack of accredited online courses in engineering, especially in Canada.

What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs‘ is an interesting measure of the interest in MOOCs over time. Most of the hits came in the first year (August, 2012), although it is still averaging just under 200 hits a month, and 3,000 over the last year. However, in the last twelve months, ‘Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice‘, a draft for the book, has overtaken it with nearly 5,000 hits this year.

The data therefore suggests to me that the site is used as much by potential or actual students as by faculty and instructors – or at least it is [potential] students that drive the large numbers of hits.

And the best ever 3,190 hits in one day? Well, that was ironic. It was the day after I posted ‘Time to retire from online learning?‘, when I got almost 2,000 hits that day on that post. It’s been downhill (gently) ever since!

32,000 book downloads

Also yesterday ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ not only came out in a French version, but the English version has now passed almost 32,000 downloads of the book (18,003 from the BCcampus Open Textbook web site, and almost 13,928 from the Contact North web site).

Again, this isn’t the Da Vinci Code in best sellers, but these are downloads within a 15 month period for a 500+ page textbook aimed at faculty and instructors. My best-selling commercially published book aimed at faculty and instructors, ‘Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education’, published by Jossey Bass in 2003, never got close to 10,000 in sales.

Conclusions

So a lesson for writers: open, online publishing will almost certainly reach more readers than a commercial publication or an academic journal. Whether it will have as much influence will depend on other factors, such as judging the market, the quality of the book or paper, its timeliness, the need of the readers, and your prior experience in publishing. What open publishing will not bring you is direct income from the book, or promotion or advancement to an academic position, although that too may well change in the future.

For a more detailed discussion of whether open publishing is worthwhile, see ‘Writing an online, open textbook: is it worth it?’ Nothing that has happened in the last 12 months has made me want to change what I wrote then.

 

Answering questions about teaching online: assessment and evaluation

How to assess students online: remote exam proctoring

How to assess students online: remote exam proctoring (see Chapter 4.5 on competency-based learning)

Following on from my Contact North webinar on the first five chapters of my book, Teaching in a Digital Age, and my blog post on this yesterday, there were four follow-up questions from the seminar to which I posted written answers. Here they are:

Unanswered Questions

Q: ­If multiple choice is not great for applied learning assessment – could you please give us some tips for more effective assessment in the virtual environment?­

Big question! There are several ways to assess applied learning, and their appropriateness will depend on the subject area and the learning goals (Look particularly at Appendix A, Section 8). Here are some examples:

  • via project work, where the outcome of the project is assessed. (This could be either an individual or group project). Marking a project that may take several weeks work on the part of students helps keep the marking workload down, although this may be offset to some extent by the help that may need to be given to learners during the project.
  • through e-portfolios, where students are asked to apply what they are learning to practical real-life contexts. The e-portfolio is then used to assess what students have learned by the end of the course.
  • use of online discussion forums, where students are assessed on their contributions, in particular on their ability to apply knowledge to specific real world situations (e.g. in contemporary international politics)
  • using simulations where students have to input data to solve problems, and make decisions. The simulation collects the data and allows for qualitative assessment by the instructor. (This depends on there being suitable simulations available or the ability to create one.)

Q: I am finding in my post-graduate online courses the professor is interacting less and less in the online weekly forums, while I know there are competing theories as to how much they should interact with students, do you have an opinion on whether or not professors should or should not interact weekly? Personally, I enjoy their interaction I find it furthers my learning.

This is another big issue. In general, the research is pretty much consistent: in online learning, instructor ‘presence’ is critical to the success of many students. Look particularly at Chapter 4, Section 4 and Chapter 11, Section 10. However presence alone is not sufficient. The online discussion must be designed properly to lead to academic learning and the instructor’s intervention should be to raise the level of thinking in the discussion (see 4.4.2 in the book). Above all, the discussion topics must be relevant and from a student’s perspective clearly contribute to answering assessment questions better. The instructors should in my view be checking daily their online discussion forums and should respond or intervene at least weekly. Again though this is a design issue; the better the course design, the less they should need to log in daily.

Q: Can you give an example of how a MOOC can supplement a face-to-face or fully online course?

I think the best way is to consider a MOOC as an open educational resource (OER). There is a whole chapter (Chapter 10) in the book on OERs. Thus MOOCs (or more likely parts of MOOCs) might be used in a flipped classroom context, where students study the MOOC then come to class to do work around it. But be careful. Many MOOCs are not OER. They are protected by copyright and cannot be used without permission. They may be available only for a limited period. If it is your own MOOC, on the other hand, that’s different. My question is though: is the MOOC material the best OER material available or are there other sources that would fit the class requirement better, such as an open textbook? Or even better, should you look at designing the course completely differently, to increase student interaction, self-learning and the development of higher order thinking skills, by using one of the other teaching methods in the book?

Q: Would better learning analytics reports help teachers have a more relevant role in MOOCS?

Learning analytics can be helpful but usually they are not sufficient. Analytics provide only quantitative or measurable data, such as time on task, demographics about successful or unsuccessful students, analysis of choices in multiple-choice tests, etc. This is always useful information but will not necessarily tell you why students are struggling to understand or are not continuing. Compare this with a good online discussion forum where students can raise questions and the instructor can respond. Students’ comments, questions and discussion can provide a lot of valuable feedback about the design of the course, but require in most cases some form of qualitative analysis by the instructor. This is difficult in massive online courses and learning analytics alone will not resolve this, although they can help, for instance, in focusing down on those parts of the MOOC where students are having difficulties.

Any more questions?

I’m more than happy to post regular responses to any questions you may have about online teaching, either related to the book or quite independent of it. Just send them to me at tony.bates@ubc.ca

Mode of delivery: Learners as a determining factor

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

This is the third of five posts on choosing between different modes of delivery as part of Chapter 10 for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

As always, start with the learners

Fully online/distance learners

Research (see for instance Dabbagh, 2007) has repeatedly shown that fully online courses suit some types of student better than others: older, more mature students; students with already high levels of education; part-time students who are working or with families. This applies both to formal, credit based online courses and even more so to MOOCs (see Chapter 7) and other non-credit courses.

Today, ‘distance’ is more likely to be psychological or social, rather than geographical. For instance, from survey data regularly collected from students when I was Director of Distance Education and Technology at the University of British Columbia:

  • less than 20 per cent gave reasons related to distance or travel for taking an online course.
  • most of the 10,000 or so UBC students (there are over 60,000 students in total) taking at least one fully online course are not truly distant. The majority (over 80 per cent) live in the Greater Vancouver Metropolitan Area, within 90 minutes commute time to the university, and almost half within the relatively compact City of Vancouver. Comparatively few (less than 10 per cent) live outside the province (although this proportion is slowly growing each year.)
  • on the other hand, two thirds of UBC’s online students have paid work of one kind or another.
  • many undergraduate students in their fourth year take an online course because the face-to-face classes are ‘capped’ because of their large size, or because they are short of the required number of credits to complete a degree. Taking a course online allows these students to complete their program without having to come back for another year.
  • the main reason for most UBC students taking fully online courses is the flexibility they provide, given the work and family commitments of students and the difficulty caused by timetable conflicts for face-to-face classes.

This suggests that fully online courses are more suitable for more experienced students with a strong motivation to take such courses because of the impact they have on their quality of life. In general, online students need more self-discipline in studying and a greater motivation to study to succeed. This does not mean that other kinds of students can’t benefit from online learning, but extra effort needs to go into the design and support of such students online.

The research also suggests that these skills of independent learning need to be developed while students are on campus. In other words, online learning, in the form of blended learning, should be deliberately introduced and gradually increased as students work through a program, so by the time they graduate, they have the skills to continue to learn independently – a critical skill for the digital age. If courses are to be offered fully online in the early years of a university career, then they will need to be exceptionally well designed with a considerable amount of online learner support – and hence are likely to be expensive to mount, if they are to be successful.

On the other hand, fully online courses really suit working professionals. In a digital age, the knowledge base is continually expanding, jobs change rapidly, and hence there is strong demand for on-going, continuing education, often in ‘niche’ areas of knowledge. Online learning is a convenient and effective way of providing such lifelong learning. So far, apart from MBAs and teacher education, public universities have been slow in recognising the importance of this market, which at worse could be self-financing, and at best could bring in much needed additional revenues. The private, for-profit universities, though, such as the University of Phoenix, Laureate University and Capella University in the USA, have been quick to move into this market.

One other factor to consider is the impact of changing demographics. In jurisdictions where the school-age population is starting to decline, expanding into lifelong learning markets may be essential for maintaining student enrollments. Fully online learning may therefore turn out to be a way to keep some academic departments alive.

However, to make such lifelong learning online programs work, institutions need to make some important adjustments. In particular there must be incentives or rewards for faculty to move in this direction and there needs to be some strategic thinking about the best way to offer such programs. The University of British Columbia has developed a series of very successful, fully online, self-financing professional masters’ programs.  For example, students can initially try one or two courses in the Graduate Certificate in Rehabilitation before applying to the master’s program. The certificate can be completed in less than two years while working full-time, and paying per course rather than for a whole Master’s year, providing the flexibility needed by lifelong learners. UBC also partnered with Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, with the same program being offered in English by UBC and in Spanish by Tec de Monterrey, as a means of kick-starting its very successful Master in Educational Technology program, which over time has doubled the number of graduate students in UBC’s Faculty of Education. We shall see these examples are important when we examine the importance of modular programming in Chapter 11.

Online learning also offers the opportunity to offer programs where an institution has unique research expertise but insufficient local students to offer a full master’s program. By going fully online, perhaps in partnership with another university with similar expertise but in a different jurisdiction, it may be able to attract students from across the country or even internationally, enabling the research to be more widely disseminated and to build a cadre of professionals in newly emerging areas of knowledge – again an important goal in a digital age.

Blended learning learners

In terms of blended learning, the ‘market’ is less clearly defined than for fully online learning. The benefit for students is increased flexibility, but they will still need to be relatively local in order to attend the classroom-based sessions. The main advantage is for the 50 per cent or more of students, at least in North America, who are working more than 15 hours a week to help with the cost of their education and to keep their student debt as low as possible. Also, blended learning provides an opportunity for the gradual development of independent learning skills, as long as this is an intentional teaching strategy.

The main reason for moving to blended learning then is more likely to be academic, providing necessary hands-on experiences, offering an alternative to large lecture classes, and making student learning more active and accessible whenstudying online. This will benefit most students who can easily access a campus on a regular basis.

Face-to-face learners

Many students coming straight from high school will be looking for social, sporting and cultural opportunities that a campus-based education provides. Also students lacking self-confidence or experience in studying are likely to prefer face-to-face teaching, providing that they can access it in a relatively personal way.

However, the academic reasons are less clear, particularly if students are faced with very large classes and relatively little contact with professors in the first year or so of their programs. In this respect, smaller, regional institutions, which generally have smaller classes and more contact with instructors, have an advantage.

We shall see later in this chapter that blended and fully online learning offer the opportunity to re-think the whole campus experience so that better support is provided to on-campus learners in their early years in post-secondary education. More importantly, as more and more studying moves online, universities and colleges will be increasingly challenged to identify the unique pedagogical advantages of coming to campus, so that it will still be worthwhile to get on the bus to campus every morning.

We shall see that identifying the likely student market for a course or program is the strongest factor in deciding on mode of delivery.

Feedback

1. Given that students can do a lot of their studying online, what kind of students do you think will benefit most from face-to-face teaching? All students, if they can get to campus? If so, why?

2. Is there a particular kind of student who benefits more from a blended learning approach than from full time face-to-face teaching?

3. What do you think are the implications of widening the traditional ‘for credit’ market from high school leavers to lifelong learners? Do you agree that this would require some major changes in the way programs are offered? What would be the implication for Continuing Studies or Extension departments?

Next up

Seeking the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching. This will look at how to identify what to do online and what to do on-campus in a blended learning course.

Reference

Dabbagh, N. (2007) The online learner: characteristics and pedagogical implications Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, Vol. 7, No.3

Two design models for online collaborative learning: same or different?

Image: © Campaign Brief, 2013

Image: © Campaign Brief, 2013

I am now about to wrap up my Chapter 5 on Design models, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Here I am looking at the work of two separate and important Canadian theorists and practitioners, what we might call the Toronto school, Linda Harasim and her former colleagues at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in Toronto (although Linda has been firmly based for 25 years at SFU in Vancouver/Burnaby), and the Alberta school, Randy Garrison, and colleagues Terry Anderson and Walter Archer. However, they are not the only contributors to the design of online collaborative learning, as the following post makes clear.

Perhaps more importantly, I believe that online collaborative learning is a key model for teaching the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. So here’s my first draft:

From the quite early days of online learning, some instructors have focused heavily on the communication affordances of the Internet. They have based their teaching on the concept of knowledge construction, the gradual building of knowledge mainly through asynchronous online discussion among students and between students and an instructor.

What is online collaborative learning?

The concurrence of both constructivist approaches to learning and the development of the Internet has led to the development of a particular form of constructivist teaching, originally called computer-mediated communication (CMC), or networked learning, but which has been developed into what Harasim (2012) now calls online collaborative learning theory (OCL). She describes OCL as follows (p. 90):

OCL theory provides a model of learning in which students are encouraged and supported to work together to create knowledge: to invent, to explore ways to innovate, and, by so doing, to seek the conceptual knowledge needed to solve problems rather than recite what they think is the right answer. While OCL theory does encourage the learner to be active and engaged, this is not considered to be sufficient for learning or knowledge construction……In the OCL theory, the teacher plays a key role not as a fellow-learner, but as the link to the knowledge community, or state of the art in that discipline. Learning is defined as conceptual change and is key to building knowledge. Learning activity needs to be informed and guided by the norms of the discipline and a discourse process that emphasises conceptual learning and builds knowledge.

OCL builds on and integrates theories of cognitive development that focus on conversational learning (Pask, 1975), conditions for deep learning (Marton and Saljø, 1997; Entwistle, 2000), development of academic knowledge (Laurillard, 2000) and knowledge construction (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 2006)

Core design principles of OCL

Harasim emphasises the importance of three key phases of knowledge construction through discourse:

  • idea generating: this is literally brainstorming, to collect the divergent thinking within a group
  • idea organising: this is where learners compare, analyse and categorise the different ideas previously generated, again through discussion and argument
  • intellectual convergence: the aim here is to reach a level of intellectual synthesis, understanding and consensus (including agreeing to disagree), usually through the joint construction of some artefact or piece of work, such as an essay or assignment.

This results in what Harasim calls a Final Position, although in reality the position is never final because for a learner, once started, the process of generating, organising and converging on ideas continues at an ever deeper or more advanced level. The role of the teacher or instructor in this process is seen as critical, not only in facilitating the process and providing appropriate resources and learner activities that encourage this kind of learning, but also, as a representative of a knowledge community or subject domain, in ensuring that the core concepts, practices, standards and principles of the subject domain are fully integrated into the learning cycle. Harasim provides the following diagram to capture this process:

From Harasim (2012), p. 95

From Harasim (2012), Figure 6.3, p. 95

Figure 6. 1: Harasim’s pedagogy of group discussion

Another important factor is that in the OCL model, discussion forums are not an addition or supplement to core teaching materials, such as textbooks, recorded lectures, or text in an LMS, but are the core component of the teaching. Textbooks, readings and other resources are chosen to support the discussion, not the other way round. This is a key design principle, and explains why often instructors or tutors complain, in more ‘traditional’ online courses, that students don’t participate in discussions. Often this is because where online discussions are secondary to more didactic teaching, or are not deliberately designed and managed to lead to knowledge construction, students see the discussions as optional or extra work, because they have no direct impact on grades or assessment. (It is also a reason why awarding grades for participation in discussion forums misses the point. It is not the extrinsic activity that counts, but the intrinsic value of the discussion, that matters – see Brindley, Walti and Blashke, 2009). Thus although instructors using an OCL approach may use learning management systems for convenience, they are used differently from courses where traditional didactic teaching is moved online.

Community of Inquiry

The Community of Inquiry Model (CoI) is somewhat similar to the OCW model. As defined by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000)

An educational community of inquiry is a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding.

Garrison, Anderson and Archer argue that there are three essential elements of a community of inquiry:

  • social presence ” is the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities.”
  • teaching presence  is “the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes
  • cognitive presence “is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse“.
Image: © Marguerite Koole, 2013

Image: © Marguerite Koole, 2013

Other design principles

However, I consider CoI more of a theory than a model, since it does not indicate what activities or conditions are needed to create these three ‘presences’. I also see the two models as complementary rather than competing. Since the publication of the original CoI paper in 2000, there have been a number of studies that have identified the importance of these ‘presences’ within especially online learning (click here for a wide selection). Partly as a result of this research, and partly as the result of experienced online instructors who have not necessarily been influenced by either the OCL or the Community of Inquiry literature, several other design principles have been associated with successful (online) discussion, such as:

  • choice of appropriate technology (e.g. software that allows for threaded discussions)
  • clear guidelines on student online behaviour
  • student orientation and preparation, including technology orientation and explaining the purpose of discussion
  • choice of appropriate topics
  • setting an appropriate ‘tone’ or requirements for discussion (e.g. respectful disagreement, evidence-based arguments)
  • defining clearly learner roles and expectations
  • monitoring the participation of individual learners, and responding accordingly
  • regular, ongoing instructor ‘presence’
  • ensuring strong articulation between discussion topics and assessment.

These issues are discussed in more depth by Salmon (2000); Paloff and Pratt (2005; 2007); and Bates and Poole (2003).

Therefore, although there has been a wide range of researchers and educators engaged in the area of online collaborative learning and communities of inquiry, there is a high degree of convergence and agreement about successful strategies and design principles.

Strengths and weaknesses of online collaborative learning

This approach to the use of technology for teaching is very different from the more objectivist approaches found in computer-assisted learning, teaching machines, and artificial intelligence applications to education, which primarily aim to use computing to replace at least some of the activities traditionally done by human teachers. With online collaborative learning, the aim is not to replace the teacher, but to use the technology primarily to increase and improve communication between teacher and learners, with a particular approach to the development of learning based on knowledge construction assisted and developed through social discourse. This social discourse furthermore is not random, but managed in such a way as to ‘scaffold’ learning:

  • by assisting with the construction of knowledge in ways that are guided by the instructor,
  • that reflect the norms or values of the discipline, and
  • that also respect or take into consideration the prior knowledge within the discipline.

Thus there are two main strengths of this model:

  • when applied appropriately, online collaborative learning can lead to deep, academic learning, or transformative learning, as well as, if not better than, discussion in campus-based classrooms. The asynchronous and recorded ‘affordances’ of online learning more than compensate for the lack of physical cues and other aspects of face-to-face discussion.
  • online collaborative learning as a result can also directly support the development of a range of high level intellectual skills, such as critical thinking, analytical thinking, synthesis, and evaluation, which are key requirements for learners in a digital age.

There are though several limitations:

  • it does not scale easily, requiring highly knowledgeable and skilled instructors, and a limited number of learners
  • it is more likely to accommodate to the epistemological positions of faculty and instructors in humanities, social sciences, education and some areas of business studies and health and conversely it is likely to be less accommodating to the epistemological positions of faculty in science and engineering. However, if combined with a problem-based or inquiry-based approach, it might have acceptance even in some of these subject domains.

It could also be argued that there is no or little difference between online collaborative learning/Communities of Inquiry than well-conducted traditional classroom, discussion-based teaching. Once again, we see that the mode of delivery is less important than the design model, which can work well in both contexts. Indeed, it is possible to conduct either models synchronously or asynchronously, at a distance or face-to-face.

However, there is certainly enough evidence that collaborative learning can be done just as well online, which is important, given the need for more flexible models of delivery to meet the needs of a more diverse student body in a digital age. Also, the necessary conditions for success in teaching this way are now well known, even though they are not universally applied.

Over to you

I am of course inviting Linda, and the Albertans, to respond to this (well, it is Grey Cup tomorrow: Calgary, Alberta vs Hamilton, Ontario, in a curious game called Canadian Football, which is almost as good a dust-up). However, I’d also like comments from some less committed educators with regards to the following:

1. Can you see the differences between ‘Open Collaborative Learning’ (OCL) and ‘Communities of Inquiry’? Or are they really the same model with different names?

2. Do you agree that either of these models can be applied just as successfully online or face-to-face?

3. Do you see other strengths or weaknesses with these models?

4. Is this common sense dressed up as theory?

5. Has anyone had any experience of using either of these models in the quantitative sciences such as physics or engineering? If so, do you still have a job?

References

Bates, A. and Poole, G. (2003) Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education: Foundations for Success San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Brindley, J., Walti, C. and Blashke, L. (2009) Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 10, No. 3

Entwistle, N. (2000) Promoting deep learning through teaching and assessment: conceptual frameworks and educational contexts Leicester UK: TLRP Conference

Garrison, R., Anderson, A. and Archer, W. (2000) Critical Inquiry in a Text-based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education The Internet and Higher Education, Vol. 2, No. 3

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

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

Marton, F. and Saljö, R. (1997) Approaches to learning, in Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (eds.) The experience of learning: Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press (out of press, but available online)

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2005) Collaborating Online: Learning Together in Community San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Pask, G. (1975) Conversation, Cognition and Learning Amsterdam/London: Elsevier (out of press, but available online)

Salmon, G. (2000) e-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online London: Taylor and Francis

Scardamalia, M. and Bereiter, C. (2006) Knowledge Building:  Theory, pedagogy and technology in Sawyer, K. (ed.) Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences New York: cambridge University Press

 

Why MOOCs are only part of the answer for higher education

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.