Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Reclaim open learning

2071 - Westward Ho - Open Atlantic by -pdp-, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by -pdp-

I've previously written about the need to refocus on real open learning again after being blinded by the glitter of the high profile xMOOCs for the past year or so. I don't mean we should dismiss them but instead see them as a development of the traditional educational model rather than something truly innovative and certainly not particularly open. Those of us who are interested in the development of open educational resources that are free to reuse and adapt and education that is truly open need to look beyond the mainstream MOOCs and find inspiration elsewhere.

Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U and other works on open learning, wrote a good post in the Huffington post, Can We Move Beyond the MOOC to Reclaim Open Learning? about the need to let the MOOCs go their way and raise the profile of truly open and innovative learning. This learning is happening everywhere but receives little media coverage: in communities of practice, virtual worlds, forums, Twitter, social networks, wikis and so on. They also take place face-to-face wherever people can meet to discuss common interests. They are learner-initiated and create their own learning resources or make use of existing open educational resources and there are no formal credentials available.

Anya belongs to a group known as Reclaim open learning (#ReclaimOpen) which is a network of open learning supporters who wish to encourage more development and innovation in the field. Right now they're running an innovation contest to showcase best practice in open learning that has so far escaped the media spotlight but deserves support. The contest raises the following questions:
  • What are independent learners and innovative teachers doing now that deserves support, recognition, and scaling up?
  • How can colleges and universities engage with the social, participatory, and open learning ecology of the Internet in ways that go beyond making, using, or resisting xMOOCs?
  • What kinds of infrastructures, policies, and business models can support more participatory and peer-based forms of post-secondary learning?
  • What kind of programs and platforms could meld the grassroots capacity and peer-based learning of the net with the knowledge, expertise, and credibility of institutionalized research and education?
If you have the answers to these questions and know of innovative learning that deserves support just send in the details.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Learner-initiated learning

An article by Trent Batson on Campus Technology, The Essence of MOOCs: Multi-Venue, Non-Linear, Learner-Initiated Learning, sees the present MOOC movement as only one element of a more wider and fundamental change in education. Instead of solely relying on institutions to offer ready-made courses the modern learner has many other options available. The move towards learner-initiated learning is about learners taking charge of their own development and actively looking for the right courses, communities or networks that will help you learn the skills you need. In this arena MOOCs are simply one of many potential arenas for learning.

"The upswing of interest in MOOCs is perhaps a harbinger of the speeding up of a historic move to learner-initiated learning (LIL). Learner-initiated learning is a term that may best describe the new forms of learning that have emerged to combine learning experiences from multiple venues. An internship here, a course there, job-related learning here, self study there and so on (often called DIY learning). Even students enrolled in degree programs do "swirling," taking courses from colleges or universities away from their home institution. Or, as an added option now, learners may take a MOOC, or use open education resources as part of or in addition to assigned materials. LIL is also related to "self-directed learning" or "self-initiated learning," two research threads that began in the last century."

Those who succeed in this new educational ecosystem will be those who have learned how to learn, are digitally literate and are able to develop their own learning portfolio. This portfolio on the net will contain all your significant work from courses, projects, publications and other activities such as blogs or wikis. Keeping this updated and in an accessible and coherent structure will be essential so that particular units or sequences of work can be validated and assessed by independent reviewers when necessary.

The challenge for today's educators is helping as many as possible to be part of this development - learning to learn.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Massive Open Online Whatever

Alphabet miso. by revbean, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by revbean

There's a thickening alphabet soup brewing with variations on the three letters MOO. What we're seeing is the potential of massive communities or networks to solve certain problems or offer new opportunities. Exactly how open and massive they are varies considerably and we shouldn't focus on all these often misleading acronyms. Look instead at each concept on its own merits and see what it offers.

The idea presented a couple of weeks ago of using the MOOC concept to offer greater support to doctoral students and provide them with a greater sense of community and access to wider peer review makes a lot of sense, though the details are still to be fully worked out. Now comes an article by Benjamin Ginsberg, Forget MOOCs - Let's use MOOA, where he suggests massive open online administration to share the administrative load on universities. It's really a case of building a community around university administration and pooling resources rather than each institution reinventing the wheel every week, at an enormous cost. By working as a community and sharing smart ideas and best practices can spread more quickly and expensive mistakes could be avoided.

"Ginsberg pointed to the realm of strategic planning. He said that thanks to to the best practices concept, hundreds of schools currently use virtually identical strategic plans. Despite the similarities, however, these plans cost each school hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to develop. The MOOA would formalize the already extant cooperation by developing one plan that could be used by all colleges. Ginsberg estimates that had the MOOA planning concept been in use over the past ten years, schools would have saved more than a half billion dollars."

Ginsberg plans to launch an administrative community Administeria next year and it'll be interesting to see how it is received. There is nothing terribly new about this idea since large communities have been collaborating on the net for many years but the MOOC-hype has brought the power of massive communities to the forefront. 

On a related theme a meeting of global virtual universities has discussed the mainstream MOOC phenomenon: see article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Virtual Universities Abroad Say They Already Deliver ‘Massive’ Courses. There are many online universities in the world who have been running massive and relatively open online courses for years, such as the Virtual University of Pakistan (see their massive YouTube channel) or the African Virtual University, and providing education more suited to their target students than those of the mainstream MOOCs. MOOCs offer new opportunities for learning but it's worth remembering that they are variations on themes that have been present for some time now. Online education is so much more than MOO ....

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In defence of the lecture

It's very fashionable to claim that the lecture is dead (I've done it myself) and that there is no need for the form in modern education. While I firmly believe that lecturing as the default form of university teaching is on the way out we need to consider when the lecture can be of positive value. In our enthusiasm to embrace the potential of technology in education it's important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The simple fact is that despite all the criticism lectures are more popular than ever. The iTunes U platform features almost half a million of them and they are downloaded and viewed by millions every week and if you throw in the lectures featured in all the MOOCs the sheer volume is astounding. Sure many of them are very traditional and not particularly inspiring but there is no disputing their popularity whatever we may think of the pedagogy.

However many MOOC providers have realised that online audiences learn more from more a series of concise lectures of 5-10 minutes rather than one hour marathon sessions. The staggering success of TED talks is a clear indication that we enjoy lectures if they're short and sweet. Maybe the appeal is linked to the massive appeal of stand-up comedy; one comedian on stage with no props or extras. TED talks feature the masters of stand-up teaching and they consistently succeed in inspiring and providing food for thought. Isn't that effective teaching? From sage on the stage to dean on the screen.

Tony Bates comes to the defence of the lecture in an article The beginning of the end of the lecture hall?. He makes the following list of occasions when a lecture would be a valuable feature of a course and asks if readers can add to it:
  • a lecture at the beginning of a course to set the tone and build a sense of community
  • a lecture at the end of a course to pull things together, to provide a synthesis, or a sense of completion or to ask: where now? 
  • a lecture in the middle as a check on where students are, what are the ‘sticking points’, and a realignment of expectations or resetting of students’ focus 
  • a lecture for a research professor to synthesize/summarize his/her findings or the field in which they are researching 
  • special occasions, such as analyzing a dramatic current event in terms of theories or principles studied in a course: why, how, what next, etc. 
  • distinguished visitors who have something extra to add to a course or program.
The conclusion here is that we should be careful not to simply dismiss traditional methods and rush to the shiny new ones. Many people learn a lot from lectures, some learn very little, some thrive in a traditional classroom, others do not. Let's integrate the old with the new to offer a wide range of learning paths to suit all tastes. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Fast forward

Day 90 - Couch Potato by DaGoaty, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by DaGoaty

How often do you read an article on a web site to the end? Not often I suspect and my fears are confirmed in a fascinating article by Farhad Manjoo, You Won’t Finish This Article. He cites traffic statistics from the web site Slate showing readers' habits and how long they spend on articles. According to the stats we very seldom read whole articles any more and many people seldom get past the first two paragraphs. A staggering 38% hardly read more than the first sentence. Many more show a great reluctance to scroll so anything you write below the horizon of the browser window may only be read by less than half of your "readers".

"Schwartz’s data shows that readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. Schwartz’s data suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing."

So even if lots of people seem to have landed on this blog there's no guarantee that any of them have actually read my posts. Getting loads of retweets doesn't mean that any of them have read anything either, they're just sharing. So technically a blog post could get enormous coverage in social media without anyone actually reading it to the end. If you write something outrageous in the last paragraph the chances are you'll get away with it. It's the literary equivalent of TV zapping where we give a programme about 10 seconds to grab our attention before zapping onward.

It's easy for stats like this to prompt outraged end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it responses. But the sheer volume of information we are subjected to every day makes it hard to focus on anything for long in case we miss the next big story. We've never been better at skim reading but at the cost of forgetting the art of deep reading, following an in-depth discussion, listening to a long piece of music etc. I'm as guilty as anyone and confess to often reading half an article or less and have indeed tweeted about them. I save them however and try to read them later when I have more time. Sometimes I succeed.

I'll end this by quoting Manjoo's closing remarks:

"Maybe this is just our cultural lot: We live in the age of skimming. I want to finish the whole thing, I really do. I wish you would, too. Really—stop quitting! But who am I kidding. I’m busy. You’re busy. There’s always something else to read, watch, play, or eat."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Prepare to be MOOPhD

Moo Cows by miseldine, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by miseldine

With Georgia Tech offering a degree programme in MOOC-format (or at least as an online degree) the next step in the process must surely be massive open online research. A fascinating article by Jon Dron of Athabasca University, MOOCs are so unambitious: introducing the MOOPhD takes up precisely this challenge; a massive open online PhD. It's not such a crazy idea but there are many important considerations and limitations.

Firstly the MOOPhD is not about awarding doctorates but providing resources to help students write articles and learn research skills. MOOCs can be provided to help teach research skills, improve academic writing, assessment skills, support for gaining funding as well as providing a wide network of peers to learn from and share experience. It's about providing scaffolding for the research process that is isn't always available on campus, at least to the same extent.

"A MOOPhD would, of necessity, be highly modular, offering student-controlled support for all parts of the research process, from research process teaching, through initial proposals, through project management, through community support, through paper writing etc. Students would choose the parts that would be of value to them at different times. Different students would have different needs and interests, and would need different support at different points along the journey. For some, they might just need a bit of help with writing papers. For others, the need might be for gaining specific skills such as statistical analysis or learning how to do reviews. More broadly, the role of a supervisory team in modelling practice and attitudes would be embedded throughout."

The MOOPhD would complement the formal process not compete with it. The post-grads would still have to publish peer-reviewed articles and write their thesis but would get considerable support from their peer network. The MOOC element could save universities from having to provide their own research skills courses. Dron also suggests crowd-funding as a possible source of research backing. 

It sounds promising but the last part of the article lists a number of barriers; from ethical issues to start-up costs and gaining academic acceptance. This one is not going to happen overnight but it shows yet another way the MOOC boom might benefit higher education, not through conflict nut through integration and enhancement.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

MOOCs in research spotlight

As the dust of the last 2 years of hype and optimism begins to settle it's time for some MOOC research; how they work (or not), student motivation, learning outcomes, pedagogical aspects etc. The original connectivist MOOCs have been well studied and in particular Rita Kop and Helene Fournier have written a series of articles on issues arising from those courses. Most of these MOOCs are aimed at educational professionals and are highly experimental and pedagogically innovative so it's only natural that they spawn many research articles.

However the mass-market MOOCs of the last two years raises new questions since their format is more linear and traditional and the participants so diverse. There has been a deluge of news and blog posts on these MOOCs but very little solid academic research. A welcome development is the formation of the MOOC Research Hub which aims to stimulate and fund research into MOOCs and act as a hub for disseminating results. The initiative is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the academic coordination lies with Athabasca University in Canada.

"The dramatic increase in online education, particularly Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), presents researchers, academics, administrators, learners, and policy makers with a range of questions as to the effectiveness of this format of teaching and learning. To date, the impact of MOOCs and emerging forms of digital learning has been largely disseminated through press releases and university reports, with only limited peer-reviewed research publication. The proliferation of MOOCs in higher education requires a concerted and urgent research agenda." 

The first stage is underway; researchers are invited to submit abstracts of proposed projects with grants of $10,000 – $25,000 available to those selected (see details of the submission process). The selected projects will be expected to present preliminary findings at the MOOC Conference, University of Texas, Arlington, December 5-6, 2013.

The site will also act as a hub for all MOOC research as well as linking to conferences, webinars and events. It's good to see that the Steering Committee for the MOOC Research Initiative Grants includes both leading figures from the xMOOC consortia as well as George Siemens, one of the creators of the original cMOOCs. The MOOC Research site is still under development but it is definitely one to bookmark and follow.

Read also a good article on MOOC research by George Veletsianos, The research that MOOCs need.

An hour after posting this I discovered that a journal called Research and Practice in Assessment has just released a special issue on MOOCs. It's free to download or view as a flipbook.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The branding of education

Branded by derekGavey, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by derekGavey

In an age that is obsessed with brands it's not surprising that education is also becoming increasingly brand conscious. Coursera and EdX are gathering momentum as trusted suppliers of courses or content and many wonder if we are seeing the birth of educational megabrands that will supply the world with educational content and course packaging. We trust Blackboard to host our courses and content or we sign up with Google or Apple and the effect is that education is being forced to choose brand as the major players offer increasingly all-inclusive packages that seldom allow compatibility with those of their rivals.

Dean Groom questions the brandification of education in his post BYOD (build your own demise). Many outward signs of independence and freedom such as bringing your own device to school (BYOD) and personal learning environments are instead making us ever more brand conscious. By adopting certain brands for use in the classroom schools and teachers are helping to "market" the brand to children, students and parents.

"The impact of brandification is clear – kids use brand names to describe objects. These brands penetrate the family. The fact the brands make huge profits, avoid tax, farm personal data which they sell and routinely ‘drop’ the privacy ball seems to be of little concern. Educators are one of society's most trusted institutions – by fostering brand-value as ‘educational’ families tend to ‘deny’ and ‘ignore’ the darker agenda of profit, power and control of information and ideas."

Maybe educators need to be more cautious about overtly promoting one brand over another and maintaining a healthy skepticism to the marketing and hype. Try to use a variety of tools and apps and encourage students to do likewise rather than falling for the temptations of the all-inclusive branded solutions.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Libraries and MOOCs - the missing link?

Several surveys indicate that the majority of people studying on MOOCs already have a university background and that these courses are not reaching new learners as much as many would hope. The problem is that most people have a traditional school education behind them and need clear instructions, feedback and supervision. Many MOOCs on the other hand demand rather advanced study skills, independence and digital literacy and for those who lack these skills a MOOC can be a bewildering and daunting environment.

That's where libraries come in according to an article on OEDb, Librarians: Your Most Valuable MOOC Supporters. Libraries provide study guidance and information retrieval tuition for campus courses so why not for MOOCs? The article urges librarians to get involved in the MOOC debate by trying them out for themselves and finding ways of supporting MOOC students with trustworthy study guides and literature lists. Many MOOCs that are already on offer have not integrated library services into the package and librarians at MOOC-universities need to get involved in course design from the beginning.

"Miller sees libraries supporting MOOC students by doing many of the things they’ve always done, like providing access to resources, and even existing as a place where learners can use the Internet to access a MOOC. Miller points to the many potential MOOC support roles for librarians: as copyright consultants to MOOC faculty, tech and research assistance for MOOC learners and instructional design consultants as MOOCs are built.

Librarians can extend beyond the role of MOOC support, though. Librarians are experts in information and other resources that can help both faculty and students in MOOCs. In addition to a support role, Miller would like to see librarians move to the role of collaborators in growing MOOC potential."

The difference is that the people taking MOOCs are not on campus, they're everywhere else. So it's time for public libraries to get involved in MOOCs providing support for informal learning, offering computer access, advice and hands-on support for learners unused to online learning. It's not just university level MOOCs, there are lots of other types of informal online courses through channels like Udemy or Peer 2 Peer University and many of the people who would most benefit from them are completely unaware of what's available. There are many libraries who are already offering support for lifelong learning but the rise of the MOOCs puts this even more in the spotlight.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

MOOCs - are the clouds beginning to clear?

Nubes y sol - Clouds and sun by Aloriel, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Aloriel

Martin Weller wonders if the whole MOOC bubble has already burst in his post, You Can Stop Worrying About MOOCs Now. This week has seen the announcement by Coursera that they will be partnering with 10 US state university systems and public schools to provide them with course content. Instead of being the revolutionary element of disruption in higher education the xMOOCs are beginning to blend in with regular campus by providing ready-made course content for smaller universities and colleges to embed in their own programs. A college can thus offer a wider range of courses since they do not have to make the investment in developing the course material and can offer the tuition and examination that the MOOC cannot offer.

I'm not surprised by this move and it fits in with the layered model of education with free resources at the bottom layer and then optional value-added services like tuition, validation, examination etc higher up and at a fee. Martin sees this as the xMOOCs revealing their true colours and instead of offering free education for all they are now looking to establish a good business model within the traditional set-up.

A few weeks ago there was a discussion about whether MOOCs are courses or textbooks and the answer seems to be verging toward the latter with the course element added on by other parties, at a cost. Rather than disrupting higher education MOOCs may well end up fitting comforably into it providing new dimensions but not challenging too hard.

Maybe we should let them get on with it and get back to looking at MOOCs as they were originally conceived:

"So what about MOOCs, you know, those free, open courses? Is this the end of them? No, I don't think so, but maybe they can now become what we always wanted them to be, focused on access and experimentation and not hype and commercialism."

Time for a reminder of the roots of MOOC with Dave Cormier's classic video description. Now this is what I call a MOOC: