Friday, May 22, 2015

Lights, camera, action ..

 by cessemi, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by cessemi

When Ronald Reagan ran for president way back in the eighties there were many sceptics who couldn't accept that a movie actor could lead a nation. Whatever you think of his politics there's no doubt that even if his political background was weak his ability to deliver a message effectively and appeal to the voters was undeniable. As an actor he could play the part in a convincing way and even today he is still seen by many as one of the most popular presidents in history. Much greater politicians with far more ability and knowledge failed to communicate with the voters and struggled to convey a credible message.

So if an actor can be president why not let them lecture on university courses? That is exactly what Purdue University are testing in their professional development courses just now according to an article in Campus TechnologyWhen Actors Replace Instructors as On-Camera Talent; replacing faculty experts with professional actors to deliver more polished video lectures. Many teachers are uncomfortable recording the increasingly polished mini lectures that are so popular, especially in mainstream MOOCs, and the reasoning is that an actor can deliver a script in a more polished and convincing manner. They are comfortable on camera and know how to address an audience. Furthermore they don't introduce themselves at all so that they will not been seen as the subject experts, they simply deliver the message that has been prepared and checked by the real experts. But how did the students react?

The feedback was conclusive: Students still preferred the actor. "We didn't say who was who," Maris remarked. "But they could tell right away. They were telling us, 'Go with the actors. We love our instructor, but we love what she does in the course content. Go with the actors because we love to watch them.' We got the feedback we were hoping for without directly soliciting it."

I can imagine that this idea will provoke outraged reactions from faculty around the world and the discussion thread accompanying the article is filling up fast. However if you clear away the smoke and dust of the shocked reactions maybe it's not so crazy after all. Fronting a video explaining some basic concepts is not the true role of the teacher. Some do that sort of thing well but many do not. Teaching is not simply presenting information, it's more about supporting, mentoring, inspiring and challenging students as well as designing and running courses that lead to learning. Actors aren't going to replace teachers but they may offer a solution to tasks that teachers may not wish or need to do. I don't see this as the beginning of a major trend but I don't find the story particularly alarming.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Fragmented reality

Please Keep Your Laptops in an Upright a by cogdogblog, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by cogdogblog on Flickr

Whenever a new scandal breaks involving celebrities or politicians you hear the accused person claiming that their comments were taken out of context. If we had only heard the full conversation or read a previous article we would have realised that their intentions were good even if one small quote could be misinterpreted. The problem is that today we only hear the sound bites or choice quotes and almost no-one has time to check the context. If you make a statement, give a lecture, take part in an interview or panel debate you can never know which string of words will be picked up and take on a life of their own. Someone in the audience will happen to hear one sentence, write it down with one or two unconscious changes and broadcast it on Facebook or Twitter. Once out there anything can happen in a digital game of Chinese whispers. No matter who you are you need to realise that your audience only receives a nugget or two of your message and more often than not what they understand is out of context. Many read only part of a blogpost or see a tweet quoting a few words and then use that to support their own opinions.

I have developed over the years my own structured communication plan using different channels (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ etc) for specific purposes. It all makes sense to me and naively assumes that there are people out there that will follow the whole concept. If anyone did they would be so impressed by my well-crafted approach to disseminating my observations and news ;-)
Similarly organisations and companies meticulously plan their their media channels to create a coherent communication strategy on the assumption that someone out there will see that coherence.
But sadly nobody does! We zap quickly from one source to another and pass on fragments to friends who pass on fragments of those fragments.

The message is never to assume that anyone is really listening and that you need to continually reinforce your message on many channels hoping that some of your message will stick. This is nicely highlighted in a post by Harold Jarche called nobody pays attention.

In a world of general attention deficit disorder, understanding that nobody has understood what you have produced is a critical foundation for communication, especially in business. Assume that nobody has read what you have written. For those rare exceptions, assume they have interpreted it in a manner other than intended.

So how does this apply to education? We can't assume that students have all approached the topic in the same way and share a common foundation. With so many sources to choose between they will click on the links that intrigue them most and follow the leads offered by their networks. The selected readings that you choose with great care may or may not be read. You have less time than ever before to catch students' attention and there are always more attractive distractions competing for their attention. In some ways this is a healthy situation in that students are now able to find their own sources and access a wider range of opinions and perspectives than before. However in this fragmented reality it is more important than ever to focus on three critical literacies: filtering, source criticism and attention. It is essential to be able to filter the content we find, check its credibility and cross-check with other sources and finally develop the ability to sometimes switch off all our distractors and concentrate on an article, book, discussion or lecture. We can't turn the clock back to a more manageable past but need to ensure that students (and ourselves) have the tools to make sense of our increasingly fragmented and distraction-filled world.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The year of the ROOC?

Rook 2 by scyrene, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  Rook by scyrene on Flickr

At the risk of introducing yet another silly acronym into a world drowning in such things, maybe this can be the year of the ROOC - Really Open Online Courses. The problem with most MOOCs is that they are very seldom really open. The structure, templates and material are usually copyright and are not open for reuse and adaptation. While it's understandable that the owners want to protect their material it could benefit so many more people if it could be translated and adapted to other languages and cultures. The word open can be interpreted in so many different ways and this leads to a lot of confusion. The key to ROOCs is open licenses that allow others to use and adapt the course and its constituent parts to be more relevant to local culture and context.

One of the often repeated benefits of the MOOC movement was to make quality higher education available to all and the rather colonial vision of students in developing countries avidly following classes from the top professors at Harvard, Stanford, MIT etc. The problem here is that although the glossy high-end MOOCs are well produced and academically sound they are very much rooted in a western perspective and have little relevance to students in many other parts of the world. This one-size-fits-all approach has been widely criticized and if we genuinely want to use online learning to widen participation in higher education the present proprietary model of most MOOCs must be changed.

So what are the ingredients of a really open online course (massive or not)?
  • All course material has an open Creative Commons license permitting reuse and adaptation so that institutions and educators in other countries can make the course more relevant to local issues and culture.
  • Design sustainable resources - not context-specific, easy to add subtitles, avoid locked proprietary software, standard templates, compatible formats etc.
  • Build the course on a platform that is freely available to others.
  • Create a community around the course to open up the development process from the beginning and then provide support in the future.
If designed in this way even a very small course could grow into a massive one. The initial iteration may not have a massive target group but maybe an institution in, say, India sees the potential to adapt it and serve a massive target group there. Alternatively a small course could be adapted into hundreds of equally small but locally important courses on a global scale. The true power of open education lies in sharing and developing resources together but today's proprietary models simply reinforce traditional structures rather than democratising education. 

If you are still wondering about the photograph above, the bird is a rook!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

MOOCs for credits revisited

Credit by GotCredit, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by GotCredit on Flickr

Martin Weller suggested in 2013 that MOOCs could be used to replace the first year of undergraduate study, MOOCs As 1st Year Undergrad Replacement. Now two years later this prediction is coming true as Arizona State University announce a first year undergraduate programme made up of MOOCs and with full credits available for a fee, according to an article in Education NewsArizona State Offers Freshman Year Online For Credit. ASU are teaming up with MOOC consortium EdX to form Global Freshman Academy, offering real credentials at a price of $200 per credit. Furthermore you don't have to pay unless you successfully complete the course.

The entire first year of study can be taken completely online and although you have to pay to be assessed for credits, the fees for your first year of study will amount to half of the cost for the campus equivalent, excluding accommodation and food. As far as I can see the full campus option will still be available but by offering an online alternative the university hopes to attract over 100,000 additional students worldwide.

“We’re going to have 12 new courses, of which students will take eight,” said Arizona State president Michael Crow. “They have to be constructed at a fantastic level of digital immersion, not just talking heads. This is a general education freshman year, not a series of disconnected courses, so they have to be thought through together.”

This certainly seems to offer a more affordable entry into higher education for many students who aren't sure they want to invest in the full campus deal. Try the first year online at a lower cost and see how it goes before committing to campus for tear two. It's an interesting experiment but I wonder how they will deal with 50,000 online students all wanting credits and choosing to sign up for year two on campus? Where do successful online students go from there since only a fraction of the expected MOOC students will be able to start year two on campus? What is actually on offer here for the thousands of online students - your first year completed online and then what?

The offer also promises to solve the thorny issue of low MOOC retention rates with the logic that if you offer credits then students will complete the course. That tactic has been tried already several times with spectacularly unimpressive results. Very few MOOC participants seem interested in credits at all and you could say that the whole appeal of MOOCs is the joy of learning for the sheer sake of it and if you throw credits into the mix it all gets too serious. I don't think the MOOC community will be attracted by this scheme though some might complete the odd course out of interest. The target group here is probably prospective students who intend to go to university but are looking for a more flexible path and a chance to test the waters before committing to high fees and moving to campus.

So it sounds revolutionary but it isn't really so different from many other MOOCs for credit schemes. Good luck all the same and I look forward to reading some results in 2016. Have a look at George Siemens' post on the subject, Nothing new here: Arizona State and edX partnership.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Not lurking but learning

Lurking evil beneath the waters . . . . by 酷哥哥, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by 酷哥哥 on Flickr

I'd like to return to one of my favourite topics of late - online participation or the lack of it. Just as it is quite normal to appreciate music without dancing or singing along, we need to accept the fact that many people can learn a lot without actively taking part in discussions and group work. In fact one important phase in learning is a period where you silently observe and listen to those with more experience and tune into the field you are studying.

I enjoyed therefore reading a post on this theme by Dave White called Elegant lurking where he argues that we all need periods of silent learning before daring to participate. This is especially true in online communities.

All successful Social Media platforms allow for Lurking in some form. It allows individuals to tune into the ‘dialect’ of a particular network or community so that when they first decide to say something they’re reasonably confident it will be in an acceptable tone. Some learners will choose never to speak-up though, especially if they are following an intimidating network of venerable ‘thought leaders’ or if they assume they won’t be responded to.

The same applies of course in face-to-face groups, courses or clubs. New members may attend several meetings getting accustomed to the group culture before they dare to speak up. Some may never contribute but will follow the discussions with great interest and will learn a lot without needing to demonstrate the fact to the others. This is what is meant by elegant lurking; quiet low-key participation where learning is not overtly demonstrated. 

Supporting students to move towards this transition should be central to the overall trajectory of our pedagogy in more nuanced ways than simply assigning marks to the act of blog posting. Elegant Lurking is an important ingredient in the subtle business of becoming a member of a community.

The crucial moment is when you dare to make that first comment or ask that possibly "stupid" question. This is your official membership application and the reaction of the community can make the difference between your full participation or dropping out. It's so important that the teacher(s) or other leading members recognize a newcomer's first contribution and provide supportive feedback as soon as possible. Many will doubt their own competence and so any negative replies or lack of response will be seen as proof that they do not belong and result in that person leaving the group. At the same time we shouldn't pressurize everyone to contribute but accept that many will learn a lot by elegantly lurking. When they feel like joining in they will.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Learning is perpetual beta

Cyclic horns by fdecomite, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by fdecomite

Jay Cross has written an interesting article, Should Learning Content be in Perpetual Beta? The concept of perpetual beta is several years old now and typifies the innovation spirit behind a lot of the dotcom boom. Beta versions used to be test versions of a product that only a select few could use in order to iron out problems before official release. Only a fully tested product could be sold to customers. However in the rush to keep ahead of the competition companies started releasing beta versions for public use, generally for free, encouraging users to test and give feedback on the faults. Google became very clever at making these beta tests by invitation only and the chosen few felt privileged to be test pilots.

When something is labeled beta, you expect it to have errors and are happily surprised if you don’t find any. Finding and helping correct flaws is one of the psychic rewards of the implicit bargain which makes the customer a happy co-developer.

Today we're used to products never making it beyond beta; once the beta version is fixed an even cooler product sweeps it away and we start the process again. Perpetual beta flips traditional sales logic on its head. If the product is officially released to paying customers they will react negatively to any flaw. However if they are told it's a beta version they feel part of the development process and almost enjoy reporting problems.

For example, suppose I release a campaign or report clearly marked Beta. I invite you to partner with me to make things better. I summon your help. We bond. We are amigos. We sit on the same side of the table. If I’d labeled that same report Final, you’d have been all over me about typos.

Learning is also embracing perpetual beta by involving students in course design and resource development. Traditional courses are finished products before students register and they naturally expect everything to work smoothly. If there are flaws they'll soon react. However as more courses encourage student to become co-creators of both content and design this generates in turn a sense of ownership and responsibility in the course. The students' transition from consumers to co-creators leads to deeper involvement and learning.

All education is perpetual beta since there are always new discoveries to be made, new angles to examine and new questions to ask. Every course can be run as a voyage of exploration and discovery where the students and teacher refine existing content and add new elements that are then handed on to the next group for further development. We're seeing this iterative approach to learning not only in courses but also in the development of open educational resources and open text books. The most dangerous tactic is to claim that the product is finished.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Sometimes I just want to learn on my own

Maybe I'm weird but when I'm at a concert and the singer says "come on everyone clap your hands!" or "everyone get up and dance" I instinctively dig in my heels and refuse. I simply don't like being told to enjoy myself or being forced to participate. If I want to I will but I don't like being ordered to.

The same applies sometimes to learning. Of course learning is largely a social process where we test ideas, discuss, reformulate, copy, adapt and create but there are times when we simply want to be alone. A colleague of mine, who is a major MOOC enthusiast, confessed to being tired of contrived group activities and enjoyed being able to work through the material at her own pace and on her own terms. The effort of joining a group and dealing with often wildly diverse expectations and skills is sometimes greater than the payback and when you have many other commitments you need to be able to focus on course activities exactly when it suits you best. For people with good study skills and the ability to focus, participation can simply get in the way of learning.

Webinars are another arena where many people prefer to remain passive. I'm currently involved in a project that is examining how to make webinars more interactive and engaging instead of the traditional lecture format. There are many methods for stimulating participation but I just wonder if everyone really wants to get involved. I have arranged, moderated and participated in many webinars in recent years and usually enjoy contributing to the chat session and taking an active part. However sometimes I attend a webinar that is only of marginal interest, just in case something interesting crops up. Here I choose to sit right at the "back of the class" and listen with one ear whilst checking e-mails and doing other work. It's like interesting background music and even if I miss a lot I often focus when something catches my attention. Maybe I only really listen for 5 minutes or so but those short sound bites can be very rewarding. I have learnt something from a session that I actually didn't have time for but thanks to having it in the background I picked up a little pearl of wisdom. Does that mean I'm a poor participant? Has the webinar failed because I didn't get up and dance?

Maybe we have to consider that participants on courses or in webinars all have different levels of commitment, from passive background listeners to fully active learners. We all move up and down this sliding scale and we all need to spend sometime sitting at the side.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

E-books - managing the transition

Every time a report indicates that cherished traditional concepts like classroom teaching, printed books, writing with pen and paper or reading printed newspapers are more effective than their digital equivalents you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief that maybe we can soon return to the world we once knew before all this new technology came along. We all have an instinctive fear of the new and an often illogical love of the practices we grew up with. I have my own blind spots when it comes to new concepts whereas I fully embrace some of them. Maybe the results of some studies are affected by the fact that the test group was more used to the traditional method then the digital version. In the early days of say the motor car you would probably have found that the majority preferred horse carriages until the new invention had matured and the advantages became self-evident. It's funny how we have happily abandoned some media (vinyl LPs, audio cassettes, VHS, letter writing, film cameras) but hang on passionately to others (above all books).

An interesting article by Dan Cohen, What’s the matter with ebooks? In our praise for print, we forget the great virtues of digital formats, calls for some balance in the debate between printed and digital literature. Even if reports show sales of e-books leveling off this is really a mirage since a great deal of e-reading is not traceable. There are vast amounts of e-literature available from open publishers as well as private publication and the mainstream surveys only track sales of commercially published e-books. I read vast amounts on the net but almost never commercial e-books and I'm sure millions of others do likewise. As the technology improves and new business models emerge (many present models almost actively discourage e-reading) the present analogue/digital debate will become largely irrelevant.

... jump forward 10 or 20 or 50 years, and you should have a hard time saying that the e-reading technology won’t be much better—perhaps even indistinguishable from print, and that adoption will be widespread.

Reading will become digital even if the transition will not be as abrupt as the move from analogue audio or from fixed to mobile telephony. Digital reading offers an enhanced reading experience with advanced referencing and notetaking functions as well as multimedia support. Future digital reading interfaces could well be able to reproduce the feel of leafing through a first edition or ancient manuscript in a way that would be impossible in print today unless you are privileged enough to have access to the right library. The present arguments in favour of print will probably evaporate as digital publishing matures. Cohen argues that we should shift the focus from preserving tradition to embracing digital publication and focusing more on how to successfully manage the transition.

I’m a historian, not a futurist, but I suspect that we’re not going to have to wait anywhere near forty years for ebooks to become predominant, and that the “plateau” is in part a mirage. That may cause some hand-wringing among book traditionalists, an emotion that is understandable: books are treasured artifacts of human expression. But in our praise for print we forget the great virtues of digital formats, especially the ease of distribution and greater access for all—if done right.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Learners or consumers?

Watch (328) by Doug Waldron, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by Doug Waldron on Flickr

Fifty years ago encyclopedia salesmen came to your door offering you the chance to ensure your child's future by buying their splendidly illustrated ten-volume encyclopedia. Many parents dutifully signed up for these offers and proudly placed the volumes in pride of place in the living room bookshelf, hoping that this goldmine of knowledge would give their children an advantage in school. However simply having access to content, no matter how well-produced, does not of course lead to learning. The content is a good starting point and inspiration but learning requires action, testing, discussing, failing and trying again.

Today we all have easy access to quality educational content through a myriad of channels, from mainstream broadcast media to MOOCs and open courseware. Enormous amounts of money are spent on content creation and we seem to still be locked into the traditional view of education as the transfer of information. If we agree that learning is social and requires active experimentation, creation and collaboration we should be investing more in ways to promote these processes rather than focusing so much on content delivery.

Do we want students to be consumers of content or independent learners? That is the question posed in an interesting article by Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation for the upcoming conference eLearning Africa 2015, Digital society at a crossroads: Do we want learners or consumers? He sees the danger of Africans becoming dependent consumers of western content and calls for more focus on adapting content to local conditions and helping people to create their own tools and services.

We are at a crossroads as to choosing what we want the digital society to be. That is either something that empowers and educates people or it’s something where people become consumers. In Africa in particular where people become consumers of products offered only or primarily by foreign companies.

The article gives examples of African initiatives to promote digital creativity by providing tools for people to build their own apps and web services but the main message is a global one; how do we move the use of technology away from simple consumption to learning and creativity? The first stage of digital literacy is learning to search and access content but for many people that's as far as it goes. We need to focus more on higher levels of digital literacy; how to exploit the power of the net to learn, create, produce and remix.

We need to build a tidal wave of people who in a really practical, business-oriented way can have an impact on the future of the web, on what the web becomes. What can industry do, what can governments do to creatively look at how every African can fully understand the power of the web and use it to make their lives and societies better?

Learning happens when you move from content to creation and collaboration.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Netflix and education

Ich glotz TV. by reflexer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by reflexer

Can parallels be drawn between the development of television, from scheduled broadcasting to on-demand streaming, and the movement in education from traditional campus-based studies to unbundled online courses including MOOCs? Donald Clark raises this question in a post, What does ‘learning’ have to learn from Netflix?

Netflix is in 50 countries and will go into 200 within two years. We badly need some big, global education content delivery. Brilliant, scalable content that teachers and learners love. MOOCs are getting there, showing what can be done but still far too long and over-scheduled (semester-long courses were never the real demand, just a feature of the old, supply model). We need subscriptions in the tens then hundreds of millions (Netflix has 57 million but growing exponentially). Education needs a Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter or Netflix. I’m tired of the corner-shop mentality, the attitude that teaching and learning has nothing ‘essential’ that can’t be scaled.

"Television is dead, long live television" sums up the situation rather well. Many people today have almost abandoned scheduled broadcast TV for streaming services like Netflix where content is available on-demand and on any device. Netflix, like many other successful services, uses customer data to adapt delivery to suit individual preferences and offer an increasingly personalised product. The analogy is that the same algorithm-based technology could be successfully implemented to deliver personalised educational content, as promised by the field of learning analytics. Clark sees this as a wake-up call to higher education to start fully exploiting the opportunities offered by technology.

Some kind of educational Netflix is not completely new. Apples iTunes U could be seen as a prototype still in development, offering almost a million lectures from thousands of universities on demand and on most devices. Add learning analytics, which I suspect Apple are already working on, and you get just that kind of customised service that offers new bite-sized modules related to what you're studying. I'm sure that the delivery of educational content will move strongly in the direction described by Clark but it is still a broadcast model, no matter how personalised and on-demand it may seem to be. Who produces this content and what view of the world do they wish their content to reflect? Which content can we trust and how can we ensure that the material reflects global and multi-cultural perspectives. The risk is that this market is cornered by dominant western corporations.

Delivering content at scale and adapting it to personal preferences is the easy part really. It's what you do with that content that leads to learning. You can consume tons of content without necessarily becoming much wiser. You need to be able to put it all into context and draw conclusions and this generally needs guidance and a community to discuss with. You also need someone to break the personalisation bubble and force you to watch or read something that conflicts with your own views. The problem with personalised services like Netflix, Amazon, Facebook and Google is they want to keep you happy rather than challenging you. The adaptive Netflix model of content delivery is on its way I'm sure but even if it's an exciting development I'm not sure it really contributes to education. It's still completely top-down and controlled by a big corporation.

The danger for me is that this content is still locked down by copyright. It would be far more valuable to education if all this content is openly licensed and can then be adapted, translated and remixed by local educators to be more relevant to local learners. What we really need is a dynamic, global educational cloud where content is constantly being created, adapted and shared and is available anywhere and on any device.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Flipping the webinar

Most of the time we can't see the wood for all the trees. I've been working for some time in different projects trying to make webinars more interactive and using various tools to extend the dialogue. These experiments have been mostly successful and I feel that the webinars I'm involved in are more interactive and creative than before but somehow one elephant has stayed firmly in the room - content. Nearly all webinars are centred around the delivery of content and even if we now chop that delivery into bite-sized modules with discussion in between, content delivery still dominates the session.

So why not deliver the content before the webinar and focus on questions and discussion instead? This is the basis of an interview with Michael Kolowich, CEO of KnowledgeVision SystemsFlipping the Webinar – Advanced Tips from Industry Expert on Re-imagining Stale Webinars. We generally get the participants' attention 2-3 weeks in advance so why not make the content available immediately?

The schedule problem comes from the fact that when you find out about most webinars, they’re 2-3 weeks in the future. But as a marketer, you’ve got their attention now! Why not deliver the content now? Why make people wait three weeks? Chances are that no matter how well-intentioned a prospective webinar attendee is, some other meeting will come up in that time slot, and they won’t attend. 

Let participants focus on the presentation in their own time and then provide a channel for questions and reflections, for example a Facebook/Google+ group, a Twitter hashtag, a Padlet wall or a dedicated discussion forum. Then the focus of the webinar will be discussing the participants' questions and offering them more space to contribute. One advantage of providing pre-recorded content is presentation quality. In a live presentation there are many uncertain factors that can effect the delivery, often due to bandwidth issues. If you have over a hundred participants, slides tend to upload slowly and sound quality will fluctuate. Even the most experienced presenters can make mistakes and so delivery is often less than polished. However a recording can be made to higher standards, allowing several takes as well as the opportunity to edit. The recording will deliver the message in a more convincing and professional manner than the live performance.

It's time to test this I feel and will be interested in seeing the results. If it means that the webinar offers a deeper and more audience-oriented discussion rather than simple content transfer then all the better.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Educational change - a delicate balance

A couple of days after writing my last post on how higher education is slowly but surely adopting technology I discovered an article, Debunking the Myth about a Creative Destruction of Higher Education with Technology as the Driver, on the government of Ontario's Contact North site. It outlines the reasons why technology is not going to cause radical changes in higher education for some time and lists the main barriers to change. The barriers to change are mostly about traditional structures and these are extremely hard to influence unless a major external threat looms large. The main barriers are government funding of higher education, existing quality assurance, international rankings and faculty workload and conditions. All of these build on maintaining traditional structures and thus dampen all attempts at innovation and experimentation

No doubt others would point to a number of additional points, which act as inhibitors to the creative destruction and reinvention of our post-secondary system – the way in which faculty is rewarded and promoted, the way in which research funding is administered, preoccupation with time and so on. The key point is that such systems have built-in inhibitors to change which ensure that change is gradual not fast, deliberate not impulsive, mediated not mandated.

It would take a very brave and radical change in government policy and funding to change things and even if one country took such steps they would risk their universities falling in international rankings. So everyone watches and waits and few if any are making any radical moves at top level. The article points out that despite plenty media attention and commitment from those involved, there are few signs that open education, MOOCs, unbundling, competency-based assessment and so on are having serious effects on the fundamental core structures of higher education. If change is going to happen it will probably come from outside the system and present such a threat that the traditional system will be forced to adapt.

But do we really want this type of revolution and what type of educational system will emerge? The danger is that commercial interests will take over and many of the traditional values of academic freedom and scientific inquiry may suffer as a consequence. The system certainly needs to be tweaked towards greater flexibility and innovation but the danger with radical change is that you throw out the baby with the bathwater. Remember also that educational technology is just one of many challenges and that we're changing a whole ecosystem. Slowly but surely.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Evolution not revolution

Evolution by j0sh (, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by j0sh (

Many of us who work with the use of technology in education get frustrated at the slow uptake of seemingly excellent tools and methods. We see the potential of open networked learning to empower and engage students as well as increasing collaboration, widening participation and fostering creativity and can't understand why our institutions are so slow to acknowledge and absorb these exciting developments.

A common complaint is that whilst so much of society has been changed radically by digital technology, universities look pretty well the same as they did ten/twenty/a hundred years ago (select time scale according to desired shock effect). I confess to having used this argument myself but it's worth taking a few moments to question our rhetoric now and then. Martin Weller does just this in a new post, The hidden tech shift in higher ed, describing how universities actually have changed over the last ten years. The student demographics have changed with many more older students who are studying online, part-time or not living on campus. Technology has actually become ubiquitous though maybe not as much as we would have hoped. Most courses today use learning management systems like Moodle, Blackboard etc and most students use their own devices to access their courses making the old computer labs almost extinct. Administrative procedures are now almost completely digital in many countries and even if the traditional written examination would seem to be the final bastion against digitalisation there are also many examples of digital examination as well as new methods for peer assessment and problem-based learning.

I still believe that there is a suspicion of technology in higher education and a reluctance to experiment but there are also significant structural barriers that we sometimes forget. Weller points to the barrier our classrooms and lecture halls place in the way of pedagogical innovation. Most universities are stuck with legacy architecture.

I think a real problem for higher ed is the legacy of the physical environment for example. We do lectures because we have lecture theatres. More significantly we can’t conceive of doing anything else because the lecture theatres says “do lectures”. It would be very difficult, for instance, to implement a flipped approach in many university courses because the face to face space is built for lecturing and not doing the other things you might want to utilize that time for.

Rebuilding and redesigning our learning spaces is an expensive business and not something that will happen overnight. However many universities are busy doing just that (my own university included) and there are many inspiring examples of new campuses and redesigned buildings that offer flexible, stimulating and technology-friendly learning environments.

Another structural barrier to digitalisation is the fact that teachers are paid for lecture hours in the classroom and when you're provided with lecture halls to meet the students it's no surprise that the lecture still dominates. Time spent on online support and tutoring is often not paid at the same rate as face-to-face lecturing. The administration has simply not adapted to seeing online teaching as being just as valid as classroom teaching and that helps to maintain the status quo. In addition many teachers feel over-stretched in terms of workload and there is simply no time for experimentation and learning new skills. When resources are limited as they often are in higher education there's little margin for experimentation and great pressure to simply effectivise existing activities.

Actually a lot has changed but maybe not as quickly as many of us would wish and maybe not in the right directions. Maybe we also need to realise that the issue of digitalisation is one of many intertwined issues facing education today and that there are no quick fixes. As I have written before it's about evolution not revolution.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Glocal MOOCs

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Similarly we can offer MOOC students discussion forums but we can't make them discuss. The topic of learner engagement in online courses (not just MOOCs) has been a recurring theme over the last twenty years and it's clear that meaningful discussions don't just happen, they need to be nurtured and managed. Simply providing a space to comment leads to either complete silence or streams of unconnected random comments ranging from supportive to abusive and distasteful.

In online education students are generally reluctant to participate in discussion forums unless there is a clear value in doing so. Discussions work when there is a limited number of participants who already have a sense of community and trust and where the purpose of discussion is clear to all. In a MOOC where there are thousands of participants the forums become crowded, disorganised and above all daunting for newcomers. A post on the site MOOC Lab, Why MOOC forums fail to deliver highlights another factor inhibiting MOOC forums:

The forums also tend to be dominated by a small group of avid participants, isolating the “masses” who feel too intimidated to join the conversation. The percentage of students registered on a course who participate in the forums is minute.

How can we create learning communities in a course with thousands of participants? One gigantic forum for all clearly doesn't work but it's also extremely difficult to herd participants into smaller discussion groups. That was tried with disastrous effects by Georgia Tech on their aborted course Fundamentals of Online Learning a couple of years ago. They tried to get participants to form smaller study groups; a noble plan but a case of trying to herd cats. Since then many other universities have been grappling with the same problem but rewarding discussion doesn't seem to scale.

David Hopkins (Learner engagement in MOOCssuggests designing MOOCs with a rolling schedule with a new group starting each week.

Instead of having a MOOC that runs twice a year with 10,000 learners each cohort, would it be better suited to run every week with 2-300 learners each week? The learners would progress with those other learners who started in the same time frame as them, therefore building more meaningful relationships with their fellow learners. 

This would avoid the chaos of mass forums but there is still the problem of organisation. It's hard enough running a standard 6 week MOOC but starting a new one each week would add to the university's costs and there is still the problem of how to foster meaningful discussion even in these smaller forums.  Someone has to manage the discussion. Someone has to lead the way, keep the discussion on track, encourage and question. Uncertain participants need to feel that their contributions are welcome and that it's safe to enter the discussion. Faculty are unlikely to have time to manage these discussions so maybe students could be recruited to do so. As long as there is someone who clearly manages and can establish trust among the participants.

What we're all searching for is a way to combine scale with intimacy. Can we design glocal MOOCs combining the advantages of education at scale with a sense of community and small group discussion? What sort of scaffolding and forum management can be provided without significant expense. Could local actors like further education colleges and libraries be involved in creating a local context to global courses? I'm sure it's possible but it will require opening up the MOOC concept outside the confines of the host university or consortium. Universities can't provide all the support themselves so why not open up the concept and allow others to contribute? MOOCs need an open API so that other actors can build support services, offer local variations, translate content and so on. Then maybe we can see open education really taking off.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Designing for MOOC accessibility

MOOCs attract large numbers of learners from all over the world and the vast majority of them are in English to cater for that global audience. However many participants are far from fluent in English and many others are unused to studying online. Clearly a major factor for not completing a MOOC is not having the language or study skills to keep up. Many of courses are challenging enough for native speakers so for non-native speakers to have a chance of keeping up with the pace there is a need for some language support. If we want to improve MOOC completion rates we need to provide scaffolding for these learners.

Stella Li writes about this in Inside Higher EdTranslating MOOCs, stating that the language barrier is one of the three most common reasons for Chinese students dropping out of a MOOC. Once they start the course they find the material simply too demanding; the spoken language in the video lectures is too fast and complex and the forum discussions are dauntingly full of confident English users. Those who are new to online education need clear instructions and information from the very start and need to feel welcome and safe in the new environment. The risk otherwise is that whenever they get stuck they will assume that they are not good enough for the course and disappear.

Many people register for a course not only to learn the subject but also to improve their English and this is a motivator that should be acknowledged more. MOOCs could therefore develop an interesting by-product if designed accordingly; as a medium for teaching English as a second language. Stella made a study of 20 MOOCs from a number of consortia and presents a number of course design strategies that would provide linguistic scaffolding for non-native speakers. One key factor is writing in plain English and avoiding idiomatic or over complex language, especially in the course description, instructions, guides and support information. Pre-course information should clearly explain how non-native speakers and learners with disabilities are catered for. There should always be alternative forms of accessing the content. Videos can easily be sub-titled in English allowing learners to both read and listen. Audio and video material can also have a downloadable text version as many will prefer to print out the text to read on the bus or train. Basically it's a matter of designing for accessibility.

So far studies have indicated that the majority of MOOC participants are graduates with good study skills but if universities are really interested in reaching beyond this group then accessibility must be top priority. Using plain English benefits everyone and even native speakers will appreciate subtitled videos and printable text versions of video and audio material. If MOOCs really want to contribute to lifelong learning for a global audience they must be designed with that diverse audience in mind rather than simply adopting the language and design principles of campus education.