Saturday, March 17, 2012

It's education, but not as we know it

The open education movement is gaining momentum and there are signs that the mainstream are seriously taking notice, even if not always grasping the full point. Almost every week there's news of new open courses being launched and there's plenty of news coverage, even from establishment sources. The OER University partnership has just announced their first 8 prototype open courses where the course development will be carried out on their open wiki. The exciting thing about this initiative is that the participating universities are planning to offer students a free and open path towards recognized credentials rather than the semi-official certificates at present offered by for example MITx. If and when this initiative is up and running and students are receiving real degrees for largely informal studies then things will really begin to get interesting.

Disruption in higher education is the theme of an excellent interview by Marc Parry in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Could Many Universities Follow Borders Bookstores Into Oblivion? It's an interview with two representatives from Georgia Tech's new Center for 21st century universities, a unit set up to investigate the disruptive changes taking place in education today:

The Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) is Georgia Tech's living laboratory for fundamental change in higher education. Our mission is to foster and accelerate the innovation, validation, adoption and deployment of disruptive ideas-particularly those involving technology in the service of teaching and learning, industry wide.

The article likens the situation in education with that of the publishing industry and the competition between high street bookshops and the likes of Amazon. As we see more examples of massive open courses from Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon and others it questions the need for thousands of other universities around the world to spend enormous amounts of time and money producing their own versions of the same course. Some types of courses can be easily scaled up to reach a global audience. The question for universities today is to find compelling reasons to study with just your university rather than a mass course on the net. Sitting in large lecture halls on campus is not compelling enough today. What exactly does campus add to learning that cannot be achieved online given that teaching hours on many undergraduate courses today are at an all-time low? We can no longer take it for granted that students will automatically want to spend several years living on campus unless it has significant added value.

One interesting scheme introduced at Georgia Tech is called TechBurst. Started last year it encourages students to make their own instructional videos on important concepts in their studies and post them on TechBurst. These short lectures/demonstrations may not be 100% correct but the idea is that other students will be inspired to comment, correct and revise the material thus creating a learning process around the original film. Sometimes you can learn more without a well-crafted teacher presentation to start the process. Learning by doing.

Finally there's a very good summary of the MOOC story so far by one of the most committed pioneers in the field, George Siemens, MOOCs for the win! He makes an important differentiation between the MOOCs run by himself, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier and others and the massive open courses offered today by Stanford, MITx, Udacity etc. The former gather participants together for open online seminars and real time discussions as well as facilitating collaborative learning among participants. Complex networks and flexible groups discuss the issues raised in the course and the level of activity is transparent and extensive. The latter variety are more traditional in format, emphasizing self study rather than collaboration.

"Our MOOCs value ontology first and epistemology second. We have an ideology of developing learners who create and share artifacts of their learning, control their own learning, and own their own spaces of learning. In the process, we emphasize social networked learning (connectivism). We make sense of complex knowledge by connecting to others, creating and making “stuff”, and engaging in discourse and interacting with the ideas of others. The Stanford MOOCs are more traditional as they emphasize knowledge development not ontological development. The primary innovation of these MOOCs relates to scale and economics: the numbers of learners that can take a course (currently for no fee, but I think that will be short-lived)."

Siemens sees MOOCs as an experiment in progress. There are no fixed rules or definitions and the journey is more important than the destination. MOOCs might lead to major changes in higher education, who knows, but they are more important as testing ground for new ideas in education.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alastair,

    Agreed - -I think the OERu's focus on formal academic credit towards real degrees is a point of difference.

    I think the OERu is crossing the formal assessment chasm in open education and will be a catalyst for mainstream adoption of OER in the formal sector.