Thursday, May 9, 2013

MOOCs: old narratives v new narrative - open, scalable, diverse & relevant


There’s been a lots of different reactions to MOOCs and a few fixed narratives have emerged:

1. ‘US Valley’ narrative around Khan, Stanford, not-for-profits,
investors, Coursera, Udacity, NovoED and so on.

2. ‘Canadian connectivist’ narrative that MOOCs originated
with Siemens & Downes and have been usurped by the ‘US valley’ folks.

3. ‘Out of OER’ narrative, where MOOCs are seen as building
upon the Open Educational Resource culture.

4. ‘Traditional backlash’ narrative, that MOOCs dangerously
undermine the traditional values and funding of Universities. 

5. ‘Silver bullet’ narrative where MOOCs are seen as the
future saviour for higher education.

In my view, none are wholly true, yet all have a degree of
truth. What we have to do is stop seeing all of these as mutually exclusive and
look to the future not the past. This is a phenomenon or movement that,
whatever its origins has the momentum that none of the past initiatives seemed
to gather. It’s a time to drive forward with debate and discussion, not constantly
checking the wing mirror.

New MOOC narrative

My own position is that we need a future-looking narrative that lies
beyond all of these. Here’s a thought. MOOCs will not replace or even undermine
Universities. In fact, they are likely to make our Universities even more
important as the future keepers of cultural capital. No one wants to see our
University system fail or crumble. Then again, many want to see aspects of the closed
‘ivory tower’ reshaped into something a little flatter, more open and
accessible. There are genuine worries about insularity, quality of teaching,
cost, access and relevance. If we can reposition academe as more open,
transparent and relevant, that could be to the benefit of us all. There are seven components to this narrative:

1. Open

Being more open, through MOOCs, will engage and re-engage
potential school leavers, parents, alumni, adult learners and the majority of
people worldwide who may see it as a realistic aspiration. Just as important are those who,frankly,
have no chance of ever seeing the inside of a University. The data from MOOCs
already show a huge appetite from an untapped audience around the world for
knowledge and learning. I suspect that academics, research and reputations of
Universities would be enhanced of that knowledge were seen as more open and

2. Scalability

Higher Education does face the problem of increasing costs.
In most other areas of human endeavour, increased volume leads to decreased
costs. Along comes a solution that promises to ease that problem. Sure the
business models have yet to be refined, but they will. Sure there may be less
teacher-student face-to-face contact but this is the ‘trade-off’, namely that a
MOOC may have less student/professor contact but some of that may be worth
sacrificing for openness and access. Sebastian Thrun was teaching 200 students
at Stanford, on his MOOC it was 169,000. That would have taken 800 years at his
old teaching rate. Even with the 26,000 that completed, it’s 130 years. The
benefits of scale and literally ‘massive’.

3. Diversity

The philosophy Professors at San Jose, who recently wrote an
‘open letter’, complained that MOOCs undermine the ‘diversity’  of the student mix. How they came to that
conclusion beggars belief. MOOCs are massively diverse in terms of age,
nationality, ethnic origins and background. This is precisely is a consequence
of them being Massive, Open and Online. This is an important point in learning,
as critical thinking may well be enhanced by having a larger, more diverse set
of globally-based, learners engaged on courses. It shifts us out of our
cultural groupthink and brings in a wider range of experience, example and perspectives.

4. Academic status

Rather than the occasional academic making an appearance
through a TV series on art of history, we could see a renaissance of interest
in knowledge and learning if they engaged more directly and openly with
society. A good example in the UK are Classical scholars, such as Mary Beard
and Robin Lane-Fox, who have headed up TV series on Roman history. With MOOCs,
many more talented academics will have a chance to reach out to audiences
beyond their own yearly intake of students.

5. Relevance

This may also realign university subjects and activities
more closely with the needs of their communities, economies and student needs. I
live in a relatively small town, Brighton, with two large Universities, yet
there is precious little engagement between them and the local population. The
vast majority would be hard pressed to name the Vice-chancellors or even a single
academic at either institution. As a local employer , who employed many
students from both Universities, it worried me over many years how
disinterested they were in even minor curriculum tweaks or the fate of students
beyond graduation date. Engagement with the local community through the arts,
debates, public lectures and reuse of low-occupancy buildings and sports
facilities would make Universities more loved.

 6. Giving

Rather than the educational colonialism of setting up shop
in the developing world with new-build campuses, the developed world could
funnel educational aid through MOOCs. This would have greater impact through
scale and lower costs. The evidence from MOCCs so far is that huge numbers of
people are accessing them from countries where HE is not affordable or even
remotely accessible for the majority of citizens. I’d like to see some foreign
aid budgets go to MOOCs, especially further down the educational ladder into

7. Reframe away from ’18 year-old undergrad

When something new, and let’s even use that word
‘disruptive’, hits a sector, debate erupts, especially on social media and
blogs. This is all good as it helps us think through the many issues that
emerge, some predictable, some not so predictable. But one thing has happened
that surprises me in the debate is the framing of this new phenomenon (MOOCs)
into the old, restrictive model of the 18 year old undergraduate course.

If you believe that the purpose of a MOOC is to mimic the
standard undergraduate course, you will be disappointed as many of the
participants in MOOCs are not young undergraduates. You will also see drop-out,
rather than drop-in, a category mistake that sees anything other than passing the final exam as failure (a BIG mistake). There is also a false assumption
that face-to-face teaching is a necessary condition for learning. It is not. We
learn most of what we learn, not from direct teaching but informally from all
sorts of sources and interactions. This is not to say that teaching is
unimportant. In practice, on MOOCs, human contact takes all sorts of forms,
from teacher to student, student to student, content to student, peer
assessment, physical meetups among students, forums, social media. This is a
rich blend of human interaction and, in connectivist MOOCs, it is this very
feature that, their connectivist founders claim, makes them work so well. There
are demands for more rigour in summative assessment, despite the fact that many
learners may not want summative assessment at all and others lighter forms of
assessment. MOOCs are taken for all sorts of reasons by all sorts of people
from all sorts of places. For many it’s not a paper-chase. Squeezing the debate
back into the ‘do I get a credit for this course – if not it’s a waste of time’
is wrong-headed.

God’s in the detail

Sure, there’s the old world that has to adjust to new ideas
but we can’t hang on to old practices just because they’ve been around for a
long time - we’d never have got rid of slavery! On the other hand we must be
careful not to totally abandon old practice and look for readjustments, for
example, the recording or inclusion of active learning within lectures. We can
surely borrow from the work that’s been done on OER, connectivist MOOCs,
adaptive learning and so on. MOOCs are not the preserve of one group, country
or group of elite Universities.

To move forward we have to look at the different species of
MOOCs, new target audiences, different economic models and the pedagogic
detail.  There’s more to MOOCs than just
cMOOCs and xMOOCS - the taxonomy is much richer and wider. Vast new audiences are also emerging. New players in new
combinations are trying new ways of making education cheaper. On pedagogy, we
have different forms of recorded lectures (much progress been made here), peer
assessment (very promising), forums, groups, adaptive learning, social media, physical
meetups arranged by students (this is interesting), summative assessment (lots
of options here) and so on. Kites are being flown and no doubt some will go
into free-fall, others hover and yet other soar. 

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