Thursday, May 09, 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 accessible
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 schools.
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. In particular, VOOCs (Vocational Open Onine Learning Courses) are hitting the market through Udemy and on teh other platforms. 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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