26 June 2012

On two kinds of MOOCs

There are two kinds of massive, open online courses around (MOOCs), the Downes-Siemens kind and the kind that mostly (uniquely still?) universities in the USA offer. The archetypal example of the former is PLENK10, a course on personal learning environments networks and knowledge, which ran in September 2010. An example of the latter is the Introduction to AI course, taught by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Google's Director of Research Peter Norvig. Sui Fai John Mak makes a serious attempt in a recent blog post entitled What are MOOCs all about to make sense of the differences between these two kinds. He differentiates between them in the following way (my emphases):

Downes-Siemens type:
1. Those MOOCs based on a connectivist approach – with learning focusing on the learning process, with network construction and navigation, where connections, interactivity, diversity, openness, autonomy are emphasized.  ...

US Universities type:
2. Those MOOCs based on an instructivist – behavioral/cognitivist (blended with constructivist) approach – with learning focusing on the learning outcomes and thus are basically content based, where learners are guided by the main instructors, and are also assessed based on either the machine based assessment tools or peer assessment.

So, in his analysis, the key difference is one of a different underpinning by learning theories, connectivist versus instructivist. Although this certainly is a correct way to differentiate between the two, I don't believe this goes to the heart of the matter. In my view, the key difference between the two kinds of MOOCs is one of underlying of ideology. The education-theoretical stance merely follows from that.

For Downes and Siemens openness is key to their ideology, they want to change education as we know it by being totally open in an attempt to empower the learner vis-à- vis the powerful institutions that schools and in particular universities are. Their view is very much in line with the ideology that underpins the open universities of the world, which arose in the seventies and eighties as a means to emancipate and liberate those who for some reason had not been educated to the full extent of their capabilities. The online character of their MOO-Courses is what gives the openness unprecedented opportunities, massiveness is not an intended effect but rather a collateral one (and their courses are  not massive at the scale that the other type is).

The other kind of MOOC embraces a simple business ideology, and as such is almost the antithesis to the first kind. Its proponents emphasize the aspect of massiveness, which allows them to stretch the benefits that result from economies of scale maximally. Although emancipation etc. may be a result, for example in areas where educational opportunities are hard to come by, it is not really the intended result. What they ultimately aim for is recruiting excellent students from the masses these courses serve. Openness, then, is not a goal in itself but a means to the end of massiveness. The online character of these MOOCs is the only way to achieve massiveness at vanishingly small costs for each additional student.

Is there anything wrong with this state of affairs? Yes and no. To start with the no, it is quite all right that people attempt to innovate education, for we need to do so to sustain our knowledge-hungry societies. And indeed both kinds of MOOCs qualify as educational innovations. However, we should not mistake them for what they are. Calling the two kinds of MOOCs by the same name doesn't help to spot the large differences that exist between them. And it certainly doesn't help to uncover their antithetical ideological underpinnings. Pinpointing those is important for the learners, so they know what they are getting themselves involved in. But it matters even more to educational institutions when they consider adopting either kind of MOOC. The ultimate question is whether you see education as a means to prepare people for the knowledge society we live in or as a way to get a head-start in the competition for the talented. So ultimately, it is about the kind of university you want to be.

Note: after finishing this post, I came across a blog, which discusses business models for MOOCs. It says Udacity has suggested that it might double as a headhunter for companies that might like to hire some of its more impressive students. That is exactly the kind of difference I am referring to.

4 June 2012

On another kind of blended learning

This is a short note on two forms of blended learning. The first one is generally accepted, but seems to be mostly more cost effective. The other one seems to be interesting from a pedagogical point of view mainly.

There's little point in reviewing extensively what blended learning customarily refers to, but it seems that it predominantly means the mixing of different learning environments, in particular an environment for formal, face-to-face teaching with an environment for formal e-learning. The former is an environment in which the teacher is personally present, which implies that students need to be present as well, at a certain place and time, in order to be taught in the classroom, lecture theatre or hotel room hired for training purposes.The later environment is an online environment that students access through their computer, (smart) phone, tablet, from wherever they want and whenever they want. Note that I've said nothing yet about pedagogy and that is deliberate.

The characterisation is primarily one of logistics; blended learning in the sense of mixing learning environments is attractive because of its promise to save costs or be more convenient, not because it offers a superior pedagogy. The fact that people can access the learning environment also from home, allows one to let students study at home, and thus saves the reservation of a classroom  or the rent for a hotel suite. The decreased costs predominately come about through the diminished involvement of the teacher, thus benefitting the school or company. Note, though, that this concerns the course's runtime. For students to be able to learn independently, sitting in front of their computer, teachers need to make significant investments upfront. Clearly, this only makes sense at an institutional level if the numbers of students to be expected is large enough to recoup these costs through the deminishing costs of teaching face to face. Blended learning in this sense not only benefits the institution but also the student. The benefit is in increased agency, as now they are able to decide where en when to study. This would suggest that one resort to e-learning fully, however, that would significantly diminish the amount of control a school or company can exert or the directness of access a student has with his or her teachers, which would presumably affect learning effectiveness. In sum, blending of learning environments affords one to optimize learning efficiency (costs) and effectiveness in formal learning contexts.

The second form of blended learning would be mixing bouts of formal learning with bouts of informal learning. Thus learners engage in a training session of some kind but also learn informally (or as some prefer to call it non-formally), in their contacts with their peers, be they school mates or work mates. Whereas blended learning in the first sense seems to be generally accepted as a sensible form of learning, this does not seem to be the case for the second form of blending. And yet it makes a lot of sense also to consider this a form of blending. The emphasis is not now on logistics. The formal part could be situated in a face-to-face environment or in an online environment, whichever suits best. Even blending in the above sense may be considered. The informal part may refer to presence situations, in the classroom or on the shop floor, or to online experiences, for instance in online social networks.

This kind of blending, I surmise, offers a superior pedagogy, one that should ensure that the formal and informal learning bouts that someone experiences become wedded to each other and constitute a single learning experience; a pedagogy also that should warrant that learning is gauged in terms of progress made towards the achievement of personal learning goals and not measured only in terms of progress on a scale defined by others. The notion of a personal learning network by taking a decidedly personal perspective is an attempt to do so. The TRAILER project's attempts to incorporate informal learning experiences in e-portfolios, is another one. Through extending their personal learning network or by expanding their e-portfolios, students profit from this kind of blending. But so do the companies that embrace this kind of blended learning. The increasing awareness of the relevance of informal learning at the workplace, makes this kind of blending of the formal with the informal imperative. There is room for training at the workplace, but for knowledge workers in their pursuit of solving wicked, ill-structured, authentic problems this doesn't suffice. As these problems are unique or at least uniquely dependent on their specific setting, training simple is non-existent. Such knowledge workers are in need of fellow experts, with complementary expertise, from whom they can learn and together with whom they can develop the new knowledge that is needed to solve their problems. For them, blending in the first sense offers no solace, but blending in the second sense should. They could make use of bouts of (individual) formal training to efficiently come up to speed with a particular topic they are unfamiliar with; they should use informal bouts of collective learning to then solve the problem at hand. It is the maturity of the field or discipline a question refers to that is decisive: only for mature fields it makes sense to develop a formal training (for more on this, see Maier & Schmidt, 2007). Viewed this way, blended learning in this second sense is the bread and butter of workplace learning (cf. Littlejohn, 2012). Obviously, at least from my point of view, a learning network is the type of learning environment in which this kind of blended learning finds a natural home.

Littlejohn, A. (2012). change11 position paper; connected knowledge, collective learningejohn.com. Little by Littlejohn, blog. Retrieved May 29, 2012, from http://littlebylittlejohn.com/change11-position-paper

Maier, R. & Schmidt, A. (2007) Characterizing Knowledge Maturing: A Conceptual Process Model for Integrating E-Learning and Knowledge Management. In N. Gronau (Ed.), 4th Conference Professional Knowledge Management Experiences and Visions WM 07 Potsdam (Vol. 1, pp. 325-334). GITO. Retrieved from http://www.andreas-p-schmidt.de/publications/Maier_Schmidt_KnowledgeMaturing_WM07.pdf