10 October 2014

MOOCs, every letter is negotiable

Massive Open Online Courses have put online education on the agendas of the boards of many universities. And that cannot be a bad thing. For too long universities have hand-cuffed innovation by ignoring the opportunities offered by the information and social webs that the Internet has woven. What is at stake here is the quality of the educational experience. And the big question is whether MOOCs make for innovative learning arrangements that enhance the quality of the educational experience. Here I want to discuss this question following a format that is prompted by a popular picture that Math Plourde published in 2013. As you may have noticed, this post carries the same title.

xMOOCs and cMOOCs

of all, whatever claims one may make about the innovative powers of MOOCs or lack thereof, one should distinguish xMOOCs from cMOOCs. The former are what most people take MOOCs to be, they are grounded in instructivist instructional convictions, often in the guise of mastery learning, knowledge transfer is the name of their game (‘broadcasting’) and peer interaction is at best a byproduct of learning but certainly not its essence. cMOOCs on the other hand are thoroughly social constructivist, people learn by constructing knowledge and they invariably do so together. If these two are the archetypes, then one might conclude that many MOOCs exist that take the middle ground between them. Some argue that this is indeed the case. However, if this is an attempt to argue away the essential differences between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, it is bound to fail. Instructivism and social constructivism do not differ in degree but in principle: they have radically different if not opposing ideas on how people learn. What could be argued, though, is that some learning challenges are better dealt with in instructivist ways and other in social-constructivist ways.

The course format

What xMOOCs and cMOOCs have in common is that they are courses. But one may justifiably wonder whether for open, online learning to be innovative the course format is mandatory. A course has a few defining characteristics. Students need to enrol in it, one studies a defined topic  at a fixed pace in a fixed period of time, there is a teacher and there are tutors, even if they are sparse. These characteristics may be seen as limiting conditions, carried over from face-to-face teaching in brick-and-mortar schools. The wisdom of any one of them may be questioned, though. The open universities of this world have experimented with flexibility in pace and time for decades, the people they employ to design a course are often others than those who run a course. Indeed, the very distinction between design time and runtime comes out of these quarters. Also, experiments are afoot in which lurking (without formal enrolment) is an acceptable form of participation. So we should avoid surreptitiously buying in all of the connotations that the term ‘course’ has when designing innovative online education. In this sense, particularly xMOOCs put us on the wrong footing.

Online

But for sure, such courses must be online, shouldn’t they? Clearly, offline courses cannot scale and online courses seem to scale much more easily. This is the promise for which the venture capitalists, who fund some of the MOOC platforms, have fallen. And they are right, the drastic lowering of the transaction costs has radically altered the music and film industries, and is likely to change the print industry (books, newspapers). So why not education? If education were equivalent to broadcasting content, they could have a point, but education isn’t. It is interactive, perhaps essentially so. This no doubt goes for cMOOCs but even students of xMOOCs, which come closest to broadcasting content, want forums. Nowadays, such social interactivity can be provided online, for sure, but there is no reason why in some cases a blend of offline and online learning could not be the best solution. So, innovative learning solutions should explore the online realm, as MOOCs do. But one should not conclude from the popularity of MOOCs that innovation that contains both online and offline elements is an inconsistent idea.

Openness

Something similar goes for openness. The openness most MOOCs offer is not of the Creative Commons kind, which gives away most rights and retains only some (for example, the right not to sell content for a profit). Most MOOCs are open in the sense in which Google’s services are open: they can be used freely, but they are not for free. For example, usage data are collected, used and even sold. Particularly the xMOOC platforms use openness to attract large numbers of participants, which they hope to sell additional services for a profit. These restrictions are by no means necessarily bad, platforms need to pay their bills somehow too. I do think they are bad, though, if they were to lead to the privatisation of education. And particularly in the US such tendencies may be detected (see my earlier blog post on the purported democratising effect of MOOCs).

Massiveness

And finally, do MOOCs have to be massive and attract thousands or even tenth of thousands of participants? Obviously, if education were to follow in the footsteps of the music and film industries, then massiveness is a ticket to massive returns on investment. But from an educational point of view, massiveness can never be a goal in itself. True, there is nothing wrong with a well-designed course that attracts the interest of many people, all over the world. But there is nothing wrong either with a course that attracts a few hundred people only, because the topic is esoteric or the language community is small only (Obviously, there is something wrong with a course that attracts a small following only because it is badly designed.)


To conclude

The upshot of all this is that we should stop taking educational formats such as MOOCs as our starting point and then fight over which format is best in some sense. Many of the current MOOC discussions seem to go this way. What we should do in my view is begin with the careful identification of the educational challenge at hand and then design a suitable learning environment. This could be a MOOC, of whatever persuasion, but it could also be something entirely novel for which no acronym is (yet) available. So every letter may be negotiable. But the negotiations should not be about what the characteristics of the genuine MOOC are, but about how we can design the most effective, efficient and exciting learning environment for some challenge at hand. If MOOCs can be of help, so much the better. Parenthetically, it is this principle that we used in the EU-funded HANDSON MOOC for teacher training on ICT in the classroom. (Enrolment is still open, the MOOC starts October 27th, 2014).

2 May 2014

All my scoops in February, March and April 2014

As a service to my scoop.it follwers and readers, a blog post of mine containing the publication date, title, author and source of my scoops in February, March and April 2014. This will be the last overview a will be publishing this way, at least that is my intention. I will try out the monthly newsletter that Scoop.it generates automatically. Don't know yet if and how that exactly works, but it sure should be a time saver. 

06-02-2014
Completion Data For Moocs
Martin Weller & Katy Jordan
blog The Ed Techie
10-02-2014
Ulrike Cress & Carlos Kloos Delgado
Online resource
11-02-2014
Five myths about MOOCs
Diana Laurillard
Times Higher Education
12-02-2014
European MOOCs Stakeholder Summit 2014 - EMOOCs 2014
Peter Sloep
 blog post Stories to TEL
14-02-2014
University of London MOOC Report
Barney Grainger
U. of London research report
04-03-2014
Interaction in Massive Courses
various authors
J.UCS Special Issue
09-03-2014
The pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK view
Siân Bayne and Jen Ross
report, the Higher Education Academy
10-03-2014
A Comparison of Five Free MOOC Platforms for Educators
John Swope
EdTech
11-03-2014
MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, An Update of EUA's first paper
Michael Gaebel
European University Association
11-03-2014
Trend Report: open and online education furthers quality and flexibility
Nicolai van der Woert, Ria Jacobi & Hester Jelgerhuis
 Surf Foundation
26-03-2014
Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promise and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses
Steven Krause & Charles Lowe
Parlor Press
03-04-2014
Special Issue of eLearning Papers just published on latest MOOC research
Pierre Antoine Ullmo
P.A.U. Education
09-04-2014
Innovate 2013 at Ohio State: Jim Fowler's MOOCulus Steal My Idea Presentation
Jim Fowler
YouTube
12-04-2014
Blended learning model definitions
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Christensen Institute
18-04-2014
Time to retire from online learning?
Tony Bates
personal blog
21-04-2014
Who does what in a Massive Open Online Course?
Daniel Seaton et al.
Communications of the ACM

21 April 2014

Who does what in a Massive Open Online Course? Comments on an article in the Communications of the ACM

In this blog post I look in some detail at an article* that analyses the behaviour of some 150,000 registrants for the inaugural edX course — 6.002x: Circuits and Electronics, which was offered in the spring of 2012. What makes the article interesting is that the analysis in it is based on the log files for the course, constituting an exemplary case of the application of learning analytics in action (although the authors don’t use that term at all). First, the authors take the data of all registrants into account, later to focus on those relatively few (about 10,000) who managed to earn a course certificate.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the registrants (76%) spent the fewest hours on the course (most of them 1 hour only), whereas a small minority of the registrants (7%) spent the most hours (most of them about 100) (fig. 2a in the article). This suggests that the registrants depart from the course at a constant rate, resulting in a negative exponential distribution of course participation durations (frequency versus total time spent in the course). This is consistent with what we know about MOOC drop-out behaviour.

The authors then focus on the final 7% that manage to stay in the course and earn a certificate. Their study behaviour they analyse in detail, in an effort to find out what works in their course and what less so. These results are of course difficult to generalise as they are specific to the course in question. Nevertheless, there are a few interesting points to note of a general nature. First, activity peaks in a weekly rhythm on weekends (fig. 3a). Second, few students access many resources, most only a few. However, there are marked differences between resources. The labwork and homework is carried out dutifully by the majority of the students (80% does almost all of it), videos and coursebook are consulted thoroughly by a minority only  (5% checks them all) , usage of tutorials  and lecture questions takes the middle ground (fig. 5a). This suggests that students are guided by the learning activities (lab and homework), using videos and coursebook in case of need. The importance of activities  to structure the learning is further supported by the students’ engagement  in discussions. This varies in step with the time spent on homework, to level off at about 1 hour per week (homework costs 1 to 3 hours weekly) around the mid-term exam. The importance of the discussion also emerges from the finding that, when doing homework, the most frequent next activity of a student is entering the discussion forum (fig 6a).

Overall, this is an interesting and useful study as my highlights hopefully evidence. I have two minor qualms with it, both concerning missed opportunities. First, the analysis focuses on those registrants who passed the exam and earned a certificate. Although the 10,000 students who managed to do this is a sizable number, it pales with the 150,000 who registred in the first place. Acknowledging the impossibility of turning them all in certificate earners,  it would have been interesting to know why they turned away from the course. Since this study focuses on log files only and the other 140,000 registrants out of their nature account for few logs only, the kind of analysis attempted here cannot shed light on this question. That is, other analyses using a different methodology are needed too.

Second, and as far as I am concerned more importantly, no attempts is made to frame the discussion in the context of a particular learning theory. Mastery learning is often cited (mainly by Coursera, I believe) as the underlying philosophy of these kinds of MOOCs. Do the data have anything to say about the viability of it as a learning theory for MOOCs? Perhaps the focus on lab and homework suggests so much (although one would have to know the exact nature  of it). However, the apparent importance of the forum discussions  in the course suggests that the social construction of knowledge plays an important role too. I am sure analysing the nature of the discourse would reveal what function the discussions have had. Such data are available, but require an entirely different approach then done by the authors.

I should emphasise that these qualms  do not detract from the value of this study, it deserves to be widely read, particularly by people who are engaged in learning analytics (who might miss it as that term is not used).

Reference
Seaton, D. T., Bergner, Y., Chuang, I., Mitros, P., & Pritchard, D. E. (2014). Who does what in a Massive Open Online Course? Communications of the ACM, 57(4), 58–65. Retrieved from http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2014/4/173221-who-does-what-in-a-massive-open-online-course/fulltext


4 March 2014

All my scoops from August 2013 until February 2014| Peter Sloep


As a service to my scoop.it follwers and readers, a blog post of mine containing the publication date, title, author and source of my scoops since July, 2013 (I have been lax, I know ...)

21-08-2013
The attack of the MOOCs
-
The Economist, Higher Education
27-08-2013
Dellarocas & Van Alstyn
Communications of the ACM
15-09-2013
Learning in networks and in communities of practice
Peter Sloep
Stories to TEL
25-09-2013
MOOCs
Sharples, McAndrew, Weller et al
Innovating Pedagogy 2013
25-09-2013
20,000 students in the first 24 hours: UK enters MOOC space with social, mobile FutureLearn
ICEF
ICEF Monitor
30-09-2013
Copyright Challenges in a MOOC Environment
-
Educause Brief
15-10-2013
Recent reports and papers on MOOCs and Online education
-
ICDE
16-10-2013
Gallup Economy poll on online education
Lydia Saad, Brandon Busteed, Mitchell Ogisi
Gallup
06-02-2014
Completion Data For Moocs
Martin Weller & Katy Jordan
blog The Ed Techie
10-02-2014
Ulrike Cress & Carlos Kloos Delgado
Online resource
11-02-2014
Five myths about MOOCs
Diana Laurillard
Times Higher Education
12-02-2014
European MOOCs Stakeholder Summit 2014 - EMOOCs 2014
Peter Sloep
 blog post Stories to TEL
14-02-2014
University of London MOOC Report
Barney Grainger
U. of London research report

12 February 2014

European MOOCs Stakeholder Summit 2014 - EMOOCs 2014


Today, the second European stakeholder summit on MOOCs - EMOOCs 2014 - ended. It lasted two days and a half days and was held at the Ecole Polytechnique Féderale de Lausanne, which is situated  on the shores of pretty Lac Léman, Switzerland. Reportedly, it was attended by 450 delegates, also from countries outside Europe. Apart from several keynotes, the conference featured four tracks of papers and panels. Two of the tracks were devoted to reporting on experiences with MOOCs and research on MOOCs, two others to discussing business models and policy decisions for MOOCs. Check out the conference site for the programme and the conference proceedings, or search in your Twitter client with #emoocs2014 to acquire a taste of the conference's convivial atmosphere.

I went there for two reasons. First out of my general interest in MOOCs: I've blogged here about MOOCs before and maintain a scoop.it site on them. I wanted to sample current ideas and opinions, and check progress. The second reason was more practical. In the context of the EU-funded HANDSON project we intend to offer a course in the form of a MOOC to teachers in Europe. The course wants to help them to improve their ICT skills. How do our ideas fit with what is on offer elsewhere, I wanted to find out.

That second question is fairly easy to answer. The variety and diversity of courses that go by the name of MOOCs, or the various variations on this acronym, is enormous. So almost any course that lives online, partially or fully, can go by the name of a MOOC, the HANDSON course being no exception to that. How about the first point?

Undeniably, MOOCs have lighted a fire that will not be extinguished anytime soon. This much became clear. Whatever their motives - not wanting to miss the boat, making a profit, branding themselves, helping out developing nations - universities an companies have become very active, also collaborating intensely. This is the case with the oldest players such as Coursera but also with the newer ones such as MiríadaX, which focuses on the Ibero-American world. It can't be wrong that people invest in education, financially or with mind power, so this development is to be applauded. Or is it indeed?

A 2003 book by Todd Oppenheimer comes to mind: The Flickering Mind, the false promise of technology in the classroom and how learning can be saved. Omitting all nuance and detail, Oppenheimer documents with great care how the computer industry flooded many primary and secondary schools in the the US in the eighties and nineties with computers. Although they may well have done so with the best of intentions, at best positive learning effects could not be detected, at worst they were negative indeed. This could happen also because schools seem to have been blinded by the available money and forgot their prime raison d'être, making sure that children learn. MOOCs are not hardware and universities are not schools. Still, venture capital and industries buy influence through the money they make available.

So amidst all the genuine hopes and contagious enthusiasm, some scepticism wouldn't harm lest we repeat the mistake made in the past to confuse financial affluence with educational desirability. The urge to spend money now that it is available should be tempered by the sense to consult available  research results - MOOCs may profit from  30 years of research in distance education and at least 10 years of research on networked learning. Nor should one lightly brush aside genuine concerns about student privacy, intellectual property rights, and intellectual imperialism vis a vis developing countries. In all fairness, these latter topics all were addressed in the conference's policy and business tracks. However, no solutions to these concerns seemed to be forthcoming. Perhaps they will in next year's conference, to be held in Mons, Belgium.