Last week’s big news was that Udacity intends to switch its focus from higher education to corporate training. A number of colleagues have provided thoughtful responses to these news, including Michael Caulfield, Audrey Watters, Rolin Moe, George Siemens, and Bonnie Stewart.
Here’s my take on this development: Maslow once said: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” It seems that Udacity has discovered a solution and after realizing that it’s not a solution for the perils facing higher education, that solution is taken elsewhere. Reflecting on the xMOOC phenomenon it appears that this is a consistent approach. If MOOCs don’t work for X, they must work for Y, and if they don’t work for Y, they must work for Z.
I have drummed this tambourine in the past. This is educational technology history repeating itself. During the mid-90’s the instructional media/design field was engaging in The Great Media debate. In short, on the one side of the debate were individuals who argued that media do not influence learning outcomes. On the other side of the debate were individuals who noted that media provide affordances for learning. In the midst of the debate Tennyson (1994) noted the following:
I refer to this transition from scientist to advocate as the big-wrench approach to complex problem solution: The advocate, with the big wrench in hand, sets out to solve, suddenly, a relatively restricted number of problems. That is, all of the formerly many diverse problems, now seem to be soluble with the new big wrench (or panacea).
If educational technology companies (and Centers for Teaching and Learning) are eager to improve education, rather than searching for problems to apply their solutions, they should focus on identifying problems and designing solutions to those problems. Higher education may lack a lot of things, but what it does not lack are problems in need of solutions. Talk to any faculty member and ask: What problem are you facing in your teaching? Observe classrooms and see what things appear commonplace but hinder practice. For example, one of the projects that I had the good fortune to work on emanated from the observation that instructors asked students to borrow video cameras, record assignments, and return tapes to the instructor to watch and return feedback. This process usually took 6 weeks. We automated a lot of this process by developing an online assessment environment through which students recorded their assignments on webcam, instructors were notified of the availability of the video, and were then quickly able to student feedback. By eliminating the need for video cameras and tapes, and introducing an environment that addressed needs and problems, we were able to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the process and drastically reduce the amount of time by which students received their feedback.
Tennyson, R. D. (1994). The big wrench vs. integrated approaches: The great media debate. Educational Technology Research & Development, 42(3), 15–28.
I am sitting at a coffee shop in Vancouver, BC reflecting on my time at COHERE 2013. This was my first Canadian conference since moving to Victoria, and it was a great opportunity to meet and spend time with colleagues (many of them Canadians) including Tony Bates, Rory McGreal, Martha-Cleveland Innes, David Porter, Diane Janes, Diane Salter, Jenni Hayman, Richard Pinet, Robert Clougherty, and Cindy Ives. It was also great to see Ron Owston, Frank Bulk, and Kathleen Matheos again – and my colleagues Vivian Forssman and BJ Eib were there too! The conference was relatively small and the sessions were 40 minutes long, allowing ample time and space for conversations, networking, and debates. I really appreciated the intimate atmosphere that we were afforded for spending time with each other. The organizers (Kathleen Matheos and Stacey Woods) did a fantastic job!
Cable Green from Creative Commons delivered the first keynote and David Porter from BC Campus delivered the second. I sat on a respondent panel for Cable’s keynote and argued three points: (a) we need to build on and go beyond open educational resources, and think about open practices, (b) each of us needs to take action in supporting openness (e.g., by teaching sharing as a value and literacy), and (c) by recognizing that “open” is under threat of being subverted. It was fascinating to sit on a panel with four others and see how our responses to the keynote differed, but how they all coalesced around similar messages as well.
I also gave a presentation discussing early findings from my research into learners experiences in MOOCs, open courses, and other open learning environments, and you might be interested in Tony Bates’ take on this research:
These findings are not fully refined and analyzed, yet. However, in thinking about these results, reading the literature and claims around MOOCs, and thinking about recent developments in educational technology, I am beginning to see MOOCs more and more as a symptom of chronic failures of the educational system to tackle significant issues. On the one hand, I and others have argued that MOOC creators have ignored research into how people learn and how people learn with technology. Tony Bates in particular (see the last link), is very clear when he says “Why is MIT ignoring 25 years of research into online learning and 100 years research into how students learn in its design of online courses?”
On the other hand however, the rise of MOOCs seems to be a symptom of a series of failures and pressures. I like the argument that George Siemens makes in relation to inadequate university approaches to educational needs, “Universities have failed to recognize the pent-up demand for learning as the economy has diversified and society has become more complex and interconnected. As a consequence, the internet has contributed by creating a shadow education system where learners learn on their own and through social networks. MOOCs reflect society’s transition to a knowledge economy and reveal the inadequacy of existing university models to meet learner’s needs.” I’d like to take this argument further. As a field, we could do more to have greater impact on the design and development of educational technology solutions, including MOOCs. Steps to do that would include sharing our research more broadly and in different ways (e.g., publishing in open access venues and putting theory-to-practice), engaging in what Tom Reeves calls socially-responsible research that solves real problems, working across disciplines, reconsidering the ways that we understand, evaluate, and reward impact at our institutions, and so on. More on these issues, soon!
I’m excited to announce the publication of an open access e-book on learners’ experiences with open learning and MOOCs. The book consists of ten chapters by student authors and one introductory chapter by me. Part pedagogical experiment, part an exploratory investigation into learners’ experiences with emerging forms of learning, the aim of the book is to capture and share student stories of open online learning.
This publication is necessary for a number of reasons.
First, from a pedagogical perspective, whenever possible, we should be asking students to do a discipline, not just read about it. In this occasion, students were asked to do open online learning and reflect/write about their experience, instead of just reading about the field and the experience of others.
Second, in the frenzy surrounding the rise of “edtech” and MOOCs, it seems that student voices and experiences are rarely considered. This e-book is an attempt to remind designers and developers that the learning experience should be a central tenet of attempts to reform education. Let’s all remind ourselves that what we should be designing is learning experiences – not products for efficient consumption.
Third, the examination of learning experiences with open learning and MOOCs in the literature is scant. Further, recent literature tends to gravitate towards big data and analytics, and while those research endeavors are worthwhile, they tend to generate abstract descriptions of learner behaviors. A holistic understanding of learner experiences should include both investigations of patterns of how learners behave as well as in-depth qualitative descriptions of what learning in open environments is like. To illustrate, learning analytics research suggests that there are a number of ways learners typically engage with a course (e.g., completing, auditing, disengaging, sampling). Complementary to this, our book generates nuanced descriptions of some of these categories. For example, even though one of the authors would be considered as completing a MOOC he “was left with a partial sense of accomplishment and feelings of hollowness and incompleteness.”
The scholarly contributions from this book are two. They can be summarized as follows, but for in-depth descriptions, please read my full chapter, which is simultaneously published on Hybrid Pedagogy:
- The realities of open online learning are different from the hopes of open online learning.
- We only have small pieces of an incomplete mosaic of students’ learning experiences with open online learning.
As with the emerging technologies in distance education book that I edited in 2010 (also available as open access), please don’t hesitate to send me an email to let me know what you think about this book. I’d love your thoughts! If you are teaching a class on emerging learning environments, open education, online learning, and other related topics, and you find this book helpful as reading material, I’d love to hear about how you are using it!
P.S The book is published on Github, which means that you can effortlessly improve and expand on this work. If you want to learn more about this, Kris Shaffer, who was instrumental in making our github project happen, wrote an excellent article on Github and publishing.
I’ve been fascinated by the rhetoric surrounding MOOCs, and the storylines and narratives that are shared by providers of these initiatives.
One of the main storylines around MOOCs focuses on amazing individuals that overcome insurmountable struggles to succeed (e.g., individuals in conflict-ridden Afghanistan and Syria). I believe that we can all agree that these stories are inspiring. As I’ve argued in the past, these individuals are extraordinary. They will succeed despite shortcomings in pedagogy, platform, design, etc. These individuals can serve as role models, and they should be celebrated.
At the same time, one has to wonder about the numerous individuals that have struggled and abandoned MOOCs, individuals whose life circumstances, motivations, and needs negatively impact their learning. These stories, the stories of the individuals who are struggling, are rarely shared. They are, in fact, hidden. They become figures and statistics (e.g., “90% dropped out” or “82% completed the first two assignments), and as such their stories remain untold.
Even though the concept of the Massive Open Online Course has become wildly popular during the last year, empirical research on these initiatives is largely absent.
On the one hand, this is not surprising. The fact that the research that exists in the literature falls under the case study approach is not surprising either. Historically, the research that characterizes emerging practices has been formative and focused on specific case studies (Dede, 1996). Research on connectivist MOOCs is available (e.g., see Fournier’s and Kop’s work), but research on other types of open courses is just slowly starting to emerge (e.g., see the work of the Lytics Lab and the research pertaining to P2PU). I hope and expect that a forthcoming special issue from JOLT focusing on MOOCs will add much needed insight.
The important questions that I believe we should be asking at this point are: What education-specific research will be beneficial to the field? What do we need to know? And how should we go about investigating what we need to know about? Systematic empirical research can (a) generate a deeper understanding of this phenomenon, (b) provide evidence to support or refute the claims surrounding MOOCs, and (c) help universities and MOOC providers enhance course offerings.
What follows is a set of research questions that, if answered, will generate insights into learner/instructor experiences, outcomes, practices, and interaction in massive open online learning courses:
- What are the learning outcomes of MOOCs?
- Who successfully completes MOOCs? What are the shared characteristics of the individuals who successfully complete MOOCs? For instance, past research shows that there’s a strong positive relationship between prior knowledge and learning (Dochy, Segers, & Buehl, 1999). It would not be a stretch to expect this to transfer to MOOCs.
- Why do learners sign-up for MOOCs? Note that this is an empirical question. We can surmise why they do, but asking them may yield different answers… or may bolster what we already think we are seeing.
- What factors cause learners to persist or cease participation in MOOCs? The concepts of “dropping out” and “retention” are not new (e.g., The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a story in 2000 that was entitled “As Distance Education Comes of Age, the Challenge Is Keeping the Students“), have already been examined in the broader online learning literature (e.g., Park & Choi, 2009), and a number of models exists to explain dropout (e.g.,Bean & Metzner, 1985). Recent evidence highlights that academic locus of control and self-regulation are factors that mediate persistence in online learning (Lee, Choi, & Kim, 2013). However, the concept of “drop out” has historically been associated with for-credit endeavors. With large numbers of individuals seemingly enrolling in MOOCs out of sheer interest and curiosity, and perhaps merely exploring their options, what new knowledge can we gain about this issue? Koller, Ng, Do, and Chen (2013) add nuance to this discussion by adding the idea that “student intent” is important in this discussion, which I think is worthwhile. However, even with this variable in mind, we should still ask: What factors cause learners to persist or cease participation? Intent can be defined ex post facto by looking at the coursera data, but intent changes over time. For example, one may sign up for a course intending to complete it, but for various reasons (e.g., unrealistic expectations, lack of time, bad course design) may cease participation. Conversely, one may sign up for a course to simply explore a topic but may stay (e.g., a supportive community encourages ongoing participation).
- What is the learning experience like in a MOOC? How does this experience differ across designs and pedagogical models?
- How do learning communities and groups develop, grow, and dissipate in MOOCs, in both online spaces (e.g., Facebook groups) and face-to-face spaces (e.g., mediated by Meetups)?
- What factors are critical in sustaining learner interest, motivation, and participation in a MOOC?
A number of initiatives are in place at present to examine MOOCs. For example, HarvardX has established a research committee headed by Andrew Ho, a professor of education, to conduct research on EdX; Justin Reich is joining the HarvardX team as a Research Fellow; George Siemens, Valerie Irvine, and Jillianne Code are editing a special issue focused on MOOCs for the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (pdf); and the Journal of Universal Computer Science is also hosting a special issue focused on Interaction in MOOCs (pdf). Such initiatives will go a long way in providing much needed empirical results on the topic.
Dede, C. (1996). Emerging technologies and distributed learning. American Journal of Distance Education, 10(2), 4-36.
Dochy, F., Segers, M., & Buehl, M. (1999). The relation between assessment practices and outcomes of studies: The case of research on prior knowledge. Review of Educational Research, 69, (2), 145-186.
In reading the Higher Ed story about the new institutions joining Coursera, I am reminded of one of my favorite texts: Davies’ (1993) Shards of Glass. This wonderful book is a story of binaries describing how texts influence the way children think about their gender, themselves, and others. Davies notes that texts inscribe children’s reality. Children, influenced by the texts that permeate their world, adopt storylines that shape the ways they view the world and act within it. If we take this stance as one possibility of how perceptions of gendered identity are formed, one question to ask is: Do children abide by dominant storylines that keep their gender in place? Davies would argue that they do – hence her attempt to empower children with alternative discourses. Such discourses go beyond the male-female binary and the conceptions that “male” ought to represent masculinity and “female” ought to represent femininity.
Female – Male.
Real – Virtual.
. . .
The Higher Ed story notes:
“The partnerships announced this week also represent a break from Coursera’s plans to work only with elite institutions.”
“To partner with so many institutions, however, Coursera will sidestep a contractual obligation to primarily offer courses from members of the Association of American Universities or “top five” universities in countries outside of North America. It will do so by creating a new section of its website to house material from the less-than-elite state universities. This different section will offer MOOCs but will be branded in a different way.”
Elite – Non-elite
How does this lens, this perception of educational institutions affect the way we view and act in the world as students, faculty members, administrators, and educational technology designers/developers?
. . .
Davies, B. (1993). Shards of glass. Sydney: Southwood Press.
Martin Weller asks, “What’s your MOOC metaphor?
I like the Dim sum (or Greek mezedes) metaphor to describe course exploration. Dim sum is described by Wikipedia as “a style of Cantonese food prepared as small bite-sized or individual portions of food traditionally served in small steamer baskets or on small plates. Dim sum is also well known for the unique way it is served in some restaurants, wherein fully cooked and ready-to-serve dim sum dishes are carted around the restaurant for customers to choose their orders while seated at their tables.” Food metaphors aren’t new to education. For example, Hartley wrote about the McDonaldization of education as early as 1995 – two years after Ritzer published The McDonaldization of Society.
Back to Dim sum/mezedes. In considering MOOC completion rates (better term, anyone?), individuals who sign up for MOOCs may not necessarily intent to complete the course. Rather, they might be curious about the course, professor, or institution, exploring/investigating the topic and their desire to dedicate further time to it. This exploration is similar to a meal where one tries out small portions of various dishes. One could try the vegetable dumplings, and quickly move to the next dish if the dumplings aren’t tasty or are satisfying the need/desire.
This metaphor isn’t without problems. Dim sums/mezedes are inherently social events, while in MOOCs the experience comes to an abrupt end once an individual decides to end his/her exploration. Further, this metaphor breaks down when considering individuals who complete courses because in such a meal monopolizing a dish would be bad form.
What I do hope breaks down in this metaphor is the notion of standardized, one-size-fits-all, “ready-to-serve” courses.
Audrey Watters and I submitted an application for Iversity’s MOOC production fellowship program. If funded, we will co-teach a course that is desperately needed: Foundations of Educational Technology. Our goal is to help individuals learn the history, research, practice, and debates of the field.
We want to improve education. To do so, we believe that educational technology developers, learning designers, and practitioners need to know the answers to a number of important questions including:
(a) how do people learn?
(b) how does technology/pedagogy impact learning?
(c) why have educational technology efforts failed/succeeded in the past?
Our course focuses on these pillars.
The fellowship recipients are selected by a jury of peers and by a process of public voting. If you think that this is a worthwhile cause, we would love your support. If so, please *vote for our proposal*. To vote for our proposal first you have to register on the platform and then you have to click on the green vote button. While you are there you can also read more about our application. There you will notice that our proposed course blends pedagogies, approaches, and ideals that originate from the progressive and open education movements (e.g., OER reuse, cMOOCs, knowledge-building, communities of practice ideas) while introducing artifacts and values that we feel should be staples in xMOOCS (e.g., personal learning plans and instructor-supported community interactions).
The next step, if you are so inclined, is to help spread the good word. Please tell your colleagues and friends about it. Send them to this blog post, to Audrey’s post, or to our proposal, and ask them to help us help the world design meaningful, purposeful, effective, and equitable educational technologies. Remix it, share it on Twitter, Facebook, Google +, your department’s listserv, shout it from your rooftop, write a song about it, create a banner…. do whatever else pleases you to help spread the word. Or, just grab the message below and post it on your favorite social media platform:
I voted for the Foundations of Educational Technology class! Help me spread the word: http://bit.ly/100XoCK #edtechCourse
Finally: I’m very excited about this course. However, I am humbled, I am in awe actually, that friends and colleagues from around the world have offered to help us with the course. So far, 13 students from the University of Texas at Austin have volunteered to be Teaching Assistants for the class and Dr. Valerie Irvine from the University of Victoria and Dr. Rick Schwier from the University of Saskatchewan have also offered to help with various aspects of the course. I am in awe of my colleagues and students who unselfishly offer their time to improve education. The world is a better place because of you. And for that, we thank you!
George & Audrey