Saturday, August 27, 2016

So, what have MOOCs ever done for us?

CC0 Public Domain by Chris Adamus on Unsplash
Whenever new ideas come to light there are always people who immediately dismiss them without really trying to even understand the innovation. Then when it doesn't immediately live up to initial promises they say "I told you so" and label it as yet another expensive flop. This is especially true in education and at the moment the MOOC is under heavy fire from all sides. Certainly MOOCs have not lived up to the overblown hype of the boom years (revolutionising higher education, providing free education for all etc) but those headlines were typical click bait from news media and corporations rather than the views of the teachers actually involved in designing and running the courses. Right now MOOCs are deep in Gartner's dreaded trough of disillusionment with many skeptics trumpeting their demise. However, as the Gartner curve predicts, the real development occurs after the hype has died and the skeptics have left it for dead.

MOOCs are not dead, they are morphing into new areas and development continues. So what have MOOCs ever done for us? Here are a few benefits and opportunities, though far from a comprehensive list.
  • If the hype had any benefit it at least put the whole field of online learning in the public spotlight and caught the attention of decision makers in a way that all the previous 15 years of online learning had failed to do. Admittedly it lead to some false conclusions, such as that online learning was invented by Stanford, MIT etc around 2011, but it put the discussion firmly on the agendas of most university boards.
  • The criticism that early xMOOCs were simply broadcast education using an instructivist pedagogy has resulted in many institutions trying different methods for increasing interactivity and personalisation at scale. This is still work in progress but many MOOCs are now able to offer more interactive and participatory elements. This experimentation also has relevance to for-credit courses where campus groups can number several hundred students. How can MOOC strategies benefit campus courses?
  • MOOCs still have enormous potential to provide greater outreach for institutions and to enhance lifelong learning. What is only now being investigated is that widened participation in higher education requires extensive scaffolding. Allowing local colleges, learning centres, libraries or companies to provide add-on services (both online and on-site) like study support, local discussion groups, local certification etc can enable more people to take a first step into higher education.
  • The high profile xMOOCs aren't going away any time soon and keep increasing as more and more universities join the major platforms. Even the criticised instructivist courses have a lot of faithful followers who want to quickly get an overview of a subject at their own pace and without any time-consuming group work or interaction. This idea of the MOOC as an interactive course book may not be pedagogically sophisticated but if it works for thousands of people then that's fine. As long as we have a choice.
  • The whole MOOC phenomenon is an investigation into the scalability of education. How massive can a course be? How do we approach mass education and how can we combine scale with engagement and interaction? This is a whole new avenue that is constantly evolving and will go on beyond the usefulness of the term MOOC (already past its sell-by date in my opinion).
  • All MOOCs are not the glossy high profile courses seen on the main platforms. The cMOOC variants have also been evolving but completely off the media radar and continue to offer collaborative learning to smaller specialist groups. They may not be massive but there are plenty of innovative courses that have developed from the constructivist/connectivist principles of the early MOOCs. Lessons learned here are also being applied in regular for-credit courses.
The problem is that innovation takes time to really kick in and there will always be teething trouble and hiccups along the way. Many times the innovation breaks through when applied to an area that the original iteration hadn't even considered. I still hope that the term MOOC can soon be filed in the archives and that we can move on to investigating how online learning can be developed in a wide variety of areas, both in combination with traditional forms and completely online. Some avenues for future development will be open and free, others will be commercial and for-profit. If we stop using the term MOOC things might get less confusing.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Music while you work

Homework in the Digital Age by ransomtech, on Flickr
"Homework in the Digital Age" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by ransomtech

It's hard to avoid music these days. It's pumped out in every shop, cafe, mall, hotel and gym and often I find it hard to concentrate on what I really want to do; talking with friends or reading if I'm on my own. Many places can't turn off the music because they get sponsored by local radio stations to play that particular station all day long whether the customers like it or not. We seem to have an acute fear of silence and so they play often extremely irritating music while you're having your hotel breakfast or trying to have a pleasant evening meal. TV and radio seem to think that certain types of programmes have to have music while someone's talking, such as every nature programme about sharks always has heavy metal music in the background or reports from many sports events have "cool" music so you can hardly hear the voiceover (maybe this is an age issue). Don't get me wrong, I love music and listen to it many hours a day but the important point is that I want to listen on my terms and not have it forced on me. Even if they play music I like I get irritated because I don't want to hear it right now.

So what about music while you're working? Does it really help us concentrate as many suggest? This is discussed in a Guardian article, Does music really help you concentrate?, and it seems to be a highly personal issue. If the task we're trying to focus on is not particularly interesting then any other stimuli will divert our attention: people passing by, any noise, conversations and especially the siren's of social media inviting us to check out what's happening. So we have some music in the background to somehow block out other distractors.

The trouble is, while our conscious attention is focused on the task in hand, the unconscious attention system doesn’t shut down; it’s still very much online, scanning for anything important in your peripheral senses. And if what we’re doing is unpleasant or dull – so you’re already having to force your attention to stay fixed on it – the unconscious attention system is even more potent. This means that a distraction doesn’t need to be as stimulating to divert your attention on to something else.

If it's someone else's music then I can't work at all and generally will move somewhere where I can be in peace. The crucial factor with background music is that it has to be self-inflicted. Whatever music the owner/employer selects will irritate someone so maybe the solution in the future is BYOM (Bring Your Own Music); listen to whatever you want as long as you do it with a headset and don't disturb anyone else. This is bad news for commercial radio stations but the fact is that most of us simply don't want to hear them.

I generally have calm classical music in the background when I'm working, preferably baroque, but I'm not sure if it helps me concentrate at all. I just put it on to create a cosy atmosphere. I've also tried discreet background music like Brian Eno or Philip Glass that just meanders quietly without ever really grabbing my attention and therefore perfect for purpose. Anything with a catchy rhythm or songs with lyrics I understand are impossible. However I suspect that silence is still the best precondition for really concentraing on a task and that our desire for music is simply a false consolation. How can we help youngsters who have grown up with a headset permanently hanging round their neck that silence is important? Many are so convinced that they need music that they've never even contemplated the alternative.

What about you?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Giving it all away

Photo: Samuel Zeller CC0
I found a nice testimony to the power of sharing in a post by a Swiss photographer called Samuel Zeller, Giving my images for free. He shares many of his best photos on a site called Unsplash and makes them freely available for copying and reusing under a Creative Commons CC0 license (public domain, author waives all rights). This may seem insane to many people when he could try to sell these images but his post makes a very strong case for the power of sharing. By sharing his work in this way he has increased his visibility as a photographer to a staggering level - 184 images have been viewed 63 million times and downloaded 613,000 times. His free photos have been used by major companies and he hasn't received a cent for this. However the free images link to his main portfolio and this leads to clients asking for special commissions and this is where he makes his money.

Why should I need to sell images if I have clients paying me to shoot specific images ? To me working for a client face to face is rewarding, way more than making money on digital sales to people I will never interact with.

It's not a case of giving everything away for free but sharing an impressive sample of your material that will attract attention and lead to more serious business later. It's basically the same the freemium model that many online tools and services offer; letting you use a basic version of the service for free in the hope that you will want to upgrade to the commercial version later.

I have benefitted enormously by sharing my lectures, blog posts, slideshows, articles etc. since they have lead to all sorts of people contacting me and asking if I can speak at their conference, write something for their journal or website or joining a project they are planning. Many of us work for smaller projects as volunteers in our free time, not only because it's interesting and fun but also because that volutary work usually pays off in the end through reputation building or commissioned work.

Of course not everyone has the luxury of being able to share everything they do. Bills have to be paid and those who share normally have a secure employment. The skill is realising that a certain level of sharing has more benefits than drawbacks. If you don't share anything and hope that people will pay to discover your work you will not get far today. Free sharing is your shop window. As Zeller concludes:

There’s no point in being talented if nobody can see what you do.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Online learning - where now?

At this time of year my news feeds dry up as most people in the business take their summer break so maybe it's a good time for me to take stock and reflect on the status of online learning today and speculate on future developments. I've been working with online learning for around twelve years now and whilst there has indeed been significant progress in some aspects we still get bogged down in the same discussions and preconceptions as we did when I started in 2004. Here's a list of recurring themes on this blog that I'm really getting tired of discussing (in no particular order).

Polarised either /or discussions
We are still trapped in endless discussions about whether online education is better or worse than traditional classroom education or whether e-books are better than print and so on. These discussions seldom lead anywhere except further entrenchment. Tony Bates outlines a much better approach in his current series of blog posts on online learning, see for example Online learning for beginners: 2. Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching? Most comparisons fail to compare like with like (ie same types of students with similar needs) and seldom see that the two modes suit different types of learners (young full-time campus students and older lifelong learners). The eternal debate on completion rates ignores the fact that distance learners have completely different life situations compared to full-time campus students who generally complete their courses regardless of the quality, simply because their funding depends on them passing. Generally these types of comparisons ask the wrong questions, see more below.

Traditional education as default
The burden of proof is overwhelmingly on the online side whilst few people investigate whether traditional methods really work as well as we think. Are classrooms always the best place for an open discussion when we know so well that these discussions favour those who like the spotlight and those who like to reflect before answering and feel intimidated in a group setting never say anything? Lectures have been central to higher education for centuries but does that mean that we learn from them? What types of learning do we test in exam halls? I would like to see an end to the burden of proof syndrome and instead accept that we need to integrate face-to-face and online to offer more nuanced approaches to education.

Asking the wrong questions
The fact that we're still falling into the traps in the previous points means that we keep asking the wrong questions. It's not about delivery method, technical platform or old versus new it's about designing education that can reach out to and empower as many learners as possible using all the tools, methods and pedagogies available today (including the traditional ones!). Once again Tony Bates offers two key questions for us to focus on:

Indeed, it is the variables or conditions for success that we should be examining, not just the technological delivery. In other words, we should be asking a question first posed by Wilbur Schramm as long ago as 1977:
What kinds of learning can different media best facilitate, and under what conditions?

In terms of making decisions then about mode of delivery, we should be asking, not which is the best method overall, but:
What are the most appropriate conditions for using face-to-face, blended or fully online learning respectively? 

One size does not fit all and the traditional system has failed millions of learners by only offering face-to-face education often at a price and only in certain locations. How can we offer more inclusive and personalised education by using the full spectrum of tools and methods available today? Getting the mix right and focusing on course design are what we need to work on today.

"The next big thing" syndrome
Every time a new device, app or tool hits the market the hype machine revs into action and soon we're drowning in posts and articles on how Google Apps/MOOCs/iPads/Facebook Live/Pokemon go/xxxx will revolutionise education. The revolution isn't going to happen but they all contribute to an evolution. The problem is that the commercial hype only increases the skepticism of many educators and prevents them from investigating the new phenomena with an open mind. As a result new technologies and methods are restricted to an edtech echo-chamber and have limited impact to the mainstream. I would like to see less hype and fireworks and more genuine curiosity and investigation before we make any claims about revolutions or disruption.

Structural barriers and the power of tradition
Many who want to be innovative are stifled by structural barriers and tradition. The increasing focus on results and accountability stifles innovation as institutions play safe to avoid failure, The tyrany of rankings mean that you focus on the criteria that help you rise in the ranking system and ignore those that do not, ie research versus teaching, campus versus distance etc, The traditional image of the university as a leafy campus full of young full-time students and high profile research is extremely hard to break, as most university websites show. Pedagogical innovation, outreach and lifelong learning simply don't win any gold stars and until they do we seem to be stuck in a mold, even though there are, of course, exceptions.

Even students can be barriers to innovation. They have been brought up on the traditional image of the university and actually expect the lectures and student life that they have seen so much in films and TV series. A teacher who abandons the traditional methods and is innovative can risk poor evaluations from students who expect to be taught (ie lectured to). 

Where do we go from here then? I don't see any radical changes in the near future but we need to get online into the mainstream and do it by asking new questions and simply not responding to either/or discussions. There are encouraging signs of a more integrated and nuanced aproach to online learning with several major international organisations taking the lead (UNESCO, OECD, European Commission, EUA and others). There are now many excellent reports, initiatives and funding schemes from these and other organisations and there are plenty of enthusiastic educators involved in projects. The barriers tend to appear in the space between these two extremes: governments, national authorities and educational leaders. For bottom-up to connect with top-down you need to work on getting the middle layers on board.