African Council for Distance Education 2014

Zambezi Valley
Zambezi Valley

I was honoured to be invited to do a keynote talk at the 4th conference of ACDE in Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. After sitting up for 2 nights on a plane (42 hour journey) I was very glad to reach the Elephant Hills hotel and a soft bed. The hotel overlooks the Zambezi River and the constant myst of the Victoria Falls can be seen about 3 km away.

Mist rising from Victoria Falls
Mist rising from Victoria Falls

The next day I took a tour of the Falls, and they did not disappoint. They reminded me a lot of Niagara – maybe not so tall, but wider and the same deafening roar as millions of gallons of water churn over the cliff. Victoria Falls Victoria Falls

I did my talk the next day entitled ” Using Open Scholarship to Leapfrog Traditional Educational Barriers And it went OK, but the elaborate formal greetings and pomp of the opening ceremonies, meant that my time was really constrained- though I did manage to squeeze in a joke and give away a copy of one of our open access, Athabasca University Press, Issues in Dist. Educ. series books. The afternoon was spent at a very interesting workshop present by UNESCO and Fred Muller in which he challenged the Open Universities of Africa to embrace and develop MOOC applications- rather than fear them as we seem to do.  I was very impressed with over 200 MOOCs put together by 13 European OpenUpEd collaborators as a service- not profit see openuped.eu.

Generally the African Open Universities are focussed on quality production of print packages and support (tutorials, testing etc) in local learning Centres. They suffer from the same prejudice from educated elites, and the faculties of traditional universities, but of course their costs are much lower. It is clear to all that sufficient campus universities will never be built to accommodate the large and growing demand for higher education in Africa.  Many of  the presenters presented compelling cases for more support, but also presented evidence of the changes that their programs are making in the lives of disadvantaged students.  All the participants seem to have a sense that they should be using more net based technologies, but judging from the general absence of laptops by all but a few of the conference delegates, I think that net access and literacy is an issue not only for students but for faculty as well. This has been a very short trip, but the kindness of new friends and of the Zimbabwe people I have met here at the hotel is long!

MOOCs Unfairly Maligned

The Chronicle of Higher Education continues to amaze me how badly they can cover a story. This morning’s edition contains an article with a jarring headline reading “Passive MOOC Students Don’t Retain New Knowledge, Study Finds.  The study by Littlejohn and Milligan and is under review for IRRODL and thus no one – neither the Chronicle authors nor the Scottish news article authors (the second hand information upon which the Chronicle article was based) have had a chance to review the final copy. Nonetheless, the study found that indeed many professionals did not appear to apply their new knowledge to professional practice in substantive ways and showed  little  reflection on learning- despite the overall favourable impression of the content and the MOOC course in general.

There was no mention of students retaining new knowledge – or not as implied by the heading.  But more fundamentally, the students learning experience was not optimal compared to what?   I doubt there is a professional alive who has not attended a professional development event in ANY format to which these same criticism could not be levelled- and for some of the ones I have attended the content itself has been terrible and I’ve paid real money for the privilege of attending.

MOOCs are not a “perfect” way to learn, and only starry eyed proponents or venture capitalists would (or at least have) argued they are.  The popular press and the “experts” at the Chronicle have spent the first 2 years of the MOOC gushing about how terrific they are and now they provide equally bad commentary denigrating them.  I’d likely cancel my subscription to the Chronicle, if like MOOCs, the mini electronic email edition I get each work day wasn’t free!

 

Where is Higher Education’s Digital Dividend?

One doesn’t need to devour political or economic analysis, listen to experts or even chat with one’s friends to realize that the Internet has changed the way we produce and consume information and the myriad ways in which we communicate. Blogs, wikis and Facebook walls have granted to each of us –a multimedia printing press with global delivery capacity – at VERY low cost. Similarly we can engage in audio, video or text conversations with politicians, relatives, co-workers or “followers” at VERY low cost.

Given that education works by nurturing interactions and communication among and between teachers, students and content, it would seem logical that the costs of education, like its component interactions would also have drastically reduced in cost. However, this is not the case. Despite the possibility of a digital dividend students, in every country, are being met with heavy increases in the cost of education. Continue reading

Does teaching presence matter in a MOOC?

A recent study of a Coursera MOOC is really interesting in that it implemented a random assignment of student to 2 conditions – one with no teacher interaction with the students and the other with teacher and teacher assistant interaction in forums. The study is

Tomkin, J. H., & Charlevoix, D. (2014). Do professors matter?: using an a/b test to evaluate the impact of instructor involvement on MOOC student outcomes. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the first ACM conference on Learning@ scale conference. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2566245

The study concluded that teacher presence had no significant relation to course completion, most badges awarded, intent to register in subsequent MOOCs or course satisfaction.  This is of course bad news for teacher’s unions and those convinced that a live teacher must be present in order for significant learning to occur. However, the findings is predicted by my Interaction Equivalency Theory in which I argue that if one of the three forms of student interaction (student-student, student-teacher, student content) is at a high level, the other two can be reduced or even eliminated.  Adding additional forms of interaction may increase satisfaction (though it seems not to have done so in this experiment), but it most certainly also increases costs and thus decreases accessibility.

Tomkin and Charlevoix argue “The results of this study broadly support the connected learning model, at least for these motivated, educated participants. The absence of the professor did not impact the activity of the forums – the participants did generate their own knowledge in this arena. It should be stressed that this MOOC was highly structured, so an alternative explanation is that the enhanced machine interactivity that MOOCs provide relative to textbooks, or older styles of distance learning, may be sufficient to stimulate student engagement. ” p. 75

I see this as one the few tangible outcomes of the “digital dividend” that actually results in cost savings to students.  The student-teacher interaction was morphed into student-content interaction through the digital videos. The study shows there was student-student interaction, however in no teacher interaction MOOC, this interaction was both stimulated and supported by the students themselves.

I’m discouraged by the ever increasing costs of higher education and most notably our incapacity to scale higher education to meet needs (and the capacity) of students in developing countries. I believe we have a moral obligation to help all students become proficient life-long learners who are capable of learning with or without active teacher presence – despite the potential impact on our own employment.

 

All MOOCs don’t work for all students. Are you surprised?

Both the commercial and the unpaid online blog pundits have been having an armchair quarterback’s field day over MOOC poster boy Sebastin Thrun’s confession that his Udacity MOOC platform doesn’t work.  None of this outcry from the “I told you so” critics is more biting (nor more witty) then the critique by Slate columnist Rebecca Shuman.

Shuman aptly blames Thrun, for blaming the students – they have personal problems, they don’t have access to multiple tablets and they are not Ivy League rich kids – suggesting that the MOOC depends on students who don’t really need them and who can learn under any conditions – as evidenced by their succeeding in crowded lecture halls their whole post secondary career.

But I don’t equate Udacity’s supposed failure with “ordinary” struggling students is evidence for the failure of online learning and Shuman’s contention  that MOOCs can now be dismissed as “neoliberal wet dreams”.  Shuman goes on to claim that distance education (at least in the form of correspondence courses) tells only a sorry tale of failure and that it has “never worked”. She may have trouble convincing the million plus students at the Open University of ChinaAnadola University in Turkey or Indira Gandhi National Open University in India that their education (largely print based ‘correspondence’) doesn’t and has never worked. Truman seems to argue that it is only elite students who can succeed at MOOCs, – discounting the 50+ years of research showing that distance education (including its latest instantiation in online formats) does work for many students- including the second chance, and poverty stricken.  No form of education works for all students -including the ‘tiny, for-credit, in-person seminar”. Doesn’t everyone know of students from campus based schools that have failed to complete their program? Haven’t you ever dropped a course – I certainly have!

But perhaps most appalling is the staggering debt load, the wasted time and energy of both students and teachers and the coddling and cover up of poor teaching that marks much of campus based education today.  That model is as badly broken and just as expensive as MOOCs driverless car ! Continue reading