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Still reflecting on two days of intensive listening, discussing and brainstorming the future of education at the Coursera Partners’ Conference at The Hague, The Netherlands I conclude that education is becoming a branch of medicine: there is a science to education through neuroscience and psychology. Digital learning, which draws a mass attendance and participation through ‘Massive Open Online Courses‘ can be analysed, duplicated, shared, repeated, improved and gradually made universal. Might ‘fixing math’ or even reading across millions be akin to a Polio vaccination? Ways are being found to educate ‘on mass’ and to deliver to millions a common level of achievement.
Coursera, and organisations like it, are educating the world: anyone, any time, any where.
Only access is getting in the way: a broadband link or opportunity to stream or download content, take part in discussions and submit assignments; money to purchase the gadget – increasingly as smartphone over a tablet or laptop; time away from the daily task of staying alive: fetching water, gathering and preparing food, raising a family, working and completing chores; cultural objection to some receiving an education … freedom from oppression in the home, community and the politics of the region or country. Otherwise ‘the world’ can join in; hundreds of thousands take part in MOOCs. Coursera has over 18 million learners. FutureLearn, starting a year later, is catching up with 3 million. Coursera thinks of itself as a movement; some of its educators, such as Barb Oakley, are becoming its prophets. She has a readership, a following and fans.
There are early and late adopters: those who jump at innovation and others who shy away from it.
A study of ‘The Diffusion of Innovations‘ would be of value.
Why do some academics embrace learning online, the opportunity of sharing knowledge, ideas and thinking with hundreds of thousands rather than a handful of students at a time? Are they the ones who stuck with the horse and carriage when the motorcar came along? Are they the ones who use a fountain pen on lined paper rather than a wordpressor? Should be picture them as medieval knights with armoured helmets designed not to protect the head from blows from outside, but to keep the contents of their brain contained? Will they join the party?
What are the barriers to MOOCS from the most traditional educational establishments and their educational practices?
Can, for example, the ‘Oxbridge Tutorial’ be taught online?
I put this question to a gathering of Coursera staff and Coursera Partners at the 5th Coursera Partners’ Conference. The question I posed became the focus of the brainstorming session: in groups we scribbled as many reasons for resistance on Post Its which were duly adhered to a conference room wall, pondered over, grouped and categorised. Looking at some of the reasons it was felt that some institutions, faculties and individual academics simply feared the new and its disruptive force:
Learning Online, or ‘e-learning‘ despite its universal presence on campus through networks and WiFi is a practice or behaviour that may appear interesting in theory, and is used vicariously by all in practice where content and research online blurs the boundary between library and online resources, but it ‘isn’t for them’; they ‘don’t do online’ – something they say with sorrow in their eyes, not unlike when people say they ‘don’t do Facebook’ or ‘don’t have a TV’ – some people prefer to avoid change, or leave it to others. Is it an age thing? Are younger academics more in tune with the new ways?
The connectedness of social media dilutes the tutor-student relationship. A student may have their feet on campus, but their head ‘in the cloud’. Why shouldn’t they take a free online course from another institution while they attend lectures, seminars and tutorials at yours. Already they will draw papers and publications onto their laptop from digitised libraries rather than needing to wait in line to call something up from the stacks.
I fear that some educational institutions, those with a history of 750 years to hold them back, will suffer the way EMI has in the music industry. Perhaps one day neither academics, nor the students who follow them, will need these institutions. They’ll become museums; after all, they are already a tourist honeypot. Colleges at best will reinvent themselves and through the likes of AirBnB rooms will be let out on a rolling basis to a vast, shifting body of students at different stages of their education pass through all year around. Instead of the annual crush to fill examination halls, these rooms too will be used the year round as no other close scrutiny of student learning than the written examination can be found or relied upon.
Knowing academics, more so in research than teaching, they can operate in silos and cliques.
They cherish the privacy of their study and doing everything alone. The problem for them with this new way of learning is the feeling that only they could instigate and produce what they see as an exchange of knowledge that needs to pass from their heads to those of their select few students. Not having worked ‘in the real world’ of collaborative corporate teams they don’t understand the need for partners and facilitators to get their content into a consumable online, digital form. Perhaps they don’t know how easy it can be. Perhaps, it wouldn’t be surprising, they are perfectionists. They look at what is online and find it flawed or trivial. Often they don’t understand it. They know their subject, but beyond the paper, lecture or tutorial they haven’t used a mutable, interactive, connected, mass medium of knowledge transfer such as the MOOC. At best they confess that it is ‘not for them’ but invite you to talk to their younger colleagues. Or the American in the faculty. Where lies the answer: they should and could turn to their colleagues, the PhD students and undergraduates.
The idea that bureaucracy gets in the way is not unusual for any institution or organisation facing change. No matter the size some organisations find change easier than others. There has often been good reason why in the past change has taken time. Better to get it right and take a few years over it, that rush in early and get it wrong. There have been casualties in the race to put educational content online. A blended learning environment of sorts exists whether institutions and academics want it or not; students will communicate and share online, important collections, papers and books have been digitised. It may be a tough call to expect an outsider to instigate change. Some educational establishments are like the Vatican, a walled city of ceremony, hierarchy and procedure.
If we think of Oxford, my alma mater was Balliol College, and Cambridge by default, the examples of ‘traditional’ institutions that on a global scale hold top ranking faculties across many subjects still are these collegiate, federal institutions encumbered by the buildings from which they operate? Colleges, quads, studies and staircases, common rooms and dining halls, libraries and chapel? Are they encumbered by the times they keep: short, intense terms with a pattern that sees written examinations taken annually? Or does the digital ocean wash through them regardless? It is ironic that the Oxford Internet Institution, founded in 2001 encourages and even embraces multi-disciplinary, cross-faculty collaboration and learning, yet there are no MOOCs of its own that it can study. Education has become part of the science of the Web. Or can Oxford bide its time? Watch others succeed or fail then in good time leap frog the early adopters? It has the resources: the manpower and financial backing. Why then did Harvard not produce its own learning platform?
Some learning online gives it a bad name. In time institutions such as Oxford will have the evidence to make up their minds. What works and what does not. What will find a fit with Oxford, and what will not. Academics will work with learning designers and programmers, they will have analysts picking through performance and results, stars will be born and great minds discovered.
In the context of this brainstorming sessions ‘replication’ came to mean the transferability or otherwise of current education practices to the online environment. In particular the discussions was around assessment and grading. Institutions have different models and practices of course, with attendance mattering to many, and course work the way, whilst at Oxford and Cambridge the end of year and final exams remain the focus of academic effort and probity. Replication of what we do offline and putting it online doesn’t always work. Our ‘desktop’ on our computers does not have to look like a desk – though for a while in the 1990s some did. Some tests can be conducted online and identity proved. It isn’t so hard, The Open University has found, to identify someone who has been a student of theirs. Coursera, in the various courses, quizzes and assessments I have submitted want a screengrab of your face – cheats could overcome this for now, but the level of ID match, as passport control services in international airports are showing, can be hugely improved. Recreating the ‘Oxford Tutorial‘ will be the subject of another post. While the intimacy of a tutor to student one to one each week is hard to scale up to cater for hundreds of thousands at a time, there are qualities to forums and online discussions that are akin to this. FutureLearn has found a way to manage threaded discussions that run into a thousand posts or more: you can pick out a handful of commentators to follow, and therefore create your own bespoke ‘study group’ for example. A senior academic may ‘drop by’ in person, though more likely PhD and MA students will take part for the learning benefits to them to have a surrogate teaching and support role.
Time is money. Intimacy is costly. The tutorial system, where a senior academic for several hours a week sits with a small group of undergraduates, say two or three at most, requires time, space and place. Often these tutorials are one to one. The student isn’t charged £100 or £200 an hour, but if a figure were to be put on it, accounts might want to add an hour. They may not be lawyers, but the advice and support they give to an individual student could be charged in six minute increments. How do you scale it up? Artificial Intelligence? If anyone could or will do it, might a virtual Stephen Hawking one day take multiple physics tutorials where you the student interact with an avatar?
It all comes down to money.
For most of the seven centuries of its existence the students resident in Balliol College where there through privilege: they had the time and money to indulge a higher education. For a few decades it was free. In England a grant took you through your first degree, and if you wanted to take a second you often could. This indulgence, in England at least, is over. Oxbridge, like other universities in England (it differs in Wales and Scotland) can charge £9,000 per academic year – a fraction of the real cost, and nothing like the $45,000 a year in might cost for a student in the US. In much of ‘continental’ Europe higher education is still state, or department funded.
There is understandable resistance to put online and in theory give away for free, what others are paying for – whether that is the individual, or the government or region through grants or subsidised loans.
However, where we are citing Oxford and Cambridge, compared to many educational establishments they are both wealthy and able to call for donations from wealthy individuals and organisations. Cost should not be a barrier to an Oxbridge MOOC. Though, looking at MOOCs from Harvard, one has to wonder if money, and the perception it brings in production values, is off putting? If you ask 200,000 wannabe engineering students from around the world if they’d like to study at Oxford, Harvard or Cambridge how many might say ‘no’ ? It is interesting that the MOOC ‘Learning How To Learn’ by Barb Oakley of the University of Michigan, ‘shot’ in her basement and produced for around $5,000 could have more students enroll than ALL Harvard’s MOOCs combined. With simplicity and authenticity comes psychological accessibility. Barb Oakley is approachable, perhaps these ‘elite’ institutions are not? It has taken Oxford, for example, nearly 40 years to address the gender imbalance and imbalance of ‘private’ to ‘state’ educated students. For too many, the perception of the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford is one of exclusion, academic snobbery and inaccessibility.
So does it all come down to ‘the brand’. Ironica that in a discussion on concerns that elite educational institutions have over change that such a modern, marketing term should be used. If Oxford can be brand savvy, then surely it is savvy enough about all other corproate practices and can, or is embracing change? But will it, or a faculty, or a professor with one strand be the first on the Coursera platform? Or will they use Edx or FutureLearn? Will they mix it up … or will they, or are they, creating their very own, exclusive, platform for ‘massive, open online courses’?
Finally, when is a MOOC not a MOOC?
For all this talk on the MOOC as some kind of immutable way forward for learning, while the ‘masssive’ cannot be denied with hundreds of thousands enrolling and tens of thousands completing such courses, how do you define ‘open’ when parts of MOOCs being closed to those who can pay a few to be assessed, or pay a fee for access to certain parts of a course? And is it ‘online’ if it can be downloaded? As soon as you have it on your device it is potentially as unconnected to the outside world as a book.
We are all learning how to learn online.
Fig.1 The intimate qualities of the Oxbridge tutorial are now experience in massive open online courses
I have been studying full-time for a year – an MA in a traditional university with lectures, book lists and online completing eight MOOCs and even trying to start a module with the OU.
My goal hasn’t been simply to gain yet further qualifications in subjects I love, but to experience first hand the variety of approaches to learning that exist.
Back to the classroom while learning online.
The MOOCs I’ve done on FutureLearn are highly ‘connected’ – I believe the way huge threaded discussions are managed and can be managed successfully recreates what some consider to be the Holy Grail of learning in HE, the ‘Oxbridge tutorial’ where a subject expert sits one to one or at most one to three to discuss a topic, set each other straight, and then return every week, or twice a week to do the same.
MOOCS completed or underway include:
Experience and research shows that even in a MOOC with 25,000 starters, in a threaded discussion that has 3000 posts, that groups of learners form – typically a mix of experts, keen learners with some knowledge and complete beginners. These groups can last the duration of a two month course and spill out into other platforms and meeting up face to face. John Seely Brown called this a couple of decades ago ‘learning from the periphery’, where new, keen learners gravitate from the edges to the centre. It is learning vicariously, as we do in our day to day lives. But it is more intimate than a community of practice: two or three people learning together in real-time or in a quasi-synchronous platform is like an Oxbridge tutorial. I had the privilege of attending these as an undergraduate and my father in law is one of these career Oxford fellows who taught in this way for several decades and has gone to great lengths to explain the unique qualities of the method, how and why it works. It now works online. You don’t have to be communicating directly with the lead academics – though you may do in a MOOC, but you can gravitate, with ease, if you like to the many experts who are in and contributing to these forums. I can cite examples of both types: the extraordinary care and fluency of the PhD contributors to WW1: Aviation for example, or in the massive (25,000 participants) threads of Start Writing Fiction.
This is ‘transitional education.’ Not a revolution, just building on the best of what has gone before and gradually taking others along with it.
I like that after 700 years of keeping the approach to themselves that the ‘Oxbridge Tutorial’ as a way to learn is, online at least, open to anyone.
Oxford Television News: May 1918 On YouTube
Fig.1. Julia Brooks, one of the presenters on this edition of OTN
Oxford Television News (OTN) presented by Julia Brooks and Su Wolowacz.
Fig. 2. Su Wolowacz presenting the Trinity Term (1983) edition of Oxford Television News
Items include voting in the Council Elections, warnings about a rapist in an alley behind St.Peter’s, OUSA education system and the abolition of the admissions exam (ratio of private to state sector was worse than 70% 30%), May Day Celebrations, the importance the CV from Mr Snow then head of OUCAS, a Student Union Committee meeting, reported Stephen Howard reviewing Andrew Sullivan’s term (Trinity) as the Oxford Union President, Balliol College Music Society 1500th Concert (interviewed those who attended). Then set to music clips fro the Oxford & Cambridge Ski trip to Wengen. Clips from Abigail’s Party, directed by Anthony Geffen. The Roaring Boys. Matthew Faulk and Alex Ogilvie acting out a scene from ‘The Labours of Hercules Sproat’ and finally Jonathan Vernon doing a mime.
Fig.3. Students interviewed on the local elections.
Fig. 4. Mr Snow of Oxford University Careers Service giving advice
Fig. 5 Stephen Hellwen reviews the Oxford Union Debating Society under the presidency of Andrew Sullivan
Fig. 6 Richard Davey, First Year History Student at Balliol College and other Balliol undergraduates interviewed about the 1500th Balliol Musical Society Concert that included a performance by Yehudi Menuhin.
An OTN Production
|From NSSC 3AUG14 ARK|
Fig. 1 Five Lasers, like butterflies
Helming the boat that set the buoys for this race (it’s called ‘Ark’) I got this shot and likened it to butterflies in the back garden. I so wanted to be out there competing in the race and juggling my inabilities to control the dinghy, but got a thrill from this moment all the same with this imbalance of boats. One getting away, the others heading towards the buoy.
My turn next week.
I’ve done 12 hours on a ‘pond’ in various winds on a Laser so feel ready for the sea, and ready for bruises, muscle pain, a dunking: ready too for managed risk: I will have on a wet suit and life jacket. I will have a pouch containing an inhaler (asthmatic) and water.
I like danger. I need the physical and mental thrills I so enjoyed in my ‘youth’. I prefer a challenge. I want to be hit with a stick and offered a carrot. The Open University equivalent of the written exam and recognition of success: Tutor Marked Assignments (TMAs) are too infrequent for essay writing to become a way of life, whilst End of Module Assignments (EMAs) lack the danger and challenge of an examination. At Oxford University essays are weekly, read out and shared in a tutor group of two or three and at the end of the year you sit exams – terrifyingly demanding but both proof that you know your stuff and a way to distinguish the pack.
‘Ark’ is a bit of a tug, a diesel engined quasi-fishing vessel on which the day’s race buoys are kept – hunking great things on a long length of rope with a chain and anchor attached. It has a VHS radio so you call back and forth to your harbour of departure and the Race Officer in the clubhouse and RIBS in the bay.
Seven years since I was last on the thing I had with me a cushion I grabbed from the sofa at home not thinking why I did this … until in the chop I recalled how I had broken my coccyx training to do this when I had bounced off the rubbery side of the RIB and landed on the anchor: twice. Broken coccyx. Imagine how they test for this in A&E? Basically someone prods you up the arse and if you scream there’s a problem. This problem then turns into ‘there’s nothing we can do’. But here’s a rubber-ring you may like to have to sit on for the next six weeks … or don’t sit down????
You live and learn, or rather learn through giving things a go until you can get it right enough.
Martin Weller published ‘The Digital Scholar’ in 2011 on a Creative Commons Licence. You can download it for free, or purchase the book or eBook, and then do as you will with it. When I read it I share short excerpts on Twitter. I’ve blogged it from end to end and am now having fun with a simple tool for ‘mashing up’ designs called ‘Studio’. It’s a photo editing tool that allows you to add multiple layers of stuff. I rather see it as a revision tool – it makes you spend more time with the excerpts you pick out.
You cannot be so open that you become an empty vessel … you have to create stuff, get your thoughts out there in one way or another so that others can knock ’em down and make more of them. Ideas need legs. In all this ‘play’ though have I burried my head in its contents and with effort read it deeply? Do we invoke shallow learning and distraction with openness? If we each read the book and met for a tutorial is that not, educationally, a more focused and constructive form of ‘oppenness’?
In relation to scholarship shoulf the old rules, the ‘measures’ of academic prowess count? In the connected world of the 21st century ‘scholarship’ is able to emerge in unconventional ways, freed of the school-to-university conveyor belt.
Weller, M (2011) The Digital scholar
Thirty years ago I took a Sony Betamax kit to the Edinburgh Fringe and shot all the action around the Oxford Theatre Group as they set up, rehearsed then put on five productions: Titus Alone, Edward II, The Thirteen Clocks, The Oxford Review and The Hunger Artist.
The clips above are random grabs from the video. The playback quality suffers from drop out. There are several hours of rushes – putting up the stage, putting up posters around town, rehearsals in a sunlit hall for Titus Alone and the Oxford Review, and rehearsing Titus Alone outside on Arthur’s Mount. The cut ‘documentary’ features several copyright music tracks that I need to replace before the entire video can be shown, for now those featured can view by providing their email address.
For three decades the original Betamax tapes have been in a box, carefully stacked, in an attic or garage.
Nicky King, who produced Titus Alone wrote and voiced the ‘documentary’ with Matthew Faulk the editor – all achieved mixing between a Sony Betamax and VHS player.
I’m keen to put together the complete crew and cast list – I had or have programmes and posters somewhere in a large box.
The above include:
Patrick Harbinson, Nicky King, David Tushingham, Nigel Williams, Humprey Bower, Mark Ager, Rebecca Rosengard, Jack Latimer, Carrie Gracie … Stefan Bednarczyk.
Other productions I have from Oxford include: The Taming of the Shrew (OUDS) – hours of rehearsals, Abigail’s Party (Directed by Anthony Geffen) – the entire production, as well as various clips from other Oxford productions I am yet to identify.
The journey I set out on to get to Oxford or Cambridge took two years.
Not getting along with Economics I switched to History after a term in the Lower Sixth. (Not getting on with Sedbergh School, Cumbria, I left !)
My essays, though long (always, my habit, then, as now – why say something in six words when eighteen will do?) Tell Proust to write in sentences of less than six words, in paragraphs that don’t flow from one page to the next (ditto Henry Miller).
Where was I?
See how a stream of consciousness turns into a cascade?
My essays (I still have them. Sad. Very sad). Were on the whole terrible. A ‘C’ grade is typical, a ‘D’ not unknown. So what happened to get me to straight As, an Oxbridge exam and a place to study Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford?
I was bedding down. Putting things in a stack. And working my pile. Perhaps my history tutors detailed notes and bullet points fed on my poor essays? Perhaps the seeds that took root were carefully tendered?
Repeated testing (my self) and learning how to retain then regurgitate great long lists of pertinent facts helped.
Having an essay style I could visualise courtesy of my Geography Teacher helped. (Think of a flower with six or so petals. Each petal is a theme. The stamen is the essay title, the step the introduction and conclusion).
Writing essays over and over again helped. Eventually I got the idea.
Try doing this for an Assignment. You can’t. Yet this process, that took 24+ months to complete can be achieved over a few weeks. Perhaps a blank sheet of paper and exam conditions would be one way of treating it, instead I’ve coming to think of these as an ‘open book’ assessment. There is a deadline, and a time limit, though you’re going to get far longer than the 45 minutes per essay (or was it 23 minutes) while sitting an exam.
Personally, I have to get my head to the stage where I’ve done the e, d, c, and b grade stuff. When I’ve had a chance to sieve and grade and filter and shake … until, perhaps, I reach the stage where if called to do so I could sit this as an exam – or at least take it as a viva.
Not a convert to online learning as an exclusive platform though.
Passion for your tutor, your fellow students … as well as the subject, is better catered for in the flesh.
The way ahead is for ‘traditional’ universities to buy big time into blended learning, double their intake and have a single year group rotating in and out during a SIX term year (three on campus, three on holiday or working online.)
P.S. Did I mention teachers?
Have a very good teacher, it helps. The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle where I transferred to take A’ Levels delivers.