Feels like we only go backwards – The need for a new pedagogy in HE #1

‘Education is an illusion if it simply disseminates information’ (Garrison & Anderson 2003)

There is a common mantra in education which argues ‘pedagogy before technology’.  This is where the reason for using the technology is underpinned by pedagogical approaches to learning, teaching and assessment. This has often been interpreted as a way of developing new approaches to the existing pedagogy, where the technology has been used to simply replicate the didactic, broadcast modes of learning common in most institutions, as opposed to challenging the need for a new pedagogy.  A pedagogy that embeds the new skills of learners in collaboration, content making, remixing and repurposing, social interaction, identity and sharing into a curriculum that encourages social interaction, supports the development of networks through social media, broadens the community of practice to include a set of connections and promotes and generates inter and trans-disciplinary thought and ideas.  As far back as 2001, John Seeley Brown noted;

 ‘Learning is a remarkably social process. In truth, it occurs not as a response to teaching, but rather as a result of a social framework that fosters learning. To succeed in our struggle to build technology and new media to support learning, we must move far beyond the traditional view of teaching as delivery of information.’ (Brown 2001)’ 

 Brown, J.S. 2001, ‘Learning in the digital age’, The Internet and the university: 2001 Forum, eds M. Devlin, R. Larson & J. Meyerson, EDUCAUSE, Boulder, CO, pp. 71-86.

 

Over the next few weeks on this blog I am going to offer you my perspectives on this new pedagogy.  For many of the reasons already well explored in the press and the blogsphere and for a significant number of other reasons not touched upon, higher education is at a critical juncture.  This juncture, whilst not one spelling the immediate doom-laden end of the world as know it, is almost certainly constructed from elements of a perfect storm.  A financial crisis placing severe and not-unpopular pressure on funding, rampant conservatism even from left-wing governments, technology reaching a point of saturation and ubiquity that makes its use in education expected and almost seamless and two-tier university system that has empowered the market leaders with enough clout and know-how to eliminate the competition in an entirely un-collegial way.


 

And it was like talking to a stranger… In defense of social interaction

One of the consequences of the overhyping of MOOCs has been an increased public interest in peer-led learning and peer assessment.  The obsessive interest in the numbers engaged in MOOCs (thousands enroll!  650 messages in a day!! 4650 blog posts this week!!!) places the emphasis on the quantity of interaction against the quality of learning that is occurring through that interaction.  Many MOOCs use the methodology that asks learners to post something to a forum and through the magic of comment aggregate other people interested enough to read and contribute together.  The result is a long trail of posts on a discussion forum that are neither social nor interactive but more like a presentation to a room where almost everyone is asleep.  This seems like all we have done is move the broadcast model from ‘lecturer to learner’ over to ‘learner-learner’ because we can’t find a pedagogical model economic enough to deal with the MASSIVE part of the acronym.

 

‘We need to fuel that evolution by developing the assessment tools that will support higher-order learning on a massive scale—we need to put technologies to work to support self, peer, and expert evaluations, to provide expert feedback in a fraction of the time currently required’

MoocDonalds: Are MOOCs Fast Food? By Kyle Peck | Professor of Education, Penn State University http://www.evolllution.com/opinions/moocdonalds-are-moocs-fast-food/

 

Social interaction is a complex beast.  Emotions, attitudes, personality, identity, meaning, authenticity and emerging senses of realness all play into constructing our approaches to social interaction.  Each different social media platform that emerges changes some or all of these bases.  Facebook widened our networks and reached out to people who in the past time may have forgotten (or at least temporarily until the next high school reunion).  Twitter made connection management more manageable by limiting the scope and duration of the social interaction to 140 characters.  Google analytics has made the study of numbers accessible to any blog owner as they check the length of engagement with their content daily.  But as with the MOOC, numbers seem outrank the quality of the engagement.

 

One of the issues that arise for me with the MOOC model of peer interaction is the initial assumption that all interactions are equal and that all those who interact are the same.  Sure, contexts vary and the time given to the programme is also variable.  However, social interaction is not always conducted amongst equals – people play different roles in the group.  Cross and Prusak (2002) looked at the formation of informal communities within organisations and argued that one of the critical aspects of a successful community was the ability to share knowledge between people as opposed to knowledge simply originating from sources.  They defined four roles within these communities; central connector, peripheral specialist, boundary spanner and information broker.  Whilst these roles primarily represent modes of organisational interaction, they have been utilised in a number of studies to categorise and explain the behaviours and practices of social interaction, social networking and personal interaction in informal settings, and support the basis of effective social networking and engagement engaging with experiences.

 

A focus on metrics, whether this is completion rates, measures of time spent on the website or hits to a youtube lecture, ignores the critical notion of learning.  Simply digesting information from someone else, whether it is open, remixed, funky or interesting is still that – digested information.  Tapscott and Williams (2010) argue that collaborative learning and collaborative knowledge production represent the necessary future of modern higher education. A fully integrated web 2.0 approach linked with a pedagogy that is designed to fully utilise the benefits of social construction and collaboration requires significant change to both the practice of teaching and the practice of learning.

 

Simply asking learners to digest material and then post about it, often in isolation and asynchronously disconnected from their peers doesn’t support the sharing of context.  So much of the interaction in online programmes seems to be predicated on forcing communication without listening or interaction.  It also does ask the learner to reveal much of themselves, challenge their perceptions or learn from someone other than the disassociated academic, represented here often as a talking head and not much else.  The temptation then becomes to focus on the medium and not the message.  It is common to see discussions about the platform, the course or the concept of a MOOC (what I call the #metamooc – hashtag it!) to be one of the few topics that engage people in actual social interaction.

 

Social interaction within a programme needs to be authentic and resonant.  This matters whether the programme is virtual or face-to-face.  The role of the academic is critical.  They help create the conditions under which engagement can occur.  They also help create the environment in which interaction leads to learning.  In a MOOC world, this role is disconnected from the Massive because there is no recognised pedagogy that can economically connect it.  Aside from the obvious assertions of developing a better understanding of interaction in order to facilitate it, there are four things that I believe can enhance the impact and practice of social interaction in education.  This isn’t a how-to list nor are they exclusive, because I know there are other things that make social interaction work.

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easel.ly

Authentic

  • That the interaction represents something believable.
  • That the interaction means something
  • That the interaction is not forced

Real

  • That the interaction is comparative to other relationships
  • That the interaction is rooted in practice
  • That the interaction replicates, challenges or re-purposes how we interact with others

Mutual

  • That the interaction is recognised and responded to
  • That trust occurs within the interaction
  • That learning occurs through interaction

Resonant

  • That the interaction goes deeper than superficial
  • That the interaction has lasting impact
  • That the interaction affects the way we learn and what we learn

 

Like I said above, I won’t argue that this list is the panacea to solving the age old problems of on-line interaction in education.  I will argue that simple measures of performance such as clicks and analytics and metrics only help to measure the MASSIVE aspects of a MOOC, and that this element is not pedagogical in nature.  It is a measure of economic feasibility and success.  The OPEN aspect has already been corrupted to mean free from cost not from copyright.  All that really leaves as pedagogical is the mode (ONLINE) and the concept (COURSE).  And these elements are at the mercy of the financial reality created by the MO bit.

 

(Cross, R., & Prusak, L. (2002). The people who make organizations go-or stop. Harvard Business Review, 80(6), 104-112).

 

Know your product: Is the MOOC the messiah or just a very naughty boy?

Where’s the professor?
We need him now!
Gonna tell you ’bout them
Yeah we take it all the way ’round the world
(The Saints – Know your product)

I have been bemused at the on-going howling and whooping about the seismic shifts cutting swathes through Higher Education.  It seems to me that there are two discrete things happening here; the desire to see change happen, led by people with the passion, enthusiasm and money and the equal desire to find quick fixes from the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Change is a complex beast at the best of times, I think simply because there is rarely change that is universally embraced nor equally applied or applicable.  Even in 2008 when Barack Obama won office in the US, the result was one of the polarised oppositions in the history of global politics, defending their turf with ever increasing fervour and even more outlandish claims.  MOOCs and all their multiple variations are one such seismic ‘shift’.  Even this week a consortium of UK universities got together and announced to the world that MOOCs represent a ‘Napster moment’ for Higher Education;

UK universities to launch free degree-style online courses

and

UK universities are wary of getting on board the mooc train

But what do MOOCs actually represent in this fractured, and some would argue broken university environment still reeling from increased fees, the changing skills requirements of employers in a high unemployment world and shrinking global boundaries between systems and institutions? It would easy to argue that they are the messiah, bringing with them a new era in open learning, connectivity and smashing the cobwebbed ivory towers of the academic establishment.  It would be equally easy to label them a fad, like the yo-yo or the billion hit success of Gangnam style (wop, wop, wop, gangnam style!).  And it would be a cop-out to say that their impact lies somewhere in the middle.


(Two Gangnam style parodies – One from Stanford University and the other from York university)

For what it’s worth, I think MOOCs represent just another apparent quick fix to the bleedingly obvious problems most universities are facing.  Rapid expansions, bigger is better and an increasing dependence on less academic staff doing more with much less have all taken their toll on the most basic business and educational practices required to be a functional organisation. Academic stress is at its highest levels in recent memory and has engendered a long-hours culture and significant issues with depression and mental illness (http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=6344).  In the view of both our political class and the tabloid press, universities are always in deficit, never meeting the requirements of any our constituents, requiring constant funding cuts and increased competition to drag us from our 18th century ivory towers. And then there is the MOOC.  Trendy, fashionable, supported and promoted by the top universities that are often spared the harshest of the impacts described above (at least publicly).  Why wouldn’t every university, private college and ma and pa show want in?  It must be as easy as pie to do a MOOC? Go on, do one now, I dare you!

 

But like most quick fixes, I argue that the MOOC idea is fundamentally flawed and risks futher de-stabilising already unstable institutions.  And to make my case I am going to make three (highly opinionated) arguments;

1. MOOCs are not a Napster moment

Napster was a platform to share music illegally.  It represented a kick in the arse by users who were tired of paying £15 for a CD that they already owned on vinyl, or being unable to find music by a band that a record company kept in the faults or refused to sign.  It was a rebellion; a punk act if you will (granted one that made Sean Fanning a rich man and have the distinct honour of portrayed by Justin Timberlake in a movie).  MOOCs are not led or run by the users.  They are not subverting the norm, just re-packaging it.  A more accurate analogy might be the move from vinyl to CD. And from that we had the highest record profits in history and then the greatest crash in revenues as users took control and democratised music, both in the production and distribution of it.

MOOCs are run by the establishment.  The user is simply grist for the mill; numbers to be held up as demonstrative of the great success of MOOCs in changing education forever.  The groundswell of user-led change stopped when MOOCs went commercial and the words ‘monetize’ and ‘consumers’ became part of the debate.  MOOCs are not Patti Smith or Siouxsie Sioux , they are Avril Lavigne.  They may look punk, dangerous and scary to your parents, but underneath they are still the mainstream masquerading as a rebel.

 2. The numbers game

I alluded to this in the first point.  Coursera has had nearly 2 million students enrol from over 196 countries.  Huge numbers! Game-changing numbers!! Participation in droves!!!  Their completion rate – between 7 and 8%.  Is it too blunt a point to say that if MOOC providers actually cared about learners then that kind of attrition should be horrifying to them?  Instead we hear all the right PR arguments about the reasons why people got involved, the desire to experiment and dip a toe in the water, and they are right, fair point.  Why shouldn’t HE encourage experimentation and engagement?  Of course it should.  And it used to do far more of it with continuing education programmes, community education and taster courses.  And almost exclusively they have been shut down, commercialised or sold-on, much to the detriment of an educated society.  So why are we talking in that language again? Do universities believe that we made a mistake by closing down our systems, fire-walling everything we did and making the whole thing user pays?  Without going all Mulder on you, I want to believe.  I really do.  But the Scully in me continues to have those nagging doubts about the altruistic intentions of MOOCs.

 3. What is this change thing anyway?

Good old Stephen Stills (I don’t say that often!).  When in Buffalo Springfield he sung this little couplet;

‘There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear’. 

What kind of change do MOOCs represent anyway? Are MOOCs the same old, same old; a very web 1.0 way of didactic instructionism and academic-centred content?  Alternately, the pragmatic solution to assessment within some MOOCs (at least on the surface) privileges the role of the peer and the community.  There is a building discourse around the superficiality of change seeded by or in response to technology in Higher Education. One where the institutional position is to keep the entire house the way it was, but to simply change the colours of the wall.  Whether this is through a lack of skill or mismatch between the understanding of the academy and the needs and skills of the learner, there is evidence that many e-learning projects have simply become lecture 2.0 or tutorial 2.0, without appropriate thought to changing the pedagogy (Blin & Munro 2008). A discussion forum where the lecturer simply poses a question and asks the learners to ‘discuss’ does not ground the interactions either vertically or horizontally (between learners, other learners and academics). Using YouTube instead of a VHS recording, allowing the VLE to act as a file repository or a way of replicating the classroom virtually ignores the obvious benefits that technology can bring to enhance pedagogy. Are MOOCs caught in this ‘deckchairs on the Titanic’ mentality?  Are they driven by a new pedagogy, wedded to the demands and behaviours of a new learner cohort?  Are they seeking to make new knowledge in emerging disciplines?  Are they really learning 2.0 or just another attempt to re-package what we have already with a few bonus tracks and a novelty toy?  Or are they McDonalds Happy Meal of Higher Education, the same burger, fries and Coke that we have been served up consistently and efficiently for decades, just with a different plastic toy and a newer, funkier box?

 

You might think, at the end of the day and this close to Christmas that perhaps all of this seems a little Grinch-like.  I argue that in most cases, for any real innovation to have significant and lasting impact, there needs to be a simplicity, a functionality and sometimes simply a sheer audacity to do what it says on the box, unafraid of the consequences.  The simplicity of making education more widely accessible is audacious in this time of austerity.  But what is missing for me is the reason why it needs to be done, aside from the ‘because we could do it’ solipsism.  Are learners demanding it?  By sheer numbers, yes they are.  Is a MOOC delivering what they want? Is it meeting their expectations? By the same sheer numbers, apparently not.

 

‘I’m just sitting in my chair when a voice comes on the air
Says “Why don’t you try it? You’ll feel alright!”
“It’s a great new brand of smokes
“Cool your head and clears your throat
“Keeps you young and so in touch.”

Said advertising, you’re lying
You’re never gonna give me what I want
I said smooth talking, brain washing
You’re never gonna get me what I need

(The Saints – Know your Product)


Thanks to all you who have read and commented on this blog in 2012.  I have been humbled by your interest and your engagement.  I will be back in 2013 with more thoughts and ideas, more music and perhaps even a mix-tape or two.  But in the meantime, if you are for something to keep you entertained over the holidays, check out my Australian music podcast called ‘Wide Open Road’ right here