We could ride the surf together – Polarisation and power of riding the wave and not staying in front of it (an ALT-C conference report)


(with apologies and much love to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys for the title, from the amazing track ‘Surfer Girl’)

Held in Warwick on the 1-3 September, the Association of Learning Technology annual conference (ALT-C) brought together 400 plus academics, learning technologists, heads of e-Learning and other engaged practitioners across a programme of keynotes and predominantly practice-led presentations. With the theme ‘Riding Giants: How to innovate and educate ahead of the wave’ the conference posed more questions for me than answers. I was interested to know who or what the ‘giants’ actually were? And for what reason did we need to ride them? Equally, what was the wave we were trying to stay ahead of? Was it something that would wipe us out or carry us to somewhere we didn’t want to be? I know it is a bit glib to interrogate a conference theme in this way. They are designed to set a tone for the millions of words, ideas, tweets and powerpoint slides that would emerge from the programme and the social milieu that followed. But each time I threw myself into the debates and discussions, listened to presentations and talked to people over coffee or an excellent Thornbridge Jaipur IPA, I found myself unable to answer these questions to any great satisfaction.

4317207778_0b2fff3800_o

The overwhelming and confounding sense I took away from the conference was one of polarisation, especially in terms of practice. My choice of the word polarisation is quite a considered one. Learning technology has suffered over the years to engage with the mainstream practices of higher education. MOOCs opened the windows and showed us what can happen with the investment, commitment and attention of the wider institution. The struggle that was clearly demonstrated throughout the conference was the conflicted views about what we as learning technologists, teachers using technology or institutions want to achieve or succeed in. Do we want to lead (be the giant)? Do we want to avoid the impacts of change (stay ahead of the wave)? Do we want to follow the technological trends that shape and impact the rest of society (giants) or do we want to carve out our niche in the institution and let the changes and challenges pass us by? (wave)

I have extracted some tweets that I made during the conference, in response to and sometimes times inspired by the speakers and presentations that go some way towards addressing/interrogating/ignoring some of these issues this have led to what I see as this polarisation of practice.

This tweet was in response to the keynote presentation of Jeff Hayward entitled ‘Designing University Education for 2025: balancing competing priorities’.

He argued that the modern university needed to prepare itself for a raft of changes that represented substantial changes that arise primarily from the technologies of today. There is a clear disconnect between the pace of technological change, the use of technologies by our learners and the pace in which institutions can change and adapt to both of those. I think we have been successful in winning the battles of large scale institutional systems as a means of embedding learning technology. The difference in the post-digital age is that now, these platforms and tools don’t have to be firewalled behemoths of yore. They are lean, agile, accessible and most of all, social. There isn’t a single institutional ‘out of the box’ solution that we can get the institution to invest in. There are micro platforms, single purpose aggregations of tools, agile new start-ups and the continued predominance of a digital backpack hosted and stored in the cloud.

As a sector, we need to move away from our systems mind set and into one that creates the conditions for agility, creativity and innovation. The effort should not be on shaping the systems to be ready for 2025, it should be shaping the institution to be able to adapt to whatever is thrown at it. If we went back to 2005 and asked the institution to prepare itself for 2015, what would we have told it? What has happened in the intervening years that we could have never predicted? Funnily enough, it’s the stuff we are still trying to ways to adapt to now. Social media! Participatory culture! Digital Citizenship!

This was a tweet in response to two quite distinct examples of polarisation. The first arose from a number of comments from the conference that argued strongly that technology gets in the way of learning. The interrogation of the efficacy or impact of the technology was presented in the context of how much negative impact it had on learning, with the lower the negative impact the better. This is a problematic assertion at the best of times. It positions technology as a value-added, rather than as an integrated component of teaching and learning. The assumption was that the technology needed to change to better align with the pedagogy. Better social media platforms. Less kit. What is wrong with good old pen and paper?

The second example arose from an underlying assumption that technology was there to enhance the way we teach now. Hence the debate about students using their smart phones in class, or the ubiquitous shots of a sea of laptops and illuminated apple logos facing the modern lecturer. The elephant in the room here is that all of this was predicated on the argument that the pedagogy we have is fit for purpose. My main takeaway from the whole conference was that debate we need to have is not around the stranger danger of the internet, or the relative merits of lecture capture systems or the administrative benefits of the next generation of VLE products. We need a good, old fashioned barney about pedagogy. We need to debate whether the way we teach now is suitable for the way we learn. Is it practical for the jobs our students are going to do when they graduate? A blind-faced acceptance of pedagogy now asserts that we will always do it as we have done. And ultimately,our teaching and learning practices and their respective pedagogical approaches will be constantly challenged by agile private providers, emerging new modes of higher education entrepreneurship and the ‘gold rush’ like stampede towards a MOOC led future.

Know your Product II – Are MOOCs the pedagogical messiah or just a very naughty boy?

Picture1

Much of the recent debate, certainly within the academic beltway, has been about trying to re-contextualise and develop new measures of success for MOOCs. Some of this ground shifting can be easily attributable to the poor picture painted by the more traditional statistics used to evaluate educational offerings such as completion rates and achievement. In terms of pedagogy, there is a further issue in that the role of the student within a MOOC is highly contested but rarely discussed. In early MOOCs, students were seen as part of the bigger, better, faster, more mantra that demonstrated success of the MOOC. More modern MOOC offerings have focused on engagement (did the student post to a forum?), completion (did they demonstrate consumption of materials?) or the pot of gold at the end of rainbow, conversion (did they become paid students of the institution?). Liyanagunawardena, Parslow & Williams (2014) argue that dropouts don’t represent the learners behaviours especially well in that they may have got exactly what they wanted from a course in the first week or two, leaving satisfied (but officially ‘dropping out’). The issue here for me is that all of these presuppose understandings that we don’t actually know, which are occurring on a platform we can’t explain as most aspects of it are contested. Amongst these presuppositions are the questions around why students engage/don’t engage and why there is a significant issue with attracting 15-30 years olds where such an innovative pedagogical technology should be manna from heaven. In the end, universities are putting a lot of faith into something that has yet to attract much significant scholarship or critical analysis, yet are investing in technology faster than they ever have before (‘MOOCs Proliferate Despite Unanswered Questions’).

In the midst of the forest of grey literature, evangelical musings and emerging criticality, there seems to be very little active research around the modes and models of learning occurring within MOOCs. There are a number of studies identifying participation behaviours of learners, teaching practice, the efficacy of specific add-ons or engagement platforms as well as a continued stream of mostly homogeneous demographic data. Most of this research is centred on xMOOCs and their massive data sets. There is a tendency within these studies to position the learner as part of the product, especially in the context of MOOC as reputational branding tool. To that extent, the idea of pedagogy is not the most important one in both the construction and evaluation of MOOCs. The simplest demonstration of this for me arises from the two–tier participation system, where top institutions are courted like the belle of the ball and those outside the top tier of the rankings are laughed at or ignored by the major platforms. There is significant evidence that some of the most innovative trans-disciplinary teaching and learning is occurring in these newer institutions by engaging in emerging fields of knowledge, innovative pedagogies and agile partnerships with industry. That is not to say that these things are not happening at top institutions, because they clearly are. However, where the focus of activity is on teaching and learning, there is a clear necessity to innovate as a form of competitive advantage. Now, if pedagogy and innovation are at the forefront of a successful MOOC platform, then the current platforms would be scrambling for these amazing innovative programmes. Funnily, they are not.

So, in trying to get a better understanding of MOOC pedagogy and to understand what a post-MOOC world might look like once the hysteria and hand wringing have subsided, I have focused on identifying the challenges to understanding the beast within. What is a MOOC? What are the key identifiers and behaviours of a MOOC pedagogy? What does a post-MOOC world look like? Are we going to see the half buried head of a statue of Stephen Downes in the sand on a beach, holding his laptop aloft like a torch, with Charlton Heston dropping to his knees in despair?

1. The challenge of definition
Picture7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This would have to be the most fundamental challenge of all. There is no agreed definition of what a MOOC actually is. Every word in the acronym is challenged and changeable. From SPOCs to SOCCs, there are more silly names than you can find in an episode of Monty Python. How can we discuss the nature of MOOC pedagogy when we have little agreed idea about what a MOOC is? A recent tweet of mine noted that ‘I am now quite certain that the term MOOC is as well defined and understood as the ‘Boogie Monster’. When anything can be a MOOC, what reliable and valid means do we have to critically evaluate and understand them? At the same time, there seems to be an assumed meaning when MOOCs are discussed by academics that assume that everyone’s individual understanding is shared by the collective. There has been some attempt to delineate between connectivist MOOCs and the more didactic xMOOCs. But this still is broad brush when Massive, Open and even the on-line parts are constantly contested. We now see the weird sight of something that 2 years ago might have been called an online course fighting desperately to be labelled a MOOC. Various parts of our sector are scrambling over each other to ‘own’ MOOCs. It is akin to the day at school when yo-yos become popular again. Before you know it, newsagents, milk bars, supermarkets and gas stations are all selling them. All those loyal yo-yo sellers all year around either clean up or are swamped by the new craze.

2. The challenge of motivation
Picture3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is equally critical to understand why somebody is doing something, in order to help understand how they are doing it. In some ways, the MOOC-steria of the last two years reminds me of the Goldrush. There are hundreds of people panning for gold in the creek, hoping to find their fortune. Why did they start panning in that creek? Well, they saw a bunch of other people there so they thought they would start. When you go back to the beginning of the Goldrush, the person panning in the creek first is the person who owns the creek or more accurately, owns the shop up the road that sells the pans. When you hear a number of institutions talk about why they got into MOOCs most discuss the enthusiasm of the VC, the excitement of councils and boards who have heard about these things called MOOCs, the rumours of sacked Provosts in US universities and the ‘got to be in it to win it’ peer pressure akin to be goaded into trying your first cigarette at the back of the school oval. It would have to be the first principle of identifying a pedagogical approach to have a clear reason why learners are there (and what they hope to get out of participating), what benefits the institution seeks to gain, the benefits for the teacher and perhaps at an altruistic level, how does this contribute to the university’s societal mission. Yet, there seems to be very little clarity, aside from the competitive candy crush that seems to be occurring at the moment. This is not an uncommon phenomenon.

 

apples and apples

 

When Nirvana broke over twenty years ago, record companies scoured the planet for other ‘grunge’ acts to be the new Nirvana, and in that grunge-steric few months we ended up with acts as diverse as Avril Lavigne (sk8er boi), Live (which led to Nickelback) and Ween (yes, I said it, I hate Ween!).

 

3. The challenge of disruption
Picture4

MOOCs have often be referred to as the Napster moment for Higher Education. Now, I would like to firstly take issue with the premise of the statement. Napster was a user-led rebellion against the perceived greed and control being exerted by record companies in an over-inflated CD market (yes, who wouldn’t get angry at having to pay three times as much for something you had already bought, and sometimes sounded worse). It has led to other user rebellions in the form of Pirate Bay and bit torrent and eventually led to the success of legal streaming and downloading services like Spotify and iTunes. MOOCs are not a user-led rebellion. There is no ‘sticking it to the man’ here. It is the ‘man’ who is delivering and marketing these courses. The user does not generally (although there are exceptions) redistribute and become part of the network for the proliferation of the learning. Yes, there are huge numbers of ‘users’. Most of which try it once and leave, not to return again. MOOCs are not a revolution and Coursera is not Che. Right, with that rant over, let’s get onto the more relevant bit for MOOC pedagogy. Napster changed music distribution for ever, no doubt. But what happened to it? Bankruptcy, court cases, takeovers by Best Buy and a portrayal by Justin Timberlake in a David Fincher film all ensued. The most interesting part of Napster was the post-Napster world. What is most interesting for educators and strategists is what comes next. What is the post-MOOC world? What part of our teaching and learning practice will change because of the disruption, transformation or destruction of MOOCs? This is the critical question. What aspect of how universities do business will change? We already have the entry of new players, venture capitalists, tech entrepreneurs and young innovators into what has been a static walled garden of academic privilege and certification.

What next? Who will be the next iTunes (iTunesU perhaps? ;-)

4. The challenge of participation
Picture5

This is not a level playing field. It is not enough to have a brilliant range of courses, experienced and inspiring teachers and a government mandated ability to issue qualifications in order to compete globally. Let’s be fair, it never has been a level playing field. Brands and reputations and rankings mean something and the ground continues to rise up and transform with the arrival of new players, emerging states and a mobile gang of learners. However, MOOCs have drawn these seismic changes into sharp contrast. The first challenge is what I call the in/out paradigm, where being ‘in’ the tent imbues you with innovative practice, cutting edge reputations and being at the forefront of technological change. Being ‘out’ of the tent labels you as curmudgeonly, conservative or more cruelly as a laggard. MOOCs are not an in/out choice, especially where the pedagogies on display are not substantially different in many instances to existing distance or online offerings. Who says what some institutions are doing is not MOOCs by any other name? Who died and made MOOCs the benchmark by which we decide how innovative we all are? I think you can guess my answer. MOOCs – The Choice of a New Generation.

The second challenge of participation is one I alluded to earlier, where the ability to engage in this whirlwind is not an equal one. The IPRR report ‘The Avalanche is Coming’ which was supported strongly by Pearson, sees a bleak future for the ‘mass universities’ not engaged in the MOOC-nation, noting;

‘Due to the nature of the industry, there will be rapid consolidation of the online providers, with only the strongest players left standing. At the same time, many middle- to low-tier universities will have to disband or adapt as they become irrelevant.’

It is a conundrum that MOOC platforms should be seeking the most interesting, relevant and innovative ideas, practices and disciplines, yet by virtue of being owned by venture capitalists, investors and corporations and seeking the strongest, most recognisable brands to add to their supermarket shelves, ignore the institutions where these things are happening. It is important to note that I am not a class warrior. I work for a leading elite institution. I know the power of that brand, and the cool things we are doing. But I have had the distinct honour to also work for a number of institutions who would never be in the roadmap for the major MOOC providers, yet continuously deliver innovative, exciting, transformative programmes informed by relevant and agile digital pedagogies. This is not a call for revolution. This is a call for collaboration. If we honestly believe that MOOCs can transform and democratise education on a global scale, why are solely obsessed by brand values?

5. The challenge of innovation
Picture6

This blog post seeks to identify what pedagogical innovation MOOCs 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. But equally it could be argued that they are a manifestation of the same old, same old; a web 1.0 mode of didactic instructivism and academic-centred content. In line with the emerging discourse around the superficiality of change seeded by or in response to technology in higher education (Blin & Munro, 2008; Garrison, 2011), I pose a simple final question – Are MOOCs learning 2.0 or just another attempt to re-package what we have already have produced, effectively the 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?

In reality, MOOCs are not really that innovative. They are a new name for something generally we have been doing for decades in terms on-line learning, adult education, community education, school learning, distance learning, external studies, computer aided learning, technology enhanced learning, you name it. xMOOCs especially are akin to the change YouTube made to the delivery of media in a classroom. We are still showing the same tatty old film, it is just on-line now, as opposed to coming from a dusty DVD or VHS. In reality, through the delivery of MOOCs the sector has not changed the way it teaches or in many cases, what it teaches.

But there is an innovation in there, and it comes from the focus they have placed on the way higher education is perceived. There is a huge group of people out there demanding new ways of learning, new pedagogies, knowledge that transcends discipline boundaries and can be remixed, repurposed and reused. They are digital citizens, living in a world that has no boundaries between on-line and analogue. Social media is not a new-fangled platform; it is just another form of communication. These people are ignoring MOOCs in DROVES. Yet they are still consuming free, open and massive pots of learning through the internet, sometimes provided by a higher education institution and other times provided by their peers and friends. They are forming networks, making connections, sharing and making content and changing their world. They are under 30. They want something from universities, but they want more from the rest of the world, yet they show little or no interest in these world-changing MOOCs. Have they realised that it really just is a normal McDonalds hamburger they are being offered and they are looking for something far more interesting and finding it by searching on Google and asking their network of friends for advice? University is a place for the youth to find answers, develop ways to ask the right questions and make connections (physical and virtual) that will last a lifetime. MOOCs seem counter-intuitive to where the learner of today and tomorrow already is. And it is here that the challenge for institutions lies.

 

Postscript

This is an extended version of the paper I am presenting at the MOOCs and the Humanities conference at Edge Hill University, May 2014.  The slideshare presentation can be found here…


 

 

Picture Credits
Image 1 by BenPPiper
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence

Image 2 by JoséMa Orsini
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence

Image 3 by ekkun
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic Licence

Image 4 by Thomas Hawk
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic Licence

Image 5 by Elsie Hui
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence

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.

online title=
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).