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

It is my own messy chaos: on a new understanding of learning spaces and connecting

IMG_0628

Space is a strange, quixotic thing. It is a construct of things both solid and ephemeral. Take today, I am in the beer garden of my local pub, mainly because it is a glorious spring afternoon and after months of winter the outside and sunshine represent such a welcome change. The physical space is made up of tables, benches, plants and the still slightly wet moss-covered cement tiles. I am listening to music (The new Arcade Fire album ‘Reflektor’ for those keeping tabs, and yes, it is awesome) and enjoying a beer. The ambient noise of the 30 or so people out here occasionally clatters above Win Butler’s voice. This is the physicality of the space. But it not what the space means or represents.

 

When we talk about learning spaces we concern ourselves with what is contained within the four walls of a physical room. We can argue, by virtue of experience or the shrill ring of a sales pitch, that furniture can encourage collaboration. The technology in the form of screens, projectors, hubs and plugs will encourage people to use technology in new ways to enhance learning. Wi-Fi networks, flexible and high capacity will be the new wired network, bringing the outside in and what happens inside out. These are expensive decisions, costing institutions hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of pounds and not insignificant staff time. However, there is nothing to say that these rooms will change the way people teach. The learning space does not of its own accord change pedagogy. The most innovative use of furniture and technology will still result in a teacher moving it all to rows if that is the way they want to teach.

 

Coming back to the beer garden, all these things that I described earlier don’t determine the intrinsic impact of the space, or how the space is used. Yes, they influence it, they sometimes shape it and can create and support the ways it is used (would anyone be out here in 2 degrees in January…). But in the end, it is what it is, a physical space. The President Emeritus of Harvard, Derek Bok, noted in 2013 that in the context of defending the ongoing viability of a residential university (which the eminent management scholar Peter Drucker had argued strongly against)…

‘We are a long way from being able to train graduate students to be scientists and scholars by online instruction. The same is true of teaching in fields of knowledge where there are no definite answers but rather a need to ask appropriate questions, use imagination, or see intriguing patterns in a jumble of seemingly disconnected facts. It is also unlikely that online instruction will be able to offer role models to inspire emulation and encourage moral development and far from clear that technology will be able to match living in a residence hall for giving students an appreciation of people from other cultures and religions or an ability to work effectively with persons very different from themselves. Much else that is memorable and important in a college education is not readily reproducible by machine. Rather, it occurs through impromptu conversations with students and instructors, or emerges in seminar discussions from unexpected turns and twists in the conversations that are hard to program in advance.’ Source: http://bit.ly/NOnbLV

 

He argues that the only way to reproduce the discontinuous, chaotic and spontaneous learning that underpins higher education is through a face-to-face engagement, in a traditional class and residential environment. Interestingly, he doesn’t suggest the need for funky chairs and rolling iPad connection panels. He does argues that virtual spaces and technology enhanced learning is limited for the teaching of scholars, scientists or graduates. To be fair to him, his whole speech is an important statement of advocacy for technology, especially the benefit of information consumption through lecture capture and on-line platforms. But this debate around the (in)ability of technology to capture the unique ‘magic’ of learning is quite pervasive. There are a number of studies that argue that students themselves want a more traditional education, where notes are handed out and lecturers engage in monologues followed by seminar type dialogues conducted in large lecture halls and rowed classrooms.  Whether it is parsed as resistance to change, a sense of retro values personified by the hipster youth or that it is a behaviour that the learner thinks once replicated will provide the teacher with what they want, it seems contradictory to the way people conduct significant aspects of their daily life.

 

The argument made by Professor Bok that learning is enhanced by the ‘…need to ask appropriate questions, use imagination, or see intriguing patterns in a jumble of seemingly disconnected facts’ resonates strongly with me. As I have discussed in earlier blogs, I strongly believe there is an urgent need to engage a wide ranging and probably quite painful and divisive debate about the efficacy and relevance of our pedagogical approaches in the digital world. The epoch-inching micro-impacts of MOOCs were not about doing something new, just something a little less shit for a bigger, less engaged audience. However, I don’t believe that these chaotic and discontinuous learning moments cannot occur in an online learning space.  The physicality makes marginal difference, because the learning is occurring in spaces in and between interactions with other people and knowledge.  This means that institutions need to think about new definitions and understandings for learning spaces.  As much as universities like doing this, I am not arguing for sending a Miley Cyrus mounted wrecking ball through the average classroom.  In fact, these are still vitals parts of the university experience for some learners.  But the new spaces work and act in different ways.  They are owned by the learners, who control the access (or choose not to) and control the content (or at least aggregate it, remix it and share it).  The new learning spaces are platforms, devices, the cloud and other virtual places where people congregate and share.

 

What is needed in the modern university is a redefinition of what constitutes a learning space. A learning space is more than a function and construction of its physicality. And I am not talking necessarily about a VLE here either, they are just as much bound by their construction as a classroom or lecture theatre. Online learning offers the definition of learning spaces a number of new dimensions. However it takes a recognition that learning and learners have changed, and that perhaps the way we were taught may have changed over time. The new learning spaces exist inside and outside the academy. They provide an environment where learners can engage with faculty and then link with connected others and sources of information, contrary and advocating those coming from the curriculum. These learning spaces are being formed now, because of the needs of the learners to interact, share, vent, collaborate, understand and vindicate. They happen in cafeterias, Facebook pages, IM groups, happy pics in Snapchat and in text conversations. They don’t need flip top desks, they need Wi-Fi and devices, and most importantly they need platforms to connect. And in most cases they are outside of the academic or the academy. In fact, if they are owned or setup by the university, they are often turned into ghost towns. The learners own these new learning spaces, quite happy in the knowledge that they are the product for these sites and platforms. But they are in control of who accesses it, who sees it and whom they share it with. They choose what gets put on the walls and whether everyone can see it or just their closest friends. They choose if it is a site of rebellion, of collegiality, of relationships or of creativity. For me, it is a simply an extension of the way I felt about my primary school classrooms.

 

I was in year 2 at St Mary’s Primary School in Rydalmere, Australia. I was seven years old. Our teacher, Mrs Charker, built our room up with our art, our learning and our stuff. Each table was a network of our space. Sure, Mrs Charker taught, but it was in our space. I remember feeling comfortable there. Two years later, my year 4 teacher put us all in rows, denied us any space, moved us around into good and bad people rows (cockatoos, rosellas, parrots and VULTURES – guess which row I ended up in more often). The result was a disaffected class, who took their learning out of the room and in this case, to my desk at home.

 

The result in higher education is not much different. Learners form their own networks. And the discontinuous and spontaneous learning that Derek Bok advocates happens there, interacting with colleagues, professionals and the wider internet community. And in some ways, these new learning spaces create a much greater opportunity for chance meetings, discursive dialogues, interrogating and testing of ideas and thoughts, questions being answered and new questions being formed. I don’t see this as an abstract concept, the rantings of an e-learning zealot wanting to bring down the walls of the academy. This is the way learning spaces have changed. Ways of learning and knowledge acquisition have changed. Learning spaces are an evolving and fluid concept, not well represented by the fixed capital investment made by institutions.

 

The technologies our potential learners are using today are often in advance of those being ‘trialed’ at institutions. Facebook usage has been in decline for the last 18 months or so as young people move to more private and controllable networks like Snapchat and Whatsapp. There is no chance of their parents finding out stuff, or it getting into the ether for all to see, especially with something like Snapchat that self-destructs content in seconds. Yet many institutions are talking about Facebook as an innovative potential place for learning (or at least knowledge transfer) to occur. Learning spaces have to be more agile than institutions currently have the infrastructure or capacity to be. Successful entrepreneurs innovate through understanding what is happening, what might happen, engage with it and then respond. The way we conceptualise learning spaces need to occur in a similar pattern. It is already inherent in most of our learning designs that students are expected to undertake independent study, which represents nearly 90% of the hours they spend on courses. What do we think they do? Be like us in our learning heyday? Head buried in books, at a desk in the library or in our residence? Hard work, cold sweat and graft makes Peter learn. Guess what? They are studying together in groups, they are talking to each other, they are asking other people what they think, they are complaining and griping about how hard this and how much reading they have to do and then they are swapping pictures of their desk, their opinion on the latest Arcade Fire record or sending sad faces on Whatsapp because they are exhausted. And its what we all did. It just happens online as well as face-to-face now and learning is happening in those spaces.

 

So, what does all of this debate and froth mean to higher education, both institutions and teachers alike? Well, I wish there was a magic theory that I could invent here, represent with some moving bubbles and quick, catchy titles. There isn’t. However, there are four things we as educators need to consider…

1. In what ways do we understand the changes in learners and learning in the digital age?
2. How do we understand, engage and support the spaces in which new learners learn, physical or virtual?
3. How does our learning, teaching and assessment practice need to change to get the best out of these new spaces?
4. What is making us frightened, resistant and ‘control freaky’ about this change? Technology in higher education is still generally occurring at the fringes of experimentation, rarely crossing into the mainstream unless its flashy (MOOCs) or keeping with the Jonses’ (VLEs, Lecture Capture). Why has it not had the same transformative (disruptive, destructive or constructive) effect in our activity as it has arguably had on society as a whole?