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MOOCs: How did we get here?

I’m at the Open Education conference in Park City, Utah. The conference is now in its impressive 10th year. I did a presentation following Andrew Ng (Coursera). Slides and video are below. The focus is on my early experiences with MOOCs, their current state, and future directions (as well as some angst and hope).

WISE Panel: Can MOOCs democratize higher education?

The recording from the Can MOOCs democratize higher education? panel at WISE is available here. Donald Clark shares his experience of the event as a whole, including our panel.

One interesting take away from WISE13 was how much people still want a teacher. During the session, if a panelist desired applause, all that was required was a statement along the lines of “this is not about technology, it is about teachers” or “teachers are so important” or (as in our panel) “it’s not software or hardware but humanware”. I understand the appeal of wanting someone to guide us or wanting a person rather than a computer to direct our learning. Brian Lamb has an excellent post on Agency and Algorithms that captures the dehumanizing aspect of algorithmic instruction. The concern of waning teacher influence is not only a result of technology – it is also due to the prominence of networks and participatory culture. Mediators, in networks, are less important than they are in hierarchies.

We face a future of less teachers. Or perhaps, less of a traditional view of teachers and more teachers overall as we can self organize and teach each other. A small example of this is Google Helpouts, which offers not only the technology to tutor others but also the marketplace to be discovered.

WISE: The world’s most important education conference

Education is constantly confronted with a dual threat:
1. Acknowledgement that it is a foundation for all human progress and able to lift regions and society out of poverty,
2. Public policy and investment that denies the value of education.
When society faces a problem, whether racism, violence, or inequality, education is the first scapegoat and the first solution. Report after report validates the role of education in improving the personal lives of individuals and the public sphere of highly educated regions. Politicians and reformers point to international comparisons to laud or condemn performance of local education systems.

Unfortunately, when economic pressures hit, one of the first casualties is public education – at all levels. We are experiencing this in Alberta now where our well-coiffed, but ill-informed and short-sited education, minister Thomas Lukaszuk is slashing funding. I have a hard time resolving the tension between “education is critical” and “let’s cut it when we have budget issues”. Education is essentially an investment in the future. It is a politically soft target where people shake their heads, protest somewhat loudly (unless you’re from Quebec), but then go about their day. Other areas of government funding, such as healthcare, are harder to raid from future generations because people feel the impact of cuts almost immediately. In education, we can have decades of erosion before it impacts the daily lives of most members of society.

I attend somewhere in the range of 30-50 education/technology/learning conferences annually. These conferences range from local conferences with a 100 or so attendees to large international events with over 2000 attendees. While I’ve enjoyed the personal learning experience, the overall message is disheartening. Frequently, if it’s a university’s annual learning event, I’ll be introduced by a senior leader who will then a) leave immediately after the introduction or b) when seated in too conspicuous location, will stay for the session and immediately leave. These annual “celebrations of teaching and learning” send the wrong message to faculty. The real message should not be “here is a speaker who doesn’t know much about our system to tell us how we should teach” but rather should be “I’m committed to teaching and learning and I have cleared my schedule for the next two days to learn from and with you so our university community is stronger and more able to address the challenges we face”.

Last week I attended the WISE conference in Doha, Qatar. This event has been on my radar for a few years as it causes a significant splash in social and mainstream media annually. When I received an invitation to attend, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m glad I did.

WISE is a global event, though the organizers describe it as a movement and platform rather than a conference. Where else will you meet former prime ministers such as Gordon Brown, Julia Gillard, heads of UNESCO, World Bank, university presidents, leaders of NGOs, prominent academics, students, and startups that represent all regions of the world? I’ll posit: WISE is the most important annual education conference in assessing global education trends, connecting with peers, and observing a strong economic commitment to education in action.

A few examples:

I am not aware of the total investment in WISE conference and related education projects by the Qatar Foundation. A back of the napkin calculation puts it in the range of hundreds of millions. Unlike other notable foundations with an education focus, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Qatar Foundation does not only target specific outcomes or specific projects. Their investment, especially with WISE, is in long term conceptual areas such as “innovation in education” and “education for all”. Creating a forum to share innovations, outside of prescribed criteria established in advance, is urgently needed. In times of rapid change and uncertainty, experimentation, action, and discourse are needed, rather than following status quo solutions. After a decade of attending and presenting at learning, technology, education, and innovation conferences, WISE is the best forum that I have encountered for having the most important global education conversations.

As I’m writing this, I’m torn between excitement about, and support for, the innovative work happening in Qatar in education and sadness around the monochromatic education conversations and reduced funding happening in Alberta, Canada, and most other western countries. It does make sense, however, that in a global world, I would find brilliant innovations outside of my province and country. I’d be encouraged if there was a prospect of seeing WISE-like innovations developing in Canada. Unfortunately, we value talk about the importance of education over long-term visionary investment.

Presentations: MOOC Research Initiative

This past week, in preparation for our upcoming MOOC research conference (early bird registration ends Oct 31), I held two online presentations on a) MOOC Research Initiative (a review of literature, research themes) and b) Lessons MOOCs can learn from online education. Slides and recordings are below.

YouTube video
BlackBoard Collaborate

YouTube video
BlackBoard Collaborate

Open presentations on MOOCs and MOOC Research Initiative

Several presentations this next week that might be of interest to readers:

1. Open Access Week at Athabasca University. Daily presentations starting Oct 21 on MOOCs, OERs, open access, libraries, and more. Schedule and access details have now been posted.

2. As part of the MOOC Research Initiative, I’m organizing two open events this coming week:

Oct 22, 11 am Mountain Time (see conversions):
An Overview of the MOOC Research Initiative: The project, literature, and landscape. This presentation will provide a timeline of the development of the MOOC Research Initiative, its goals, the review and selection process, and lessons learned. I’ll also provide early results from structured mapping of research literature, research methodologies, and parent disciplines of researchers. This will provide an overview of the state of MOOC research – who is active, how are they researching MOOCs, and the disciplines that are involved in MOOC research.
The session will be held here in Bb Collaborate. You can log in at any time to make sure that you have the necessary plugins to join the session.

Oct 25, 11 am Mountain time (see conversions):
Lessons for MOOCs from Traditional Online Learning: Developing a MOOC framework. This session is part of a white paper and video project on what is known about online learning through a review of literature that is generally accepted by academics in online/distance learning and how that knowledge relates to MOOCs. In particular, can the research on social learning and learning in communities that is well established in online learning provide an important contribution to the data-driven (often focused only on clicks or observable behaviour) research now emerging from large MOOC providers? A framework will be presented that bridges what is known about online learning and what we are learning about MOOCs. This framework will be presented at the MOOC Research Conference in December (register here
The session will be held here in Bb Collaborate. You can log in at any time to make sure that you have the necessary plugins to join the session. ).

Open Symposium: Policy and Strategy for Learning Analytics Deployment

We (SoLAR) are organizing an online symposium on Policy and Strategy for Learning Analytics Deployment. We have a great group of presenters next week.

If you are interested, you can join the course here:

A short intro video to the goal of the symposium:

From the symposium description:

While research in learning analytics has advanced, limited attention has been paid to the larger policy and strategy considerations that influence the adoption and deployment of analytics in educational settings. Educational data is complex. Different state and provincial agencies collect a range of data on learner and institutional performance. International organizations such as OECD collect and compare performance of learners in the primary and secondary levels. In higher education, annual rankings produce bragging rights for advancing universities and soul searching declining universities.

The problem of data, at a systems level, seems too large and too complex to tackle. Over the last four years, the Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR) has hosted conferences, workshops, MOOCs, summer institutes, launched a journal, and organized regional events on analytics. During these activities, it has become clear that policy and strategy considerations are hindering the adoption and deployment of LA. More importantly, for researchers, in order for grant-making agencies and foundations to develop research-support programs, the role and value of LA in the education sector needs to be clearly articulated.

This symposium, supported with a grant from Australia’s Office for Learning and Teaching, will engage with researchers and practitioners around the opportunities to advance LA by exploring the various state/provincial/institutional strategy and policy framework. For regions that make effective use of educational data, important competitive advantages exist in the international educational landscape. Our goal over the next two weeks is to evaluate what it means to provide policy and strategy support for systems that are transitioning to data-intensive operations.

The greatest MOOC conference in the history of MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continue to receive a steady stream of media attention. The conversation is more nuanced now than it was a few years ago as attention has turned to credit, the impact on faculty, learner success, and related challenges. MOOCs, like personal learning environments and networks (PLE, PLN) from mid-2000′s, are not a specific thing so much as a movement. Personally, I wish they were more of “a thing” – then we could spend time promoting openness of content and teaching, rather than dealing with a degraded version of openness that merely means “access”.

Regardless of personal preferences, MOOCs are significant. They are evolving and improving. And they are not going away anytime soon. The language will change in a few years to something less specific like “digital learning”. Ultimately, though, MOOCs are the internet happening to education and it will take a long time for higher education to digest what that means.

I have been working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the past year on organizing a grant, whitepaper, and conference on MOOCs. Initially, the grant was set at $400,000 and consisted primarily of sub-grants in the $10,000-25,000 range. The strength of early proposals resulted in revisiting the grant total and was raised by the Gates Foundation to a total of $830,000. As I stated in this post, the MOOC Research Initiative does not compete with traditional research approaches, as it fills a gap with early stage research before government granting agencies develop their programs:

The nature of this project, to quickly identify promising research projects and advance the dissemination of early stage MOOC research, required a process that was less bureaucratic. This project is not an attempt to mirror national granting processes. The timelines are too short to allow for the typical research cycle. Instead of years, MRI is focused on months. Ideally, national programs will be developed in the near future that will allow for traditional research practices. Or, from another perspective, perhaps when new areas of research arise as rapidly as MOOCs have, we need to adjust our research models. Like much of the academy, current research models seem better designed for an era where information isn’t developed as rapidly as it is today.

The Conference

As part of this work, we are organizing a conference at University of Texas Arlington December 5-6, 2013: MOOCs and Emerging Educational Models: Policy, Practice, and Learning. Registration is now open. We have a great group of keynote speakers and an outstanding list of successful grantees who will also be presenting.

We have confirmed attendance from many of the pioneers of early MOOCs (way back in 2008) as well as the current MOOC providers (FutureLearn, edX, Coursera). In addition to the list of grantees, a partial attendee list currently includes, and is expanding: Amy Collier & Tanya Joosten (conference program chairs), Bonnie Stewart, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, Alec Couros, Zach Pardos, Jonathan Rees, Phil Hill, Michael Feldstein, Keith Devlin, Jim Groom, Paul Kim, Rich DeMillo, Rebecca Peterson, and the list goes on. Basically, this conference will be an outstanding opportunity to get a pulse of MOOC trends and trajectories. Most importantly, our goal is to make it a research-oriented event. We want to look at MOOC success, criticism, policy, failure, opportunities, and systemic impact.

In advance of the conference, we will be hosting two open online events: one to provide an overview of MRI and the current state of MOOC literature and the second to introduce a MOOC framework that bridges “what we know about online learning” with current MOOC activities (Oct 22 and Oct 25, both at 11 am Mountain time). If you’d like to attend the online presentations, please join this MOOC Research Group.

What’s wrong with the Canadian conference circuit?

Conferences are the lifeblood of knowledge exchange in academic disciplines, business, and government. This really hit home for me a few years ago when I was interacting with colleagues from Senegal. While I generally have more conference options than I can attend (and certainly more than I can afford to attend), my colleagues informed me that in a continent such as Africa, academics look with envy at the rich conference options available in other regions (notably Europe and US). The value of conferences goes well beyond listening to a few keynote speakers and attending paper presentations. The value rests in connecting directly with researchers and practitioners from around the world and forming connections for future exchange. A good conference can be field defining and offer attendees an opportunity to get a broad overview of trends and technologies within a discipline.

I’ve been reflecting on my experience with conferences in Canada. Generally, they have not been positive. I’ve organized events on social media, learning analytics (the most successful one), big data, and recently, educational technology innovation.

Basically, the conference circuit in Canada is dead and/or dying. At best, it just sucks. At least this is the case in education and educational technology. CNIE is slowly dying. CNIE was formed from two organizations (AMTEC and CADE) that were also dying. Our flagship national conference on education innovation struggles to get 100 attendees annually. Earlier this year, together with a group of folks from across the country, I organized EdInnovation. We had an outstanding group of keynote speakers – easily the best of any conference I’ve seen in Canada in 2013 (forget that – the best I’ve seen in ed technology this year). We managed a meager 105 attendees – a number that includes several complimentary passes. And this also include several attendees as part of an NSERC grant during the conference to bring researchers and startups in conversation with one another.

I’m debating whether an EdInnovation14 is worth the effort. Mostly, I’m just curious why the Canadian conference circuit is so anemic. We have many innovative practitioners and researchers. We have a strong startup and entrepreneurship culture nationally. It makes no sense to me that we can’t build a strong culture of knowledge sharing. Apparently, we have to go to US or European conference to do that.

Special Issue: Massive Open Online Courses

Valerie Irvine, Jillianne Code, and I spent time over the past 8 months preparing a special issue of JOLT on massive open online courses. The issue is now available.

From our intro:

Higher education is entering a phase of dramatic change and innovation. Mainstream media often present massive open online courses (MOOCs) as both a reflection of the need for universities to undergo a metamorphosis and as a means of forcing a new perspective on digital teaching and learning practices (i.e., Lewin, 2013; Pappano, 2012). However, university faculty caution that there is not enough research evidence to support widespread adoption. Two significant challenges around the role of MOOCs in higher education are prevalent. First, the discussion on MOOCs to-date has occurred mainly in mainstream media and trade publications. Although some peer-reviewed articles on MOOCs currently exist (e.g., Fini, 2009; Kop, 2011), the amount of available research is generally limited. One of the goals of this special issue is to attempt to address this lack of peer reviewed literature. Second, the vast research available in online and distance education has been largely ignored by mainstream media and MOOC providers. Paying greater attention to what is already known about learning in online and virtual spaces, how the role of educators and learners is transformed in these contexts, and how social networks extend a learning network will enable mainstream MOOC providers and their partners to make evidence-based decisions in favor of educational reform. Thus, a second goal of this special issue is to highlight this research and provide an historical context for online and distance learning not currently evident in the mainstream media treatment of MOOCs.

Sebastian Thrun confuses me: Thoughts on Udacity’s openness project

Sebastian Thrun confuses me. He is without a doubt a very bright person, with a resume that includes Google, self-driving cars, and Glasses. He took a bold step early in the MOOC game when he left Stanford to start Udacity. When Coursera and edX aggressively signed up university partners, he actually contracted Udacity’s university affiliation (dropping Dino 101) to focus on technology only courses. He exhibits vision and focus – two vital and often rare attributes. This is the Thrun that I respect. In personal conversations with him, it’s clear that he is passionate about education and finding ways to make improvements and reduce costs. I’ve spoken with many students, in different parts of the world, that have benefited greatly from his work at Udacity. While it’s easy from an academic’s chair to critique small aspects of MOOCs (such as lack of interactivity or lack of acknowledgement of existing literature), he is making a real difference in the lives of people. When the media went into a frenzy with the disappointing results of the SJSU pilot, Thrun continued with his “iterate rapidly, learn rapidly” model of course development.

It’s the other Thrun that confuses me. He says things like:
- In the future we will only have 10 universities, and his will be one of them (when I met him in Drumheller last, he said he never made that statement)
- That a ‘magic formula’ is emerging for moocs/online learning. And then lists a series of interventions that most masters education students would cite in literature that dates back many years, even decades.

These proclamations are good for media play (after all, folks like TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein – personal motto: “overhyping and under thinking education since I got a keyboard” see here – are eager for these types of statements because it drives traffic. The Onion states it well.

Yesterday, Thrun pulled another confusing move in announcing Open Educational Alliance. Thrun is absolutely right when he states that the reason this kind of alliance is needed is because the existing university system has failed in providing technology courses that meet the needs of learners. I argued a similar strand in a keynote at U of Wisconsin-Madison: because universities have not kept pace with many knowledge fields, a shadow learning economy has developed. MOOCs address the gap between knowledge needs today and the lethargy of universities. In this regard, I applaud what Udacity is doing to prepare individuals with employable skills.

What confuses me is the lack of reference to or connection with the existing open education movement. This is a frustrating Silicon Valley attribute. Don’t learn from others. Learn it yourself. By joining existing networks, you add power to an existing structure. By creating your own, you subvert other networks and create your own integrated power structure.

I encourage Thrun to connect with existing openness projects, consider open licensing, and evaluate the potential impact of contributing to, rather than competing with them. If needed, I could broker an introduction to David Wiley. Come to think of it, I’ll share a copy of my presentation at ICDE next month on How MOOCs are Derailing Open Education.