Posted tagged ‘pedagogy’

Is the pedagogy of MOOCs flawed?

26 August 2013

This is a question that I tackle in my Udemy course The Wide World of MOOCs.

Almost immediately after I uploaded this preview to YouTube, someone on Twitter politely challenged me.

She took umbrage to my assertion that MOOCs are pedagogically richer than “regular” online courses.

Her counter argument was that the pedagogical devices that I cited – readings, online discussion forums, social media groups and local meetups – are the same learning and teaching functionalities available in any LMS.

While this claim is partly true, I wish to share with you my [elaborated] defence of my initial assertion. Why? Because I think it’s important to hear all POVs, and I’d like to know whether you agree…

Hand on keyboard

Right off the bat, I don’t believe that all the pedagogical devices that I cited are available in any LMS. They may be available in many LMSs, but certainly not all of them. Moreover, although an organisation may have a subscription to an LMS that offers these devices, it may not have them activated.

That of course is not to say that the e-learning designer is prevented from using these devices; for example, he or she might leverage other non-LMS technology within the organisation or in the cloud. However, in my experience and in conversations with others, it is clear that they often don’t.

Again, that’s not to say that no e-learning designers integrate devices such as online discussions and social media groups into their LMS-hosted courses, but even if they do, the target audience tends not to play ball. How to encourage active participation on social platforms is a hot topic in the L&D sphere, and there is no easy answer because it’s a question of organisational culture which can’t be “fixed” over night.

As for local meetups, in all my years I have never seen this offered in a regular online course!

Network Analysis of the EDCMOOC Facebook group

MOOCs, on the other hand, are the polar opposite. All of the MOOCs I have experienced include readings, online discussion forums, social media groups and local meetups. And the participants do participate. Sure, that’s to be expected given the massive scale of MOOCs, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Case in point, the University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC is one of the best online courses I have ever experienced. While it had its fair share of pro’s and cons, it was a hell of a lot richer than the boring page turners that too many among us have learned to associate with “e-learning”.

And there was no LMS in sight.

Reflections of a mooc unvirgin

12 March 2013

CherryI recently completed my first mooc, and I will soon receive the certificate to prove it.

Many people don’t think a certificate of completion means much, but this one will mean a lot to me. I put substantial time and energy into this course, so it will be satisfying to have something tangible to recognise it.

Before I signed up, I had decided to do a mooc because I was blogging about them but had never experienced one for myself. I considered doing Georgia Tech’s Fundamentals of Online Education via Coursera, but I wasn’t attracted to the introductory angle of the content. As it turned out, the course crashed under the weight of its own popularity, so I dodged a bullet there.

I also considered the independent(?) Educational Technology and Media mooc, but I was put off by its heavy connectivist approach. Not per se, mind you, but I was looking for more direction.

Eventually I settled on The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures mooc, because it targeted practising e-learning professionals who “want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age”, not to mention the fact I was fascinated by its coverage of popular culture.

So my first learning – before I even began – was that all moocs are different. You can’t tar them with the one brush.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the EDCMOOC. In my opinion, it had a lot going for it. Having said that, however, every course has its pro’s and cons, and this one was no exception…

Thumbs up

Pro’s

  • The mooc was well prepared. The pre-information on the Coursera site was useful, the promotional video was informative, and both were reinforced by a welcome email upon registration.
     
  • The virtual classroom environment was well structured. Not only were the content streams logically sequenced and accessible in advance, but the administrative aspects of the course were outlined under a dedicated “what, where, how and when” page. An announcement board kept us up to date, the discussion forums were easy to find, and the final assessment was explained clearly from Day 1.
     
  • The pedagogical approach of the course combined elements of both instructivism and constructivism. Each topic included an introduction covering the central concepts, plus a resources page comprising several video clips (not of lectures, but of creative works) and readings. I appreciated the readings being classified as “Core” or “Advanced”, as this allowed me to focus my energies on the ones that mattered, while getting around to the others if I had the time and inclination.
     
  • The duration of each topic was one week. This was enough time to get the work done, but not enough time to tempt you to sit on your laurels. I kept up to speed for the first 3 weeks, but I let the fourth week slip when real life got in the way. Thankfully the resources remained accessible, which allowed me to catch up afterwards.
     
  • The duration of the whole course was 5 weeks, which again I found to be just right. After the novelty of the first couple of weeks wears off, real life competes hard for your attention. In all honesty, I think I would have dropped out if it were any longer.
     
  • The course was supported by social media groups across several platforms, including Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. While I initially found this frustrating (having to bounce between them in case I missed out on anything), I now agree in hindsight that multiple platforms are a good idea – on the proviso that the Coursera-hosted forum remains the plenary. It makes no sense to me to force people onto one arbitrary platform which they otherwise would not use, and it was convenient to self-organise the 40,000 students into more manageable sub-groups.
     

Network Analysis of EDCMOOC Facebook group

  • Through the discussions in the course, participation in the social media groups, and comments on my blog posts, I connected with some incredibly smart people from all over the world. These connections will enrich my learning experience well after the course has ended.
     

EDCMOOC map

  • Assessment for the course was crowd-sourced. Each participant was charged with peer assessing the digital artefacts of at least three fellow participants – and this was enshrined as a requirement for your own completion. The final score was an average of the peer scores.
     
  • I used ThingLink for my digital artefact, which I had intended to try since I first heard about it over a year ago. This mooc gave me the nudge I needed. Incidental learning at its finest!
     
  • The proof of the pudding is in its eating, and at the end of the course I can unequivocally say I learned plenty. Some of the learnings were implicit thoughts that were made explicit, while others were novel ideas to which I would otherwise have remained ignorant. I blogged about my learnings along the way, being mindful to draw out the practical applications of the somewhat academic concepts.
     

Thumbs down

Cons

  • With 42,000 participants, it was inevitable that the discussion forum would be swamped. I witnessed many participants talking at their fellow students rather than with them, and some discussion threads ran on for pages and pages. Of course, this became less of a problem over time as huge numbers of participants dropped out, leaving the keen beans to carry on the conversation.
     
  • During Week 1 in particular, the discussion forum and social media groups were inundated with the likes of “Hi, I’m from Sao Paulo” and “Howdy from Texas”. While I’m a fan of social mores, I don’t specifically care where the 27,347th participant is from.
     
  • Hand-in-hand with the “happy greeter” was the “lost soul”. A lot of participants expressed anxiety at being overwhelmed by the mooc – which I found surprising. Not only were the weekly instructions quite clear, but the target audience was e-learning professionals who are, presumably, seasoned adult learners.
     
  • A bugbear of mine in any discussion forum is the “pretender” – ie someone who posts lofty statements with big words, yet devoid of any substance. There was no shortage of them in this mooc.
     
  • At the other end of the extreme, other participants’ contributions were woefully inadequate. In one thread, for example, the discussion descended into a list of sci-fi movies; no explanation as to how they were pertinent to the conversation, but oh what a list!
     
  • Another problem that popped up was the “parasite” – ie someone who signs up to a mooc just so they can spam the discussions with links to their own irrelevant content. Vomit.
     
  • As far as the course content is concerned, I felt the focus on pop culture was perhaps too strong. While the instructors tended to end each topic with a question about its implications for e-learning, that was rarely followed up in the discussions. In my opinion, the participants roasted the same old chestnuts (such as the spectre of big brother and the inequity of digital access in the third world) instead of synthesising connections to the practice of education in their own world.
     

Open palm

Suggestions for improvement

To be fair, the cons that I have listed above are not unique to the EDCMOOC, nor to online learning in general. I remember similar problems from my uni days on campus.

Nonetheless, they inform my following suggestions for improvement…

  • Week 1 should be set aside as a social week to allow the happy greeters to get their social proclivities out of their systems. It may be tempting to set aside a pre-week for this purpose, but the truth is it will bleed into Week 1 anyway.
     
  • The instructors need to be much more active in the discussions. I recommend they seed each week with a pinned discussion thread, which marks the official line of enquiry and discourages multiple (and confusing) threads emerging about the same concepts.
     
  • More importantly, the instructors should actively prompt, prod, guide and challenge the participants to engage in critical analysis. Explication of the implications for e-learning must be the outcome.
     
  • A moderator should delete the spam and ban the spammers.
     
  • A support page and discussion thread should be dedicated to helping the lost souls, so that they don’t pollute the rest of the course with their problems.
     

All in all, I am glad to report my first mooc experience was a positive one.

I won’t rush out to do another one in a hurry, but that’s simply because I know how demanding they are.

But one thing’s for sure, I will do another one at some stage. I look forward to it!

Human enough

19 February 2013

It is with glee that the proponents of e-learning trumpet the results of studies such as the US Department of Education’s Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, which found that, on average, online instruction is as effective as classroom instruction.

And who can blame them? It is only natural for evangelists to seize upon evidence that furthers their cause.

But these results mystified me. If humans are gregarious beings and learning is social, how can face-to-face instruction possibly fail to out perform its online equivalent?

That was until I watched Professor Steve Fuller’s Humanity 2.0 TEDxWarwick talk in Week 3 of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course.

The professor explains with wonderful articulation how difficult it is to define a human.

Sure, biologists will define humanity in terms of DNA, yet they can’t even agree on whether the Neanderthals were a subspecies of Homo sapiens or a separate species all together.

If we remove our gaze from the electron microscope, we have our morphology. Perhaps a human is an organism that has five fingers on each hand? But does that mean someone who is born with four (or six) is not human?

Perhaps a human is an organism that uses tools? Well, vultures drop rocks onto eggs to break them open.

Perhaps then a human is an organism that uses language? Whales might have something to say about that.

It is an intriguing conundrum that has occupied our thoughts since anyone can remember.

Title page of the first edition of René Descartes' Discourse on Method.

In the 17th Century, RenĂ© Descartes made an intellectual breakthrough. He contended that “reason…is the only thing that makes us men, and distinguishes us from the beasts”. In other words, we are the only creatures on God’s earth capable of rational thought. I think, therefore I am.

Descartes pushed his point by arguing that while a robot might one day be developed to speak words, “it is not conceivable that such a machine should…give an appropriately meaningful answer in its presence”. And despite astonishing advances in artificial intelligence, the philosophical Frenchman remains right. Even Watson, who triumphed at Jeopardy! and today mines big data to help humans make better decisions, can not reasonably be considered a human itself. It is simply a product of computer programming.

Speaking of machines, if a human were to progressively replace her body parts with robotics – hence becoming a cyborg – at what point does she cease to be a human? According to the humanist tradition of Descartes, the absolute difference between a human and a non-human is a property of the mind. So, arguably she will remain a “human” until her brain is replaced.

But that begs the question: if we flip the scenario around and place a person’s brain in a robot’s body, does that make it a human?

All this philosophy starts to do my head in after a while, and that’s before getting into Freud’s posthumanism.

Somehow I prefer Joseph Gliddon’s simpler definition of a human: something that drinks coffee.

Cup of coffee

It’s not as flippant as it sounds, for it is our artificial enhancements that paradoxically make us more human.

Riding a bicycle, for example, is a quintessentially human endeavour. No other creature does it. Yes, a monkey might do so in the circus, but the reason we find it funny (or at least unusual) is because it doesn’t normally do that. The poor thing is mimicking a human.

Similarly, digital technology is an extension of our notion of humanity. Humans are the only organisms that use computers, surf the Web, write text, film video, record audio, and engage with one another in online discussion forums.

So when we view online pedagogy through this lens, we recognise very little of it that is not human. Consequently the strong performance of online students becomes less mysterious. In fact, it becomes expected because, just as a bicycle enhances our capability for travel, digital technology enhances our capability for learning.

This expectation is supported by a further finding of the Department of Education’s research – namely, that “blends of online and face-to-face instruction, on average, had stronger learning outcomes than did face-to-face instruction alone”. In other words, students who had the technology via the blended design performed better than those who didn’t.

But it doesn’t work in reverse: “the majority of…studies that directly compared purely online and blended learning conditions found no significant differences in student learning”. In other words, those who had the face-to-face interaction via the blended design performed no better than those who didn’t. Apparently the online instruction was human enough.

OK, on that bombshell, I think I’ll ride my bike to the cafe and pick up a cup of joe…

The future of MOOCs

26 November 2012

MOOCs get a bad rap. Dismissed as prescriptive, or teacher-centric, or unsocial, or something else, it’s like a badge of honour to espouse why you dislike MOOCs.

Despite their pedagogical flaws, however, MOOCs provide unprecedented access to quality content for millions of learners.

It’s all very well for Apple-owning, organic-buying professionals to cast aspersions, but consider the girl in Pakistan who’s too scared to set foot in a classroom. Consider the teenager in central Australia whose school has only one teacher. Consider the young woman in Indonesia who can’t afford college. Consider the boy in San Francisco whose maths teacher simply doesn’t teach very well.

Don’t all these people deserve a better education? And isn’t content sourced from some of the world’s best providers a giant leap in that direction?

Sure, the pedagogy may not be perfect, but the alternative is much worse.

Child learning on a computer

MOOC proponent George Siemens distinguishes between two types of MOOC: the xMOOC and the cMOOC.

The former is the subject of such disdain. Involving little more than knowledge transmission and perhaps a quiz at the end, the xMOOC is widely seen as replicating old-fashioned lectures and exams.

In contrast, the latter leverages the connectedness of the participants. Seeded with content, the cMOOC empowers – read “expects” – the learner to discuss, debate, discover, share and co-create new knowledge with his or her fellow learners.

The cMOOC’s participant is active whereas the xMOOC’s participant is passive. As Siemens puts it, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication.

Despite Siemens’ evangelism though, I don’t think the cMOOC is necessarily better than the xMOOC. (I’ll explain later.)

Ethernet cable

Love them or loathe them, xMOOC or cMOOC, the fact remains: MOOCs have arrived, and they are here to stay.

Moreover, I submit they are yet to wreak their full vengeance on the education industry. When I look into my crystal ball, I foresee that MOOCs will rock our world, and they will do so in 15 ways…

Fortune teller

1. Universities will finally accept they are service providers.

As the latest edition of Educause Review indicates, universities are fee-for-service businesses. That means they are subjected to market forces such as competition.

MOOCs beg the question: If I can study at Stanford University for free, why would I pay tens of thousands of dollars to study at your dinky university and subject myself to your arcane rules?

2. The vast majority of students will be overseas.

Countries that currently attract foreign students to their shores will need to brace for the impact on their local economies, as an ever-increasing proportion of students choose to gain an international education without leaving their home country.

3. The pecking order will be reshuffled.

While the world’s most prestigious institutions will enjoy a windfall of new students, those that rely more on age than ability will ultimately fail as the target audience realises how pedestrian they are.

Conversely, some of the smaller, younger institutions will emerge from the shadows as the world sees how good they really are.

4. Research will become a competitive advantage.

There’s nowhere to hide on the global stage, and cutting-edge expertise will be one of the few aspects that a university will have to distinguish itself from the others.

No more lazy professors, no more specious journal articles. Faculty who don’t generate a flow of new knowledge for their students will have their tenure terminated.

5. Universities will flip their classrooms.

Bricks’n’mortar establishments will become expensive relics unless their owners redeploy them. One way to do that is to leverage MOOCs for content delivery and provide value-added instruction (discussion, Q&A, worked examples, role plays etc) to local students – who of course will pay a premium for the privilege.

Studying on campus will become a status symbol.

6. The role of the teacher will evolve.

There’s no point rehashing the same lectures when the world’s best authorities have already recorded them and offered them to the world as OERs. It’s how the teacher uses that content to support learning that will make the difference.

7. The pedagogy of MOOCs will be enriched.

While MOOCs typically comprise video clips and perhaps a quiz, they will inevitably include more instructional devices to assist distance learning (and remain competitive).

Over time, content providers will supplement their core offerings with live webinars, interactive exercises, discussion forums, wikis, social networks etc. Some may even organise real-life meetups at selected sites around the world.

8. Content providers will charge for assessment.

A certificate of completion is good; an official grade is better.

Assessment is one of the ways universities will monetise their MOOCs, and edX is already going one step further by offering proctored exams.

9. Universities will offer credits for MOOCs.

Again, this is already being considered by the American Council on Education.

Of course, a certificate of completion won’t suffice. Ka ching!

10. Online cheating will mushroom.

An ever-present thorn in the side of online education, cheating will be almost impossible to prevent in the MOOC space. But surely we can do better than onsite exams?

11. Academic inflation will skyrocket.

Every man and his dog will have a ream of courses listed on his CV. Employers will consider certificates of completion meaningless, while maintaining a reserved suspicion over assessment scores.

Outcomes-based activities that demonstrate the applicant’s knowledge and skills will become a component of best-practice recruitment.

12. Offshoring will become the rule, not the exception.

Deloitte’s global CLO, Nick van Dam, told me that American firms are using MOOCs to upskill accountants based in India on US accounting practices.

Dental, anyone?

13. MOOCs will target the corporate sector.

Current MOOCs are heavily geared towards school and college audiences. Over time, an increasing number of narrow, specific topics that link to corporate competencies will emerge.

Content providers will wag the long tail.

14. The corporate sector will embrace xMOOCs.

Learners in the workplace are time poor. They don’t have the luxury to explore, discover, and “make sense of the chaos”. They need the knowledge now and they are happy for the expert to transmit it to them.

15. An xcMOOC hybrid will emerge as the third variant.

Sooner or later, the powers that be will remember that an instructivist approach suits novices, while an increasingly constructivist and connectivist approach suits learners as they develop their expertise.

Hence, the MOOC of the future may resemble an xMOOC in its early stages, and morph into a cMOOC in its later stages.

Informal first

21 May 2012

It is well documented that the vast majority of learning in the workplace is informal.

Business woman using computer

According to extensive research undertaken by the Center for Creative Leadership:

   • 70% of learning occurs “on the job”
   • 20% of learning occurs through feedback from others
   • 10% of learning occurs “off the job” (eg attending classes, reading)

This 70:20:10 breakdown has since been supported by subsequent research, though sometimes the ratio is represented as 80:20 to reflect informal learning and formal training respectively.

Yet despite knowing these statistics – and sprouting them at opportune moments – many L&D professionals spend their time, energy and dollars in inverse proportion:

   • 80% on formal training
   • 20% on informal learning

Jane Hart and Jay Cross visualise this scenario in terms of the workscape evolution: the earlier an organisation is on its learning journey, the more formal and pushed is its training. As its philosophy matures, the process of learning becomes increasingly informal, self-directed and collaborative.

5 Stages of Workscape Evolution

While the evolution of today’s workscape is currently underway, I contend that more must be done by L&D professionals to accelerate its progress.

And one way of doing that is by committing to “informal first”.

What is informal first?

Informal first is a mindset that prioritises informal learning over formal training in practice.

Whenever a development intervention is being considered, the primary objective of the L&D professional should be to provide all the necessary learning resources to the target audience in an open, structured format.

These resources will no doubt include text, but should also include images, audio, video, interactive scenarios, a discussion forum, downloadable job aids… you name it. Whatever is required to make the learning experience authentic and effective.

This pedagogical foundation facilitates pull learning at the convenience and discretion of the learner.

Moreover, it may stand alone to meet the organisation’s development need. In other words, there might be no reason for an employee to ever set foot in a classroom again!

Empty classroom

Having said that, in some cases more instructional support will be required.

While “not liking this form of learning” is not a valid excuse in the modern workplace, other drivers might include: the subject matter being complex and thus requiring hand-holding by an SME; or the development need being time sensitive and thus requiring an SME to expedite the upskill; not to mention the fact that some training is just better done instructor-led, for whatever reason.

So, after informal learning has been addressed, sure – supplementary formal training can be considered.

Vive la revolution!

The “informal first” principle revolutionises the corporate learning model.

No longer is formal training the central offering with informal learning relegated to a support role. On the contrary, when we adopt the informal first mindset, informal learning becomes the central offering.

Formal training becomes value add.


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