Friday, May 30, 2014

Accentuating the MOOC positives

After so much MOOC criticism focusing on the low completion rates (a subject I've written on many times) it was refreshing to read a more positive angle from a teacher. Guy M Rogers (Professor of Classics and History at Wellesley College) ran a MOOC on edX on the life of Alexander the Great (see the archived course on edX) and reflects on the course's success in an article in Inside Higher EdAlexander the MOOC Lands, The course attracted 17,500 students from over 130 countries between the ages of 12 and 86. Rogers was well aware of the challenges facing every MOOC team and set three questions to be answered:

... whether a Massive Open Online Course could be as intellectually rigorous as a brick and mortar history course; whether a MOOC could serve as a portal for both teaching and historical research; and whether an online course could engage and inspire students. The data are in and the answer to all three questions is an emphatic yes.

On the surface this course demonstrates the usual low completion rate with 1162 students taking the final exam but Rogers decides to focus on the fact that those students who actually followed the course succeeded impressively. Firstly more students passed the course than had passed all other courses he had taught in the last ten years. In addition 862 of them passed with over 90% test scores and this compares very favourably with results from the campus version of the course. Even more surprising is that this was achieved in a course lasting a whopping 15 weeks, three times longer than most MOOCs.

What this example demonstrates so well is that the students who really engaged in the course learned a lot and performed as well as traditional students. The 16,000 participants who didn't finish were not failures or drop-outs, they were probably just curious about the course and tested it for a while. Once the initial dust has settled you see how many real participants your MOOC has and if you start with that figure the completion rate is generally pretty good considering it's free and the students have made no commitment whatsoever to completing it. The course described in this article was certainly rigorous and demanded a variety of skills, just like a traditional campus course. Basically the course was a success for those who committed to it. The others might come back another day or have maybe continued reading on their own. MOOCs are lifelong learning.

Inspiring engagement, passion, and a love of learning are of course harder outcomes to measure. At the end of our course however we asked the students to fill out course Evaluation Surveys and a very high percentage of the students highly recommended both the course and the instructor. Without any prompting from EdX or WellesleyX students also decided to form ongoing Alexander study groups, requested more history courses like the Alexander course, and asked if we could organize a study tour overseas to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. We also received many unsolicited letters from students telling us how much our course had inspired them.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Quality of online discussion

Social network in a course by hanspoldoja, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by hanspoldoja

Online discussions, just like those in a face-to-face setting, can take many forms. Some never get beyond pleasantries, some turn nasty and many are extremely rewarding exchanges of ideas. Many assume that the classroom is the best place for discussion but that requires good management and a small number of participants. Classroom discussion is often dominated by the most vocal and confident students and in most classes there are students who seldom if ever open their mouths. It also favours those who are able to formulate their ideas quickly and many opinions expressed so spontaneously are not necessarily well thought out. That's why classroom discussions often continue online where everyone can express themselves in their own time and ideas can mature a few days. There have been many studies in recent years indicating that online discussions can be deeper and more nuanced than the spontaneous ideas voiced in a classroom.

However the quality of the online discussion depends so much on how well the participants know and trust each other and also on the number of people involved. Many discussion forums never get off the ground because there is no group loyalty or feeling of mutual trust and respect. This aspect of online discussion is investigated in a new study by Ellen Rose (University of New Brunswick) called “Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning. Ellen studied online discussions from a number of classes at two universities and focused on the phenomenon of online disinhibition; the fact that the online environment somehow encourages people to behave in a less restrained way than in a classroom. She found two contrasting forms of disinhibition: the well-known toxic disinhibition where some participants become aggressive and offensive and the less well-publicized benign disinhibition where people reveal personal details that would never normally be revealed in class.

Benign disinhibition was manifested in stories of shy students who participated more freely online, and in stories of students who disclosed more about themselves than they would face-to-face. Toxic disinhibition was manifested in stories about angry and abusive emails and posts. Students also indicated that their awareness of the possibility of anger erupting easily through miscommunication resulted in an “excessive niceness.” Thus inhibition may be a paradoxical response to the increased possibility of disinhibited behaviour in online learning environments. This study found that disinhibited behaviour, whether in its benign or toxic form, is a factor that powerfully affects the nature of student-student and student-teacher relationships in online courses. 

The negative effects of toxic disinhibition are well-known and can quickly kill all discussion but the benign variety is more interesting. Students who use the forum to discuss personal problems, relationship issues and so on can have as great a destructive effect on the level of discussion as the offensive loudmouths. Both types make all other participants uneasy and nervous not just in this forum but in future online discussions. It can lead to excessive niceness where everyone is so careful not to provoke negative reactions that the discussion never takes off at all.

The article concludes by stating that we need to look deeper at how trust and empathy can be fostered in an online environment. One factor could be that most online discussions are text-based and that increased use of video and audio can create a better climate for collaboration. Certainly classes that meet regularly in the classroom are less likely to suffer from online disinhibition than classes that are exclusively online. However I suspect that the inclusion of video and audio threads that provide a face-to-face element to online discussion could be a step towards reducing the risks of disinhibition.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The mirage of freedom

Mirage in the Desert by Michael Gwyther-Jones, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by Michael Gwyther-Jones on Flickr

Freedom, like openness is a very subjective concept. One person's freedom is another's prison and this is especially true in the digital world. I have a colleague who refuses to create accounts with companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon etc on the grounds that he wants to keep as much control of his digital identity as possible and does not want to sell his digital soul to corporate interests. With all the debate around net surveillance this attitude is very understandable and he considers himself free. This attitude is not unusual but it does create difficulties when collaborating with people like me who enjoy the freedom of cloud services and social media and rely on them to work efficiently. My freedom is the convenience of storing resources in the cloud and being able to work from any device anywhere. I value that freedom so highly that I'm willing to overlook the fact that all my work is stored by giant corporations who sell some of it to advertisers and will use my data for future service development as they discover ways of refining the crude oil of raw data. Freedom is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

Similarly I wonder about the freedom of open educational resources and personal learning networks. How open and free are they when they are often dependent on commercial services? Traditional learning management systems are often criticised for being walled gardens and therefore offering less freedom than using social media but we fail to see the lack of freedom involved in letting for-profit companies store our data. How free are you when the company decides to start charging for the service or pulls the plug completely? Even if your resources have open Creative Commons license and are thereby open and free to use they are often stored on commercial services like Flickr, Google, Dropbox etc.

So is freedom just a mirage? Do we have to choose between the two interpretations of freedom described here or is there a way to collaborate, store, create and share online without getting tied into commercial services. Thank goodness for spaces like WikiEducator, Wikiversity and Wikimedia Commons which are non-commercial, self-regulating communities with a culture of sharing. If you are looking for freedom maybe that's the direction to head.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Opening up higher education - Opportunity or challenge for quality?

Workshop in progress
Quality assurance in higher education deals with formal education where students follow set courses within a degree programme and where administration, course design, learning outcomes, assessment and examination are well-defined and where quality criteria are clearly defined. However, the growth of open education, in particular the various interpretations of the MOOC concept, has demanded a reassessment of quality when dealing with a highly flexible and less structured learning environment. Can we define quality assurance for the moving target of open education and if so how can universities adapt?

This was a major theme of this year's EFQUEL Innovation Forum & LINQ Conference, held in Crete 7-9 May and as part of that I ran a longer workshop session with my colleague and EFQUEL president, Ulf Ehlers, called Opening up higher education - Opportunity or challenge for quality? To help us we had asked four experts to be facilitators: Stefan Delpace (Secretary General, European Association of Institutions in Higher Education), Michael Gaebel (Director Higher Education Policy, European University Association), Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic (Senior advisor, CHEA International Quality Group) and Elisabeth Gehrke (newly elected Chair, European Students Union). The workshop gathered about 25 participants consisting of policy makers, consultants and teachers and over two sessions the groups discussed the challenges facing universities and then possible strategies for higher education governance.

Results of the workshop on Padlet (click to see original)


How do developments like open education, OER and MOOCs challenge the traditional quality and accreditation schemes of European higher education institutions? What possible new accreditation and quality approaches can be proposed?
  • For conventional education there are sufficient quality frameworks, tools, accreditation experiences and regimes but they cover neither e-learning nor open learning. 
  • There is a need to involve ministries and QA agencies into a dialogue on how to integrate open learning outcomes into quality assurance. 
  • QA agencies need to develop new criteria which take into account the real learning process, competence and not only input factors. 
  • However, in many areas the recognition and QA responsibility remains mainly with HE institutions. There needs to be a mechanism for gathering experience and expertise at institutional level and a possible start could be to involve pioneers of digital learning in convening HEIs for dialogue and experience sharing. These activities need coordination and EU organisations have a clear role in this. 
  • Elements of the solution could be building on recognition of prior learning, working on assessment of informal learning and building recognition tools. 
  • A further important issue is how to align the treatment of traditional learners with MOOC/open learners?
  • Promising new initiatives are in progress such as the SEQUENT project with ENQA, EADTU and EFQUEL collaborating to investigate the harmonization of European e-learning quality tools and approaches.


In times of change, diversification and non-traditional higher education providers, how does higher education governance need to react to openness and what could be successful strategies?
  • Combination of top-down and bottom-up (critical mass of practitioners + management decisions)
  • Create a colloquium: to share good governance strategies with others, foster a culture of sharing, create an open space arena, move forward faster together.
  • Strategic approaches on the way. 75% of European HEIs have a strategy for ICT-based learning but how good are they? Change process needs momentum. Not sure that OER are sufficiently considered.
  • Plenty good e-learning courses exist but they are not open (my university, my course). CC licensing is the exception rather than the rule.
  • Take into account the varying motivations of the students (qualification, general interest, professional development)
  • Opening up at HEI management level.
  • In Europe good strategies exist on access to research but not on OER.
  • Do we need standards (ISO project committee PC288 underway for example)?
  • Responsibility for teaching/ education. Teaching is changing. How to share this between teachers, teachers and other staff? A more active role for students? (student-centred learning, peer groups). Include external learners and teachers.  
  • MOOCs - maybe good enough will do.
  • HEIs - need to develop own strategy for MOOCs and be clear why you're doing it.
  • Develop MOOCs as lifelong learning and outreach with interactivity and self organisation as central elements to the courses. MOOCs provide introduction and overview to a subject area.
We maybe didn't arrive at a concrete list of strategic proposals but the process was extremely interesting and the debate continues. Have a look at our notes and ideas on the workshop's Padlet page.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Anti-social media

Since we're all so keen to broadcast our every move and allow a variety of apps to track us there has been an explosion of interesting location-based services. However just as you can now see where your friends are you can also track people you are less interested in meeting. As ever there's an app for this - Cloak. This app allows you to list those people who you have friended in some social network but wish you hadn't. So Cloak can keep tabs on where these unwanted friends are and alert you if they are getting too close for comfort so you can take evasive action. As they proudly announce on their site:

Avoid exes, co-workers, that guy who likes to stop and chat - anyone you'd rather not run into.

Of course the service only works for tracking social media addicts who check in to every cafe, shop, bar or bus stop they visit. Cloak tracks people on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram. So download it from iTunes Appstore ... or not.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Audio - the personal touch in online courses

Microphone by M. Keefe, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by M. Keefe on Flickr

Despite the presence of many easy-to-use and often free programs for audio and video recording it's surprising how so much online learning is still centred on written communication between students and teacher. Written feedback often takes valuable teacher time to compose and even if the comments are highly valuable the opportunity to create a more personal contact between teacher and student is lost. A major success factor in online education is creating a dynamic, interactive learning arena where the factor of distance is reduced or even made irrelevant. A good mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication using a variety of media (text, audio, video, multimedia) gives everyone the chance to be read, heard and seen, including most importantly the teacher. So why are we generally still stuck in text mode?

Terry Andersson's blogpost, Another research article on audio feedback, raises the issue of audio feedback as a quick and efficient method of commenting on students' work and which also adds to the feeling of teacher presence. He provides the example of a new study by Andrew J. Cavanaugh and Liyan SongAudio Feedback versus Written Feedback: Instructors’ and Students’ Perspectives (Journal of Online Learning and Teaching), that has compared student responses to receiving either audio or written feedback to their written papers. The findings show that students are clearly more positive to receiving audio feedback on the grounds that it felt more personal and more inspiring than the dry matter-of-fact text commentaries. Teachers were in general also more positive though a few had problems with the technology involved and were simply not used to audio recording at all.

An interesting aspect of the study was that text feedback differed to audio feedback; written comments focused mostly on details such as edits and grammar corrections whereas spoken comments discussed themes, structure and overall impression. Written feedback was dealt with by students on a correct-and-move-on basis whereas the audio feedback asked for more reflection from the student rather than simply correcting.

However, it must be asked whether a systematic "correct-and-move-on" approach to revising a paper is what is desired in students. It is possible that, if students see comments as purely editing suggestions or corrections, they will prefer written comments to audio comments. This is not to say that written commentary cannot be preferred for other reasons.

Once again this should not be seen as yet another either/or discussion: there will always be times when written feedback is more appropriate just as there are times when audio is best. Many LMS have functions for audio comments and there are many screencasting tools available to let you record comments while showing the student's text and highlighting. Given the fact that students appreciate being able to hear the teacher commenting on their work in a pleasant and professional manner there should be much wider use of this medium than today. Traditional e-learning was rightly criticized as being impersonal self-study but the tools available today add so many more dimensions and enable us to almost eliminate the element of distance.