There are some key challenges that we are facing in eLearning today. And I am beginning to think that these are pretty much invariant to scale. I am beginning to think that perhaps many of them happen at smaller scale in traditional face-to-face education. Here is an indicative list.

  • High dropout or low completion rates
  • Low engagement and retention (motivation)
  • Lack of data driven analytics cramps scalability
  • Low use of collaboration/networked learning tools & communities
  • Lurking as a legitimate activity
  • In courses that need them, lack of physical F2F & LAB support
  • Increased demand on the student’s capability for self-directed learning
  • Need sophisticated auto-grading (or scalable high quality peer review) systems for large scale assessments
  • Video lecture fatigue
  • Lack of interoperability with traditional institutions (incl. curricular)
  • Availability of Localized materials
  • Access to power, infrastructure and connectivity
  • Credibility / value perception of learning for employers or for credit transfers by traditional institutions

Some of these are definitely challenges that would constrain any system. But perhaps the real challenges lie elsewhere. For example, I am getting convinced that more than anything else, the capability & motivation of the learner to learn, is the most limiting factor.

We see a lot of power laws in the real world of learning – where a few students participate heavily and the largest number contribute to the long tail. Ideally, an efficient and high quality system would be one where the graphs are uniformly flatter indicating wholesome participation in the process of learning. I would think that not much changes at lower scale or with change of modality to traditional classroom scenarios, and that power laws are in fact observable in these scenarios as well.

The aim of most educational systems is to develop students who are prepared for the life to come, who can contribute to  the world as responsible citizens, who are successful in leveraging knowledge and reason to attain their goals and who learn how to learn. I think the last part is really significant – in fact I would say the most significant part.

In thinking about how people can learn to learn, it is obvious that there be a multiplicity of options on how to learn, rather than just any one way of learning. Our education systems have so far taught just the one way to learn, but there are indeed other ways to learn that may or may not be consonant with the traditional approach.

What are some of these paradigms? I think the Connectivist approach crystallizes what learning really means in a digital age. It is sufficiently “alternative” as a paradigm and needs to be explored. The MOOC is perhaps just one instance of Connectivist environments. Other online environments may exist where massive does not necessarily equate to number of learners, and open doesn’t necessarily equate to “barrier-less” and where we let go of the “course” confines.

FICCI held its first school conference at New Delhi on March 10. I was helping facilitate a session on Teacher Education, which has perhaps become one of the really important challenges of our education system. The NCF 2005, NCFTE 2009, the Justice Verma Committee, the Centrally Sponsored Scheme, the new Teacher Mission and the RTE Act provide the backdrop against which the discussions are happening.

As per Dr. Amarjit Singh, AS, MHRD, lots of great things are happening:

  • Focus has been on quality of teacher education, program and curricular revisions. a new model curriculum and various short and long program formats have been designed
  • The CBSE has set up a Centre for Assessments, Evaluations and Research
  • The NCERT is building learning indicators – a set of “common core” learning outcomes
  • NUEPA is building school standards
  • The Open University, UK partnership is underway with 3000 teachers being trained across 150 teacher development units
  • North east state open universities are starting MOOCs
  • The CIET has built a semantic content store called the NROER
  • The Delhi SCERT has actively introduced the flipped classroom and shared curriculum practices
  • Various examples of digital content and community based programs across K12 and Teacher Ed

Prof. MM Pant gripped the crowd’s attention by invoking John Daniels’ solution of training 10 million teachers by flipping pre- and in-service education. Dr. Anjlee  Prakash talked about the role of the teacher and her professional development in the context of a connected, networked and technologically advanced world (FICCI School Conference_LLF_2014 for FICCI), and the role of MOOCs & blends thereof in Teacher PD.

A few other takeaways from me:

  • We need better technology to aggregate, remix, repurpose and feed forward content and conversation to ever-growing networks
  • We need design and development of systems that engender network formation and scale
  • We need interoperability with the myriad tools and systems being developed
  • We need better technology and processes to capture and analyze interactions of teachers and students with the OER created by different initiatives; need learning analytics systems in place quickly
  • We also need to raise heutagogical capabilities in a concerted manner, perhaps with a set of coaches or mentors that we actively support

It was a packed conference session with many other speakers including Prabhaav, TESS India and Microsoft. And we obviously ran short of time (my apologies to the speakers, especially Anjlee and Lokesh!).

And yes, I am building up a repository on teacher education. Please do send me your links!

Before I begin (and I am going to miss the hangout again as it will be at 3 AM India time), I think Dave rocked again in #rhizo14. Way to go Dave!

Dave is our Elvis

Dave is our Elvis

I am conflicted when I think about curriculum. I have experienced it prescriptively in the formal education system and I realize that it is bounded by its philosophical basis as well as the competence of stakeholders to transact it (the two sometimes straining in opposite directions).

In the rhizomatic sense, I am guessing curriculum is evidenced by the community members through their open reflection and practice.There is no core.

In the Community of Practice sense, the community itself evolves through various stages -  Potential, Coalescing, Active, Dispersed and Memorable as in the chart below.

In another take on this, George Siemens in Connectives and Collectives: Learning Alone, together suggests that as ties become stronger and individuals aggregate into groups and collectives, the discourse becomes normed (in fact there is a veritable coercion to the norm) that leads to a drying up of new ideas that are novel and diverse.

In the diagram above, he also ties it up with autonomy to the learner, which he believes to decrease as these ties increase in strength and degree.

I think the strength of Rhizomatic and Connective Learning is the “personal formation” of curriculum and the heutagogical “capability” to contextually adapt the curriculum evidenced by the community to transcend personal learning plateaus.

In that sense learning becomes a process of, among other things, shared discovery of curriculum itself, a way-finding and sense-making exercise.

It also makes sense to think of curricula instead of curriculum – different ways to transcend the same plateau. The community then evidences things such as values, beliefs, patterns of use and engagement that equally constitute any curriculum (one must consider failure in a Rhizomatic community as well. What mechanisms exist when a curriculum itself fails to empower.)

Like a Rhizome, Rhizo14 is an event in my meanderings. The event may end, but the rhizome continues to flourish and grow.

Bernard Fryshman wrote a post titled  MOOCs are Books, too. I responded saying it depends on whether it is an xMOOC you are talking about or a cMOOC, amongst other humble assertions that “MOOCs are not books”. Then I found Dave talking about MOOCs to create/update open textbooks. In Are MOOCs the Next Textbooks, Gregor Kiczales makes the point that in “author” or “expert” videos, the persona of the author is really important. Others comments that free MOOCs could potentially replace textbooks, while others feel that MOOCs (when standardized like JusticeX) may become textbooks themselves, especially when created by A-grade professors and experts.

Dave, in his video challenge for this week of #Rhizo14, asks the question – are books making us stupid. He identifies a few negative connotations and one positive connotation for books in his mind. The negatives are:

  • have a finite end to the journey of learning at the end of which judgment awaits us
  • deny the orality of the conversation
  • bring in objectivity
  • amply distance
  • are definitive, not relational
  • bring in impartiality
  • are less participatory
  • have a long history of “making us stupid” and are not trustworthy

The positive connotation is that there is value in books as historical records (and emotional pleasures of the medium that we are used, but others ahead may not even desire or be able to experience).

Several things confuse and distort responses to this challenge immediately. Are we talking about book “technology”? Are we concerned with book “processes” of creating, use in curriculum and uses by learners? Are we concerned with the formats, or the design? Are we talking of all types of books or just a specific type of books? Are we talking of making value judgments – “stupid” in the sense of “closed”, or following something “prescriptive”, or “cognitive” instead of “connective” or “rhizomatic”? Is it about how they impact reading or writing literacies and skills, or it about books as standalone artifacts? Is it about their accessibility or cost that makes their unavailability result in a certain stupidity?

Which is also why people have responded variously to this week’s challenge. Shaw contests the negative connotations and believe it is not an either-or. In Print, Stupidity and #rhizo14, Keith showcases Don Tapscott’s talk, and tries to view printed text rhizomatically. Apostolos refutes some of the negative connotations by looking at books as a vehicle to transfer information and knowledge through the ages, and not limiting conversation/participation just because the author isn’t there to discuss the ideas. Jenny Mackness talks about how “Books are not the problem – it is us and the way we think – our lack of ability to critically engage with learning”.

I think what we are really talking about here is the tyranny of the written word insofar as it leads to our pedagogical oppression (Friere). There is intentionality here in the minds of the oppressors (pretty much most of those traditional educational systems that depend upon rote learning, including some of our xMOOCs) and there is mute acquiescence from  the oppressed (those who unquestioningly accept the written word or “common framework” as someone else put it).

I think, we should have so much democratic and accessible written word, that it becomes impossible for us to be stupid. It should become impossible for any one system to authorize or prescribe the tyranny of the word.

This year I will focus my efforts on the design of learning environments that are complex – adaptive, emergent, self-organizing, chaotic and personal. As a project description at TU Delft states:

In these situations system content, system structure and system boundaries shift and evolve without any global or central coordinator. Instead, order and regularity emerge from widely distributed bottom-up interactions of subsystems, some with centralized control and others fully distributed.

I am particularly interested in complex adaptive systems in the context of learning because I think that is how learning really is. Somewhere in this area is hidden Illich’s “institutional inverse”, the need to combat Friere’s “culture of silence”, to think of learning as making connections and knowledge as the network. Somewhere in this exercise is the continued feeling of being “continually inspired to change”, the mnemonic for a revolution. Many memes will form part of this discussion.

One such meme shall be open-ness. This will relate to both the extent and nature of open-ness within the system as well that outside the system, and specific mechanisms to initiate, alter or transition to a state of “open-ness”. Another meme shall be self-organization. Equally important will be the meme of “evolution’ – of people, ideas and networks.

I shall also investigate the meme of “flexible boundaries” – boundaries that allow dynamic reconfiguration of the contours of, well everything. Closely related will be the memes of “control” and “structure”.

An important meme shall be that of “language” – the language of learning itself. I think a new vocabulary is definitely required if we are to think afresh. And there may be more that I may discover or abandon as I go along.

Dave Cormier’s MOOC on P2PU, Rhizomatic Learning, in week 3 is focusing on the topic Embracing Uncertainty. He says:

At the heart of the rhizome is a very messy network, one where not all the dots connect to all the lines. No centre. Multiple paths. Where we have beliefs and facts that contradict each other. Where our decisions are founded on an ever shifting knowledge base. Our challenge this week… how do we make our learning experience reflect (and celebrate) this uncertainty?

Uncertainty exists in all forms of education and learning. It is not mostly celebrated. In fact, it is suppressed. Or attempted to be. In traditional education, it is systematically constrained by the dimensions of time, network boundaries (class/batch), regulatory requirements and pedagogical biases. It is even systematically constrained in other (non-traditional) environments, even informal ones at most times.

However, it underpins these environments in dramatic ways, so much so that it is a wonder that any intended outcomes are even met. As an example, even the understanding of what a degree program in any subject should contain (content, pedagogy, assessments) is not shared or common across the world. It is therefore uncertain, at least to me, what an MBA degree really means!

Let us talk instead of democratizing uncertainty. That implies thinking of uncertainty as by, for and of learning (and its stakeholders).

Uncertainty by learning is the adoption of certain uncertainties  by learners, teachers and administrators. It is their ability to practice those uncertainties.

Uncertainty for learning is the “framework” or the ecology for uncertainty to flourish and where the participants of the educational system are encouraged to embrace certain uncertainties.

Uncertainty of learning is the uncertainty that society owns and celebrates, and that is what change is all about anyways. This is the most important change that can happen to learning – when there is purpose to driving certain uncertainties through the system.

Not all certainties may be “good” or “appropriate”. What is good or appropriate may differ widely, but no uncertainty can be good if it does not result in the “overall” good (atleast directionally and democratically speaking). There could be more consensus on bad and undesired uncertainties – those that result in (directionally) negative consequences such as high unemployment or obstacles to (say) scientific development.

Some people would then argue that uncertainty should be harnessed in certain ways, and this could progressively lead us to the same traditional paradigm that exists today. We shall also need to “prove” in many ways, that more “good” uncertainty in the system will impact social outcomes positively. We may even need to “prove” that either this is an articulate and cogent alternative to the existing system or stands as an important option in a pluralized education system.

What may happen as well (as with the xMOOCs) that these positive uncertainties may be usurped, distorted and made to work within traditional environments in a manner that is ineffective and diluted (e.g. you want 21st century skills to be “built”, so why don’t you create a new subject called “collaboration” and assign it graded assessments and specialized new content & teaching). In fact, I think we need to see uncertainty as culture, as a way of being rather than a specialized skill or value.

As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students–1.6 million to date–he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.

We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me. “It was a painful moment.” Turns out he doesn’t even like the term MOOC.

Sebastian Thrun, Udacity, in an interview with Max Chafkin of FastCompany. November 14, 2013

Well, there it is folks. After two years of hype, breathless proclamations about how Udacity will transform higher education, Silicon Valley blindness to existing learning research, and numerous articles/interviews featuring Sebastian Thrun, Udacity has failed.

No one did more of a disservice to MOOCs than Thrun through his wild proclamations (“we have found the magic combination for online learning” and “in the future there will only be 10 universities”, digital learning manifestos, and so on) and self-aggrandizing. No one will do more damage to MOOCs as a concept than Thrun now that he realizes how unfounded his statements actually were.

This is not a failure of open education, learning at scale, online learning, or MOOCs. Thrun tied his fate too early to VC funding. As a result, Udacity is now driven by revenue pursuits, not innovation. He promised us a bright future of open learning. He delivered to us something along the lines of a 1990′s corporate elearning program.

George Siemens, The Failure of Udacity, November 15, 2013

“At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment,” says Thrun in an incredibly revealing statement. In other words, the purpose of education is to have a job not to make one. To be a worker, not a manager and not an entrepreneur. Let’s be honest. This is not the value proposition of Stanford.

So yeah, perhaps it’s easy for many in higher education to shrug and sigh with relief that Thrun has decided to set his sights elsewhere. But if we care about learning – if we care about learners – I think we need to maintain our fierce critiques about MOOCs. Who is the target audience? Who is the “ideal student”? Why is crappy pedagogy okay for “them”? Who owns these students’ data? After all, there are no FERPA protections if you aren’t taking federal dollars. In this framework, it’s all for sale.

Audrey Waters, Why We Shouldn’t Celebrate Udacity’s “Pivot”, November 14, 2013

Thrun seems to have ‘discovered’ that open access, distance education students struggle to complete. I don’t want to sound churlish here, but hey, the OU has known this for 40 years. It’s why it spends a lot of money developing courses that have guidance and support built into the material, and also on a comprehensive support package, ranging from tutors, helpdesk, regional study centres and so on. But of course, none of the journalists and certainly not the new, revolutionary people at Udacity wanted to hear any of this. They could solve it all, and why hadn’t higher education thought of this before?

Martin Weller, Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, November 15, 2013

Well, people should know that:

  1. cMOOCs predate Mr. Thrun & Udacity (as well as the other xMOOCs) by many years; the MOOC moniker was usurped by big money and brand; the first MOOC was in 2008 and started by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier
  2. cMOOCs offer a theoretical basis and practical demonstrations of heutagogical and technological dimensions of connective learning while xMOOCs are mere extensions of online and distance instructivist learning and not the singularly large and disruptive changes they claim to be
  3. xMOOCs will continue to exist for the limited purpose that they are useful for (e.g. whatever allows them to make money); cMOOCs shall continue to evolve organically (a lot of questions still need answering there)
  4. The problems of  learner motivation, power laws (dropouts), employability etc. are not new anywhere in the world and have confronted all of education (online or offline) for quite a while now. cMOOCs may be able to offer a substantial improvement in this regard, and more and more research and experimentation is needed here
  5. The problems of education in the world today are too big and varied to be solved by any one magical silver bullet; there will be plurality – one only hopes that good sense and solid research will back that plurality and not brand & money

Mr. Thrun (and others) at the helm of xMOOCs resemble the hare trying to outrun the proverbial tortoise. As George said, this is their own failure, not the failure of the open learning movement.

However, I would like to congratulate Mr. Thrun on his moment of truth. We all make mistakes and we should learn from them. I just hope the others are listening in and will acknowledge Mr. Thrun’s sentiment as being something that will resound with them.

And I would encourage the xMOOCs, having got the momentum and visibility, to start engaging with the cMOOC community and co-create new models that will help us solve key problems afflicting all of us today.


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