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In this introductory presentation for Amrita University’s T4E Conference this month, here are a few thoughts on differentiating between Gamification, Serious Games and Simulations.

The presentation that I made at the CEMCA-KNI Workshop recently, explores nine possible dimensions of OERs and how they must be re-contextualized by practitioners in India.

First published in The Souvenir, FICCI Higher Education Summit 2014

Viplav Baxi makes the case that MOOCs have arrived in India. Now is the time to reflect on what pitfalls we should avoid and how we can fully leverage them in the Indian context.

The past few years have seen the rapid growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This emergence has been particularly interesting to follow in India, where we seem to have discovered online learning on a massive scale. Indians account for about 10% of the registrations in MOOCs from the top MOOC providers.

MOOCs actually originated out of a new theory of learning called Connectivism proposed by George Siemens in 2005. The first MOOC (the term itself was coined by Dave Cormier) was organized in 2008 by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Hailed as a disruptive model of education, the earliest MOOCs (also called cMOOCs or Connectivist MOOCs) offered a whole new way of teaching and learning.

Much later, in 2011-12, top universities in the USA jumped on to the MOOC bandwagon, lending it worldwide credibility and fame. The reasons behind the quick adoption of these MOOCs was the fact that anyone could learn (or get certified), for free or a small fee, from some of the top universities and top professors in the world. Large investments by private capital and university foundations shaped popular perception about the revolutionary potential of these MOOCs. Also universities viewed them as extending the reach and brand of the University. Open Courseware had existed for a very long time, but the shape and form of these MOOCs was far more accessible and exciting.

MOOCs have now progressed from being higher education-only to school, teacher and vocational education. The top 3 MOOC providers now service about 20 million students worldwide, about 5 times the open and distance learning enrolments in India. MOOCs have also taken over imagination at policy levels, with the Indian Government proposing SWAYAM as the open MOOC platform for India.

However, there remain significant challenges with the MOOC model.

Firstly, the pedagogy behind these MOOCs needs a rethink. The type of MOOCs that have gained worldwide popularity since 2011, adopted the title “MOOC” but ignored the rich underlying Connectivist origins. They merely extended traditional online, instructivist Web Based Training (WBT) and Instructor Led Training (ILT) methods to a massive audience, earning them the term xMOOCs, the “x” standing for “eXtension”.

WBTs and ILTs were designed as eLearning equivalents to reduce training delivery costs and standardize instruction for large scale corporate training. But nearly everyone realizes that this type of eLearning is not scalable because it is designed for learner stereotypes, does not account for real world diversity and in general, predates and ignores the entire social learning revolution.

Both for WBTs/ILTs and xMOOCs, the model is largely teacher (and/or instructional designer) led and content-driven. It not based upon socially negotiated & distributed learning, the hallmark of the Connectivist MOOCs. This is why it is perhaps more appropriate to call them XBTs (or “massive” extensions of WBTs and ILTs) rather than think of them as a variant of the original MOOC approach.

The XBTs augment the traditional systems, giving importance to institutional pedigree, clearly defined institutional structures & processes (such as courses, terms and exams) and certification mechanisms.

The Connectivist MOOCs are very open, emphasize sense-making, operate in a distributed fashion, legitimize learners at the periphery (legitimate peripheral participation or “lurking”) and do not impose the strict conformance to traditional notions of course, exam and certification. For them, learning is the process of making connections and knowledge is the network, which means that the competency and capability to learn critically determines the learning itself. This is the central theme behind heutagogy – the study of self-determined learning – that, unlike pedagogy and andragogy, marks a significant move away from traditional teacher-centred learning.

It will be critical for MOOC providers to evaluate the Connectivist approach as we move ahead, if we are to build meaningful massive open online learning courses and platforms.

Secondly, engagement and retention are key aspects of the learning experience that the MOOCs, in general, have not been able to address effectively. The long tail of learning, which is that a really large number of learners end up not completing the MOOC or remain at low levels of engagement, is nothing new. It is just that the massive nature of MOOCs amplifies some of these known issues.

It is here that the MOOC providers need to spend a lot of time experimenting with techniques such as gamification, badges, adaptive learning and learning analytics. The Connectivist model relies on learners to build capability for their own learning, something that is the desired endgame for any educational system. By increasing learner capability to learn in the digital medium, cMOOCs can potentially flatten the long tail. The traditional XBT model can only reinforce and amplify it.

The third challenge is in establishing sustenance & growth models, whether MOOC providers are for-profit or not for-profit. So far, providers have looked at monetization/cost recovery through various methods such as charging institutions or teachers for MOOC development; charging potential employers; platform provision; training & support; charging students for blended (online plus offline) learning, mentoring/coaching, special finishing school programs and certification.

For example, Coursera now has about 10 mn students and is supposedly making USD 1 mn a month from its verified certificate courses that cost between USD 30 and USD 100. However, even though these models do not appear to have garnered explosive acceptance from a retail student perspective since they are not really integrated into formally recognized certifications, the hope seems to be to acquire large enough numbers to translate into sustainable and/or profitable ventures.

An interesting comparison for XBT providers are the formal open and distance learning systems, where regulated degrees & certificate programs drive enrolments and fees & endowments drive the income. The UK Open University in 2012-13, earned more than GBP 200 mn as fee income (about 60% of which were supported by student tuition loans) from over 200,000 students. The Indira Gandhi National Open University in India, has an annual enrolment of about 500,000 students (in 2012 annual enrolment was 465,000 students), but the fee per course would be a fraction of the fee charged by the UKOU. Of course, the XBT providers are looking at multiples of these figures as they go about targeting a global audience.

The fourth challenge lies with a weak private/non-profit investment climate for MOOCs in India. Significant public effort and money has and is being spent across various pioneering Government initiatives to build open education resources (OERs), MOOCs and MOOC platforms. These can be leveraged by anyone under a very permissive OER policy, which even allows commercial use. However, barely any private investment is flowing into leveraging these resources.

Innovations and investments are required in multiple areas such as awareness generation, access to technology and communications, capability development, content development (including multilingual), pedagogy, development/enhancement of MOOC platforms, collecting and managing learner progress and performance data to improve the learning experience, as well as areas like gamification, Virtual LABs and other forms of technology augmented learning. These innovations and investments should directly impact our education system in terms of improved access, improved learning outcomes and higher employability.

To summarize, MOOCs have arrived, but if we do not deal with these core challenges of MOOCs, we will end up having a dysfunctional system. To avoid later disappointment, stakeholders must reorganize and focus on how to avoid the pitfalls of the current wave of MOOCs.

In a Big Think article, Why Technology Won’t Save an Inefficient Education System, with Dr. Madhav Chavan, and in several other similarly argued contributions, particularly like the ones from Sir Ken Robinson (read a critique here) or Sugata Mitra.

Education over that past 200 years has been fashioned like an assembly line. Children get placed on a conveyor belt that carries them from grade level to grade level. At each stop on the way they are receive the same knowledge as everyone else. Rather than become intuitive problem-solvers, students are expected to simply absorb the facts provided to them.

The argument that the educational system is a machine built for another age implies that the classroom is itself a machine and the teacher an automaton carrying out procedures that fill student brains with knowledge.

I had a group of educators look at me with alarm and disapproval the other day when I dared to suggest that the classroom was anything like a machine. For them, a classroom was an area where each student is different, has different learning styles and demands, and where they work hard to meet the demands of the curriculum (not enough time allocated to complete the syllabus). Challenges faced in each classroom were unique, although some best practices could be arrived at through experience. Similarly no classroom is the same as any other one in terms of its constituents, its infrastructure, its language and so on. The sheer diversity at the classroom level defies machinistic interpretations.

If the classroom is not a machine, the school as a factory analogy should break down here. Why? Because the classroom is the fundamental unit of the assembly process of schooling. And if that is not a machine, then school likely is not.

Similarly, if the counter to everyone being a dumb receptacle for knowledge, is that everyone becomes an “intuitive problem-solver”, we are talking about another kind of deterministic and linear process, another kind of factory that produces a different kind of student. This was exactly what 21st century skills framework in the USA or our Indian Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) system has turned out to be – an addition to the curriculum that tries to generically create certain skills and orientation in students, commonly, across the board.

The point to be understood is that we are still thinking deterministically. In the article, Chavan talks about employing technology in an appropriate manner – not as subservient to the linearized school system, but as a tool to collaborate in order to solve problems. Technology enables a non-linear curriculum, emphasizing problem-solving over rote memorization, Chavan says, but impossible to implement under the traditional education system.

I think he has got it mixed up. Firstly, there is nothing intrinsic to technology that promotes any one way or form of learning over another. Secondly technology itself is not monolithic. Thirdly technology is not all pervasive enough to be a systemic component of learning. Fourthly, there is an implicit assumption that we want everyone to be great at problem solving and that there is this one giant universal conception of problem solving, irrespective of domain. Fifthly, non-linearity is a rich feature of existing classrooms, with or without the intervention of technology, in the sense that the classroom is a complex organism.

I think what they all mean to say, is that the traditional system suffers from certain constraints and obsolete practices that are making it very difficult to “enforce” alternate practices and conceptions. Let us look at some of the real constraints – the underlying causes.

Teachers are still learning the way they teach – To innovate the existing paradigm from the inside, teachers must start learning differently. If teachers start learning and using technology-enabled learning methods on their own, it will be a matter of culture for them to start using them in the classroom.

Teachers need to learn – Largely, teachers are like any other adult, and their motivation and ability to learn are immensely important to address. Mechanisms that reward professional and personal learning are largely absent in our system, and for the teachers in the public system, not integrated with career progression and salary increments.

Syllabi are too extensive – Syllabi are following their own inflationary trends. As the volume of knowledge has grown, topics that were earlier taught in higher classes, have been added to the load of the lower classes. The density and complexity of content to be taught/learned has increased significantly. The duration of time remaining the same, teachers have increasingly lesser time to focus on teaching core concepts. As one teacher explained in an alternate manner, “the syllabus is alright, it is just that the system that enforces an end date to the syllabus is wrong!”.

Technology is not ubiquitous – the availability of technology (and electrical power) itself is a core problem. Technology for computation, for storage, for protection against virus attacks, for connectivity and Internet access, for mobility – all these are real challenges in schools (and at home) today. Over time, these will hopefully get addressed by policy thrusts and reducing costs.

Constraints of the system – everything has to be taught in school, there are rigid enrolment schedules, each grade/class is divided into isolated and insular groups or sections in some arbitrary manner creating limitations on collaboration and sharing of knowledge – and many other structural components of the system. In fact, these constraints are the ones that are closer to the industrial age-factory analogy in the sense that they are the pillars of educational management in schools.

For example, putting children into groups and assigning them teachers is an operational decision – one that promotes manageability of the education process primarily. Many people say it is also logical to keep class sizes low to promote greater collaboration (and perhaps, control) and ability for teachers to address individual learning styles. But I believe that the two are different problems – there are many ways to adapt, blend or flip learning emerging now that need not necessarily force us to enforce these structures and ratios.

In summary, I think it is perhaps wrong and naive to treat classrooms as machines and teachers as automatons. Classrooms are complex organisms and don’t easily fall into the determinism of the factory analogy. However, classrooms and teachers operate under a system that tries to enforce determinism and linearity through some of the constraints discussed above.

If we want to change as a system, we need to extend, enhance and celebrate the complexity in education.

The interesting MOOC on MOOCs conducted by Dr. T V Prabhakar from IIT Kanpur and Dr V Balaji from Commonwealth of Learning is in week 3. The theme itself is reminiscent of the CCK MOOCs, which did a deep dive into the Connectivist origins of the original MOOCs. It is timely also because India is really on the verge of something special in this area.

Sir John Daniel, one of the experts in Open and Distance Learning, has the following points to make in his video lecture contributed specially for the course.

  • Open and Distance and Online learning did not start with MOOCs or even the Internet.
  • Putting courses online does not automatically improve their quality.
  • MOOCs are a good example of how computers and networks have increased the power and possibilities of ODL but they lack some of the vital ingredients of a good learning system. Many do not include Holmberg’s “guided didactic conversations” between learners and teachers and most do not include student assessment and certification.
  • Everything depends on the design of the teaching learning system around the students’ needs.That must be the next step in  the development of MOOCs.
  • In most cases, MOOCs are still simply information distribution systems
  • Why have MOOCs been so slow in tackling the challenges of interaction and assessment? Because early 2012 MOOCs were by exclusive universities.

In his 2012 article, Making Sense of MOOCs – Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility, Sir John Daniel makes some important points:

We also agree with Bates that current xMOOCs pedagogy is pretty old hat but this will now change fast. Even if Coursera gave its partner universities great freedom in course formats in order to sugar the pill of signing the contract, this will quickly produce a great diversity of approaches and much healthy experimentation.

Placing their xMOOCs in the public domain for a worldwide audience will oblige institutions to do more than pay lip service to importance of teaching and put it at the core their missions. This is the real revolution of MOOCs.

In a more recent article for the Montreal Digital Conference to be held next month, Are MOOCs the long-awaited technological revolution in higher education?, Sir John Daniel makes some important points:

  • It is unlikely that MOOCs shall be considered a revolution in Higher Education unless they are also able to perform the core functions of that system – “the authority to award degrees, diplomas and qualifications”.
  • Quoting Laurillard who questions whether MOOCs are solving global education problems like access to universities, spiraling student debt and low graduate pay, he presents MOOCs as perhaps being more useful in professional and vocational development.
  • The viability of building and maintaining MOOCs for universities are also called into question. They do not represent a significant return on investment (like the UKOU’s tracking of students who enrolled revealed that 1500 students had prior contact with its free media implying an 8% return on investment in free media) if considered for student recruitment, nor are they likely to make as much money in services like proctoring and assessments as compared to private operators. He sees certification and employee recruitment as the most promising end-uses of MOOCs.

In talking about the legacy of MOOCs, he writes:

This transformation of the methods of teaching and learning will be the primary legacy of MOOCs. It will not be a revolution but it will have a long-term impact on the way higher education operates, much like the important evolutionary stimuli in the earlier history of universities that we examined earlier.

Talking about OERs, he states:

The creation and use of OER developed steadily, but without fanfare, for the next decade. OER were the long fuse that detonated the MOOCs explosion.

On why MOOCs will not be revolutionary for Higher Education,

MOOCs are not revolutionary, both because higher education develops by evolution and also because MOOCs mostly do not lead to formal qualifications. MOOCs are, however, the harbingers of an important transformation that will lead to much greater use of online technologies in teaching, research and academic service.

Not surprisingly, he concludes:

Quality and the quality assurance of ‘post-traditional’ higher education, like the certification of its outcomes, is one of the greater challenges of these new forms of teaching and learning...Our first conclusion is that we should not await a revolution but rather expect digital innovations to transform practice in an incremental manner...Second, the present disruption being caused by digital technologies is a constructive process. We shall see a flurry of evolutionary change as institutions adapt to the new niches that innovations are creating. Third, it is important to let experimentation continue so that the viability of various models for using technology in teaching, learning, assessment and certification can be tested. This is why it was dangerous to present MOOCs as the contemporary revolution in higher education. Fourth and finally, this exciting phase of evolution poses a special challenge for quality assurance, which is caught on the horns of a dilemma.

Daniel is trying to situate MOOCs (specifically xMOOCs) in the Higher Education context, terming them an evolution and not a revolution, experiments that need far more innovation, currently unable to meet global challenges like student debt, unable to perform core functions such as awarding degrees and a logical evolution of the open and distance learning, OER, digital innovations and online learning paradigm. I think Daniel is saying that the incremental innovations in teaching and learning of the xMOOCs will bring about the real revolution over a period of time.

There is also a fleeting aspiration in what he writes:

In the long run heutagogy and cMOOCs may have a greater impact on the evolution of teaching and learning in higher education in an information age than the more common xMOOCs, some of which learners can find trivial rather than confusing.

and from the Musings article:

We quote Illich to emphasise that the xMOOCs attracting media attention today, which are ‘at the intersection of Wall Street and Silicon Valley’ (Caulfield, 2012), appear to have scant relation to those pioneering (Ed: cMOOC) approaches.

As George Siemens writes while distinguishing between x- and c-MOOCs in What is the theory that underpins our MOOCs?:

As stated above, there is overlap between our model at that of Coursera/EDx. However, Coursera/EDx emulates the existing education system, choosing instead to transfer it online rather than transform it online.

Clearly, xMOOCs are an extension geared for the traditional system of education, where at University or online, open and distance. By his own admission, cMOOCs are pioneering approaches that may have a greater impact on teaching and learning in the long run.

The contention lies in whether Daniel thinks that the xMOOCs and cMOOCs are milestones on some kind of a continuum of evolution of higher education, or whether they are, as I firmly believe, two completely different systems altogether. In my opinion, we could better call the xMOOCs something else so that we are able to focus on the potential of cMOOCs in a better way – perhaps call them XBTs or eXtended-Web Based Training, just like the earlier generations were called CBT and WBT.

People keep on going on about there being so much shortage of good quality faculty. That, they bemoan, is the most important factor behind the problems that we face in K12 or Higher Ed today. It is definitely true to an extent.

I believe the bigger challenge is to find learners. Not students. But learners. Or capable students who take greater responsibility, initiative and interest in their own education as well as the education of their peers.

If we flip the problem, we can perhaps leverage the scale of learners to overcome most of the problems in education. To do this we have to break from the belief that students have to be led. They don’t. They need to be helped to become more capable of learning in an environment mediated by social and technological networks.

This can reshape how we think about teaching and learning. Teachers then need to make sure that students become more capable (instead of becoming more knowledgeable) and that they have help and facilitation when needed. Students have to acquire critical literacies (and heutagogical capabilities) to transform into Learners. The Government needs to reshape the ability of these new generation of capable learners to acquire credentials that can be interpreted (and later perhaps even replace) at par or higher (or differently) than existing credentials. Our institutions and employers need to reshape structures and practices to allow all this wonderful learning led by the ones that are most impacted by it.

This is why, in the FICCI Vision Paper on MOOCs in Higher Education that I co-wrote, my vision for MOOCs (and in general the educational system) was:

Learning through Massive, Open and Online courses (MOOCs) will enable all Indians who want to learn, earn, teach or innovate, the capability to realize their true potential and transform our country.

The vision talks about building capability, not creating trained engineers or research scientists. Replace “MOOCs” with “our Educational System” and the vision would hold, really.

Are we really chasing the wrong problems?

Do you go to the football field to learn music? Or to the art gallery to learn fencing? Or to a library to learn oratory? You don’t. However, irrespective of whether you are studying history, economics, physics, languages or architecture, you go to that one singular invention – the classroom.

In the age of networks, this notion of a classroom perhaps needs a serious rethink.

What should a modern day learning environment look like? Should it extend the notion of the classroom (and the class) in the belief that this notion is capable of handling the new digital and social learning environment? Or should it be disrupted by something entirely new?

Extensions of the notion of classroom have been notable. The Flipped Classroom has caught the imagination of the world as a way to use digital technology to invert/optimize the use of learning events/activities inside and outside class. There have been many developments in the physical design of learning spaces that promise enhancements in in-class collaboration and learning by doing. Peer instruction has been found to be another way of extending the notion.

Christensen thinks disruption is the best way to go. Many other folks believe that online education using MOOCs and technology such as adaptive learning is that panacea – a panacea that can personalize learning and address individualized issues of knowledge and motivation.

I believe that class needs to be disrupted. And I believe networks are the key to disrupting the classroom. What if you could learn from someone who could teach the way you learn? What if you learned with people and things that directly reinforced what you were learning? What if you did not just learn to do, but also learned to be – to be a practitioner in networks of practice?

One of the interesting observations seems to be that in  the traditional educational system there is invariance to scale or scale-free behaviour. Scale free behaviour is exhibited by some very interesting networks like the Internet in which a few of the participants make the majority of interactions, and a long tail of participants exist with little or no engagement or levels of activity. Perhaps a disruption will truly arrive if we invert these scale free networks or even if we flatten out the interactions (raise the long tail). Perhaps we need to recast the classroom as the network itself?

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