Archive for November, 2013

Udacity throws out the MOOC?

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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There are two ways one could think of the life-cycle of a MOOC. MOOCs could be thought of as one-time and episodic. They could also be thought of as ecologies, sites or environments for continual learning (for example, a series of MOOCs on the same topics, such as CCK), not use-once-and-throw episodes of learning. I prefer the latter, although some may say the MOOC itself may not be likened to an ecology.

I like the idea of MOOCs as ecologies because communities and networks get created at the site of a MOOC and their value extends beyond the lifetime of a single occurrence of the MOOC. When MOOCs are run as a series of continuously or discretely evolving episodes, they act to extend these communities and networks, each addition bringing fresh insights and diverse experiences into the mix.

This extension is one of the things that really bring the distinction between MOOCs and the traditional courses to the forefront. MOOCs leave a trail of learning experiences, of conversations, that are visible to learners that participate in each succeeding episode. In traditional settings, this knowledge is stored and refined by teachers only who use it to make their teaching more effective over time. However, these are distilled insights, not visible to the learner.

Why I also like thinking of MOOCs as ecologies is that they are shaped by the behavior of agents within them. The agents (instructors, students, administrators, marketing agencies) actively engage with each other. If they collectively succeed in building engagement and value, the ecology thrives. If they are not, we see more skewed participation rates, and the ecology disintegrates quickly.

MOOCs as ecologies also imply that students can remain connected to every episode. So they learn incrementally with every episode they participate in. This has not been addressed clearly and explicitly by MOOCs as yet. In many ways, students who have participated in one or more episodes learn how to stay abreast of the developments in the field of study through their ever-expanding network presence.

Within the MOOC ecology, focus shifts from the content and instructor to the degrees of interconnectedness and interaction in the networks that constitute the MOOC. Conversations become the key to successful learning. Modeling learner interactions and measuring efficiencies at learner, network and MOOC levels becomes very important to gauge the state of the ecology. Each MOOC series contributes, in a dynamic manner, to the understanding of these group dynamics and efficiencies.

For MOOC designers, this should become an important component of your design. Thinking of MOOCs as ecologies allows you to focus on the learning experience and how you can garner insights into how participants want to engage, over successive episodes of learning.

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The 2013 FICCI Higher Education Summit was held on Nov 13 and 14, 2013. I, along with Prof. B N Jain (Vice Chancellor, BITS) and Mohan Kannegal (Manipal Global Education), conducted a master class on MOOCs and the Future of Indian Higher Education.

Prof. Jain, in his address made the following points (please read MOOCs as xMOOCs):

  • MOOCs are in an evolutionary phase – effectiveness and business models are still not clear
  • Although MOOCs claim to provide elite education to many at an affordable cost or for free, there are counter claims that they cannot re-create the quality of face to face teaching and learning.
  • Bottomline: MOOCs will certainly improve quality and scale of on-campus or off-campus education.
  • MOOCs work well for multi-section classes, provided the content is rich and analytics are used
  • Given the fact that India has 28 mn students in Higher Ed today (and expected to go up to 50 mn by 2030), an additional 20 mn classrooms, 300 mn sq ft of space and 2 mn teachers shall be required and we don’t have a choice but to embrace MOOCs.
  • Adoption has started in India, with IITs, Manipal Global and BITS taking the lead

In true cMOOC style, we started a conversation rather than a “sage on the stage” master class. We asked the participants what they would like to learn in the session, and we got a spate of interesting questions.

  • How can mobile learning be efficiently adopted in a MOOC context?
  • How do we adapt/dovetail MOOCs to fit the traditional curriculum?
  • Are we falling into a trap – MOOCs will standardize content. How can one expert source be sufficient? What about the richness that a teacher brings in?
  • Can MOOCs help in making our students employable?
  • Motivation: How can we ensure that our students are motivated and that they follow the learning progression as desired? How do we ensure low dropout rates? How do we get people to register for important courses?
  • Credentials: Are there pathways from MOOCs to degrees?
  • Blended designs: What are the possible blends that we could have with MOOCs?
  • LABs: What are the possible offline support assets that need to be created?
  • When should we not use MOOCs?

We also used a guiding presentation that came in handy. In the audience, no one was aware of the difference between an xMOOC or a cMOOC – which is why many of the questions above (and others that came up) were asked. I made the point of how xMOOCs were really an extension of the traditional online learning and classroom practices, while cMOOCs really represented the disruption. The other part of the presentation was on a complete lifecycle covering analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation of MOOCs, which we also got a chance to discuss towards the end of the session. Slides below.

Mohan contributed a practitioner’s view with the experience of Manipal in the traditional eLearning and cohort based learning (with GlobalNxt/U21) models and how Manipal is making its first forays in the MOOC space.

All in all, it was an action packed and fast paced session. I do hope the participants enjoyed themselves!

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The Sunday Times with this provocative byline (Indian higher education: 40% of college teachers temporary, quality of learning badly hit) has brought a hidden burning issue to the forefront. But not sufficiently.

It is true there is a caste system in Indian Higher Education, this one brought upon not only by administrators, but also by permanent (tenured) teachers on ad-hoc and contractual teachers. Here is how the system works.

Appointment & Renewal

The ad-hoc teacher is contracted with a fixed time contract, renewable periodically. Selection to all posts (it gets exponentially worse in permanent selection) is heavily biased through petty politics played by departmental heads, principals, observers, college governing body members and even the vice chancellor. To get appointed is one challenge, and to keep getting their contract renewed is another challenge. In fact, for senior teachers (teachers who have been ad-hoc for several years, they still need to go through interviews for selection.

The contract letter is a couple of paragraphs with information on the appointment. The ad-hoc teachers are not provided a rulebook or any intimation of what their rights are in the system, presumably because they don’t have any.

Clearly, a short term renewal based contract can not garner the teacher’s allegiance to the institution or students, does not allow her to make significant contributions to the department or college, places acute financial and emotional pressure and perpetuates a feudal system wherein the ad-hoc has to suck-up to the tenured teachers & administration in order to build some  longer term relationships. Equally scary, on the other side, is when an ad-hoc teacher, who has been consistently renewed over years, suddenly finds herself at the brink of penury, because the system refuses to renew any more contracts.

Operational Issues

The ad-hoc suffers many discriminatory practices at work.

It starts with the time table. The senior and tenured teachers get the first preference in figuring out how they would like their days of the week structured and when they would get a weekly off (that is, those teachers that do come to college or school in the first place). The ad-hocs come in last and have to bear with what is handed out to them. This is not an unimportant affair.

Then it comes to official and unofficial duties. The official duties are laden heavily on ad-hocs and they are expected to do things like data entry, staying in late and on weekends, and running small errands for tenured teachers. The junior ad-hocs are the worst treated, since they are fresh and scared. When it comes to official exam duties, for example, tenured teachers end up getting fewer exam duties than ad-hoc teachers. I wouldn’t be surprised if ad-hoc teachers also double up for taking regular classes that tenured teachers were supposed to take.

There are many “unofficial” duties. These may include personal errands for administrators or senior teachers, sometimes sexual favors (someone told me recently of colleges where it was impossible to get a contractual job without sleeping with an influential teacher) and many other uncalled for activities.

Ad-hocs don’t have the ability to garner government funds for research or for going to conferences. They are not provided any academic up-skilling or any of the UGC courses either. It is almost as if they do not exist for these purposes. I am pretty sure that is what happens at the school level as well.

In fact, Ordinance 19 of the UGC clearly does not regard ad-hoc teachers as teachers of the University

a) Teachers of the University means Professors, Associate Professors, Assistant Professors and such other persons as may be appointed for imparting instruction or conducting research in the University or in any College or Institution maintained by the University and are designated as teachers by the Ordinances.
b) A teacher of the University shall be a whole-time salaried employee of the university and shall devote his / her whole-time to the University and does not include honorary, visiting, part-time and ad-hoc teachers.

This is the caste system personified. Obviously, ad-hoc teachers cannot sit on a panel that is constituted to select tenured teachers. It would be poetic justice if that could have been allowed.

Voices and Rights

Clearly, in a feudal system, the rights of ad-hoc teachers are non-existent. They cannot afford to go against anyone or voice their opinion openly for fear of the greatest reprisal – termination or non-renewal. This, according to the newspaper article, applies to 40% of teachers in higher education or about 400,000 teachers. No ad-hoc teacher is willing to speak out for fear of reprisals, and none of the tenured teachers are willing to speak out for them in any concerted manner. The system is blatantly exploitative. and the worst part is that it is the academic system, where knowledge and wisdom are the cornerstones.

In summary, the crisis of teachers in India is as great as the crisis of teaching or the crisis of competence in Indian higher Education.

It was refreshing to hear the Minister of State for Education Mr. Jitin Prasada yesterday at the Founders Day celebration of a prestigious school. He was candid enough to say that he was not an expert at the domain, but he wanted to ensure that he could take the voices of ordinary people and use it to influence policy and decision making.

Well, Mr. Prasada, here is your chance. Enable 400,000 teachers in India to walk with their head raised high, proud to be part of an education system that is responsive to their needs and motivated to your vision of quality education.

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