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Archive for July, 2014

First published by EDU Tech on 24th July, 2014

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are an exciting new development in online education. In this article, Viplav Baxi explores the origins of MOOCs, their two main (‘c’ and ‘x’) variants and why it is critical to appreciate the distinction.

October 2008. Three Canadians, George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier started the first Massive Open Online Course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08) based on a new theory of learning called Connectivism proposed by George Siemens in 2005.

Positing Connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age, Siemens asserted that learning is the process of making connections. These connections could take different forms such as those found in physical, social, cultural, conceptual or biological networks. These connections shape our learning because they help us navigate the increasing over-abundance of information and knowledge, leverage diversity of opinions and build the capacity to know, learn and adapt.

Stephen Downes proposed a new definition of knowledge which he called Connective Knowledge. Downes asserts that knowledge is the network. As Downes states: “at its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks”.

Dave Cormier is credited with coining the term ‘MOOC’ itself! He is also well-known for the theory of Rhizomatic Learning.

CCK08 transformed the way many people, including me, thought of education. The 12-week course was open and free. Over 2,200 people registered from over the world.

Even before CCK08 started, participants shaped the curriculum by suggesting areas of personal interest. Each week of the course, facilitators would briefly introduce the topic and suggest relevant open resources. Experts were invited to engage with course participants on each topic followed by an unstructured online conversation. Learning was distributed – participants interacted through tools they were comfortable with (like Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and SecondLife). The facilitators made their network connections and activity public, so participants could follow the leaders in the field and keep abreast of the latest developments.

Each day, using Stephen’s gRSSHopper technology, participant contributions would be harvested from all over the web, important contributions identified and a newsletter sent on to all participants enabling them to keep up with the activity in the course.

A few students (including me) signed up to become the first paid students in this the first ever MOOC. We submitted 3 essays that were evaluated directly by the instructors. The final certificate was awarded by the University of Manitoba (the course hosts) at the end of the course. Like many others, I started a CCK08 Blog that has a collection posts from each week of the course.

Participants self–organized to form many virtual and face-to-face open learning networks (that outlasted CCK08). They adapted material into their own language and context. The facilitators were always available as expert co-learners rather than as instructors. The sheer diversity in the community created tremendously exciting opportunities for learning.

CCK08 also illustrated four key principles of MOOCs – diversity, autonomy, open-ness and interactivity. Learning “emerged” rather than being pre-designed. Participants learnt to be practitioners rather than just “learning to know” or even “learning to do”. CCK08 also redefined the roles of teachers and students. The role of the teacher as an expert learner was to model and demonstrate while the learner had to practice and reflect.

Such a learning ecosystem reflects the reality of learning in a digital age, where information is over abundant, knowledge is increasingly specialized, change is extremely rapid, networks & social media have revolutionized communication and learning has become largely informal.

Such systems of learning can potentially solve the burning problem of employability of our students. It can help them gain the capability to become lifelong learners, negotiating external changes. It can raise the quality of teaching and learning significantly, in an equitable and affordable manner.

Since 2008, there have been a large number of MOOCs on the lines of CCK08. These MOOCs such as the Future of Education, Critical Literacies, Rhizomatic Learning and other versions of CCK itself, have seen rich interaction globally. A lot of published research and a strong community of educators, theorists, developers and thought-leaders have emerged. The new field of Learning Analytics has also emerged as a corollary of this approach.

Later, in 2011, two Stanford professors created an online course in Artificial Intelligence. They took the decision to make this course open and free for anyone who wanted to enrol. To their delight, almost 170,000 students registered for this course!

They discovered that people did in fact like the idea of coming online to learn in large numbers if the course was taught by reputed professors from top universities, was accompanied by a certificate from the university and was free.

Interestingly, they also started calling their online courses, MOOCs. The name stuck and MOOCs, so defined, soon caught popular imagination when more top universities got involved, technology to effectively manage large sets of learners matured and venture capital (& institutional) funds started backing the concept. Soon, we heard of massive investments in MOOCs and some of the top university brands like Stanford, MIT, Harvard and others backing them.

To distinguish between the two, Stephen Downes termed the original MOOCs ‘cMOOCs’ (for Connectivist MOOCs) and the newer ones as ‘xMOOCs’, the “x” standing for being an extension of something else.

That something else was really the type of eLearning that had grown very rapidly since the late 1990s. Corporations and even online learning providers found it expedient to digitize expensive face to face training and create standardized, mass learning experiences for their employees, in order to cut costs and save lost working time.

For the most part, this type of eLearning tried to simply replicate the traditional classroom and curricular practices online. In traditional online learning, all learning is centrally directed, restricted to the closed boundaries of the course, performed generally alone (collaboration features see very low usage patterns), mass personalized with rigid pre-determined learning paths and assessed largely through objective type assessments.

This type of eLearning had already failed to scale for many reasons. It was designed for stereotypes of industrial age learners. It ignored the diversity and overabundance of information that is present in real life. It ignored the autonomy of learners to personalize the learning experience. It ignored the richness of interaction on the World Wide Web. It ignored the “conversation” and “connections” in learning. xMOOCs are extensions of this type of eLearning.

By only incrementally extending this type of online learning, xMOOCs have massively magnified challenges such as low retention, rote learning, low employability and lack of student ownership, motivation, interactivity and engagement. It is as if they have ignored more than two decades of insights from online, open and distance education.

Backed by venture funding, top universities and media hype, xMOOCs have captured popular imagination. India has not remained immune to this hype. Addressing the need for personalized interaction and for integrating LABs, high quality online self-paced content is to be blended with face to face local faculty interactions and LABs. This addresses some shortcomings of the xMOOCs, but in essence remains their extension.

What we should be doing instead, is to build massively open connective learning ecologies that can help our students and teachers to become capable, connected and responsible digital learners – the promise of the cMOOCs (and of an ideal educational system).

These ecologies will both need and encourage experimentation and innovation. And they will yield better results because learners will be better connected and more in control of their learning.

The important question is: do we really care enough?

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In the Oscar-winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire, the main protagonist manages to answer very difficult (to the common person) questions to win a jackpot. People are quite unsure how he did it and he becomes the object of an intense investigation. While providing explanations for how he answered each question, it was found he could answer it because he experienced it in some way. He had never gone to school, where presumably you learn the answers to difficult questions, and therefore his feat was questioned all the more. His experiences (and luck that each of the questions aroused a connected memory deep inside him) enabled him to answer the questions.

Spread around us are slumdog graduates going to the slumdog university that is our combined living experience. Rather than being handcrafted by some elaborate educational system designed to produce certain deterministic outcomes, these graduates are a product of their own epiphanies and will and courage and perseverance. While we spend a good part of our lives imagining change that can be structured through formal education, many of these graduates are continuously shaping and reshaping the world around us.

To call them “graduates” of a “university” is to succumb to tradition, though. And calling them “slumdogs” is itself not free of a certain bias. Let us call them “makers” and “thinkers” of a new world, unfettered by the trappings of our formal conception of education. They do not require the education we “provide” to them or the elaborate restrictions we build around who is learned and who is not. They are not guinea pigs of theory that serves capitalist and edu-casteist practice.

For we keep beating into submission every new innovation and change agent. MOOCs become xMOOCs, monologous extensions of traditional lectures, with the hilarious debate being just exactly how long should each video be (hey, statistically the eDX folks proved that it should be closer to 8 minutes and hey, look again, there is a growing cult that likes the Green Tick Mark that signifies they got something right).

But I am not laughing. There is something very wrong with a system of thinking that precludes change, that feeds carnivorously upon itself only to continuously grow new offspring. Don’t like the UGC, create a super commission. Don’t like the DIETs, reform them and add BITEs. Cry about inadequate teachers, but continue to train teachers the same way our students learn. Feast on your self and cry wolf. Centralize everything and create new systems of governance, but never realize that the world is now distributed.

What we need is to build alternate capacity to think and innovate. Like get a separate booster shot or something, right away.

Immediately, we should design and implement an ecosystem where innovators, educators, edu-leaders should be able to learn and craft distributed systems of learning that empower a whole new generation of makers and thinkers. They should permeate not just the formal regulated sectors of learning, but also address the much larger segment outside this sphere, making it possible to truly reshape the human potential of this country. More on this soon…

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Massive Open Online Courses  (MOOCs) and OERs have captured the imagination of our polity.

The new Government’s election manifesto clearly specifies MOOCs, although not under school or higher education, but under Vocational Training as a means for “working class people and housewives to further their knowledge and qualifications”. Further, there is a firm push, although under the section of School Education, on establishing a “national eLibrary to empower school teachers and students”.

Although, framed under different heads and not explicitly and universally correlated with the underlying issues facing our education system, these two are important areas of focus for the new HRD Minister, whose own enviable background in Media and Communications provide her with some of the necessary insights into how to create engaging media based experiences for our students. I do sincerely hope that this background also translates to many of our teachers who need to enhance their communications effectiveness as also inspires more teachers to use popular media or innovative performing arts led approaches to education (e.g. Theatre in Science or dance in Mathematics education).

National eLibrary

A high quality national eLibrary backed by the right capability, technology and open-ness, can dramatically transform both teaching and learning effectiveness. If these are accompanied by permissive Creative Commons licensing terms that make it possible for any entity to use these materials (like for the NMEICT materials), then this will act as a great stimulant for uptake of these resources.

School OER initiatives such as the National Repository on Open Educational Resources (NROER), NIOS, Karnataka OER, Gyanpaedia, TESS and other national/international OERs like Gooru and MERLOT can be aggregated in the eLibrary. On the other hand, similar OERs for Higher Education and Vocational Education sectors through the MHRD NMEICT projects (NPTEL, CEC-NMEICT, ePG Pathshala and many others across the world like Saylor and edX) can also be combined into the same repository.

Along with these, as NROER and Gooru are fast demonstrating, external data from agencies like NASA or the Indian national archives can really add tremendous value if they are made publicly available.

However, we will suffer since there is no underlying content management architecture or content development (including metadata) standards framework at all. Ultimately, these different initiatives may not be able to inter-operate, quality will not be uniform and scarce expert resources will not be efficiently utilized. Both are solvable existing problems, but need urgent and immediate attention if the national eLibrary is going to succeed in intent and execution.

We shall also suffer if we are unable to decentralize content development and quality review across the board, training both teachers and students to contribute high quality instructional content. We shall also start feeling the pinch very soon for skills such as Instructional Design, which are scarce in the country.

MOOCs

On the MOOC front, we clearly are at a precipitous juncture. On the one hand, the focus on MOOCs and the intent to spread them across sectors makes me really feel that we are on the right path. But, on  the other hand, we need to appreciate the transformative potential of MOOCs as originally conceived.

Also called cMOOCs, these original MOOCs were started in 2008. The term MOOC was coined by Dave Cormier during the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008 (CCK08) MOOC. CCK08 and subject cMOOCs were based on the theory of Connectivism coined by George Siemens and of Connective Knowledge posited by Stephen Downes.

These experts believed that eLearning was at an inflection point – that traditional online learning had utterly failed because of it’s design and execution and that we needed a new way of thinking about eLearning. So they forged a new path that would help learners and teachers to revisit their roles in the context of fast changing information and social landscapes.

It is a path that the later MOOCs (like edX, Coursera etc.; also called xMOOCs) have not leveraged, being content to perpetuate the ills of traditional elearning. Only this time, the scale is massive and that has reflected in the massive dropout rates and low engagement ratios on these platforms. In fact, they simply seem to have missed over two decades of insights from the evolution of open & distance learning and e-learning.

In India, we can still make a more informed choice and perhaps evolve our own MOOC methods and models. Hopefully  they shall be ones that are based on learning from the mistakes the world has already made, rather than porting models from the West as-is.

MOOCs and eLibrary – Connecting the dots

These two initiatives – MOOCs and the National eLibrary (or OER) are more deeply connected and pervasive than is generally realized. A strong and efficient eLearning system is one where the content management process connects seamlessly with the learning delivery systems using standards based inter-operability and metadata.

This inter-connnection helps in many ways. Predominantly, it enables resources to be published and re-purposed into multiple formats for different devices & form factors – mobile, tablet and PC. But it enables production and delivery efficiencies to the tune of almost 30%. At scale, this translates into savings of hundreds of crores of rupees. Significant thought must go into designing these systems and their inter-relationships.

In Conclusion

The focus on technology enabled education is indeed extremely good for India. Going forward, we should fill the obvious gaps in capability, technology and pedagogy, so that we are able to fully leverage education technology for the nation.

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