Archive for November, 2014

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.

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