Archive for the ‘elearning 2.0’ Category

My presentation at the Technology in Higher Education at the edTechNext conference today.

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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.


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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There are many positives happening in EdTech in India. A government led mission called the National Mission on Education using ICT (NMEICT) has created massive amounts of content for engineering, arts and humanities, social sciences and natural science. It has also delivered the under 50 USD tablet, Aakash and a slew of innovations including Virtual LABs and the A-View web conferencing tool (that seems to work better than Skype). The school sector is running alongside nicely with initiatives to build content (NROER, K-OER) and delivery systems (Virtual Open School, NIOS). Teacher Ed is also getting the necessary focus from a content perspective (though the technology pieces are still being conceptualized). The Vocational Ed sector is running behind yet (although I have word of some level of content development), but one hopes it will catch up sooner than later.

The writing on the wall is pretty clear – India seems to be moving quickly towards a blended learning strategy that relies on platforms such as edX, existing physical infrastructure & “facilitator” faculty, and video lectures. Learning Analytics and Badging seem to be getting a mention (only just).

It seems an obvious response to scarcity of quality teachers, also exacerbated by the remoteness of interior locations. But interestingly these seem to ignore some of the learnings of the past 20-30 years and even some current work such as Sugata Mitra’s SoLE research and pilots in government schools.

Carefully crafted models of blended teaching and learning can definitely impact the system. However, systems designed to “spray and pray” will cause more harm than good. The current approach to virtual schooling seems to be to provide technology to broadcast lectures by the expert teacher and leave the local facilitator to do the support job. Blends are far more involved than that simplistic view.

Blends place a larger demand on students capability to learn with the help of technology. Learners need to build the capability for self-discipline, self-motivation, self-organization, peer learning, higher levels of exploration & discovery and even how to overcome technical constraints of under-reliable hardware, software and connectivity. 

Blends also place a heavy demand on the local facilitators of such instruction. The “distance” between the teacher and student needs to be filled by the facilitator. This distance is on the emotional plane as well as on the planes of knowledge, coaching, mentoring. contextualization and organizing the process of learning. In that sense, the facilitator needs to work very closely with the remote teacher and needs to understand the very intent and idiosyncrasies of the remote expert.

On the other hand, the remote expert needs to understand the limitations imposed by “distance”, and work to the capabilities of the facilitator. The expert also needs to cope with diversity, since it is obviously a much larger class than before and very diverse. The expert needs to be able to design learning paths that the facilitator can effectively implement. Especially in cases where the facilitator is also a competent and experienced teacher, the expert must allow for some level of creativity & local insight to be exhibited by the facilitator. Additionally, the remote expert must learn how to leverage data – about classrooms, facilitators and learning patterns – to make the blends iteratively more effective.

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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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I came across an article by the progenitors of #EDCMOOC on their initial thinking around MOOC pedagogy (MOOC pedagogy: the challenges of developing for Coursera). Riding on the Coursera engagement with the University of Edinburgh, the team designing the eLearning and Digital Cultures MOOC on the Coursera platform (that I missed enrolling for, though) was seeking to engage with the medium and pedagogy, planning and development and the wider implications for the practice of and research in eLearning and Higher Education.

The article makes a promising start by articulating the “digital mimicry” of the xMOOC platforms by calling out the fact that their models are digital extensions of the conservative education system. The authors also demonstrate their understanding that the MOOC innovation as one that questions and loosens the traditional notions such as institutional control, learning outcomes and assessment criteria.

They do acknowledge the precedents set by the cMOOCs, but dismiss them as being “populated by committed e-learning enthusiasts and remain untested as vehicles for delivering alternative, less ‘reflexive’ subject matter”, “pedagogically interesting, may not fit so well across other disciplines…radical fringes of what the Higher Education sector might be prepared to more fully endorse”.

Their focus is to preserve the “construction of the teacher that has an immediacy that can succeed at scale”, with the belief that the teacher’s role is somewhere in between “over-celebratory fetishizing of the teacher” and “(writing) the teacher out of the equation altogether”. They don’t subscribe to the hype that MOOCs (and the Open Education movement) will achieve grand visions of democratizing education or freeing of the world’s knowledge, but do believe that the MOOCs have some merit in terms of scale, diversity, experimentation & research, and augmentation to physical offerings of higher education institutions.

There intent is to see how the MOOC can operate in conjunction with traditional practices. Essentially, they base their interest on:

Online education is a trend-ridden field, and MOOCs might be seen as just another – rather high-profile – piece of ed-tech du jour. However, in their sheer scale, in the rapidity of their rise and in the profound issues they appear to be raising regarding the purposes of higher education and the future of the university, they are clearly something genuinely new, something more than simply modish. For this reason, they are surely worth serious engagement on the part of anyone interested in the digital futures of educational change.

IMHO, this is a very cavalier approach to think about MOOC pedagogy and I am sure the authors will want to defend their approach based on the learning they have had from actually putting this into practice.

Why do I say this? At the outset, you cannot think of cMOOCs and Connectivism from within the system – they are a disruption – xMOOCs being the (rather limited) innovation. cMOOCs questioned the existing paradigm, demonstrated an alternative (raised many questions that are still unsolved like, for example, assessments in a cMOOC environment) and laid a strong foundation for thinking about the disruption through the theory of Connectivism.

It is not enough to state they cannot fulfill grand visions of democratizing education or cannot work in less-reflexive settings. There must be an effort to quantify the “why” behind these assertions. There must be an awareness that networks that are democratic do not exhibit power laws, rather they are horizontal line graphs that require certain critical literacies (not only those found in “elearning enthusiasts” – dislike being called that).

There must also be a concerted effort to understand that the alternative to instructor-mediated “contact and dialogue” at small scale, towards preserving the quality of these interactions at a much larger scale, must have necessarily to leverage the power of the network (witness Alec Couros’s experiment to call for external mentors online for his physical class) and does not exist in the spectrum between “no-teacher” and “over-fetished teacher”, but rather in different conceptions of what a teacher can be (Atelier, Weaver and so many others that were discussed in CCK08).

It is also important not to bypass the role of technology in unearthing the progress, direction and quality of learning and acting as tools for the network itself to evolve and progress. Therefore, discussions around Learning Analytics, Complexity, Network evolution & collaboration, design of emergent environments for learning and new ways of implicit and explicit assessments must foreground any new design of a MOOC or any conversation around MOOC Pedagogy (if that is the right term – heutagogy was considered as more appropriate in some conversations).

What would count is if the authors directed their design efforts towards exploring the new paradigm from a new paradigm perspective, rather than force-fitting it to existing notions of what they think works and what does not. Their kind of MOOCThink confuses and perplexes me.

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