Friday, April 12, 2013

Scalable learning with massive open online courses

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where a panel, including a Nobel Laureate is discussing "Scalable learning: the beautiful paradox of massive open online courses (MOOCs)". The ANU joined the edX consortium a few weeks ago to develop Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The first two MOOCs from ANU will be "Engaging India" and "Astrophysics" taught by Nobel Laureate Professor Schmidt. On the way to the event I picked up a copy of "The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education" I had asked the  ANU Library to purchase, which is very relevant to the panel's deliberations:
ANU has become the only Australian member of, the online learning enterprise founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the aim of providing free education to one billion people worldwide within 10 years.
In this seminar, we will hear from the two pairs of academics behind the first ANUx courses:  Professor Brian Schmidt and  Dr Paul Francis, who will be teaching Astrophysics; and Dr McComas Taylor and Dr Peter Friedlander, whose MOOC is called Engaging India.
We will also hear from Dr Lyndsay Agans, Convenor of the CAP Digital Learning Project, who will discuss some of the organisational thinking and approach behind the development of Engaging India. Lyndsay will open a dialogue on the 'paradox' of distance learning and mass scale as one that actually allows for a more personalised design of education for individual needs, and in particular, the implications of the evolving educational theory of teaching in an open and massive online environment.
One analogy used by the panel for the early days of MOOCs is that it is like "flying a plane while still designing it". As someone with a professional technical background, this analogy is troubling: if I subject my clients to an untested system I can expect appear before an ethics committee, or a court. Similar ethical principles should apply to educators. When designing courses, educators need to confirm they are competent to do so and are using proven techniques: to do otherwise is unethical and may be unlawful. What is reasonable to do is create MOOCs using approaches from decades of previous work on e-learning. The way the MOOC runs can be recorded for research purposes, provided the participants are informed and give permission.

The issue of the purpose of MOOCs was also raised in the seminar. The point was made that at present most of those undertaking MOOCs are already at least undergraduate students at a conventional university. So MOOCs are not brining university education to a new group. The MOOCs may be a marketing exercise for universities to attract students away from other institutions, or to attract high school students to a particular discipline.

Those promoting MOOCs may have the idea of opening education and improving the world. However, there is little evidence to suggest this will work in practice, or that the MOOCs have a sustainable business model. However, it should be noted that there are many claims made for MOOCs with new technology, the reality by ANU is likely to be more conservative, based on existing courses, using proven technology and practices, not just made up on the spot.

The MOOCs are obviously not conventional courses. MOOCs will be a blend of course, research project and marketing campaign. But policies and procedures will be needed to see that, whatever they are, MOOCs are well designed, tested and run. Institutional  policies and procedures may need to be adapted and to be applicable to the MOOCs. As an example, a MOOC may use the institution's standard new course proposal form, where the learning objectives, teaching techniques and assessment plan are outlined, but to this may be added a focus group, as usually used for a marketing campaign.

It should be kept in mind that while institutions are not charging for MOOCs, they are still required to conform to various consumer protection, educational and other laws. As an example, all video must have closed captions for the deaf and the web interface must meet accessibility requirements. Also student information is subject to privacy principles, which will limit its use and may prevent the MOOC being hosted in a country which does not have comparable privacy protection.

The format of the MOOC will need to suit its purpose. One model which might suit a broad audience is that of a TV documentary series. This could start with a shot of the professor in the classroom with students, to establish their credentials as an academic. But within a few seconds we would see them in the outside world, demonstrating the topic. This does not require the professor to go to India or outer space, they could be in the library showing a  manuscript, or standing next to the university telescope.

This was an interesting event, at which the nature of education was being redefined. The audience was made up of a who's-who of educational designers and researchers in Canberra, not just from ANU. I will be discussing some of these topics in a free talk on "MOOCs with Books" in Singapore 24 April 2013. This is a short version of my talk "Syncronisation of Large Scale Asynchronous e-Learning" for the 8th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (ICCSE 2013), 28 April 2013, in Colombo.

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