Month: November 2013

Liveblog: Audrey Watters at Open Ed 2013

This presentation began with a general discussion – informed by Audrey’s background as a folklore scholar – of apocalyptic prediction.  Apocalypse and crisis are motifs that are common in contemporary discourse around education and educational technology, often accompanied by the idea of some sort of salvation through technology.  Christiansen’s (1995) notion of disruptive innovation threatens to both sweep away the new as a destructive force while ushering in the radically new.

Watters argues that these ‘end-times’ kinds of myths have a pervasive on American culture, and that the idea of disruptive innovation is particularly prevalent among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and in business culture.  These provide an ideological framework which leads to a lot of predictions about the future of education:  the move to mass online learning; the inevitable death of under-performing institutions; the death of the university.  These are seen as inevitabilities that result from a kind of technological determinism.  From the high-priests of this culture the accusation is made that public institutions are unable to innovate because they are monolithic, inflexible and somehow beyond the reach of these forces.  Thus we are encouraged to embrace for-profit and MOOC style education since their prevalence is seen an an inevitability.

Good folklorists respect the sacred stories of particular cultures, but need not accept them as true.  What happens when the rhetoric of crisis is adopted widely?  Can we successfully move away from the rhetoric of ‘crisis’?  These are the questions upon which we are encouraged to reflect…

Audrey’s notes and slides are available here.

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Liveblog: George Siemens at Open Ed 2013

David Wiley introduced George by noting that he wrote the course for which the term ‘MOOC’ was originally created.  George similarly paid tribute to David’s stewardship of the OER movement.  Here are George’s slides, helpfully made available ahead of time.

The presentation started with a bit of a review of George’s experiences as a blogger and online educator.  This led him – and Stephen Downes – to think about ways in which to lever technology and openness to improve student learning.  Early courses encouraged public discussion and sharing of ideas and a move away from ‘transmission pedagogies’ which replicated the worst of classroom interaction online.

George noted (correctly, in my opinion) that innovation is typically iterative and collaborative.  Often there are so many strands that it’s difficult to identify the main one but rarely does it result from one person with some sort of moment of divine inspiration.

Learning systems should recognise this, being: flexible, open, accessible, build-able extendable, remix-able.  Most of Siemen’s reservations about current MOOC providers are down to the lack of these features.  He also questioned the ‘newness’ of MOOC by noting that large scale education opportunities have been explored through television since the 1950s. MOOC are actually, he asserted, a supply-side answer to decades of increased in demand for education.  The move to a knowledge-based economy in the West was not accompanied by a similar re-haul of education.  When only 10-20% of people go to university we can expect them to be self-motivated and reasonably competent learners.  As this figure increases, so the kind of support we need to offer changes with it.

Some recent (Gates-funded) research on MOOC discourse revealed the following:

  • There is genuine interest and good quality research being done on MOOC
  • 90% of conversations involved education researchers
  • Mixed-methods research are preferred by most

Now, the angst-filled reflection:

  1. MOOCs don’t prepare learners for the kinds of things that learners need to be able to do:  we need ‘stuff that stirs the soul’.  (This is similar to the argument made by Marcus Deimann and myself here.)
  2. Openness is being lost in the noise – we need an idea of openness that can engage with wide audiences the way that MOOC has
  3. Revenue models have come to be the focus for a lot of people
  4. Drop-out rates in MOOC do not matter because they can’t be compared to the level of personal investment that traditional university education involves
  5. We are too wedded to the traditional model and this stops us from properly exploring the possibilities that are available to us

Given these anxieties, what might provide succour?  We are currently witnessing the unbundling of previously existing network structures in education and this means that it can be rebuilt in ways that enable quality of learning and increasing access.  MOOC should be seen as a stepping stone towards this since they co-opt elements of the traditional university programme.  Fragmentisation of education ecosystems leads us to an open landscape which can be shaped.  Furthermore, MOOC have made technology-enhanced learning into a part of the public consciousness and wider conversations.

There is a bunch of MOOC related stuff at  They have plans for a MOOC evidence hub too but they seem to be a bit behind on making this available.

Liveblog: David Kernohan at Open Ed 2013

David began by running out of the room (to jump in the chilly outside pool) only to be followed on camera in a segue that led to a video documentary (‘The Avalanche That Never Happened’) about the ‘deliverology’ which vexes UK education.  In the UK, in the mid 1990s Michael Barber (then a professor at the University of Keele) was invited by the government to consult with a view to improving literacy and education.  He advocated the replacement of public schools with private institutions, notably at Hackney Downs.  At the time both major political parties were keen to present themselves as the party of education.  This led to a change in the culture of British education which came to emphasise ‘targets’ and processes which were determined for the ‘front-line’ by ‘the top people’.

The obsession with setting and meeting educational examples led to an endemic manipulation of metrics across the public sector:  education came to be a matter of passing tests and passing tests alone.  Despite mounting criticism and evidence that Barber’s reforms may have been detrimental to education, the management culture he typifies remain dominant in British education despite the fact that those who espouse this approach are not themselves educators.

In more recent times a number of entrepreneurs – Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, Branson, many of them college dropouts – have supported the idea that there remains something inadequate about traditional approaches to education.  Educational (and teacher training) models have increasingly emphasised flexibility and profitability across the world.   The new model of the privately run school has become prevalent worldwide.  Barbers’s recent reports continue to perpetuate this view – but he’s only an example of a class of decision makers who have real influence.

Intellectual property laws have come to play a central part in this process, spreading from the west to Asia in order to protect the rights of private companies and to gather large amounts of data about markets.  Dressed in the language of ’empowering students’ and ‘globalisation’ one could see all this as the UK flavour of a wider, utopian trend.  The private sector remains the only admitted source of innovation and improvement in this view of the world.

Open education exists as a genuine threat to this orthodoxy:  it can provide a more personalised experience which can derive from genuine learner interest rather than the imposition of external frameworks of assessment.  However, we need to move away from the culture of measurement, which is a feature of this ideology:  we shouldn’t care so much about how many people use courses, what kinds of grades they get, etc.  We should resist standardisation which is carried out in the name of ‘choice’.

References and more information about the film are available at  The film itself (which is a pretty impressive production) is available from (password = avalanche)

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Liveblog: Andrew Ng at Open Ed 2013

Andrew Ng – co-founder of Coursera – joined us by Skype for this presentation since he couldn’t be with us in person.  His presentation focused on the ‘revolutionary’ aspects of Coursera’s MOOC platform.  Most people, he noted, could never take a course at Stanford but Coursera makes this possible by putting courses online which anyone can access for free.

For the uninitiated – if there were actually any in the room – a lengthy explanation of what Coursera is:  as a Stanford professor, Andrew usually taught around 400 students per year.  By putting his materials online he was able to reach 100,000 students.  The project now has 107 partners and has taught 5.2 million registered students across 532 courses.  Instruction is video-based and leads to certification which can be used to improve academic or vocational credentials.  Students interact with materials through quizzes and short assignments.  These are supported by plugins that offer a range of functions and can be designed by the partner institutions.  There are peer-grading functions which supplement machine assessment.

Ng tried to make a virtue of the fact that most Coursera users are already ‘educated’ – “over 80% of Coursera students already have a bachelor degree” – and argued that because today’s world is rapidly changing the ‘half-life of knowledge’ is decreasing people will be more likely to keep learning – not sure I fully grasped the logic of this.  It seems to me that this is entrenching privilege rather than increasing access to educational opportunity, particularly when Coursera certification is not widely recognised as equivalent to a formal degree or diploma.

So far, so generic: but what does the future hold?  Andrew went on to ruminate on the ‘flipped classroom’ phenomenon and suggested that Coursera content could be used to support campus education by making classroom time available for ‘deeper interactions’.  (I thought this model had been in place for all humanities degree programmes since… well, since there were universities.)  In the future, Andrew wants lower income people to have educational opportunities that they have not had in the past.  To me this is hardly revolutionary…

Rory MacGreal made the point that student work produced within Coursera cannot be used towards credit for university courses, and questioned the validity of terms and conditions that could own the intellectual property of students.  How is this compatible with ‘education for all’.  Andrew responded by noting that Coursera has costs and needs to find a sutainable model; this is the same reason for not adopting open licensing.  (The implication seems to be that this is all leading to monetization.)

More questions could have been interesting, but Andrew had another engagement.

[Reblogged from]

Foothill Technology Conference 2013

Last week I was in Northern California attending the Foothill College in partnership with Innovative Educators 2nd Annual Tech Conference.  I was only able to attend the first day as I was speaking at the San Jose Open Access Unconference the following day.  It was mostly keynote presentations, so here are my notes with a bit of reflection at the end.

Alexis Ringwald, LearnUp.

Alexis started out by noting that her grandfather was a president of Cerritos College, and that community colleges have a special place in her heart.  During her time working in India on renewable energy she was in a period of massive growth, and upon returning to the USA the impact of economic stagnation was rather apparent.  She became motivated to work on the jobs crisis.  He spent six months speaking with both unemployed people and with students from community colleges.  She came to see the problem as a lack of information rather than a lack of skills.  65% of today’s schoolchildren will be working in jobs that do not yet exist, but there are still many community college graduates who lack the skills for entry level positions.

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LearnUp trains and delivers skilled workers into open positions.  Unlike the typical recruitment process, online training is provided for a specific job that is currently available.  By front-loading the training (the example given was one hour training for a sales assistant) the idea is that people can be given a better chance of being recruited.  There is a gamified, role-play element to the delivery of the training where the focus in on customer satisfaction:  Alexis claims that this ‘compressed experience’ is a convincing assimilation of what it is actually like to do the job.  The claim made is that those who use this system have an advantage in the job market.  The system is free to students (and thus OER).  Costs are covered by employers who aim to encourage applications of higher quality (although employers do not share their own proprietary training materials).  Interestingly, data gathered by potential employees is shared with employers, which could raise some issues.  At the moment, the system is California wide.  It seemed to me that this approach might be made to work for some jobs (e.g. retail) but at all well not for others.  There is a kind of MOOC-lite feel to the approach.  (It was remarked to me that this kind of role-play has existed since at least the 1980s, and perhaps is not quite as revolutionary as may be claimed.)

Candace Thille, Open Learning Initiative.

Candace‘s presentation was entitled ‘Surfing the Tsunami’, a reference to the disruptive effects of new technologies on education systems.   The difference between supply and demand for education is growing, and there is also a noticeable difference between the achievement levels of different ethnic groups.  This is happening against the background of cuts in education funding.

Thille suggested that, because higher education is so person intensive is it subject to Baumol’s (1966) cost disease:  service industries which fail to leverage technology will always see their costs rise above the cost of inflation.  Many people are trying to solve this issue in the same way that the music industry approached it by recording and distributing learning resources.  (We see this in the xMOOC approach.)  This, it is contended, cannot work because students learn through activity.

The OLI is an attempt to designed scaleable environments which can facilitate authentic learning through goal-directed practice and targeted feedback.  Support is offered through tips and prompts, through simulation capabilities, being able to learn anytime, anywhere, and from being connected to resources and other students.  Data that is collected in order to form the basis of feedback loops.  An ‘instructor dashboard’ provides information on student progress towards learning outcomes and uses a RAG system.  The feedback loop extends to instructional design and course planning.  In a pilot, students taking the OLI statistics course performed better than a control group, and the experiment was repeated several times with the same result.

The next iteration of OLI is in collaboration with EdX – OpenEdX (which will be an open source platform).  So the MOOC platform will integrate the kind of learning support that has been developed through OLI.  In conclusion, it was suggested that releasing the kind of data gathered through this kind of platform should itself be open – under a future variant of Creative Commons licensing (e.g. CC-BY NC SA SD).

The learning analytics aspect of this may well work quite well where learning outcomes are very closely defined.  I found myself thinking about how well this might work for supporting the study of philosophy.  I probably don’t understand the limits of the system well enough, but I find it hard to see how progress towards typical learning objectives on a philosophy course could be measured in this way, although there are probably some measures which are general to all learning (hints requested, time spent in LMS, etc.)  I do wonder whether the rhetoric is matched by the system capability:  and whether this is really empowering students or replacing teacher authority with the authority of the analytics.  Might it be better to encourage students to act as supports for each other?

Andrew Maguire, InternMatch.

Internmatch helps would-be interns to find internships at the right company.   It provides students with resources like cover letters, resume templates and interview advice.  Thousands of internships and jobs are advertised through the site, and the idea is that some of the company’s culture bleeds through to the Internmatch site and so prepares them to make the best choice.  There is a discussion forum.  The site attempts to link up – presumably in the same way that job recruitment sites do – employers and would-be interns.

I’m taking away an improved sense of the importance of the need for community colleges to make their students more employable.  But at the same time I’m a bit concerned that a couple of the keynotes have both seized on this to suggest that the reason for poor graduate employability is some sort of information problem (to which they wanted to provide a solution, typically based on some sort or algorithm).  But this is most certainly not the full story:  people have been hiring and firing since there were jobs and things worked OK before we had the internet too.

By identifying the graduate employability with a sort of success in matching up of skills and vacancies we risk overlooking the elephant in the room.  The real origin of problems with youth (and other) unemployment is economic.  Many world economies are in a ruinous state and on a daily basis we bear witness to pathological disparities in wealth and life opportunity.

This conference was about technology-enhanced learning rather than open education per se, yet some of the speakers made a virtue of the open aspects of their projects.  To my mind, open education should strive to act as a counterpoint to legacy education models rather than simply operate within them.  As I have argued elsewhere, OER should be seen as radical objects which ‘open up space for critical reflection on our most deeply held assumptions about the point and value of educational systems’.  Importantly, we need to preserve the notion that education has profound value irrespective of its potential to improve employability and thus must never be subsumed into this.

[Reblogged from]