I’ve been working with several colleagues on arranging the upcoming Digital Learning Research Network (dLRN) conference at Stanford, October 16-17, 2015. The call for papers is now open. We are looking for short abstracts – 250 words – on topics of digital learning. The deadline is May 31. Our interest is to raise the nuance and calibre of the discussion about education in a digital era; one where hype and over-promising the power of technology has replaced structured interrogation of the meaning of changes that we are experiencing. We have a great lineup of speakers confirmed and are expanding the list rapidly. The conference will include social scientists, activists, philosophers, researchers, and rabble rousers. It will be an intentionally eclectic mix of people, institutions, and ideas as we explore the nodes that are weaving the network of education’s future. Representation from the following research organizations has already confirmed from: Stanford, Smithsonian, University of Michigan, University of Edinburgh, Columbia University, CMU, state systems (Georgia, California, Texas, and Arkansas), and SRI.
Join us for what will be a small (max 150 people) and exciting exploration of a) what education is becoming, b) who we (as learners, activists, and academics) are, and c) where these two intersect in forming the type of learning system that will enable us to create the type of society that we want for future generations.
From the call:
Learning introduces students to practices of sensemaking, wayfinding, and managing uncertainty. Higher education institutions confront the same experiences as they navigate changing contexts for the delivery of services. Digital technologies and networks have created a new sense of scale and opportunity within global higher education, while fostering new partnerships focused on digital innovation as a source of sustainability in volatile circumstances. At the same time, these opportunities have introduced risks in relation to the ethics of experimentation and exploitation, emphasizing disruption and novelty and failing to recognise universities’ long-standing investment in educational research and development.
(T-shirt available from Fake Elsevier)
This post is a plea really to academics to not surrender rights, or the promise of openness so readily. I completely understand that I am in a privileged position, and it’s easy for me as a prof to say “only publish in open access”, or “share your stuff openly”. But it’s a different story if you are a new researcher, and after one of those ever more elusive permanent positions. But even so, I am often surprised at just how readily academics acquiesce to bad deals, particularly with regards to publishing.
I have frequently heard “I would love to publish open access, but in my field I can’t”. Or “I tried, but they said no.” And that is it, there is no attempt to find an alternative journal, to negotiate the embargo period with a publisher, to offer any form of push back. Academics frequently underestimate their power I think. As I mentioned a few years ago, I took the open access oath (only reviewing and writing for open access). It is a remarkably effective step. Our labour (offered freely to journals) is all we have, but the system requires it to operate.
Similarly, I have heard academics state that they would like to develop an online profile, but it would be frowned upon by their boss. Academic life seems to me to be increasingly precarious, and this climate of doubt and uncertainty can be abused. You have to tow the line ever more to get, or stay in a job. But academics are remarkably good at fighting against attacks on the integrity of their discipline. I don’t feel that they have become accustomed to thinking of their labour and outputs in the same way. So my plea is this – push back a bit. Ask the question about open access, refuse to do the review, start a modest (non-job threatening) online profile. Each time we acquiesce quietly makes it harder next time.
In response to my previous post, a throwaway analogy about Eddie Murphy and MOOCs, Rolin Moe produced this post. It is probably the best response to one of my posts I’ve ever had. I respond in kind here.
In the article The Eddie Murphy MOOC Mystery – Part 1, Moe (2015) responds to the author’s critique of MOOCs through the lens of Eddie Murphy. The Moe article is undoubtedly a significant contribution to the MOOC-Murphy literature in its analysis of the three core claims in the original article. However, in its analysis it fails to take into account the temporal element of the Murphy film rating, instead ordering them by Box office and Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is the author’s contention that consideration of this temporal element will further reveal the utility of the Murphy metaphor.
Using the IMDB rating for each of Eddie Murphy’s films, we can plot them against year of release. This gives the scatter plot shown in Figure 1:
What this reveals is that (ignoring the outlier of Best Defense), Murphy’s career commenced with a series of highly successful, highly rated movies. By the late 1980s however, the Murphy success formula had reached its peak, and we witness a period of stagnation, and general decline through the 1990s. In the 2000s, the picture becomes more complex. There is a form of renaissance (a murphaissance if you will), particularly aided by the Shrek franchise. However, this is more than matched by an underlying general long trend of decline. For every Shrek, there are two Norbits.
Researchers in educational technology have often made reference to the Gartner Hype Cycle. The author proposes that the Murphy Cycle offers a more robust framework for analysing trends. Not only is it grounded in empirical data (unlike the Gartner model), but it also offers a more nuanced picture. It has a similar peak and trough, but then a more mixed pattern of usefulness amidst a general sea of poor application.
The author also contends that it provides researchers with more meaningful reference points than those used in Gartner. Teams can talk about being in “the Beverley Hills Cop moment”, or realise “this is our Pluto Nash.” It also offers a degree of hope – for after the Klumps, comes Shrek.
File under: pointless things that occur to you while walking the dog.
My daughter came across Beverley Hills Cop on TV the other day, and then worked her way through a range of Eddie Murphy films. She quickly discovered what the rest of us learnt back in the 80s. Most Eddie Murphy films are not very good. Murphy has undeniable screen presence, and when he’s not on screen these films are just interminable. But for a few years anything with Murphy in it was a guaranteed hit. I came to the conclusion that what happened was that a lot of average scripts had sat around without any real backing, because they weren’t very original. But stick Eddie Murphy in it, and you’ve got box office success on your hands. It is hard to imagine why on earth anyone would make The Golden Child if it didn’t have Murphy headlining it. Or 48 Hours which was just another mismatched cop film. But with Murphy in it, they become something else. A lot of them aren’t really comedies either. They’re just films that have Eddie Murphy in. This is not a critique of Murphy as an actor, but I think he paid the price for this in the end. That “anything with Murphy in it is great” attitude wore thin by Beverley Hills Cop 3, and by the time you got to Pluto Nash, it was insulting.
So, what does this have to do with MOOCs? The ‘stick Murphy in it’ attitude of studio bosses back in the 80s seems to me rather akin to the ‘stick a MOOC in it’ attitude I’ve encountered with research bids, or discussions around innovative teaching. I have joked that I’ve dusted off all my rejected research bids and replaced “OER” with “MOOC”. It’s not quite true, but there’s an element of the Golden Child script about it all. At the moment, even with the MOOC backlash hitting, funders, governments, journalists – they all want a bit of MOOC action in there. To extend the Murphy-MOOC analogy, then I think MOOCs will pay the price for this high coverage. A good MOOC proposal will be rejected because they were of their time.
Actually, watching all those 80s Murphy films made me think there is a MOOC in there somewhere about 1980s action films and what they reveal about social attitudes of the time (it’s a LOT by the way).
Stephen Downes responds to my previous post: “I said, “the absence of a background in the field is glaring and obvious.” In this I refer not only to specific arguments advanced in the study, which to me seem empty and obvious, but also the focus and methodology, which seem to me to be hopelessly naïve.”
Stephen makes the following points:
1. George has recanted his previous work and is now playing the academic game
2. Research as is done in the academy today is poor
3. Our paper is bad.
Firstly, before I respond to three points, I want to foreground an interesting aspect of Stephen’s dialogue in this post. I’m going to call it “academic pick-up artist” strategy (i.e. tactics to distract from the real point of engagement or to bring your target into some type of state of emotional response). I first encountered this approach by the talented Catherine Fitzpatrick (Prokofy Neva) during CCK08. Here’s how it works: employ strategies that are intended to elicit an emotional response but don’t quite cross over into ad hominen attacks. The language is at times dismissive, humorous, and aggressive. In Stephen’s case, he uses terms such as: hopelessly naïve, recant his previous work, a load of crap, a shell game, a con game, trivial, muddled mess, nonsense. These flamboyant terms have an emotional impact that is not about the research and don’t advance the conversation toward resolution or even shared understanding. I’ll try to avoid responding in a similar spirit, but I’ll admit that it is not an easy temptation to resist.
Secondly, Stephen makes some statements about me personally. He is complimentary in his assessment of me as a person. I have known Stephen since he did a keynote in Regina in 2001. I’ve followed his work since and have greatly valued his contributions to our field and his directness. I count him as a friend and close collaborator. I enjoy differences of opinion and genuinely appreciate and learn from his criticism. (do a “George Siemens” search on OLDaily – he has provided many learning opportunities for me).
Stephen says a few things about my motivations that require some clarification, specifically that I am trying to make an academic name for myself and that I am recanting previous work. I honestly don’t care about making an academic name for myself. I am motivated by doing interesting things that have an impact on access to learning and quality of learning for all members of society. I am a first in family degree completer – as an immigrant and from low socio-economic status. There are barriers that exist for individuals in this position: psychologically, emotionally, and economically. Higher education provides a critical opportunity for people to move between the economic-social strata of society. When access is denied, society becomes less equitable and hope dims. My interest in preparing for digital universities is to ensure that opportunities exist, equity is fostered, and that democratic and engaged citizenry are fostered. The corporatization of higher education is to be resisted as values of “profit making” are at often in conflict with values of “equity and fairness”. I want my children to inherit a world that is more fair and more just than what my generation experienced.
I will return later to Stephen’s assertion that I am recanting previous work.
1. George has recanted his previous work and is now playing the academic game
With academic pickup artistry and my motivations foregrounded, I’ll turn to Stephen’s assertions.
It has in recent years been engaged in a sustained attack on the very idea of the MOOC and alternative forms of learning not dependent on the traditional model of the professor, the classroom, and the academic degree. It is resisting, for good reason, incursions from the commercial sector into its space, but as a consequence, clinging to antiquated models and approaches to research.
This get at the heart of views that Stephen and I have discussed on numerous occasions. I believe in the value of the professoriate. In this instance, he is Illich to my Friere. As I interpret Stephen’s work, he would like to see all learning opportunities and control shift to the individual and sees limited value in the higher education system that is as much about preserving faculty positions as it is about preserving the academy. Stephen and I both resist commercialization of education but vary in how we want to see the university of the future. Stephen wants a university model without universities. This comes, I believe, from his unfortunate experiences in doing his phd where his supervisory panel played a hard heavy hand in determining what is and isn’t research that they valued. I’m sure his experience isn’t unique.
Faculty can be stunning idiots when it comes to preserving and perpetuating their egos. The pursuit of knowledge and advocacy for equity often takes a seat to ego and the goal building a faculty “mini me” who is expected to pick up a research stream done by a panel or department and toe the line. In contrast to Stephen’s views, I love universities. I want a future of more, not less, universities. Universities are not perfect, but they are the best model that we currently have to enable individuals to improve their position in life and a power structure that exists to counter and comment on the corporate and government power structures. Can these goals be realized by networks of individuals (i.e. the second superpower)? If the world was populated with primarily Stephens, then it might be possible. For many people, however, education is not a goal in itself, but rather a means to employment. Systems are needed to preserve and perpetuate the highest ideals of society. If left to chance, then the views of the most aggressive will become the norm. While society slept, many of the wealthiest were busy creating a tax system that preserved their resources and created inequity. In the past, unions existed to serve as an organizing structure to advocate for the rights of individual works. Stephen would argue that we could today do this organizing and democracy preserving work through networks. I agree that networks are important, but argue that institutions are a type of network that has been configured to better meet these needs. Some structure is needed. Perhaps not as much as we see today in universities, but a minimum level or organization is required in order to provide learning opportunities to society’s disenfranchised. Simply giving people access is not enough. Social, scaffolded, and structured support is needed.
Perhaps as a result, part of what Siemens has had to do in order to adapt to that world has been to recant his previous work… This recantation saddens me for a variety of reasons. For one this, we – Siemens and myself and others who were involved in the development of the MOOC – made no such statements. In the years between 2008, when the MOOC was created, and 2011, when the first MOOC emerged from a major U.S. university, the focus was on innovation and experimentation in a cautious though typically exuberant attitude.
I haven’t recanted my previous work. Stephen displays a linearity of thought, of cause/effect, that confuses me. I see the world in networked structures. Learning is about network making at neuronal, conceptual, and external levels. Knowledge is networked. The history of ideas is networked. I don’t see a “one or the other” approach to research, to corporate involvement in education, or to learning in general. Instead, I see 3D lattice-like network structure that have multiple dimensions and connections between those dimensions.
Siemens has moved over to that camp, now working with EdX rather than the connectivist model we started with… Again, these rash and foolish statements [from Agarwal] are coming from a respected university professor, a scion of the academy, part of this system Siemens is now attempting to join.
I disagree with this statement, largely because I have privileged access to my own thinking. In this instance, and at least one prior when I did a talk at Online Educa many years ago and he stated that I had become fully corporate, Stephen is putting me in a box. Nobody puts George in a box! I am part of the academy in terms of employment. I am part of the academy by nature of grant writing and research. I am part of the academy in terms of publishing with my peers. But I am not only a one-dimensional entity. I did not take a traditional academic route. My publication history is not typical. Many of my citations come from open public works rather than traditional publications. To say that I have recanted prior work is simply not true. I am bringing my previous work into a different context – one that allows for networks and university structures to exist. Stephen is doing something similar with his work with LPSS. Has he sold out to the corporate oil and gas sector?
The inclusion of the Chronicle article as part of Stephen’s comments makes this a more complex discussion. We are now not only looking at what Stephen feels is a bad report, but that my professional ambitions are now being interpreted through a Chronicle piece. My criticism here, and something that was not clear in the Chronicle article, is about the academy’s embrace of MOOCs. Stephen takes the “we” personally, whereas he was never the intended target of the “we”. I would love to see all media interviews and recordings posted fully with articles such as this. My use of “we” in the above quote is problematic. By “we”, I was speaking about education/hypesters/corporate entities like Udacity/Coursera. This is something that Rolin Moe also asks about.
And what is key here is that he [George, over here, still in a box] does not believe our work was based in research and evidence… He says nice things about us. But he does not believe we emphasize research and evidence.
I was making an argument that didn’t come off clearly. This is perhaps a similar failing to Stephen’s previous assertions that his work is about “making” not only reporting. I don’t believe he meant it in the way that others interpreted it. What Stephen was saying there, and I’m saying here, is that there is an approach to work (in my case research and in his case writing software) that produces hope for desirable outcomes rather than despair at seeing a seemingly inevitable techno-solutionist outcome. I’m not denying that Stephen does research. But he has placed himself in a difficult position: he doesn’t want the institution of higher education but he wants to be seen by people in the academy as someone who does the same type of work as they do. Stephen defines himself as a philosopher. His papers reflect this spirit. He doesn’t frequently subject his ideas to the traditional peer review that defines academic research (for obvious reasons – he doesn’t trust or feel that process has much value). His writing is open and transparent, however, so anyone could engage and critique if they were so inclined.
2. Research as is done in the academy today is poor
The comments above aren’t a direct engagement yet with our paper. In the second half of this post, Stephen expands on his primary concerns which are about educational research in general.
Why is this evidence bad? The sample sizes are too small for quantificational results (and the studies are themselves are inconsistent so you can’t simply sum the results). The sample is biased in favour of people who have already had success in traditional lecture-based courses, and consists of only that one teaching method. A very narrow definition of ‘outcomes’ is employed. And other unknown factors may have contaminated the results. And all these criticisms apply if you think this is the appropriate sort of study to measure educational effectiveness, which I do not.
Educational research is often poorly done. Research in social systems is difficult to reduce to a set of variables and relationships between those variables. Where we have large amounts of data, learning analytics can provide insight, but often require greater contextual and qualitative data. Where studies, such as Bonnie Stewart’s recent PhD, are qualitative, criticism against size can be leveraged. These are both unfair in that no single node represents the whole knowledge network. Research is a networked process of weaving together results, validating results, refuting results, and so on. It is essentially a conversation that happens through results and citations. The appeal to evidence is to essentially state that opinions alone are not sufficient. The US Department of Education has a clear articulation of what they will count as evidence for grants. It’s a bit depressing, actually, a utopia for RCTs. While Stephen says our evidence is poor, he doesn’t provide what he feels is better evidence. Where, outside of peer-reviewed articles and meta-studies, can academics, administrators, and policy makers find support and confidence to make decisions (the stated intent the introduction of our report)? What is our foundation for making decisions? If the foundation is opinions and ideas without evidence, than any edtech startup’s claim is equally valid to researchers, bloggers, and reformers. Where is the “real research being performed outside academia” and what are the criteria for calling that activity research, but what’s going on in the academy, and funded by NSF, JISC, OLT, SSHRC, as being largely trivial?
Stephen then makes an important point and one that needs to be considered that the meta-studies that we used are “hopelessly biased in favour of the traditional model of education as practiced in the classrooms where the original studies took place.” This is a significant challenge. How do we prepare for digital universities when we are largely duplicating classrooms? Where is the actual innovation? (I’d argue much of it can be fore in things like cmoocs and other technologies that we address in chapter 5 of the report). Jon Dron largely agrees with Stephen and suggests that a core problem exists in the report in that it is a “view from the inside, not from above.”
I need to reflect more on Jon’s and Stephen’s insight about research rooted in traditional classrooms and the suitability of assessing that against a networked model of education and society.
3. Our paper is bad
At this stage, Stephen turns to the paper itself. Short answer: he doesn’t like it and it’s a trivial paper. The list of what he doesn’t like is rather small actually.
At this stage of reviewing his post, I’m left with the impression that much of Stephen’s complaint about our paper is actually a discussion with himself: The Stephen that disagreed with his phd supervisory committee and the Stephen that today has exceeded the impact of members on that committee through blogging, his newsletter, presentations, and software writing. Our paper appears to be more of a “tool to think with” and enable Stephen to hold that discussion with his two selves, effectively Stephen of today affirming that the Stephen in front of the phd committee made the right decision – that there are multiple paths to research, that institutions can be circumvented and that individuals, in a networked age, have control and autonomy.
Stephen next statement is wrong: “With a couple of exceptions, these are exactly the people and the projects that are the “edtech vendors” vendors Siemens says he is trying to distance himself from. He has not done this; instead he has taken their money and put them on the committee selecting the papers that will be ‘representative’ of academic research taking place in MOOCs.”
The names listed were advisors on the MOOC Research Initiative – i.e. they provided comments and feedback on the timelines and methods. They didn’t select the papers. The actual peer review process included a much broader list, some from within the academy and some from the outside.
They do not have a background in learning technology and learning theory (except to observe that it’s a good thing).
In my previous post, I stated that we didn’t add to citations. We analyzed those that were listed in the papers that others submitted to MRI. Our analysis indicated that popular media influenced the MOOC conversation and the citations used by those who submitted to the grant. Many had a background in education. George Veltsianos shares his recent research:
Our tests showed that the MOOC literature published in 2013-2015 differed significantly from the MRI submissions: our corpus had a greater representation of authors from Computer Science and the Gašević et al., corpus had a greater representation of authors from Education and Industry. In other words, our corpus was less dominated by authors from the field of education than were the MRI submissions. One of Downes criticisms is the following: “the studies are conducted by people without a background in education.” This finding lends some support to his claim, though a lot of the research on MOOCs is from people affiliated with education, but to support that claim further one could examine the content of this papers and identify whether an educational theory is guiding their investigations.
He goes on to say that the MOOC conversation has changed and that greater interdisciplinarity now exists in research.
Stephen and I have had variations of the conversation above many times. Sometimes it has centred on views of what is acceptable knowledge. At other times, on the role of academics and knowledge institutions in networks. Some discussions have been more political. At the core, however, is a common ground: an equitable society with opportunities for all individuals to make the lives that they want without institutions (and faculty in this case) blocking the realization of those dreams. We differ in how to go about achieving this. I value the legacy of universities and desire a future where they continue to play a valuable role. Stephen imagines a future of greater individual control, less boundaries, and no universities. Fundamentally, it’s a difference of how to achieve a vision that we both share.
In my previous post, I mentioned the release of our report Preparing for the Digital University. Stephen Downes responds by saying “this is a really bad study”. He may be right, but I don’t think it is for the reasons that he suggests: “What it succeeds in doing, mostly, is to offer a very narrow look at a small spectrum of academic literature far removed from actual practice”. This resulted in a Twitter exchange about missing citations and forgotten elearning history. Rolin Moe responded by saying that the history that we included in our citation analysis of MOOCs was actually the one that most non-elearning folks follow “depending on lens, Friedman Pappano & Young are more representative of who’s driving EdTech conversation”.
We took two approaches in the report: one a broad citation analysis of meta-studies in distance, online, and blended learning. This forms the first three chapters. While we no doubt missed some sources, we addressed many of the most prominent (and yes, prominence is not a statement of quality or even impact). In the fifth chapter, we evaluated the citations based on the MOOC Research Initiative, which received close to 300 submissions. We only analyzed the citations – we didn’t add to them or comment on their suitability. Instead, our analysis reflects the nature of the dialogue in academic communities. In this regard, Stephen’s criticism is accurate: the narrative missed many important figures and many important developments.
The heart of the discussion for me is about the nature of educational technology narrative. At least three strands of discourse exist: the edtech hypesters, the research literature in peer reviewed publications, and the practitioner space. These are not exclusive spaces as there is often overlap. Stephen is the most significant figure in elearning. His OLDaily is read by 10′s of thousands or readers daily – academics, students, companies. His work is influential not only in practice, as his Google Scholar profile indicates. Compare his citations with many academics in the field and it’s clear that he has an impact on both practice and research.
Today’s exchange comes against the backdrop of many conversations that I’ve had over the past few weeks with individuals in the alt-ac community. This community, certainly blogs and with folks like Bonnie Stewart, Jim Groom, D’Arcy Norman, Alan Levine, Stephen Downes, Kate Bowles, and many others, is the most vibrant knowledge space in educational technology. In many ways, it is five years ahead of mainstream edtech offerings. Before blogs were called web 2.0, there was Stephen, David Wiley, Brian Lamb, and Alan Levine. Before networks in education were cool enough to attract MacArthur Foundation, there were open online courses and people writing about connectivism and networked knowledge. Want to know what’s going to happen in edtech in the next five years? This is the space where you’ll find it, today.
What I’ve been grappling with lately is “how do we take back education from edtech vendors?”. The jubilant rhetoric and general nonsense causes me mild rashes. I recognize that higher education is moving from an integrated end-to-end system to more of an ecosystem with numerous providers and corporate partners. We have gotten to this state on auto-pilot, not intentional vision.
When technology drives education, a number of unwelcome passengers are included: focus on efficacy over impact, metrics of management, reductionist thinking, etc. To sit at the table with academics and corporate players is essentially to acquiesce to capital as a driving and motivating factor. Educators have largely been out maneuvered, as indicated by the almost luddite interpretation by media to any resistance by faculty and teachers. We can’t compete through capital at this table. So instead we have to find an additional lever for influence.
One approach is to emphasize loosely coupled networks organized by ideals through social media. This is certainly a growing area of societal impact on a number of fronts including racism, sexism, and inequality in general. In education, alt-ac and bloggers occupy this space.
Another approach, and one that I see as complimentary and not competitive, is to emphasize research and evidence. At the decision making table in universities and schools, research is the only lever that I see as having comparable capacity to capital in shaping how decisions are made and how values are preserved. This isn’t to discount social networked organization or alt-ac. It is to say, however, that in my part of the world and where I am currently in my career/life, this is the most fruitful and potentially influential approach that I can adopt.
We’ve released a new report: Preparing for the Digital University: a review of the history and current state of distance, blended, and online learning (.pdf).
The report is an attempt to reposition the narrative of digital learning away from “look, my cool new technology does this” to something more like “here’s what we know from research and here’s what we can extrapolate”. Innovation is a bunnies and kittens type of concept – who could possibly oppose it? Sometimes new is not better, especially when it impacts the lives of people. Remember the failure of Udacity and San Jose State University project? Even passing familiarity with research in learning sciences could have anticipated the need for scaffolded social support. Instead, a large number of at-risk-students had yet another blow delivered to their confidence as learners, further entrenching negative views of their capability to success in university. This is bad innovation. It hurts people while it gains media accolades and draws VC funding. With our report, we are hoping to address exactly this type of failure by providing a research lens on how technology and learning are related in various contexts.
Five articles are included in the report and provide an overview of research literature, while a final article looks at future technology infrastructure :
- Distance education
- Blended learning
- Online learning
- MOOC research
- Future learning technology infrastructures
From the introduction:
It is our intent that these reports will serve to introduce academics, administrators, and students to the rich history of technology in education with a particular emphasis of the importance of the human factors: social interaction, well-designed learning experiences, participatory pedagogy, supportive teaching presence, and effective techniques for using technology to support learning.
The world is digitizing and higher education is not immune to this transition. The trend is well underway and seems to be accelerating as top universities create departments and senior leadership positions to explore processes of innovation within the academy. It is our somewhat axiomatic assessment that in order to understand how we should design and develop learning for the future, we need to first take a look at what we already know. Any scientific enterprise that runs forward on only new technology, ignoring the landscape of existing knowledge, will be sub-optimal and likely fail. To build a strong future of digital learning in the academy, we must first take stock of what we know and what has been well researched.
Audrey Watters does a fantastic job of debunking the myth around the concept of the factory school, or industrialised education model. I see this mentioned almost as often as ‘education is broken’, and it is a close ally of ‘education hasn’t changed in 100 years‘. The basic line is that we have an education system that was designed for an industrial age and we are now in a post-industrial age, ergo, that education system is faulty.
I think the first thing to do is what Audrey has done so magnificently, which is to really dig into the historical perspective, and demonstrate why the assumptions underlying that stance are just wrong. Another approach is to examine why the lack of change that is touted is wrong also. So view this piece as a little sibling to Audrey’s foundational work.
When people suggest that schooling is the same as in the industrial change, as Morrissey would have it, this is true, and yet it’s false. I want to explore both the elements that are true (and why that’s not a bad thing) and those that are incorrect, by way of an analogy. Imagine that it was commonly stated as fact that “reading hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens”. To take the true aspect first, we could take a photo of someone reading a book (maybe even a Dickens novel), printed on paper, sitting in a chair in front of a fire. If you could go back in time you could show this to Dickens and he would declare that indeed, reading has not changed (he’d also be very pleased that people were still reading his novels). The first question to ask then, is why would you want reading to change? Why is an absence of change deemed a bad thing? Reading a book is a pretty good way to convey an idea, a story, and an enjoyable, enriching thing to do. That it hasn’t changed significantly in 150 years is testament to its value, not a sign of its weakness.
The next aspect is to look at why this statement is, while true, also incorrect. There are undoubtedly core similarities between reading now and in Dickens’ time, but there are also very significant differences. For example there have been significant changes in:
So any statement that merely says nothing has changed would not recognise that reading in 2015 is a very different experience to what it was in 1840.
If we now return to the industrial schooling argument we see a similar pattern. Firstly, there are significant similarities, so the statement is true in some respects. If you looked at education now and in the 1900s there are some things you would recognise: we send children to a central place, we group them by age and ability, we have teachers. As with reading, this unchanging aspect might be because it’s a good thing. Whenever I hear people state that they want to revolutionise (or do away with) the school system, I am struck by their lack of a viable alternative. If you want to educate all children in your country, regardless of motivation, ability, parental engagement, etc then you need a robust system. If you completely started from scratch tomorrow, my bet is you would end up creating something that didn’t look dissimilar to a schooling system. So the absence of change so deplored by many may indicate that viable alternatives are not available.
The second aspect is to consider what is wrong with the statement. As with the Dickens example, it actually ignores many significant changes, including:
When you take these into account, the schooling of children in 2015 is nothing like that of kids in 1915. Now this is not to suggest that there aren’t significant changes we can make within the schooling system. The Finnish approach is often cited as having a better attitude to assessment, curriculum, grouping, pedagogy, etc. And too often the education system is subject to the whims of whoever is the education minister (for example, the disastrous Michael Gove, who seemingly did want a 1915 system). And this is what irritates me about the industrial schooling argument – as so often with tech driven approaches, it demands wholesale revolution, instead of focusing on doing practical changes within the system which would actually be useful.
I’m learning that if you call something existing by a new name, or if you get some press, you can discover well defined concepts and claim them as your own. Today’s example: Arizona State and edX Will Offer an Online Freshman Year, Open to All
The project, called the Global Freshman Academy, will offer a set of eight courses designed to fulfill the general-education requirements of a freshman year at Arizona State at a fraction of the cost students typically pay, and students can begin taking courses without going through the traditional application process… Students who pass a final examination in a course will have the option of paying a fee of no more than $200 per credit hour to get college credit for it.
So, for $200 a credit hour ($600 for a 3-credit course), you may well pay more than you would at a small college. The fees charged then are not innovative or game changing. The idea of open access? Oh, well the OU started that in the 1960′s: Brief History of OU.
The only innovation here? Marketing & PR.
Once systems like ASU, who have launched some innovative ideas over the past decade, start looking at what has been done in education and what is known about learning, and then launch a legitimately new idea, rather than playing a PR game, we may have the prospect of substantial educational change.
I went to an excellent presentation from Cable Green yesterday about the K12 OER Collaborative. The project is aiming to get states to some of the money they currently spend on buying text books from publishers to produce open ones. He highlighted very forcibly what a crappy deal we currently have in that books are often very old (because they can’t afford to update), children are not allowed to do anything useful like take notes in them (because they have to be passed on), and if you lose one, the parents have to pay to replace it (which results in some parents telling their kids not to bring the book home). And on top of this, it’s really expensive.
So what they did was for a fraction of the cost currently allocated to purchase books they put out a call for companies to create new ones, but crucially, these would be openly licensed. This means that a) the digital copy is free, b) the state owns the rights so can update and adapt as they want and c) they can match specifically to common core. While the big publishers boycotted the call, many smaller ones responded, as did university departments. A million dollars (say) may not mean much to Pearson, but to a small company it’s a decent sum of money, even if there is no further revenue had then on sales.
The finances are truly staggering here, at the moment the state (he was talking about Washington state) can afford to update two books a year. When you consider the range of subjects and the age ranges, that means a lot of set books are out of date before it’s their turn to be updated. For the same money to update 2 books a year, using the open approach they could create open textbooks for ALL subjects. And these would of course, be usable across the whole of the US, not just in one state. And they would have money to pay people to regularly update the books. And they’d still have change left over.
When this is laid out you realise, that much like the academic publishing model, the current system was devised when ownership resided with the physical artefact. It now looks ludicrous. I do think we will look back in years to come and think “how did we let it go on for so long?”. I don’t know what the figures are for buying UK textbooks for schools, or how the process works, but the same approach would surely work here. In the US the figure is $8 billion nationwide, and the K12 OER project reckons it could do it all for around $30 million. Imagine what that extra money might be spent on in education.
It reinforced to me an obvious point, but one that bears repeating – ownership is key here. The real reason education boards spend millions of dollars in buying textbooks is not because the publishers have specialised technology or skills anymore. It is because they own the rights to the content. Once you break that link, then all sorts of possibilities open up.
Here is Cable’s slidedeck:
I’m at OEGlobal this week and attended a session from Athabasca University Library this morning. They were talking about how they have gathered together open access resources under the subjects for their uni, and also gathered in open resources from elsewhere. You can access this open access collection at their site. I think more libraries should do this, prioritising open resources so everyone can access them.
But what struck me in their presentation was that MOOCs were quite a significant driver in doing this. For many university libraries collecting open access resources doesn’t really matter as the fee paying students will have access to those resources anyway (if the library can afford to pay for them). And so there is no real driver for educators to focus on OA above other resources. But when people started creating MOOCs, this breaks down – your open learners won’t have that privileged library access, so any resources you use must be open.
This is similar to the manner in which social media drives open access also. What it highlights is that openness in any form begets openness. So while we may sometimes bemoan that MOOCs themselves are not really open (in the sense of openly licensed), they do form part of a larger system, which helps drive openness. I expect you’d all realised this long ago, hadn’t you?
Last week was the OER15 conference here in Wales. I was the co-chair along with Haydn Blackey. While my view may be somewhat biased, I think it was a great success. We had great sessions, everything worked well, the venue was marvellous and the sun was out in Cardiff. If you haven’t been to the Uk OER conference before, I recommend getting along to Edinburgh next year for OER16. I was, as is so often the case, reminded very forcibly of how enthusiastic and engaging the open ed community are.
The theme of the conference was “Mainstreaming OER”. I suggested in the opening remarks, that it wasn’t the case that OER are already mainstream practice, but that they now stand on the cusp of it. After 13 years or so of development, a global community has been developed who are focused on OERs, open textbooks and open education in general. But the next stage is to move into the mainstream. There is almost nowhere else left to go now. That transition may not be successful, and it isn’t inevitable, but it is the next phase we need to attempt, in order to realise much of the ambition that underpinned the OER movement.
Often conference themes are rather vague, and don’t really bear any resemblance to the actual sessions. They’re rather like having a theory of parenting – you think it will go one way, and reality trundles along regardless of your interventions. But I feel that the theme of mainstreaming OER was really very relevant to the content of the conference. All of the keynotes explicitly addressed it, and in all the sessions I attended, participants made it a key thread in their work.
This caused me to muse somewhat on the nature of change (especially in higher education). I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction the other week, and she talks about the nature of extinction and its time frame. Darwin and others believed species go extinct very slowly (the winding down of a natural selection process). But of course, we discovered that sometimes extinctions happen quickly, caused by major events (the dinosaur slaying K-T event being the most famous). As Kolbert puts it, “conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don’t”. Or as paleontologist David Roup sums it up, evolution is “long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic.”
Related to this, my colleague Simon Horrocks pointed me to the French historical tradition of la longue duree. This argues that we shouldn’t focus on the big events in human history, but rather on longer cycles. While we tend to talk of significant battles and revolutions, the ideas or regimes these have overthrown persist for much longer. This is in line with the theme of my book, that having had the initial victory, it is actually now that direction is determined.
Which brings me back to the theme of OER15. I think change in higher ed has some resemblance to the evolutionary pattern (although over much shorter timescales) – change happens very, very slowly, and then very, very quickly. At the same time there are also longer patterns of change beneath this. For example, one might argue that MOOC hysteria was an example of one of those moments of panic. But this occurs within longer cycles – for example, the trend towards openness might be one, but so are much more fundamental practices such as knowledge construction, autonomy, critical thought, etc. I would suggest that silicon valley and the media are almost exclusively focused on those moments of panic, but ignore the equally important longer processes. In terms of OER then, I would argue we need to embrace both – be prepared for the long haul, but ready to react when the rapid change comes.
Here is a nice playlist of all the keynotes from OER15, and also an overview video:
At the Hewlett Grantees meeting in San Francisco, David Wiley made a very good argument that we need to focus on specific problems that OERs can address and solve those. I think this is part of the mainstreaming process – at the start of the movement there are grand claims and big visions. These are necessary to get it going, but over time and with further investment the focus becomes more practical. So, reducing the cost of textbooks for students in higher ed is one such specific problem. We can show how OERs (in the form of Open textbooks) can achieve this, we can implement an approach to solve it, and we can measure it.
We also discussed whether there are universal problems which OER can solve. David suggested that actually problems often look superficially similar, but there is such variety in context that they are actually very different problems. The situation in North America is different to that in Europe, and that in the UK is different to that in France, and that in K12 is different to higher ed, etc.
I would contend that there are some problems which, if not quite universal, are similar enough to be of interest to a wide range of people. If we take the original premise that we need to focus on specific problems, then the next stage is to find problems of sufficient interest. Here are some which our OER Research Hub findings point to, but these are just some suggestions, and will undoubtedly be influenced by my higher ed, northern hemisphere perspective, so I’d love to hear more:
There are obviously more, but that wouldn’t be a bad set of problems to both solve and to investigate fully. But I definitely feel that these targeted benefits allied with appropriate research is what is required in OER now.
I am at the Hewlett Grantees meeting in Sausalito this week, and last night they showed the film The Ivory Tower, in order to provoke discussion around what relevance OER had to the issues raised in the film. I’d seen it before, on a plane, and it had vaguely irritated me, but it was interesting to see it again last night, when it really irritated me.
I think a documentary film about how we fund higher education is an interesting thing to do, but this one jumps around all over the place. It suggests that the fault of high education costs lies with the university. It is not a film about how society funds higher education. For instance it only looks at the US. If you were interested in the topic of higher ed funding you would look at other countries with different models. As I’ve said before, if you make higher education a market, you shouldn’t then criticise universities for behaving in a perfectly logical way to succeed in that market. The film makes a big play on universities having climbing walls and fancy buildings, but if these attract students and money in a competitive market, then that they are inevitable. It doesn’t take the next step and make the discussion about funding in general, but rather says we should look at what universities are doing and whether education is now a good investment.
It also offers some of the alternatives that were popular a few years back, including UnCollege and, of course, MOOCs. The whole MOOC section just seems deeply embarrassing now. There is a definite ‘these will sweep away unis’ feeling, and they give the pre-pivot Thrun full rein. No-one making a documentary in 2015 would present MOOCs in such a light (which is not to fall into Good vs Evil Unicorn territory, not to say you couldn’t have an interesting doc about them). And this I think is the problem – for OERs they need to avoid getting caught up in any of the rhetoric that will date quickly. Instead, as David Wiley likes to propose, focus on particular problems and solve those. OERs don’t need to mean the end of university, but they might help with the high cost of textbooks. OERs don’t need to create an UnCollege program, but they can help students pick the right course by studying before they choose, and then help them complete by supplementing study when they’re in university. And so on. These benefits aren’t as glamorous and may not get you a documentary made, but they are actually useful.
(It is a little known fact that every time a pub closes, an angel dies)
I use the site Blipfoto to do the photo a day thing. I’m not that active over there, but it is one of those sites that some people really, really, love. It has developed a strong community over the years, but this week it was announced it was going into liquidation. It may not be lost, as a buy-out may be on the cards, but it’s a reminder of the fragility of these things. It doesn’t bother me too much, I started a WordPress blog to do the same, and I’m in the lucky position of having my main network elsewhere. But for many users, Blipfoto is the place they go to connect with people.
Of course, the obvious solution is to own everything yourself and self-host. But there are two issues with this – if you want to connect around a particular interest you need to go where others with that interest are located. You can build up a network through self hosted blogs, as many of us have done, but a specific site is an easier thing to manage, and also allows for more serendipity I think. I have seen photos from people who work on North Sea oil rigs, people doing relief work in Mongolia, others who have the same dog as me, as well as connecting with the people I know through other means. Those other connections don’t always happen through your self hosted sites. The second reason is that while I might just about manage to host my own WP site, it’s really into something a lot of people will do. The ease of use and simple purpose of such sites is their attraction.
Ultimately I think it’s just one of those things. Online services have no more right to permanence than physical ones. We have complex, emotional attachments to buildings because of the social function they perform. Think of the impact the closing of the village pub has on that community. Why did we imagine online spaces would be any easier? Enjoy it while you can, make sure you have a backup and remember nothing lasts forever – that’s about the sum of it.
I’ve done variations on my Battle for Open talk 3 times this week, and one slide I’ve used is to talk about the way false dichotomies are created. I characterised it as you are forced to be a good or evil unicorn (these are actually a thing, but a not real thing). This is often the result of excessive hype and over-reaching on the part of educational technology. The silicon valley/technology utopia narrative has a lot to do with this – in order to get attention for you start-up it is better to give a story that it is revolutionary, rather than a bit useful. The media plays an important role too as it prefers these ‘next big thing’ stories. And when they don’t realise this potential (which is usually a good thing as their utopia is quite often a dystopia for others), people get disaffected.
If you work in ed tech you’ve seen enough of these to become completely jaded and cynical, and there is some fun to be had in puncturing the puffed up nonsense of the latest education disruption. But we should also be careful not to just reject all technologies simply because they come wrapped in nonsense media. And this is what happens, we find ourselves forced into diametrically opposed camps because that is what the narrative demands of us – there are no neutral unicorns.
And while it is boring, and can be dismissed as sitting on the fence, the truth almost always lies in the middle. MOOCs are not going to destroy higher education as we know it, nor are they irrelevant. They’ll turn out to be useful for some purposes.
Here are the types of conflict we often see set up in this good vs evil unicorn world:
And so on. I’ve felt myself being forced into these extremes at times. It’s easier in a way, you don’t have to think anymore – your reaction for any new development is pretty much defined for you. It may also be profitable – if a newspaper, TV or radio show want an interview, they want the people at the extremes, not the nuanced view in the middle.
But ultimately it’s not helpful, and simply just wrong. If you find yourself being pushed into an extreme view, ask yourself if you’re a good or bad unicorn. The answer is, neither.
It is quite common to hear statements along the lines of “education hasn’t changed in 100 years”. This is particularly true from education start-up companies, who are attempting to create a demand for their product by illustrating how much change is required in the sector. At a conference I attended once a speaker invited the audience to think about what they were doing now and what they were doing 10 years ago and how it hadn’t changed, and everyone agreed. But I think these statements miss a lot of the change that has taken place.
If you were to come to a university campus, superficially it looks as though things are pretty unchanged. The sports centre is better, the bar is less of a dive and the restaurant serves better food, but there are still lectures, laboratories and students sitting around on the grass. But these mask a real technological and demographic change that has taken place over the past 20 years.
Firstly, the concept of the traditional student – someone who leaves home at 18 and studies full time at a university – is no longer dominant. Many students are living at home (and will still have the same groups of friends), studying part-time, studying at a distance or are in the ‘mature’ group, ie over the age of 22.
Secondly, the role of technology has become much more central. Imagine turning off learning and teaching systems at a university (we’ll ignore admin systems for now). Many universities would simply be unable to function. Students submit assignments, access teaching material, use digital library resources, use software for research, engage in group work and socialize via these systems. While I have many reservations about the way the VLE path has panned out, this technology is central in just about all universities. Even relatively uninteresting (from a pedagogic perspective) technologies such as lecture capture can have a profound impact for many students.
Comparison with the music industry is also a trope you will hear fairly often. The MOOCs were the MP3 of higher education Shirky warned us. In fact, if you take the view above, then higher education, far from being a sector that is still waiting for the internet to happen to it, is a good example of how to incorporate new technology while still retaining its core functions.
Which is not to say it’s all okay. I think a real problem for higher ed is the legacy of the physical environment for example. We do lectures because we have lecture theatres. More significantly we can’t conceive of doing anything else because the lecture theatres says “do lectures”. It would be very difficult, for instance, to implement a flipped approach in many university courses because the face to face space is built for lecturing and not doing the other things you might want to utilize that time for. Shirley Alexander is a good example of someone who is rethinking that university space, but it doesn’t come cheap. Similarly, if you’re being generous, maybe it took this long for the VLE to be accepted, but more innovative use of online tools should now be more commonplace.
There is much more that is fun, innovative and challenging that can be done, and we should push hard on this, but at the same time I would challenge anyone who claims glibly that higher education hasn’t changed. They simply haven’t looked properly.
Some of you may have seen a recent article about the drop in part-time student numbers and the OU. First of all, some perspective, it’s not quite the end of the OU as some have interpreted it – they anticipated a drop following the introduction of fees and planned for it. But the overall decline in part-time numbers has been bigger and longer than expected, so it is beginning to bite now. The OU will be okay as an institution, but it means there are people missing out on education who would really benefit from it, and that’s what makes me really angry.
I have read various causes proposed for this since the article, most of them relate to whatever someone’s particular belief is: more focus on regional centres, should concentrate on overseas students, and FutureLearn. The very people who might criticize the OU for developing FL would be saying ‘they failed to respond to the threat of MOOCs’ if we hadn’t. No, all of this is immaterial beside the one big factors: fees. We should not let any of these other discussions distract us from the awful stewardship of higher education under the current government. Three reason for the decline in part-time numbers? Fees, fees, fees.
The thing is all of this was entirely predictable. A colleague of mine did research on the potential impact of fees for part-time students and it showed they would stay away. Some might go full time, most wouldn’t bother to study. This is particularly damning in the current social context. Open entry, low cost, part-time study appeals to exactly the sort of people you want to encourage into education, especially if you feel that social mobility is a worthwhile thing.
Which brings me onto the real point of this post. When we elect governments they take on a responsibility to look after our national treasures. After the NHS and the BBC, the OU is one of the institutions that Britain holds dear. It is the envy of many other countries and its model has been adopted across the globe.
I feel that we ask the wrong question of political parties. It is not so much ‘what will you do?’ but rather ‘who will do the least damage?’ This applies to all those in positions of real authority, be they CEOs of large companies, or VCs of universities. There is always a focus on being active, on making change. But actually maintaining is a good goal also. Here is a radical thought, imagine if an Education Minister said “I think teachers are doing a really good job. We’ll listen to you and make some improvements where it will help, but generally we don’t want to interfere, so we’re not going to introduce any big reforms for five years.” That would be good for the education of the children of this country, but it’s a bad political move. You need to be seen to be improving efficiency, introducing radical reforms, changing the system.
The fees system and accompanying loans have been poorly conceived and even more poorly implemented. The damage they have done to the nature of higher education in this country may never be recovered from. The duty of care of all such national sectors is not something we should let people take on lightly.
I’m pleased to announce a new post doc position at LINK Research Lab at University of Texas Arlington (we will be announcing several additional positions in the next month in various topic areas).
The first position, Post Doctoral Research Fellow, is focused on assessing labour market data, specifically how the changing nature of work impact higher education institutions. For example, what type of work will we be doing in an age of increasing automation? How do universities identify important trends that require alteration of teaching practices from current models? What will the university look like in a global learning and knowledge economy? What will we teach? How will we teach? How will our students (and employees) learn?
We’ve taken a slightly different approach to this position, reflective of the networked and interconnected world of work and higher education. The successful candidate can work remotely from UTA for part of their time. Supervision will be done by Drs. Shane Dawson, Dragan Gasevic, & George Siemens. Additionally, the candidate will spend 2-3 weeks at University of Edinburgh and 2-3 weeks at University of South Australia (Adelaide). The international trip costs will be covered by participating universities, separate from the position salary.
The formal stuff:
The official position description is here: http://www.uta.edu/hr/eos/faculty-search/posting/DDTL02122015PDF
The relationship between work and formal education is changing. A traditional view holds that formal education prepares individuals for a lifetime of employment. Education in this view is event based. Essentially, once the degree has been completed, the individual moves into the workforce. However, as a result of the complexities and challenges associated with the modern economy, this model is no longer the norm. The traditional full time student is now a minority in the USA, as part time learners and mid-career masters students and alternative programs (such as competency based and online learning) increase in numbers. The nature of work and employment is also changing, as routine labor is increasingly automated. Bill Gates recently stated that within a decade, 50% of today’s jobs will be automated. The repercussions that this has for the economy and the quality of life for people are significant. The impact on the future of universities and colleges, specifically in relation to how higher education prepares individuals for employment, is an important area of research. The skills/employment gap refers to the relationship between what learners know and can do when they graduate and what employers expect. A second gap, that of developing the whole person (such as in a liberal arts education) versus developing an individual for primary employment, also exists as work moves to a creative economy. The balance between formal education, learning, work, creativity, and knowledge advancement will be the primary focus of this post doc position.
This position will appeal to individuals with strong awareness of labor data, employment trends, and how automation is altering work and how this in turn influences the role of higher education institutions in society.
Experience of Applicants
Applicants will have a completed, or soon to be completed, PhD in areas related to this position such as: higher education reform, higher education policy and strategy, job and labor market statistics and trends, impact of automation on work, expanded and changing learning opportunities through digital learning and emerging assessment models (competency based learning), or history of labor and the role work plays in the health and well being of members in a society.
The position will run for a duration of three years with annual renewals. This position contributes significantly to University of Texas Arlington’s new strategic plan (http://www.uta.edu/strategicplan/), notably regarding sustainable communities (and megacities), sustainability, global impact, health and the human condition, and data-driven discovery.
Specific activities include:
- conducting research (including grant writing and co-supervision of doctoral students)
- engagement with state and national agencies in assessing and evaluating prominent employment trends
- identification and assessment of effectiveness of new higher education and work-to-university-to-work models
- developing models of employment and higher education interaction (triple helix model)
- evaluation of the economic impact of higher education on regional economies as employees return to universities to re-skill/upgrade
- presenting at the main conferences in the knowledge domains relevant to this position
- publishing in the major journals in the field;
- interacting with some stakeholder (internal and external to the university) groups/partners;
- institutional collaboration and knowledge transfer/translation to Texas and national university systems
- analysis of international labour and education trends
- translation of research findings to practice
Position stipend: $50,000 USD annually
The candidate will report directly to the LINK Research Lab Executive Director (Dr. George Siemens) and with input and collaboration with Professor Dragan Gasevic (Research Scientist, UT Arlington and Chair in Learning Analytics, University of Edinburgh, Scotland) and Shane Dawson (Research Scientist, UT Arlington and Associate Professor at the Centre for Teaching Innovation and Digital Learning, University of South Australia, Australia) and will have the option of remote research at collaborating institutions up to 60% external to the University of Texas at Arlington post approval from the Link Research Lab Executive Director).
Applications materials should be submitted digitally to:
Laurel Mayo, Director, LINK Research Lab
email address: email@example.com
This month marks twenty years since I started at the OU. In five years time I get a clock. I know you’re thinking ‘he doesn’t look a day over 30′ – oh, you’re not. Anyway, time for some reflection, and as I said few posts back, I think those of us in ed tech in particular (but all of society to a large extent) have been through such rapid change that we take it for granted now. So here is a brief ‘my life in ed tech over the past twenty years review’.
When I joined the OU I said at the interview “I’m interested in this internet thing. Have you thought about it for teaching?” They had a bit, but this is a classic example of how at the start of something, even a little knowledge is valuable. I didn’t know much about the internet, but I at least knew it was worth knowing about. That seems obvious now, but at the time many eminent people were dismissing it as the next CB radio type fad. I got a job as a lecturer on the Artificial Intelligence course, and trialled an online tutor group. I also taught myself HTML. These two very basic things made me ‘the elearning guy’. The web really took off over the next 3-4 years. This was the age of AOL, Geocities, Lycos, Netcrawler, dial up modems. All of these seems like ancient history now. I remember running sessions at OU summer schools and getting students to create their own websites in HTML. That sense of wonder that you had created something that anyone could now access was amazing.
I’ve bored you all many times with my account of T171, the big elearning course we created in 1999. There was lots of angst at the time about accessibility, whether students would have internet access, computers etc and whether anyone would want to learn online. The success of this course, with 12,000 students per year, did a lot to end those doubts. Creating large scale, completely online courses – it only took another 13 years for American ivy league universities to suddenly discover this.
The early 00s saw the mainstreaming of elearning. This was typified by the VLE, and I had a stint as VLE Director. I’ve written about some of the problems this VLE outsourcing created, but it was also crucial in democratising elearning to educators in all subjects. Not everyone wanted to hand craft their own web site it turned out. This was also the period of elearning failures, which I now view as essential steps on the path to future developments. Learning objects for instance were unwieldy, and over-hyped, but they were a necessary step on the way to OERs. The UK eUniversity, which I created a course for, was a big public failure, but the model now doesn’t seem too different to that of MOOC providers (which may mean they are destined to fail too).
We then had the web 2.0 explosion. It’s become fashionable now to be sniffy about this, but I found it wonderful at the time. The possibilities of social media, user generated content, open data and access seemed to impact on every aspect of educational practice. It seemed like everything could change – I think actually we’ll see a lot of these changes happen over the next decade or so (and they’ll be trumpeted as new discoveries), it takes time for this stuff to filter through. This was the period when I got into blogging, and the people I connected with online during that period remain some of the best real and online friends I have (admittedly, that is a small field).
And then the last few years have been typified by a maturing of all these areas. It’s like everyone graduated and started doing proper jobs. Open education is now part of the mainstream, blogs are part of a communication strategy and MOOCs are featured on the BBC. I think it’s tempting to decry that it’s not as good as the old days, but I think it’s just a different time, with different challenges and opportunities.
I could theoretically work another 20 years, and given the way pensions are going, it’s probably likely. I suppose the big question is will the next 20 years see as much change as the last 20? And will we finally get those hoverboards?