MOOCs tend to involve consuming online content, taking automated assessments and peer networking. While students may feel some connection to the academics who create the courses by watching recorded videos of them, the opportunities for synchronous connection with subject experts are limited.
Dave Middleton is a tutor manager with the Open University and has been training tutors to use Elluminate effectively for several years. When online tutorials were offered to students in Wales on Exploring Psychology, one of our most popular modules with around 4,000 participants each year, students elsewhere began to complain that providing the events only to the Welsh was unfair.
So Dave spotted an opportunity to try something new. He opened up an Elluminate room to the entire module population, advertised a two-hour event, sat back and hoped that 3,850 registered students wouldn’t all turn up at once. In the event 200 did. The received wisdom is that online tutorials become unworkable when numbers exceed 20 but clearly the way this was being handled didn’t result in the expected chaos. Dave was able to enable group work and problem-based learning rather than simply lecturing at the students. 75% of them responded that the session had met or exceeded their expectations.
“The tutorial exceeded my expectations! It was well organised, easy to understand and packed with useful information”
“This was truly amazing and inspirational. The concept is fantastic.”
“Very enjoyable – I initially thought 2 hours would seem a long time for an online tutorial but the time just flew by. Great to be taking part from the comfort of your own sofa! ”
“I think these tutorials should be available for all modules as many, like myself, cannot attend face to face ones for the same reason we cannot attend brick uni’s and have chosen to study with the OU. I would like to say well done to the tutors, the organisation and structure was a great improvement. I only wish there were more of them.”
Faculty policy on online tutorial provision was changed after Dave’s experiment. For the first time there was evidence not only that the tutorials could offer an excellent learning experience to large numbers of students but would also be highly popular with those who didn’t otherwise have the chance to attend face to face sessions.
The lesson for MOOCs is that mass synchronous online sessions with subject expects can be motivational and effective. The tools available in Elluminate (now Blackboard Collaborate) and similar systems enable effective interactive teaching with hundreds of students simultaneously. Such sessions have to be properly planned of course both logistically and technically to avoid a “MOOC mess” such as the one which happened on Georgia Institute of Technology’s module with Coursera which resulted in the course being withdrawn.
Is Dave’s experience of dealing with a couple of hundred students at once the limit? I suspect someone somewhere some time soon is going to push the technology and the logistics to accommodate many thousands of students in an engaging synchronous session.
Accessing online content and services has become a vital part of the OU experience. The virtual learning environment has been carefully designed over the last seven years and has some excellent features such as a custom-built forum tool and quiz engine. Meanwhile we have other systems such as StudentHome, Open Learn and Library Services, full of useful content and tools. These websites have grown up organically, are owned by different parts of the organisation, have different user interfaces and are not as well integrated as they could be. Navigating through them to find the information or tools you need, particularly if you’re new to the University, can be a confusing experience.
A new initiative called MyOU aims to put this right and will optimise the online experience for our students. Currently in the requirements gathering stage, we are consulting heavily with our learners and with the various stakeholders across the University. MyOU will provide a new layer on top of existing systems making the online experience much better for students.
Should Open University students be entitled to particular types and amounts of tuition during their studies? Should provision be consistent across tutor groups, regions and nations, and qualifications? What are the most successful pedagogical strategies for online synchronous sessions? How should we engage with Facebook as an institution? What role do face to face sessions provide in an increasingly online world?
I’m just out of a workshop with an enthusiastic and experienced bunch of people from various parts of the University which was examining some of these questions in greater detail. The OU has never had a tuition strategy before; practice has developed organically across different faculties and regions. This leads to inconsistencies of approach and inefficiencies, while also allowing great flexibility and responsiveness to local and individual requirements.
Various factors are coming together however which make the development of an overarching strategy for tuition a necessity for the University:
The group today brought together a variety of perspectives but achieved consensus on how to develop the tuition strategy and on a number of key issues, namely:
I’ll be drafting the first version of the tuition strategy and then passing it to my colleague Pat Atkins and others to refine. It will then travel through the University’s governance processes for further enhancement. The aim will be for the document to set the direction of travel for the University in tuition, to provide guidance for faculties, module teams and associate lecturers, and to ensure that we maintain excellence in and enhance our tutorial support for students. The challenge is to produce a document that is concise enough for people to be motivated to read, at a high enough and generic enough level that it is acceptable across all faculties and regions/nations, but low level enough that it can actually achieve something concrete. It needs to help increase consistency in the student experience without being so prescriptive that it restricts the flexibility to respond to dynamic circumstances. Fortunately I enjoy a challenge.
My thinking on MOOCs has been consolidated after doing a fair bit of reading, chatting and thinking recently. Much has been written on the disruptive potential of MOOCs and also about the problems associated with them such as lack of quality, plagiarism and lack of tutor support. I have no desire to add to the noise and hype but want to set down two paradoxes that it seems to me are at the heart of the MOOC movement.
Paradox 1: Most MOOCs are offered by elite institutions which don’t need to expand their student base
So why are they developing MOOCs? Are they basically caught up in the hype and working on the proven Amazon business principle of build fast and worry about money later? Maybe, but here are some other reasons why they may be launching into MOOCs:
Putting aside issues such as quality assurance, plagiarism and lack of tutor support, let’s suppose that MOOCs develop coherent curricula, peer support mechanisms and robust assessment processes which lead to qualifications at very low cost from credible institutions – and employers begin to take them seriously. That leads us to the next paradox.
Paradox 2: Highly successful MOOCs attack the core business of those who are offering them
Elite institutions offering MOOCs will therefore never allow them to become as credible as their regular fee-incurring provision. If an equivalent experience can be had for free no-one will pay fees. MOOCs therefore will by definition remain an inferior educational experience and have to be offered under a sub-brand or a completely different brand – presumably one reason why institutions are rushing to sign up to Udacity and Coursera so they can jump on the MOOC bandwagon without diluting their own brands. But successful partnerships where institutions club together to offer modules which build up to full qualifications are fraught with difficulties and have led to some spectacular debacles such as the UK’s £62m e-university.
High quality assessed and accredited MOOCs from Ivy League institutions will not be allowed to disrupt their own core business but may ultimately provide viable alternatives to expensive qualifications from less prestigious institutions. This is where MOOCs could begin to disrupt the higher education market. Learners are becoming ever more discerning and there is further evidence that the higher education bubble in the US has burst particularly in the for-profit sector with recent announcements such as the University of Phoenix closing half of its campuses. MOOC-based qualifications will have to be very good and much cheaper to gain ground in an increasingly competitive market.
At the moment the Open University’s policy is to remove module websites in our Moodle-based virtual learning environment for three years after the module presentation. To have all the module content simply vanish after that period is becoming untenable. For our students the module website is where their learning activities are coordinated and increasingly where they access their learning content in the form of web pages, PDFs, audio and video. In the past they were sent books containing most of the content, could display the books on their shelves and refer back to them and the handwritten notes they’d added in the margins if required at a later date. Now with an increasing amount of content delivered online they stand to lose the permanent access they have had to their core learning materials (barring fire or theft of their physical book collection, that is).
Meanwhile collaborative learning activities are increasingly taking place in forums, wikis, blogs and other social media tools within the virtual learning environment. All the students’ carefully crafted comments or assignment work held in these tools are lost forever when the module website is removed.
Our annotation tool, OUAnnotate, is being used by students to comment on their course content and other websites relevant to their studies. We can hardly encourage learners to use this tool to comment on learning materials for them to later discover that their annotations are no longer accessible because the associated content has vanished.
An additional issue for the Open University is that students (in England at least) are now required to sign up for a whole qualification in order to obtain a loan rather than selecting individual modules one at a time and later deciding how to piece them together into a qualification. This is having profound implications for the way the University organises itself with the qualification becoming the primary focus rather than the module. Content, support and communities are thus available from the qualification website as well as the module site. Assessment may also potentially be organised around the qualification rather than solely at the modular level.
Students might therefore want or need to access online materials they were studying more than a decade previously.
So why do we have this policy of switching off module sites in the first place? There are various reasons including not retaining personal data indefinitely and not increasing data storage by keeping multiple presentations of the same content for many years. Another problem is that content authored for one version of Moodle (e.g. a quiz) may require a particular version of Moodle to display it properly. You might end up having to keep multiple versions of Moodle available indefinitely – a technical and logistical nightmare.
The solution a small group of us concluded this morning is probably that first of all the student has to take responsibility for retaining their learning materials in the same way that they’re responsible for not losing their books right now. But we need to give them the advice and tools to do so. We prompt them somehow to say “now that you’re coming to the end of your module would you like to export the content so you can refer to it in the future?” And again three years later, just before the site is about to disappear the student is prompted to export the content if they wish.
We add an “Export Module” button on each module website which exports the core module content i.e. web pages, PDFs, audio and video into a zip file to be stored wherever they want – perhaps also to their Google Drive or another cloud based storage facility of their choice.
For forums we differentiate between those which are to be used primarily for social purposes and those provided for core learning activities. The latter are flagged as such and the “Export Module” facility is built to incorporate the forum content in the zip file, perhaps as a PDF.
Capturing interactive content such as quizzes is problematic as it would mean replicating complex server-based functionality in e-books or other complex formats, maintaining those platforms when they’re upgraded etc but we agreed to look at this possibility.
Students’ annotations to course content remain a problem. These could be important for revision several years after the module has been studied. If we export web-based course content as web pages then could the annotations be embedded with the content so they pop up when the content is viewed in the future?
Another issue is that of found content. If this is paid for there may be licensing issues which prevent the found content from being saved in the export file. If it’s “free” and merely linked to we could just retain the hyperlink in the web content and not worry too much about linked content vanishing in the future. That’s assuming the content isn’t absolutely key to the module. We could also possibly find a way to embed an instance of that linked content at the time of exporting.
Bespoke software such as chemical modelling tools where the student is provided with a licence for the duration of the module would clearly not be able to be exported in this way and will end up disappearing. But arguably that happens anyway so no change there.
A project is being set up within our Learning and Teaching Solutions unit to tackle all this and we’ll hopefully be able to put an initial solution together quite quickly incorporating the core course content, and later adding things such as forum content and annotations when suitable export functionality has been developed.
Ok I’m not exactly comparing like with like here but I am very interested in the potential of ebooks as an alternative way of structuring learning experiences – particularly where there is a large amount of reading involved.
With the growing penetration of tablet devices (ownership in the US doubled to 19% over last Christmas) ebooks now have enormous potential for providing learning opportunities. And with nearly a third of UK citizens already owning a smartphone, many of them may be prepared to study extensively from ebooks on smaller screens. Due to my deteriorating eyesight I’m not one of them; tablets are clearly more comfortable devices for extended periods of study so this post relates mainly to tablets.
While the information delivered through an ebook may be identical to that provided on a website, there are several attributes of ebooks which may make them more appealing to learners than accessing content in a VLE:
Learners can own an ebook – they can’t own their institution’s VLE
An ebook is a digital version of a familiar physical product that people have grown up with. Physical books cost money and the transition to paying for a digital copy may not be too painful but people don’t like to pay for access to websites, showing that they value ebooks more. This sense of ownership may encourage learners to engage more with the content of an ebook than a website.
Ebooks can be viewed offline
Once you’ve taken possession of your ebook onto your device you’re free to view it whenever you like which is particularly useful when travelling or away from internet access.
Ebooks are self-contained
The web is a confusing place with an overwhelming number of sites and pages. It’s easy to get distracted when using the web by hyperlinks and other applications.
Ebook readers on tablets take up the whole screen
A web browser has all sorts of tool bars, menus and icons which may distract the reader and provide a less immersive experience than reading an ebook on a tablet.
You know how much you’ve read and how much there is to go
By default an ebook clearly signposts how far through its content you are. Websites may not make this clear – and indeed can’t normally do this as precisely as ebooks due to the variable page lengths of the web.
Automatic pagination makes reading easier
Due to the variety of devices, browsers and configurations, the designer of a web page cannot produce content that will consistently fill the entire screen. Users have a more complex navigational process which may involve vertical scrolling as well as page turning. One of the key features of ebook reader software is the automatic repagination to suit the platform and user preferences such as font size.
Page turning is physically easier with an ebook on a tablet
The touch screen of a tablet or smartphone allows the user to move forwards and backwards between pages with a touch or swipe – a simpler and faster process than turning the page of a physical book and also much easier than using a mouse to navigate to and click on a particular part of a web page.
Far be it from me to suggest that the VLE is dead but given all the affordances of ebooks accessed on tablets it looks like much of the learning activity currently taking place in VLEs is heading to the ebook instead.
I’ve finally managed to install iBooks 2 and the example book “Life on Earth”. This was a frustrating process that took two and a half hours of upgrades and downloads, requiring the right versions of iOS and iTunes with various reboots of both the PC and the iPad. Arguably I should have upgraded to iOS5 long ago but I didn’t when it was released because of allegations that it wasn’t robust.
On the first attempt to “read” the Life on Earth iBook the app hung and I had to reboot the iPad – again. On the second attempt it crashed during one of the interactives requiring me to start at the beginning.
When it worked it was an enjoyable experience with beautiful images, useful videos and informative interactives – and you can envisage the transformational effects this kind of experience will have for millions of learners in the very near future. There’s nothing that isn’t already done through applications on PCs or via web browsers but a few things make it inherently better on a tablet: portability, use of the touch screen for interaction and page turning, the book metaphor itself rather than the browser metaphor which frequently requires vertical scrolling, the feeling of immersiveness you get because it’s not within a browser window, and no need for internet connectivity once it’s downloaded.
My inclination was however to “play”, looking for the next fun thing to do rather than to read the text. Presumably many learners, particularly those who’ve grown up without reading much, would act in the same way.
To be really useful in education on a massive scale a few things need to be sorted out with iBooks 2:
1. The bugs need to be fixed so the app actually works – or the entire slickness of the user experience is wrecked. It’s surprising that Apple released an app with such fanfare which falls over so easily (at least on my iPad).
2. Players need to be developed for web browsers, android tablets etc.
3. Authoring tools need to be developed for other platforms too so you’re not forced to buy a Mac.
4. You must be able to get hold of the books without going through the iTunes Store.
Given the incredible commercial success of tying in the iPad so closely to the iTunes store numbers 2 to 5 aren’t going to happen any time soon which leads me to think that an enhanced ePub-type competitor format which runs on and can be developed on all platforms, and distributed freely, is necessary.
Fed up being force-fed a whole lot of stuff of no great interest to you in your university’s virtual learning environment? Want to view only the parts of most relevance to your own learning – and blend them in with your other interests such as news, weather and sports updates? The Open University is now moving closer to that vision with a series of “widgets” or “gadgets” which take parts of the OU VLE and make them available on other platforms.
The developments have been made possible with a grant from JISC for a project called DOULS (Distributed Open University Learning Systems). The first prototype gadget, built by project developer Jason Platts, makes the module planner from the Moodle module website available to students in iGoogle. Jason has built the authentication module which makes it possible for the gadget to communicate with Moodle. At the moment this is a one way flow of information from Moodle to the gadget, however future versions will enable updates to data held in Moodle via the gadgets.
Future gadgets planned for development are:
The idea behind all this is to allow users to work in the environments most comfortable to them and not to be forced to visit an institutional website all the time, which might not be configured in the way they want it. Learners will be able to create their own dashboard including updates to do with their formal learning as well as anything else they’re interested in. We’re also investigating the development of similar applications in Facebook and LinkedIn. All the code will be made available freely to other institutions.
An additional benefit is that we may be able to use the functionality of the other platforms to make possible something that can’t be done solely in the VLE.
Of course many students may prefer to visit the VLE in its entirety and they’ll still be able to do so. There are also possible reasons why institutions might not want to lose them entirely from that environment – such as them potentially missing out on guidance and support, news items or knowledge of new courses. However overall it has to be a good thing to give control to learners over exactly what they want to see and in which environment they want to see it. The VLE is not dead but merely fading away into the background.
I’ve just had some interesting conversations at an event for new OU module chairs at Cranfield University after presenting on some of the possibilities of elearning for our students.
One academic wondered how he could be expected to design courses for smartphones and tablets when the University was not prepared to buy him these devices – and wouldn’t even upgrade his operating system to Windows 2010 from Windows 2003. Well he clearly had an axe to grind on the latter issue, justifiably perhaps, but he may be missing the point: the tools are primarily server side and all he needs to access them both for authoring and consuming is a web browser. Also if he develops content using our XML-based structured content system the module websites that he creates should automatically look good on a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop – without him having to do anything different for each platform.
Some of these devices do of course have clear affordances which may facilitate learning experiences only possible on that device – and necessitate alternative designs for different platforms. Thus writing an essay on a smartphone doesn’t make a lot of sense but learning applications involving geo-spatial awareness may well do. Similarly the touch-screen interface of an iPad makes it much easier to manipulate images than using a mouse with your desktop PC. So a visual learning activity designed for a tablet might not work on a desktop.
There is a very good argument that this lecturer will never be able to see the pedagogic potential of these devices unless he not only gets them to play about with but takes personal ownership of them and uses them in his daily life.
However another argument that occurred to me this week is that we only ever see significant adoption of technologies for teaching and learning when these are already commoditised. Thus while early adopters pioneered the use of the web browser for teaching in the mid ‘90s it was only a few years later when most people were googling for information and shopping online that the web really began to take off in education.
Similarly we’re now getting 10% of our students accessing our online systems from mobile devices on a regular basis. The number is growing rapidly but probably more because smartphones are taking off in society than because we’re providing useful podcasts and websites optimised for small screens.
I’ve seen a big change in attitudes over the past few years. As the internet encroaches on many aspects of life, and people become ever more used to googling, social networking etc, there are few people who don’t recognise that there must be at least some benefits of studying online. No longer do people say “Why is the OU moving online?” though there are reasonable objections of course to studying online exclusively. The innovators and early adopters need to keep pushing the limits but should we accept that most of our innovations will have minimal impact on learners until similar devices and applications are mainstreamed in society?