MOOCs don’t benefit developing countries. Phones do

There are, broadly speaking, two strands of concurrent thinking that dominate discussions around the use of new technologies in education around the world.

At one end of the continuum, talk is dominated by words like “transformation”. This is, if you will, a largely “developed” country sort of discourse, where new technologies and approaches are layered upon older approaches and technologies in systems that largely work, at least from a global perspective. While the citizens of such countries may talk about a “crisis” in their education systems (and may indeed have been talking about such a crisis for more than a generation), citizens of many other, much “less developed” countries would happily switch places.

If you want to see a true crisis in education, come have a look at our schools, they might (and do!) say, or at least the remote ones where a young teacher in an isolated village who has only received a 10th grade education tries to teach 60+ children in a dilapitated, multigrade classroom where books are scarce and many of the students (and even more of their parents) are often functionally illiterate.

While talk in some places may be about how new technologies can help transform education, in other places it is about how such tools can help education systems function at a basic level. One challenge for informed debate is that most models related to ICT use come from high-income contexts and environments. When they don’t work, this is taken as “evidence” that ICT use in education in such places is irrelevant.

Yet there is some emerging thinking coalescing around various types of approaches that may be useful to help guide the planning and implementation of ICT in education initiatives in low-resource environments and in guiding the debate on technology in education.

The best technology is the one you already have, know how to use, and can afford

Parachuting in the “latest and greatest” device or gadget may have strong political appeal, and fatten the bottom lines of certain firms, and may possibly even be effective in some cases, but it may be useful to ask, How can we innovate using what we already have? In poor, rural, isolated communities, the technologies already at hand are almost always mobile phones and radios. It might be that using such technologies in complementary ways (an interactive radio program, for example, supported by SMS-based outreach to and between teachers) might achieve many of the objectives that a single, “new” technology can.

Put sustainability first

Often times, the first goal of an educational technology project is to show that it works. Only once this is demonstrated does attention turn to issues of sustainability. Sustainability should be a first order concern, especially in remote, low resource communities. Plan for equipment to break, plan for outside expertise to withdraw, plan for novelty to wear off – what will happen then?

Treat teachers like the problem and they will be

Over the years, I have talked with lots of people who see teachers (and teachers’ unions) as a “problem” that needs to be “solved”.  Well known study done by researchers at the MIT Poverty Action Lab a number of years ago looked at a program in Udapur, India in which teachers were instructed to have their picture taken each day with students and were paid only when the cameras recorded them present.

Another option might be to explore how ICTs can be used to support teachers with positive incentives, helping them save time in lesson preparation by providing additional learning resources via television, or to help improve their mastery of the subjects which they teach through interactive radio instruction.

Anticipate, and mitigate, Matthew Effects

Matthew Effect in Educational Technology is frequently observed: Those who are most able to benefit from the introduction of ICTs (e.g. children with educated parents and good teachers, who live in prosperous communities, etc.) are indeed the ones who benefit the most. Just because investments in educational technology use are justified by rhetoric claiming that such use will benefit “the poor” doesn’t mean that this will actually happen. In fact, the opposite may well occur.

To succeed in doing something difficult, you may first need to fail (and learn from this failure)

Trying to help isolated, poor communities improve their schools and the education that they offer to their children is a nontrivial endeavor. Unfortunately, such places may be no stranger to “failed” projects of various sorts, and the reasons for such failures may be varied and complex. The history of the use of technology in education also features lots of “failures”. A key ingredient for success is often an ability, and willingness, to recognize and learn from failure and then change course as needed.

Mike Trucano is the World Bank’s senior ICT and Education Policy Specialist.

Welcome to Wide World Ed

Education has always been the key to successful livelihoods, stable economies, and tolerant and diverse civil societies. With the unprecedented, and nearly untapped capacity of the Internet to connect us all in learning, we can increase open and collaborative aspects of education. If it’s leadership you’re looking for, the volunteers and staff at Wide World Ed have put their hands up. You can be a leader as well. You have a great deal to offer global learning communities. We’re willing (and able) to help develop online education designs, conduct research, and provide tools for educator and learner success. Are you willing to build? To learn? If yes, we welcome you aboard!

Together we can make amazing things happen in global education. Every single course that is built, and offered, and participated in can change the landscape of human learning. You can contribute to that in many ways.Here are our vision, mission and values for you to consider…

Vision: Online learning is inclusive, engaging and effective.

Mission: Deliver well-designed and effective, online courses and open education resources to diverse learners around the world.

Values:

  • Knowledge is a public good
  • Open education is not low quality education
  • Teachers and learners are equal partners
  • Through education we are empowered to achieve our goals
  • Through education we are empowered to help others

http://wideworlded.org/

Canada needs an online education strategy

I’ve been asked several times in the past few months, why I started the Wide World Ed initiative. I started it because I have deeply held personal values about global education, and a strong passion for empowered, collaborative research. I have observed, with great interest, the formation and evolution of edX, Coursera and Udacity in the U.S., as well as Australia’s Open2Study, and the UK’s FutureLearn. I have come to believe that Canada needs its own space.

Here’s why. Our education systems are different from those in the rest of the world, and differences between our education systems matter. In Canada, we have unique languages, social values, and past and present cultural stories to tell. I believe that our educational expertise and cultural identities should be celebrated and shared on our own terms, within our control.

Consider Open2Study in Australia and FutureLearn in the U.K. Australia and the U.K. both have strong social mandates for public postsecondary education. Both consortiums were established as not-for-profits, extensions of their Open Universities, with funding and significant promotional support from their governments, both feature their own national institutions prominently, and both are highly regarded internationally for their foresight upholding the value of open education.

Why are Canadian policy-makers and education funders so challenged to step up and establish an initiative in alignment with what I just described? Do we believe that FutureLearn and Open2Study are wrong about their national need for greater access to open, online education? They have intentionally chosen to conduct their own research and establish their own space, rather than participating with U.S.-based Coursera, edX, or Udacity. We should explore with them their reasons and consider our own situation.

Our internationally recognized and expert Open University, Athabasca, has hesitated, for a variety of real and intimidating reasons, to take on national open, online education for Canada. I would love to see a collective national effort to make it easier for them to be our natural leader. We need their expertise.

In a continuing division of labour, and a silo-based approach, each province and territory in Canada seems to be working on its own open, and tuition-based online solutions, with a strong perception of competitiveness. This makes no sense, and may be costing us millions in redundant effort.

In the U.K., FutureLearn did not arise as an extension of Oxford or Cambridge – neither Scotland, nor Wales determined they should each start their own consortiums. FutureLearn arose as an extension of the Open University based on clear evidence that open education enhanced student interest and success in postsecondary formal study. FutureLearn’s national partners, including their national government to an extraordinary level, trust the Open University’s expertise and are willing to invest in it. What about it Canada? Do we trust our Open University? Are we willing to invest?

While we do not yet know the full value of developing open, online education, benefits may include: increased access to skills and learning; and opportunities to build exceptionally high quality open education resources that benefit our K-12 programs, support our adult literacy initiatives, and increase our collective skills in numeracy and personal finance. Open, online education may improve our employment and training resources, and build our capacity to be more successful in postsecondary formal education and lifelong learning. It may expand our capacity for national innovation.

I look forward to continuing explorations and the hard, but rewarding work in all of this. Success will likely come faster if we combine our talents.

Jenni Hayman is executive director and founder of Wide World Ed, an online education initiative to promote online learning across the country.

Move along, little is new about what MOOCs offer

The American writer H. L. Mencken once said that there is always a well-known solution to every human problem: neat, plausible, and wrong. MOOCs look neat, are plausible and … too many get it wrong! MOOCs captured the imagination of venture capitalists, academics and university administrators and this is a rare thing for higher education. The problem is that – despite exuberant enthusiasm surrounding them – MOOCs remain marked by many unanswered questions and still fail to clarify how they will deal with many crucial pedagogical and managerial aspects.

The Economist and The New York Times, academics and various experts in education proclaimed “the year of the MOOC” and that the end of the campus as we know it is certain. The excitement around MOOCs became so extreme that anyone asking for the old kind of evidence-based arguments was pinpointed as an outdated conservative fighting against the Enlightenment. MOOCs promised to solve inequity and barriers to access, increasing costs and explosive student debt, quality assurance, sustainability, critical thinking, creativity and innovation. The magic of clicks and “innovation” was evident to all who identified with the progressive pack.

When Anant Agarwal, the President of edX (the MOOC consortium launched by Harvard and MIT) went to The Colbert Report to discuss his initiative, Stephen Colbert used his subversive humour to ask some questions that went unobserved by many university presidents and managers:

“I don’t understand” – Colbert said – “You’re in the knowledge business in a university… Let’s say I had a shoe store, OK, and then I hired you to work at my shoe store. And you said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s give the shoes away for free’… I would fire you and then probably throw shoes at your head.”

A detail ignored for a while has become clear: We already have the solution of freely available courses with videos and pdf files, web-links and books on Amazon through websites and platforms such as iTunes U (or various Learning Management Systems used by universities) for a long time.

Open Universities across the world have an already long tradition of offering free (access) courses or non-credit courses with a small fee. The simple addition of forums and discussion groups cannot be seriously taken as the most important innovation that can dramatically change higher education. If we claim this, then we have to accept that we all reached a point of very little imagination and depth for our solutions.

So, if a MOOC is ‘open’, but not free, what is it?

The enthusiasm for the silver bullet went too often too far. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, recently underlined something that should be clear to any university administrator:

“I’m not a person who thinks that people will be able to just go online and get a complete education without the guidance of the teacher. That sort of simplistic model shouldn’t be our framework.”

Students cannot be engaged by simple conversions of boring lectures into online videos that are even more boring, affected by clunky and poorly designed technological solutions and rigid platforms for discussions and “forums”.

The value of MOOCs

Students are starting to question (and most probably refuse to enrol in the future) in lectures with 500+ students crowded in various halls and large amphitheatres. MOOC-like provision is an easy replacement for this bizarre form of academic model of making profits.

At the same time, MOOCs are now evolving much less against the “brick and mortar” university and much more in line with the needs of students and institutions of higher education. The main reason is that the only way these platforms can make a profit in the future is to work in consonance with credit providers that are accepted and (still) trusted by employers.

It is evident that mastering critical thinking, collaboration, presentation skills and genuine empathy require human connection, interaction and practice, and are best acquired in person, not only online. This is why we like to drink our coffee with friends – whenever possible – on a coffee shop, not on Skype, with a cheaper cup brewed at home. It is also evident that online medium offers the possibility of connectivity, exploration and the use of well built imaginative capabilities. The balanced use of online and on campus solutions stay as a key for the future of higher education.

Software, MOOCs, apps, learning management systems and other online solutions are just tools that can be used to answer these challenges. They are important tools, but not solutions by themselves to achieve the difficult task of building inventive, educated, resourceful, and imaginative new generations.

Stefan Popenici is a Senior Lecturer at Melbourne University in Australia and is the Associate Director of Simon Fraser University’s Imaginative Education Research Group. A version of this column appeared on his blog popenici.com.

Five education stories to watch in 2014

One of the best things about school is that it’s the only place where the beginning of the year comes twice. September is about hope, the buying of fresh supplies and vows to study and eat healthy lunches. January is for resetting the first three months – and forecasting. What will be the most interesting issues in education before we all make like Alice Cooper? Here are five predictions.

1. Making do with less: The University of Alberta has been in turmoil since the province’s budget cut $147-million last March. That reduction was softened with a $50-million injection this fall, but the discussion it generated around which programs are sustainable, how many faculty are needed and how funding sources can be increased will continue. While students at UAlberta are questioning where they fit in, it’s good that the conversation on how universities can adapt to less generous governments is happening in the country’s most prosperous province. Discussions on maintaining quality while saving money are best without a gun to the head. Other universities are likely to learn from the choices UAlberta will make.

2. Student movements will grab headlines: The most striking example is Chile, where new president Michelle Bachelet has promised her government will establish free higher education, in response to years of protests. In Turkey, students and academics have sparked a wider political movement – now in Ankara; in Egypt, hundreds of students have been hurt in demonstrations over the presence of police forces on campuses. U.K. university protests have centred on a similar issue, the attempt to recruit students to spy on activist classmates at Cambridge. (Meanwhile, Quebec’s commission on the Maple Spring has said it may never reach a conclusion.)

3. We will get better at equations: The end of the year brought Canada’s international education report card and some people called the math results a national crisis. Education ministries have dispatched bureaucrats to classrooms to study what’s failing. One way to improve as a country will be to encourage girls to stick with the subject. A study released byStatistics Canada in December showed that girls are much more likely than boys to drop math in postsecondary even when they excel at fractions in high-school. That’s a statement on cultural rewards for being ‘bad at math.’

4. ‘Values’ battle: Many Quebec universities took a few months to respond to the Charter of Values, but they have now expressed their opposition even as Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville insists they will not be exempt. Will universities follow the lead of Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital and simply ignore the Charter?

5. The rebirth of “MOOCs”: If judged on the quality of the acronym, massive open online courses do not deserve to succeed. But a new, massive study breathed hope into delivering a high-end education using technology. Far from serving undereducated populations with insufficient resources (as supporters have argued), MOOCs are most appealing to highly educated men, the study found. MOOCs may not democratize education, but they’ll make a profit yet.