Posts Tagged with “MOOC”

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.

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