Ivy League For Free: What One Man Learned By Crashing Elite Colleges For 4 Years

A thought-provoking article on a man who gate-crashed some top tier US university courses as well as here in Canada. This was both politically and personally motivated. The man not only attended lectures and seminars but also got access to networks, direct interaction with professors, and received many of the benefits of a traditional university education bar the accreditation and support.

Attendance at lectures is rarely monitored and it has long been touted as one of the best free entertainment options available, if you choose your lectures wisely. I think I first recall reading about it in Playpower, a book on alternative culture from the early 70s. As the article suggests, it is generally pretty well accepted in many institutions and, as long as it doesn’t harm paying students (in this case I’d guess it was actually beneficial), it is hard to see why anyone would object. It might be a little trickier to get away with attending small tutorials or workshops involving restricted resources (e.g needing logins to university computers), and it would not always be easy to get the accompanying documentation and schedules, but this seems eminently do-able for many courses. I don’t think it scales well – most universities would probably start to institute controls if a large number of non-paying students started to join in, especially if they used up rival resources like handouts or materials, or hog tutor time in ways that harmed others. In some subjects it would not work at all. But it is quite an interesting perspective on openness. Face-to-face can be open too – in fact, it might be the default.

Makes me wonder about closed online courses and open MOOCs. Are we really as open as we claim? I think not so much.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.fastcompany.com/3043053/my-creative-life/ivy-league-free-what-one-man-learned-by-crashing-elite-colleges-for-4-years

Instructional quality of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

This is a very interesting, if (I will argue) flawed, paper by Margaryan, Bianco and Littlejohn using a Course Scan instrument to examine the instructional design qualities of 76 randomly selected MOOCs (26 cMOOCs and 50 xMOOCs – the imbalance was caused by difficulties finding suitable cMOOCs). The conclusions drawn are that very few MOOCs, if any, show much evidence of sound instructional design strategies. In fact they are, according to the authors, almost all an instructional designer’s worst nightmare, on at least some dimensions.  
I like this paper but I have some fairly serious concerns with the way this study was conducted, which means a very large pinch of salt is needed when considering its conclusions. The central problem lies in the use of prescriptive criteria to identify ‘good’ instructional design practice, and then using them as quantitative measures of things that are deemed essential to any completed course design. 

Doubtful criteria 

It starts reasonably well. Margaryan et al use David Merrill’s well-accepted abstracted principles for instructional design to identify kinds of activities that should be there in any course and that, being somewhat derived from a variety of models and theories, are pretty reasonable: problem centricity, activation of prior learning, expert demonstration, application and integration. However, the chinks begin to show even here, as it is not always essential that all of these are explicitly contained within a course itself, even though consideration of them may be needed in the design process – for example, in an apprenticeship model, integration might be a natural part of learners’ lives, while in an open ‘by negotiated outcome’ course (e.g. a typical European PhD) the problems may be inherent in the context. But, as a fair approximation of what activities should be in most conventional taught courses, it’s not bad at all, even though it might show some courses as ‘bad’ when they are in fact ‘good’. 
The authors also add five more criteria abstracted from literature relating rather loosely to ‘resources’, including: expert feedback; differentiation (i.e. personalization); collaboration; authentic resources; and use of collective knowledge (i.e. cooperative sharing). These are far more contentious, with the exception of feedback, which almost all would agree should be considered in some form in any learning design (and which is a process thing anyway, not a resource issue). However, even this does not always need to be the expert feedback that the authors demand: automated feedback (which is, to be fair, a kind of ossified expert feedback, at least when done right), peer feedback or, best of all, intrinsic feedback can often be at least as good in most learning contexts. Intrinsic feedback (e.g. when learning to ride a bike, falling off it or succeeding to stay upright) is almost always better than any expert feedback, albeit that it can be enhanced by expert advice. None of the rest of these ‘resources’ criteria are essential to an effective learning design. They can be very useful, for sure, although it depends a great deal on context and how it is done, and there are often many other things that may matter as much or more in a design, like including support for reflection, for example, or scope for caring or passion to be displayed, or design to ensure personal relevance. It is worth noting that Merrill observes that, beyond the areas of broad agreement (which I reckon are somewhat shoehorned to fit), there is much more in other instructional design models that demands further research and that may be equally if not more important than those identified as common.

It ain’t what you do…

Like all things in education, it ain’t what you do but how you do it that makes all the difference, and it is all massively dependent on subject, context, learners and many other things. Prescriptive measures of instructional design quality like these make no sense when applied post-hoc because they ignore all this. They are very reasonable starting frameworks for a designer that encourage focus on things that matter and can make a big difference in the design process, but real life learning designs have to take the entire context into account and can (and often should) be done differently. Learning design (I shudder at the word ‘instructional’ because it implies so many unhealthy assumptions and attitudes) is a creative and situated activity. It makes no more sense to prescribe what kinds of activities and resources should be in a course than it does to prescribe how paintings should be composed. Yes, a few basics like golden ratios, rules of thirds, colour theory, etc can help the novice painter produce something acceptable, but the fact that a painting disobeys these ‘rules’ does not make it a bad painting: sometimes, quite the opposite. Some of the finest teaching I have ever seen or partaken of has used the most appalling instructional design techniques, by any theoretical measure.

Over-rigid assumptions and requirements

One of the biggest troubles with such general-purpose abstractions is that they make some very strong prior assumptions about what a course is going to be like and the context of delivery. Thanks to their closer resemblance to traditional courses (from which it should be clearly noted that the design criteria are derived) this is, to an extent, fair-ish for xMOOCs. But, even in the case of xMOOCs, the demand that collaboration, say, must occur is a step too far: as decades of distance learning research has shown (and Athabasca University proved for decades), great learning can happen without it and, while cooperative sharing is pragmatic and cost-effective, it is not essential in every course. Yes, these things are often a very good idea. No, they are not essential. Terry Anderson’s well-verified (and possibly self-confirming, though none the worse for it) theorem of interaction equivalency  makes this pretty clear. 

cMOOCs are not xMOOCs

Prescriptive criteria as a tool for evaluation make no sense whatsoever in a cMOOC context. This is made worse because the traditional model is carried to extremes in this paper, to the extent that the authors bemoan the lack of clear learning outcomes. This doesn’t naturally fall out from the design principles at all, so I don’t understand why they are even mentioned, and it seems an abitrary criterion that has no validity or justification beyond the fact that they are typically used in university teaching. As teacher-prescribed learning outcomes are anathema to Connectivism it is very surprising indeed that the cMOOCs actually scored higher than the xMOOCs on this metric, which makes me wonder whether the means of differentiation were sufficiently rigorous. A MOOC that genuinely followed Connectivist principles would not provide learning outcomes at all: foci and themes, for sure, but not ‘at the end of this course you will be able to x’. And, anyway, as a lot of research and debate has shown, learning outcomes are of far greater value to teachers and instructional designers than they are to learners, for whom they may, if not handled with great care, actually get in the way of effective learning. It’s a process thing – helpful for creating courses, almost useless for taking them. The same problem occurs in the use of course organization in the criteria – cMOOC content is organized bottom-up by learners, so it is not very surprising that they lack careful top-down planning, and that is part of the point.

Apparently, some cMOOCs are not cMOOCs either

As well as concerns about the means of differentiating courses and the metrics used, I am also concerned with how they were applied. It is surprising that there was even a single cMOOC that didn’t incorporate use of ‘collective knowledge’ (the authors’ term for cooperative sharing and knowledge construction) because, without that, it simply isn’t a cMOOC: it’s there in the definition of Connectivism . As for differentiation, part of the point of cMOOCs is that learning happens through the network which, by definition, means people are getting different options or paths, and choosing those that suit their needs. The big point in both cases is that the teacher-designed course does not contain the content in a cMOOC: beyond the process support needed to build and sustain a network, any content that may be provided by the facilitators of such a course is just a catalyst for network formation and a centre around which activity flows and learner-generated content and activity is created. With that in mind it is worth pointing out that problem-centricity in learning design is an expression of teacher control which, again, is anathema to how cMOOCs work. Assuming that a cMOOC succeeds in connecting and mobilizing a network, it is all but certain that a great deal of problem-based and inquiry-based learning will be going on as people post, others respond, and issues become problematized. Moreover, the problems and issues will be relevant and meaningful to learners in ways that no pre-designed course can ever be. The content of a cMOOC is largely learner-generated so of course a problem focus is often simply not there in static materials supplied by people running it. cMOOCs do not tell learners what to do or how to do it, beyond very broad process support which is needed to help those networks to accrete. It would therefore be more than a little weird if they adhered to instructional design principles derived from teacher-led face-to-face courses in their designed content because, if they did, they would not be cMOOCs. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to criticize cMOOCs as a matter of principle on these grounds: given that (depending on the network) few will know much about learning and how to support it, one of the big problems with connectivist methods is that of getting lost in social space, with insufficient structure or guidance to suit all learning needs, insufficient feedback, inefficient paths and so on. I’d have some sympathy with such an argument, but it is not fair to judge cMOOCs on criteria that their instigators would reject in the first place and that they are actively avoiding. It’s like criticizing cheese for not being chalky enough.

It’s still a good paper though

For all that I find the conclusions of this paper very arguable and the methods highly criticizable, it does provide an interesting portrait of MOOCs using an unconventional lens. We need more research along these lines because, though the conclusions are mostly arguable, what is revealed in the process is a much richer picture of the kinds of things that are and are not happening in MOOCs. These are fine researchers who have told an old story in a new way, and this is enlightening stuff that is worth reading.
 
As an aside, we also need better editors and reviewers for papers like this: little tell-tales like the fact that ‘cMOOC’ gets to be defined as ‘constructivist MOOC’ at one point (I’m sure it’s just a slip of the keyboard as the authors are well aware of what they are writing about) and more typos than you might expect in a published paper suggest that not quite enough effort went into quality control at the editorial end. I note too that this is a closed journal: you’d think that they might offer better value for the money that they cream off for their services.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S036013151400178X

Microsoft Open Sources .NET, Saying It Will Run On Linux and Mac | WIRED

This is a sign of what appear to be some remarkable seismic shifts at Microsoft. To be fair, Microsoft has long been a contributor to open source initiatives but .NET was, until fairly recently, seen as one of the crown jewels only slightly less significant than Windows and Office, which makes me and the writer of this article wonder whether they might be heading towards open sourcing these at some point (Windows mobile version is already free, albeit with many provisos, terms and conditions, but that’s just common sense otherwise no one would use the substandard pile of pants at all).

Note that they are apparently only open-sourcing the core of .NET, which is not that wonderful without all the accompanying framework and goodies. The open source Mono project has provided this functionality for many years thanks to Microsoft’s wisely open approach to treating it and C# as a specification rather than a completely closed technology in the first place but, and it’s a big but, there are few Windows .NET apps that can run on Mono under Unix without some significant tweaking or acceptance of limitations and bugs, because so much relies on the premium libraries, controls and other proprietary closed tools that only paying Windows users can take advantage of. It’s much better than it used to be, but Mono is still a shim rather than a solution. I’m guessing there are few that would use it in preference to, say, Java unless their primary target were Windows machines or they were inveterate C# or VB fans.

This is probably not a sign of deeper openness, however. Microsoft, like most others in the industry, clearly see the future is in net-delivered cloud-based subscription services. Azure, Office365, Skype, Exchange Online etc etc are likely to be where most of the money comes from in the years ahead. .NET is nothing like as effective at locking people in than providing a service that handles all the data, communication and business processes of an individual or organization. Moreover, if more .NET developers can be sucked in to developing for other platforms, that means more that can be pulled in to Microsoft’s cloud systems though, to be fair, it does mean Microsoft has to actually compete on even ground to win, rather than solely relying on market dominance. But it does have a lot of cash to outspend many of its rivals, and raw computer power together with the money to support it plays a large role in achieving success in this area.

The cloud is a new (well, extremely old but now accepted and dominant) form of closed system in which the development technology really shouldn’t matter much any more. I worry a great deal about this though. In the past we were just locked in by data formats, closed licences and closed software (perniciously driven by upgrade cycles that rendered what we had purchased obsolete and unsupported), but at least the data were under our control. Now they are not. I know of no cloud-based services that have not at some point changed terms and conditions, often for the worse, few that I would trust with my data any further than I could throw them, and none at all that are impervious to bankrupcy, take-overs and mergers. When this happened in the past we always had a little lead time to look for an alternative solution and our systems kept running. Nowadays, a business can be destroyed in the seconds it takes to shut down or alter a system in the cloud.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.wired.com/2014/11/microsoft-open-sources-net-says-will-run-linux-mac/

Agoraphobia and the modern learner

Abstract:Read/write social technologies enable rich pedagogies that centre on sharing and constructing content but have two notable weaknesses. Firstly, beyond the safe, nurturing environment of closed groups, students participating in more or less public network- or set-oriented communities may be insecure in their knowledge and skills, leading to resistance to disclosure. Secondly, it is hard to know who and what to trust in an open environment where others may be equally unskilled or, sometimes, malevolent. We present partial solutions to these problems through the use of collective intelligence, discretionary disclosure controls and mindful design.

Address of the bookmark: http://www-jime.open.ac.uk/jime/article/viewArticle/2014-03/html

Professor forces students to buy his own $200 textbook

This article is actually purportedly about the very unsurprising discovery that students who can’t afford textbooks are downloading them illegally, even for ethics classes. Shocking! Not. However, the thing that really shocks me about this article is the example given of the professor demanding that his students purchase his own $200 etextbook. Piracy seems a pretty minor crime compared with this apparently outrageous, blatant, extortionate abuse of power. 

 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/17/more-students-are-illegally-downloading-college-textbooks-for-free/

Teaching Crowds: Learning and Social Media

The free PDF preview of the new book by me and Terry Anderson is now available from the AU Press website. It is a complete and unabridged version of the paper book. It’s excellent value!

The book is about both how to teach crowds and how crowds can teach us, particularly at a distance and especially with the aid of social software.

For the sake of your health we do not recommend trying to read the whole thing in PDF format unless you have a very big and high resolution tablet or e-reader, or are unusually comfortable reading from a computer screen, but the PDF file is not a bad way to get a flavour of the thing, skip-read it, and/or to find or copy passages within it. You can also download individual chapters and sections if you wish. 

The paper and epub versions should be available for sale at the end of September, 2014, at a very reasonable price. 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120235

Book: Reusing Open Resources

Now in print, a new and interesting edited book by Allison Littlejohn and Chris Pegler on open educational resources, (disclaimer: includes a chapter by me and Terry Anderson).  Apart from us, Allison and Chris have gathered a great bunch of people together to explore issues from some distinctly learner-oriented perspectives, and across a broad range of contexts, including informal and non-formal learning as well as in formal education.

If you want to get a good flavour of the kind of chapters it contains, and in keeping with the subject matter, a few selected chapters (including ours) have been published openly at http://jime.open.ac.uk/jime/issue/view/2014-ReusingResources-OpenforLearning

Address of the bookmark: http://routledge-ny.com/books/details/9780415838696/

Journal of Interactive Media in Education – Open for Learning Special Issue

A special issue of JIME on open learning with 5 chapters (full disclaimer: including one by me and Terry Anderson) from a forthcoming book edited by Chris Pegler and Allison Littlejohn, ‘Reusing Open Resources: Learning in Open Networks for Work, Life and Education’.

I’ve skimmed through the pre-publication draft of the book from which these articles are taken and (not counting our own chapter, about which I may be a little biased) I’m impressed. It has some very important topics, some excellent authors, and a great pair of editors. Deserves to do well.

Terry and I were concerned when responding to the call for chapters about the irony of a book on openness appearing as a closed publication. It is therefore very pleasing that, at least for these five chapters, it is walking the talk. JIME is a fine journal and has been open since it was unfashionable to be so, so I am delighted to at last have an article appear there and congratulate Chris and Allison on a job very well done.

Address of the bookmark: http://www-jime.open.ac.uk/jime/issue/view/2014-ReusingResources-OpenforLearning

Five myths about Moocs | Opinion | Times Higher Education

Diana Laurillard chipping in with a perceptive set of observations, most interestingly describing education as a personal client industry, in which tutor/student ratios are remarkably consistent at around 1:25, so it is no great surprise that it doesn’t scale up. Seems to me that she is quite rightly attacking a particular breed of EdX, Coursera, etc xMOOC but it doesn’t have to be this way, and she carefully avoids discussing *why* that ratio is really needed – her own writings and her variant on conversation theory suggest there might be alternative ways of looking at this.

Her critique that xMOOCs appear to succeed only for those that already know how to be self-guided learners is an old chestnut that hits home. She is right in saying that MOOCs (xMOOCs) are pretty poor educational vehicles if the only people who benefit are those that can already drive, and it supports her point about the need for actual teachers for most people *if* we continue to teach in a skeuomorphic manner, copying the form of traditional courses without thinking why we do what we do and how courses actually work.

For me this explains clearly once again that the way MOOCs are being implemented is wrong and that we have to get away from the ‘course’ part of the acronym, and start thinking about what learners really need, rather than what universities want to give them. 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/five-myths-about-moocs/2010480.article