George Siemen’s reflects on an up and down year for MOOCs

George Siemen’s offers a calm and rational review of the our current place on the MOOC hype cycle. Here are some highlights I took from his post:

the complex challenges that society faces can only be met through a learning architecture that emphasizes knowledge generation over knowledge duplication…

The open vistas of a bright future where MOOC providers moved from success to success were replaced with a fatigued resignation that MOOCs were appearing to take their place in a lineage of many, many failed predictions of educational transformation…

Fact of the matter is, MOOCs are here to stay, in some form or other…

MOOCs have forced a serious assessment of the idea of a university and how education should be related to and supportive of the society in which it exists…

Content is increasingly open. Teaching has become more open, due partially to the rise of MOOCs. Credentialing, however, remains locked and closed…

I recommend that if you are interested in MOOCs and open education you should read this post and reflect on the progress made in the past 12 months and now on whether all this progress will be lost in the face of the first obstacles and set backs. I dearly hope not!

The DIY MBA is here, now who is going to award the degree?

It seems the future is already here with students now in a position to assemble a degree syllabus out of free MOOC courses offered by higher education institutions. This article An MBA For Under A Grand? Seriously! describes one such student who has taken a very proactive approach and is completing an MBA’s worth of studying over 2-3 years at little or no cost.

The questions raised by this new approach to higher education are many, but for those seeking to use the end product of education (certification and grade) in recruitment, questions of particular relevance are:

  • Will employers recognise this study without a degree certificate from a recognised University?
  • How does an employer or institution validate that such courses have been completed and at what level of performance.
  • Are there education institutions willing to recognise the completion of such open courses from a variety of providers in the awarding of a conventional degree?

It seems there is an opportunity for a recognised university with a solid reputation to take on a role of quality assurance for open courses and award equivalent credits and even degrees where appropriate. Plus this is a service which could be offered at a cost which the student is likely to be happy to pay.  Its going to be interesting to see who is first to step up to the plate…


Bounce by Matthew Syed – implications for learning and teaching

Its been a great break over Christmas and New Year and I managed to find time for a bit of leisure reading. One of the non-cycling books I read was the 2010 classic Bounce by Matthew Syed which provides a very readable perspective on the importance of sustained purposeful practice in the achievement of excellence in sport and other pursuits rather than talent or genetic make up being the most important determinant of success. I made a few notes of the implications for learning and teaching of the ideas raised in this book:

  1. Deliberate practice to achieve excellence needs to be considerable, sustained and focus on things you can’t do well. Syed refers to Malcolm Gladwell Outliers who notes that most top performers practice for around 1000 hours a year and have done so for at least 10 years (the 10,000 hour rule). This level of practice and experience is required for world class performance in a discipline so is not necessary for the levels of mastery required in education.
  2. Feedback is vital for improvement and learning activities should be designed to focus on the most important skills and also to maximise the potential for feedback available to the learner when they practice these skills. On page 100 Matthew Syed describes how a trainee doctor on a breast scanning placement will have relatively few opportunities to diagnose a scan that exhibits cancer symptoms and also the time taken to take a tissue sample and laboratory diagnosis means that feedback is limited only to other professional opinion. A much more powerful learning experience is available through access to a database of scans where laboratory diagnoses are available for each so each decision can be immediately reviewed for feedback.
  3. Matthew Syed (page 114) refers to experiments by Carol Dweck (1978) in which she distinguished between two types of mindset which influence that persons ability and willingness to learn. A fixed mindset reflects the view that ability relates to talent (genetics) and therefore if an activity is found to be difficult it is better to move on rather than persevere. A growth mindset is based on the understanding that ability is achieved through practice and so tasks that are initially found difficult can be improved through effort. One skill where the fixed mindset is apparently particularly prevalent is mathematics “I’m no good with numbers…”. So in teaching we need to foster a growth mindset and in 1998 Carol Dweck (Syed 2010 page 121) showed that the words and phrases used in feedback provided to students can either reinforce or change these mind sets. The bottom line from this study is that feedback should praise effort rather than draw attention to any perception of ability.e.g. “Well done, you must have worked very hard at this” rather than “Well done you are obviously very talented at this”

I really enjoyed this book and found these insights very useful for reflecting on teaching practices. Next I intend to read the “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein (2013) which would appear to take a quite different perspective and highlights flaws in the 10,000 hours rule. I intend to write a similar reflective post on this book with further lessons for teaching and learning that hopefully don’t undermine the ones listed here!

A new acronym – BYOD

This is an acronym I haven’t come across before:

BYOD – Bring Your Own Device

This refers to approaches to teaching with technology where the students themselves use their personal devices, rather than the school or college providing the technology being used (e.g. teaching in a computer lab). This approach has many advantages including:

  • The student’s relationship with the device is different. Rather than viewing the technology as alien and imposed, it is technology they already associate themselves with and even find pleasurable to use.
  • The student is already familiar with how their device works so the teaching can concentrate on the topic rather than instructing how to use the technology.

There are challenges too. As the devices owned will vary, the approach taken must be flexible and work on many platforms.

An objection to the utilisation of a BYOD device approach is that some students will not have a device and will therefore be unable to participate and will feel ostracised. George Coros looks at this argument in his post Inequity and BYOD and highlights that this is not a reason to take this approach but that these students should be provided with appropriate devices by their schools and colleges for these sessions, and that this is a much better approach than the traditional computer lab model.

Genes have a bigger impact on GCSE results than teachers?

The big education news in the UK today is the findings of a study that compared the GCSE performance of sets of identical and non-identical twins.  The conclusion being widely reported is that genes have the largest impact on GCSE results which is unfortunately a mis-representation of the study’s findings and these articles also fail to highlight some of the limitations of the approach taken by the study.

The study lead himself highlights the potential for mis-interpretation:

“Since we are studying whole populations, this does NOT mean that genetics explains 60 per cent of an individual’s performance, but rather that genetics explains 60 per cent of the differences between individuals, in the population as it exists at the moment.

“This means that heritability is not fixed – if environmental influences change, then the influence of genetics on educational achievement may change too.”
Nicholas Shakeshaft quoted in TES Connect

I think we can safely say that environment influences the affect of genetics, so identical twins raised in different circumstances and taught in different schools are extremely likely to get different GCSE results. So while genetics is an important determinant of success in education, that success also hinges on environment.

I feel the main dangers associated with the mis-representation of this study are:

  • Students who perform badly lose motivation (give up) “because its their genes” that are hampering their progress.
  • Schools and teachers focus resources on the higher achieving students because they have the genes for success and these efforts are wasted on students whose genes determine their ultimate poor performance.

There is an alternative perspective which is more resources should be focused on the lower performing students because of the disadvantages they face as a result of their genes. I doubt this view point will gain traction politically though!

The Independent reports that the study’s findings suggest that “an individually tailored approach to a child’s education is more likely to combat any lack in performance due to genes rather a universal, one-size-fits-all approach to the curriculum”, which reminds me of the arguments around the use of learning styles to tailor education to individuals. The concept of learning styles have now been largely discredited (e.g. Lafferty & Burley) so I doubt we could identify a style of eduction that would suit individuals based on their genes (can you imagine, a child’s DNA test is followed by streaming into different classes with different methods of teaching…). This is essentially what learning styles attempted to do by a survey rather than a DNA test.

So if we are to tailor learning to individuals its seems more likely an approach such as that advocated by personalised learning will be most appropriate. This is based on the learner themselves understanding how they learn best so they can help define their goals and their own learning path. Its not clear to at what point in a child’s education this becomes a realistic option.

Hackschooling – an education that focuses on achieving long term happiness

Food for thought. An inspiring presentation by a young proponent of home schooling with a manifesto for a refocusing education on the skills needed to achieve long term happiness. This presentation shows some great examples of innovative ways education can be taken from the classroom into the real world of work and nature to make “it real” and motivate and inspire the student. Eight core topics of this new approach to education are listed as:

  • Exercise
  • Nutrition
  • Relationships
  • Stress management
  • Spirituality
  • Recreation
  • Charity
  • Time spent in nature

These eight items were identified as therapeutic lifestyle changes for improving mental health by Roger Walsh (2011). Enjoy!

Some thoughts on digital badges to recognise learning

Following our experience of awarding Badges for the successful finishers of our open course on Professional Ethics for Physiotherapists this summer, I found these thoughts on the nature of open badges by David Wiley very interesting. In summary:

  1. The digital nature of badges means they can be awarded for lots of small achievements, large numbers of badges can be stored by the recipient (for example in a Mozilla Backpack) and searched and found when required for presentation as evidence (e.g. to a potential employer).
  2. As blogs have democratized publishing, “badges have democratized credentialing”. With democratisation comes issues of quality control. For blogs Google pagerank has become the measure of quality and ultimately as the number of issuers of badges expands a similar automated approach will be necessary to measure the quality of the badges and their issuers.

On the second point it is not immediately obvious how this could work. If the receivers themselves care about the quality of the badges they collect, then the numbers of badges stored in a system would be a measure of their quality. However there would always be those who would seek to game such a situation. Perhaps it would also be necessary to include a human element to rank the value of badges and their issuers, in a manner akin to reviews on Amazon. Perhaps this could occur in a trusted system such as LinkedIn where efforts to game the system would run the risk of significant penalties. Time will tell.

Deep learning experiences… failure is among the best!

When I think back to what I learned at university, it was through failure that I learned the most. The other best learning experience is when I needed to teach something. These two experiences can be engineered into the a teaching programme as described in this article…

Productive failure deliberately puts students into problem-solving situations that are over their heads…
Why students need to fail

This is a failure that occurs in a safe environment where the students are supported and encouraged to wrestle with the difficulties and hopefully eventually prevail.

Choosing a WordPress quiz plugin

I am currently building a WordPress based website with a private members area that incorporates relatively simple quizzes. Rather than re-invent the wheel I reviewed three existing quiz plugins and identified what appears to be the most suited to my purposes. As this was quite time consuming to do I thought I would share what I learned and outline why I made my selection:

Wp-Pro-Quiz – offers the most functionality for setting up how your quiz and questions will behave. However the results recording only recorded the first attempt of any user so preventing a user from improving their score in subsequent attempts. This was a deal breaker!

SS Quiz – a simpler set of functionality and a nice quiz authoring interface. However I discovered on testing sometimes the questions would be marked inappropriately (i.e. a question answered incorrectly would be recognised as being correctly answered). This again is a very significant problem for a quiz!

Slick Quiz – again a simple set of quiz functionality that can be used to author only 2 question types (MCQs and MRQs). Answers are marked accurately and results are recorded for each and every user’s attempt at a quiz. One weakness with this plugin is the poor display of scores for a quiz which are viewed as a long list with no options to re-order or filter these results by user etc.

Despite its limitations I selected Slick Quiz as the quiz plugin for this site.

In order to provide the site members with a page that lists the quizzes available with details of their attempts and highest score, I am currently writing a custom WordPress plugin that draws on the database tables used by the Slick Quiz plugin and displays this information in a dynamic table that allows sorting and searching. This will provide an interface that will remain useable as the number of quizzes grows. This table is implemented by using the excellent TablePress plugin (see below).

Dynamic quizzes table

The MOOC hype cycle… the trough of disillusionment looms

Following hot on the heels of the news of Udacity’s change in direction, the commentators are now rushing to declare that MOOCs are dead. With perfect timing a survey is published that shows most participants in Coursera’s xMOOC courses already had a graduate degree further undermining the premise of expanding quality education extolled as a benefit of the MOOC model.

This all appears to be a glass half empty perspective which coincides with the start of the download slope of the hype cycle. I wonder how long it will take for MOOCs to become part of the wall paper of education… i.e. reach the plateau of productivity part of the hype cycle graph above. An extremely useful model with particular benefits and limitations which does offer the potential for greatly lowering the barriers of access to education.

The alternative interpretation of the same survey data is that of the 34,779 Coursera students surveyed, 20% (that is just short of 7000) didn’t have a graduate degree. That is a significant penetration into a population that conventionally do not get access to university level education. To reinforce the success of Coursera courses in widening access see the graphic below:

Coursera Map Oct 2013

This map is published by Kris Olds and is the participation data from Oct 2013. This gives an indication of just how global the reach is, despite the requirement for access to the internet and the largely graduate level nature of the courses provided.

I’m looking forward to the MOOC hype cycle moving on so we can all get on with our jobs and use the MOOC model when and where it is appropriate without being either lauded or criticised for the choice.