The Micro and the Macro of the EdTech World

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This year’s Association for Learning Technology Conference in Manchester, UK, focussed on Shaping the Future of Learning Together. By all accounts the conference was a great success trending on Twitter as never before.

I attended two keynotes virtually: Jonathan Worth’s keynote (I’m not sure if there was a title for this – if there was I didn’t see it) and Laura Czerniewicz who talked about Inequality in Higher Education.

I found both keynotes thought-provoking. It seemed to me that they presented micro and macro issues being faced by the Edtech world at the moment.

Jonathan’s keynote addressed issues of vulnerability, privacy and trust in open learning, at the local level of the learner. Laura took a global perspective, providing evidence for Inequality in the Higher Education landscape, particularly between the global north and the global south.

Jonathan is of course well known for his photography and Phonar MOOC so it is not surprising that he is used to looking closely at the world around him and took a local, intimate perspective of learning in a digital age. He talked about the difference between the image and the photograph and told us that there have been two major paradigm shifts in photography, the first when photography broke away from painting and became an art in its own right, and the second is happening now as the image breaks away from the photograph. Unlike a photograph, an image is not about evidence; an image is about experience. The image is an algorithm, it is what is behind the photo. Thinking about this I have wondered whether this is just a play on words and what the significance is for learning. My understanding is that all photos are images, but not all images are photos. For me the significance of thinking about this is that online we mostly see photos – not images – i.e. it’s hard to get behind what you see, which is why people still value face-to-face meetings and recognise what a difference that makes to online relationships. But to get behind the photo, to see images, we have to recognise that this can make people vulnerable. Audrey Watters has said that vulnerability is essential to the learning dynamic, but this brings with it issues of trust and the right to privacy. If we want to see more images, rather than photos, then we need to recognise the vulnerability of the subject or in the case of education, the learner. This shouldn’t be a surprise. It has been written about for decades and longer, but perhaps in recent frenetic digital times has been forgotten.

Similarly Laura’s talk about inequality on a global scale should not have come as a surprise. The surprise should be that people still need reminding. As she pointed out, inequality is literally a life and death issue, but the challenge these days is to address inequality in an austerity environment and particularly in new online landscapes. Inequality is about power, agency, ownership and choice, about the nature of relationships and who decides. Laura’s message was powerful and affective. She suggested that we need critical research, inequality-framed experimentation, policy and advocacy. We also need to shift from a broadcast culture to one of equal partnership and foster global partnerships. She said she is a researcher – she can raise the questions, but doesn’t have the answers. I suspect that the answers will rely on attention to both macro and micro views of the problem. Jonathan’s focus on vulnerability and trying to see the image clearly will inform issues of inequality and Laura’s focus on inequality will inform Jonathan’s concerns about privacy, trust and vulnerability.

The MOOC Bandwagon

As others have noted – most recently Bon Stewart in her Inside Higher Ed article  – everyone seems to be jumping on the MOOC bandwagon at an alarming rate.

This week the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee, UK ) has jumped on it with a webinar entitled

What is a MOOC – JISC Webinar 11-07-12

Four speakers were invited. Here is the programme and here is the recording
12.00 Definitions of MOOCs (Martin Weller)
12.10 Tutor perspective (Jonathan Worth)
12.20 Learner perspective (Lou McGill)
12.30 MOOCs and online learning (David White)
12.40 Q&A

Martin Weller presented a useful overview of the history of MOOCs and some thoughtful ideas about the benefits of MOOCs and the associated concerns in relation to Higher Education.

Jonathan Worth told us about his ‘open’ photography course in which he uses Twitter with his students to reach a wider network of experts. I was not sure that this is a MOOC in my terms, although it was clearly an ‘open’ course. It got me thinking about whether using different technologies necessarily means that the course is distributed across different platforms, which according to Stephen Downes is a necessary condition for a MOOC (at least a connectivist MOOC).

Lou McGill is a staunch advocate of the DS106 MOOC, in which she has been a learner and she shared her experience of authentic learning in this MOOC. She is also working with Strathclyde University to research learner experiences in the Change11 MOOC.  I was a participant in Change 11 and was also interviewed by Lou McGill for the research – an interesting experience in which I realized that my understanding of ‘What is a MOOC?’ stems from CCK08, but many, many people who are discussing MOOCs today were not in that MOOC and appear to be coming from a different place.

Dave White pondered on why the Stanford MOOC attracted such large numbers and thought it must be to do with their credibility and brand name. He raised the question of the role of the teacher/facilitator in MOOCs and suggested that this is important if MOOCs are to be inclusive. This is a topic we have been discussing in our review the FSLT MOOC.

These are my reflections as a result of attending this webinar.

There are still plenty of people who have technical difficulties accessing a site like Blackboard Collaborate. We cannot make assumptions that people have the technical equipment or skills to engage in MOOCs.

Whilst MOOCs might be the new buzzword in Higher Education, there are still plenty of people who have never heard of them, only just heard of them, have no idea what they are, or who completely misunderstand what they are.

The original connectivist principles of MOOCs are getting lost in the plethora of offerings which now bear the name MOOC, e.g.

  • CCK08 (the original MOOC) was an experiment in getting people to think about learning differently;
  • the idea was that learners could be in control of their learning and meet in learning spaces of their own choice  according to the principle of distributed environments (see slide 33 in this presentation by Stephen Downes) and see his LMS vs PLE video
  • learners would experience learning in the massiveness of the network – so they would not be able to rely on the tutor/convener/facilitator – instead they would need to make connections and seek peer support. In the light of this our understanding of the relationship between teacher and learner would need to change
  • the purpose of learning in a MOOC would be to create knowledge and artefacts through exposure to a diverse network, rather than have it centrally provided. This would, through the aggregation, remixing, repurposing and feeding forward of resources shared and created, enrich the learning experience
  • MOOCs were never intended – despite the name – to be ‘courses’ ( see this blog post  and this response from Stephen Downes ); they were intended to be a challenge to the traditional notion of a course – in the form of learning events. If they don’t do this then they are ‘open courses’ (with some of the attributes of MOOCs), but not MOOCs in the terms of how they were originally conceived.

This is my understanding of what is meant by MOOC – now renamed (in the light of different interpretations) a connectivist MOOC. Many of the most recent courses which have been called MOOCs are not MOOCs in these terms, but fall somewhere along the continuum from connectivist MOOCs with these principles, to the Stanford AI type of centrally located MOOC (see Stephen Downes’ LMS vs PLE video for an explanation)

It is evident that there is room for all these different types of MOOCs or ‘open courses’.   But I hope we will not lose the principles of the CCK08 type of connectivist MOOC, as it is the connectivist MOOCs that are really pushing against the boundaries and challenging traditional ways of thinking about teaching and learning, which is of course why many people feel uncomfortable with them and why we are now seeing efforts to somehow tie them down and bring them into line.