MOOC schmook

The discussion about MOOCs is raging again and various alarmist mutterings are occurring. I’ve even heard the phrase “paradigm shift” cropping up a few times. I’ve used the argument a few times that I think the panic that they’re creating is occurring unnecessarily because people are seeing MOOCs as the equivalent of courses, when really they’re not, they’re the equivalent of text books. There’s the worry that this could mean a transformation of HE in that people could just attend a MOOC, then go along to be assessed and get a qualification without ever attending an actual lecture in an actual university.

I’ve got some news for you. People have been doing that for centuries.

Well not attend a MOOC and get a qualification, but attending an exam without attending a taught course. I sat plenty of exams as an undergraduate where I hadn’t learnt anything from the lectures, but had to make sense of it independently from a text book. I’ve had lectures that actually were simply regurgitating text books (though in fairness those were usually written by the lecturer). There was no tailoring to the student base, no extra explanatory stuff if you were struggling, there was no sense of gaining insights from having a person standing there talking. There was no teaching.

The only advantage of attending the course delivered by the university rather than staying at home reading the text books was that they knew exactly what was to be on the exam, so you had to be there to find out what the syllabus was. Or in the case of my housemate at uni, have someone to send out to the lectures (i.e. me) so you could copy their notes when they got home (or by the second year she had the brainwave of buying lots of carbon paper “for me”, so she didn’t even need to do that).

So really, paying the fees to attend those lectures to the university, would have been a waste of money, since we could have just been given a syllabus and a reading list. This was when education was free though. The people who deserved the money for me passing those exams were the authors (Thank you Richard Feynman) and in the case of my computing assignments, the second and third years who offered me advice. Really I was only paying (or rather the state was only paying) for the university to accredit me, not to teach me. For those courses. Other ones were taught properly, I should add.

So where’s the harm in acknowledging that’s how HE has always worked and allow more people access to the role of providing content, and to be reimbursed for it? Just as kindle allows more people the opportunity to write and sell books directly. Education is a mixture of content, teaching, assessment and accreditation. The last two probably have to be provided by the same institution but the rest could be distributed. If you need to know something about, for example, quantum mechanics, join a MOOC (or watch some youtube videos, or read a book) about it. Need some help?, sign up with someone with a good reputation at teaching it, and if they’re good at it, they’ll put together a learning set on the subject. Feel you know enough?, sign up for an exam and be assessed. Accrue enough assessments, get a degree.

In reality, things probably won’t change that much. To be accredited you have to learn the right stuff to pass that particular exam. And universities will probably keep that close to their chest so you have to sign up with their course. Practical exams need equipment that only universities can afford to provide. Also the business model for MOOCs doesn’t really support them as standalone things. The only economic rationale for them that i can see is as a loss leader. If you like the MOOC but want to know more, then sign up for some tuition, and then sign up for the degree, or (perhaps if education does become more disaggregated) to be assessed and accredited at the end. Certainly there’s no way to make money directly from MOOCs since they’re not only free, but also the content is immediately rippable once it’s made public. Two colleagues I spoked to last week were expressing shock at a MOOC’s content being replicated within a week or two in its entirety and used to create another two MOOCs elsewhere. That seems to me to be perfectly appropriate. The learning isn’t happening when the content is being read, it’s happening elsewhere, in the communication between learners, or between learners and tutors. The content should be free because, essentially, it is the part of the process that has the least value.

Oh and as for the idea that it’s a cheap, and therefore affordable and accessible format for all those who don’t have access to HE, Martin Smith at Strathclyde points out that for the learners that don’t have access to HE normally, self-learning is not going to be that easy. There are a set of skills that you acquire by being formally taught, that you need in order to get the most from materials. This is where Sugatra Mitra’s idea of Self Organised Learning falls down. Yes you can go so far with self-organised learning, and some remarkable people are effectively self-taught, but it’s a difficult skill to learn for most, and no amount of other learners, or Intelligent Tutors/Agents/Bots are going to fill that gap.

Badgification of learning

A response to http://lg.dlivingstone.com/2013/04/21/badges-badges-badges/

I remember at school we had a credit system, earn a credit for your house. It was a way to exert some extrinsic pressure on us to perform, but I was enough of a nerd to want to learn the stuff anyway. I remember once a maths teacher congratulating me on solving some problem and asking if I wanted a credit. I answered that if she wanted to give me one then fine, but I wasn’t really interested. I think she was quite non-plussed. I think it unsettled her whole notion of how to motivate students.

Today though, although I won’t go much out of my way to unlock an achievement when playing on the Xbox, I will occasionally. I play the games just for fun, to get to the end, but if I see there’s an achievement for, for example, stabbing people with an arrow rather than shooting them with one, I’ll hit the B button occasionally rather than the Y one. That’s pretty much as far as I’ll go to get a badge.

It surprises me therefore the degree to which badgification of courses is taken seriously as a concept. Qualifications are weak enough as an indication of learning. I got through all of my A levels by simply rote learning, and actually only really understood the material when I had to teach it 10 years later. The whole attributing a badge automatically, which is really the only attribution a system can make without the intervention of an actual human to assess the learner, seems to be particularly pointless, on the level of an attendance certificate. The only time I ever really felt my learning was properly being assessed was during my viva. A nerve-wracking experience, and I felt I’d been put through the wringer, but I knew at the end that I’d proven I knew what I knew, and knew my externals knew I knew. But to hand out something just because something is completed, rather than understood, is the other end of the spectrum. We might as well put a badge in the back of a book for someone to peel off and stick to their shirt when they’ve got to the end of it to prove they know what it’s about.

To me, the idea of badges is another example of the sleight of hand involved in MOOCs which replaces education with content, and yet still calls it education. I think they’re useful, they make materials accessible to far more people, but materials are only one aspect, and to complete one really proves nothing.