Latest Assignment – Blogpost One of Two

This is my latest assignment – the brief stipulated a blog-post style which seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.  Feel free to comment!  It doesn’t have to be handed in until Wednesday.

Education and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)

Are you a digital native or a digital immigrant? If you were born pre-1980s, you’ll probably be an immigrant. You didn’t grow up with technology the way children today have. The 21st century classroom, at least in state schools, is very different from the one you knew. Students often sit in groups, purposeful talk is encouraged, and peer review is common prior to more formal teacher assessment. Texts used in the classroom are as up-to-date as possible, and engage students by being relevant to them and their lives. Phrases like ‘student centred approach’ and students ‘managing their own learning’ are common. Teachers have arguably become facilitators or mentors.

Technology is often highly visible in the modern classroom. Teachers have access to electronic whiteboards with the ability to access and display resources from the web. Students often use technology the form of computers (usually in an IT room or the library), laptops and now tablets. Most students also have smartphones, which some schools encourage them to use for learning purposes. Lots of applications have sprung up to help with collaborative learning like virtual sticky-note walls, artist sketch pads, or cartoon creators. ‘Gamification’ has entered the modern classroom in the form of short tasks which, when successfully completed, reward the student with virtual badges or the ability to upgrade their avatar. Learning has now become ‘blended’ using a variety of platforms.

‘Digital literacy’ includes all these things, but also makes clear that students should learn to use resources and environments on the WWW with care. They need to learn how to search for and use the sources they find appropriately – they must learn to critically evaluate what they find, and acknowledge their sources appropriately. They need to know how to create digital work that takes into account things like resolution or output formats. They need to know how to behave on social network sites, and how to avoid dangerous situations. This is digital literacy, and in my experience it’s almost as difficult to teach as maths or English. Students are very happy to use software and the WWW as tools, but are less keen to bother with the boring stuff like not putting personal information online. With so many parents still digital immigrants, this is a real problem but not the subject of this post.

Other forms of e-learning exist – the Khan Academy, formed in 2006, provides short ‘micro lectures’ on YouTube aimed primarily at school children (but in reality of course they can be used by anyone), and the videos are supported by a web site that provides teacher tools, extra practice exercises, virtual badges for students to reward progress etc. – is probably the best known. It introduced the idea of the ‘flipped’ classroom – where the learning takes place somewhere else, leaving the classroom free for discussion and opportunities to deepen understanding.

All of this represents a paradigm shift in the world of education. A 21st Century classroom is an exciting place to be, but there are problems. First of all, even if we assume all state schools have access to a range of technologies, many teachers are still digital immigrants and don’t always know how to take full advantage of them. Secondly, ideas like the flipped classroom rely on students a) having access to the WWW; b) access in a suitable environment; and c) that they do the work set for them. If they don’t, the potential for the student to be completely de-motivated, if not disruptive, because of how they have been made to feel, is great. Secondly, a student’s education is still measured through the traditional, long-standing medium of the exam – the element of coursework that counts towards a grade has been severely cut under the current government. In essence, students are at risk of moving from the positive, collaborative and dynamic environment of the classroom to the two-hour silence of the exam hall. This transition is of course managed by teachers, but as a student climbs higher up the educational ladder, the interactivity of the classroom becomes a thing of the past. The traditional way of doing things takes hold, and eventually they’ll find themselves in the lecture room, listening and taking notes.

MOOCs fit into this model somewhere between the pre-16 classroom and the lecture hall. They are the latest educational resource, distinguished from other methods of learning because they are delivered exclusively via the internet. The first MOOC was launched in 2007 by Alison.com, a company started by Mike Freerick, although only the basic course contents were free of charge. The first true MOOC – where all content was available free of charge to participants – was launched in 2008 by the University of Manitoba in Canada, titled ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’. The creators have some strong views about the current crop of MOOCs, which will be discussed below.

You can see MOOCs attempting to replicate the blended learning approach. There are typically a mix of videos to watch, articles to read, and exercises to complete on- and off-line before checking your understanding in the next ‘lesson’. Lessons are divided up across a week, with participants free to complete them whenever and wherever they can. There are often links to other resources if you want to know more, and optional extra lessons. There is an attempt to develop support using a chat facility, where participants can respond to individual points or requests for help, and ‘like’ a post. However, you are strongly discouraged from contacting your tutor(s) which, given over 10,000 people joined the recent Web Science course via Futurelearn, is hardly surprising. Given, though, that the current model of education is much more ‘active’, it’s surprising that MOOCs still follow a linear model of delivery, with less interaction and variety than there might otherwise be.

It’s even more surprising when we remember that the environment of the WWW allows you to jump from one thing to another at the click of a mouse and find your way back again. Why haven’t MOOCs used this to their advantage, offering a ‘menu’ of activities that participants can explore in their own way, with compulsory tasks to check their understanding? This could be collaborative – MOOCs assume that everyone undertaking them has access to the internet – making many platforms available as collaborative tools. As mentioned above, Steven Downes, the co-creator of the first MOOC, is critical, describing them as resembling “…television shows or digital text books…” and just re-packaging what the University already does. His vision was for MOOCS that generated new knowledge through social networking and on-line collaboration. The innovation that has occurred in the classroom hasn’t been extended in the MOOC, which follows a more traditional pedagogy. An opportunity to be innovative and exploit all the advantages of a virtual learning environment has been missed. In fairness, it’s probably easier for a busy, working participant to follow a linear structure, but I’m sure that would be possible too.

Word count: 1150

Bibliography

  1. Galder, P. (2011) Khan Academy Competitor? Mike Feerick of Alison.com Talks About The Future of Online Education. WiredAcademic. Available at: http://www.wiredacademic.com/2011/09/khan-academy-competitor-mike-feerick-of-alison-com-talks-about-future-of-online-education/#sthash.bQYwAbYq.dpuf (Accessed: 2 December 2014).
  2. Montague, S. (2014) Learning with Videos and Video Games, BBC World Service. Learning with Videos and Video Games, The Education Revolution, The Documentary – BBC World Service. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01xfb38 (Accessed: 30 November 2014).
  3. Montague, S. (2014) Massive Open Online Courses, BBC World Service. Massive Open Online Courses, The Education Revolution, The Documentary – BBC World Service. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01xrlpm (Accessed: 30 November 2014).
  4. Parr, C. (2013) Mooc creators criticise courses’ lack of creativity, Times Higher Education. The Times. Available at: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/mooc-creators-criticise-courses-lack-of-creativity/2008180.fullarticle (Accessed: 2 December 2014).
  5. Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’, MCB University Press, 9. Available at: http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf (Accessed: 5 December 2014).
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