Saturday, 9 February 2013

Why Openness Matters: From MOOCs to FlashMobs and Shared Spaces

Whilst I've been quite critical of them, MOOCs are clearly 'happening'. If the learning technologists from 10 years ago could see where we have got to with learning technology (some of them can, but they've got short memories!), they'd probably be quite impressed by the emergence of large-scale open courses - particularly the institutional buy-in they have gained. Where my worries begin is that we lose perspective in the MOOC debate: not just from the anti-MOOC crowd, but from the pro-MOOC crowd. There is a need for us to say "What is this really about?"

In a word (or 5) it is about "access to the education system". Where the anti-MOOC people and the pro-MOOC people disagree is precisely what 'access' and 'education system' really mean. In many ways it feels like a rehash of the many "don't forget the pedagogy!" arguments that surrounded VLEs, Learning Objects, e-Portfolio and Personal Learning Environments. But I don't think we ever sorted out what we meant by pedagogy in that debate - and there are similar fundemental issues surrounding MOOCs which risk getting ignored. In reality there was a tendency to take sides without fully exploring the positions adopted. One way of addressing that is to turn each positive assertion into a question:
  1. access?
  2. education system?
  3. pedagogy?
Regarding access, the education system has been and continues to be a closed system. That is not to say that learning has not been possible outside it (learning cannot be closed). But the education system, with its capability to certify individuals, has been closed through entry requirements, and more recently, fees. MOOCs address this.

The fact that the education system has embraced technology as a way of addressing its own closure is interesting. I have argued previously that Universities are experimenting with ways of leveraging technology to increase their market share through apparent 'openness' (of course that raises another question: apparent openness vs real openness..  but let's park that for now!). In other words, the new 'openness' may be another form of closedness. But if MOOCs are ultimately ineffective, then frankly its just another experiment - and probably one that has more positives than negatives as outcomes. If MOOCs, have massive take-up, lead to slashing the costs of education - if they are hugely successful in doing precisely what they claim to do - then we will have justification for worrying about Universities in the same way we worry about Google. It's important to be careful what we wish for!

But perhaps we should forget the education system and institutions for a moment. Learning is the active thing that goes on, after all; education itself doesn't do anything! The arguments against MOOCs tend to be based on poor learning experiences (I've jumped on this bandwaggon myself - and I'm now awkwardly readjusting my position!). Yes - the learning experiences are mostly poor, and this is reflected by the  few conversions to certification. But what are the alternatives? The traditional university with small group seminars, face-to-face (huge) lectures, out-of-date curricula, etc? Isn't that merely upholding the old-fashioned closedness of the system?

The basic question of education, not only educational technology, need to be asked:

  1. What is learning and teaching that some experiences are better than others?
  2. What can technology do to amplify better experiences? (can they be amplified? How does their quality change when they are?)
In other words, openness is not just about widening access. It is not just about putting stuff on a website. It is about widening access to great learning experiences.

One institutional business model for some (not all) MOOCs conceives of a 'loss leader' tempting students to purchase the deluxe product. Of course, it could have the opposite effect - MOOCs are reputational risks for institutions. Another is simply a super-scale effective education model with slashed costs. I tend to favour the latter because costs are the big concern of learners. But the systemic ecological implications on the 'institution of knowledge and learning' needs to be examined in a way which is not happening at the moment. And we need new theories and tools to do it.

Universities should aim to amplify their best learning experiences as a way of broadening access and participation: they have huge amounts to offer society. This doesn't have to be online. It can be on TV, in cinemas, huge public lectures (this is hardly an innovation - Bergson's lectures in Paris in the early 20th century were sell-out affairs). Flashmobs are a recent and incredibly creative invention: technology can do remarkable things there, I think! Universities should create the most exciting events which bring people together and give them the experience of having their minds opened. Perhaps Universities should examine their role as media companies - or even take a more direct role in political activism. Open education = Open Minds.

Such an effort would entail a honing of the "theatre of the classroom". Convivial spaces that allow them to say with confidence to students "this is the experience you get if you study with us - and it's really great!". The most important element of this experience is, however, social. Why does this openness matter? Because students need to make decisions about what to study, where to study, etc. They need to be able to see the experience they will get to assess the risks of submitting themselves for assessment.

At the moment, the University is largely opaque to students before they choose to go. Yet those students are on the point of making one of the most expensive financial risk transactions of their lives - Without the ability to see the product? to assess the risk? It's the kind of nonsense that we'd hoped went out of fashion with the pre-reformation Catholic Church! MOOCs might be a useful experiment in the right direction. But we should remember this is not the only possible technological world we might live in. Others are possible. And Universities might well expend some effort in exploring them - for the sake of all of us!

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