Archive for the ‘technology’ category

The MOOCs carnival

July 9, 2013

Every so often a fad grabs hold of higher education. Usually there is at its heart some genuine and interesting concept or development, but as the academic community or parts of it start to analyse the concept they become over-awed, and suddenly the hype takes over. A perfect example of this kind of mass hysteria is the noise generated by MOOCs.

A MOOC – ‘massive open online course’ – is a straightforward enough phenomenon, though you might ask what benefit its early supporters thought it might bring. It is a course put on the internet by a university or other institution, and which can be accessed for free by any number of  participants (or students). The level of staff-student interaction may vary, from none at all to intensive. The first serious experiment in this field was a UK publicly funded (or subsidised) venture called UKeU (UK eUniversities Worldwide Limited), which also involved Sun Microsystems as a strategic partner. Its mission was to offer online courses designed by existing universities. It launched the first courses in 2003, but three years later it closed down, having been deemed a failure.

But this failure was a temporary blip, and by the end of the decade the term ‘MOOCs’ had been coined and providers were everywhere. Three major global providers emerged - Udacity, Coursera, and edX – and these (and others since) have offered an increasing variety of courses from partner universities and institutions. And before you knew it, the chatter about MOOCs was to be heard everywhere. The New York Times declared that 2012 was the ‘year of the MOOC’; various senior figures in the academy declared loudly that MOOCs were the future and that any institution that didn’t offer them would perish.

By 2013 some commentators have started to wonder whether the hype is all a bit too much, or whether MOOCs could undermine genuine academic activities and standards. Others have noted that it is not at all clear how MOOCs will ever make any money, or at least enough to cover their costs; even the co-founder of Coursera, Daphne Koller, couldn’t answer that question in a recent interview. However, the ‘MOOC or die’ theme still continues: the most recent prophet is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton, Professor Don Nutbeam, who has suggested that those who don’t embrace MOOCs will decline.

I must confess I am going to stand back from this crowd a little, and won’t be chasing the MOOC beliebers too actively. It’s not that I don’t believe in technology-enabled learning; I do. It’s not that I don’t want easier access to higher education; I do. It’s not that I think that spreading knowledge around freely is bad; it’s good. It’s not even that I would advise anyone not to try a MOOC; by all means do it, it’s free. But as for those people currently hyper-ventilating in the MOOC rock festivals, I would ask some questions, and chiefly this one: what are MOOCs actually for? What pedagogical, social or business objectives do they satisfy? Those who think that MOOCs are the answer to every question, including those not yet even formulated, are not terribly convincing on how the model can be made pedagogically and financially sustainable. Higher education at its most desirable is both expensive and highly interactive. It depends on a high quality personal experience. A mass market product that nobody is paying for or funding is not the most obvious answer to whatever problem you think we may currently have.

I am not suggesting that MOOCs are uninteresting. There’s something there all right, though my thanks will go to the person who finds a less irritating label for them than ‘MOOCs’. I am not suggesting that higher education in future will not involve much more online provision; I’m absolutely sure it will. But if we are to develop a model of provision that actually has clear objectives and a sustainable resourcing basis we have to approach this differently. Free online courses won’t make everyone educated any more than standing at street corners handing people envelopes with $50,000 will make everyone rich.

Right now, there is evidence that the MOOCs excitement is waning a little amongst potential users. This is a good time to reflect a little more about how we can innovate and develop in higher education, but without the hysteria.

Throwing stones at a trend

January 4, 2013

In the 1960s there was a famous sign in a London park that had only this written on it: ‘It is forbidden to throw stones at this notice.’  I always wanted to take a photograph of the sign but never got the chance.

I was reminded of it yesterday, however, when I had a look at what was ‘trending’ on Twitter. Sometimes the list throws up items of popular culture that one might want to know about. Anyway, one trending item was ‘Página 4 de 365′. This seemed to me to be a curious thing to have become famous, and so I checked out the tweets containing these words. It is totally clear that the expression is indeed trending: from the point at which I began writing this post to the moment in which I have reached this part of it, no fewer than 189 tweets have been posted referring to the mysterious page 4. But none of the tweets I could read (or could be bothered to read)  explained what it was; instead, they all either asked what ‘Página 4 de 365′ was all about, or expressed irritation that it was trending. It seems to be trending only because nobody knows what it is.

The internet is a mysterious place. Let’s not throw stones at it.

So what are you in university for?

December 18, 2012

Why does a student go to university? Is it to pursue deep learning in the company of other committed students and brilliant faculty? Or is it to get the passport to a job, in the form of the degree parchment? As in a number of countries students are having to put their hands in their pockets to pay for their tuition, the question as to what exactly they want to buy is becoming more directly relevant. If the customer is paying and the customer is king, we had better give them what they want. Whatever that is.

One way in which this question is being thrown into relief is through the growth of online university courses that can be accessed fully for free. The latest initiative of this kind is Futurelearn, which is providing free online access to courses from 12 UK universities, including the Open University. Another similar initiative, Coursera, was launched earlier in the year, and according to its website it has over 2 million students taking courses from one or more of the 33 partner universities. Furthermore technology giant Apple has been pushing its iTunes U concept for a while, with some success – and it is now available through a special iPad app. Individual universities – such as MIT – have also got into the game.

So, if you can take the very best courses from the very best universities for free, why bother ‘going’ to university in the traditional sense? There are a several reasons, in fact, including the absence of a campus experience and real interaction with fellow participants in the educational journey. But another critical reason – the critical reason I would think – is that these programmes do not give you a degree.

As in so many other sectors of modern life, the internet is changing the assumptions of higher education, but it is not yet clear what is emerging at the other end. Clearly there are also business questions: if you are offering free access to courses, how is that being funded? And the answer generally is through advertising. But the biggest question is whether free online courses, without certification, can find a market, and more particularly whether they will destroy the existing ‘market’ for university degrees. Probably not, because the formal qualification is still the key objective for most. But if this gets more and more expensive, and the return on such an investment gets less obvious, some may begin to think again. But then, perhaps there is another model altogether, that combines technology-smart methods with employment-aware content, affordable cost and secure quality assurance, with a degree at the end. That may be the golden ticket.

It’s an interesting world in the digital age.

On the record?

November 12, 2012

A few years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, I took part in what was a somewhat difficult meeting on a sensitive topic. Those present held, and expressed, a variety of what one might call robust views. A few days later I received, from one of the participants, what was described as a note of the meeting. Except that this wasn’t what I would recognise as a note; it was clearly a full transcript. Not only did it contain, fully verbatim, what everyone had said, it even included, precisely, everyone’s linguistic infelicities and ramblings. It seemed to me that the only way this transcript could have been assembled (not least because the person who sent it to me had not during the meeting visibly written down anything other than very occasional notes) was if the meeting had been secretly recorded. I asked a question, and received a strong response along the lines that no recording had been taken. I didn’t believe that for a moment, but decided not to pursue it, though I also felt that if a recording had been taken it was completely unacceptable.

Of course I am not alone in this experience. Last week Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported an incident in which a meeting addressed by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, was secretly recorded by one of those taking part. The recording was subsequently distributed to a select group of people who had not been present. The Cabinet Secretary took exception to this, and has asked the person who took the recording to consider his position. I have to say I fully sympathise with the Cabinet Secretary.

Of course today’s technology makes taking such recordings very easy indeed. I am often at meetings in which those present have their mobile phones lying on the table in front of them, and setting these to record is very simple, and more or less impossible for anyone else to detect. I will hazard a guess that the incident above is not the only time I have been recorded without my knowledge.

But is it acceptable? I might say, for the avoidance of doubt, that nobody has ever been recorded by me without being advised and asked first. I would then add that I regard making a secret recording to be ethically totally unacceptable, except possibly at a public and open meeting. But can it be stopped or controlled? Or do we have to accept that the available technology is dictating acceptable practice? And in that context, is it acceptable for students, without first seeking permission, to record lectures or classes? And if the answer is no,  does that in any way contradict a desire for openness and transparency?

So how are we coping with social media?

October 16, 2012

I tend to be an early adopter of new technology and all things online. But when it comes to the social media, I was a late developer. I first became aware of the whole scene when, as President of Dublin City University, I was approached by a colleague who wanted to block access by students to Bebo. You may not even remember Bebo now, it’s so very 2007. But in that year it was suddenly all the rage, and students were hogging access to library workstations while chatting to their online friends.

The early lead enjoyed by Bebo was, as we all know, wiped out by the all-conquering Facebook. And along came Twitter also. One of the perhaps unexpected consequences of the social networking revolution was that older online vehicles began to fade. From about 2008 you could see students gradually abandoning the use of email, as their virtual interaction moved to Facebook. Twitter, which was not initially popular with students but was more influential amongst more mature internet users, eventually also caught on and brought the culture of mobile phone texting to internet communications and commentary.

But it has to be said, the academy was nonplussed. It simply could not understand what this was all about. Academics are, in terms of social trends, not always at the cutting edge, and Facebook and Twitter just seemed alien to many of them. Even now, more than half a decade after social networking really took off, most academics have no social networking presence at all; and while universities in their corporate sense do, most have absolutely no idea how to use it. Indeed the risk is that the university world will finally come to grips with Facebook and Twitter just as the online world is moving on to something else.

I recently had a long conversation with an old friend who is a very senior professor in another university. For him, the social media represent a flight from intellectual discourse to ephemeral trivia; a whole generation of young people turning their backs on scholarship in favour of gossip.

For me, it is very different. I suspect some find the social media so difficult because they make directly visible the conversations that previously took place privately in the pub or in a student residence. But this interaction always took place; what’s new is that it is now on the same platforms that also support, or could support, academic conversations. We must not only get used to this, we must be anxious to have some of our scholarship in the places where students, and others, actually want to be. We must look again at how we communicate what we do, and how we engage our partners in the educational journey. And maybe we should remember that pretty much the same reservations were voiced about the printing press when it first emerged.

As for me, I joined Bebo, Facebook and Twitter in 2007. I have no regrets. It is time to harness social networking, and not resist it.

No news is good news

June 25, 2012

I have previously in this blog suggested that, on the whole, universities do not understand what use to make of their websites. Most of these are poorly designed, are excessively busy, confuse the visitor with complex navigation, and contain information unlikely to be of even passing interest to the average reader. The latter category most particularly includes so-called ‘news’ items.

It is evidently believed in many universities that the latest achievements of faculty and forthcoming events are hugely exciting and eagerly awaited by all.  Often they dominate the university’s home page, not least because they are frequently accompanied by excessively large photographs, as in this case. Some universities give so much space to news, announcements and events that almost no room is left for the real links that most visitors are likely to want.

So here is a message for those who determine the content of university websites: though this may be hard to accept, in reality nobody is interested in your news. I suspect that often these items are published as a form of recognition for those colleagues mentioned in them, but that is a misguided use of valuable online real estate. It is perfectly appropriate to have, somewhere in the links, a path to university news items, but they should not themselves be displayed on the home page. The latter should be clean, with plenty of white space, and with logical and easy to follow navigation links.

Most universities still do not seem to understand what use they can and should make of the internet. But a start would be to avoid excessive self-promotion; it doesn’t work as a PR tool, and it satisfies no other objectives.

The digital life, and nothing but?

November 4, 2011

I am writing this post from my office in my university. I am typing it into my iMac (Apple Macintosh). Sitting next to it is my iPad, which right now contains some 50 books and other materials; one of the iPad-resident books I am reading is on the future of higher education. If I look beyond my computing equipment to the wall opposite, there are two bookcases in which I have maybe 250 books (I have rather more than that at home). Are these sources of reading in competition with each other, and if they are, which one will win in the end?

The digital ones will, if you follow the perspective of Salford University’s new digital campus at the MediaCity location. The director of this venture describes his facility as follows:

‘This is a digital futures campus. It is not a place you come to read books. It is a place to do real work on real-time digital platforms. You are not messing around – you are in the real world.’

Some of this is at the heart of what we might call the knowledge world, since it extends beyond higher education. There is a school of thought in this world that just thinks digital: the school of MIT’s Media Labs, or of the new Salford venture. There are others who believe that this is all the work of devil, and that those who like digital products and processes are clearly philistines. The reality is probably somewhere in between. But the issue is more important than just a question of technology and platforms. It is about how we handle, disseminate and process knowledge. Digital technology gives us much greater choices, and I am certainly an avid user. But I don’t conclude from this that the world of books no longer has a use beyond aesthetically populating bookshelves. In the end, books are probably still the most durable source of data. I think.


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