Power to The Student - The New Indian Express

Power to The Student

Published: 06th January 2014 12:00 AM

Last Updated: 05th January 2014 08:32 PM

The interest in the knowledge economy is growing worldwide and a result of this trend is the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC). A surge in the number of people opting for MOOCs worldwide urges us to look at a few pressing issues — are MOOCs just a reflection of enthusiasm from learners or an indication of an underlying problem? Does rising of MOOCs imply the demise of university degrees or make the teacher obsolete? Globally, work is no longer only production-oriented and traditional. It is becoming more knowledge-based and students’ demands and needs seem to have changed. Somehow, universities around the world have failed to live up to this transition. Discussing this issue at great length were experts at the WISE Summit held in October last year.

Let’s look at the pro’s of this method of learning — free of cost, flexibility, solution to demand for knowledge, accessible to all, creating of an archive of knowledge, encouraging to both students and professors to improve, etc. But despite this, MOOCs have attracted controversy, no doubt, in the last few years.

The skepticism surrounding this phenomenon is a mixture of many factors — high dropout rates, lack of certification, giving teachers a less important role of moderator and mediator, missing out on the college experience and intellectual property issues. That said, MOOCs are going to produce a dramatic systemic change. According to the experts, it is just a word that reflects different political, economic and technological trends. They are part of a shadow learning economy — a supply side solution to a knowledge side demand problem we are facing in the world.

Commenting on the general dissatisfaction about education worldwide, Prof Pai Obanya, chairman, West African Examinations Council, says, “To solve the problem education faces, we have to look outside the education structure — focus on critical infrastructure and promotion of technology and the  human angle. Instead of focusing only on designing technology we also have to prepare people to use it.”

A business model

Mike Feerick, winner of the 2013 WISE award for creating new employment opportunities worldwide is an Irish social entrepreneur, and founder of Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online (ALISON), an Ireland–based e-learning company, which has delivered 60 million online lessons with some 2,50,000 graduates of its 500+ courses as of January 2013. This Ashoka Fellow, follows a business angle to support the uprising of MOOC. “The cost of learning is going up, at some stage it is going to be profitable to deliver e-learning to the masses for free through advertising, of course. I had a company that owned six courses in IT literacy. I made them free online in April 2007. Now we have 2.1 million people enrolled in 600 courses and we have three lakh+ graduates till date. It is a business model, but it is also a social enterprise,” he says.

edX by Harvard and MIT, Coursera, a Stanford company; and Udacity, are some popular MOOCs based on classroom learning. But what ALISON does differently to help the process along is that apart from being open to learning, you also have to be open to testing anywhere, at any time. Their tests are available online for employers who can test you for skills you’ve learned — a definite plus for those who are serious about skill development.

George Siemens, developer of one of the first MOOCs, outlines a range of effects, mostly positive in MOOCs. “But this is because there has been so little experimentation in education,” he says. “MOOCs are a big experiment to me, not a solution. It’s an opportunity to evaluate the role of technology in the education process today. The questions I would ask are — Is the depth of learning going to be on par with the quality of learning in a classroom? At a conference in New Delhi last year, I met a group of students who were very positive about MOOCs when I had just received a lot of negative criticism from faculty. Every one of them felt it was a great learning experience.”

But he fears that this could be a reflection of the kind of teachers we have. “We as educators shouldn’t define the value of MOOCs. Students define that. And students love it. Maybe they did have bad teachers. There are so many innovative ways to learn online. Shouldn’t MOOCs encourage teachers to improve? I hope so. Digital learning should encourage everybody in the system to think about the value they provide to learners, the system and society.”

MOOCs democratise education

The very nature of MOOCs is a democratic model that makes learning open to all for free. But the permanence of this phenomenon is to be questioned. It could be the start to a diversified education system where learning is a network and each one can learn in different spaces, with or without mentors/instructors. The challenge lies in retaining students and capturing and validating learning to serve the same cause that a traditional degree would serve. It is time for the learner to become central, the teacher secondary and the system last.

MOOCs make  some teachers obsolete

Fear and skepticism is mostly from professors: are they being sidelined? The general consensus is, no. Siemens says, “It will make not all, but some teachers redundant. Their roles might be different, but technology will play a greater role in education. Software now is complex enough to provide a personalised adaptive learning experience. So I think technology will be competing with teachers in knowledge transfer.”

He continues, “The other aspect is the political one — even though technology will make some teaching practices and activities obsolete, unions/governments in many countries may not accept these changes easily.” For a complete list of MOOCs you can enrol in, visit www.mooc-list.com.

george siemens on learning in the digital age

A Canadian educator and researcher on learning, networks, systemic change, analytics and visualisation, openness and organisational effectiveness in digital movements, George Siemens is also associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute (TEKRI) at Athabasca University, Canada. He is the originator of Connectivism theory and has authored Knowing Knowledge analysing knowledge in the digital world. His PhD at University of Aberdeen, was on sensemaking and wayfinding in complex information settings and frequently engages in discussions on the influence of technology and media on education, organisations and societies.

Stephen Downes and George Siemens developed the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08) course, as one of the first open source learning courses. The term MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier, manager, Web Communications and Innovations University of Prince Edward Island, and senior research fellow Bryan Alexander, National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, in response CCK08. In conversation with George Siemens at WISE 2013…

How has technology affected the way we acquire and disseminate knowledge?

The obvious impact is that it has made knowledge transfer and acquisition more equitable. At the level of being able to share in the creation of knowledge — social media is used to share and express ideas, blogs, etc. In academic settings, this is called grey literature. This is the literature that comes out of blogs and wiki’s — stuff we share that isn’t in an academic journal, but is still important information as innovative ideas.

What was the inspiration behind CCKO8?

I found that being connected to other people was a very rich personal experience and that if I taught others how to participate in these distributed networks, their lives would be enriched too. When you look back, everything you did seems like a coherent process, but we were just tinkering and playing. You describe it like it was a holistic experience, but it was far more chaotic. We just experimented, thought we’d have 100/200 students sign up, but turns out we had just under 2,300 students join us and 50/60 countries represented. The interest generated was surprising.

Since then, we’ve run a dozen different courses and played with our pedagogy. We have a different view from some of the other MOOC providers, and we really want to lay emphasis on students creating the process. I personally don’t want to see MOOCs being provided only by big established universities. Instead, MOOCs should be taught by faculty out of Africa, West Asian countries or India. Why don’t some regions of the world export knowledge instead of only importing it?

How are MOOCs student-centric?

We have a framework of a course that allows students to define what is relevant to them, what they cared about, and they are encouraged to be in charge of their learning process. It’s what they learn by themselves that’s important. We want to focus on students having the ability to decide what’s important for them, with the educator providing support. Putting the learner in control and giving them permission to being in control is what we attempted.

Where are MOOCs headed?

I think MOOCs are a bit of a fad or buzz word, and I suspect that in a few years time we will all be sick of it and move on to something else. What’s important about MOOCs is that they aren’t the trend, but a reflection of a lot of different trends. MOOCs reflect that the world is going online, becoming more active with technology in our personal lives and are globally connected. But if we get sick of MOOCs, those pressures that are driving education don’t cease to exist.

 So what it does for education is, it breaks apart the institutions — the “unbundling” happens. Instead of having an integrated system of education, you may get a degree/certificate from alternative learning sources with alternative credentialling systems. Wearable computing and technology will play a greater cognitive role in society. We will be co-intelligent with our technical systems.

How does technology impact our interaction with the environment?

It gives students some control which they didn’t have in the past. Our learning is touch-, feel-, eat-oriented. That’s how we figure out our world. But on the flip side, they could also be missing out. If you’re looking at a flower on an iPad when there’s one outside your window, you must get out!

How can we strike a balance between our virtual and real lives?

Teachers should play an important mentoring role. There are situations when working with technology is the right way to go and there are situations when students should be outside, interacting with nature and each other. Anything else should have rules and limits. With my kids, I have established time limits on how much screen time they are allowed in a day. Books are now digital as well. So does reading count as screen time? We do lose something, definitely. In some countries, people are struggling with internet or mobile device addiction. They ignore people around them.

Overcoming the addiction

I think the solution is to return to some spiritual practices and meditation. These aren’t prominent in school settings. A faculty member in the US makes his students sit down, reflect, meditate and think about what they should be doing, what’s important, etc, before they start a task on the computer. Internet distracts you. So you need to develop presence of mind and awareness you use technology.

That’s exactly what schools should teach. Family should teach us about appropriateness. Would you answer your phone and start talking in the middle of a conference or would you mute it when it rings? In my eyes, it is socially inappropriate. Maybe it’s culturally appropriate. These are the kind of things that schools teach us — when is the use of technology appropriate? We haven’t developed those kind of norms yet.

Is college experience essential?

Universities, in spite of some challenges, have an enormous impact on society. There is no better way to alleviate poverty than through education. The best way of improving a person’s quality of life is through education. I would think, anyone should have the opportunity to attend college or university. That experience should be augmented by alternative approaches of teaching and learning technologies. India has a lot of intellectual capital that is under utilised. Even with MOOC providers, some of the strongest learners and the largest taker group is from India.

What are your current projects?

I am currently working with a colleague on competency-based learning platform. We have developed a series of open courses that will be launched next year as an experiment. Most MOOCs now represent the classroom model. I’d like to see a learning experience that is completely driven by network effects

and greater learner control and influence. We should be able to integrate all of life’s learning experiences onto a platform that allows you to demonstrate a skill to anyone who cares — be it an employer or a university. So a platform for managing competencies is what I’m trying to create.

Visit his blog www.elearnspace.org/blog, or website www.connectivism.ca.

— preethi@newindianexpress.com

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