My response to this article in the HE Chronicle. The MIT’s reaction to the high number of drop-outs in MOOCs is to wonder whether there is nothing wrong with the mode, but rather with the format of providing courses (or semesters) instead of what learners seek, i.e. bits of learning:

“People now buy songs, not albums. They read articles, not newspapers. So why not mix and match learning “modules” rather than lock into 12-week university courses?”

MIT now consider offering modules instead of courses. This, at least in Europe, is no new thing. I have been involved in the modularisation of courses almost two decades ago, the intent then being to provide more flexibility and interdisciplinarity within courses, , and efficiency in their delivery. And there is nothing wrong with that, as experience  has shown. However, what I read in the article is that the motivation for modularisation is demand-driven only, i.e. “what students want”. Concluding that because students like it short, it therefore is automatically better and successful, is wrong!

I have long been arguing that there is a difference between learning and education. Yes, learning leads to education, but it’s the holistics that counts. Unless the modules are connected (by design within the framework of, say, a course!), learning individual chunks of domain knowledge may be personal, may be enough if you just refresh your memory and already have sufficient other knowledge, may be satisfying, but isn’t enough to qualify for expertise. This is where learning and education differ: an educational qualification includes things that you didn’t consider learning. Leaving learning to the fancies of a student alone isn’t going to empower them. It leads to the much criticised graduates that can’t read properly, that skipped literature or grammar or cultural studies in language learning, etc. or, in other words, people who don’t comprehend the greater picture and therefore are at a disadvantage.

Here’s another example: Just learning to drive a car isn’t quite enough to qualify for modern road traffic, though essentially that is what learners want to achieve. Who ever enjoyed studying the highway codes or technical details of car? Therefore, taking a module of a driving lesson alone isn’t going to cut it. Sure one can always argue about what parts of a curriculum are obligatory and which aren’t, but I think in the bigger picture we got mechanisms that regulate this rather successfully and with the variety needed to provide for personal choices across the educational landscape.

I for one would not like to fly with a pilot who just studied the take-off procedures but no landing…!

 

PS: I acknowledge that for MOOCs the approach of micro-learning and modularisation maybe acceptable when looking at a primarily CPD audience who are interested in updating or refreshing their existing knowledge base. This as I have always argued is the key sector for MOOCs (cf. also Diana Laurillard’s recent analyis in THES).

 

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I like approaches like Galaxy Zoo or the still ongoing SETI@home action. What I particularly like about it is the simplicity and the collaboration. This encapsulates the true spirit of humanity for me where people work together to solve questions, issues, or challenges.

 

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Similar to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk human brainpower is used to advance some quest or other.

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Now there is an interesting EU project under way that aims to harvest people power for science. It’s appropriately called Socientize. One of the initiatives is to ask people to report when they caught the flu, so data maps of outbreaks can be generated. Volunteers can help analyse datasets too or learn things about science. The project also engages in policy development.

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This is kind of funny: A survey among 850,000 students in 21 countries worldwide initiated by Laureate Education inc. (which claims to be the world’s largest higher education company) resulted in a positive vision for the university of the future – it is accessible, flexible, innovative, and job focused.

Why is this funny? Because, it merely shows that customers/students will just mirror the vision that is implanted in their heads through the student experience and the media coverage around them. This is no vision of the future, it’s the status quo!

Anyway, the full report is here.

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There is continuous tension between the forces of elitarianism and the commons. The Open Education agenda is a good example of the latter, traditional universities are the stereotypical emblem of the former.

Universities were originally built upon a model of scarcity, holding a monopoly in access to high level knowledge, in access to experts, and in value of graduates. This model has been challenged by drastic changes, most notably the widening access policies. The philosophy of establishing a knowledge society and a knowledge economy dominates the political agenda of herding as many young people through university education as possible. It not only industrialised the knowledge acquisition processes (facilitated by new technologies), but at the same time it made knowledge a competitive asset on a large scale. This introduced neo-liberal ideas to the economy of knowledge creation and transfer, thereby replacing earlier humanitarian ideals.

With HE participation rates of 75-80% and above in Western countries, the goal of mass educating people through HE can be said to having been achieved. The question is: where next? Not only does the system crack under the financial burden of its elevated costs (even though academic and administrative staff numbers were not growing at the same rate as students), it also leads to inflation of the “product” in terms of graduates and their salaries. If seen purely from the efficiency and cost effectiveness perspective, one could argue that a large part of the population is over-educated for the jobs they will be doing. Now, good education is a warrant for a peaceful, prosperous and adaptive society, but these arguments normally don’t play a part in debates about the cost effectiveness of the HE system which has become obsessed with the goal of producing workers for the job market.

All societies live with and require leaders. This cannot only be seen in indigenous populations with their council of elders and chieftains, but also there are more positions for employees than CEOs. To make leaders distinguishable from others, one needs criteria and extra values. In current Western HE, this requires longer study, among other things. Since general education and the ordinary BA graduation puts you in line with millions of other achievers, further study (Master or PhD) or quality work experience can form one of the visible distinctions.

The question is what type of elite do we want? In modern university systems, openness has been used as the promoter of inclusive egalitarian education. Now, with the aid of (affordable) technology people can study from anywhere, access knowledge objects, OERs, data, publications, MOOCs and so forth. The real savings in this, however, go to governments as these welcome initiatives provide them with a convenient excuse not to invest in the affordability of the established system. So, after pushing the cost down the food chain to the lowest level, the student, the learning arrangement now too is outsourced to them. What is sold as “open” and “free” is in fact “do it yourself – we don’t care”! Within the system, at the same time, a new “Walled Garden” is re-established for the elite few who are able to afford paying expensive fees for support services, live experts, and the “campus club” experience. Thus, HEIs return to being the elitist training ground they always were, but instead of an elite formed by intellectual merits it may purely be based on wealth.

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The EU has an ongoing row with Google over allegations that it manipulates search results in its favour and generally is becoming too powerful for the Internet market.

I noted recently that Google’s search results show YouTube links quite prominently placed on the first page. Not in a separate box, but among the result links and, hence, pushing other items out of the first page list. While YouTube links are indeed quite relevant in most of the cases, the suspicion arises that Google tries to further traffic to YouTube for reasons of generating advertising revenue.

The danger that the one-stop-shop (that users want) also becomes a manipulative engine in showing the results others want us to see was always evident. But, apparently, a new age may be dawning with Google under investigation and the demand from the Commission that it has to provide the possibility to “forget” and delete information about individuals on request. That will be a challenge and a half, for not only would it be difficult to establish that a request is genuine, but to distinguish between hundreds of John Appleseeds is near impossible.

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This maybe a long-term issue. Not only is future compatibility of digital technologies a major concern, it seems that digital assets undergo substantial decay, maybe even more so than earlier and much more senior media like magnetic tapes or vinyl.

I recently noticed that some of my carefully collected mp3 files show signs of decay and breakage. A song has interruptions or ends in the middle. This is not a single file that’s affected but several (around 0.5% of my music collection). I am unsure of the reasons for this, maybe it is the back-up actions that I perform regularly which – through constant read-write processes – destroys the file structure.

Annoying as this may be, similar things happen to my DVD movies. Some of the disks no longer allow me to access the menu options. To be sure, my DVDs were never exposed to extensive heat or humidity. On introduction to the market advertised as virtually indestructible, both DVDs and CDs, CD-ROMs don’t seem to be as long lasting as promised. By comparison, my LP records and music tapes from the 70s are still in good shape. My VHS tapes are a bit snowy, but still work under the same conditions as always.

This leads to three issues where trust in digital storage is shaken:

- the data itself, as decay of bits and bytes may render an object illegible

- the format, where changes may result in uselessness, e.g. screen resolution of old mpegs are no longer acceptable and some .avi’s are not readable anymore

- the machinery, such as DVD recorders that no longer support older objects (menus, selection interfaces, etc.)

In the digital world, storage is a big gamble. I remember mini-disks as the latest thing on the market. Fortunately, I never took the decision to go with them. HD-DVD came to the same inglorious end  – I owned one there, which I keep to sell to a museum in due course.

 

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3D printing is going to change our lives, there can be no doubt! The devices have already hit the high-street shops at reasonable prices, as this photo taken in a techno mega-store illustrates:

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How much 3D printing will change our society is already topic of some cartoons:

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This new technology is the next big thing to hit us in our homes and everyday lives, especially so as it will also impact dramatically on manufacturing industries and the job market. What will be required are more designers that master 3D production design to come up with new ideas for products that consumers can then print at home. Huge databases of designs stored digitally will render physical warehouses redundant – they can then be converted into lofts and apartments.

The developments in this area were both incredibly fast and incredibly inventive. There is the rather simple printing of ugly plastic objects for everyday use, as seen in the shop photo above or in my earlier posting from more than a year ago. Since then, I saw almost weekly reports on new prototypes: How food companies look into pasta and pizza printing, or hamburgers for that matter. Record breakers of 3D-printing houses like a full size canal house in Amsterdam, or ten houses in a day in China are outshining each other. Big organisations like ESA consider using this approach for building a permanent base on the moon. And Disney just announced a break-through in cuddliness: printing your own teddy bear. All in all very cool stuff! But perhaps the most fascinating line of development for me is bio-printing, i.e. the production of human tissue, fibres, and organs.

Not only plastic can be used for 3D printing. From rubble and building waste to moon dust and metal, it seems there is no end to what you can use to 3D print objects. This includes the biologic printing materials made of cells. Interestingly, though, there seems to be a bit of a struggle with reproducing wood in an acceptable manner. From what I’ve seen, wood printing isn’t just as aesthetically pleasing as real wood and looks very much like plastic, but we’ll have to see where this is going.

Then there is the more sinister side of things albeit even this can serve practical purposes such as medical research on 3D-printed tumors. Even the printing of guns may have a justification, although I am foreseeing the legal struggles ahead for conserving safety in society in combination with the potential for everyone to print “whatever”.

I am sure there will be plenty more articles to be written on this topic, but for now, I am merely wondering whether my future home will contain more printers than printed objects: one for pasta, one for pizza, one for hardware, one for soft toys, one for … Or will there be the mother of all printers that can rule them all?!

 

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Unlike the US (see here), the EU has just passed a law, securing net neutrality, thereby avoiding a two tier internet society. It goes even further by preventing mobile carriers from blocking access to Skype because it hurts voice, calling, and text-messaging revenues.

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This is not the only good news from Brussels: They also decided to abolish roaming costs for voice, data, and text by end of 2015. I have often felt that it is a massive competitive disadvantage for European consumers (incl. business customers) against the US, where you can move around the continent without roaming charges. It is also hugely inconvenient to always make sure that your data roaming is turned off, when getting close to the border!

So, my sincere thanks to the European Commission for empowering Europeans in this way. The only sad aspect is that this needs to come from regulators. It shows that the telecom industry (as I am certain other industries) is unable and unwilling to regulate themselves in the customer’s interest. What happened to the “customer is king” principle? Where is the “user needs driven” approach?

 

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Reading this article from the Telegraph, I was wondering whether this is an indication of the decline of HE. After decades of growth in foreign students coming to the UK, the numbers have now for the first time fallen from 311,800 to 307,205.

Whether this change is due to rising fees or a harsher immigration rhetoric by the government is open to debate. There are other possible reasons that are not mentioned in the article:

(1) declining population figures in some foreign countries: I only have decade stats from Eurostat. They show that from 1980 – 1990 the fertility rate e.g. in Portugal declined quite dramatically from 2.25 children per woman to only 1.56. These would roughly be the age groups of past and present incoming students.

(2) better (and cheaper) education offers in other countries: It is worth considering that universities in the threshold countries (India, China) are growing in reputation internationally, but also in their own countries. It may no longer be considered a second-class education to study “at home”.

Combine this with the tripling of fees to £9,000 and the ongoing strain on family incomes and you have a perfect recipe for declining participation in general. However, to get a more comprehensive picture, one needs to also look at the home student numbers. Here, the HESA site is helpful in showing that the total student figures fell by -6.3% (of which only-1.5% are foreign students). The economic argument is further strengthened by Scotland only showing -0.7% decline (mainly in the post-grad sector). Scotland, of course, doesn’t have the same fee structure as England (where figures dropped by -7.3%).

From this, I think it is pretty save to conclude that this isn’t a natural decline, but mostly economics that are played out here. By consequence, we can expect that HE participation will fall even further should the economic situation not be repaired. A warning sign to the Department of Education!

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This is interesting reading and shows us where Big Data is heading in Higher Education: Mapping the Postsecondary Data Domain: Problems and Possibilities. It’s clear that Learning Analytics, or in this case Business Intelligence of HEIs is gaining more and more foothold in education and even more so in politics. The aim of the policy document is to promote convergence of a large variety of data sources for the benefit of better understanding the HE system. And I do have a problem with it!

More than one, actually: Firstly, there seems to be no problem statement. The section “why do we need better postsecondary data” is just rhetorical to convince that we do, but doesn’t start with the question “why do we think we need better postsecondary data?”, or, in other words: what is wrong with our understanding of HE. Maybe it is the values that we put to it. Is this going to be answered by enrollment data?

My second criticism is that unified data searches for the one-and-only right answer. This is implicit in the quest, that if we have all the data, we can give the ultimate authoritative answer. But life isn’t like this at all, and it doesn’t require a scientist to tell you so. At the same time, though, unification robs the system of diversity and of vitality through areas of renewals. As soon as an institution has to officially report on something or other, the rules of autonomy and self-determination are changed.

Then there are obvious strange things in the suggested quest for data information:

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The assumptions (in the left column) are quite far from a problem statement, other than that they are in themselves most problematic:

- Consumers need to know the demographic profile of the student body: why? To sell them particular items? If you think about it, this statement is quite anti-inclusive; it’s there to discriminate against parts of the student population (like: rich kids only go to colleges with their sorts).

- Institutions need to know which students they are serving: how would this increase access? Such knowledge has traditionally led to exclusion not to widening access. Indiscriminate access is what’s needed and for this I don’t need people-categories. Especially so, since the authorities do not mandate intake of quotas of e.g. Native Americans, immigrants, special needs, etc.

- Policymakers need to know which institutions provide sufficient access to a diverse array of students: why? Should general access not anyway be the norm? What does “sufficient access” mean?

The criticism is further exacerbated by the data asked in the right column like race/ethnicity and gender.

Starting with the wrong questions isn’t going to provide useful answers, if data can even be expected to give an authoritative answer not a political one. Neither in politics nor in economics, where loads and loads of data have been available and used extensively, has it provided us with answers on how to do things right: the one-and-only answer has been missing. Why should this be any different in education?

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