I always have hesitations about putting people in boxes. Although well-intended to support participation, the widening access agenda for HE supported and promoted this type of thinking. In order to help underrepresented social groups, measures were taken to support women, migrants, the disabled, people from rural backgrounds or poorer neighbourhoods, etc. The remedies were aimed at these identified and defined social categories of deprived people. At the same time, this categorisation stigmatised entire social classes and helped discrimination to be adhesive along the lines of “box”-values through the inherent and inevitable generalisations “disabled people/women/black people/migrants are…”.

It is important to note that any person can pass through several deprived categories during the course of their studies: a student may start as a single young woman, then get married, then become a single parent, having a part-time job, and so on… Of course, anyone breaking a leg while skiing can be temporarily disabled. So the people-to-categories fit isn’t necessarily generally applicable.

The flip side is that measures to improve the situation of one category of people may also benefit others: a disabled ramp can be used by moms pushing prams or elderly ladies with shopping trolleys.

There is, however, an alternative to people categories! Anti-categorisation starts not with the person, but with the context and situation a/any person can find themselves in. The “special needs” concept comes closer to this than the category “disabled”. Defining scenarios that require support measures of one sort or another, goes a long way to more personalisation of student support and hence providing more adequate help to those who need it.

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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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This is the beauty of technology: breaking the confines of space and time. Some 500 Greek pupils took part in a virtual visit to CERN in Switzerland. This is a wonderful example of how technology can enhance learning and make Science interesting.


Think about it, a real life excursion to Switzerland with 500 under-age children would be a major effort. Not only would it cost an arm and a leg, it also requires substantial numbers of accompanying teaching staff and supervisors. Even the logistics and safety concerns involved in traveling, finding accommodation and visiting CERN would be too much for most schools to handle. Guiding such a large group of kids through a relatively narrow passage way of the CMS would almost certainly leave some in the back not being able to see or hear what’s going on; or, alternatively when divided into small groups of 10, would take a very long time to complete.

Another lovely event recently was the waking up competition for the Rosetta space observer, organised by ESA. Some 1000 Greek kids took part in an activity that was posted to YouTube, more participants came from other contributions, shown at the bottom of the ESA site. The efforts are also documented on a facebook Rosetta Mission page.

It is a declared goal of the European Union to make Science careers more attractive to young people, and these events in bringing exciting events into the classroom do just that!

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It’s interesting to observe how MOOCs evolve. Stephen Downes sees them at a turning point where initial hype is waning. This is natural for any new(ish) development that stands to pass the test of time. The two possible outcomes are either a decline into obsolescence, or the consolidation into a solid part of the establishment (society, education system, professional development method, employability, university marketing).

Stephen provides an overview of the current state and a vision for the future of MOOCs. He also tries to alleviate fears that have come up. My perception of the points he raises differs quite a bit from his views. Firstly, I would not
call MOOCs democratised just because participants form a community in (cMOOCs) or aside (xMOOCs) of the core activities. This is a feature not specific to MOOCs and happens in f2f courses too, quite naturally, – but because it’s not
directly under the eyes of the lecturer, it is not perceived as component of the course, even though it may contribute a large amount to the student experience. In fact, most (especially xMOOCs) are quite undemocratic when it comes to
influencing the content, syllabus, design or activities.

With respect to the high drop-out/non-completion rate of MOOCs, I concur with my colleagues Marco Kalz and Marcus Specht, who see the learning design as key. They distinguish cMOOCs and xMOOCs as being designed primarily with
student-student interaction or student-content interaction in mind, but go on further by pointing out that these are extrem opposites and that there are MOOCs with in-between learning designs that also allow for runtime changes due to student feedback. These ‘shades of grey’, again, are signs of the evolution of the MOOC concept.

I diverge quite strongly from Stephen’s optimistic visions of the future. His remark: “While at the moment they are strongly associated with an individual university, over time … they will forge their own identity, separating themselves from their university origin.” I have my doubts even with respect to the persistence of a MOOC-formed community, but I can certainly not see this happen in business terms, unless all MOOC teachers follow the career path of Sebastian Thrun and create their own spin off company (but check out his change of course). MOOCs from a HEI perspective are driven almost solely by marketing and profiling motives, which by their very nature demand the “ownership” and branding of things. We already see double branding happen in the hosting providers like Coursera. And, as was to be expected, rankings such as the European Scoreboard highlight the emergence of a competitive environment. The most we can hope for in this situation is limited collaboration, mutual acceptance, and perhaps credit transfer, but even this is still very far off.

Equally, I find the following futuristic statement both idealistic and worrying: “(student) activities leave digital traces, and future employers will not look so much at credentials as they will depend on intelligent software which harvests these traces and constructs a digital profile of prospective employees.” Firstly, this is extremely optimistic in a distributed information environment that assumes the self-organisation of connectivist networks in an unrestricted toolset. Similar flaws and controversies exist in the attempted use of citation indexes as a basis for serious assessment of a researcher’s inventiveness, productivity or impact – although this is comparatively simple, based on a single indicator. Secondly, even if search tools would exist that harvest distributed internet traces and make them visible and attributable to a single person, sythesis software that assesses personal competences from this track record is far beyond our imagination and would raise even more worrying concerns than the NSA scandal on the news right now!

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I’d argue that most of the school beginners at the age of six or thereabouts are positively excited at the prospect of going to school. However, this attitude changes rather rapidly even in the pre-puberty stage. Something is clearly wrong that turns zeal to aversion. I believe that any good educational policy, national or international (like the Rethinking Education Strategy of the EU), needs to take note of this.

Looking at the prevailing policy objectives I find that the joy of learning isn’t represented at all, either through ignorance or by deliberate design. Instead efficiency, productivity and the compliance to satisfy labour market demands are the sole drivers of our education systems. Naturally, the stakeholders become increasingly dissatisfied with being pushed into a world that has only something to offer in industrial terms. Competences, knowledge and research are all directed towards growth in productivity – and nothing else! Technology plays its part in this, as can be detected in the role it is given as a solution to everything by the European Commission in its various strategies and visions of the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all promoting to integrate education into the entertainment industry (via Serious Games etc.). Education was always directed towards the labour market and its evolution, but there was something else too. We need to rediscover the values of curiosity and self-fulfilment as a purpose of learning. I’d even go as far as to say that these are our basic instincts as a species: the drive to discover and understand the world around us, not to make us more productive, but to make us more knowledgeable and wise. The satisfaction coming from the joy of learning (and working, for that matter) and the resulting improved self can be a very powerful driver for more and better learning and thus also more productive solutions.

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The entire debate about electronic learning, MOOCs and open education hinges on one central question: why do we need teachers? It is often sadly misunderstood what the added value is that teachers bring to learners. For this reason, they are increasingly put up to be replaced by technologies in different guises and roles, for example data algorithms that aim to substitute human judgement, or multiple choice tests instead of continuous qualitative assessment.

It’s time to think about the qualities a teacher needs to have and where they outperform computers, often by miles:

Psychology: especially where family relations are stressed or difficult, teachers are often the first (adult) advisors for children in trouble. Also in other cases (break-up relationships, uneasiness about oneself, etc), the experienced teacher is most likely to notice and able to put the finger on the problem.

Knowledge and Enthusiasm: computers and the Internet contain loads and loads of collective human knowledge (including also piles of unworthy garbage), but they don’t contain wisdom and competence to act on this knowledge. They are also incapable of enthusiasm for a subject discipline – hence they are unable to install excitement in the learner.

Gut feeling and empathy: “a feeling is worth a thousand datasets” (I don’t know who said that, but it should have been said by someone important). Even without being able to articulate and quantify the multitude of granular circumstances that play a part in a learner’s life, a good observant teacher in direct contact with a learner gets a feel for where they are and can pick them up from there. They are able to understand and factor in when and why a learner is distracted, puzzled, or otherwise limited in progressing. Teachers are able to show empathy and understanding for the situation and in most cases are able to mediate them. Note carefully that this complements and goes beyond the help that peers will provide.

Pedagogic qualities and qualifications, therefore, necessarily emphasise not only the knowledge and competences of a teacher in a given subject area, but also their interpersonal aptitude and mental stability. Teachers, nowadays more than ever before, need to be able to cope with criticism from parents, politicians and even CEOs and other outsiders. They need to be able to see through the eyes of the learner and balance their interests with the general context.

Given these demands, it’s clear that not everyone is suited to be a teacher. Allthemore concerning is the fact that these scarce human resources are not given the attention, opportunities and acknowledgement they deserve, in a world that’s drifting to become more like an industrial factory floor dominated by forms and robots than by human conversation.

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There has been much talk about the key skills and 21st century skills that young people should acquire to master their future lives well. Most often, these key skills were defined in terms of competences like numeracy and literacy. Interpersonal and communication skills are also frequently mentioned.

What I miss very much is a debate about attitudinal skills for today. I believe that what students require more than anything are the following competences:

  • patience
  • attention
  • curiosity

These attitudes are critical to the acquisition of the said 21st century and any other skill set.

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Here is yet another piece on MOOCs, called “the MOOC movement – learning for all”, this time from the EuroNews channel. And yet again, it contains all the wrong propaganda!

Walter Lewin’s message in the video that MOOCs are “as important as the invention of the printing press” because “we reach out now to millions of people” is wrong in historical terms as well as in the present context. The same accounts for his enthusiastic claim that ‘we’ are reaching out to people “who could never have dreamed of sitting in a classroom or getting an education, let alone that they can now choose one course from Harvard, one course from Berkeley, one course from MIT”. In historic terms this is wrong, because the outreach did not start with MOOCs, but is as old as the Internet for learning. What’s more, there have been specific outreach agendas from different governments and supranational organisations (UN, EU) that paved the way to widening access to higher education. This change in political mindset has often been negatively associated with the technology-enabled ‘industrialisation’ of education. But, as can be seen in OECD statistical analyses (Education at a Glance), it accounts for a much larger rise in education levels than MOOCs have done to date, and with more lasting success, I might add:

Over the past 15 years, tertiary type-A graduation rates have risen by 20 percentage points on average among OECD countries (Education at a Glance 2012)

Even more encouraging:

Across all OECD countries, “an average of 47% of today’s young women and 32% of today’s young men will complete tertiary type-A education over their lifetimes”. (OECD 21012)

Note that this talks about completion and graduation, not registration figures or certificates for individual MOOCs.

One reason why things did not reach people in the millions early on was to do with the limited access to networks and bandwidth, but also with limited awareness. And even today, the Internet and unlimited high bandwidth are still an exclusive asset, as are smartphones. Those layers of society that are distant to education are typically also socioeconomically distant from the essential infrastructure that would allow them to participate. For this reason, MOOCs still are very much a middle class thing and will remain so for as long as telecom cost models present financial barriers to access – no matter how open the courses are.

Apart from the wrong praises for outreach attached to MOOCs, I remember the late nineties when e-learning claimed unlimited access to experts around the world. The best in the field, it said! This early promise hasn’t come true to the learners and MOOCs are not likely to provide this either, at least not long term. There is little sustainability in a MOOC and it is only a matter of time until institutions realise the true cost of delivering MOOCs the way Udacity, EdX, and Coursera do. Already, some institutions like Santa Fe Institute ask participants for donations, realising that even the simple broadcast of videos and MCQ tests costs tens of thousands of dollars. Currently, support comes from foundations like Templeton, but this stream isn’t going to last.

Another issue with MOOCs is that they are like puzzle pieces in the ocean. Getting hold of one or two pieces is an achievement, no doubt, but doesn’t constitute a curriculum leading to a qualification. If you want to become a medical doctor or an astronomer you need more than a single 10 weeks course in basic physics or anatomy. What about those field trips? What about the practical dissection sessions? Will competitor institutions like the said Harvard, Berkeley and MIT allow picking and choosing courses at different institutions for awarding degrees? Even in Europe where a common currency like ECTS provides a theoretical basis for this to happen, students encounter great difficulties with mutual recognition.

A note on the side: If all those top world experts would indeed be accessible by MOOCs, what would happen to all those million lecturers who are not on top? In my experience, students are quite pragmatic. They don’t go for the top grades or top experts, they usually follow the most comfortable path that balances academic success with personal efforts and fun.

One other key attribute that qualifies for being part of a curriculum is reiterations. Every academic year, a new cohort is guided through a course module, which is only updated a bit. This reiteration is not sexy in terms of MOOCs and the media, albeit that it may be the only way the initial costs can slowly be recuperated – perhaps.

In summary, the title of the programme “the MOOC movement – learning for all” may just be a MOOC movement of the united press and media companies, who unanimously admire the newness of the old hat that’s displayed by clever university marketeers.

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An interesting development as more organisations jump on the MOOC bandwaggon. It’s not comparable to the Hewlett grant that MIT received for their OCW some years ago, but the €250,000 from the Stifterverband der deutschen Wissenschaft and iversity are still a tidy sum to compete for on individual level.

The intro video is interesting to watch (video and site are in English) explaining their interpretation of MOOCs, and, yet again giving Stanford the usual (and erroneous) credit for “inventing” MOOCs. On the positive side, peer interaction gets a mention as being important.

Ten so-called fellowships at €25,000 each are up for grabs to help implementation of the submitted MOOC concepts. Although it’s an international call, five of the grants are earmarked for German institutions, which I guess is acceptable considering that the funding bodies are German. What I find less appealing is that the awarded fellows “must ensure … that the course can run on the iversity platform”. Hmmm! How does this go together with “openness”?

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Ambient learning is the term used for learning that happens in the (natural physical) environment. It makes use of ‘ambient technologies’ such as sensors built into the environment or computer-enhanced interfaces on ordinary every-day items. A good example are speed traps that don’t produce fines, but rather use feedback loops to inform drivers of their behaviour. This type of learning builds on awareness and self-correction. However, not all areas of learning or subject disciplines are suited for ambient learning. Cognitive and discursive disciplines like Philosophy are more restricted than behavioural ones. Still, there are several valuable spaces where this can bring benefit.

Immersion teaching is one of the most powerful pedagogic methods ever invented. It is most successfully used in language learning, but also has a place in work-based learning and other settings. Ambient technologies can be used to create an authentic environment for immersive learning. While this sounds straight forward enough in theory, the practice is substantially different. When you’re trying to set up an immersive environment for yourself, e.g. in your home, you quickly encounter the limits of current technology and learning opportunities.

Firstly, the technologies available today are not sufficiently ‘ambient’ yet to allow proper interaction. Any learning that needs a keyboard or mouse to communicate is unsuited, as are resources that require staring at a monitor for longer periods (e.g. presentation slides). It is simply not convenient to look at a slideshare presentation on your fridge door, even if your fridge has an internet connection or if you use a projector to display it there. Secondly, there are too few channels that you can use to provide a continuous authentic experience.

One domain where it is relatively easy to create an ambient learning environment using ordinary technologies in your average living room is language learning. Immersion in language learning provides exposure to authentic language for your daily habits such as listening to radio or watching tv.

Using a mobile app for streaming radio while plugging the iPhone into a speaker set, allows you to listen to native target stations. It is important to note that the authenticity of immersion does not only lie in the language spoken, but also in the information content. That is why satellite channels like BBC World or Russia Today are of no real use in this, as they do not contain content from the target country. Instead, shows like “Focus on Africa” or “India Business Reprt”, etc. are specially moderated programmes for a foreign not a native audience. In case of doubt always opt for the original!

An audio-visual experience such as satellite tv and streaming radio, already do much to create a surrounding immersive feeling. Distribute a couple of target language newspapers or books round the room, and that is roughly where today’s state of the art ends. For developing ambient learning in the home further, we need communication technologies that seamlessly sit in such an environment, operated by voice control or gestures. Another thing that’s missing is interactive opportunities which provide feedback. I can, for example, imagine a listening agent that checks what you are saying (assuming you are talking aloud to yourself or others in the living room) and makes a boo noise when it detects the wrong language spoken. Of course, the first iterations of such a feedback agent would boo a lot, just like the first spell checkers did. But we are there to make progress and there is an awful long way to go!

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