Earlier this week I watched a selection of the proceedings from The Learning International Networks Consortium’s (LINC) two-day conference held at MIT that hosted 300 participants from over fifty countries. The four scholars featured in the panel discussion collectively shared a breadth of experiences in open and distance higher education. The panel of four included Anant Agarwal, President of edX, Sir John Daniel, former Chancellor of the UK Open University, Tony Bates, Research Associate of Contact North, and Sanjay Sarma, Director of MITx.
Each shared his convictions on the direction higher education, but there was an intense focus if not preoccupation with xMOOCs. And because the conference was hosted by MIT, the discussion focused on the edX platform. However the scope expanded considerably with the participation of Sir John Daniel and Tony Bates. Both of these scholars have a depth of experience in open higher education that reaches outside of the United States in developed and developing nations.
I watched the highlights of each speaker’s presentation [courtesy of Jim Shimaburkuro's blog post] and the first hour of the opening of the conference via the webcast, which provided a thought-provoking range of perspectives on the direction of higher education in the context of the MOOC movement. I’ll share the highlights in this post that I hope will give interested readers a snapshot into the panelists diverse perspectives on MOOCs—as a threat or opportunity, hype leading to disillusionment, or the misguided direction of resources to the MOOC movement by institutions.
Background: What is LINC?
Important to note, is that the sponsoring organization LINC has been around longer than xMOOCs—even cMOOCs. Founded in 2003, LINC is a non-profit group with International university partnerships. The organization’s primary goal is to improve education opportunities globally with distance learning supported by technology.
“Their [participating institutions] goal in collaborating through LINC is to help build on-the-ground expertise and virtual distance learning communities in each of the respective countries seeking such assistance. Their focus is not on the narrow engineering aspects of technology but on pedagogical issues, educational content, financial planning, political constraints and organizational issues. Technology fits into this in a natural way – as defining what can and cannot be done in various regions”.
Stakeholders vs. Shareholders
The opening presentation of the conference led by Sanjay Sarma focused on the future of education with MOOCs as the focal point. He emphasized MIT’s role in educational research and commitment to advancement of education, the history of MIT’s successful Open Courseware initiative.
One of his statements did resonate with me—Sarma made it clear that MIT is using its MOOC platform to “bring stakeholders to the table [with edX] not shareholders.” He emphasized the not-for-profit versus the for-profit motive, alluding to the “others”, obviously Coursera and Udacity [both for-profit companies] that operate on a different premise. The non-profit aspect does have significant implications that run deep, encompassing values that include, the concept of traditional, non-profit education institutions versus for-profit providers, the purpose of education, and the motives.
Though it was clear that not all the panelists see MOOCs as a panacea for higher education or for educating learners in developing nations; Sir John Daniel and Tony Bates both see MOOCs as a barrier to moving education forward. Yet Daniel did describe MOOCs as a catalyst for highlighting the potential of online education.
Key Take Aways
Below I’ve condensed further the key takeaways from three of the panelists. To view the video highlights of each panelist, visit this blog post from education technology & change [etc].
1) Sanjay Sarma: “The Magic that Happens on Campus”
- Dr. Sarma drew a hard-line between MOOCs and campus experience. He stressed that ‘magic’ happens on campus, not just in the classroom, but in the labs, during water cooler conversations, the ‘back of envelope’ meetings, the infinite corridor and the robot lab.
- He encouraged faculty to view MOOCs not as a threat to their jobs, but as an opportunity for advancing and enhancing education.
- Even though Sarma is passionate about the effectiveness of MOOC pedagogy, he does highlight the value of the on-campus experience. Yet he believes MOOCs fit a niche, that brings education to students that would never be able to have an on-campus experience.
2) Sir John Daniel: “MOOCs: What Lies Beyond the Trough of Disillusionment?”
- Sir John Daniel, on the other hand, sees MOOCs as creating “confusion” in higher education, and suggests that “what lies beyond is a trough of disillusionment”.
- He believes MOOCs are a source for inflated expectations.
- The year 2013 will be the peak of MOOCs, there will be a slide as institutions begin wonder how deep their pockets can be. The ‘slope of enlightenment’ as per technology adoption cycle supports this premise.
- However he believes what will follow after the decline of MOOC popularity is the ‘year of online learning’ as institutions gradually move their teaching to online—or to hybrid [blended learning].
- He does not believe that MOOCs are the best route to advancing education, but hopes that we can reach the slope of productivity with online learning.
3) Tony Bates: “How to Make MOOCs Really Effective: Lessons from 20 Years of Research Into Online Learning”
- Students want to feel that the teacher is ‘there’.
- Teaching an online course is a team approach, not an individual one.
- We need to re-think the cost of MOOCs. Rather than spend time on development i.e. video production, the focus should be on learner support. And, how can support be effectively outsourced? Quality is critical.
- We need to re-think MOOCs as a strategy, and focus on increasing learner activity and engagement.
- MOOCs are not a viable vehicle to educate all global communities given lack of Internet access, devices and cultural differences.