MOOCs again !

amphiStill writing on MOOCs while, in a previous newsletter, I explained how the term disappeared in the United States? Am I waisting your time (and mine)?

Try searching the Educause 2015 reports, using this word as a a keyword: itwill return only a couple of papers!

Yes, the word seems to disappear but I declare that MOOCs are still alive and live very well. They are just hidden under other wordings.

The leaders of American universities, whom I had the chance to meet last November at EDUCAUSE 2015, doubt that the initiatives of some universities, like ASU or Champaign, to validate MOOCs certifications in their own curriculum, will be generalized. For most American universities MOOCs are mostly another use, a by-product, of online courses first thought for internal use as SPOCs. Whenever an institution can afford the development of an online course, offering it as a MOOC, opened to the general public, does not cost much and serves as a vehicle for communication.

I had the opportunity on several occasions to explain that building a MOOC is expensive and that it must be used by hundreds of students to recover the investment. If we take only this factor into account, MOOCs would be restrained to the bachelor levels, mainly the college, where classes are crowded. No MOOCs for master levels or for specialized studies! MOOCs being an excellent communication product, the expenditure could be partially allocated to the communication line in the budget of the institutions but there is no hope to recover for the cost of development of all the MOOCs.

In short, the massive use of MOOCs and their avatars, SPOCs and other online courses, is a great idea to change the pedagogy but only for the richs. It is not with the declining budget of most European universities today that we could see encouraging signs of a rapidly changing pedagogy in our institutions.

Not at all! A group of universities, all around the world, is showing us the right way. They have decided to pool their efforts together. This announcement comes from Inside Higher Ed this month.

 TU Delft in the Netherlands, ETH Zürich (member of EUNIS) in Switzerland, ANU in Australia, Boston U. in the United States, University of Queensland and University of British Columbia in Canada have decided to pool their efforts and to integrate in their curriculum the best MOOCs of their partners. Students of the consortium will be able to follow online courses, among a selected set of about 200 MOOCs, and to credit the corresponding ECTS in their own institution. All MOOCs built by these universities will not necessarily be selected by the consortium. Their quality, the number of ECTS they represent must be approved by all.

 This is probably the most important news, in the world of MOOCs, in the recent past, and may be much more:

  • MOOCsare integrated in universities curriculumsas they are. I mean theyare not played separately for internal use in different universitieswith a tutoringas it is the case for SPOCsbutplayed, at the same time, for the general public. Some AmericanuniversitiesalreadyemployMOOCsto attract newstudents,as mentioned before, but this is the first timethat MOOCs are offered to the students, inside a normal curriculum, to enlarge the offer and possible subjects.
  • Cooperationis taking placeat an international scaleand thiswill probably lead toaform of internationalizationof qualifications.
  • And, most importantly, these universities remain master ofthe gameby buildingtogether theircatalog withtheir own products.They are able tooffer a variety of high quality courses andMOOCs will be ameans, as any other,to acquireparts of aMOOCs enter officially in the curricula of official institutions.

 The ultra-liberal vision of the early times, when some perceived MOOCs as a way to reduce labor costs in universities in the most developed countries, failed long ago. Others nowadays (see Campus Technology) foresee the end of the universities, as we know them, and believe that nanodegrees and other forms of skills, accumulated all around then exposed through LinkedIn, will replace diplomas certified by institutions recognized by the State.

 Today’s newsisgood newsin that itshows that it ispossible to combinean opening towardsother universitiesand that newforms of learningcan be conceived retaining the guaranteesthat onlyaccreditedinstitutions can offer.

 Would the MOOC become one of the hopes of our universities for their future?

Smart courses are coming

IMG_0474I few weeks ago, I had the chance to participate to Educause. Great place, great event, great talks but difficult to meet colleagues in such a huge attendance. As usual one is lost in the gigantic exhibition hall, navigating among the vendors and all their inventive proposals. As usual it was difficult to choose among the parallel conferences. Hopefully I was not alone, coming with ten colleagues from different French universities. We will soon write together a report on our findings and impressions. Hopefully it will be translated into English and made available to the EUNIS community.

Among many other thoughts, this week, I will discuss a very promising feature appearing at the horizon of the digital pedagogy: adaptive learning. A new generation of Learning Management Systems (LMS) is just emerging which goes much further in the implementation of a personalized education. We already had some highlights at EUNIS 2015, in Dundee, and now we have returns from colleagues in the US.

The emergence of MOOC has put in the forefront an important feature of all LMS, known and used only by the most advanced teachers, but ignored by the majority of their colleagues: the ability to guide the students through the course’s documents, building an educational paths. This goes far beyond providing a simple table of contents to search among the documents stored in the platform.

Most often platformsare used to store course materials and to provide links to documents available on the Web. In the best case,professors add a table of contents with links to each document so that students are not lost. However, it is possible to go further and to control the order in which students travel between the documents, instead of letting them peck at random. This is fundamental to help the students to gradually discover a subject, which requires the knowledge of some fundamentals before pursuing the discovery and the understanding of their course. All LMS allow, to some extent, to control the progressionby placing mandatory prerequisites before accessing a document, for instance having opened previous documents or successfully submitting a quiz or actively participating in a forum… This obviously complicates the construction of the course because,instead of a linear progression, one must prepare in advance all the control points to drive the students. Instructional designers are often essential to help teachers who are new to this approach. It also requires writing additional documents and the total workload is much larger than in the classical approach of teaching. This partly explains the lack of awareness of these LMS’ features by most teachers: they do not have the time and/or the training to build such complex courses. Building controlled pedagogic paths is certainly a progress, smarter than the usual linear progression, but it presents some limitations: the possible paths are provided in advance and cannot be adapted to each student.

An answer to this challenge is now emerging: adaptive learning.

Adaptive learning is supported by a new generation of LMS, enabling to dynamically create individualized learning paths for each student. A branch of the possible pathways is dynamically opened to a student, according to a number of criteria much larger and more sophisticated than those previously mentioned. These criteria are based on the mass of data collected by the platform, knowledge acquired when running the course, on a set of parameters based on the use of the platform by the students and the individual dynamic profile of each user. Each branch of the graph is analyzed and the least employed are dismissed. The goal is to build a predictive and adaptive model that employs methods of Artificial Intelligence. Teachers can adjust the possible paths, at each node of the graph, manipulating these parameters through given variables that play on the knowledge that the platform claims to have acquired on the students. What is the relevance of the findings that the platform derives from the mass of accumulated data? Do the variables that adjust the courses are meaningful? These are questions that remain obscure. Vendors such as Knewton, Realize IT Desire2Learn, Blackboard… respond only vaguely and rather justify themselves through the results of ongoing experiences. An interesting aspect of this approach is that it is a first example of the use of learning analytics data restricted to the world of the LMS only. No need to assemble and to mix data from independent Information Systems.

What do say the universities that have implemented these experiences? As they work on a small scale it is still too early to draw definitive conclusions. They all agree on the interest of this new generation of LMS for the students who are very supportive. For the teachers it provides alerts when students are at risk.

UCF(University of Central Florida) did not find asystematic improvementin the success of the students:it depends ontheir work andvaries fromcourse to course. Thestudents appreciate this new method of learning but,interestingly, teachers have to justify to some studentswhy the systemoffered thema differentlonger route. The building ofa course, however, is more complex and teachers had to betrained andaccompanied byinstructional designers. Preparatory workwasmuchheavier.

A study on adaptive learning platforms, conducted by ALMAP (Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), at a larger scale (700 teachers, 21,500 students), confirms these results. It also says that the efficiency gain is not obvious compared to other blended learning methods and that it is too early to conclude.

A lot of research is still needed to determine which data to consider and how to analyze them in order to offer students personalized trails. However, this approach holds great promise because it does not seek, unlike a lot of learning analytics projects, to use all the data from all university information systems, data often difficult to recover in a set of systems often inconsistent between them: the platform is self-sustaining. It remains to determine the right indicators and how to use them. It joins the general problem in the use of learning analytics and construction of indicators.

There is still much research to pursue to define relevant data and how to handle them in order to build really personalized paths for the students. However, this approach holds great promises because it does not seek, unlike a lot of learning analytics projects, to handle all the data from all the university, data often difficult to recover in a set of Information Systems often inconsistent between them: the platform is self-sustaining. This is part of the general problem about the use of learning analytics and the construction of indicators.

Each teacher cannot afford to build his/her own course. This would require too much work and expense. Building and delivering must be shared. As often, the digital transformation of the university will be successful only if we are able to work together and to share.


vendredi1The following is an adaptation of the blog I wrote for a French Journal, Educpros, in a rush after the events of last Friday. It seems to me very important to show how the digital communication has played a crucial role in this night of nightmare.

I went to bed quietly Friday night around midnight, without knowing anything. The news, at 8pm could not mention anything, of course.

Hopefully I was reading an e-book on my tablet when a message from an American friend from Philadelphia, whom I know through EUNIS, popped up. She wrote through Messenger, worrying about others and myself: “ Yves, Jim and I are hearing the news now. I am so sorry and praying for you […] and all of your country ». It was 6PM for her and these news were the headline. I fell from the clouds, I thought for a moment about a bad joke but radio and television have quickly made me understand the nightmare that we lived.

The assassins had not shot randomly, anyone. It is our youth that they attacked in a neighborhood that is theirs. Like many people I worried for my family, my children and my nephews and I immediately sent a series of SMS to find out more. But how to reach all my acquaintances and friends who could be out this Friday night? Facebook has been the response through its application, which asked all persons registered in the Paris area to report they were safe. Certainly not everybody registered in my Parisian address book was looking at Facebook but the number of people for whom I had reassuring news was impressive. The final touch came with WhatsApp. Three weeks ago, when traveling to Educause (I will report later on that), my group of 10 French people decided to use a list under WhatsApp to exchange, find ourselves at the exit of the conference, dinner together … This list worked again the next morning when we learned that a colleague who was at the Bataclan (the attacked theater) had come out safe and sound.

During the night we followed the news on television. Meanwhile I keyed on my tablet, shifting between Tweeter and Facebook to learn more. Of course, even if you must read this kind of news carefully and double check, how not to be moved by the calls offering hospitality to those fleeing terror, calls for blood donation and many others. How not to be comforted by seeing, on a video, at the TV, a person lying among many others, still possessing enough forces to call for help using his/her smartphone. All the messages comforting the wounded and the escaped, offerings of help of all sorts were the first manifestation of a great movement of solidarity, which warms the heart.

During all the weekend fell emails, from my French and foreign colleagues and friends from around the world, from Europe, the United States, from Japan, who were all concerned and begged me to convey their solicitude. The Web pages of newspapers around the world, photos posted on Instagram and elsewhere showed that we were not alone in our drama.

Through this quick post I wanted to show that the Web and the digital communication have played a major positive role in this event. I would like to emphasize that these means are part of our daily live and send a message to all the leaders of our universities, not just those in charge of communication, on the fact that they should be fully recognized on the campus. New technologies have entered the Higher Education. A lesson learned through these tragic events, is that it can do much more: it can be used to create real communities, what we lack most today.

News from the West of the MOOCs!

imagesEducause is starting next week. I will be there and, like any serious participant, I have started to prepare my schedule. Well, as you know, I am interested by anything about MOOCs but using this word, as a keyword did not return one single suggestion! Does it mean that the movement has gone? No more tsunami? Well, that is certainly not true. MOOC is a strange beast, which is hidden in many corners. Let us pope out the game from the wood! An accumulation of new information drives me to come back on an old subject: the appearance of new business models for MOOCs. It is emerging in the United States, and it is beginning to impact the universities. The movement started earlier this year and it is accelerating rapidly.

The consortium of public universities in Arizona, ASU, initiated this important move. It is now possible to achieve the first year degree through a set of EdX MOOCs. Students are not free to choose their own MOOCs but must follow a set of courses depending on the disciplines taught at ASU. Students, who have successfully achieved (and paid) the certifications for all the MOOCs in their list, may submit their results to transform it in an ASU first year grade for 6000$ only, which is cheap by American standards.

The novelty is twofold: getting a real university degree through selected certifications by EdX and also to pay the registration in the university if successful only. The cost of the certifications must be added but the total expense remains quite low compared to that of a conventional registration. For those who do not go to the end and could not turn them into a real degree, the financial loss is acceptable. In a country where the cost of Higher Studies skyrocketed, the guarantee is more than valuable: the success rate in the US is not much better in the US than in Europe.

Second example: Champaign University in Illinois, which offers a complete MBA, following the same model. Adding the cost of given Coursera specializations (Coursera specializations are sets of predefined MOOCs), which remains modest, a payment of $ 20,000 to the university and you may obtain a real diploma. This is really a deal for those who cannot afford the luxury of MBA at $ 60,000 or more!

The MIT is not left behind, which just announced the availability of a “micro master” as a set of EdX MOOCs, corresponding to the first semester of the Master “Supply Chain Management”. If accepted students may then apply to follow the second semester face-to-face for the full diploma.

Closer to home, in Switzerland, EPFL offers comprehensive remote education and training to qualify for a diploma, based on its MOOCs from Coursera and EDX. In France, a few Higher Education Institutions deliver ECTS together with the certications for their MOOCs. However, to my knowledge, these ECTS cannot be used as parts of degrees in other institutions, thus it is of limited interest. I am not aware of what is going on in other European countries and I would be delighted to learn more about.

The signal is very strong: it is now possible, in the US, to obtain a degree, starting with MOOCs; it allows to reduce the cost of Higher Education and the total payment is due in case of success only. Does this will suffice to reduce the cost of education to an acceptable level remains to be proven.

What can be the impact in Europe? Does it will shake up the methods of awarding diplomas?

In many European countries, students and their families do not directly support the real cost of education thus using MOOCs to decrease the fees might not of big interest. But this is not true everywhere, especially in business schools. Moreover, these schools already compete, at an international level, to attract the best students. Thus these institutions may become the first to adopt these new models.

Selective institutions may pay special attention to students having followed some MOOCs prior to their application. They may offer all kind of facilities to these students: grants, exemption for some modules, accelerated studies… This would enable them to master their costs and attract a new audience who would not, otherwise, pay attention at them. They may offer their own MOOCs or a selection of MOOCs assembled together by consortia of institutions. The start-up investment, to build these MOOCs, is significant but remains reasonable if schools regroup around common certifications.

For the universities, with low level of tuition fees and limited financial assets, the impact is less obvious. However, I am convinced that, imagination helping, they will find new ways to use MOOCs for the best. For example, when enrolling students in high demand sectors they may reduce the pressure in the lecture halls, exempting those students who have previously obtained a certification in the same matter. One can also imagine variable geometry curriculums. The new entrants could be offered a curriculum taking into account previously acquired certifications. Those demonstrating higher skills may be offered faster curricula.

MOOCs could quickly become a means for guiding and driving students into the sectors of their choice. A clever use of selected MOOCs may become an intelligent method to adapt the studies to the desires of the students.

The MOOCs revolution is also perhaps there: a means to direct and guide students at the beginning of their journey in Higher Education and allow them to choose their own way.

The death of the amphitheater

amphiAsserting that it could be replaced by videos distributed via the Web seems to have condemned lecturing from the chair together with the amphitheater. Being pushed in the forefront by the MOOC movement, videos would close all lecture halls, students would become active in their learning. In short it would revolutionize teaching and send the traditional university in the dungeon. Moreover, it would make big savings by recovering these spaces and allowing one single teacher, the best one if possible, to teach worldwide via the Internet. A dream for those considering the university as any capitalist enterprise: investment and productivity gain!

Yet it is not so simple. Is the amphitheater really dead, watching videos will really replace it? And more generally can technology solve all the troubles of teaching and learning in the 21st century?

It is fashionable to illustrate conferences with images of the old times, showing students asleep in front of a distinguished professor delivering his course from the pulpit, meaning that “nothing has changed “. I could not resist illustrating this blog with a very well known picture. Look at it carefully. The teacher is reading his notes, not caring at all about his students. Some sleep, some read another book – today they would watch their tablets and computers.

My experience is much more nuanced. I was lucky, as a student and as a teacher in Science, to work in small amphitheaters; however I recognize that, even in the presence of a few dozen people, a one-way discourse may be rather boring. The university of Oxford, also, which has an exceptional tradition of providing to each student a personal tutor, who follows him/her continuously, see amphitheaters being deserted. This phenomenon is widespread in all Western countries.

Does this mean that courses delivered from the chair in the amphitheater are obsolete and should vanish?

Curiously some students resist: when we set up, in 2007 in my university, live broadcast lectures so that the students whom we could not accommodate in one theater only, could follow their courses from home, the rumor ran that we would suppress the lecture and deliver only videos. The Dean had to come down in the amphitheater to overturn this rumor. Yet this teaching was quite grotesque: the capacity of the hall is limited to 500 students and we enrolled more than 2000 in that course so that we had to establish a rotation of groups so that everyone could attend periodically some of the lectures. Students were worried about the disappearance of the face-to-face time and the amphitheater was always packed, when, at the same time, a thousand of those from the other groups, followed from a distance, mostly in real time! The same attitude was noted at EPFL, in Lausanne, a pioneer in Europe in the use of MOOCs. They have suppress a number of parallel courses in the first year of study and many students gather in their beautiful Rolex center, to watch the videos of their courses instead of the past amphitheater presentation. However some do not appreciate this new way of delivering knowledge. EPFL officials are not convinced that they will never suppress all first year amphitheaters.

So the good old amphitheater is not dead. Imaginative teachers have sought ways to make it more lively and students more active. Among the most innovative ideas, the use of clickers individual boxes or smartphones. The course is divided into short sequences of about 15 minutes and, in between, the teacher asks questions and makes the participants vote with their device. Responses are anonymous, so no risk of feeling ridiculous in front of their comrades; it’s fun because the questions are short, simple in appearance and it regularly breaks the rhythm. The pedagogy becomes active. One may build interactive scenarios where students must work together with their neighbors, then confirm or change their previous vote and invent many other activities. Students engage in a real active thinking: this shows that flipped pedagogy can be used in the traditional amphitheater. For those objecting that not all students possess smartphones and that providing clickers is expensive, there is a cheaper way: students can vote by showing one of four different colored circles printed on a piece of paper. An app, on an Android smartphone allows the teacher to count the votes photographing the audience.

Does this mean that video is unnecessary, at least for students on campus? Absolutely not! Our experience, shared by many colleagues, is that recording a course improves the quality of learning. Students no longer frantically take notes. They know that if their notes are incomplete, they can always come back later to the video. They listen better and the teachers earn a lot of freedom because he can afford additional illustrations, knowing that all students can pick them up in online videos.

Confrontation of ideas in face-to-face exchanges remains an important dimension in education. Technology is a big opportunity to transform the pedagogy but does not improve teaching and learning by itself. What is important is how it is used. The same applies to the old approach and I strongly believe that they have go together in the future.