Category : erai

In the distance rise the clouds

imageIn the tropical seas, in the so-called doldrums, sailors are aware that, when the clouds rise in the distance, they must rush to modify their sails before the storm. In recent months announcements have been made by Coursera, EdX as well as by some important American universities and MOOC business models are starting to emerge. What does this mean for our universities? Is the storm coming? I will let you build your own judgment.

The MIT policy is changing: they transform their teaching organization. The year will no more be divided into semesters but in shorter modules of six weeks about and degrees will be organized as series of carefully chosen modules. This will ease the transformation from a classical face-to-face teaching into blended learning using SPOCs, whenever required.

Can we follow the same path? Transforming our calendar is easy but can we afford building a number of MOOCs or SPOCs? With budgets constrained, whether in finance as well as in personnel, where should we first focus our efforts?

Since I was asked for an EdTech conference, beginning of June, to deliver a speech about business models for MOOCs, I leaned back on the cost of this form of teaching.

The cost, to build a six weeks MOOC, can be estimated between € 30,000 for the simplest ones, when it is easy to transform a classical course into a suitable form, and may rise beyond € 100 000 for the more complex ones (see my paper in this issue of EUNIS Journal of Higher Education IT.) To obtain these figures I was considering the same course being reused, with some modifications, three times or three years. These figures take into account the consolidated wages, but not surrounded, to be able to compare these costs to the classical delivery of the same course. The developments are made in-house, assuming that the university possesses the competent staff, teachers and technical support. Outsourcing the building of a MOOC would be more expensive. These values are in agreement with other studies.

Let us now compare the costs when delivering the same course in a hybrid mode, i.e. a SPOC, with a limited number of face-to-face classes in small groups, like it is used at EPFL, or in the classical approach, i.e. in a lecture hall. The SPOC needs fewer teachers because plenary lectures in the amphitheater are suppressed and the number of application lectures in small groups is reduced. When delivering the course as a MOOC, we must only add the wages of the tutors whose number increases slowly with the number of students. It is drowned in the total cost to build the MOOC, especially considering the variability of my estimation between 30 000 € and 100 000 €!

In my calculation, I consider one teacher for 50 students and a meeting every two weeks for the hybrid mode (SPOC). For the classical delivery one hour in the theater per week and one meeting every week in small groups (50 students). Since I did not have a precise estimation for the cost of the buildings, my estimation is based on the lower bound of rental prices. This therefore includes the depreciation of the assets. The cost increases rapidly with the number of students because the salaries of the teachers represent an important part of the expenses.

The difference between blended learning and SPOC is mainly the use of the buildings for the small classes. Given the variability of my estimations, I did not draw another curve. Distance education and SPOCs are about the same and are represented on the same curve.

For the classical delivery, my estimates are based on the official working time of Higher Education teachers in France: 6 hours of work for one hour in front of the students in the lecture hall, 4 hours of work for one hour in front of the students for applications lectures in front of small groups. Playing with all these variables and different estimations for the cost of the MOOC, gives always curves as shown below.

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Below 200 up to 300 students the cheapest means to deliver a course is the classical approach. Blended learning becomes cheaper only for large classes above 500 students. A conventional MOOC, i.e. delivering a course without face-to-face interaction and no personal interaction is never of interest below 300 students. These values vary with the real cost to build the MOOC and the other variables such as salaries, buildings… which may change from one university to another, but the message is very clear: savings can be made, using MOOCs or SPOCs, only for very large groups of students. For a single university it may only work for the first years.

This leads to two conclusions: increasing the number of students or grouping universities, to share the costs, are the only solutions to save money. These are just the solutions, emerging in some US universities.

Arizona State University is the consortium of all public universities in this state. They will open a common first year, as distance education, with the help of edX that gives them free support. The full first year degree will be delivered for less than $ 6,000, which is cheaper than the conventional prices in the US today. This is being made possible thanks to the scale factor: more students and development costs supported by the consortium. The promoters of this experience have added an interesting feature: the MOOCs are free and students will pay at the end, before the examination. In other words they will not engage if they do not think they have a good chance of succeeding. With a lmited number of teachers that interact remotely with students, without the cost of the campus, their cost curve is closer to that of a MOOC as any other.

Another example is Urbana Champaign university, which will open an MBA for $ 20,000 only. This may sound crazy but be aware that the registration fees, for such diploma, can exceed $ 60,000 per year! Urbana works with Coursera, in a pattern roughly equivalent to the previous one: studies will be free and students will have to pay only to obtain verified certificates and predefined sets of specializations. When, already advanced, they may apply for recognition of their achievements for this eMBA and will pay the extras to get the Urbana degree. The business model is that Urbana hopes to attract an additional number of students without engaging additional staff or having to build new premises on its campus.

And behind these two universities, we find again Coursera and edX, which are the only ones able to offer a wide catalog. Here is the limit of the simulation shown previously: I have not taken into account the cost of support that these agencies provide.

Daphne Koller, in an interview at Wharton school, said that, within two years, Coursera will be able to offer the full curriculum of a university. Coursera believes it may present its catalog to universities that want to build their own curriculum. This will not affect the best known universities but smaller ones, such as as community colleges, which will become mere intermediaries who gather an array of MOOCs, add a support and will issue their degrees. These universities will only be assemblers of courses, build otherwise, and will become controlers of acquired knowledge and delivery of grades.

The Coursera’s business model has not changed: they believe they will recover their costs through the sale of certificates and of courses produced by others. EdX is more discreet about its model, sheltered behind its wealthy donors.

What will it be in Europe, except in England, where the cost of education is essentially paid by the state? It is still difficult to know. Digital education will play its part, and many companies are already coming in the business of the production and broadcast of Higher Education. Private schools will be first, because they have greater control of their costs. Public universities are not immune: their strength is the delivery of grades and diplomas, but it could be questioned either by changing the institutional rules or simply because employers consider new forms of graduation as valid. English speaking universities are more in danger than the other because students continue to prefer to study in their native language. But for how long?

In the immediate future, adult education agencies will be first affected because they do not have the protection of the graduation. But that is a topic for another column.

In any case, all Higher Education institutions, public or private, would do well thinking quickly on their evolution, in the light of these emerging forms of economic models.

The MOOC insidiously continue to transform the landscape. We are still at the beginning.

PS: there will not be a new issue before a while: let us chat together at EUNIS 2015, in Dundee!

Much has been said

imagesMuch has been said about MOOCs in terms of technology. At the same time, surprisingly, MOOCs are quickly disappearing from the Gartner hype curve. But are MOOCs a technology? Why such a rapid disappearance?

I have a very simple explanation: MOOCs are a means to learn and to acquire knowledge through already mature technologies but they are not a technology by themselves, thus no reason to follow the hype curve. And if they do, it will be at the pace of the pedagogy, i.e. a very slow pace, as usually do all transformations of human societies. The tsunami is yet to come.

So what did the MOOCs brought in terms of technology?

Since the beginning of this century, I have been using four different well-known Learning Management Systems and I can testify that, up to now, the new ones, being developed for MOOCs, did not bring much as novelties for pedagogy. Pair assessment was quite an exception and the development of this new tool was mainly motivated by the fact that it was unrealistic for the teachers to review hundreds and thousands of copies. The LMS communities reacted quickly and integrated this tool in their latest edition. And then, teachers started to imagine how to use it and how to make it part of their blended pedagogy, not to let the students do their job, but to introduce a new form of participation and collaboration between them. At the same time, the appearance of MOOCs had the effect of amplifying the collaborative and social use of conventional platforms.

This is rather funny because the social dimension of MOOC platforms was presented as the main improvement over the previous generation of platforms, but in reality there was nothing new! MOOCs are using the good old forums, which already existed in Moodle, Claroline, Sakai, WebCT (I quote the platforms I know) and many others tools, which existed in these platforms, were ignored, such as chats, for instance. In the past the forums had little success. I remember a WebCT user conference, around 2005, in Barcelona, ​​where many of us complained about our empty forums. Only those responsible for distance education could boast genuine exchanges. The reason for the success of forums, nowadays in the MOOCs, is the distance between the participants and the desire to share in a community. I doubt that they are much successful in SPOCs, i.e. in blended learning, because students have many opportunities to meet and exchange on the campus. I would be very pleased to receive more information about this. Many teachers supplement their MOOCs with Facebook groups, without forgetting the Google+ Hangouts and other systems to distribute live video. There is therefore an obvious lack of social tools in the MOOC platforms today. This is not a criticism. The development of a platform, with all its richness and its pedagogic nuances, is much trickier than the developers think: so it takes time.

The only novelty of modern platforms is their ability to hold a large number of students simultaneously. Which is a good reason to continue to use the old education platforms, which now are implemented in most universities and schools, when one want to create a SPOC for blended learning.

The MOOC platforms are still in their infancy.

A learning platform is a set of digital tools … used for learning and teaching, which implies that these tools are designed with an underlying vision of a pedagogy. Thus, using a platform implies to join this vision. Teaching cannot be reduced to a singular approach because there is not a single method for teaching or learning; pedagogies are diverse. A given LMS tries to answer, as well as possible, to the expectations of its developers. Designers translate their vision in their tools. I remember a very interesting exchange, at EUNIS 2005, in Manchester, between those responsible for Moodle and Sakai. After a passionate debate, they came to the conclusion that Moodle is organized around a fairly constructivist pedagogical vision and imposes a fairly well defined pedagogical approach. Sakai is much more liberal and rather emphasizes the collaborative aspects. For instance Moodle has several tools for building questionnaires, each thought with a clear different vision on how to build an assessment; Sakai has a unique tool, which mixes all approaches. Using a given platform, the teacher must accommodate his/her vision with the underlying vision of the platform! This is not always easy and, in a given university, not everybody will agree on a single approach and a single platform cannot please everybody. When the vision is strict, some teachers may complain that they are confined but the use of the platform is simpler: the number of choices being limited avoids exploring a number of possibilities. When the vision is more liberal, the use of the LMS is more difficult because teachers must make a choice among numerous features. From the educational point of view there is therefore no ideal platform. Each LMS offers its own vision, which is deeply carved in its tools and services. It always irritates me when I read reports, comparing platforms, mainly as a catalog of existing or non-existing services and little or nothing is said about the versatility in their use, the options to get out of a scheme and about the pedagogical approaches. Assessing the underlying pedagogy is the very difficult because a good test would be to design several courses, with different teachers, and to use them with students in the different platforms. So I refute these reports, which consist mainly of tables checking the existence of tools and services, like for ordinary software. And a LMS is not ordinary software!

A good LMS would be like a bouquet of flowers: the teacher would assemble services like choosing colors, shapes and fragrances. He would no longer be forced to a limited set of services strongly linked to only one platform and would be able to assemble the ones of his/her choice: a mixture of Moodle, Sakai, Claroline Connect, edX and many others. This is a dream today but may become a reality if the developers want to. Standards, such as LTI, define interfaces that allow various tools to communicate. The concept of virtual machines, in the cloud, allows designing the platform of the future as a set of virtual servers, each allocated to a single function, dialoguing with all the others, and not as a single bundle as today. Building a LMS will be reduced to interconnecting the servers of his choice.

We must pay attention and encourage open source consortia as Apereo trying to put under one single roof various initiatives, advocating complementarity rather than competition. The true open platform of the future will be a learning platform made of different brands and names.

The expert teacher will compose his/her bouquet; the non-expert will choose among bouquets already prepared by specialists. It means that, in universities, we must recruit or train new professionals, both pedagogical designers, computer scientists and also with an experience of teaching, who will be responsible for building bouquets on demand according to the professors and students expectations. This will allow all kinds of pedagogy, a mixture of c-MOOC and x-MOOC.

To summarize, what shall we remember about the impact of technology on MOOC educational platforms? It is not their ability to hold the load of thousands of learners. It is the possibility, very soon, to customize them according to the desiderata of the end users, i.e. the teachers and the students. But as this customization will be too complex for most teachers, it will be necessary for them to work with other people, specialists in technology and pedagogy. Their courses will become a group project!

Teaching will be less and less the isolated act of a single teacher in front of his students and sole master of the place. This is becoming the project of an entire team, as it is already the case for the MOOCs. It is maybe one of the most important features of the MOOC revolution and we must be prepared.

MOOCs, SPOCs and behind

imagesIn my last post I imagined how universities and Higher Education, more generally, could benefit from a blended education, partly as SPOC, i.e. small online courses, and partly face to face.
Apart from thedisruption oflearning and teaching methods, the financial costs and human resources required to generalize the use of SPOCs will forceour institutionsto cooperateto build anduse common courses in their curricula. For those attending EUNIS congresses, this is not new: our colleagues from the Bavarian Virtual University build courses for all Bavarian universities. However, for most universities, this will bea significant changeof the current paradigmof the teacher,alone, facinghis studentsin the amphitheaterand of the students using only the notes provided by their teachers.Thus building and sharing online courseswill be an interestingtransformation of the modeof operationof our venerableinstitutions, butit goes muchfurther.

The revolution of MOOCs will have significant side effects.

A MOOC or a SPOC is active over a limited period of six to eight weeks. A conventional teaching module covers one semester. So there is a gap between the durations of these two types of events. The MIT has already thought about this contradiction: it is reconsidering the organization of all of its teaching modules to turn them into shorter units, so as to be able to switch some of them online, whenever decided. My interlocutors at MIT told me that it does not mean that all modules will be transformed into SPOCs but they want to remove any obstacle for any move in new ways of teaching

So I have the feeling that the massive introduction of SPOCs will quickly lead our universities and colleges to the same conclusion and that it will induce a new organization of the university year and of the delivery of grades. This is far from neutral and represents much more than just an administrative reorganization!

A very interesting change is that it will allow a greater diversity of the curricula. The combination of shorter modules will allow to better adapting the studies to the students professional projects and will. The ability to remotely participate to some courses will facilitate the diversity of curricula since collisions in timetables may be avoided.

Universities are the warrant of the consistency of the curricula and do not graduate collectors of a scattered knowledge. Their responsibility is to build and to offer curricula that combine both fundamental knowledge, that allow everyone to progress throughout his/her life, and to learn professional skills for immediate employment. Therefore, by nature, they must build and offer coherent combinations of courses that make sense. The best universities will be those that simultaneously allow personal enrichment and preparation for the careers of today and tomorrow. For instance, a student with a major in physics may be interested in philosophy and management as another, with a major in law, will choose to learn sociology and mathematics! Rare, highly specialized disciplines will be better preserved because distance learning will allow gathering the necessary number of students in one single course. Videoconferencing will permit to teachers and students to interact enhancing the interaction of a classical SPOC. My personal experience, in my university, is that it preserves most of the interests of face-to-face exchanges. Blended learning and online courses allow new exciting combinations of courses and the top universities will be those that can offer consistent rich learning pallets.

These perspectives fit the spirit of the designers of the Bologna process because, if universities agree, students will be able to build their curricula with courses taken in different universities in Europe. This is a key factor in building a true European training: today a number of students are not able to study abroad because of a lack of financial support. SPOCs and blended learning will open new opportunities to a majority of European young people. Agreements between universities will attract a number of students interested in building true European curricula. Do the universities loose their role? Not all: the university will not only be a place to study but also a meeting place and a hub to exchange and pursue larger international studies.

This is also a very exciting challenge for the libraries: all experiments show that purely remote participants feel the need to meet. Students, enrolled in SPOCs, will love to encounter their fellow participants on the campus and there is no better place than the libraries. At EPFL, which has already switched to blended learning for its first year, students come, even when they do not have classes, to watch videos of their courses and work together. Coursera and EDX know that very well and are implementing rendezvous places all around the world.

Lecture halls will become empty and libraries will be filled. We must therefore quickly review the architecture and the organization of the buildings of our cherished institutions.

Let us go a step further. If the curriculums are organized as short modules of six to eight weeks, what is the meaning of the term? Nowadays students, who have failed a module, must wait until next year because most universities do not have the staff to repeat the same course twice a year. A SPOC can be easily replayed as a MOOC the next semester for a very low expense. This is not as good as a real blended learning course but, for the students who failed, it is much better than losing the rest of the year. Thus we may imagine that online courses will start at various times of the academic year. SPOCs, replayed as a MOOC, to the attention of the too many students who missed their exams, which is especially true in the first year in the university, will bloom from January until the summer.

As for the examinations, whose passage must continue to be monitored, we may also use the libraries to organize them, like in Telford College in Edinburgh, UK, (which I had a chance to visit, thanks to Gill Ferrell). The exams are taken online during a given period, students have an appointment in a special room, always under the supervision of a proctor, settle all means of communication at the entrance in a locker and work, out of sight of each other. So, what will remain of the famous university tempo? Courses may start at any time during the year; exams may be organized by appointment (or not). The organization of the year will loose almost all its meaning.

The MOOC will revolutionize the university well beyond the facilitation of new forms of pedagogy. Our campuses will become places of meeting and exchange as well as places of learning. This will upset their architecture and our planners would do well to think about it now.

The academic time will be transformed. We may imagine being able to deliver courses mostly all along the year without increasing the burden on the teachers who, I must recall it, are also researchers. Introducing SPOCs, MOOCs and all kind of online learning will rather allowing them greater flexibility in their two activities.

A downside? Yes. I am very afraid that enrollment and all kind of administrative procedures may introduce a major barrier in this beautiful dream. In many universities it is urgent to completely rethink our organization and our management systems by truly student oriented systems and no more thought to address all kinds of regulations. But I am much more pessimistic about this!