The magic of the campus

At the LINC conference the question came up why we still have residential education given what is possible online nowadays. Professor Sanjay Sarma talked about the magic of the campus that does not happen online. In essence his point in his own words is “there is essential magic in residential in-person education that is difficult to articulate, let alone replicate online
One of the main points Sarma seems to make is that in what he calls “second order learning or higher order learning” moral values are installed in students. Where in online learning what merely happens is “instruction” the transfer of knowledge from one person to another.
He went on by stating that good MOOCs could free up time in residential education for, as he stated in his article, “the still intangible pathways by which higher-order learning – the magic, the metacognition, the deep learning – occurs: mentoring, discourse, writing, project work, teamwork, serendipity, creativity, synthesis, and the delivery of nuggets of knowledge at the time they are most relevant.”
Let me try to describe one thing that happens on campus, that does not happen online (or more precise that is difficult to organize online) and that could be responsible for the occurrence of  higher order learning.
Social learning theory describes the way in which we learn by observing the behaviors of others. Something that can be less easily and less intensively be done online. Social learning theory states that there are several steps involved before learning occurs: the learner must pay attention to the model from whom he wants to learn something, the learner must be able to remember the details of the observed behavior, the learner must be able to reproduce the observed behavior and there must be an incentive to reproduce the observed behavior.
I want to focus on the attention part and the motivation part who seem to me to be interrelated also. So to whom do we pay attention? We are most likely to pay attention to a person with authority (because they seem to know things that are worthwhile knowing) or to persons we like. A campus provides you with both. Teachers with authority and a lot of peers with whom you can become friends. As for the motivation part it’s easy to understand why we would be motivated to reproduce the behavior of a teacher. Friends we choose because we like the way a person is that in its-self seems to be a motivating factor in reproducing their behavior.
Now we were not talking about clear cut behavior that is easy to observe so that it could be done online easily also. We were talking about moral values, a way of presenting yourself to the world.Seems to me that that is something you only learn by seeing it over and over again, by debating it with your peers and by trying it out yourself in different settings to experience theeffect it has on your environment. So that it over a lengthy period of time modifies your own behavior because your environment tacitly or more openly encourages this behavior.
Let me conclude with two forms of behavior that I observed here at MIT and that seem to me to be part of MIT’s moral values (among many others). I observed this  behavior regularly in the MIT people attending the conference:
  • They are very respectful towards people with other opinions and seem to genuinely want to understand the other persons point of view.
  • They very easily admit not to know something and are reluctant to make statements that they cannot corroborate with data.
Both seem to me behaviors you do not learn people by simply instructing them to behave like that.
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Higher education is not the music, travel or news industry

The elections for the university council at my university brought us a new political party that as one of its main points has how to deal with the tsunami of online education that is flooding Higher Education. The ideas of the threats the party sees are more or less in line with McKinsey’s ideas about the dangers universities face from online education. Both draw a comparison to what happened to the news paper, music and the travel industry. According to the new party the solution to blocking the threat lies in offering more “research driven education” as that demands “physical presence of students at the university and strong interaction between students and staff”.

The question is wether there is any merit to the claim that getting a university degree is comparable to booking a trip, buying music or getting the news. I think that there are as least two big reasons why that is not the case.

the role of the middle man
For the travel and the music industry traditionally there was a big role for the so called middle man, a person between the person offering the product (music, hotel, flight) and the person buying it. In the travel industry the middle man was important because he had access to the booking systems that the general public did not have. In the music industry the middle man was important because he took care of the packaging and distribution of the music, something the producer of the music could not easily do himself. It is easy to understand why direct access to booking systems in the case of the travel industry and being able to distribute your (or other mans) music directly on the Internet in the case of the music industry did have a large impact on the role of the middle man.

The question now is do we have a same type of middle man role in Higher Education who performs a function that is now obsolete because it can be easily done by using the Internet? If you reduce the role of the teacher to somebody who simply points the student to the sources of knowledge he needs to master you could say we have. In reality the role of the teacher is much more then that. One example is that selecting the right sources of knowledge for a course requires mastery of the subject you are teaching and is something that cannot easily be done by students themselves. Completely different from the music industry where the buyer of the music is perfectly capable of selecting the music he likes.

Now you could say that this can be done by a few capable teachers per subject and put on the Internet and indeed I think there is some room for efficiency in this part of the work of the teacher. But there is also a real need for diversity in selecting what is vital knowledge to put into a course. Even more so in the current situation where the amount of content has risen exponentially.

Complexity of the transaction
Effort of the student, coupled to the false idea of being able to buy a university degree
Completing a university degree requires a massive effort from a student, even if we take students that do not study a lot (but do finish their degree) they spend at least 700 hours per year, that 2800 hours for a 4 year degree. So to do that online would require you to have the perseverance to do this without the normal supporting environment that a university offers as I have pointed out in a previous post. This is even more the case for students that are new in the university that do not only need the support structure but also a form of guided instruction that I have not yet seen in online education. To make it even more complex after having spend all this time there is no guarantee that you will get your degree as you will have to pass all exams for that.

Now if you compare this to the travel-, news- or musicbusiness it seems evident that the transactions there are less complex then they are in higher education. For music, news and travel you simply buy the song, newspaper or trip that you like best and that is it. You don’t have to spend the amount of time required in higher education to complete the transaction and there certainly is no test at the end to determine if you get what wanted. Actually there are very few businesses like higher education where you pay and in the end might not get what you wanted. Recently with big increases in what individuals have to pay for higher education this last point is getting quite some attention. A lot of the reactions (like the McKinsey article) seem to imply that if you pay that amount you should get your degree. But you don’t buy your degree you buy the opportunity to show that you deserve the degree.

To me there does not seem to be much merit in the statement that what is happening in higher education currently is comparable to that what happened in the news, travel and music industry. For sure what is happening with online education is revolutionary but my bet would be that the main impact will be inside the classrooms of the already existing universities.

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ETMOOC learning cycle

In ETMOOC there was a lot to learn and think about. Thanks to the great set-up of the whole course by the organizers. What I have learned has been the topic of most of my blog posts. So my “summary of learning artifact” is my thoughts about the ETMOOC learning cycle.

In ETMOOC the idea was that the participants produced blog posts or other pieces of content to show their thinking about the topics at issue. Participants were encouraged to use all types of tools and media to express their thinking. Most of the time apart from some hints there were no specific assignments from the organizers of ETMOOC what you should blog about. So a lot was left to the creativity of the participants. As you were using your own blog to produce your contributions to ETMOOC the content remained your own and you could and can also use it for other purposes then ETMOOC.

One of the main ideas behind blogging is that you use links in your text to direct the reader of your blog to relevant background material or sources for what you are blogging about. In this way what you produced was not just your own thinking but was embedded in what others had produces about the topic. At the same time the links show the context for your thinking.

What I learned is that this is a good way to get learners to read about a subject, to analyze what is worthwhile to use and what is not, and to synthesize that into a product of their own. The fact that you publish it on the internet gives the added effect that you know that everybody can see it, so you tend to think a bit more about what you produce.


Participants had to distribute what they produced to the other participants in ETMOOC.  This was mainly done with tools like twitter and google+. At the same time the ETMOOC blog had a mechanism for syndicating all the blog posts into one place. All the participants had to do to enable this was register their blog one time. 

Because the distribution like the production was also done with tools that the participants “owned” they were free to distribute their posts to other networks then ETMOOC also. For example by not only using the ETMOOC hash tag but also the MOOC hash tag when twitter was your distribution mechanism.

What I learned is that it will probably payoff for my university (and others) to think a bit more deeply about what they now see as trivial: the handing in of assignments by students. As it is this is a totally anonymous procedure within an institution and just making it visible already has an effect (shit she is already done and I still need to start). What is more when you hand it in with a tool like twitter you need to think about what you tweet while handing it in. Which is a great way to practice summarizing the main point of your assignment. The collection of “handing in” tweets from the students tell a story in itself.


It was encouraged to read the blog posts of other participants and to place reactions to their posts. It was considered good form to react back  to any reaction you got. In this way a conversation/discussion could start about a topic among the participants and if you were lucky a cycle of reactions could deepen your understanding of a topic.

Because you were blogging on the internet everybody could react to your blog posts, not just the other participants in ETMOOC. In that sense what you learned was open to see and react to for others. Broadening the possibility for worthwhile reaction cycles about topics you were working on.

What I learned it that the visibility of the whole reaction cycle is something that can be improved. The initial posts and distribution were clearly visible while reactions were only visible for yourself and the people reading your post after the reaction was placed (unless they had subscribed to the post). Reactions also ended up in places like twitter and google+ making it less easy to follow the cycle of reactions to a blog post. I experimented a bit with making reactions to my posts more visible for example by tweeting about them. That felt a bit boastful (look who has reacted to my post) so I stopped doing that.

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Educational and social hurdles for MOOCs

The big buzz word in education today is MOOC and a lot of people see it as a big threat to higher education. Recently Dave Cormier predicted that MOOCs will kill Higher Education in a couple of years time. Others like William G. Bowen point at what we must retain when we start using more online learning in universities. So I decided to look at some of the educational and social hurdles MOOCs still have to overcome before they are a threat to Higher Education.

As a starting point to write about the hurdles that MOOCs still have to overcome I take the model from Vincent Tinto‘s book “Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition“. The model will not be explained in full as most educators will be familiar with it. The book itself is not available online but Ian McCubbin wrote a good Examination of Criticisms of Tinto’s model that also explains it. The model is displayed below and for all the main aspects I will discuss if and how they are a hurdle to the success of MOOCs.

Pre entry attributes

What does the theory say

The model posits that factors like family background, skills and abilities and prior schooling shape a students goals and commitments and therefore the likelihood of his persistence or drop-out from college. Family background and prior schooling seem self explanatory. Readiness theory gives a good idea what the important skills and abilities to be successful in higher education might be:

  1. Academic skills like reading, writing, math, technology and so on;
  2. Time management, the ability to devote the right amount of time to your education and keep a good balance between that and other commitments you have;
  3. The ability to focus on a goal
  4. The ability to speak up for oneself and to seek help when you need it

What is happening in MOOCs

MOOCs are open to everybody without any selection on pre entry attributes. The question is if students without the literacies required to take a Higher Education degree are able to successfully “wade through swathes of video lectures and online recources?”   Also the information given up-front about what you need to know to be successful is meager: “some experience with statistics will also be helpful” Furthermore the MOOCs that I am familiar with (some from Coursera, some from Edx, ETMOOC) do not seem to gather much information about the background of the people that enroll in the course. It seems as if it is the responsibility of the student to know if his/her background is sufficient for completing the course. Some say that MOOCs are moving into the direction of offering introductory courses for first year students as an alternative to doing those courses in a brick and mortar university. Because most MOOCs require students to have an understanding how Higher Education works that does not seem possible without training in the skills and abilities described above.

The most likely effect this has is that a lot of people enter the MOOC with a background that gives them little chance to succeed. In one of the few evaluations that are available about experiences of students in MOOCs it was reported that insufficient math knowledge was a reason for students to stop participating.

Can it be solved?

The easiest way to solve this is to do a pre-entry test that you have to pass before you are allowed to enter the MOOC. But that would strip MOOCs of the Open and most likely also of the Massive in its name. Alternatively a preparatory course with all the knowledge and skills you need to be successful could be offered in a MOOC-way to all participants by the organizations that offer them.  Not hard to envision but this would reduce the openness of MOOCs also.

Goals and Commitments

What does the theory say

The model posits that the more a student is committed to the goal of college completion and to the specific college he/she is attending the bigger the chance that the student will finish his degree. Those strong goals and commitments are especially important in the transition phase between high school and college. The intentions of the student are about what the student wants to achieve and what he/she expects to encounter in his/her study based upon prior educational experience. Apart from the educational commitments the student has to cope with external commitments that seize part of his/her available time.

What is happening in MOOCs

Moocs seem to require new goal specifications from students. One can see this in the emerging student patterns in MOOCs that differ from the student patterns you see in a brick and mortar university. At this moment you cannot take a complete degree with a MOOC the question is how this fits in with what students think about getting a higher education degree. Commitment to an institution is also different with MOOCs. Some MOOCs are clearly related to a specific institution but others are not because they are part of a new type of higher education institute (Coursera, Udacity). Brick and mortar universities seem to shield students from an overload of external commitments. In a MOOC setting one would expect and finds that the chance of external commitments that conflict with the commitment to finish the MOOC is higher.

Can it be solved?

What MOOC providers must achieve is that potential students see what they offer as just as reliable and worthwhile as brick and mortar universities. After the initial and predictable hype and that is now going on this will not be easy, especially if drop out rates remain as they are. They must also let the students see that the future labor or future knowledge goal they have is realistically achievable through taking the MOOC. My guess will be that this is mainly dependent on the question if a MOOC degree leads to a job.

Institutional experience

What does the theory say

Starting as a student in a university leads to interaction with the academic world and with the social system of the university. The interaction in the academic world is in the form of the grades you get and your interaction with faculty. The interaction with the social system is in the form of your contacts with your fellow students and the extra curricular activities you undertake. These interaction have an effect on your goals and commitments and on the level of integration you feel with the academic and the social system.

What is happening in MOOCs

In MOOCs a lot of interaction is going but only by a limited amount of the participants enrolled in the MOOC. For those interacting participants the key question is if they experience those interactions as equally intense as face to face interactions. The massive character of the MOOC must have an effect on how anonymous you feel especially in the sense of being seen by the professor of the course. MOOCs lack a social system like a university campus in which they function so for students to experience interaction with a social system they have to create that system themselves. Which is happening around MOOCs in several Facebook groups.

Can it be solved?

This will be a tough nut to crack for MOOCs. In theory its easy to set up all types of interactions in a MOOC but how they are experienced in practice and if those interactions really take place remains unclear. The available data seems to point out that only about 20% of the people that enroll in a MOOC become active participants. The lack of a social system could maybe be solved by looking at how this is done in Massively multiplayer online role-playing games. In one survey, 39.4% of males and 53.3% of females felt that their MMORPG companions were comparable to or even better than their real world friends.

Personal/normative integration

What does the theory say

The interaction the student has with the academic and the social system leads to a level of integration with those systems. The more satisfactory those interactions are (higher grades, positive feelings about interaction with staff and other students) the higher the level of integration. There is also an interaction between your social and academic integration. To much social integration leads to a (chance of) lower academic integration as an example. The lower the level of integration the bigger the chance of drop-out.

What is happening in MOOCs

In MOOC’s there is a high level of drop-out a recent article in the chronicle puts the drop-out rate at 92.5%. So until now MOOCs did not succeed in reaching a level of integration that made most students stay and complete the course. Of course taken into account has to be the initial commitment with which the students entered the MOOC maybe it was never their intention to finish. But the data so far is not encouraging as most students hardly show any activity in a MOOC in which they enroll. This seems to me the key factor where MOOCs have to improve. If they don’t succeed in giving students a sense of belonging the drop out rates will remain high.

Can it be solved?

Those cMOOCs where the main goal is not the course itself but the building of a Personal Learning Network or a Community of Practice is, might give an idea what could lead to a higher level of integration. On the other hand this seems like an abstract goal for a lot of high school graduates. The MMORPG example might also be worthwhile to look at but there the question is if education will ever give a student the same kind of intense cooperative experience games can do.


Much is still open for research and discussion but the intense enthusiasm that is displayed be many of the MOOC evangelists seems a bit premature. For now I agree with the title of  William G Bowen’s article: Walk Deliberately, Don’t Run, Toward Online Education.

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One pitfall for learner data from Open Education

If on campus university courses would have the drop-out rate of Moocs they would be considered an utter failure. There are of course a lot of valid reasons why you would expect the amount of drop-outs to be way higher in a MOOC then in an on campus course but still the drop-out is impressive. It has been suggested that it is maybe best “to focus on the hundreds who complete them and what their data teaches us about how people learn“.

To me that seems like a waste but that is maybe a topic for a different post, for now lets focus on the effect of focussing on students that finish a MOOC in order to gain a better understanding of “how people learn”. The first remark that should be made is that analyzing this does not learn us a lot about how people learn but tells us something about how people who are able to finish a MOOC learn. The sketchy information that is available about that suggests that MOOCs are finished by the usual suspects: “Course completers typically held a Bachelor’s degree or higher” If that is the case for most MOOCs then we should be very aware that the findings of such research cannot be translated to the general population of learners.

In their article about fully guided instructionRichard E. Clark, Paul A. Kirschner and John Sweller made perfectly clear that there is a big distinction between the learning of novices and experts. Where novice to intermediate learners learn best when there is full guidance during instruction, experts “often thrive without much guidance”. So when we analyze the (most effective) learning of course completers in a MOOC our findings are skewed because we see the learning of experts. Translating those findings to the general population of learners would again ignore the well researched fact that novice to intermediate learners learn best from fully guided instruction.

To make matters worse: In the same article by Clark et al it is also explained that less skilled learners tend to prefer less guided instruction “even though they learn less from it”. This seems to be the case because the fully guided instruction forces them to “engage in explicit attention driven effort” Which they tend to dislike. So in evaluation MOOCs there is a double pitfall first we could mistakenly think that the succesful way of learning from the course completers is transferable to the whole population of learners and secondly if we were to asks the drop-outs of the MOOCs if they like the expert approach they would most likely agree even if in reality it would negative for their learning.

To make matters even more worse: Among educators there seems to be a tendency to prefer the less guided instruction model also for novice and intermediate learners. It is not entirely clear why. One explanation could be that they “confuse constructivism which is a theory about how one learns with a prescription for how to teach”. Alternatively one could think that developing fully guided instruction is more work than developing less guided instruction and that that is the explanation why it is preferred by educators.

This also raises the question how open, open education really is. Is it only open in the sense that everybody can enrol or is it also open in the sense that everybody can complete? For me that is the real issue are MOOCs just another means to serve the same population that is already privileged or is it really something new that can also serve learners that until now have no or limited access to higher education?

Update march 19th: My discussion with Alison Seaman about this post can be found here

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Let us stay digital illiterate a bit longer

The past two weeks ETMOOC has been about digital literacy and I must say that I disliked the topic from the start and still do. I am the only one to blame for that and I do not argue in any way that the topic is not important. Still maybe its helpful if I write down two reasons what is it about this topic that makes it so unattractive to me.

Lets start with an experience from way back. In Europe we have the international computer skills certification programme. The organisation behind it enables you to test your computer skills and get a certificate for that. Over ten years ago I got 7 certificates like that, at that moment basically for skills in using Microsoft Office products. Even then when the pace of change in IT was considerably lower then it is today I was perplexed about the skills I had to show to get my certificate. For me there was little relationship between what I found important skills in using the tools and what was tested for the certificate. It was also unclear to me how the test could translate into a statement (the certificate) that I was literate in using those tools. For me an absolute trivial subset of skills was tested.

Since then we not only have an information explosion but also a functionality explosion on the internet. Functionality that is very new and of which we are only beginning to understand what we can do with it. Or even worse technology of which we now not know if it will be in use in ten years time. Paradoxically the more precise you go about defining what digital literacy is before you start testing people on it, the more removed it will be from current insights in what is valuable digital literacy. I don’t believe we defined literacy 10 years after scripture was invented so why would we do that for digital literacy?

In my example what I had to learn was based upon a finite set of tools, given enough time it was possible to find out everything there was to the tools. Even in that situation it was hardly possible to come up with a recognized and worthwhile set that would define your literacy with those tools. Let alone that we would be able to do that now for the multitude of functionality that can now be used and define your digital literacy.

My second issue is that it has a lot to do with what I call “demands go up when technology is involved”. There are a lot of examples where problems existed already in the pre-IT time and never got any attention there, suddenly when the same process is now done with IT the already existing problem gets much more attention (and is sometimes turned into a reason to stop using the technology). The whole discussion about electronic voting comes to mind as an example. There is no denying that it has problems but voting on paper also has a lot of those problems.

In ETMOOC we talked about “who owns your educational data” with a thorough presentation from Audrey Watters. She has very convincing reasons why it matters who owns your educational data. My problem is that these reasons where also valid when educational data was kept on paper. Moreover when educational data was only stored on paper the problems of ownership and retention where bigger then they are now. For most things with the currently available technology it is easy to keep the original and hand in an electronic copy. Also getting your data back is made much more easy with the available digital tools. So why is this a big thing now that technology is involved?

So to sum up my two problems with digital literacy: we are trying to define it to early and in trying to define it we put in demands that I cannot relate to the improvements IT has brought us.

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Trial and error or trial and success learning?

Edward Thorndike is seen as the person who showed us “how to manage a trial and error experiment in a laboratory”. This video shows how an experiment like that took place:

For people who want to read more from Thorndike here is a great resource:

Trial and error is often seen as a not so very productive way of solving problems. As one of the last things you would want to try when you need to learn something. Suitable mostly for organisms that cannot reflect on their own behavior. The basis of learning in a trial and error situation is that you get a positive stimulus from doing something right, (finding a way out in the cat-example above) which means that that behavior is reinforced and more likely to occur in the future. In order for this to work there must be neutral or negative experiences also (negative reinforcements) or otherwise you would not notice a positive reinforcement and have little idea what the desired behavior is.

Now lets take a look at what we do in the laboratory that is Etmooc. We are encouraged to try (trial) out all kinds of things; blog posts,  commenting, making GIF’s, write six words stories to name a few. But it is stressed that there is no right way to do the “assignments” For the topic digital storytelling beneath the tasks it explicitly says: “you can’t break them or complete them incorrectly”. Are we introducing “trial and success” learning here? Or is the area of connected learning so new, that we have no idea about what is right or wrong in that way of learning?

At least sharing your thoughts and commenting on others seems to be a crucial aspect. But is any way to do that the right way? Or is the assumption, that because of all the connections with others, useful feedback loops will form automatically and in that way create trial and error experiences?

Maybe the organizers follow the approach that they highlight desired behavior and ignore undesired behavior?

If you do a search for posts with the etmooc hashtag with the word great you get a lot of tweets most of them sounding something like this:

So people get a lot of positive responses to what they post and you can hardly find tweets correcting people or telling them that their post was not good.

Of course there are people in ETMOOC that experience problems:

There you see trial and error at work but that seems mostly related to technical issues, which seems to be a recurring problem:

For now the conclusion about how learning takes place in ETMOOC seems to be:

but maybe we need a bit more of:

Trial and success is fun and it sure makes you feel good about what you do.  Maybe a bit more focus on our mistakes and misconceptions helps also. What do you think?

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