The Crowd and Open Education: resilience and sustainability

Updated July 21 2014

 Update:

A relevant quotation I found in my notes:

Paul Stacey

Crowd learning

Crowd learning describes the process of learning from the expertise and opinions of others, shared through online social spaces, websites, and activities. Such learning is often informal and spontaneous, and may not be recognised by the participants as a learning activity. In this model virtually anybody can be a teacher or source of knowledge, learning occurs flexibly and sporadically, can be driven by chance or specific goals, and always has direct contextual relevance to the learner. It places responsibility on individual learners to find a path through sources of knowledge and to manage the objectives of their learning. Crowd learning encourages people to be active in setting personal objectives, seeking resources, and recording achievements. It can also develop the skills needed for lifelong learning, such as self-motivation and reflection on performance. The challenge is to provide learners with ways to manage their learning and offer valuable contributions to others.

 

Deloitte University Press published an infographic on crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is defined as “an approach to harnessing the power of individuals to work to solve problems in a decentralized way”.

They distinguish five different kinds of crowd sourcing, using the crowd’s creativity and knowledge (competition, collaboration and voting), its funds (funding) or its labour power (labor). According to the writers, Rob Hamill, Emily Malina and Elizabeth Pal, each form of crowd sourcing is applicable in certain situations and will be contra-productive in other situations.

The table below gives an overview of the different ways of crowd sourcing, the video has some funny examples, starting with 1714 as start of one of the first crowd sourcing projects.

 

Form Pro Contra
Crowd CompetitionCrowd competition refers to the hosting of contests in which participants work individually or in groups to come up with a solution to a given problem. The outputs may include many viable ideas or solutions.
  • creating actional solutions
  • developing prototypes
  • Generating outside ideas
  • predetermined desired outcomes
  • lack of resources to review submissions
  • building community
Crowd Collaboration
Crowd collaboration requests the input of decentralized individuals to develop, aggregate, and share knowledge and information across a pool of contributors, generally through a loosely controlled web-based platform. The typical outputs of a crowd collaboration effort are collective concepts with shared buy-in.
  • building and sharing knowledge
  • responding to emergencies
  • shared policies
  • User anonymity
  • Small and inactive crowds
  • Promoting individuality
Crowd Voting
Crowd voting is the process of turning to the crowd to reach a decision. This practice typically involves inviting participants to help make a decision based on pre-defined options.
  • Decision making
  • Rating and ranking
  • Quality assurance
  • Strategic decision making
  • Political sensitive issues
Crowd FundingCrowd funding is the process of funding projects through small contributions from a large group of participants. Crowdfunding activities are typically hosted through web-based platforms.
  • Fundraising
  • Disaster relief
  • Start-ups
  • High transparency

 

  • Ongoing operations
  • Loosely structured initiatives
  • High short term expectations on returns
Crowd Labor
Crowd labor refers to the engagement of a distributed labor pool to accelerate the completion of large-scale projects by splitting up a task into components that require little creativity or coordination but that cannot be automated.
  • Creating actionable solutions
  • Data entry and validation
  • Translation (eg language)
  • Digital archiving
  • Unstructured tasks
  • Subjective tasks
  • High-level thinking

As I argued before, the sustainability (or resilience to use a new buzz word) of business models for Open Education will depend on the inclination of people and institutions to cooperate either on the input/production side as on the user/learner/consumer side of the business model. As crowd sourcing is a form of this kind of collaboration, it could generate knowledge on the the potential success factors by reversing this table and apply the pro’s and contra’s to different systems of Open Education.

Crow Labor is one of the most used forms of Crowd Sourcing in the development of Open Educational Resources. Organisations as the Saylor.org, Merlot.org rely heavily on materials of others. However, this kind of free labour has also some aspects of Crowd Collaboration because it is not necessarily about projects which “require little creativity or coordination”.

Crowd Competition is seen in situations in which organisations as the EU, Hewlett foundation or the American government ask for proposals which will be subsidized. On an individual level, these calls will be passed on towards teachers and other educational developers to come up with the creative solutions to win the funds.

It can also be used as an instrument to start-up a new data-base or website on educational resources and programs. By setting a suitable reward, the system can generate a certain minimal critical mass, above which it will be interesting for other partners to participate.

Crowd Voting is often used to give an indication of the quality of the resources or programs. For a ranking to be functioning, there have to be enough votes and the voting public has to be something of an “in-crowd” of experts.

The remaining form of Crowd Sourcing is the financial form, Crowd Funding. According to the authors, this instrument is unsuitable for ongoing operations and loosely structured initiatives. Yet, I have the impression that several non-commercial projects depend on one large fixed subsidizer and a fringe of minor short-term donors.

Concluding, the examples of Open Educational Resources and Open Education show that the forms of Crowd Sourcing as described by Hamill, Malina and Pal is not complete; there are other situations which can only partially described by this taxonomy. Especially the voluntary participation in high-knowledge projects does not fit either the Crowd Collaboration nor the Crowd Labor definitions.

Still, the research in Crowd Sourcing should generate a further understanding of these kinds of collaboration: the free contribution and exchange of educational materials between individuals and organisations. A better understanding of these phenomena will enhance the changes of success of the Open Education movement.

 

Is Higher Education disrupted or not?

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’, I mean nothin’ hon’ if it ain’t free
Joplin Janis – Me And Bobby Mcgee

Do we have to expect that traditional education will disappear within the next three decennia as mainframe computers are replaced by handheld smartphones? Following Christensen and Horn (2013) Moocs will have this effect in time, with Moocs as disruptive innovation replacing brick-and-mortar universities.

However, in  Christensen, Horn, Caldera and Soares, they give a more nuanced approach, based on the existence of (open) distance learning institutions, given the different problems of (USA-based) higher education (p. 2): stagnating graduation rates; financial difficulties, both by the educational institutions, by the students and on the different government levels, declining prestige in the field of education, notwithstanding a good reputation in research.

To follow their 2011-analyses, we will give a description of disruptive innovation, followed by the analyze why ODL will be a disruptive force, but also reasons why it will fail if some conditions are not met.

Funnily, Moocs do not have the characteristics Christensen et al (2011) see as essential for ODL to become a disruptive force. Given the attention given in the last year to the possible disruptive influence of Moocs, it is interesting to see what the conditions leading to disruption in the educational sector.

Disruptive innovation

Disruption does not mean ‘a radical breakthrough improvement’, but it is an innovation replacing an existing complicated high price-high profit offering with a low price- low profit alternative, which is generally less complicated and with less functionality. This alternative replaces the original offering at the lower end of the market, but also opens up new opportunities in making the product or service available to customers who formerly could not understand or afford this product/service.

For a number of reasons the existing firms are not able to provide a similar alternative, as this alternative cause them to lose the higher profit upper part of the market. According to Christensen et al., business models are designed to solve one specific ‘problem’ and make money via a particular profit formula (p. 20). In an existing market it makes more sense to increase quality, prices and profit rates by moving production capacity from the low-profit bottom of the market toward the more profitable upper part of the market. A conclusion which is not fully accepted in the business model literature (see for example Osterwalder and Pigneur (2010), who assume that one organization can house more business models).

Assuming the new entrants to be price fighters, their costs advantage will disappear when the last of the original firms leaves the market. However, then:

..disruptive companies must move up-market through sustaining innovation once their business model has been established in one of the outer circles in order to sustain profitability and organizational vitality. The reason: If they stop this up-market pursuit and compete only against equal-cost competitors, then they have no cost advantage. It is only if they carry their low-cost business model up-market that they can retain their cost advantage against competitors (p. 15).

So the disrupting firms will move towards the top-end of the market pushing out the old existing firms.

The only exemption to this destructive force is IBM, who decided to open a new business unit at arm’s length, after the introduction of personal computers. In time, the business unit replaced the original mainframe producer!

ODL as disruptive innovation

Question is if the conclusions from the research into disruptive innovations in the profit sector are valid in a not-for-profit sector as education. Their answer is yes, because:

Improved profitability tends to drive the decision making in for-profit circumstances. But in not-for-profit circumstances, the ambition to do more and have a bigger footprint—an ambition driven both by administrations and often alumni in the case of education—precipitates precisely the same behavior as profit maximization in the for-profit world. The companies on the sustaining trajectory, when faced with the choice of making better products that merit better profit margins vs. making lower-priced, simpler products that merit slimmer margins, invariably find it more attractive to build and offer more and better (p. 14).

So, what are the problems with the present business models of education?

Christensen et all. distinguish three kinds of business models, solutions shops, value adding processes and facilitated network-users. In the table below, these three types of business models are described. Problem is that most universities try to combine at least two of these business models, as can be seen in the fourth column.

Model

Type

Source of income

Education

Solution shops Institutions focused on diagnosing and solving unstructured problems such as consulting firms, advertising agencies.These shops deliver value primarily through the people. Fee-for-service model: being compensated for their inputs, not the results, because the outcome depends on many other factors. Most university faculty research is solution shop-like activity
Value-adding process businesses Organizations with value-adding process business models, in which resources and processes are used to transform inputs into more complete outputs of higher value. Value is created by efficient processes and organization. Income is based on the output of their work. Teaching
Facilitated user networks An enterprise in which the participants exchange things with each other. Fee for membership or fee for use. Thanks to the Internet, many university activities that were formerly conducted as solution shop and value-adding process businesses are evolving into facilitated networks among students and faculty, such as hosted discussion forums.

Because of the combination of different business models within the same organization, there will be costs of complexity: additional overhead costs and inefficiency in the organization of the different activities (education, research and consultancy).

So in this time of financial crisis and a reorientation of students, the reaction of  existing educational institutions will be to increase their efforts in the existing activities: putting more effort in excellent research, aiming for the outstanding students and academic standards.

In the view of Christensen et al. (2011) this ignores the fact that the educational customers are changing: was the majority of the students in the 18 – 24 years old group, for whom degree less important than ‘becoming of age’, nowadays a large part of the learners is older and factors like costs, competences and timing become more important than degrees and socializing.

They see online education as the technological driving force which makes it possible for large amounts of people to get this ‘just-in-time’ education, based on competences at low costs:

online learning offers a natural medium to move forward focusing on competency based measures around what one is actually able to do, about which employers and society at large are actually concerned (p. 45).

One of the major barriers for moving towards a more just-in-time education based on competences is the fact that accrediting agencies reinforce the existing situation, by stressing the importance of research and keeping outsiders that operate differently out of the “club” (p. 46).

As existing organizations will not be able to move down the market; providing less services, but more value at lower cost, Christensen et al. (2011) assume that government agencies and politicians have to ‘open up’ the sector, giving four advices to regulators in the educational sector.

Some critical remarks

A lot of the examples in the 2011-rapport are of for-profit institutions, concentrating on online education or of existing institutions which have transferred their online education towards another ‘business unit’ outside the university.

Lawton and Katsomitros wrote about the failures of ODL (for-profit) organizations, listing the following institutions:

2001 NYUonline (part of New York University)UMUConline (University of Maryland University College)Virtual Temple (Temple University)
2003 Fathom (a high-profile and for-profit elearning portal launched in 2000 and led by Columbia, with Chicago, Michigan, LSE, Cambridge University Press, the American Film Institute, and other partners including the New York Public Library, British Library and a number of museums in London.)
2004 UK’s e-university experiment (UKeU)
2006 AllLearn, a not-for-profit online collaborative venture of Yale, Oxford, and Stanford, which started in 2001, and which more closely resembled the current MOOCs.

So not every alternative educational institute has become a success. Furthermore, although not every academic researcher is a good teacher, every good teacher is capable of translating scientific research into educational materials.

As I have argued elsewhere, a lot of the commercial educational institutes are built around  teaching professors, with a research position in publicly funded institutions. In this way, they can offer education at a cheaper rate as they do not have the investments in research and education of the teaching staff. In this sense Christensen et al. are right in the sense that there are less overhead and complexity costs, as these costs fall upon other institutions.

It is, however, a good approach to determine what society and individual learners really demand from educational institutes. It is a reminder that (academic) education is the translation of new knowledge into learning and competences. Accreditation should take this aspect of education more into account and put lesser emphasis on research activities of educational institutions.

Yet, in my experiences, working at the faculty of Management Sciences of the Open University of the Netherlands, most of my adult students are not only interested in the content of the courses, but also in the certificates of the individual course, to show their employers that they have acquired the essential knowledge. A large group is also interested in the Msc-degree. After some years, in which working experiences determines their career, they encounter some kind of ‘glass ceiling’ as they lack a formal degree.

The message of Christensen et al. is clear: online distance education should be concentrated on education, reducing overhead- and complexity cost. Affordable education, driven by the demand of the learners and society, will disrupt the educational sector; but only when policymakers will create the conditions for these initiatives to be sustainable.

Wirred: Christensen’s napkin

Are Moocs disruptive, interesting or just marketing?

Van der Bosch poses an interesting question as he states that Moocs are an interesting development, but as he says that Moocs are the wrong revolution.  Bonnie Stewart writes about the supposedly disruptive character of (x) MOOCS, pointing to the many publications using this term. She sees a trend in the power relations to shift, however preserving and consolidating the power relations of the traditional universities. xMOOCs are, in her view, just an opening of new markets based on the reputation and brand of the elite universities. Rolin Moe in Reviewing Christensen’s Disruptive Technologies (Harvard Business Review, 1995) in MOOC Terms gives an historical interpretation of Christensen’s original definition of disruptive innovation, using it to analyse xMoocs.

Thrift in de Chronicle is even more cynical, listing four main reasons why MOOCS are called a disruptive innovation and became a hype over the past months: 1. Moocs do appeal to economic elites, which see opportunities for profit in an economic environment where pretty well everyone is chasing limited opportunities for high returns. 2. because it taps into a vein of middle-class anger over tuition costs (a subject also mentioned by van der Bosch). 3. Moocs could reduce costs of higher education for governments, providing an attractive excuse to reduce spending. 4. because all that said, as higher-education systems continue to grow in scale, it makes sense to look at ways of teaching more people more efficiently, and MOOCs may well be a part of the answer.

Concluding that, no elite universities will be caught up in a more general industrialization of higher education

Meanwhile, edX announced the new members in February. In this announcement, they described their selves as “the not for profit online learning enterprise [..] building an open source educational platform and a network of the world’s top universities to improve education both online and on campus while conducting research on how students learn”.

Promising: “Courses offered by institutions on the edX platform provide the same rigor as on-campus classes but are designed to take advantage of the unique features and benefits of online learning environments, including game-like experiences, instant feedback and cutting-edge virtual laboratories”.

However, the Chronicle poses the question How can a non-profit organization that gives away courses bring in enough revenue to at least cover its costs?  Agarwal (president of edX) states that edX is non-profit, but self sustained. EdX expects income from several sources. Firstly, there is an agreement that “self-service” courses will be offered through edX without any further help, it pays a fixed amount of the income generated by the course to edX ($50.000 for a new course, $10.000 for recurring ones). Next, institutions can use edX as a consultant and design partner, paying for each course developed within this model. Furthermore, edX has a deal with a network of testing centres and has plans to license the courses to other universities, both potential sources of income.

Another interesting aspect is that Koller is quoted stressing that Cousera offers to share a larger part of the profits with the university that provides the course. It seems that competition between the MOOC-platforms has started?

napkin sketch by Clayton Christensen for Wired Opinion

So there are several positions taken with respect to the way we should look towards Moocs. Of course it is interesting to know the opinion of the person who labelled Disruptive Innovations. Christensen and Horn asked the question: Beyond the Buzz, Where Are MOOCs Really Going?

Their answer is simple: Yes.

For this answer, they have three reasons. Firstly, Moocs are serving non-consumers. Although Moocs are limited in the services they provide compared to traditional colleges, they offer free and accessible education to a broader audience, who can not afford the traditional offering. However, this is a characteristic of ODL in its broadest sense as can be read in the rapports of the UNESCO. China, Russia, Brazil and Turkey all offer some kind of Open Educational Resources with the intention of making education available in places where are no institutes for higher education and for people who are not able to participate in the traditional HEI’s. Secondly, as they state: disruptive innovations improve over time to march upmarket. This is also given as a reason why Moocs have become popular in recent months, using the augmented possibilities to increase quality. An observation which will not be shared by everyone commenting on Moocs. Lastly, Moocs redefine quality in the industry. As Christensen and Horn state: in the future, courses might be offered based on employer demand, not faculty research interests. MOOCs are already evolving in some ways away from traditional educational constraints: Udacity’s courses, for example, have shifted from a time-controlled to a more competency-based learning model that takes advantage of the online medium.

License Some rights reserved by Toban B.

Will Moocs be disruptive in the sense that they will change traditional education?

Their specific form, to which I will return in a later blog, makes it possible for a new segment of “customers” to participate in education. It becomes more easy to sell “education” as a product to firms, incorporating it in their corporate universities. Just as the introduction of the film, the movies, made the stage performance available for whole new audiences, winning in efficiency as one performance could be seen by millions but (perhaps) losing in other features as effectiveness  (the impact of the players on the spectators) or artistic aspects. Moocs facilitate the mass-consumption of education, but not the mass customization as predicted by Christensen and Horn. For that they are to inflexible. Furthermore, ODL and Moocs can facilitate other “revolutions” in education as flipping the classroom; transferring simple readings and task making to the e-domain, whereas the class room will be used for discussion and group work.

Predicting the future is not something I like to do, but my experiences with scenario techniques make me very doubtful if these kind of uses of Moocs will be applied soon. Drawing a line representing the use of Moocs as a change agent in traditional HEI’s versus a line of the supply of relevant Moocs by other HEI’s provides an optimistic quadrant in which Moocs will be offered and used to change the traditional educational systems against a realistic quadrant in which Moocs are offered by good willing individuals, used by individuals who have no other choice!

Making a better World: an economic view

Last week, our former colleague, Dianne Hofenk defended her PhD-thesis at the Open University. The thesis is titled “Making a Better World” and is a research into the contribution of a special carrier towards the greening of urban distribution. Large carriers deliver goods towards the borders of the city, where smaller distributors collect these goods, combine the parties in efficient batches and deliver the goods in the city, causing the pollution to decrease and give less congestion of the roads.

Besides several complex tests on factors which influence the participation of carriers, retailers and consumers, Dr Hofenk asked the question what determines the “ Willingness to pay more” of consumers for goods which have less impact on the environment? She stated that this was an especially relevant question as it influenced the sustainability of the business model, as policy makers had stated that they were prepared to subsidize the starting costs, but that the initiative has to be self-sufficient in time. The following discussion was on how the local distributors should be financed, through an increase of prices (by the costumers) or by transferring the profits of the carriers (more efficiency) and retailers (time saving) towards the distributors.

This seemed me an intriguing question, as from the point of view of welfare economics, there appears a straightforward role for the government. The government can maximize collective welfare if the negative effect of the taxes, necessary to subsidize this initiative is below the negative effects of the congestion and the pollution. Ideally, the government should divide the tax burden over both the three stakeholders, in ratio to the perceived weight or decreased costs.

However, an anonymous reviewer made a similar remark reviewing a piece on business models, sustainability and OER. In his opinion, the task of the government in providing education, and so also Open Educational Resources, is so clearly defined. It is therefore not done to ask the question how OER-initiatives can become self-providing, or less dependent on subsidizers. As stated above, the welfare economic view is that the government should redistribute income within society as long as the positive effects of more education outweigh the costs of more education.

Open Educational Resources are assumed to have a positive influence on the national level of education and so on economic growth, as on the quality and efficiency of education as a sector. Subsidizing OER is increasing social welfare as long as the added costs of this subsidy (including disturbance costs) are lower than the added benefits of more education.

However, more and more politicians see education as an individual choice; involving a trade off between individual costs and individual benefits. The student makes a choice of when, where and what he or she will study; financing this study by himself. The choice is assumed to be a rational one, based on the earnings after finishing the study versus the costs of financing it, using the family capital, bank loans or state loans (see the UK and the Netherlands). Rationality does require full information and the absence of (monetary) restrictions. Individuals have to make an estimation of the length of the study, the possibility of work after the study, income and future changes.

In this view are state subsidies for OER-courses unadvisable. Individuals will benefit of the offered courses (increase in income), but do not pay for them (Open ER). OER-systems should be self sustainable.

So it becomes more important to show how and where OER will have positive effects on quality and accessibility of education, on economic growth and on social cohesion. The individual approach to education is flawed and underestimates the positive contribution of free education by ignoring the national effects. Only by providing corroboration to this proposition, the state can be convinced to provide a continuous financial support to OER.