Education, let’s blow it to bits or put it back?

At the end of the last century some business theorists saw the start of a new development. The combination of technological change and an increasing competition between firms would result in a concentration on the core competencies of firms. This has two results: every firm concentrates on the tings they do best. Survivors of the competition will produce the best for the lowest costs. If every firm does so, and the B2B system is organized well, customers get the best quality for the lowest prices.

Of course, recent years showed a mixed pattern. Concentration in the banking sector, combining different financial products and services within one organization, ignoring the specific competencies necessary (including control and organization) is one of the causes  of the financial crisis. Yet, as result of this crisis, we see an increase in start-ups, employee-buy-outs and the emergence of other forms of small enterprises.

It would be interesting to see what the industry triggers are which rule concentration versus fragmentation, but also success versus failure in the different industries.

Technological change and didactic experiments have broadened the variation of digital education with the introduction of Open Educational Resources and Moocs.

In line with commercial business we have seen two trends emerging.

So let’s blow it to bits ………………………

One trend is shared by economists as Christensen and educational managers as Fred Mulder (UNESCO-chair OER). Both envisage a division within the academical sector. Christensen sees a division between research and education as a disruptive factor in the educational sector. E-learning provides a vehicle for the emergency of low costs mass education provided by organizations which concentrate on the educational process, without the burden of academic research.

Mulder goes one step further, in dividing the educational process in different stages and services. He concentrates on the division between content, which should be offered as open educational resources, and services as tutoring and grading, which should form the base of organizational income.

** Added 13-02-14: As pointed out by Ben Janssen as a comment to this post, he and Fred Mulder stop here with their analyses (also see their chapter Opening up education in Trend Report: Open Educational Resources 2013). The next text is my augmentation of their arguments, not their reasoning.**

However, if different products and services within the educational sector can be offered using different business models, there is no reason why they should take place within the same organization. If all organizations concentrate on the activities which they do best (making materials (Moocs or otherwise), tutoring, grading), the combination, the fragmented model, should produce the best and most effective and efficient education possible.

Both the individual student as society as a whole will gain as education becomes more affordable, public subsidies can decrease and quality increases. Christensen, therefore, concludes his paper with a set of advises for the public sector to realize the predicted benefits.

Of course there can be several drawbacks: in the age-group of 12 – 24 education is also about socialization, which is absent in the fragmented model. Also, there can be a discussion if academic education is possible without fundamental research; although the best researchers are not necessary the best teachers. Lastly, the advantages of the fragmented model ignore so-called transaction costs. Students have to select the best teaching organization and grading institute, but also the best combination of those two. Teaching organizations have to search for information on the grading requirements and the best (open) educational resources. The government has to inspect and accredit several institutes. In contrast to Open educational resources and Moocs, the workings of the open market are not free.

Or put it back …………………………………….

Another aspect of the fragmentation into core-competence organizations is the need to cooperate. This cooperation can result either of a spontaneous organization, as we know of complex dynamics, or it can be the result of an intermediary organization. For example, Laura Czerniewicz sees as one of the reasons to be engaged with Moocs is the fact that it  “gives us an entry to talking about online learning …. with people with whom we have not had those conversations before” and  there is room to “experiment”  with new online materials.

From: http://www.workingpoint.com/blog/free-tools-for-entrepreneurs-collaboration/3591

Another interesting point Laura makes is that there is room for niche subjects. As Anderson has pointed out in his theory of the Long Tail, is that small percentages of the total demand can generate large numbers when the materials are available electronically and world wide. Some courses cannot be organized because of the lack of local students. If different organizations work together, they can combine the local interest into a sustainable (inter)national group of students. The same can be done in the case of to few qualified teachers on a special subject: by using the new technologies it should be possible to teach in different locations without extensive travel.

Again using the conclusions of research in the field of business co-operations, an interesting phenomena is that firms who compete heavily on the consumer side, will cooperate at the backdoor. For example, beer companies do their best to convince you that their beer is the best fitting with your life style, is the cheapest or the best quality. However, in most Western European countries all beer is sold in the same bottles and crates as the distribution and retribution of the bottles is organized together.

Question for educational organization is: what do you want to be? What is the identity you try to communicate towards your students? Given this strategic identity, you can determine your core competencies and resources. You can also determine all the non-core activities and resources.

These are the things which could be outsourced or developed in a common program. Courses like mathematics, statistics or English are often just secondary to the major program, international business, European law or psychology. Resources which could be freed by cooperation with other organizations could be used to enhance the strategic profile.

To me, working together to improve the quality and efficiency of education on a international scale seems a more interesting perspective than decreasing our organizations into atomic cores which orbit the potential students without any sense of curricula or programs; being totally dependent on the authority of some external agent who sets the requirements for a degree. Yet, if education is left to the open market either because of the ruling ideology or because of the lack of public funding, there is no guarantee that cooperation will overcome competition.

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It’s not a market if no money changes hands! An answer to David Kernohan

David Kernohan ‏@dkernohan

@IHEtech @FrankOUNL it’s not a market if no money changes hands!

Inside Higher Ed quoted Simon Nelson (CEO of Futurelearn):

“Until now, this market has been dominated by companies based in the U.S., but with 18 U.K. partners, we are determined to provide the smartest and most engaging online learning experiences and revolutionize conventional models of education”

and twittered: British #MOOC provider expands and eyes India market.

David Kernohan replied to the InsideHigerEd-tweet and my retweet with the text above.

As English is a second language to me, I first consulted some dictionaries for the meaning of market (Webster, Cambridge, Oxford). There is some consensus that it can be different things. Either a real or abstract place where people trade goods or services, or the demand for something. As a verb, it can be understood as marketing or shopping.

Taking the quote above, I would say that the CEO of Futurelearn indeed sees the learning and education as something for which is a demand, so Moocs should form a supply meeting this demand. If money will change hands directly is to be seen but that each educational offer has a financial aspect is certain.

Although I don’t think that I have to defend the CEO of Futurelearn; I found several reactions interesting in the sense that it seems to be “not done” to question the effect of Moocs (also see Cathy Davidson). In a discussion last week, every question with respect to the learning effect, the high dropout rate, the high level of lurkers; not participating in discussions, etcetera (MOOCs and the AI-Stanford like Courses: Two Successful and Distinct Course Formats for Massive Open Online Courses) were countered with the argument that Moocs are free, even when people do not participate, do not finish a course or do not learn anything from the Mooc, who cares?

MOOC

MOOC (Photo credit: Sarah_G)

Well, we should for different reasons. Firstly, if Moocs are ineffective in delivering education, the effort of teachers, multimedia specialists and administrators had been better directed in another way, providing other kinds of courses. Even if courses are offered for free, producing them involve costs and labour hours which could be put to another use.

Secondly, I think Moocs offer a very interesting alternative to Open Educational Resources and the possibility to develop sustainable (business) models in which the free provision of valuable education worldwide will be possible.

On the input side, Moocs use courses which are developed for brick-and-mortar universities. Most courses are used for the on-campus students during the regular semesters. An on-line translation of these courses is made publicly and free available. So the additional costs of the online course are only the added costs of the recording and changes made to make the course more independent of the face-to-face situation. Of course, as I have argued earlier, a full distance course would be more labour intensive and so more expensive than the online copy of a regular course. The usage of Moocs to increase the public of the original course could be seen as a more efficient use of the public subsidies which were used to develop and deliver the original course.

In several publications, earning models for Moocs are suggested and seem to be translated into contracts. Among those are data-mining using the email addresses of interested students, marketing of the offering institute, advertisement space or selling the course as an in-company training. The Moocs also offer opportunities for other institutions. Using the Moocs, they can offer degrees within their own institution or in cooperation with the original provider of the Mooc.

So both on the input as on the output side of the educational system, Moocs can help the educational system to become more effective. However, an important assumption by this is that both the original course as the online massive translation of this course are worthwhile to begin with.

If the dropout rate is high because the content or the didactical form of the course dishearten people to accomplish the course, disappointing and discourage people to participate in distance higher education later on:

  • The efficiency on the input side is gone;
  • The effect on the total level of education of a country is lost;
  • No one would be prepared to pay for a commercial usage of the Mooc.

To conclude:

  1. If there is a formal market or not; money is used in the production and exploitation of Moocs;
  2. The usage of scares resources requires that these are invested in the most effective way, whether this effect is calculated in monetary terms, social benefits or civil rights.

Moocs, social contracts and flipping classrooms: E-Learning in 2012

In 2012 the youngest branch from the online distance learning family (ODL) generated much attention. Moocs distinguish themselves from open educational resources in several ways. Moocs are full courses aimed at learners, whereas resources are often reusable parts, aimed at teachers. Openness ranges from free to participate to free to use. It is their business model, that makes them interesting. Most (M)oocs are regular courses, for which development is paid for by normal university funds.

They are recorded in some way and delivered free through some kind of collaborative platform. Some platforms discuss generating  additional incomes by licensing other institutions to offer degrees based on the courses or integrating the courses in in-company training programs. Of course there are also critiques on Moocs, ranging from McDonalisation to instructor led. Willem van Valkenburg just recently wrote: “As you can see is that most of the platforms are created by a US for-profit company. So I encourage initiative from outside the US, especially the ones that are really open”. In October 2012, U

Another of the latest trends is flipping the classroom: transferring your courses in distance learning, using the class room time for interaction instead of lecturing. Wilfred Rubens has written a number of blogs on this subject, listing among others the warning that wrong choices with respect to the distance learning can result in less educational results. During the Dutch Education Days he organized a session where he did not give a presentation. The participants had to prepare themselves beforehand, using the information sources and tasks that Rubens had published on his website. The session was completely dedicated to interaction. Next step, following the Guardian, is the flipped academy.nX has started in Spain and the British Open University announced to start their own Mooc platform some days ago. However, why van Valkenburg asks for new initiatives and if the new platforms will be different from the American platforms is not clear.

Quote 1: “Alex Bruton, associate professor in innovation and entrepreneurship at Mount Royal University in Canada, thinks so. The ‘flipped academic’, as he sees it, is an academic who informs first and publishes later, seeking usefulness as well as truth in their research and striving to publish only after having had an impact on students and society”.

Quote 2: “An academic’s success should not be measured by the number of research papers they produce, but in how they communicate their work to a wider audience, suggests Sarah Hewitt, assistant professor in the department of biology at Mount Royal University”.

This concept combines the Open Access approach with the critique on managerialism in university (Christine Teelken, see my last blog). However, working at the Open University of the Netherlands, we already flipped the classes over the last 15 year. Comparing two situations, I find that a lot of the success depends on the attitude of the students.

For a strategy course, we organize meetings with our regular students and with people only taking the strategy course as a special subject. The regular students are used to distance learning, come prepared to the meeting and most of them are interested in discussing their companies strategic decisions using the distance materials.

Although the “commercial” groups differ, a lot of the time the learners just want to pass the exam, wanting a summary of the materials. In such cases, it is hard to motivate the students and the tutor to get into a group discussion.

Lastly, following several authors, the social contract is broken because of the financial crisis. At least what they mean is that implicit relationship that more education increases your chance of more interesting work or a higher income does not exist anymore. However, the social contact as described by Rousseau, Locke, Grotius and others can be best be illustrated by the story of the stag hunt. Hunters have the choice to cooperate and hunt a stag, feeding the tribe, or individually hunt a hare, feeding their selves and their family.

In terms of the political economy, hare hunting represents capitalism, stating that my hare is bigger than yours; without ever hunting a stag. State communism is stag hunting, with the leader taking home the stag, leaving the tribe hungry. Question is if there is a third way?

In economics, the third way is represented by the Keynesian approach. Simply said, Keynes’ theory states that in good times a government has to save, so it can run a deficit in bad times. Tinbergen added to this that the best way to spend your money is to use one instrument to achieve one goal (first best solution). Theil amended this view in the way that the government often has less instruments than goals, so choices have to be made and not every solution is optimal (second best solution). In political sciences, it is accepted that, as Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947)

The social contract as an alternative for cold capitalism or dictatorial state communism, can be described as Social Democracy; combining Theil-Keynesian economic policy with the imperfect participation of one-man-one-vote (not excluding women of course). Especially for a good functioning of social democracy, it is important that people understand the choices made. Not every target can be fully realized, there has to be a tradeoff between objectives; both in economic and in social politics. This understanding demands a good educational system; participation and social cohesion depend on understanding.

In this sense, I think education is a stag. Society is responsible for the functioning of the educational system as a whole. Business models and management theories have an important function within the sector: efficiency is important especially in a time where money is scarce.

Especially in ODL, Moocs or OER, competition will lead to reproduction of similar courses. Perhaps some courses will be better; nicer or cheaper, so in time these courses will drive out the other courses. But in the meantime resources will be wasted which will damage both the reputation and the level of education whereas cooperation and coordination could increase the efficiency and by that the level of education, the availability of good materials and give teachers over the world instruments to improve their courses sharing the resources.

I am curious which of the developments will prevail; will the introduction of Moocs lead to (international) competition or to a more open educational environment? Will we be able to flip academia? Or will the new rules of Open Access lead to more inequality between those who can pay and those who can not?

Lastly, will the economic crisis lead to a political crisis; breaking up the social contract or will people and governments work together to reinvent the third way of social democracy, accepting the imperfect workings and Theil’s second best solutions.

Till next year

ODL, the social contract and the economic crisis.

Suddenly a social contract appears in the blogs I am reading. In “The Perfect Storm for Universities“, Popenici writes about the fact that more education does not necessary means a higher income or more change of a steady job. Bonnie Stewart states that the social contract can no longer fulfill its promises. Adding “Of course” to this sentence. Prinsloo lists the assumptions and links between Bildung, graduation and employment which are replaced by other forms of curriculum development, assessment and accreditation, as one of the major changes of 2012. 

Respecting the differences between the blogs, they all blame education for the break down of this relationship. Either the appearance of Moocs and the Internet flow of information (Stewart, Prinsloo) or the student loans, a business attitude of university administration and faculty and the arrogance of universities in general (Popenici). Or taking a quote of Christine Teelken: It seems that universities are no longer viewed as ivory towers of intellectual pursuits and truthful thoughts, but rather as enterprises driven by arrogant individuals out or capture as much money and influence as possible.

However, a contract is a two-sided agreement, depending on certain conditions. This social contract states that if the individual does his best to get explicit grades and diploma’ s, society will take care of his or her employment. One of the conditions attacked is the state of education, which is either bad or treated by ODL‘s as Moocs. Neither of them talks about the other conditions. In Europe as in the USA, there are only a few jobs available. Because of the credit- and the euro-crisis, because of the decline in competitiveness, the social contract has been broken, not necessary because of the rise in alternative sources of information and education.

If online distance learning (ODL) is not the source of the problem, perhaps they can be (part of) the solution? ODL’s, whether open educational resources aimed at teachers (reusable, remix and redistribution) or open online courses aimed at learners (and massive if successful).

In a world where income and employment decline, the access of education is limited as the example of Greece shows. Free resources and courses could help to overcome the scarcity of materials and teachers.

As one of the reasons to be involved in the production of open educational resources, the Unesco reports on the Russian Federation and China state the availability of good quality materials in distance parts of the countries, in Brazil availability over income groups is also mentioned.

Another reason for introducing ODL in a large scale in traditional education is given by Stephan Ruth. Combining different models of ODL (Mooc’s, course redesign using e-learning, virtual campus, the $10,000 degree), he concludes that e-learning can greatly decrease the costs of education. He therefore comes to a combination of models, the Export Import Model, in which the excellent universities offer open online courses and resources. Because of the restricted supply, each ODL becomes a Mooc, used by not-so excellent universities, who organize the tutoring, the discussions and exams. The not-so excellent universities pay the excellent universities a fee for the use of the materials and get an income from the students who want to get tutored, take exams and so forth.

Having some experience in developing distance education myself, I think the cost reduction is strongly depending on the amount of students. Designing and making good distance education is much more expensive than designing and giving face-to-face education. When the initial development costs are spread over more students, there will be a point after which ODL is cheaper than f2f education. However, as tutoring can not be up-scaled indefinitely, there can be an upper bending point after which the efficiency of tutoring declines and the cost reduction declines too.

Another drawback of Ruth’s approach is the division between developing and exploiting institutes, between high paying students studying on site at the excellent universities and other students studying at the not-so excellent universities. What such at division means for the social contract even when the economical crisis disappears, is not clear to me.

Mondon and Hoffstaeder give yet another view on such a division, however along the line of humanities versus natural sciences. They are afraid that online learning is in favour of hard sciences, which in their view can bet assessed by single answer questions, whereas humanities require other skills as good essay writing.

Secondly, they are afraid that students will not study humanities as the job prospects are limited; thirdly humanities are more dependent on student numbers and government grants as they find it harder to find private partners for funding their research.

Partly these worries are mirrored by the research of Teelken and the translation of this by Prinsloo, Stewart and Popenici, especially the dependency of education on market forces and efficiency, as stressed by Ruth. However, ODL, OER and Mooc’s are not the monsters depicted by Mondon and Hoffstaeder. Assessing essays, papers and other kinds of assessments are available and under construction. The fact that students in the present situation take their future job opportunities in account by choosing a curriculum is not strange given the economic situation, whereas the relation between ODL and research funding is a strange one.

When the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, closes his home to go There and Back Again, he didn’t realize what lay ahead of him. Also it is the question if modern multimedia techniques can beat 35 years of imagination. Will free ODL’s change the world is an open question but hopefully there will be a Back Again.

Moocs and the Bottom of the Pyramid

Moocs, Massive Open Online Courses, are provided for free to large amount of participants. Tuition and assessment are peer based. They are not really Open Educational Resources as they are only offered in certain periods and the materials are not available for (re)use in different educational situations.

As a economist, I realize that what irritates me is the way these courses are labeled massive by those who offer them. A course becomes massive because a lot of people participate in the open version, not because the teacher decides to offer a massive course as Steve Downs says in the introduction to the Change Mooc. Some course have a proven track record, Artificial Intelligence of Stanford has been a success, so have the courses of George Siemens and Stephan Downes on Higher Education. Perhaps other open online courses have been less successful (in numbers of students), but also less prominent in the publicity. Of course, Moocs and other online courses will be criticized for offering a Tata Nano versus the classroom BMW (Amanda Ripley in Time US).

George Siemens’ interview on MOOCs and Open Education by Andreia Inamorato

The free offering of courses from outstanding universities as MIT, Stanford and others make good quality education available in places where otherwise no education would be accessible. Furthermore, the massive character of these courses open the possibility of applying a “Bottom of the Pyramid” kind of financing for education.

One of the more interesting business models of Moocs is the supply of a paid-for degree course, together with a free non-degree version without expert tuition. Adding to this the possibility of asking a small fee for a certificate stating that the person has participated in the program, and the possibility to sell the program to third parties, these opportunities broaden the global participation, educating the bottom of the pyramid. For example, Sui Fai John Mak shows on his blog a figure consisting of three kind of markets he expects to emerge from the present Moocs (see below).

Yet another way the philosophy of the Moocs can be combined with the philosophy of Prahalad is by asking yourself what kind of education these people need. Is it possible to rework online distance courses in such a way that institutes in the neighborhood can build programs around these ODL’s so students can take formal assignments and get formal degrees. The combination in thinking about delivering to the point courses at affordable fee, compensating the costs through the amount of students and working together with local organizations for the formal recognition of the degree.

Of course such a development has the danger of unification of education in it, the McDonaldization; “MOOC’s may provide access to a world-class education, but the product is prepackaged and standardized. And, because it is readily available, it risks diminishing both the diversification of the higher-education sector and the advancement of globally engaged students and institutions”. If Moocs become the baseline in education in developing countries, the content of education will become the same everywhere.

When there are a large amount of people interested in participating in these kind of courses, the development costs per student will be very low, whereas other institutions can use the course to offer a degree based on the Mooc, tutoring and local assessment. Again, this makes education available for people who cannot afford regular education. Another observation of Amanda Ripley, based on her experiences in Pakistan was that “ at this stage, most MOOCs work well for students who are self-motivated and already fairly well educated. Worldwide, the poorest students still don’t have the background (or the Internet bandwidth) to participate in a major way” . In the TimesHangout, Amanda Ripley remarks that it are only the higher income students in developing countries can afford to participate in Moocs.

Concluding, in themselves Moocs will not solve the differences in education level around the world. There are too much problems concerning these online courses, associated with the low success rates of students, the lack of formal degrees. But also problems with the potential participants, as a lack of money for broadband internet and other income related problems and institutional problems, for example when Pakistan closed down YouTube blocking an anti-Muslim movie, they also blocked the access of 217 students to the massive, open online physics course (again according to Ripley).

However, I think that Moocs and other ODL-courses can be instrumental in providing education in places where otherwise no good quality education is available (whether in developing or developed countries). If it will be a success depends on the conditions which will be created locally. If other institutions adopt the Moocs, if governments are supportive of these kind of educational materials it is possible that this kind of education can provide a stimulus to better education. On the side of the Moocs, they could be made available around the year as open educational resources instead of just an additional outlet for existing education.

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.