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.