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20  02.11.14 - Unbordering Education Forum at Tumo
Open teaching philosophy is about sharing

Stephen Downes:

Open teaching philosophy is about sharing

PanARMENIAN.Net - MOOC (massive open online course) is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and via the web. 2012 became "the year of the MOOC" according to The New York Times, as several well-financed providers, associated with top universities, emerged, including Coursera, Udacity, and edX. These platforms collectively have dozens of university partners and millions of users. The fact that lectures from the world's top professors are now a commodity available over the Internet for free is shaking up higher education from top to bottom. KASA Swiss Humanitarian Foundation in cooperation with Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, the Embassy of Switzerland in Armenia and PAN has organized a forum on November 2, 2014 on impact of IT on education to discuss current trends, challenges and opportunities IT has brought to the education landscape. The keynote speaker of the forum was the originator of MOOCs Stephen Downes. PAN had the chance to talk with Downes about MOOCs and the future of education.
What is the open education?
The open teaching philosophy is about sharing and what’s really significant about it -- it’s not sharing content like textbook or lecture. The idea is that you share the actual experience you have or practice you want to talk about. The idea here is that in the long term, part of the job will be to work openly and share what you do in a day-to-day course of your job with other people, no matter what your occupation is. This becomes a type of learning, where you have a little community following you as you work: schoolchildren or adults, who want to become engineers, for example. So that’s the end goal. Ultimately we’re trying to break down the idea that education is something that’s available only for a special group of people, only at special institutions and, of course, only for a price. We want education to become something that is normal, as part of the society infrastructure like roads, or power, or water.

You know, Armenia is a small, landlocked and developing country and our government is striving for a knowledge-based economy. How important do you think it is for Armenia to implement some of the open education methods?
It’s a hard question, because every government wants to be a knowledge-based economy. It’s not going to happen by itself and it’s not going to be what distinguishes a country from the others. The world as a whole is moving towards a knowledge-based economy. Previously, things that used to be done required a lot of labor and paper; now these are being done electronically, as it’s a lot faster, cheaper and better. You get better services as a result. However, this process requires an investment and a transition.

The first MOOCs emerged from the open educational resources (OER) movement. The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island in response to a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. The course which was led by George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council, consisted of 25 tuition-paying students in Extended Education at the University of Manitoba, as well as over 2200 online students from the general public who paid nothing.

Before an investment, do you think it’s important to inform and educate the decision makers about this?
Every country is different. Generally it’s a good idea. But it’s hard to inform and educate the decision makers, because they often believe that they are they are already informed and educated and they don’t need more. It’s actually how it works in my country, so it can be difficult. Also, decision makers, even in autocratic countries (and I’m not saying this is one, cause I don’t know obviously) governments still follow more or less what people want. If people want roads, the government builds roads, should people want grocery stores, they get the stores. So I think it’s equally important that the population as a whole is given access to the tools and infrastructure so they can educate themselves. Delivering an education is a very intensive process that requires a lot of overhead, a lot of tech, a lot of investment and time. It’s a major undertaking and I always recommend putting tools in place for the population to educate itself. You will only reach a small percentage, but at least you can do it the affordable way.

As to the MOOCs, do you think that creating a platform for MOOCs, requires continuous investments, or can they become self-sustainable?
I hear over and over how all of these things should be self-sustaining and, you know, no infrastructure is self-sustaining. None. And it’s unreasonable to expect that. Schools aren’t self-sustaining and they cost the government a fortune. Thus, expecting MOOCs to be self-sustaining makes no sense to me.

Education is one of the services that is directed toward the people who are least able to afford it -- the uneducated. They are least likely to be employed and they are very likely to be children. How are they going to pay for it? When people build roads they do not expect them to be self-sustaining. If it’s important to a society, to a government, they will find a way to support it. That’s the beginning and the end of it. However, MOOC requires a large investment overall. I didn’t answer your question the way I wanted to, but the sentiment is there.

MOOCs are not very popular here because people lack English skills. How important do you think it is to create Armenian language MOOCs? Is it worth the investment, or should we teach them English first?
That’s a nifty question. I worry about saying something like “Oh, do create Armenian language MOOCs” because that would mean only people who speak Armenian could benefit from. The neat thing about MOOCs is that you can get people from many countries and many cultures. Of course, I say that because I offered MOOCs in English and that’s what happened. I’d love to see ultimately, MOOCs with participants speaking many languages. I don’t think that’s feasible yet. If I were in a smaller linguistic group like Armenian I’d probably be more focused on making resources available in Armenian to be shared among Armenians. That would be my first priority, so that if they join other MOOCs. They can add these resources to the global mix. With time, people will be able to create resources in their own language, and also to translate the existing MOOCs. That would be best. I’d probably focus on creating resources rather than creating MOOCs, at this point of time. By saying resources, I mean content: text, video, photographs, etc. I’d not hire professors to create content, I’d be making the creation of content as part of the educational activities. I know Armenia has its own system, so part of the education would become to create content that would be shared on the web for everybody. It’s faster and cheaper.

Do you think creating a MOOC in general is an expensive venture?
It could be, but not necessarily. I’ve heard of some very expensive MOOCs. Some of them on Coursera are really expensive because they hire professionals for job on every level. If they are creating custom content, it would be expensive. But the MOOCs that George Siemens and I created were very inexpensive, and this sort of thing could be implemented in Armenia. It doesn’t cost a whole lot but it requires the background knowledge and skills to be able to do it. Ironically, the less skilled you are, the more expensive it is to do.

You can create MOOCs using freely available technology on the web. If people are creating content the way I described -- students creating content or students finding content throughout the internet --then it can be very inexpensive, since it’s created virtually.

You know, the first MOOC took me 100 hours of my time altogether and then another 100 hours of George’s time. That’s rough, I didn’t keep track. I pay $120 for the server with all my stuff. It may seem expensive if paid by a physical person, but if the government covers the expenses, it’s not costly at all.

As MOOCs have evolved, there appear to be two distinct types: those that emphasize the connectivist philosophy, and those that resemble more traditional courses. To distinguish the two, Stephen Downes proposed the terms "cMOOC" and "xMOOC". This marks a key distinction between cMOOCs where the 'C' stands for 'connectivist', and xMOOCs where the x stands for extended and represents that the MOOC is designed to be in addition to something else (university courses for example). Stephen Downes considers cMOOCs to be more "creative and dynamic" than the current xMOOCs, which he believes "resemble television shows or digital textbooks."

What about the dropout rates? People keep criticizing MOOCs for high dropout rates.Do you think it is worse in xMOOCs than cMOOCs? Is it a bad phenomenon in general?
I don’t know if there are more dropouts in xMOOCs than there are in cMOOCs, but I also don’t think it matters. Dropout is not a good measure for MOOCs. It’s like reading a newspaper. No one reads a paper from the beginning to the end. People just choose the things that are of interest to them. That’s how it should be for a MOOC as well. A MOOC should not be a traditional course, where there is a content you need to cover and if you did not cover, you are not successful. Education in the MOOC comes from the activities you are taking part in and not from content that you are trying to remember. Content doesn’t matter. I know that it may sound odd for an educator to say, but it really is true. You could accomplish the same results in your educational system even if you teach completely different content than you are doing today. You’d still accomplish the same results.

What is the most effective way to cover a majority of people with different learning styles?
First of all, there is a lot of skepticism in the academic community in education that the learning styles are significant. I’m sort of a mixed opinion. The idea of learning styles came from Gardner’s “Multiple intelligences”. And he’s right when he says that there are different ways of being smart. You can be smart visually, you can be smart kinesthetically or rationally or you can be like me… smart in everything (Smiling). But learning style was the idea that you identify how people are smart and then adapt your instruction to it. It’s not clear that adapting your instruction to a person’s intelligence is going to improve the education outcomes. But of course all of that presupposes what’s known as an instructive model of teaching, where you have an instructor, who delivers content, and you have students, who receive content. However, the most modern education isn’t about models anymore. The traditional education in some way is based on the idea that knowledge is not transmitted but rather each person has to create their own knowledge for themselves almost from scratch because you can’t put content to a brain, you just can’t. Not in any reasonable way. That’s the thing they do with propaganda. But propaganda doesn’t take you very far. You can’t do propaganda to nuclear physics, it doesn’t work. You actually have to develop your own knowledge in physics. Learning styles don’t help with that. That doesn’t mean that people don’t learn differently from each other. I’m sure they all do. I’m sure that there’s a basis for allowing people to decide for themselves how they want to approach to learn a certain type of material. I think that adapting instruction to such style is probably ineffective.

How do you picture education in 10 years? How is it going to be according to you, and how would you want it to be?
10 years isn’t very long, although it sounds like that. I know a lot happens in 10 years, but education is very conservative and doesn’t move very quickly. So 10 years from now a lot of it will be the same way it is now, for better or for worse. And that’s okay. The main difference is that in 10 years there will be many more alternatives than there are today. So it will become more possible to get a good education, despite the educational system. So even if the educational system fails, there will be resources available online. I think that will be the key significant change and I want that. Additionally, we’re in a period now where we’re gradually changing the way we assess people. It’s a bit hard to describe but right now the prevailing method is to use grades, to use tests, assignments and things like that. However, more and more we now start assessing people according to whether they are able to demonstrate their competence in different areas and it's not necessary to do tests for it. Eventually, an entire social network will be involved in the assessment of a person. Credentials, like degrees and even badges, are temporary things. Great changes can take place in 100 years, so in ten years from now it will be 10 percent further along.

For now, what can be improved in the assessment methods?
I would focus on creating rather than memorizing. I would make sharing a part of assessments. I think that’s important. I would create mechanisms where people can prove they are competent without necessarily taking the class. So that they will have the choice of how they will learn, even if they are being tested for competence for what they have learned. If we separate the learning from the assessment, then people can choose how they learn for themselves and then the assessment still keeps them honest. So I think those are the short-term things and I’d be looking into more.

What’s your favorite MOOC?
Mine. Even though it was 35-week long I really liked the “Change” MOOC, since it did become a way of life. We’ve had some really good people. Although, to be really fair, I also liked Jim Groom’s DS106 (http://ds106.us/about/) MOOCs, cause they are much more based on the idea of creativity than mine were. And I like that.

Is it a good example to follow?
Yeah, absolutely. They are great. He’s done very good work with those.

Arpiné Grigoryan / PanARMENIAN.Net
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