The alchemy of ed tech

Medieval alchemy drawing

Image from Public Domain Review
(replace this with an architecture and data flow diagram)

I’m reading a few popular history of chemistry books at the moment (notably Mendeleyev’s Dream and Napoleon’s Buttons). One theme is how the history of chemistry was plagued by the completely bogus notion of alchemy. The idea that base metals could be transmuted into gold dominated any dabblings in chemistry for centuries, and kept reappearing in different cultures and at different times. “This has to be possible, right?” was the persistent motivation. The dogged pursuit of alchemy was characterised by the following:

  • Greed – unlimited wealth awaits!
  • Obfuscation – it persists through rumour, and secret formulas, adding to its allure. The process is never made public.
  • Magical lexicon – this obfuscation works not only by being secretive but by creating a language that is difficult to penetrate
  • Vagueness – although the ultimate aim (Gold!) is clear, there is a lot of vagueness otherwise about benefits (immortality, spiritual awakening, general goodness)
  • Occasional unexpected side benefits – almost inevitably given the time devoted to it, there would be the odd chemical breakthrough which occurred as a side benefit of alchemy, for example, the discovery of phosphorous
  • Persistence despite results – obviously no-one ever got alchemy to work, but this complete lack of success was only seen as reason to continue. It had to be true, dammit! Hundreds of years, and some of the best historical minds (hello Isaac Newton) were involved in this fruitless pursuit.

Now, is it just because I have a particular mindset, or does this set of characteristics sound familiar? As I was reading it I kept thinking of the ed tech equivalents of alchemy. Goals that are pursued at different times, in different guises and never actually realised. I would suggest the “gold from base metal” dream of ed tech is automated, personalised tuition across all subjects – essentially the removal of the human educator. We’ve seen this with industrial systems, early AI, MOOCs, and now new improved AI. I think it matches all of the characteristics of alchemy I’ve given above. We do get breakthroughs, and automatic tuition and assessment is possible at a fairly simple level. Let’s consider the similarities with my alchemy list:

  • This offers vast riches for the discoverer who can sell the product at great cost, because this will still be cheaper for providers than employing people. The education market is estimated at $6 Trillion annually. That’s pretty much turning base metal into gold.
  • It is frequently obfuscated by commercial interests with black box algorithms. They only report questionable results which are difficult to verify because we don’t know the underlying transformations.
  • It has its own lexicon of algorithms, learning analytics, intelligent systems that increasingly becomes to look like magic.
  • There is often a vagueness around improved efficiency, retention, learner satisfaction, democratisation of learning, etc. All of these are actually worthwhile goals to pursue in their own right, but there is a magpie tendency to grab the latest concern and say “yes, we can help with that too. Plus, did we mention we can turn lead into gold?”
  • Accidental side benefits – this intensive work with algorithms and data does have some benefits, learning analytics that help educators improve their course design for instance. But this isn’t the real goal
  • Persistence – Audrey Watters has talked of “zombie ideas” in ed tech that just refuse to die. Certainly automatic tuition is one of these, no matter how small the gains are, there is always the sense that it is ‘just about to happen’.

Just to be clear – I am NOT saying ed tech is rubbish. I love ed tech. It has provided genuinely new ways of teaching and reaching different audiences. It can solve very specific issues and offer lots of benefits for learners. My objection here is to the overblown claims, and the often unspoken alchemic tradition that persists in ed tech. The way to combat this is openness (of data, algorithms, claims, results), focusing on very specific problems to address (instead of grand revolutions) and calling bullshit when we see it.

Like alchemy I fear we will waste time, effort, money and good minds on the pursuit of a really big, unattainable goal instead of focusing on smaller, actually achievable ones. What if we say we don’t think you can, or want to, remove the human educator from the education process. If we accept that as a premise, then what can we now go on to do with ed tech? Just like with alchemy once they stopped trying to produce gold, they went on to discover elements, invent medicines, create all manner of new materials that can be used in the objects we use everyday, and so on (and yes, quite a few weapons along the way, but that’s another post).

I think I’ve heard others talk about the analogy of alchemy in ed tech. Certainly Audrey Watters has mentioned it a couple of times. But I can’t find anything in detail. My apologies if I’m actually just regurgitating something I heard once and have now mistaken for an original idea (it happens).

In the comments Mark Brandon reminded me of this Blackadder scene. I’d meant to include it originally as it kept coming to mind when I was reading, but then forgot. It pretty much is the perfect analogy, thanks Mark:

Patterns across an academic career

sprinkle-y goodness
Will there be cake?

This year marks 21 years of me working at the Open University. I hope (as does my mortgage provider) I’ve got another 15 years or so left, but I’m edging “old timer” status now, so I was reflecting the other day about the difficulty of applying management to an academic career, if they’re all as wriggly and messy as mine.

Senior managers in higher education have my sympathy. There is increasing pressure to be efficient and cut costs, which means getting the most you can out of employees, combined with demands for transparency and accountability. Academia isn’t the ivory tower that people who post in newspaper comments section still believe it to be. I understand this, students are paying money and taking on debt, taxpayers are contributing via loans or research grants, and so on. Academia is not exempt from the pressures that every other career faces. So this is not a “why can’t they leave us alone to do magic” type post. Rather it is about the difficult of applying conventional management methods to academic careers.

At my institution we have a specified split between teaching and research activities, and are expected to plan work accordingly on an annual basis. This makes perfect sense as that represents the type of activity and funding the university as a whole realises. But it becomes problematic at both the individual and temporal level. I am currently in a research phase of my career, but previously, I was very teaching focused, and other times working on strategic projects. So across my career this split might be true, but during any one year it may not. Similarly, a Department may want to achieve this split overall, but it is unlikely every individual can. Some people are good at getting research grants in, others are excellent at teaching. It is probably better to let people pursue the aspect they are better suited to than force everyone to have the same profile. I ought to say, in the OU management is flexible, and what counts under each category can be adapted, but it highlights the problem of trying to manage this.

Other universities are focused on outputs, so for example, Senior Lecturers are expected to bring in £30K research money, publish 2 papers, and supervise 2 PhD students per year. I was thinking about this over my career. When I was Chair of T171, it was an unexpected success, with around 12,000 students per year. It probably brought in around £100M over its lifetime (is it too late to ask for a 1% dividend?). So if I did nothing else, they’d be in profit from me over my career. But other years I have been tasked with actively spending money, eg when I was VLE Director or SocialLearn Director. So viewing on an annual or individual basis is again problematic. Similarly, some years I have written quite a bit, other years, I’ve hardly published at all.

Another approach is to break it down by career path. But, you’ve guessed it, this is problematic. For instance, I spent a period in mid to late 2000s developing my online identity, blogging, playing with tools etc, as part of an informal OU community that was exploring this stuff (with Tony Hirst for example). I did a lot of internal workshops around this time, encouraging others to develop online identities also. But I couldn’t point to any of this and say “it brought in this amount of money” or “it had this type of impact”. When I was developing T171 that was my “start-up” phase – working weekends, staying uo until 3am tackling issues, thriving on the stress of numerous deadlines. I could only do this because I was a) young b) naive and c) didn’t have children. I definitely would not be able to do it now. But then as you get older you have other roles you can take on, and things you can contribute that you couldn’t have done before. Others have taken more directly focused management paths through their careers. Unlike many professions there is not one, or maybe two, clearly defined paths in academia, that you can then easily plot people’s progression against.

Employment gurus tell us that in the future everyone will have 6 career changes, or hold 5 different jobs concurrently, one of which is shared with a robot. While the academic employment world has changed a lot (there is a lot more job insecurity around now than when I started), it is still a place where people can stay with the same institution for long periods. And trying to manage people at different stages in this process, with different skill sets and different paths, is a thankless and possibly fruitless task. But it might be useful to develop a set of patterns that people can be matched to, and then ensure that across an institution or department you have the appropriate mix of patterns.

Being lost as staff development

Back To School - It was a long way to school

In my last post I mentioned that I am studying an MA in Art History. This is not an area I know much about, not one I can even slide into easily. I don’t have much of the vocabulary, the skills of artistic analysis, the basic knowledge of art. So, I feel a bit lost much of the time. But it’s a well structured course, and I’m enjoying it.

This sense of being a bit out of my depth reminded me of George Siemens statement that learning is a vulnerable process. I think much of the learning experience is about negotiating that vulnerability. The problem is that by the time you get to be an educator you’ve largely forgotten what that vulnerability is like. I think it’s probably impossible to fully recapture what it is like to be an undergraduate, particularly if you’re a first generation student, and not sure if you belong here.

But studying a subject you don’t know much about at least captures a bit of that sense of vulnerability. I have many of the generic skills that much of a Masters is spent on building – critical reading, writing, organisation. But I don’t have the background knowledge in the subject itself. I chose a subject that was deliberately nothing to do with work, because I wanted it to be a break from work. But in doing so, I have also become aware of all those things that are important for unsure learners: clear structure, useful assessment, good signposting, technology that works, etc.

This has made me reflect that often when people ask their institution to fund a place on a course for them as part of staff development, they are required to indicate how it will relate to their work. They are encouraged to choose subjects that can be directly linked to work – an MBA, or education course, say. Now, I think there is lots of merit in studying those courses (I work on an MA in Online and Distance Education after all), but I also feel there is real value in studying something that is completely unrelated, and that gives you some sense of that vulnerability again. There is much of value for an educator in appreciating that anew.

I like assessment, Goddammit!

writing an essay

I’m studying an Art History Masters with the OU at the moment, so I’m going to do a couple of quick posts related to that. I’ll talk about it in general terms in the next post, but wanted to focus on one aspect at then moment, which is assessment.

Assessment has a bad press these days. If you want to be a hipster in the ed tech world, and get lost of cool keynote invites where you say ‘out of the box’ things, then a pretty good line to take is “we should do away with all assessment”. The general feeling is that as soon as you start to assess something you kill it, people start to respond to the assessment rather than learning ‘naturally’, it is a control technique, etc. Let the learner be free.

Okay, I’m being a tad sarcastic, but you’ll have seen this kind of thing floating around on blogs, twitter and at conferences. It’s a trendy thing to say. Assessment is for squares. And it is likely true that we over assess children, particularly in the UK, and that a lot of assessment is boring and deemed irrelevant.

But learners quite like assessment, it motivates them, and helps them structure their learning. They are operating in an alien landscape often, and assessment acts like a map. If they follow these paths they will reach the goal. Often I feel that the anti-assessment voices are based on their own experience, of being confident, experienced learners, and are not really focused on what learners themselves like. It is also an excellent way to give, and receive, feedback.

Which brings me on to my experience (to be guilty of what I just accused others of doing). I’m studying Art History, a domain I know very little about, so although I’m an experienced learner, I’m a newbie in this landscape. I feel quite lost a lot of the time. The forums help a bit, the material is well written and structured. But the assessment is the key. These have been just standard essays so far, nothing radical. But in doing them I have engaged with different material, been forced to structure my thoughts and got to grips with key concepts. I’m just about to submit my second assignment (2,500 words on the concept of style in art history). I did okay on my first assignment, and that was important to find out, that I can do this. I’m also, despite all I know about education (or maybe because of it) not a great student. Assessment is the key manner in which I structure what I have to do, without it I would have wandered away and not come back.

The role of assessment is particularly important for distance students who don’t have a lecturer engaging with them regularly. Maybe in the Oxbridge small tutor group model, you can have less assessment because you have such regular interaction, but for distance ed, it’s vital, which is why the OU made it such a central component of their supported open learning model (soon to be rediscovered by a MOOC company near you). I know a lot of assessment is boring, but just wanted to give it a thumbs up from a learner perspective. Essays are useful – who knew?

The future of blogging is blogging

I need to learn to do a selfie face…

Another of my annual goals was to write one blog post a week. Unlike the books and film challenge, I fell short with this one, with 48 posts (including this one, may do another one yet). But I definitely upped my blogging game this year. It had rather drifted the past couple of years, and making myself write a post a week got me back into the habit. And I relearnt all the things I had discovered in those early years of blogging, such as the small, incidental thoughts are worth getting out there, that once you’re in the habit it becomes easier, that you can’t predict what will connect with people and, most importantly, this is where the fun stuff happens. Still.

I think there is a mixture of feelings about blogging, and edublogging in particular. These include nostalgia (it’s not as good as it used to be), disappointment (it didn’t revolutionise the world like we thought it would), fatigue (this austerity, work hard all the time, continually monitored stuff has just taken it all out of me), and embarrassment (who does blogging now, Grandad?).

There is something in all of these. I know blogging isn’t like it used to be. It isn’t 2005 anymore, and those early years were very exciting, full of possibility and novelty. But just because it isn’t what it was, doesn’t mean it isn’t what it is. And that is interesting in its own way, some of the old flush is still there, plus a new set of possibilities. Blogging is both like it used to be, and a completely different thing. For example, it’s like it used to be in that you can still post a half-baked thought and get supportive, thought-provoking comments. See my personality of education post for a good example of this. It wasn’t very well written or thought through, but the quality of the comments (71 of them!) was exceptional. An example of how it’s different is that it has a greater respectability now, and being a blogger isn’t just something for Canadians with too much time on their hands to indulge in.

I have more reservations about this online space, and encouraging others to engage in it, than I used to. One can no longer claim it is necessarily a friendly, supportive space. But I still find the edublogosphere the place to explore thoughts, and to engage in conversations that are more meaningful, intelligent and challenging than any other place, including physical venues such as conferences. One significant impact of the maturity of the edublogosphere is that those initial online friendships have grown into working collaborations, friendships, community. This year I met up with lots of great people, some I knew through other means, but the following are people who I all met online initially: Brian Lamb, Alan Levine, Audrey Watters, Jim Groom, Josie Fraser, Joyce Setzinger, David Wiley, Maha Bali, Tom Woodward, Clint Lalonde, Catherine Cronin, Stephen Downes, George Veletsianos… I could go on. That is an influential group of practitioners.

So, no the edublogosphere isn’t what it was. And that’s just great. Becoming a blogger is still the best academic decision I ever made.

A year of films – the good, the bad & the unsubstantiated

Continuing my review of my annual goals, my last post looked at my ‘book a week’ challenge, this one will see how I fared with my ‘cinema visit a week’ challenge. Warning: Not ed tech related and may contain occasional swears.

First up, I rather early on decided it didn’t have to be an actual cinema visit. I watched films in a variety of ways: cinema, on an aeroplane, via on demand, etc. But it did have to be a film on current release. I watch a lot of films, so I probably saw three times this number of other movies. I just about managed it, with a couple of weeks where I was playing catch-up. I belong to a film group on Facebook, so would sometimes post reviews of films I’d seen there, which is where I’ve drawn the notes from this post from.

The Bad

I’ll start off with the stinkers, because actually these are more fun to write about.

  • My film year started in the worst possible way with The Hobbit: Is this still going on? This was probably the worst film I saw all year. My notes after seeing it read: Utter shit. Wonky CGI (those goats on the mountain look like Oliver Postgate’s Ivor the Engine), disastrous attempt at humour, Billy Connolly FFS, and just endless boring battles with no tension. Peter Jackson’s George Lucas moment
  • Jupiter Ascending: Imagine that ‘Dodgy Mike’ down the pub had a great idea for a film based on a ‘really great’ dream he had. Imagine a studio gave him the money to make that film. Jupiter Ascending is that film. Dodgy Mike’s script wasn’t as original as he thought, it ended up being a poor mishmash of clichés and half remembered comic strips. Dodgy Mike didn’t have an ear for dialogue it transpires, or any concept of good characterization. The resulting film was bad – predictably, laughably bad. It featured Chris Pine with a Bo Selecta chin and Eddie Raymond pretending to be Sting in Dune. The BAFTA committee asked for their award back.
    BTW – I saw this in 4DX. It means your seat shakes, your back is pummelled, water is squirted in your face and smoke billows around the screen. This does not make you feel ‘in’ the film but rather makes you stop watching the film as you fear being tipped from your seat. It adds nothing, apart from £10 to the ticket price, to the viewing experience. All the buttock rumbling in the seat made me want to poo.
  • Birdman: The character Greg Lindley Jones in Extras was simply described in the casting call as “smug c**t with a punchable face”. That’s pretty much how I felt about this film as a whole.
  • Monsters 2: OMFG, it’s a mess. Had the director even seen the first Monsters? It’s like making Apocalypse Now 2 as a Michael Bay film.
    So there are Monsters still but they’re in the Middle East now. This has caused insurgents to start shooting people (I didn’t quite get why) so US army is required to kill insurgents & monsters (I didn’t quite get why). All of the characters are despicable – I think we’re supposed to admire the realism, but you just want them all to die. So we have them going on patrols, getting ambushed by insurgents and occasionally a monster thrown in. My theory is they had a script for an Iraq/Afghanistan film and one for Monsters 2 and a studio exec went “somebody put these two together”. It’s genius – it’ll get the Hurt Locker AND the sci fi crowd in!
  • Pixels: Part of an occasional series in which I am forced to see movies I know are shit, and they do indeed, turn out to be shit. Adam Sandler is some form of anti-comedy matter, everything he touches turns to non-laughs. This is just awful, it is of course, completely formulaic but even beyond that it is like watching a team of expensive medics relentlessly try and beat life into a long dead corpse. It becomes embarrassing to watch. The base idea is actually quite interesting and in the right hands (think Joe Cornish or Edgar Wright) it might have been a fun, nerdy, playful film. But it’s not. Really, really not. By the end everyone looks increasingly desperate to get at least one laugh from this bloated, soulless, stinker.

The Good

But there were some gems out there too. Here are ten films I really liked and would recommend if you haven’t caught them. I think my tastes are for good blockbuster or quirky independent:

  • Mad Max – a pleasure to see something done so right, it makes you realize how badly portrayal of women is in 90% of blockbusters, and might be a game changer.
  • NightCrawler – This could have been just an ok thriller but is much more, Gyllenhaal’s creepy character elevating it to Travis Bickle type status.
  • It Follows – I like the slow pacing, the genuine sense of dread & the 80s Carpenteresque soundtrack.
  • Wild Tales – I’m not sure it really says anything deep about revenge, but each story is nicely complete, like a good book of short stories, so just one to enjoy
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – sustained shots, B&W, strong visual concept and quirky humour. It shows that with a limited budget you can create something very striking. And the cat steals the final scene
  • Kumiko Treasure Hunter – Beautifully shot and quirky, this explores loneliness, obsession and the role of film
  • Tale of Tales – This might be a masterpiece. It’s too long by some distance, but is really an excuse to put amazing imagery on screen.
  • Straight Outta Compton – This stood as a story on its own as a movie and also a good slice of cultural life (the FBI getting excited about Fuck tha police seems ridiculous now, but also never more relevant). Can’t think of a better band biopic.
  • Amy – Struck through with pathos as one knows the final outcome and all the missed opportunities to intervene, but also a sense of inevitability
  • Crimson Peak – This has many flaws, the plot is a bit silly, it lacks the brooding menace of say, The Haunting, but I loved it despite the problems that many others have highlighted. It lacks the suspense or horror it should have, but it comes down to this: do you like movies where the big double doors of a crumbling mansion are blown open, framing the heroine as snow blows in? I do.

The Unsubstantiated

Some trends I made up based on very little evidence are the following:

  • Decent music films – there have been a few music biopics that have bombed recently (eg. Get On Up, Jersey Boys), but there were a few very good ones this year that steered away from being either overly pretentious (I can’t tell you how much I hated I’m Not There) or just straightforward, life story. So with Amy, Straight Outta Compton and Love and Mercy we had films that showed ways you can approach the subject in a way that appeals to not only fans, but stand as a good movie in their own right.
  • Indie-westerns – slow-paced, beautifully shot, well acted, elegiac westerns seem to come out and disappear without much notice. But I think actors, directors and cinematographers like making them. I can watch them all day long, and this year we had Slow West, Salvation and Bone Tomahawk.
  • Portmanteau revival – I LOVE a portmanteau film. I have bored many friends (okay, two, but that is half my full complement) with how great I think The Dead of Night is. This year we had two excellent portmanteau movies, both with Tale in the title: Tale of Tales and Wild Tales. I hope it sparks a portmanteau revival.
  • The best action heroes are women – with the likes of Chastain, Blunt, Theron and Lawrence at the top of their game, it seems that if you want an intelligent thriller, ignore the blokes (male action films tended to be all in the crash, bang, mode). I hope this is part of a longer term shift and not a Hollywood fashion thing (women are ‘in’ this year, next year, they’re ‘out’).

In the end this year ended up like every other year – quite decent. Every year I hear people bemoan the lack of good quality films, but then you look through and there’s always a clutch of excellent films, and maybe even some great ones. Here is the list of all 50 (at the time of blogging) films I saw, with a meaningless score out of 10 for each:

The Hobbit – 2
The Imitation Game – 6
Nightcrawler – 9
Ex Machina – 7.5
Inherent Vice – 6
Jupiter Ascending – 4
Birdman – 4
Enemy – 7
Pride – 7
Paddington – 6
Monsters 2 – 3
Starred Up – 6
Insurgent – 5
It Follows – 7.5
Exodus – 4.5
A Most Violent Year – 7
Montage of Heck – 5
Wild Tales – 8.5
Avengers: Age of Ultron – 3
Big Game – 4.5
Mad Max – 9
‘71 – 7
Lost River – 7
Jurassic World – 6
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – 8
Mr Holmes – 6.5
Terminator Genisys – 6
Slow West – 7.5
Salvation – 7
Inside Out – 7.5
Kumiko treasure hunter – 8
Pixels – 2
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – 5
Tale of Tales – 8.5
TomorrowLand – 5
Legend – 6
Straight Outta Compton – 7.5
Everest – 5.5
Cop Car – 5.5
Me and Earl and the Dying girl – 5
Amy – 7.5
The Martian – 7.5
World of Kanako – 7
Bone Tomahawk – 7
Love and Mercy – 6
The End of the Tour – 6
Mockinjay – 5.5
Spectre – 5
Crimson Peak – 7.5
Krampus – 7

A year in books, with pointless charts

At the start of the year, I set myself a number of goals, so by way of end of year round-up, I’m going to review how I’ve done against these. I realise this is a) self-indulgent and b) of absolutely no interest to anyone else, but hey, blogging. First up, my goal of reading a book a week.

I enjoyed Jane Rawson’s post at the end of last year “My year in books, unnecessarily charted“, so thought I’d just do a wholesale copy of that idea, rather than, you know, anything original. I set myself the goal of reading a book a week. This sounds easy, but days soon get away from you and the it’s Sunday before you know it and you’ve got 200 pages to read to keep on track. I found myself choosing books (or rather eliminating books from my choice) by page numbers. I was in an airport once and needed a new book, so went along the limited range, giving them a squeeze to detect length and rejecting any bulky ones. But having the target was useful, it has got me back into reading in a way I haven’t been for years. I was an avid reader as a youngster (I remember being told off for reading “too much”), but other stuff comes along and you find that you’re only reading 10 or so books a year.

So how did I do? Well, it’s not quite the end of the year, but I think I’ve got two lined up, so that will make the full 52. That is a good chunk of books. What I liked about this approach was that I would go into unexpected areas. As the charts show, I don’t cover a lot of genres, but for instance, I re-read a couple of (thankfully short) sci-fi classics, as well as a couple of literary classics I had not actually gotten around to reading before.

The full list of books is at the end. My top 10 for books I’ve read this year (not books that have come out this year) is below. I excluded books that were re-reads (so Hemingway, Vonnegut aren’t included). They are in order of date read, rather than preference:

  • H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald
  • The Princess Bride – William Goldman
  • Under The Net – Iris Murdoch
  • The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
  • Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
  • How to be both – Ali Smith
  • The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
  • Frankenstein – Mary Shelly
  • The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
  • Let me be Frank with you – Richard Ford

Here is the breakdown by genre:

You can see I’m mainly a literary fiction kinda guy, but it was nice to dabble in some other genres. I particularly enjoyed reading well written, but nonetheless quite light, crime novels (Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie). I could do this without feeling ‘guilty’ as they provided a nice counterbalance to other more worthy literature.

Looking at authors by gender:

It’s almost equal, but I’m actually surprised at how many male authors there were. My impression as I went through the year was that it was about equal, if not more women. Certainly when I think back, it was mainly books written by women that had the strongest impression – if I had to choose one book I read this year, it would probably be The Poisonwood Bible, and of books published this year How to be Both and The Paying Guests were my favourites.

What format did I choose to read them in?

Kindle was really convenient for this goal, although one does become obsessed with percentage completed figure (“I’ve got to read 38% this evening!”). But I liked purchasing the occasional physical book too. I think this percentage will probably remain for me.

Lastly, how many were re-reads, and how many new:

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority were new reads, but it was nice to go back to some books that I read probably as a teenager. Some of this stood up well (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), and others not so well (maybe I’ve read it too many times, but I found Slaughterhouse 5 quite irritating).

I’m not sure I’ll repeat it next year, it would be nice to have the luxury of reading some longer books. But I may set myself a goal or restriction, eg to only read non-fiction for a year. I think when we have access to everything, creating our own restrictions forces us down new avenues, which can be enlightening. For the record here are the ones from this year:

An Introduction to English Poetry – James Fenton
50 Ways of Looking at a Poem – Ruth Padell
Stoner – John Williams
The Black Echo – Michael Connolly
H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald
Tigers Wife – Tea Obreht
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman – PD James
Elisabeth is missing – Emma Healy
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
The Children Act – Ian McEwan
Cover Her Face – PD James
The 6th Extinction – Elizabeth Kolbert
Bedsit Disco Queen – Tracey Thorn
Girl in a Band – Kim Gordon
The Greek Myths – Robert Graves
The Hunters – James Salter
Tropic of Hockey – David Baldini
An exquisite sense of what is beautiful – J David Simons
The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin
Under The Net – Iris Murdoch
The Game – Ken Dryden
Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes
A Man Lay Dead – Ngaio Marsh
The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
The Establishment – Owen Jones
The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
The Old Man & The Sea – Hemingway
A Moveable Feast – Hemingway
Ragtime – E L Doctorow
Methods & Theories of Art History – Anne D’Alleva
A Jeeves Omnibus – PG Wodehouse
The Bell – Iris Murdoch
The Princess Bride – William Goldman
Snows of Kilimanjaro – Hemingway
Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith
The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance – Edmund de Waal
Murder at the Vicarage – Agatha Christie
Master of the Day of Judgement – Leo Perutz
W or the Memory of Childhood – Georges Perec
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
How to be both – Ali Smith
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Philip K Dick
Knots and Crosses – Ian Rankin
Enter a Murderer – Ngaio Marsh
Frankenstein – Mary Shelly
Let me be Frank with you – Richard Ford
Hide & Seek – Ian Rankin
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
A Far Cry From Kensington – Muriel Spark
A Dumb Witness – Agatha Christie

2016 – the year of MOOC hard questions

The Clones are breaking in to the Super Mario block

We had 2012 as the year of the MOOC, 2014 was probably the year of the MOOC maturation, and I’m calling it for 2016, the year that university Vice Chancellors and Principals start looking and saying “what are we getting for our investment again?”

This critical questioning has started somewhat, but largely money and university cooperation is still flowing. But I think we’ll have had long enough in 2016 to see if those investments have paid off. Here are five key areas that I predict we’ll see reported on, and will cause an investment rethink:

  • MOOC education won’t be as cheap as envisaged – now we are seeing pricing models for MOOCs, it turns out that in order to amass enough credits for a degree, you’d end up paying quite a lot. The OU charges £15,000 for a full 360 point degree. That gives you tutor support, a whole dedicate support system, purposely designed material, and highly valued, recognised award. It’s difficult to match credit points with MOOCs, as they’re not couched in that way. But let’s say the Coursera specialisations are similar – currently their data science one is £307. You’d probably need about 12 of these to match a degree, so getting towards £4K. Still a lot cheaper, but you wouldn’t get a student loan, would lack all that support and they’re not really recognised. Maybe that price difference is sufficient, but it certainly isn’t the “educate the world for free” model.
  • Producing MOOCs is expensive – initially, and rather naively, many thought MOOCs would be cheap to produce (like they thought e-learning would be cheap back in the late 1990s). Surprise! They’re not that cheap, particularly because unis often want them to be showcase products, rather than small scale experiments. This report put the cost between $152K and $244K. That racks up if you’re producing a lot of MOOCs.
  • They’re not effective recruitment avenues – there’s lots of articles about how MOOCs could drive recruitment for universities, but little data on how many actual registrations they have led to. They have had long enough now to see whether they are effective marketing tools, and can compare them against other outlets (eg advertising) in pure dollars spent per recruited student. I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect we’ll start to see that they are not that effective. At the OU we found that iTunes U for instance was very ineffective at driving traffic to the university itself, because the iTunes brand trumped the University one effectively. This was very different for OpenLearn, which was all about the OU and much more effective. I think a similar ‘MOOC platform trumps university brand’ battle may arise with MOOCs.
  • They’re not reaching the desired audiences – there has been much made of the typical demographic of MOOCs being highly qualified, independent learners from a well off background. This has been rather embarrassing for the whole “democratise education” rhetoric, as it may actually increase inequality. It might have been supposed to be an initial effect – these are the types of people who are early adopters and it will the diffuse to other populations. We now have had long enough to see if this occurring. Maybe it is, but I haven’t seen any research to that effect.
  • It may be a zero sum game – related to the previous point, on their initial presentation a MOOC may get high numbers of enrolments but this then usually decreases for subsequent ones. Many learners take multiple MOOCs. So once you’ve got the hardcore MOOCers, and those with a particular interest in that subject, not many new learners are there to be found. The MOOC business model will rely on large numbers across multiple presentations.

I’m not predicting MOOCs will disappear. I think what the above indicates is that MOOCs will need to be targeted to meet very specific aims and audiences. Whether this more finessed approach is viable with the external, commercially driven enterprises who rely on a continual intake of new courses and learners remains to be seen. As with OER, which is somewhat ahead of MOOCs in terms of maturity, they will need to adapt to meet the goals of the sector, and reflect on those initial claims. I would argue that anyone developing MOOCs now looks at these 5 factors (at least) and ensures that they have answers for them. Sorry MOOC companies, I think the honeymoon is over.

Open Ed – All growed up

IMG_5806 (1)
(Open ed is not about two teams battling it out. Plus – ice hockey!)

Following on from my previous post, another reflection on the OpenEd conference.

I went to two types of presentations – I’ll label them “hardcore research”, and “philosophy of open” to make distinctions, but I don’t mean to imply research is not involved in the second type. In the hardcore research group there were some excellent presentations from Rajiv, Tidewater college, and the Z-degree projects. I’ve labelled these hardcore research, because they did all those things you’d want to control for in examining the impact of OER. They tested pre-knowledge, controlled for demographic effects, compared across control groups, etc. When we started the OER Research Hub this type of research was noticeably absent. Indeed, it’s absence was the raison d’être for the hub – both to try and conduct it, but also to raise the profile for the need for such research. So, I was really excited to see this kind of work now coming through.

The “philosophy of open” type of presentation included ones from Rolin Moe, and Amy Collier. Here the analysis was on the movement itself, what does openness mean, and openness more generally beyond the open textbook or one off case studies.

There wasn’t conflict between these two camps, but I sensed that people had a preference for one or the other. Rob has pondered if there are two emerging cultures in open ed that these two types of talk represent. I think it is a sign that the field is maturing. We shouldn’t forget that Open Education (with relation to OER) is a new field (although open and distance ed is a much older one). Both of these types of talk are what we might expect as a field develops. The initial few years are often characterised by projects, case studies, advocacy, implementation. The research is usually small scale and local, and can be questionable, since most of the budget and focus is spent on actually developing content. But as it grows we get more substantial research, but also a greater element of reflection. Are we on the right path, what are the implications of this work, what are our principles here, what assumptions have we left unchallenged? These are all the right sort of questions to be asking.

I like being part of an emerging discipline, it’s exciting, and you get to witness these sort of transformations over a short period. I hope though that these two emerging cultures don’t diverge, and we end up with separate “sociology of openness” and “open ed efficacy research” conferences. Both groups benefit from the presence of the other, and it enriches the field overall. Come on, group hug.

You yell barracuda


I went to OpenEd in Vancouver a couple of weeks back (well done Clint, Amanda and the team for an excellent conference), so thought I’d do a quick couple of posts before I disappeared beneath a morass of mince pies and end of year lists.

My colleague Rob Farrow wrote an excellent piece on the two cultures he saw emerging which he labelled “colonizers and edupunks“, with colonizers seeking to move into the established higher ed system (eg with open textbooks) and edupunks desiring a more wholesale change (eg in pedagogy, or assessment). This followed a theme from many of the conversations I had, and blog posts since the conference. Rolin Moe talks of the context paradox, Rajiv Jhangiani examines how we should consider open textbooks as just one step along a path, and Robin DeRosa kicked the whole thing off when she blogged her disappointment at the over-emphasis on open textbooks at the conference.

I share some of the reservations about the dominance of open textbook work. The open textbook is a particularly North American instantiation of what OER means. I do get the argument that open textbooks are a gateway drug, one that educators can understand quickly and see how it fits into their course. To paraphrase one of my favourite lines from my favourite film: ” You yell OER, everybody says, “Huh? What?” You yell open textbook, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July”. People get it and once they adopt it, they will start to see the benefits of open.

My reservation is by analogy with the LMS (again) – this was meant to be a convenient stepping stone on the path to the wider possibilities of elearning. Instead it became elearning. Conceptually and practically people and institutions found it hard to move beyond this. We shouldn’t let the open textbook become the LMS of open education. I was heartened though by a lot of the work I saw, particularly from Tidewater college. They had adopted open textbooks as part of the Z-degree, but what this had really allowed them to do was to transform their curriculum. They had created what, in effect, were distance learning courses, not unlike an OU course. Completely online, with lots of guidance for the learners, all the material they required was provided and it linked very closely to the learning outcomes. They had significant improvements in retention and performance. What this highlighted was that the traditional textbook is actually not that great a teaching tool anyway – either it doesn’t match what you want to teach or you bend what you want to teach to fit it. The zero cost open textbooks allowed Tidewater to create these types of courses however, which are usually prohibitively expensive to construct (just ask any university that thought it could knock together a MOOC cheaply).

This type of transformation is more significant than the OER part in the equation, but it is the type of change that OER permits. I hope we’ll continue to see more of this type of work emerging.

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