Flexibility as a key benefit of open

Fringe on the Mile 2016 0203

I was at a posh event in London last week, hosted by the Open University (I even wore a tie, people!). It was launching an OU report “Bridging the Digital Divide” which looks at some of the skills gaps in employment and how education can address these. It’s a good report, which avoids the trite “60% of jobs haven’t been invented yet” type statement and builds on some solid evidence.

As I chatted to Dames and Lords and fiddled with my tie, I reflected on that what is needed for many of these future employment scenarios is flexibility. This comes in various forms, and people often talk about personalisation but it is more about institutional and opportunity flexibility that is important. And this is where open education in its many guises has a lot to offer. I am not falling in to the trap of suggesting that the sole function of education is to gain or improve employment, but it is one aspect of the purpose of education. So, let me count the ways in which open education provides flexibility:

  • Mode of study – obviously one of the big innovations of the OU was to create a distance education, part time model that worked. Being able to study anywhere, and at your own time makes the whole prospect of study much more flexible. This is within some constraints, eg course start and end dates, assignment submissions, some collaborative activities. Complete flexibility may not always be advantageous but, this type of flexible mode opens it up to people who need to work or care and study simultaneously.
  • Pattern of study – as well as being able to study a course in a flexible manner, the period over which this occurs can be flexible in an open model. You can pause study, or just take one or two modules as you need. It is not a 3 year degree or nothing. However, if economies want this type of flexible learning then fee structures need to accommodate it, and our current UK fee system and associated metrics (eg TEF) is heavily geared towards the complete degree.
  • Degree structure – another aspect of openness is the Open Degree, whereby students can create their own degree structure, by selecting the modules they wish to study. In a shifting job market having a broad range of skills could well meet the needs better than specialisms.
  • Elements of learning – open education realised through MOOCs, OER and informal learning allows for a greater flexibility in what we recognise, different size chunks, and quicker responses.
  • Course production – use of OER & open textbooks to create courses, or accrediting MOOCs allows institutions to be more flexible in the courses they can provide, to suit changing needs.
  • Learner needs – while I am dubious of many of the claims for personalisation in learning, having multiple ways to approach a topic for many learners is undoubtedly useful. It has been prohibitively expensive to do this when you are creating courses from scratch (why produce three times the amount of content you need?), but entirely possible when you utilise OER.
  • Context – by using open content, it can be adapted by learners or specific communities to their context, which may well suit the needs of employers.

There are of course, many other reasons to study, and many other reasons to adopt open approaches, including learner satisfaction, performance, ethics, ownership, identity, dissemination, etc. However, if we constrain ourselves in this instance to look at the employment perspective then open ed makes a pretty good claim to being the route through which the type of flexibility we will need can be realised. In the new vein of open education however, the first three of these don’t really get mentioned, which is why I think we need to bring the strands of open ed together.

IET, the OU and identity

We had cake!

This week we held a celebration to mark 50 years of the Institute of Educational Technology, and also to say goodbye to a colleague who has been immensely influential for me and IET, namely Patrick McAndrew. I’m going to work both of these together into a post about institutional memory, history and greek mythology.

First up, some history of IET. I’ve blogged this before, but in being asked to do a short presentation (see below), I reflected on how educational technology was not some after thought or something that grew out of interest after a few years. It was embedded and deemed essential to the OU from the outset. The recommendation of the consultants who advised on the establishment of an Applied Educational Sciences Unit in 1969 stated that “emphasis was laid upon creating a staff that incorporated not only academic personnel distinguished in their respective disciplines, but also staff with special skills in all the methods of educational technology.” Bear in mind this is not ed tech as we know it now, but paper, assessment, TV, summer schools.

What this highlights is how central educational technology is, and was, to the OU’s operation. Appreciating the significance of people who might now carry titles such as instructional designer, learning technologist, learning designer or educational technologist and placing them on an equal footing to academics was as revolutionary as anything else the OU did. Here is my presentation:

(brief) history of IET from Martin Weller

Now, a brief complaint – I joined IET from the Technology Faculty in 2002. Since then we have been reviewed five times, been put in with different units, had our name toyed with, our priorities changed. The initial aim for IET was very clear. The approval to make the applied educational science unit permanent as IET in 1970, stated that it would:

“A group of educational technologists has been established within the University to assist in setting up, refining and extending the unusual instructional system to be employed. The instructional resources at our disposal (written texts, radio, television, study centres, regional tutorials, summer schools, etc.) should be developed in due course to have the following characteristics:

They will all have been extensively tested and validated on representative samples of students and volunteers.

They will make provision for individual differences, by permitting some choice of route and rate towards the course objectives.

They will utilise the various media and supporting services to best advantage.

They will demand participation from the student, and will provide him with frequent assessments of his progress.

They will provide the Course Teams with continuous diagnostic feedback as a basis for remedial guidance, revision and recycling.

Not only is that a reasonably clear list of objectives, it would also be a pretty good set of actions for the Institute now. IET has (I think) an excellent reputation externally, and some of the best ed tech researchers in the country with expertise in learning analytics, AI, mobile learning, assessment and open education. But these continual reviews and restructuring play with that at their peril. They are also enormously time-consuming and distracting.

Amateur philosophy time!

Which brings me on to Patrick’s departure. Under the previous VC there was a voluntary severance scheme introduced. So toxic had the environment become under that regime that many people have availed themselves of it, even though things have now improved. So many of my colleagues and friends have left over the past 6 months that I wonder if I will be the only left sometimes – we are witnessing the equivalent of a Thanos finger snap on campus.

There is a thought experiment about identity that you probably know, namely the Ship of Theseus. Upon returning from his labours, the ship of Theseus is kept in the harbour as a monument, but it must also be kept sea-ready. So over the years, planks are replaced, until eventually no original planks remain. Is it still the same ship is the question? According to Aristotle it is, because its form and purpose remain the same. If, as the planks were replaced they had reshaped it into a tower, then it wouldn’t be. The rate of change may also be significant, because it happens gradually there is no definite point where it ceases to be the old ship and becomes the new.

The same is true of organisations (yes, people as planks). The OU of 2019 is still identified as the same organisation because its purpose and approach have remained the same, even if actual buildings and most personnel have changed. But also, there has been continuity in staff over this time. The radical removal of many key staff in one stage is not catastrophic, but it worries at that notion of identity.

This is not to set change and constancy in competition. Both are essential (the ship would have rotted and fallen into the harbour if those planks were not replaced), but we often fetishise change and downgrade constancy. I acknowledge that simply having been here a long time is not sufficient in itself, us old timers need to be contributing too – I’m not suggesting the OU pays me for sitting in a rocking chair and occasionally barking out acronyms of long forgotten projects (although I am game for this if they are willing). But at the meeting this week it was clear how much we haven’t recorded of things we’ve tried, what worked, how to get things done, etc.

My takeaway I guess is firstly be wary of the type of wholesale change culture that was undertaken by our previous VC, which caused so many people to feel that leaving was an option. You toy with the devotion people have to an institution at your peril, because once they give themselves permission to think about leaving, it becomes inevitable. Secondly, to recognise value in what you have, because as I concluded in my talk, if we didn’t have an IET we’d now be spending a lot of money to establish one. Lastly, don’t be dismissive if you’re the newbie, I was the young guy thrusting for change when I started but, someday you’ll meet your rocking chair…


Valuing emotional intelligence

Free Hugs, Coachella 2013 -- Indio, CA

I have the real privilege of being the lead on the GO-GN project, which if you don’t know, is a global network of OER doctoral researchers. It is by far the project I get the most from, since you see the real impact it has on people. Our members often talk about how much joining GO-GN has meant to them, using phrases like ‘finding my tribe’, ‘feeling like a member of a family’, ‘I no longer felt alone’.

A very important aspect of GO-GN is helping researchers develop intellectually, such as selecting conceptual frameworks, refining their methodology, sharpening research questions, etc. But, as the quotes above indicate, as important (if not more) is the emotional component of the project. Recently our fantastic Project Manager, Natalie Eggleston, left the OU, and this has made me reflect on the significance of this role. I’m sure all GO-GN members would acknowledge how significant the contribution is of people like Nats, and also the members themselves who offer this support to each other.

GO-GN is a project that supports doctoral researchers, and it’s a cliche but nonetheless true, that a PhD is a personal journey. So maybe the emotional aspect is greater in our project than others, but I would argue that is a vital element in all projects. If you’re conducting a European research on, say, credentialing guidelines for informal learning across Europe, then the manner in which those project partners connect with each other will have a significant impact on the overall performance of the project.

Yet, emotional intelligence is rarely an acknowledged part of any project. In truth, it’s easier to replace me in GO-GN than Natalie. Part of the problem is that measuring non-emotional stuff is easier. This brings us back to the issue around recognising certain types of labour because we can measure them, and (surprise!) the work that is less well recognised is often more likely to be undertaken by women. What is the KPI for emotional support – Number of hugs given?

I don’t have a solution to this (that seems to be a common refrain on here), but I want to recognise the contribution of people like Natalie who are often not those listed on publications, and the significance of emotional intelligence in a project.

Open Unis & Open Ed

Sometimes you read a post that encapsulates something you’ve been worrying at for a while. I had such an experience the other day when I read Tannis Morgan’s account of my own inaugural. In it, Tannis asks “But here’s the thing: how many people in the OER community in North America even know that Canada has three open universities, all of which were modelled after the UK Open University? And to what extent are open universities in Canada visibly inserting themselves into the broader open movement?”

The first part of her question is something I have asked more broadly on this blog. Or moaned about anyway, that the open ed movement as more commonly conceptualised in North America (OERs, Open textbooks, MOOCs) is largely ignorant of much of the open education movement that arose elsewhere in the form of open universities. But it is the second part of her question that struck home. Open universities globally have perhaps been guilty of being a bit aloof from engaging in the new emergent open education movement.

And there is mutual benefit in this exchange. For the OER/open ed movement there is much to learn regarding supporting diverse students, widening access to education (what is the aim of open ed after all?), developing education material that can be studied independently, understanding the needs of non-traditional learners, etc. But for open universities there is also much to gain. The new open ed movement has been more technologically driven, and the use of tools such as annotation, open textbooks etc can be used for traditional open ed students too. Similarly, there is innovation around open pedagogy, decolonising the curriculum, student agency, means of improving equity for students, and so on.

Bringing these two variations of open ed together more meaningfully then is worth pursuing. Tannis has done a lot of the heavy lifting in this area, but we can’t leave it all to her. This has helped me frame my own focus for the next phase of my work. As I mentioned an earlier post, I am now the Chair of the Open Degree Programme at the OU. This can be seen as old interpretation open ed, but I think it has potential to bridge into the new version also. Whether that’s the push for adoption of open textbooks, a domain of one’s own, open pedagogy etc in house is yet to be determined, but also the translation of open degree programmes in arenas where it could be a useful device. In short, I’m going to stand around at OpenEd/OER conferences with a badge saying “Ask me about Open Universities” and at Distance Ed conferences with one saying “Ask me about OER”.

Academicing with depression

D and Me

I’m going to blog some thoughts on being an academic with mild depression – I have no framing if that constitutes a big revelation or a ‘whateva’ moment, but thought I’d write it anyway. I say mild, I know it’s not a competition, and I know people who have really severe, debilitating illness far worse than mine. While I don’t suffer from bipolar or to anywhere near the same degree as Carrie Fisher, I can relate to her statement that “Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like weather—independently of whatever’s going on in your life.” While a bout can be caused by some (often trivial) trigger, it is soon not about that trigger, but rather an all pervasive degradation of mood, energy, focus. Luckily for me this period is rarely longer than a day or so, not prolonged, but could be deep when it came, and increasingly frequent.

Mine has always come and gone, I had been a pretty depressed teenager (but back then it was diagnosed as “being a miserable shit”), and while I’m of a melancholic disposition (I have the Joy Division & Smiths albums as evidence), I had mostly been ok through most of my adult life. In quick succession though I experienced divorce, combined with predictable mid-life crisis, living through Brexit crisis and then OU crisis, which led to a serious slump. I figured this was a reasonable, almost inevitable reaction.

But it persisted after the cause had faded and with increasing frequency and depth. I’m no expert but Yuval Noah Harari’s analogy in Sapiens resonated with me – we all have an internal air conditioning system (based on serotonin levels). For some people it ranges from 7 to 10, while others are set lower, say 4 to 6. This was what it felt like for me, if my normal range was, say, 5 to 8, it had now been recalibrated to 3 to 6. Then a couple of years ago it culminated when I found myself crying in Amsterdam Schiphol airport for no reason (although on reflection that may in fact be a perfectly reasonable reaction to Schiphol), and decided I should do something about it. I went onto some low dosage Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors. I appreciate that antidepressants are a contentious issue, but they worked for me. It felt like times when I might have previously gone into a spiral, my mood dipped down, bumped along the surface of that pit and then carried on.

But they made me kinda lethargic too, so I came off them at the start of this year. I felt my internal air conditioning levels had been reset. By the way, coming off them gives some trippy brain zaps for about a week. And mostly that’s been good, but I had a dip a few weeks ago, as if to just remind me “hey, I’m still here.”

Not so famous five

I believe that it’s different for everyone, and a lot will depend on individual circumstances, so this is no ‘how to’ guide. I deliberately haven’t made myself an expert in depression, so it’s just some tales from a sample of N=1. Here then are five thoughts on being an academic with this occasional problem.

I found that some of the bad stuff is also good – for example, the much talked about work-life balance, with people working at weekends being a contributory factor. That was true, I really needed to force myself to switch off. However, I have a pretty strong Protestant Work Ethic thing going on, so I feel guilty if I haven’t done the work I should do, particularly if that is a result of having a slow day due to depression. So sometimes, fitting in 3 hours on a Saturday morning clearing some tasks was a real benefit and alleviated rather than contributed to slump. It also made ‘having a slow day’ more bearable as I knew I could catch up, so I could afford to indulge it for a day often.

Now, let’s talk dogs, I had always loved dogs, but I didn’t appreciate how much of a boon they were. Seriously, dogs should be available on the NHS. The unconditional love is a much needed boost, but also, as a home worker, having a dog means I have to get out every day. With Teilo, my current dog, this is about 5 miles a day. The amount of times I have been heading for a slump, taken him out in the forest (often listening to a good audiobook) and by the time I come back, it has all shifted. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that my previous dog, Bruno, saved my life. But a dog is a commitment, so I would ask indulgence from work colleagues when I sometimes have to arrange things around my dog (I don’t like going away for more than a week for instance). I can see them thinking sometimes “it’s not a child, it’s only a dog for Chrissakes”. But it isn’t, he is doing so much more work than that, he’s putting in the hours.

Immersion in a self-enclosed, separate world was also hugely significant for me. In my case it was sports, and specifically, ice-hockey. I had an interest before then, but I really indulged it as antidote – getting a season ticket, travelling to away games, going on holidays based around it. I could make a case for why ice hockey in particular is the ideal choice, but in reality it doesn’t matter what it is – painting, music, ultra-running, volunteering – it just needs to have two components: to be entirely absorbing so you are focused solely on that enterprise; to be independent, hermetically sealed, so it stands separate from everything else. Sport is ideal at meeting these requirements – it is of course entirely trivial and pointless in the grand scheme of things, but yet if you are into it, then it is your sole focus for that duration and it allows for endless discussion, debate, and conjecture. It is also free from any connection to work or regular concerns – the people we have made friends with at hockey really don’t care about the venture capital ambitions of MOOC companies. And that’s fab.

Social media is another of those good/bad dualities. It’s been an enormous benefit to sometimes just pass an evening chatting to people online, and to have such a thoughtful, interesting network of people to make you see the best of life. But at the same time, you can start your day and have seen 50 things that make you outraged before breakfast, to which you are mentally composing responses and sustained imaginary arguments. That is a tough vale to climb out from for the rest of the day. So I have started to use with care, and sometimes mute people who are only angry, even if they are justifiably so, and I agree with them.

I’ve mentioned the drugs, and that is always a personal choice, but what going to the doctor (who was super understanding, thank you NHS GP), signified was a recognition to be proactive. Being British, male and of a certain age is a triple whammy of emotional repression, so doing something rather than ‘just getting on with it’, was a big deal. I felt better immediately after taking the first pill, and that isn’t really how they work biologically, so I know it was a psychological effect. Simply acknowledging that something could be done was in itself a cure, I’m not sure it mattered really what that thing was. Similarly, I informed a couple of line managers (who again were very supportive), and that act in itself was therapeutic. I never had to claim time off from depression (see the benefits of flexible working above, which I acknowledge is a huge privilege and many people don’t have the kind of work that allows that), but it was comforting to know that if I did, it wasn’t coming from nowhere.

All this offers no big insight I’m afraid, but for me that combination of making flexible work adapt to my advantage, having a dog, immersion into a separate world, judicious use of social media and the positive action of getting medication was an effective, if not foolproof, combatant. Mainly the dog though.

PS – I appreciate and understand that people can be sensitive about this, so just to clarify, don’t take the breezy tone of this piece to be an indication that either a) it isn’t a shitfest when it hits or b) I don’t take it seriously. It’s just how I choose to write about it.

Open as in choice

(Made with Bryan’s lovely remixer)

I’ve recently taken on a new role at the Open University, as the Chair of the Open Board of Studies. This means I’ve got responsibility for our Open Degree. When the OU was founded you could only get a BA(Open) – there were no named degrees. This was an explicit attempt by the OU’s founders to make an OU degree different not just in mode of study but in substance. Students constructed their own degree profiles, meaning our modules were truly modular, you could pick and mix as you saw fit. My colleagues Helen Cooke, Andy Lane and Peter Taylor give an excellent overview of the history, philosophy and approach of the open degree in this paper. The OU’s first VC put it like this:

a student is the best judge of what [s]he wishes to learn and that [s]he should be given the maximum freedom of choice consistent with a coherent overall pattern. They hold that this is doubly true when one is dealing with adults who, after years of experience of life, ought to be in a better position to judge what precise studies they wish to undertake

Sure, most universities offer options and electives, but a truly flexible, open choice is very rare. Specialism is of course, a desirable mode of study in many areas. But the reasoning behind the original open choice was that the changes in society and work places in the 70s meant that a wide ranging degree was suitable for many vocations. If that was true at the founding of the OU, then it is doubly so now. While we should be sceptical of the “preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet” claims, it’s fair to say that flexibility and breadth of understanding will be useful attributes in an evolving, digital economy. Let’s take my own area (field/discipline/rag tag bundle of vaguely connected ideas) of educational technology. You can create a degree programme that covers much of what you want, but actually it’s a varied domain, and half of the work involves having an understanding or appreciation of the demands of different subject areas. So a degree that has rich, and unpredictable, variety in it might well be exactly what you want for an educational technologist. And that is increasingly true for roles that evolve around tech, but are not necessarily TECH.

It is often claimed that in order to solve the complex, ‘wicked’ problems that the world faces, such as sustainability, climate change, social inclusion, then interdisciplinary thinking is required. But our degree profiles continue to prioritise narrow specialisms instead of encouraging students to develop knowledge and skills across a range of topics. This gives them empathy with other viewpoints and a broader toolkit of conceptual models.

Perhaps more significantly than the employment argument though is that constructing your own degree profile and taking responsibility for your pathway gives agency to learners. George Veletsianos asks “in education, what can be made more flexible?”, to which I would respond the whole degree structure.

Coming to this from a broader open education perspective, I see the work of OER, open textbooks, open access and MOOCs as laying the necessary groundwork for a wave of more interesting exploration around what open approaches offer. Open pedagogy and Open educational practice are examples of this. I would argue that although it is already 50 years old, the truly open choice of the OU is another one and it’s time has come round again.

Attack of the Learning Engineers

A term I’ve seen on the increase is that of “Learning Engineer”. Job descriptions using it seem to be pretty similar to a learning technologist, so maybe it’s just this year’s label. Saxberg asks “where are the learning engineers? The sad truth is, we don’t have an equivalent corps of professionals who are applying learning science at our colleges, schools, and other institutions of learning.” I get his point, what is the point of doing all this research into education if we just shrug our shoulders and go “it’s complicated.”

However, like others I have discomfort about the term. I was part of the ‘learning design’ field in the 00s, and I felt that ‘design’ captured some of the complexity around learning. Design is both a precise, technical approach but also a creative, artistic endeavour. This reflects the messiness of education, through which an educator is trying to devise an effective path for a learner.

Learning engineer has different connotations. It is in some respects an attractive term – who wouldn’t want to perfectly construct learning like a bridge from ignorance to knowledge as you reliably engineer a bridge across a river? This is not just about semantics however, but surfaces fundamental beliefs about education. For some it is a precise science, where education can be reliably and repeatedly constructed in the same manner for everyone. For others it is complex field where different approaches have desirable outcomes for some learners but not others and one that is continually negotiated. This dichotomy represents the manner in which education will be shaped in an AI/Data/Networked world. If the engineer perspective dominates (whether it is true or not is not that relevant, it’s whether the narrative becomes dominant), then education is something that can be reliably captured in algorithms. If the design perspective dominates then technology works in service to the human educator who seeks to adapt and modify educational experiences.

So, not to be overly dramatic (but yes, I am going to be overly dramatic), learning engineer vs learning designer represents the battleground for the soul of education. Choose wisely.

25 Years of EdTech book – website suggestions?


As you may know, I turned my 25 Years of Ed Tech blog series into a book manuscript over the winter. This is my 5th book (does that make me ‘a writer’ now?), and like the previous two I wanted it to be published open access. Athabasca University Press were an open access publisher I had long admired but not worked with before, so I sent the manuscript to them. AUP work slightly differently in that it is not a book idea they are commissioning but rather publishing a completed manuscript – it’s akin to journal article publishing. The manuscript was sent out for review, and bar some minor amendments, has been accepted for publication! The two reviews were anonymous, but were very diligent and useful, so my thanks to whoever they were. Also thanks to George Veletsianos and Connor Houlihan for allowing a non-maple syrup drinker onto their turf.

AUP is open access, so the book will be CC licensed, the digital version freely available. I’m not quite sure when the publication date will be, we’re just finalising the process. I intend to create a website to accompany the book, and on this I’d appreciate any thoughts. I’ll host it here on Reclaim, and I expect it’ll be a plain WP site. Bear in mind, that it’ll be me doing it with very limited tech skills and zero design aesthetic. I’ve thought of a timeline, an annotatable version and maybe a wiki timeline version to allow alternative suggestions for each of the years. But I’d appreciate any thoughts on things that might be useful or interesting? Or WP themes, plug-ins, “Site under construction” gifs… that sort of thing. I found Anne-Marie’s advice on setting up a WP site very helpful.

A core of immutability

Hay Festival sign

As part of the OU’s 50th anniversary celebrations, they have a slot at the Hay Festival, and I’ve been invited to be part of the panel.

Sorry, I tried to play that cool, but as a book nerd – I’m speaking at the freakin’ Hay Festival people!

Anyway, the premise of the panel is what will education look like in 50 years time? That’s a ridiculous notion in a way, but it does allow us to talk about how things might change. I’m bringing the ed tech angle along with my colleague Eileen Scanlon, but I’m glad the Welsh Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams, will be there also, as policy shapes this as much as technology (if not more).

It is a challenge to think about, because although I’m fairly sceptical about the claims of ed tech revolutionaries, it would be foolish to assume we won’t see some major changes in that time. Having just completed a look back over 25 years, I’m well aware of how much technology has influenced education, for good and bad. But I will preface any conjectures I make about future visions with the point I made in a post on the future of education, which is that in HE especially it is true that nothing much changes while simultaneously radical change occurs.

As it’s the Hay Festival there is a good analogy with reading to be drawn I think. If you were to look at reading 50 years ago and today, on the surface, nothing much has changed. It’s still someone (often) reading a paper book, in quiet solitude. And yet, it doesn’t take much examination to appreciate just how wholly different is the context within which that reading occurs. In terms of technology (audiobooks, ebooks), retail (Amazon, online, open books), publishing (self publishing, crowd funding), writing (use of blogs, fan fiction, online research) and dissemination (authors using social media, online accompanying material). The business of books and the society within which books exist is almost unrecognisable from 50 years ago.

So how to reconcile these two elements of seeming resistance to change and yet large scale innovation? I would suggest that both books and education have what we might call a ‘core of immutability’, that is some (perhaps indefinable) aspect at their core which does not alter. Indeed, this essence is part of the reason we hold them in high social value, they echo back through history, and evoke generally positive emotions. I can’t quite say what that core is, for both of them it is something around the individual focus on task that is conducted largely in the mind – the indulgence in what is essentially a cognitive art form. They are both fundamentally human – maybe AI can write decent books in the future, and maybe it can provide a reasonable level of support, but they could never quite capture that human element that is part of their appeal (or if they could, then the AI would be indistinguishable from a sentient being anyway).

Recognising, cherishing and protecting this core of immutability then allows us to engage in technological experimentation around it, without threatening to remove the essence that makes it valuable. That’s my pitch anyway.

By the way, did I mention I was speaking at Hay?

Connectivism and scale


In his recent post criticising the Creative Commons Certificate, which I won’t comment on, Stephen Downes repeats a claim he has made before about the scalability of the connectivist approach, stating:

One of the major objectives of our original MOOCs was to enable MOOC participants to create interaction and facilitation for each other. This is because there is no system in the world where a 1:30 instructor:student ratio will scale to provide open and equitable access.

In my view, this model worked very well.

I’ll preface what I’m going to say with stating that I’m a big fan of connectivism for two reasons: it is an example of educators thinking about how learning can be undertaken differently in a networked world, and I feel that all learners should experience different modes of learning during their degree or life. I’ve given Masters level students experience of connectivist courses, and some loved them, and others detested them. That’s fine, it makes you reflect on your own way of learning.

But I’m uncomfortable with this over-reaching of connectivism. Open universities across the world have been operating large scale, open, equitable learning for decades. As I’ve bored you all with on many occasions, I chaired a course with 12,000 online students (many more than the CCK courses). We operated a model with around 600 part-time tutors on a ratio of around 1:20. Students had access to student forums which were replicated so as not to overcrowd (this was in 1999 before social media), and tutors had access to a forum where they could raise questions. There were then Super Tutors who moderated these and raised questions up to the module team. It was hard work, but to quote Downes, in my view this model worked very well.

As I’ve mentioned before though, support is not cheap, at the time the Government paid most of the student fee with a small contribution from students. It was open, in that it was level 1 with no entry requirements, but someone definitely paid. So perhaps what Downes means is connectivism is the only way to realise cheap, or free, large scale learning. That is a very different claim.

If connectivism is to be as broadly applicable across domains and levels as its advocates seem to want, then support needs to arise from somewhere. Most of the successful learners in the cMOOCs were already experienced learners. But for a level 1 undergrad, open entry course, this is palpably not the case. It seems to me to underestimate the value of support to assume this could all be accommodated by other learners. The sort of support required for new, often unsure learners requires experience and expertise, and to suggest the network will accomplish this diminishes the value of the knowledge in my view.

There is also a danger that in devolving support to the network we place a labour cost on the learners. I agree that getting students to teach each other is a very valuable and effective pedagogy. But for many learners their issues are not with content (even when they appear to be), but with confidence, identity and other skills. A person experienced in the support role can identify this. This is often in conjunction with the support a student receives through peer to peer routes such as student forums and social media. They’re not exclusive, but complementary. But to require other learners to take on all of that burden is to potentially create a lot of hidden labour. Someone still pays, but we just don’t see it.

Downes criticises the CC Course for charging $500 (and I think he has some good points, for example around the Fellowships model), but at least that is an explicit, if you like, honest, charge. We know what it is and it is visible. Establishing a model that relies on hidden costs is not necessarily a solution.

So, yes I think connectivism has a lot to say about ways of learning, and definitely offers an alternative model to scale. But to suggest that it is the only (or even the best) way to realise large scale online learning is simply wrong.