Tag Archives: education

MOOCs, sustainability and the business model

A MOOC is more than just a free sample!

Anyone with a Moodle site can offer a MOOC: two fundamental questions we need to ask are How do we make it effective for learners? and How do we make it a meaningful and worthwhile activity for the organiser / provider? This post focuses on the second question, which relates to the need for educational offerings to be sustainable for the provider.

If the provider is a large institution such as a university, sustainability is ‘cushioned’ by the existing staff and other resources. That is, the costs of developing and delivering it can be subsidised by the university’s other income-generating activities. A MOOC can be justified in rather the same way that a business may offer free stuff online as a way of gaining other benefits such as raising their profile. It’s similar to handing out free samples of new products in the supermarket. But taking the same approach for an educational institution is risky, because its core activity cannot be reduced to such a simplistic model.

Of course, a MOOC may be justified not in business terms but in philosophical or ethical terms such as a commitment to open learning and overcoming barriers to education. But as Jeff Haywood points out in No such thing as a free MOOC, there are always costs associated. These may be direct or indirect, such as taking teaching staff away from other activities.

So it’s essential to ask, as Hayward does, How will we sustain it? He goes on to state that his institution plans to impose a ‘modest charge for the ‘certificates of completion’, and we will use that income to pay for our support for learners, offered in the light-touch form that these types of MOOC use.‘ Since he does not mention the cost of assessment, I assume that these ‘certificates of completion’ are similar to what used to be called in face to face courses ‘certificates of attendance’. That is, they confirm only that the participants took part in the MOOC, not that they necessarily learned or achieved anything. Indeed, ‘light-touch support’ is perhaps only going to be appropriate where assessment is not rigorous!

Hayward also acknowledges that there is a lot that still needs to be learned about delivering MOOCs, including ‘Is the experience helpful to learners, and do they get value from their certificates of completion?‘ In my experience, a certificate of participation is often seen as having little relevance since it is not based on any rigorous assessment of achievement. Professional development activities in institutions many years ago often used to incorporate such as certificates but over time there was a move away from them as they provided little real value.

I fully support MOOCs as a worthwhile professional development activity. But because they are unlikely to incorporate a high level of learner support and rigorous assessment, they will not be appropriate for all students in all contexts. They may used to provide a ‘taster’ as a marketing exercise, but this involves applying a business model which may not be appropriate. It’s essential to find a model of resourcing their development and delivery which is sustainable and which enhances rather than undermines the institution’s existing programmes.

Education reform: we need robust debate

BooksI strongly support the move to more open education and the need to critique the role that educational institutions play within society. But some of the debate seems to lack any real rigour.  For example, the UnCollege Manifesto seems well-intentioned but it doesn’t really present a strong argument. Take this recycled quote on its home page:

You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library. Will Hunting

Now admittedly this is a quote from a fictional character, but if this somehow represents the uncollege.org approach, it’s problematic. It seems to me there are two possible reasons someone might express such a bleak sentiment:

  • The university they have experienced was no better than a pile of books or a one-way stream of information. I’m reminded of a catch-phrase from the 1980’s when the early adopters of computers in schools were confronted by teachers who thought their jobs might be lost. The response? ‘Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer ought to be’. Likewise, if a university could be replaced by a pile of books it should be.
  • They are under a misapprehension about the nature of a university. In that case, perhaps universities are failing to communicate what they really do?

UnCollege makes a show of espousing a radical approach: ‘join the learning revolution’ and ‘success … without setting foot inside a classroom’. But elsewhere the site belies this, such as the page on UnCollege’s two advisors which makes a point of highlighting their university qualifications. Proponents of ‘hacking’ the education system need to better acknowledge aspects of the education system, such as its role in awarding qualifications, if they want to have any real impact.

Educators angry at losing investment in Second Life

Jeff Young’s article Academics Discuss Mass Migration From Second Life reports that many educators are angry at changes to the fees charged for Second Life. But educators shouldn’t be angry or surprised when companies like Linden Labs change the rules and start charging hefty fees. After all, it’s a proven business model on the web: get buy-in by providing a free or low-cost service, then raise the fees once a subscriber base has been captured established.*

However, we have every right to be disappointed when large amounts of public funds are spent on projects developing virtual learning spaces which could disappear overnight. It’s exciting and essential to explore the educational potential of tools and systems such as Second Life, but significant investment requires caution. When locked up inside a proprietary system, the value of ‘virtual real estate’ can be reduced to zero overnight if it needs to be rebuilt from scratch.

Decision makers who allocate substantial funds to such projects should expect standard risk management practices to be in place to ensure that loss of investment is minimised. It’s common sense – and in a shrinking economy, anything else is unacceptable.

* I’m not saying that I support this model, just that it is prevalent and it is predictable that private companies will act in the interests of their shareholders first and foremost.

Related post: How secure are your course materials online?

Image: Instituto de Estudos Avançados

The iPad in education

Wordpress on iPod - edit postIn an earlier post I discussed how Apple’s software development efforts seem very focused on consumption of media.

I’m interested in learning which incorporates producing information (not just consuming it) and which makes effective use of Web 2.0 tools to publish, not just to read. Given the iPad currently appears to have pretty much the same features as an oversized iPod Touch, the software limitations are likely to parallel those of the iPod. These include:

  • The only multitasking available seems to be that music can be played in the background while you use other apps. So moving content from one app to another is clumsy. Given the size of the iPod, this is not such a big deal. But if I purchased the much bigger iPad, I’d expect it to be more suitable for productive work such as editing web-based content.
  • Many web-based systems use WYSIWYG editors for creating and editing content. These are not available using the current iPod OS, so editing is restricted to plain text – unless you can use markup. This affects all kinds of web-based systems used in education: Moodle, PBWorks, Blackboard, Mediawiki, etc. In a wiki you can use wiki markup to get around this, otherwise you’ll need to use HTML. Either way, this will be seen as a big step backward by many educators and learners!

There are many apps which allow the user to access content as consumer but few apps which allow authoring. One that I really like is the WordPress blogging app which allows me to create and edit posts and pages and manage comments. Like WordPress, it’s simple, straightforward and effective. But notice from the screenshot above (on an iPod Touch) that the editor shows only source code (HTML). Now I work in that mode most of the time anyway, but I know many of the teachers I work with would see the loss of the WYSIWYG editor as a return to the dark ages!

Since the iPad is not yet available, my comments are merely predictions based on the current technology. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect the first iPads will not solve these problems. My advice to teachers: if you are using Web 2.0 tools or an LMS such as Moodle, you may not find a shiny new iPad is a suitable platform for creating and editing content. Unless of course you are prepared to learn some markup!

Benefits of high-speed broadband to education

FibreopticA recent NZ herald article reports on a survey by Motu Economic and Public Policy Research which questions some assumptions about high-speed broadband and its effect on productivity. In particular, the survey found that there was ‘no discernable (sic) additional effect arising from a shift from slow to fast broadband’.

The article then goes on to state the contrary viewpoint and ends by claiming that there is evidence that high-speed broadband would deliver benefits such as :

  • hospitalisation of older people could be reduced by 40-70 per cent
  • smart grids could save 30 per cent of energy
  • e-education would deliver far more productive 1:1 education services
  • smart cities, smart transport and smart infrastructure would greatly contribute to the environment and society at large.

These seem like gross generalisations and are, I suspect, not based on any rigorous evidence. Working as I do in education, the 3rd bullet point seems to me like over-optimistic hype: I don’t believe that it’s a lack of bandwidth that prevents 1:1 services from being widely available in our education system. Sure, a ‘fat pipe’ would mean one-to-one tutoring would be able to use a full range of high-quality media. But would that necessarily be more ‘productive’? Writers such as Garrison and Anderson have argued that asynchronous text-based interaction is more effective when higher-order learning is an imperative.

If bandwidth was such a key factor in improving the effectiveness of education, I’d expect the lecturers I work with every week to be clamouring for it. Many of them are already doing great things with embedded media and synchronous communication. Where the technology is holding them back, it’s more likely to be a lack of reliability and training. If speed was the key factor, they’d all be working with KAREN. In fact, the great majority of them have never heard of this high-speed network.

I’m all for high-speed broadband being widely available to educators here in New Zealand, and I look forward to the day when I can use new tools in new ways because lack of speed is no longer an issue. In the meantime, we need to beware of hype which tries to persuade decision makers that high-speed broadband is the ‘missing piece of the jigsaw’: education will only become more effective when a whole raft of problems are resolved. Indeed, we could make profound and positive changes without changing the technical infrastructure. It’s about a lot more than mere speed.


Garrison, DR & Anderson, T (2003). E-learning in the 21st Century. Routledge Falmer, London.

Unknown author. About KAREN. Accessed 3 November 22009 from http://www.karen.net.nz/about/

Unknown author. Survey questions ultra-fast broadband gains. Accessed 3 November 2009 from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/technology/news/article.cfm?c_id=5&objectid=10607054

Photo: Optical fibre by BigRiz