Wednesday 10 December 2014

How did the Web change Education?

My first semester in the masters is close to the finishing line, and naturally that means I have loads of coursework deadlines. Two of these are blog posts I have to write about the effect the Web has on academic disciplines. Since they are supposed to be blog posts, I thought I'd share them here as well. Any feedback until Friday will be most welcome, because I can still amend the hand ins until then!

An aphorism ascribed to Albert Einstein says, that it is not necessary to know things, as long as one knows where to look them up. The web confirms this statement. With the spread of smartphones and mobile internet access, Google is never more than a click away, and with it, we can look up anything we might possibly want. So we do no longer need to ‘know’ things; we simply ‘google’ them. On the other hand, we learn a lot through the web that we would not learn without it. How often do we find ourselves reading random articles on Wikipedia, shaking our head and wondering how we got there, as the article is totally unrelated to what we set out to do?

The web changes our relationship to knowledge. So it is no surprise that the web also changes education. The latest big trend in online learning that emerged in the last couple of years are Massive Open Online Courses, shortened to ‘MOOCs’. Wikipedia describes a MOOC as “an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web.” MOOCs have tens of thousands of subscribers, are free of charge, utilise the web for delivery of content, and are delivered to one cohort of subscribers in a set period of time. Typical content are texts, videos, and group interactions. Important characteristics are the learning in a (large) community in a set time period and scalable assessments, usually through peer feedback or quizzes.

Education institutions, especially universities, are at the forefront of providing MOOCs, and there are several reasons for them to do this. A good overview can be found in a recent publication by a research group around Su White, which describes that MOOCS are seen as drivers for growth and collaboration. Many are ‘tasters’ for on campus, tuition-fee courses; in this function, MOOCs are a marketing tool, attracting new students to the university. Moreover, MOOCs also form a field of research in their own right: tens of thousands of subscribes to a course, their learning and behavioural patterns, and assessment results, provide extensive data as a side-product. This can in turn be used for educational research as well as to inform future improvements of the platform itself. In some cases, MOOCs also generate income, either through the issue of certifications, formal exams, or – for example with the Online Master of Science in Computer Science, offered by the Georgia Institute of Technology – tuition fees.

There are at least as many motivations for students to participate in MOOCs. White et al. have identified interest in the topic, convenience, and learning in a community as common factors. Some students participate to improve their CV or achieve formal credentials. A deeper analysis of students’ intentions and the resulting patterns finds that students who are paying for online courses, or participate with the goal of achieving an accreditation, are – as one might suspect – more likely to complete a course. The most costly aspects of higher education are individual contact, support, and assessments. With increasing tuition fees, students expect this service on campus far more than they would in a free online course. However if online courses should provide this level of support, the costs would need to be covered: The MOOCs are no longer free.

Especially interesting is the effect that the web and free online courses have on students’ attitudes and expectations towards on campus courses. A recent report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience about the effect of Web 2.0 on learning found, that the instant availability of information causes a “’casual’ approach to the evaluation and attribution of information”, which should be addressed by universities by teaching students how to critically appraise information from the web. Due to the availability of pure information, students value face-to-face contact higher in their paid courses, and perceive fees as their payment for individual, personal support.

One example of a university providing MOOCs is the University of Southampton, which offers several courses on the UK-based platform ‘’, initially showcasing its two specialities: Oceanography and Web Science. Here, the MOOC is not only used as a marketing tool to attract new students, but also to enrich the learning experience in the classroom. A part of the pure fact-learning can be done online through the MOOC, which frees up time for discussion and interaction instead of lectures in the classroom – this is explained in some more detail in this presentation by Hugh Davies.

In practice, some of this is very successful, some is not, as I had plenty of opportunity to experience myself. Having completed my first degree at a distance university, the concept of MOOCs seems natural to me. Sitting at my desk at home and learning things is what I have done for my entire Bachelors’ degree. This university had some online services, mainly for administration and communication amongst the students. So the use of the Web for courses is not entirely new to me. There is certainly potential to improve learning experiences with MOOC-style activities, although that might be at the cost of the possibility for students to learn at their own pace.

I have attempted the Web Science MOOC twice: As an employee and part-time student, wanting to broaden my horizon, and as a full time iPhD of in Web Science in Southampton. In my first attempt, I managed to work through three weeks of content. I was intrigued by the form of delivery as well as the content, and I tried to do everything. I worked through all the additional materials, read and wrote comments, interacted with the MOOC cohort. And I failed, because doing it all beside all other commitments was too much. There was just not enough time to keep up. By the time week four started I was still in the middle of the week two content, and I fell so far behind the rest of the cohort that the interaction aspect disappeared. Without that interaction, the value of the MOOC decreased, and I lost motivation. I did not achieve what I wanted in my first participation, as I had planned to complete it. But the university certainly achieved their marketing goal, as the MOOC sparked enough interest in me to apply for the course that I am now enrolled in.

In this course, I got to do the MOOC again, together with my cohort, and discussions in the classroom every week. This time, I already knew I wouldn’t have the time to do all the extras, so I focussed on the required content and went on side routes only as my time allowed. I found the integration of the MOOC into classroom discussions interesting, but think it was not as efficient as the university would like to see it. First of all, the lectures that were supposed to support the learning in the classroom, hardly happened. If they did, the discussions were meta-lectures, mostly related to the process of participation, not the content of the MOOC. So I learned about education and MOOCs, and the effects of the Web. While that was interesting, it was not what I had expected. I would have loved the opportunity to dive deeper into the content of the actual MOOC. A possibility for future improvements could be to have guest lectures of the persons delivering the MOOC content of the week, to go into some more depths and discuss the actual content, rather than to discuss the participation in the MOOC itself.