Saturday, October 24, 2015

Low-cost production of MOOCs. Why and How?

My presentation to the Western Balkans and Serbian Moodle Moot, Low-cost production of MOOCs.  Why and How?,  is available here:

If you have any questions or comments on that presentation, please post them there.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Research, teaching and basing our opinions on evidence

Over the last few years I have been reading of research claiming that research activity does not improve teaching skills and that the two may even be negatively correlated. Perhaps my willingness to accept this was influenced by my own personal experiences (strangely, I even witnessed PhDs in education who could not present well). I, perhaps naively, assumed that senior management in higher education had access to the same information sources as me and would be aware of this (and that a few in my own institution were exceptions due to the fact that we were a small provincial institution).

However, recently, in a blog by Greg Foley, I became aware that this important finding is not widely known, as he described how a university president made several inaccurate comments on the value of research to teaching. (On contacting Greg separately he provided me with some helpful references by Richard Felder here and here). More recently, at a consultative meeting of the great and the good of higher education in Ireland (Yes, I know, “what was I doing there?”), my suggestion that research be separated from teaching in higher education based on such research was met with some horror and disbelief.

So this brings me to this question - How is it that when taking part in discussions on and making decisions about issues that are not in our own domains, we in academia place so little importance on evidence. Indeed, like the consultative group mentioned above, I have been at many internal academic meetings where there have been quite lively debates (bitter arguments?) based on a set of conflicting opinions and with very little evidence being presented.

Could it be that where the evidence runs counter to our own personal interest we deliberately choose to ignore evidence. Perhaps, if arguing about something that is outside our own domains, we are unaware of the research and are too lazy to check it out. My suspicion is that it is the first of these two, as when I have referred to the above research in such debates, it is generally met with scepticism and then ignored.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Go to college to get a mate and impress employers.

This very interesting article by Jason Potts of RMIT on "Why MOOCs will fail" seems to confirm what I have for a while suspected to be true.  He makes two main points, firstly; that young people go to university to get a mate, and secondly; to send signals to potential employers.  They can get neither of these from MOOCs (or possibly all online courses for that matter) and that is why they will fail.

The first point sounds like a joke, but I do get the impression (from my own kids if not elsewhere), that higher education is a pleasant life experience, that they feel entitled to, and the potential to meet romantic partners is no doubt part of that.  He does make the interesting point that a very substantial portion of the economic return achieved by attending college is due to marrying a partner of similar social status and income potential.  I'm not sure that this is explicitly in the minds of young people who want to go to college, but it may well be hidden in some subconscious evolutionary psychological urge to meet "people like us" in a romantic way.

The second point I think, is much more important.  Both parents and kids do think explicitly about how employers will view the education they pay for and receive respectively.  This may be why they choose more prestigious institutions even though there may be no evidence that the quality of learning is any better.  From my rudimentary knowledge of economics, I believe that this is a form of signalling.  The peacock has no great use for his flamboyant tail, but the tail does signal to a mate that he is in good health and has excess nutrition that he can waste on growing and carrying around the tail (perhaps like a first year with an iPhone and Beats headphones).  Going to a good college signals potential employers that (i) you had the smarts and/or work ethic to get in, (ii) you had the smarts/work ethic to get through (and perhaps surviving bad teaching as a bonus if the employer is aware of it), and (iii) you come from the right type of background (who are smart and/or value education).  If this is a very reliable signal, it saves them a lot of effort in recruitment and the candidate pays for it.

So even if I were to suggest that online work-based learning is superior to traditional campus based education, it's not going to disappear very quickly and growth will most likely be slower than we zealots would like.  I don't think MOOCs or online learning will fail.  They will succeed for other reasons.  We'll just have to live with this problem and work around it.