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Democratizing education may mean creating a strange and hybridized monster

 

In principle, MOOCs embody the democratization of information and education: open access to leading edge scholarship and learning, facilitated by outstanding leaders in their respective fields. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are being described as a great equalizer in higher education (awarded an overall “B” grade in a recent New York Times Sunday Review article). Maybe MOOCs are shaping up to be the “killer app” of higher education?

 

Except…there are a couple of snags.

In her exploration of the Ethics of MOOCs, Nora Dunne questions whether it’s defensible to use institutional resources to create and support MOOCs if this diverts what’s available to tuition-paying students. Unless the money comes from a school’s marketing budget?

Institutions of higher learning care about students. They care about access. They want to make the world a better place by linking students with research, theory, knowledge, skills and applications. They also care about enrollment, to which their funding is inextricably tied. They care about their brand. They are competitive.

Such drivers are not mutually exclusive and are not a bad thing. Visionary thinking drives innovation, and so does competition. But there is a risk if academic institutions start regarding MOOCs as “loss leaders”.

 

Are MOOCs at risk of becoming brand advertisements to drive enrollment?

From an education research and theory perspective, best practices in online learning emphasize the importance of interactivity, both with peers and with faculty. Conversely, the one-to-many model, whether delivered in a massive open lecture hall or in a massive open online course, focuses more on information delivery than knowledge construction.

The ideal would be a customizable and dynamic MOOC that integrates high-quality learning objects, pre-recorded or streamed video of outstanding instructors, asynchronous and synchronous small group discussion, simulations, and individual tutoring. But taking it back to budgets, how is this sustainable from a cost perspective?

Unfortunately it’s just not. And the problem with the one-to-many approach is its fundamental incompatibility with 2.0 anything. But…what if all of the above learning tools/strategies were crowdsourced? Not just across institutions of higher learning but from students themselves (past, present and future)? (Representing an authentically paragogical/heutagogical approach, a.k.a. “Andragogy 2.0“).

 

The Digital Frontier

If we venture into the frontier of digital open-access territory, we need to understand that MOOCs, by their nature, are free, open and out there. Positive institutional branding becomes a by-product of bleeding-edge, innovative curricula co-created by outstanding faculty and students.

And might this mean the creation of a strange and hybridized monster – a WikiMOOC?

 

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The world is opening up, and that’s a good thing. (Don Tapscott) 

 

In their 2010 book Wikibrands, Sean Moffett and Mike Dover argue that with the advent of the social web, it’s no longer the purview of a company to articulate and define its brand – it’s what people say about the company that defines the brand. The implications for all organizations and sectors, including education, are huge.

Institutions of higher learning expend considerable resources on branding, but for the most part this follows traditional marketing channels. And where social media is integrated into organizational branding, it tends to be used as more a corporate communication tool than a meaningful way to engage with students or prospective students. Reputation management is a big consideration. How do you control your brand if you open up a “comments” or “review” page on your website?

A recent investigative reporting piece focusing on healthcare invited Canadians to rate hospitals, and while popular among the public (see story), was sharply criticized – by hospital administrators (though not by patients, see story).

Whether we like it or not, there are multiple outlets for review and commentary, and these are more likely to be adopted when the “official” website is perceived as promoting versus informing. When I choose a hotel do I trust a corporate website or visit TripAdvisor for candid ratings and reviews? Why should it be any different in selecting a college or university? The stakes are a lot higher, and information = power, or at least the illusion of such.

The drive towards inside-out organizations is premised on the notion that we – organizations – get more from sharing than we do from secrecy. This is a big culture change for education. It’s radical. Although high-level data about high school and post-secondary outcomes are publicly available, specifics (e.g. course evaluations, students’ comments and reviews) are not.

Here’s the thing: In a very short time frame complete institutional transparency is going to be expected. As a matter of course. If we don’t provide it someone else will be happy to step in and do it for us. And they get to keep the ad revenue from the high click-through rate: RateMyProfessors is only the beginning.

As Don Tapscott puts it: “Institutions are becoming naked, and if you’re going to be naked … fitness is no longer optional. If you’re going to be naked, you better get buff.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Utility + ease of use are what really matter

 

Recently, I was asked to give a Keynote Address  at the 2012 Ontario Association of Social Work annual conference outlining the “digital communication power tools” for social workers and other practitioners. Although I’ve taught an online graduate course for the past 10 years and have a longstanding interest in digital communication and online applications, I’m nowhere near as expert as the teenagers in my life.

However, the beauty of a “beginner’s mind” means that I can comfortably NOT be an expert – in anything – and still have something to share, in a spirit of exploration and adventure. And that is precisely the stance from which I developed the talk.

The three areas I covered (social media, online collaboration and e-therapy) are roughly overlapping, and provided a pretty broad terrain in which to navigate. The 250 or so practitioners at the conference included super-users, newbies, young and not-so-young, and all of us keen to better understand the ways in which these tools (because they really are just tools) can contribute to professional practice.

I think the most important take-away comes from the Technology Acceptance Model, where in one study, age and busyness of practitioners were not associated with uptake of social media in medical practice – rather, ease of use and utility of the applications influence attitudes, acceptance and behaviour. In other words, busy, old practitioners can and will use social media tools if they are accessible and relevant!

Here are the annotated slides (with Speakers’ Notes):  Digital Communication Power Tools

Also on Slideshare if you’d like to experience the session via social media.

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