What open learning materials are being downloaded in China?

Earlier in 2013, I completed a project for the Higher Education Academy, called iTunes U Reach. In this project,  I facilitated the launch of the University of Leicester’s iTunes U channel, of which the vast majority of items are licensed CC-BY-NC. Then I could observe how and what materials were consequently consumed by people around the world. Our university is particularly interested in what China is looking at, because iTunes U is visible in China, while YouTube and Vimeo are not. (I’m not sure about SoundCloud — anybody know? Leave a comment if you do!) Well, we launched our channel around Easter 2013, and the top ten collections and their consumption methods and numbers are below. It’s helpful to remember that not all of these collections were launched at the beginning; launching all of these collections has been a gradual process. For example, Model Organisms in Biomedical Research, number 9 on this list, was only launched on 15 October. So the numbers shown for that collection were achieved in less than one month.

Top Ten UoL iTunes U Collections with consumption rates and methods 16 March - 12 Nov 2013

Top Ten UoL iTunes U Collections with consumption rates and methods 16 March – 12 Nov 2013

Who has been looking at these materials? Below are the statistics of activity by country. China is the third most active consumer of UoL material. It is interesting to note that in recent weeks, I have noticed Turkey appearing in these numbers too. Turkey is another country which does not have access to YouTube, but does have access to iTunes U.

UoL iTunes U Site Visitors: Activity by Country

UoL iTunes U Site Visitors: Activity by Country

What items are being consumed by visitors from China? I chose to answer this question by looking at data from 1st through 10th August 2013, and pinpointing every bit of activity by someone in China on the UoL iTunes U channel. I grouped our iTunes U collections together by subject area, and also looked at whether the file was a downloaded or streamed video, audio, or text. I then showed subscriptions and browses separately, as these occur per collection, rather than per item. Here is what I found:

Screen Shot 2013-11-13 at 23.59.27

So the top 3 subjects of interest were, in order: English, Medicine, Psychology. Items of all three formats were chosen for download.  I had an expectation that perhaps the Engineering topic would be most popular, and that there might be a clear preference for video, and so these results were surprising to me. I should make it clear that the English materials are not for the teaching of English language. They are lectures on creative writing and on linguistic examination of social media communications. Of all of our UoL materials, these are the most downloaded by Chinese people.

One or two more interesting observations: On 22nd October and lasting for 2 weeks, Apple featured our collection “Model Organisms in Biomedical Research” in its New & Noteworthy section on its iTunes U home site. During that time, China became the number 2 country, immediately after USA, in countries looking at our materials. This suggests that China is particularly responsive to materials promoted by Apple. I also noticed during that time, that  the percentage of users consuming our materials using iTunes on a Windows computer increased dramatically, to number two just after iPad users. This suggests that Windows iTunes users are also particularly responsive to Apple promotion. It’s possible also that China’s iTunes U visitors are more likely to be using Windows computers — I would have to look more carefully at the data to say this definitely, but it seems reasonable.

A final comment I would make is that I found, from interviews of Chinese students and educators, that Chinese universities began in earnest to produce their own openly licensed learning materials, or at least learning materials being treated as though they are openly licensed. I found, for example, that the Chinese internet company NetEase has been releasing openly-licensed English language learning materials in its own app, after having added Chinese subtitles. NetEase has now begun to partner with MOOC-provider Coursera. I have not yet heard of any Chinese MOOCs, but perhaps they are right around the corner.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Research Fellow, Institute of Learning Innovation, University of Leicester tmb10@le.ac.uk


Identifying and Maximizing Benefits from Fragmented Open Educational Practices

As a 1990’s primary teacher-trainee in Rwanda I learned English extensively through open courses via the BBC and VOA after my secondary education graduation. During my secondary education, English language was not yet introduced at primary level. English was neither among the national exams we took before graduation. So there was no pressure for secondary schools to head-hunt English language teachers who were desperately scarce at the time. We could only take English for one semester, 2 hour a week, and then have that semester’s grade re-transcribed for another semester. One year after my graduation, three important changes occurred in Rwandan education: English was introduced in the national exams for teacher-trainees (1), the student’s grade in the national exams was established as the benchmark for higher education student’s loan (2) and the then National Examination Centre established an open assessment system widely known in Rwanda as Candidats Libres or Private Candidates system. This system enabled informal students to take same national exams as formal students and those who passed were certified and accredited. These good practices made access to higher education more accessible to students from low income families. Those who wanted to undertake higher education worked hard on their national exams preparation with a vision to get a better grade for getting student’s loan because the provision had become fair and transparent.

My family did not possess a radio during my secondary education. Buying a radio was a top priority on the list of needs that I had to address with my first salary as a teacher. My first radio connected me to the BBC world service and the VOA and their open English language courses. I was aware that I had learned this language poorly during my secondary education. So, I engaged in those open radio courses for my English language improvement. I had to make sure I am free during the radio open course broadcasts and I adopted this self-discipline. Two years later, I took advantage of the National Examination Centre’s open assessment system. I took nine exams in 2000 to get the results that fit in the new system in order to be eligible for student’s loan. English which I had mainly learned from the BBC and VOA was the only exam in which I had a perfect score (I hereby grant the permission to verify my records from Department of Examination and Accreditation; the former National Examination Centre, exclusively for the purpose of open educational practices improvement). So, my informal learning was more beneficial than extensive learning in formal education because my radio learning was based on passion, the goal and interest conceived by myself. In contrast, compliance dominated in the formal education courses. Although English was the only course I scored a full grade, my grade point average was among the best result from teacher-trainees nationally, which enabled me to get student’s loan two years later.

My accomplishment in informal English language learning was confirmed by the National University of Rwanda (NUR) in 2002. When I joined this university, we took an English language test. Many students from the literary section who had three time of English language learning in their secondary education than we had, and who had learned English without interruption failed the test. But I passed the test, with a distinction anyway. That is why I started my courses right away without taking the one year long language preparatory course which was required by students who could not prove that their language abilities were high enough to study in English. My story is shared by many other people in Rwanda. The Department of Examination and Accreditation (the former National Examination Centre) and NUR should probably conduct research on the impact of their open assessment system on Rwandan students.

Our informal learning was assessed, certified and accredited because the National Examination Centre and the NUR had open assessment systems. However, these systems have not been fully explored and systemized for being used at a large scale in Rwanda. They were also fragmented in that the open assessment system was not accompanied with open curriculum and open educational materials. At the time I took national exams as a private candidate, access to the national curriculum was a prerogative for secondary school teachers. Students who took national exams as private candidate often borrowed notes from friends who studied at various courses to compare what was covered in various course subjects but they did not have access to the curriculum to check what should have been covered. Open assessment could have made more difference if it were coupled with open curriculum and open learning resources that covered the curriculum. Such a link between open curriculum, open educational resources, open assessment, open certification and open accreditation are currently being explored and developed elsewhere for opening up tertiary education. The Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) also referred to as Prior Learning Recognition (PLR) that is being explored by the Open Educational Resources university is a good example. A similar system is also considered as a potential business models for Massive Open Online Courses.

Mobile learning conference in the Asian Pacific: things I learnt in Singapore

View from the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, Singapore

View from the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, Singapore

A group of us from the Institute of Learning Innovation (Gráinne, visiting fellow Mark Childs, and I) have just attended MobiLearnAsia 2013 conference in Singapore. The conference was organised by Crimson Knowledge, a Singapore-based education company. This was the second year the conference has run; it was bigger this year, and covered new ground such as supplying iPads for every attendant at the pre- and post-conference workshops. Gráinne was a keynote speaker; Mark and I presented sessions, and together we delivered two days of pre-conference workshops.

The conference was attended by a mixture of corporations and educators from every level and sector, including military trainers and independent consultants, mostly from Singapore, Malaysia, India, Australia, and Thailand, but also including China, the US, and the UK. At the academic conferences I have been been attending in recent years, corporations have been present but their sessions aren’t necessarily very well attended, possibly being seen as less learning, more commercial. While at this conference, I realised that it is really necessary for academics and corporations to communicate more, to be aware of the way the other views trends in learning and technology, and to help shape priorities of each sector. One really valuable corporate connection I made was with Kevin Chan, founder of Coursepad. Kevin let us use his app called Micepad to support our pre-conference workshops on the 7Cs of Learning Design, M-Pedagogy, and Augmented Reality/Virtual Worlds.  The app was well designed to form a support around the workshop, giving a central place for photos and notes to be gathered, a simple way for discussions to happen on the iPad (Mark acted as eModerator to keep an eye on questions/comments coming in on the app), and even just to have a quick profile of each attendant. The app also had a feature whereby you can email to yourself all the gathered discussions, for your own further review.

There were many ways in which I felt we in the UK are far behind countries such as Singapore and South Korea, who are really putting money into education and who are not afraid to bank on the side of technological innovation. Yet I felt we from the UK and USA brought good things to the table, especially in the form of research into learning innovation and a consideration of digital literacy, among other good things.

There were some impressive and successful case studies of mobile learning being implemented large-scale. One Australian university in attendance (University of Western Sydney) has distributed 11,000 iPads to its incoming students. They spoke of deploying learning designers to help instructors adapt their material and pedagogical approaches to the iPad. Designing learning for mobile is often thought of after the iPads are bought and paid for. I guess that’s ok, as long as the learning design happens at some point!

One  case study was presented in the graveyard shift of the first day and hence attended by only a handful of us, but it made a big impression on me.  A UNESCO programme to teach literacy to women in Pakistan did not seem to have much impact with traditional teaching methods, i.e. gathering the women every day at the literacy centre for 2 hours of lectures and teaching. At least half of the women dropped out after 3 months, and of the remainder, not many passed the final exams. But when they decided to hand out simple inexpensive mobile phones to each student, things changed. The women had never had mobile phones before. They received SMS messages which they dutifully copied into notebooks and studied for spelling and grammar. The message content was about hygiene and food preparation, so there was that to learn as well. Then once a week, the women gathered at the literacy centre to discuss what they learnt over the week and take the lessons further. Now there is much lower dropout rate and much higher exam pass rate. It is a simple use of simple mobile technology, which hit the right nerve to engage and empower these women.

One thing I considered during the conference was: for how many more years can we have a mobile learning conference? Five years? Fewer? I have no doubt that mobile learning is not only here to stay but will become the predominant technology mode in learning. The reason for this is the ubiquitous quality of mobile devices. They are always in our hands, pockets, or pocketbooks. And this is the reason why I’m not sure for how much longer we will refer to ‘mobile learning.’  It will just be learning. But for now, it is still necessary to think about the affordances of mobile devices and how they can fill gaps in tech needs for learning. It is still necessary to consider how to help students strategically use mobile devices for the flexible learning best suited to our 24/7 society. It is still necessary to consider what pedagogical approaches are well served by mobile devices. Until it all just becomes ‘learning.’

And what we cover in our Technology-Enhanced Learning module in our MSc in Learning Innovation will now need to be altered & widened to include the view from Singapore.

Many heartfelt thanks to Crimson Knowledge — Patrick and Vivian particularly — for inviting us and looking after us, and for allowing us to join in the picture of mobile learning in the Asian Pacific.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist & SCORE Research Fellow, Institute of Learning Innovation, University of Leicester

The best of Leicester: The Institute of Learning Innovation (ILI)

I am a PhD student who recently spent a six months in Leicester. My last night I had a wonderful time with two PhD students, Brenda and Grace. Brenda asked me what was the best for me in Leicester, and I replied, “ILI”, without hesitation.


International environment at the Institute of Learning Innovation

I came to the ILI on  April 1st and left on September 25th. Although it was not my first time abroad, it was my first time abroad alone. Yet, I never felt lonely. At the ILI, it was just like home. The ILI building is lovely. For me it was more than a working place; it was a comfortable place to stay with friends and family. People at the ILI made me feel love in this “family”.

In the ILI, there are two nice traditions. The first one is to send birthday cards. Even though I didn’t receive any cards as my birthday is in January, it felt very nice to write my best wishes in birthday cards for others. The second tradition is to have lunch together regularly. It was a good opportunity to taste dishes from various countries as everyone brought dishes from their respective countries.

Beside the friendly and warm atmosphere, there is another reason for me to choose ILI as the best of Leicester. It was a very important period in my PhD project. I got opportunities to present my work in postgraduate research conferences (University of Leicester and University of London), to get feedback from peers, to participate in seminars and workshops (ILI, University of Birmingham, University of Loughborough), to enhance my research skills and to network with people. I can really see I “grew up” rapidly in this six-month period and gradually found a clear direction for my ongoing research.

Thank you all!

Thank you all!

I would like to thank everyone at ILI for making my stay in the UK a beautiful, memorable period. Many thanks to Grainne and Palitha, your support and advice were crucial for making this productive research period possible. Thanks to David; having a regular discussion with you was one of my most enjoyable moments. Thanks to Terese; I enjoyed working with you in the 7Cs learning design workshop; you made me realize how interesting and important is the job of a learning technologist in higher education. Thanks to Gabi; your input was really valuable to my study. Thanks to Ming; your advice had a direct impact on my PhD life. Thanks to Paul; now I know more about the British culture. Thanks to Ale; your suggestion makes a future collaboration possible. Thanks to Brenda, Grace, Bernard, Oznur, Nada, Natalia, Tina, Tony, Marion and Alison; I am quite happy to become a member of this PhD student group.

I wish you all the best!

Regards, Nan

MOOCs, Language issues and barriers to education

One of the most frequent questions people ask me about challenges to adoption of MOOCs and OER in Rwanda is about English as the most dominant language in these courses and resources. This same question was raised in O’Neil’s article: “Will Rwandan students adapt to Western-style instruction in English?”. My answer is that language is not a barrier in the Rwandan context. However, the way we use language often becomes a barrier to education. In this post, I will argue that creating language learning opportunities constitute better practices than using a language as a selective filter to decide who is given access to education and who is not.

I will probably start my argument with a statement of the fact most of us would agree on. We all know what we have learned and can do what we have the skills to do because we have been given opportunity to learn how to do it. I am able to write a blog entry you can read and understand because I had access to opportunity to learn how to write in English. I have also been luck to learn how to post a blog entry on the web (and trust me, I sometimes get challenged because I am still a new bee in this). More specific to language learning, native speakers of English have learned this language so quickly because they were naturally immersed. We, native speakers of Kinyarwanda or other languages, have learned our respective native languages at a similar fast speed, thanks to the exposure offered by our societies and cultures. Also, it is worth noting that English is the second foreign language most of the students depicted in the articles authored by O’Neil and Bartholet have learned. Prior to learning English, most of them had learned French as well.

Now, imagine if Kinyarwanda or Swahili were the language of learning in the USA, UK and other countries where English is a native language. I deliberately avoided using French or Spanish as examples, because these two languages would be culturally closer to English than how English is culturally closer to speakers of Kinyarwanda or other non-western languages. Now, step back from your native language and reflect on your foreign language learning experience, if you have learned a foreign language. I want to clarify the distinction between second language learning experience and foreign language learning experience as commonly agreed on in linguistic and second/foreign language learning literature. In second language learning, the learner learns a non-native language, based in a society or community where that language is used as a native learning. In this way, s/he is immersed and more exposed to first hand opportunity to use the language. In the foreign language learning experience, the learner does not live in the setting where that language is used for the mainstream communication. Obviously, opportunities to use that language is significantly reduced since it might be even difficult to find someone who speaks the target language.

Even though the label of foreign language learning experience would be used on both Western and non-western students, it should be noted that western students’ learning of Kinyarwanda, Swahili or another foreign language  would be easier than the learning of English for non western students. The ubiquity of Internet access would make it easier to record the target language learning materials and made them available as YouTube or any other medium. However, most students in Rwanda do not have to such media. O’Neil portrays very well the selection process the Rwandan students had to pass through for being admitted to take Kepler and Generation Rwanda’s MOOCs. The digital divide that makes MOOC learning highly competitive in Rwanda is rather a more compelling barrier than language.

Most MOOCs are in English: A barrier or opportunity?

Rwanda shifted from French to English as a language used in education around 2010. At the time the shift was initiated, around 90 percent of school used French for instruction. It should also be noted that although French and, later on, English have been used as the language of learning, most Rwandans, probably more than 90 percent only speak Kinyarwanda. Rwandan educators, students, leaders, employees and other are still transitioning into English as a dominant foreign language. Looking at their accomplishment from my perspective as a Rwandan, a French and English as Foreign Languages Learner and an English as a Foreign Language Teacher, and considering the circumstances in which their learning occurs, I find their effort and achievement extra-ordinary. Of course people who evaluate Rwandan learners from the western perspective do not know how to appreciate their accomplishment. Rather than evaluating Rwandan students from the Western/native English speakers standpoint, we should depart from where those learners came from. Taking this initial departure will enable us to notice and realise how incredible their accomplishment is and encourage them to carry on.  The most compelling barrier Rwandans have in their English language learning is access to learning resources. The availability of MOOCs and OER in English certainly constitutes an enormous opportunity to Rwandan learners although some pundits see this as a challenge, especially the ones who view this from a Western bias.

English as a global language: A divider or unifier

As earlier mentioned, approximately 90 percent or more of Rwandans do not speak English and French which have been used as languages of education. Does it mean that Rwandans have chosen to submit to the Western imperialism raised in one of the comments on O’Neil’s article? Imagine if everyone only spoke their native language and no foreigner could speak their languages. Imagine what we, the human race, have accomplished, because we can communicate with one another. Obviously, we need one or many shared languages as communication tools. With our human learning capacity, we cannot learn all the languages spoken all over the world. That is why few languages, especially the ones that are more widely used, have attracted, and will continue to attract foreign learners. There is no need to feel inferior that our languages spoken at small scales are not learned or used as languages of education. Likewise, there is no need to feel superior because our big languages are learned by foreigners. We all bring a rich diversity of perspectives which enrich the languages we share and educational experience globally. What we all share, Westerners and non-westerners, is openness to that diversity and tolerance to different perspectives. It is that diversity that makes us stronger as human species.

Unfortunately, we sometime use languages as dividing tools rather than as unifiers. It is unfortunate that English language is used to select those who are given access to education and those who are not. English language tests such as TOEFL and IELTS should be used beyond the selection purposes. The results from those tests should reveal places where more language learning opportunities need to be created rather than simply decide who should have the right to education and who should not. Coming back to my earlier argument that we all learn because we are give opportunities, we should create more learning opportunities rather than selecting only those who have been given learning opportunity and give them more while we do not care about those who have been excluded from opportunities to learn. By creating English or other foreign language learning opportunities and resources, we empower more learners who have been denied such opportunities.  This provides them with a tool to learn western perspectives. At the same time, those empowered students create opportunities for their western counterparts to learn non-western perspectives. It is this multicultural and multi-directional learning experience that is taking place in many MOOCs.  Coursera platform, probably other MOOC platforms as well, also empower students who are non native English users by offering them the opportunity to control this language. Students can adjust the speech rate to make it slower or faster as they wish. They can also add subtitles in English. This student’s control of the course language is lacking in campus based courses in both Rwandan and Western institutions.  

My next entry will focus on contextualization also raised in O’Neil’s article and subsequent comments.

MOOCs take off in Rwanda: Accreditation, sustainability and quality issues

 I am happy to be back to blogosphere, after months of silence, and excited to see that MOOCs are now taking off in Rwanda. I have been following closely the MOOC initiative by Generation Rwanda and its Kepler initiative (Leber 2013, Bartholet 2013 and O’Neil 2013). These articles received many comment, but I would like to add my contribution as a Rwandan, and a MOOC researcher. For those who have not yet come across my profile, I am researching Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Open Educational Resources (OER) for Widening Participation in Rwandan Higher Education. My research interest is not accidental. It was inspired by learning experience, face-to-face, on radio and online. A bit of my educational background is covered in my earlier blog entry. My professional profile can be found here. This blog post is the first of several entries written as response to issues raised by O’Neil’s article and the comments it triggered. It addresses accreditation, sustainability and quality of conventional higher education in Rwanda.

To start with the important questions raised in the article: 1. Will it earn the trust of employers and of others in higher education? My response to this question is that I learned English via radios and this did not prevent my learning to be recognized. When I took the secondary education national exams for being eligible to the students’ loan, English in which I had mainly studied on the radio was the exam in which I had the best results. The National University of Rwanda confirmed my achievement in English language learning by deciding that I did not have to spend a year learning this language as did most of students who joined the university the same academic year. These Rwandan institutions’ practices of recognizing my prior learning was accurately conducted. Otherwise, I would not have won the awards which enabled me to continue my postgraduate/graduate education in the USA and UK. I share part of my personal life in attempt to challenge espoused theories of how people learn tend to be promoted globally. However, most of those theories are based on results of studies conducted in settings that are not representative of the entire world realities. Accounts of personal experience often raise skepticism. I would be happy to release some of my records to anyone who would like to verify them and help us understand better the diversity of successful learning.

Competence-based assessment practices and qualification, like the ones Generation Rwanda is planning to adopt, which had been indeed a tradition in some Rwandan institutions, need to be invigorated to reward accomplishment of enthusiastic informal learners and encourage the self-guided learning culture.

The question about whether Rwandan students will be able to adjust to the Western language rate will be addressed in my second blog entry dedicated to MOOCs, language issues and barriers to education. As for the question “Is the Kepler model sustainable over the long term?”, it raises one of the challenges OER and MOOC researchers and practitioners are trying to address. The quest for a sustainable education based on OER and MOOCs is underway. I am highly optimistic that Kepler and Generation Rwanda’s practices will contribute enormously in this endeavor.

Another point that deserves discussion relates to the note that quality of higher education in Rwanda falls below western standard. Of course it does. However, it would be over simplistic and misleading to stop here. We should understand this phenomenon by analysing what cause it and working on them. My paper “Evaluation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) From a Learner’s Perspective” that will be presented at the 12th European Conference on eLearning later this month discussed two of the barriers to quality education in Rwanda: The lack of access to learning resources and the shortage of teachers. Among the most marked disparities a Rwandan student notices when s/he get the chance to experience western education is the over-abundance of access to learning resources. Classroom interaction becomes more productive, when students had access to learning materials, learned them and come to class to exchange what they think of the materials they have already learned. This is what even enabled Western professors to flip classes. With the lack of access Rwandan students face, it is unrealistic to expect the western interaction from them.  In addition to this, Rwandan students have always struggled to learn in foreign language many of western student have the privilege to possess as a native language. This is the topic of my second blog entry which responds to O’Neil’s article and comments that followed. Aware of circumstance in which Rwandan students learn, I personally commend their accomplishment and encourage them achieve more.

 The shortage of access to learning materials makes the teacher the most accessible source of information for most students. The more learning resources become more available in Rwanda, the less the students’ dependence on the teacher will become. High interaction in western societies was enabled by the ubiquity of internet connectivity and students’ access to learning resources. Without such access in Western schools, students’ interaction might still be there but it would hardly be that rich educational exchange we have in those schools. Unfortunately, this is the fact that many people tend to disregard if they ever think about it. The shortage of higher education teachers’ also leads to similar difficulties. Rwandan class might have up to 200 students as opposed to western ones that have one tenth of this size (20 students on average). Some western classes can even have as few as 10 students. O’Neil also did very well by including a quotation that highlights the lack of microphones and loud speakers which make very few students able to listen to the teacher. If we want to build the western class size in Rwanda, we will have to exclude thousands of students from the system, which would probably create more social problems. Inclusive education, in which the learning of the rich is shared with the poor, and that of the poor shared with the rich should be promoted. Maybe, if the western class size was promoted in Rwanda, I would not be writing this blog entry, because I would probably been excluded. Despite the desperate undergraduate education conditions, many Rwandan students adjust to the western education rhythm when they are offered the opportunity to take their post graduate education there. Unfortunately, the higher education enrolment in Rwanda is still very low. O’Neil claims it to be 6.6 in 2011(we would have appreciated it if s/he had provide a link to this source of this information).

Concluding my comment on this post, I would like to commend the job that is being done by Kepler and Generation Rwanda. Their practices are certainly contributing to a better understanding of MOOCs and how they can be used in developing countries. I would encourage more practices, including those conceived from the developing country’s perspective. Maybe, people can innovate new models to include the 2,646 who were not admitted in the Kepler and Generation Rwanda MOOC initiative. The approval from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education Council is also a good indicator of Rwandan higher education decision makers’ commitment to improve access to and quality of higher education. I am curious to see the link between my current research findings and what Kepler and Generation Rwanda will find out. I will write another blog entry on the common mistake on the current MOOC literature, as a note of caution to the researchers involved in the Kepler and Generation Rwanda’s initiative. I am willing to share two papers I have so far written on MOOCs as well as the results of my pilot study with these researchers, the Ministry of Education, Rwanda Education Board, Higher Education Council and academics in Rwandan higher education institutions who are interested in reading about MOOCs.

Confessions of a PhD student (14): I am a MOOC dropout.

A couple of months ago I participated in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for the first time. I was intrigued about the MOOC movement. I only had a general idea: free courses, prestigious universities, thousands of students, access to anyone with an Internet connection… I wanted to know more about the learning design, the interactions between participants, the assessment processes, the challenges …

I signed up in Coursera and enrolled in a course on information and communication technologies in education. I had 18,000 fellow course mates. The course consisted of activities based on independent study and self-evaluation surveys. There were some synchronous sessions, which in practice were mere videos of the teachers. Interactions were fostered through a Twitter hashtag and a number of discussion forums.

My first impression was: Chaos. Instructions were not clear for everyone. Different resources had inconsistent information. There were lots of questions. Some people seemed to have no experience with communicating online. A thread about a technical problem could have a random post of someone introducing themselves (?!). This is not an issue with a small group of participants… but when you have a group of 18k… It is overwhelming…

I dropped out after a couple of days. I am not proud of it. I am part of the statistics, of those who failed to complete the course. However, I also think it was the best decision for me at the time. I had four main reasons to stop:

  1. I felt lost in a sea of chaos. The large number of students with different skill levels derived in an overwhelming amount of messages being sent without following a coherent structure. I could not keep up with that.
  2. Course content was not completely self-explanatory. Some instructions were confusing. Different resources had inconsistent information. The teachers could not answer all the questions. Again, I felt lost.
  3. It was a free course. Dropping out had no significant consequence.
  4. The time and effort needed to make sense of the MOOC seemed to exceed the expected benefits. For me, it was not worth it.

Are all MOOCs the same? Is it only a matter of enduring the beginning?  Maybe after a while it improves? I do not know, but I will soon start another MOOC. Hopefully I will obtain some answers.


Why do people drop out of MOOCs?

  • Overwhelming chaos
  • Unclear guidance
  • No losses or significant consequences
  • Efforts to succeed exceed expected benefits

Designing learning for mobile: Theatre for a Change

7Cs of Learning Design Workshop with Theatre for a Change

7Cs of Learning Design Workshop with Theatre for a Change

Theatre for a Change (TFAC) is a London-based charity engaged in training teachers to give instruction to middle- and high-school age students about reproductive health issues. TFAC is active in African countries including Malawi and Ghana. Their courses have taken various forms including theatre workshops, art, and radio programmes. After reading about our work to help deploy our Criminology’s MSc in Security, Conflict and International Development with its iPad and app model, TFAC contacted us to help them extend their reach to students in more remote areas by transforming to a mobile learning model.

We held a 7Cs of Learning Design workshop with TFAC in May 2013, and helped them to storyboard a new ‘mobile’ version of the course. I recall at the time the above photo was taken, the group was discussing how to ‘chunk’ each learning unit in a way suitable for mobile phones, how to refer students to audio-recorded material, and how to include feedback and discussion through mobile methods. Since that workshop, I have helped with transforming the material into mobile-ready formats, and working on using social media as a simple virtual learning environment / learning management system.

This project is a great opportunity to create a different kind of mobile learning model, and we are very much figuring it out as we go along. It was great also to think about designing for mobile learning, from the beginning. Designing the learning for mobile, from the beginning, has got to be the key to mobile learning success. I plan to update this blog as the project rolls out, so stay tuned!

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, Institute of Learning Innovation, University of Leicester

‘As I was contributing, I was learning’: an interview with Bernard Nkuyubwatsi

In this post I will reflect on the third of the interviews I carried out with OERu community members, as part of the case study for the POERUP project. (For background information, see my earlier blog post, ‘Three compelling voices from the OERu: a case study‘.) My interviewee this time was Bernard Nkuyubwatsi, a colleague at the University of Leicester’s Institute of Learning Innovation, where he is doing his PhD on the subject of open education, and someone who has engaged with the OER university in a voluntary capacity over the last few years.

Bernard Nkuyubwatsi (photo by Gabi Witthaus, CC-BY)

Bernard Nkuyubwatsi

The thread running throughout my interview with Bernard was the sense of his burning quest to facilitate access to higher education for people in his home country, Rwanda, through open educational resources. Bernard’s interest in this area stems from his personal experience as a student:

When I talk about openness … I refer back to my own experience. The way I gained entry to my undergraduate education was sort of through openness. They (the National Examination Centre in Rwanda) accepted non-formal learners to come and sit for national exams – the same exam that was given to formal students. Then after that, they didn’t base their decision on whether you were a formal or non-formal student. They based it on your results in the exam. So that kind of giving a chance to people who did not have a chance to go to formal school, I think people should have that opportunity, really.

According to Bernard, fewer than 4% of the population of Rwanda are able to participate in Higher Education. In order to enable access for greater numbers of learners, Bernard sees the potential value of OERs and massive open, online courses (MOOCs), but as he points out, the obstacles inherent in this route are considerable:

First of all, we need to know there’s a divide, if you like a ‘digital divide’. It’s not only in the OERu. There are people who have access to the Internet, and people who don’t have access.  People who have access will be able to benefit from them. And those people who don’t have access, I think they will stay behind. That’s what I see. And there are some limitations. OERu can contribute to providing educational opportunities to people who have access to the Internet maybe but don’t have access or don’t have a lot of money to pay for expensive schools, so it can help them learn cost-effectively.

We discussed possible ways of supporting those individuals who do not have access to the Internet. I suggested to Bernard that if there was an institution in Rwanda that had access to the internet, and could get suitable materials (for example from the OERu) and make them available to the students in printed form, that might be a solution to the problem. His straightforward answer here was:

Yes, if you did it that way, that would work. Using other media, not being restricted to the Internet, that would work.

The key here is the recognition that, while initiatives like the OERu have the potential to offer education to learners on a mass scale, many learners in the developing world will still remain out of reach of such interventions unless a local provider steps in to provide the physical and technological resources necessary. (The question of digital literacy skills is probably closely tied in here.) This may seem like an obvious point, but it fundamentally increases the challenge for individuals who wish to make a difference in less well resourced societies, something that Bernard was well aware of, and seemed undeterred by. When I asked him if his aim was to go back to Rwanda and build something open there, his response was optimistic:

Yes, that would be wonderful! It’s not always easy, but I’m very hopeful because, as I was saying, when you see there is aspiration there, and financial resources are limited even on the part of government for financing schools, so there’s a need to find alternatives to provide an education for people.

The real highlight of the interview for me was where Bernard talked about the social learning he had experienced in the OERu:

Well, it was like, if I say open, but open in which sense?! … First of all, it was flexible. I was not required to join the community, but I joined and I contributed. I was not asked by anyone to contribute. I contributed when I felt, oh I have something to contribute. So I did not have to force myself to write something, as for example, in the case of classes where you have to write something because you are required to. So, that kind of freedom to contribute when you have something. And that’s what I would call original or kind of natural learning, the learning that comes from me as a learner. But also as people were discussing, they were high professionals… as I was contributing, I was learning sometimes. And when I contributed, people came and they responded to my ideas, challenging my ideas and challenging some other people’s ideas, and that’s the kind of learning I enjoyed, you know participating in the community. And I think that’s where I have been able to really kind of create a, not network, not only create it but maintain it, because I’m still connected with them.

An elegant description, I think, of the kind of learning that the OERu is intending to promote for learners when it launches later this year.

Many thanks to Bernard for taking the time to have this very inspiring conversation with me. (The full transcript of the interview is available here.)

Blog post written by Gabi Witthaus for the Institute of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester.

CC-BY licence

‘In the OERu, education is something that grows as it shares’ – an interview with Haydn Blackey

Further to my earlier blog post about the POERUP-OERu case study, and the highlights from my interview with Wayne Mackintosh, I would like to share a few highlights from my interview with Haydn Blackey. Haydn is Head of the Centre of Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the University of South Wales, and is responsible for liaison between and the OERu (Open Educational Resources university).

Haydn Blackey (image from USW website)

Haydn Blackey (image from USW website)

The University of South Wales is the new name for the former University of Glamorgan, which recently merged with the University of Wales. They were the first UK university to take the innovative step of joining the OER university. (While senior leadership of UK universities has been watching the development of the OERu network with interest, their engagement has been characterised by a wait-and-see attitude and a concomitant reluctance to join the consortium. For a summary of the issues involved here, see my blog post from the TOUCANS project ‘UK HEIs and the OERu: Snog, Marry, Avoid?’ Since USW joined however, the Institute of Technology of Sligo in Ireland has also become an anchor partner, so this may be gradually changing.)

As in the interview with Wayne Mackintosh, the notion of widening participation in higher education is a central theme in Haydn’s responses to my questions. This is clearly a key principle for him on many levels – personally, from the perspective of his institution, and from a national perspective:

The purpose of the OERu is to make use of open education as a way to make a significant contribution to social change and development internationally, and I think what attracted our institution to the OERu… was that sense of giving back to the community, and … widening access… You know, we have eight times more widening-access students at our university than any other Welsh university does… That’s why… particularly in the context of Wales, where we have a Labour Party government which would be to the left of the Labour Party in England, [and] while we’re a small nation right beside a very large nation and so on… there’s a sense in which Welsh institutions are encouraged to take a much more egalitarian perspective on the engagement of learning and teaching than might be the case in a more market-dominated model, which might be more prevalent in England… The OERu is our route into a community of people who interact with those sets of values and context on an international scale rather than just on a local one.

Haydn elaborates on this point when I ask him whether the purpose of the OERu is clear to all members:

I think the institutions that are committed to [the OERu] are committed to it exactly because of that philanthropic contribution to the development of education that is genuinely open and is genuinely world-wide. I’m pretty certain they wouldn’t be putting their names against it without that.

And again when I ask him whether OERu members have any special sense of group identity:

I do think that the majority of people who are part of the OERu are… there… because of its value sets, that sit aside from the value sets around the venture capitalist approach to education. There is a view about education as something that grows as it shares in the OERu, which you don’t get the sense of from participation perhaps in other things which are more focused on what value you can gain… I think the OERu holds some of those values quite strongly, and people who belong would feel that they would want to be emoting those values.

One of the major contributions which Haydn sees the University of South Wales making to the OERu community is in terms of the sharing of their expertise in accreditation of prior learning with other consortium members:

Accreditation of prior learning, particularly learning that might have happened in the workplace, is something that we’ve built a whole raft of experience in. And as a widening access institution over the years … where we might have people who have over 30 years of experience but no qualifications beyond getting their school-leaving certificate … and so we’ve spent quite a bit of time and energy developing systems that accredit learning that takes place in employment, that accredit learning through flexible approaches which aren’t simply credit sharing in the kind of European Credit Transfer approach. And certainly in the dialogue that we’ve been having with the [OERu] network with that set of questions, when the wiki raised those, it was interesting to see that our contribution was actually quite a long way through that journey, where many of the American, Australian and New Zealand partners were beginning to explore the possibility, but it certainly hadn’t become part of what they already do.

If you’d like to hear more about the University of South Wales’ participation in the OERu, please see the full transcript of my interview with Haydn. Many thanks to Haydn for giving of his time to participate in this study.

Blog post written by Gabi Witthaus for the Institute of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester.

CC-BY licence

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