So I Guess The Future of Education Looks a Lot Like the Current and the Past

So a lot has been said about the problems that Coursera ran into with a recent MOOC “stumble.” The anti-MOOC crowd is screaming “I told you so”, while the pro-MOOC crowd is brushing it off as “just a risk that we take with experimentation.” At first I was trying to figure out what the big deal was – courses get cancelled all the time, often for no reason. I have even heard of MOOCs getting cancelled for various reasons, too. Why the fuss here?

Part of it is probably because of the way it happened, but I think the real reason is a bit larger in scope: the magic savior/disruptor of higher education, the promised one that was to come and fulfill all prophecies and lead us into a glorious new educational future – has proven to be just as fallible as any other tool or idea.

Maybe we are beginning to realize that the problem with education today is not necessarily the system or the structure or the pedagogy or the tools, but it is the people using those systems, structures, pedagogies, and tools incorrectly. Maybe we are now realizing that our awesome ideas that will destroy higher ed can themselves be misused in the wrong hands. Maybe we are beginning to realize that the people in charge of cool, new hip systems can make just as bone-headed decisions as the suit and tie guys in charge of academia if they don’t have the correct information.

Maybe it is time to realize that the road to true revolution in academia is not about disruption or trying to recreate the “mp3 of the educational world” or even about revolution at all. Maybe it is about spending the time to train people correctly in how to use the correct tools in the correct way. Maybe it is time to stop making fun of the people that are calling for research into new ideas by saying that they are “resisting the inevitable future” (sometime research reveals that new ideas are good – so its not like people calling for research are resisting new ideas).  Because I am starting to think that the only inevitable thing about the future is that we will be doomed to repeat the past if we don’t learn from it. This whole scenario with Coursera seems to just be us repeating past mistakes because we didn’t try to learn from them along the way.

Maybe it is time to stop looking at mistakes as something to be discarded and start looking at the them as something to learn from and possibly even improve upon.

Open Learning Structure Part 3

So as I have been looking at what, for lack of better words, would be the “basics” of open learning. I have been adding different layers and ideas to the original ones examined in part 1. In part 2, I added how the various Learning Spaces would interact with each other. This post will look a bit at how the student Personal Learning Networks would interact with the overall idea.

Due to recent announcements from Blackboard, I have been waiting a bit to see how their new directions will fit into the Open Learning world. I attended a sneak preview of their next generation product, and to be honest… I am not sure. It seems like they are recreating Facebook as a learning-centered social network in some ways. But there are ways to connect to external services like Facebook and Twitter. So a lot of that remains to be seen – but that can be figured out later. For now, on to the new and improved open learning diagram:

Personal Learning Environments / Networks

If you are online, you probably already have a PLE or PLN. Possibly even both. The network would be the people you follow, read, etc regardless of platform – as well as the people that read and follow you. The environment would be the tool or tools you use to bring in everything you want to read – like Google Reader, a list of certain topical pages on Facebook, or something else like that. If you use them, then you would use several environments to create your network. The main idea is that no two people create the same PLE/N, but they all interact with each other.

We all know that we can control our identity in our own PLE/N. We can post anonymously in some places, as ourselves in others, and as a fictitious pseudo-name in others. I have already touched on how this is important for privacy issues. I just want to touch base with the idea again to re-enforce the point that many others (Siemens, Downes, Groom, Cormier, etc) have made: open learning gives students more control over their identity and therefore fulfills the original intent of FERPA and other privacy measures.

The downside to realize is that students will need much, much, more education on what that control means.

So, back to the diagram. I made another change in that the Student PLE looks more like a cloud of environments, rather than just one static shape. This is more in line with how a PLE/N really works. So many things over lap out there on the web. Many students work together. Many students go off on a side tangent and discuss or investigate things that are external to the course topic. All of this is a valid part of the learning process. It is impossible to draw hard, fast lines in this cloud – I really just put an arrow there to highlight what could happen, but it is really not that neat and tidy.

Another important facet to point out is that the arrow between a specific student’s PLE/N and the Learning Space goes both ways, as students can also learn from the instructor as well as submit new ideas and concepts to be learned by the instructor. In reality, the Learning Space would not necessarily be where you would place the instructor on this diagram. They would be one of many nodes existing out in the “cloud” of PLE/Ns. This is why the diagram says “Student / Teacher PLE / N” – the instructors would be the administrators of the Learning Space and the guides of what students learn, but ultimately they would be in the network sharing and learning along with the students.

The bigger picture would look like a huge cloud of PLE/Ns. As you get closer to the school itself, this cloud would form more order and organization, as students and teachers make sense of what they are learning. The Learning Spaces would form the technology barrier between the chaotic learning cloud and the learning institutions. These spaces would be where learning is observed, where ideas are organized into assignments, where interaction is organized into discussions. This organized content would be sent to the university or other institution for analysis, proof of learning, statistics  etc. But this organization would also be spit back out into the cloud of learning for others to learn from, tear through, re-organize, re-mix, etc.

The idea is to have a constantly moving, changing, chaotic, living, growing, breathing process of learning rather than the static, predictable  unidirectional process that we currently have.

Open Learning Structure Part 2

So in part 1 of taking a bird’s eye view of open learning structure, I focused mainly on the authentication issues surrounding privacy as well as the basic flow of information in an open learning structure. I wasn’t intending to do a series, but a few good questions and comments made me realize that  I needed to expand on the parts that I didn’t focus on and look at some of the basics of how they would also work. It also became evident that I needed to expand the diagram a bit. So, with that, I want to look a bit at the Instructor Space which – based on Alan Levine (@cogdog) excellent comment – has been renamed:

Learning Space

The basic idea is that the learning space could be anything that the instructor or learner thinks works best for the class. It can be set-up ahead of time by a teacher or group of teachers, or mutually agreed upon by the learners and/or teachers. It could be a Learning Management System, a blog, a Facebook page, or a combination of many things. This differs from the standard institutional approach where one tool (usually an LMS) is adopted for everybody and then individual instructors and learners have to figure out how to adapt their learning to fit in that mold.

This touches on a key idea for an open learning concept of a learning space – the learning space is more of an aggregation point, not THE place that all learning “happens.” The learning space would aggregate content from many spaces and then export that content so that learners would still interact with the course through their own personal learning environment. The instructor also interacts with the class through the learning space of their choice. No one has to really learn to use a new system or force things to work in a giant LMS because they are using the tools that they have been using all along. Or, optionally, they can choose to change to something they think will work better.

Or, at least, that is the idea. As Jim Groom pointed out on Twitter, the technology is not quite there yet.

Once it is, I think there will really be two parts to the Learning Space. One is the instructor’s own Personal Learning Network, where they can pull in ideas from other experts, articles, current events, and all kinds of other content. As George Siemens has pointed out, instructors need to avoid teaching alone – so pulling in others in very important. The other part of the Learning Space would be the aggregation and distribution tools that export this content out to the learners, as well as importing student work for review and distribution.

Another aspect of the aggregation part of a Learning Space is the technical aspect of authentication. In some arenas this exists – in others, not so much. Technology already lets an instructor open up their course to let anyone join in. Blogs, RSS readers, and even LMS applications let guests in. But there is also going to be the case where students need to be authenticated with official records to allow for credit, grades, etc. Technological architecture and standards need to be developed that allow students to go to any random learning space and log in with official school credentials. This login would be securely authenticated with school servers. Students then have an account on the learning space where they control their identity. They can connect their blog, Twitter feed, or whatever to that account. The student, say Freddie Smith, would then choose to use his real name or a complete alias. Only the instructor and the software running on secure connections would know that the “AllKnowingOne’s Blog” is also Freddie Smith. Freddie could also change his privacy per course he is taking – if one course seems a bit too personal he can stay anonymous where as in another course about basic concepts he can use his real name. The control would be on a per class basis, totally up to the learner.

Another important reason that this authentication piece is important is that to “remain in ‘compliance with federal distance education regulations’ you have to login through a centralized, campus-wide authentication system” as Jim Groom recently blogged about. There are ways to do this with different systems, but not so much with others. Once the technology advances a little, hopefully we will see a streamlined set of standards that can be plugged into any system from WordPress to Google to whatever else comes down the road.

So, adding the next piece of the puzzle to the Open Learning Structure diagram, we come up with this:

This shows the added element of instructors interacting with their own PLE to add to the Learning Space. In Part 3, I want to look more at the Student PLE piece of the diagram by adding another arrow representing a different flow of information.

Open Learning Structure Part 1

Open learning is becoming the new social learning – a “well-used” term that may quickly become a cliche if too many companies keep over-using it to hype their agenda. MOOCs are all the rage now, but sometimes you get the sense that few people really get what is going on. I have been following MOOCs from the beginning and I still don’t get what is going on fully – so I kind of sit back and wonder who all these “experts” are that different companies pull out to support their newest money making venture. Funny how money can suddenly drum up a whole slew of experts ex nihilo….

But, reservations aside about who might hijack the idea, open learning still has a grand hint of promise that just can’t be denied. Jim Groom has a great post about the architecture and structure needed to run open courses. This brought me back to the time when “social learning” was still a new, interesting concept and Harriet and I came up with the Social Learning Manifesto. The basic idea of the diagram that we put out there is still a good illustration of what is happening in education, so I thought I would pull that out, dust it off, update it a bit, and use it as a good starting point to show a bird’s eye view of what is needed. So, instead of a Social Learning Network, I bring you…

Open Learning Structure

(and it is mainly just “structure” because I didn’t feel like typing ‘architecture’ over and over and over again)

When I think of open learning, I get a basic idea of three separate arenas: the school/institution space, the instructor space, and the student space. All three are connected to each other, but the nature of those connections are slightly different.

First of all, you have a institutional server of some kind that replaces and institutional LMS. Yes, I said replaces. If you look at everything on the diagram, there is just not much need for a centralized LMS. The institutional server provides a hub for authentication, grade storage, identity protection, objective repositories, and archiving.

Students have their own Personal Learning Environment or Network. This is already pre-existing, but can be expanded or upgraded as needed depending on the class. Students can use the PLE to protect their privacy if wanted – they can be as anonymous or personal as they want to through their own network (and that can change from day to day or even course by course). This is the ultimate realization of FERPA – giving students control over what they share and don’t share. This is where the student creates their objects to be shared with the instructor and/or world. You can see from the diagram or the social learning manifesto how that would work.

Sitting between these two hubs is the most important part – but also the one that is the least realized as far as existing software is concerned. The instructor space would be where authentication happens, where assignments and activities are posted, where students submit work, and where students also protect their privacy. Students would authenticate through the instructor space – where they have the option to connect to their work through their name or through an alias. They can also submit unlisted or private links that only the instructor is granted access to. The red circle running through the diagram is the privacy line (FERPA line if you are in the U.S.) – students connect over that line how they want to, using the instructor space as a secure tunnel to do so and a firewall to protect anything they want.

We don’t have that piece fully yet – but it probably won’t be long. An important idea to also note is that this diagram shows only one school as a hub – but that doesn’t have to be so in every instance. Students from different schools could authenticate through the same instructor space just by having an additional drop down of schools to pick from. The software would then route the authentication through to the appropriate institution. But the main idea is that we can stop thinking of courses as belonging to one school.

So, if you think of this diagram in a three-dimensional sense, with lines running in all directions and connecting all pieces – you get the idea of how beautiful open learning could end up being in the future.

(Note: after getting several good questions here and on twitter, I am going to expand this post with 2-3 more parts. This post looks mainly at Authentication and Privacy/Admin issues. Based on Alan Levine’s comment I think the “Instructor Space” will be turned into a “Learning Space.” Part 2 will look at the Learner Space in more detail, and then Part 3 will examine the Student PLE. I am also considering a Part 4 to look at why we need to examine this and what is the use of this structure over an LMS. The diagram above will also evolve as more pieces are added in future posts.)