Moodlemoot 06 – Jason Cole’s keynote

Jul 29, 2006

Miles Berry

Jason ColeA wide ranging and visionary keynote address from Jason Cole, one of the OU’s band of e-learning gurus and author of O’Reilly’s Using Moodle book. Lots of what Jason had to offer was fairly radical stuff, and had at its heart a market led view of education, which perhaps wouldn’t suit everyone, although I don’t think he views the market in (purely) financial terms, as there were distinct hints of the ‘gift economy’ motivation behind at least some open source development. Jason started us off with a few thought provoking questions, going to the heart of the potential transformation that the Internet could bring to education, particularly perhaps in the post compulsory sector, such as “When I want to learn something, why do I use Google and not a university?”, “Do I have to wait until September to learn french?” and “Why is higher education so expensive?”. The present model of access through subsidy with courses as products and content delivery via scalable lectures, really fails to take advantage of the potential of the Internet, with it’s potential to connect distributed groups of learners and provide just-in-time access to the people and resources most appropriate for a learner.

Jason higlighted how the present system of working through predefined courses at predefined rates, which is characteristic of much formal education, really fails to take account of the order of magnitude difference in learning speeds and any individual learners particular circumstances and aptitudes. He thinks that such simultaneous curricular are now obsolete and it’s time for a new model. Unlike the no significant difference folks, he thinks that the mode of teaching can make a difference, and quoted a difference of two standard deviations between classroom instruction and individual tutoring, although, of course the latter is prohibitively expensive in most circumstances. However, given that such a significant improvement is possible with one sort of teaching, it might, in theory at least, be possible with other approaches too, and an innovative approach to the potential of e-learning, rather than merely bolting on new technologies to existing systems might bring this within reach.

He sees the increasing attention paid to the insights, contirbutions and choices of consumers as a driving force for innovation there, citing a number of studies that support this view, as well as the growth of open source, web 2.0, and related areas. His list of significant ‘consumer’ led creations included Moodle, LAMP, blogging, wikipedia, youtube, flickr, amazon reviews and google pagerank. His perception is that the ‘prosumer’ society’s “Cambrian explosion of creativity” can be leveraged to transform the educational world too, and from an HE perspective argued convincingly for an opening up of the university, with an embracing of genuinely open (rather than merely shared) content, open course design, and design for open, peer-peer support arrangements. This ties in so well with the opportunities for more social, collaborative learning that many of are looking for in schools education, as well as the “choice and voice” approach to personalised learning that organizations such as FutureLab have advocated. Jason also manages to make a strong business case for this, in an increasingly marketized sphere, arguing that trends such as these will “both lower the cost of coordination and increase the importance of peer productions relative advantage – identifuing the best available humans capital in highly refined increments and allocatring it to projects.”

The OU have a long standing reputation for openness in higher education (hence, I guess, the name), with an enlightened policy on undergraduate admission requirements, and a history of making their course materials available to the general public – I have fond memories of following some of their undergrad maths courses on Sunday morning television broadcasts back in sixth form days. A number of other organizations are now making high quality materials freely available online, including MIT’s open courseware project, a similar project at Utah State, Stanford’s experiments with lectures on itunes, as well as less traditional organizations such as Project Gutendberg, Wikipedia and Google’s work with a number of university libraries. The OU are about to launch a similar Open Content Initiaitve, with 900 hours of the Open University’s content going online in October, increasing to some 8100 hours in due curse, together with an open VLE for managing learning and what Jason described as ‘sense making tools’. Jason wasn’t sure where the business model behind this was heading, although at the moment the initiative is supported by a chariatable foundation, as is the MIT version, although ads and subscription services haven’t been ruled out. That said, I can’t imagine that these initiatives have a negative impact on the institution’s main business – MIT’s example proves that it’s not the lecture notes that are the unique selling points of an MIT education, but rather some combination of the social interactions and the accreditation. The really interesting thing with the OU approach, as Jason describes it, is that the content is going to be provided in such a way as folks can disaggregate it and adapt it to their own particular context, rather than using it wholesale, although the vision doesn’t appear to extend to collaborative co-production of new content, at least not yet; the OU seem quite happy with their existing course team approach to content and learning design. In the Q&A at the end, Jason did touch on the issue of intellectual property rights, and acknowledged that the tight feedback loop between users and developers was one of the things that had given open source its edge, and in a modified form, was responsible for wikipedia’s success – it’s far from clear whether this sort of tight feedback is likely to feature in the OU’s Open Content Initiative, at least as it’s envisaged at present.

Jason moved on to a discussion of the ‘Long Tail’ as it applies to university courses (just started reading this on Leon Cych’s recommendation, and my mind’s already bizzing with some of the implications for school level learning). A typical university might offer something like 1500 courses, but 35% of enrolments come from just 25 of these. Jason argued, perhaps not entirely convincingly, that these 25 could be ‘commoditized’, with collaborative redesign of these courses between institutions, focussed on bringing in lots of the power of the new technology to deliver these in far more personlized (he actually said individualized) ways, with lots of continuous assessment, constructive feedback and oppportunities for increased interaction among the students. The universities can then concentrate on ‘monetizing’ the long tail, where personal attention can be focussed, research can be more closely tied to teaching and use can be made of extended communities of practice amongst alumni. Fairly radical stuff, and interesting to adapt some of this vision to the school system, where the tail isn’t quite so long, as the vast majority of pupils are following pretty much identical curricular most of the time at the moment – by doing this core stuff better, ideally through lots more collaboration between institutions and far more effective use of the technology, an opportunity space could be carved out for schools to offer their own distinctive, tailored provision for their particular pupils and contexts, and perhaps provide crucial opportunities for pupils’ and teachers’ to explore the things they’re more interested in – not sure how practical this is in a typical school, but it’s a captivating idea.

He touched on some of the characteristics of a more open approach to learner support, including an ‘e-bay’ like model, in which just as all are (potentially at least) buyers and sellers, so all are, often simultaneously, learners and teachers – one of the key ideas underpinning Martin’s vision for Moodle. Traditional approaches such as lecturing and individual tutoring are either ineffective or inefficient, whereas networked communities of learners has the potential to carve a middle route here; Jason gave the example of in which skype is used to provide conversation practice in foreign languages, and thinks that there may yet be a place for an ebay like rating system for teachers in this sort of adhoc learning network. Just as with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow, Jason reckons that with enough minds all learning problems are soluble.Of course, such direct peer-peer learning is unlikely to go down well with those content with existing institutional hierachies, or indeed accreditation barriers.