Food for taught: the bundled university and just-in-time education


Long-beaked Corellas over the back fence, Sydney

This is interesting. It may not come about and even if it does, we may strongly disagree with it, but it is worth contemplating, if only to position ourselves for all options in the future.

And be sure to take note of this, embedded in the article:

John Biggs on performative versus declarative understanding


Avalon Beach, Sydney, March 2015

Bigg’s “Teaching For Quality Learning At University” is a goldmine of student-centred learning – nuggets lying everywhere.

“This distinction between performances of understanding and verbal declarations of understanding are crucial when it comes to writing the intended learning outcomes of a course […] The difference between meeting the requirements of institutional learning and ‘real’ understanding is illustrated in Gunstone and White’s (1981) demonstrations with Physics I students. In one demonstration, two balls, one heavy and one light, were held in the air in front of the students. They were asked to predict, if the balls were released simultaneously, which one would hit the ground first and why. Some predicted that the heavy one would ‘because heavy things have a bigger force’ or ‘gravity is stronger nearer the earth’ (both are true but irrelevant). These students had ‘understood’ gravity well enough to pass HSC (A level) physics, but few understood well enough to answer a simple real-life question about gravity. They could correctly solve problems using the formula for g – which does not contain a term for the mass of the object falling – while still reacting in the belief that heavy objects fall faster. They didn’t really understand gravity in the performative sense – and why should they if their teaching and assessment didn’t require them to? These physics students hadn’t changed their commonsense conceptions of gravity, but had placed alongside them a set of statements and formulae about physical phenomena that would see them through the exams. To really understand physics or mathematics, history or accountancy is to think like a physicist, a mathematician, a historian or an accountant; and that shows in how you behave. Once you really understand a sector of knowledge, it changes that part of the world; you don’t behave towards that domain in the same way again. Gunstone and White’s physics students were good at verbally declaring their knowledge, for example explaining what gravity is about, or what the three laws of motion are. But is this why we are teaching these topics? Is it for acquaintance, so that students know something about the topic and can answer the sorts of stock questions that typify examination papers? In that case, a verbal understanding will suffice. Or is it to change the way (sooner or later) students can understand and control reality? If that is the case, then a performative level of understanding is implicated.”

Biggs, John (2011-09-01). Teaching For Quality Learning At University (Society for Research Into Higher Education) (p. 86). McGraw Hill International. Kindle Edition.

Give grades at the start of the semester and not at the end?

Just to try and liven things up a bit and as an experiment, I thought of starting the semester with one of my university classes by giving all students an 85/100 High Distinction right of the bat. I am eternally worried and unimpressed with grading at university level. Is there a way around it?  They then have to defend it and have to sign a learning contract saying how they will make up missed work to maintain their 85. The mark could go up or down from 85. Is this feasible? We are supposed to be concentrating on the learning process and not grades, so I have no particular attachment to grades per se. I had previously discussed the idea with students last semester and they were intrigued,but unsure, as I was. While I was meditating on this, I read one of Susan Brookhart’s books on assessment:

Thoroughly impressed, I dashed off an email to her seeking her opinion on my idea. She replied that there are no shortcuts around this. The best way to manage grades is to make sure assignments/assessments are properly matched to intended learning outcomes and make sure that you have clearly specified criteria for good quality work and expected performance levels, and then grade. Giving students a high mark from the start which they must defend, while nicely utopian, assumes too much: they may know a lot of stuff already, but giving them a high mark right from the start, which they must defend, is not a valid measure of where they are out. In addition, students will be at different stages of knowledge. High Distinction is okay as a statement of where you want them to be at the end of the semester, but the best way to achieve that is to provide opportunities for them to learn and assessments that reflect that. Making up for missing work doesn’t test for quality, it’s just making up for missing work – it misconstrues the process.

Susan went on to say that some university professors use learning contracts linked to level of achievement students want to attain. This can build in student responsibility and commitment: “for example, to get an A you might need to do a complex, advanced task at an acceptable level, while to get a B you might do a less complex task at an acceptable level, but it still should be about work quality that indicates learning quality. Not about contracting for points and for turning in work”.

Oh well, back to the drawing board. Still, it’s good to test these ideas with experts like Susan. Thanks Sue!

Words of caution – Laura Czerniewicz on MOOCs

In this Slideshare critique of MOOCs, Laura Czerniewicz, who works in the South African public university system, draws attention to what is driving the development of MOOCs and what the dangers are. She also points out how they might be usefully employed. She raises important ethical issues around monetisation (investment costs and returns), access (equity), quality (assurance of), the ethics of big data collection in relation to student privacy, and a new academic division of labour. MOOCs create an ethical dilemma/tension between the production and dissemination of knowledge as public and social goods, versus venture capitalists who have invested in MOOC production via private companies like Coursera and who are seeking an eventual payoff.

While Czerniewicz sees MOOCS as currently the solution to a problem – providing free university teaching to already highly qualified professionals (85% of MOOC students already have a degree), the MOOC end game is usually high enrolments and ways to monetise that, given their high production costs. MOOCs also raise the spectre of another form of neocolonialism: their production and consumption is predominantly in OECD countries and may lead to a new form of unidirectional knowledge flow and financial tribute.

Czerniewicz highlights the manoeuvres of MOOC developers to overcome the issues of quality and validation for their product: the development of emerging forms of certification, such as digital badges, certificates of achievement (verified and non-verified), and “statements of attainment” issued by some universities themselves. One of the marketing ploys is the promise of “rock-star” presenters/teachers, while tuition labour costs are outsourced.

Online education has provided a much larger share (now 37%) of the education market for private providers. The advantages of MOOCs for these private providers is that they relieve them of potential conflict with academics around labour and union issues and massively reduce the costs of physical infrastructure. It’s not hard to see their attraction for cash-strapped universities.

However, in spite her concerns, and to be balanced, Czerniewicz does acknowledge the potential for local (country, regional) MOOC initiatives in education, such as providing “gateway skills” (introduction to or bridging pathways to higher education for high school students, for example), or “graduate literacies” for UG students (something provided, for example, by Stanford in collaboration with Coursera), or even professional development for people not seeking or needing the credentialism of institutions of higher education like universities.

For further reading, see:
Czerniewicz, L; Deacon, A; Small, J and Walji, S (2014) Developing world MOOCs: A curriculum view of the MOOC landscape, in Journal of Global Literacies, Technologies, and Emerging Pedagogies (JOGLTEP) Vol. 2, Issue 3, July 2014, Michigan State, available at

“Meet the New, Self-Appointed MOOC Accreditors: Google and Instagram”

This blog from The Chronicle of Higher Education is a fascinating development: private MOOC providers get private companies to help design courses whose qualifications they will then recognise. Innovative or just sneaky and hard-nosed business thinking? So far they are talking about just free courses, but you know where this is going, right?


MOOC variations: the future? (or at least part of it)

As you know, I am a bit cynical about MOOCS (main purpose – eventually to make money), but this German initiative centred on “iversity” made me sit up and take notice:

“The major focus for iversity in the near future will be increasing the number of credit-earning MOOCs. This is a major opportunity in Europe that is not quite as feasible in the U.S., because most universities in Europe are funded publicly. Hannes explains: “In the U.S. the university that accepts credit from other institutions loses out on revenue because you pay on a per credit basis, whereas the European institution does not receive any tuition fees, so it doesn’t have as much of a problem with accepting credits from another institute.” What is iversity’s plan? Hannes sketched out a potential concept: iversity convinces, say, 25 European universities to form a sort of consortium, where they agree to produce 4 courses each (at an estimated cost of 25,000€ each). The universities agree to inspect the quality of the courses in order to exchange ECTS credits. They each also provide exam space. Thus, for an investment of 100,000€ and a commitment to produce 4 courses, each university has access to 100 credit-granting MOOCs for its students. These MOOCs can be offered to the public without credit, and would be assured of their high quality, or perhaps for some specialized courses, universities could even monetize some courses by charging for executive education enrollments.”

However, the link to the article about Germany is embedded in Dhawal Shah’s article in Class Central (how I found it), with its sunny outlook for future revenue streams, with or without partnerships with universities. Surely the end game is the money promise. The issue hinges on credit recognition:

“Last year we predicted that credit-granting MOOCs would be a key trend in 2014–we were wrong. There have been a few small experiments by universities to offer credit, such as a   criminal justice MOOC at Penn State, and an  intro computer science MOOC at the University of Oklahoma, though European universities seem to be closer in making this jump, with the provider iversity planning to work with European universities to offer credit. There are also MOOCs being offered in partnership with professional and continuing education programs (which confer professional education credits, certificates, or degrees): NovoEd is helping Stanford’s Graduate School of Business to bring their executive program online, and edX partnering with professional education programs to bring some courses online. However, besides these experiments, the major development in 2014 has been the Big 3 MOOC providers, Coursera, Udacity, and edX, introducing their own credentials for paid courses.”

It must be tempting to US universities under the budget kosh to cut deals in the future with private MOOC providers (universities supply the intellectual content; private companies provide the delivery vehicle). How long before a small consortium of Australian universities do this? The G8? Our concern will be about the quality of learning in such courses if they become an irrepressible trend adopted willy nilly. In addition, if universities don’t get on board or into partnership, in the near future we may eventually see certain professions accepting MOOC credits as valid skill development for their needs and bypass universities all together. If MOOCers and universities ever mount a convincing argument about equality of distance learning experience via automated systems (with little or no teacher-student contact) versus face-to-face encounters, universities might be radically transformed into clearing houses or mere grocery stores for different brands of MOOCs. A few elite research institutions might survive the cultural change if they can guarantee regular funding for all the bright, highly-paid research professors. I am not trying to be apocalyptic here – just speculating on what might happen in a worse-case scenario for those of us who believe in the current shape and purpose of a modern university. The concept of the universitas magistrorum et scholarium is medieval in provenance, but one that has survived through the years as it evolved into its modern guise. A lot of assumptions are implicit in the contemporary existence of universities: that come what may, they will always be here in some recognisable form as they are considered a net, vital, public good (even when many are private in some parts of the world); that universities provide a unique, creative habitat,a kind of sanctuary for free intellectual development not reproducible otherwise and not subordinated to a singular ideological project or market imperatives (a delicate dance, as we know, for private universities, which don’t always pull it off); lastly, it is assumed that if you put different Faculties of learning together, they will collectively levitate – Science, Architecture, Medicine, Human Sciences, Health, Engineering, etc., all belong together under the same institutional and administrative roof – they are more than the sum of their parts. Once we can no longer defend  and justify these assumptions, universities may morph, change, disappear, become unrecognisable. Who knows? (none of the crystal balls at Paddy’s market work).

If we must have MOOCs, let’s make sure there is a democratic global distribution of their benefits and profits. That can only be guaranteed by local production, I would suggest, but only if they can prove their all-round worth. I can’t see it yet.