A 20 year celebration of Eiffelcorp

Welcome We toasted Eiffelcorp’s 20th birthday celebration at a function in Jo’burg a few weeks ago. I particularly enjoyed the “fire-side” chat with Andre and Gwen van der Merwe. Among ed techies like myself, Eiffelcorp is best known as the company behind Blackboard. I learned a bit more about the history of Eiffelcorp and its origins.

This “mom and pop” start-up was founded by two aspiring teachers. Gwen finished her teaching degree, Andre dropped out to start the business. He flew to Canada, connected with Murray Goldberg, an academic from the University of British Columbia who developed WebCT (Course Tools). They brought WebCT back to local universities like Wits, Pretoria and Free State. Later on Blackboard acquired WebCT. Eiffelcorp and Blackboard became synonymous, at least among ed techies.

By today’s standards, WebCT is clunky and unintuitive. Many LMS packages suffer from this malady. What Andre and Gwen “got” was that they were not only a software company, selling a platform. They recognized the need to create an ongoing partnership with their clients and provide a host of strategic and support services associated with the use of technology in an educational setting. Gwen did training and Andre support, many times over weekends and late at night. Their up-front sales and behind the scenes efforts added value and kept the business growing.

I prefer open systems to proprietary ones. I think that the costs associated with Blackboard are extremely high. The platform does have a tendency to wag the pedagogical dog. However, I also recognize that Andre & Gwen’s company (now with a staff of approximately 40), preceded “disruption” and the “future of learning” hype from Silicon Valley. They built up a loyal base of academic users who are typically very critical and often reluctant to expend effort in teaching,

This fact deserves celebration. Well done to Andre and Gwen. In the next decade, Eiffelcorp must contribute to the development of a community of African elearning practitioners. People, like Andre and Gwen, who were not only interested in sales but who are teachers, intent on the thoughtful and appropriate use of technologies in learning. In the next ten years, if Eiffelcorp can support a community of practice of “ed techies”, who want to enable learning via technology, then I’ll be very pleased to raise a 30 year celebratory toast.

[Disclosure: I am occasionally contracted by Eiffelcorp to assist with staff development and training.]

Predatory Conferences. Caveat Empor.

Is this a dodgy conference?

The “good deal” offered by a good conference is being sullied by predator conference companies. These conference companies have no recognised expertise in the field, have no mandate from an academic or professional body and have profit as their motivation. They are akin to scavengers , preying on inexperienced pups, not sure who to turn to, what questions to ask, or know how to frame the unknowns.

Within my field (education technology), I’ve developed a checklist that offers a spectrum of 10 questions, designed to help me determine whether the conference is a predatory event. I use it to evaluate the invitations I receive. The checklist does not make any blanket rules. Some legitimate events might even tick some of the boxes. They might be well-arranged, organised by respected people with an appropriate background. I am grateful to them for their hard work. The checklist is simply a range of red flags for me to use. You might find it helpful.

  1. Is there a conference chair? What connections do they have to academia, the ICT industry or education technology?
  2. Are the listed speakers reputable experts. Check their profile on Twitter and use Twitteraudit.com to see if their followers are fake or real
  3. Do the advertised speakers know about the programme? Contact a few and ask them whether they know about the event and if their attendance is confirmed.
  4. If this is the 3rd, 4th or 5th event, then use Google to locate the previous years conference brochure. Does the programme from the previous year have the same speakers talking about the same topics?
  5. Does the PDF attached to the invitation email have the initials or a name associated with the consultant who contacted you about the conference. For example, 3rd-international-jp. This name/initial is probably the sales representative, working on a commission basis.
  6. Check on LinkedIn. Does the LinkedIn profile of the person sending out the conference invite have any connections to the field they are promoting? Do the conference organizers have a reputable LinkedIn profile?
  7. Does the organisation associated with the conference have a website, does the website mention the conference? Follow up on links. Where do they take you?
  8. Is the layout and design of the programme a little patchy, amateur or contradictory. Google the first paragraph. Has the text been plagiarised? Read the programme. Are there obvious errors.
  9.  What indexing and storage service does the conference offer for the previous year’s presentations?
  10. Finally, are the terms and conditions associated with the conference fair?
    • Does the organiser reserve the right to change the venue?
    • Does the organiser reserve the right to change speaker/facilitator?
    • Does the organiser reserve the right to change programme content?
    • Does the organiser offer refunds, or do they offer a credit voucher?
    • Is the conference fee realistic? Do you believe that you will get value for your money?

This is my list. You are welcome to use it. For ed techies (and other professionals within this field), if you are going to participate in a conference, then  these events need to be arranged by people with a history. Speakers should have a critical/informed position on the subject, not just an impressive title. Presentations should be shared freely afterwards with those who were not able to make it.

Don’t get involved in predatory conferences,  they do not deliver the value they promise. These “dodgy” and opportunistic operators out there are bogus. They are sometimes difficult to spot. Don’t feed their growth. Check the quality and suitability of their “goods” before spending a lot of money on an inflated fee.  Let the conference attendee and speaker beware.

New mobile pathways to children’s stories

"Mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilized, pathway to text"

“Mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilized, pathway to text”

In Sub Saharan Africa, progress has been made in pursuing the goal of universal Primary Education. However, the reading literacy levels of African children are far from adequate. A key obstacle to learning to read is the shortage of appropriate stories for early reading in languages familiar to the young African child.

UNESCO’s research has found that mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilized, pathway to literacy for children. Mobile devices offer new opportunities to access text for literacy development. Especially in Sub Saharan Africa, where millions of people do not have access to text, but do own a mobile phone

While young children do not own phones, their parents or caregivers have the opportunity to use mobile phones to read books and stories. Together with the Goethe Institut and local librarians, we are going to explore how librarians can assist their patrons to confidently harness the power of their own mobile phones and use their devices to read stories to children.

Split Happens. Goodbye

Game over

Game over. I blew the whistle.

Final whistle. Game over. Goodbye Wits. I’m a consultant now. Here’s my ‘split lit‘ tale.

I arrived in Johannesburg in 2010, just as the Soccer World Cup  was about to start. Jozi seemed golden and Wits, I thought, was ready for the change game. The Elearning, Support & Innovation Unit (eLSI) under the leadership of Prof Derek Keats, DVC of Knowledge and Information Management (KIM), had been formed. Chismaba was ready. A new “tech savvy” elearning strategy heralded a new set of tactics.

Fast forward five years, and playing field had changed. Johannesburg was parched, in the midst of a heatwave, water supplies were diminishing. Change was no longer a players game. #Feesmustfall students had taken the vice chancellor hostage and were marching their anger to the Union Buildings. Most of eLSI management (apart from me) dispatched, and merged  under the Centre for Learning Teaching and Development (CLTD) “directorate”, who had unceremoniously dropped “Support & Innovation” from the eLearning unit’s name.

Innovation, by its nature, involves both failure and success. As a team, eLSI had both. We launched Sakai, we saw growth in uptake and budding change. But were unable to sustain the momentum, mainly because of an ill advised re-deployment of the software development team. I blew the whistle but it didn’t stop the game. My departure from the field was as a result of a brutal tackle. I should have packed up my boots. Quit earlier. I’m a consultant now with many tales to share.

#Feesmustfall and differing digital capabilities

#FeesMustFall protests have demonstrated how digital networks can be utilised to disrupt

#FeesMustFall protests have demonstrated how digital networks can be utilised to disrupt

The past two weeks of #FeesMustFall protests have demonstrated how digital networks can be utilized to disrupt higher education here in South Africa. While it may be premature to compare this movement to the Arab Spring, it is quite clear that students, with their data and cell phones, are sufficiently capable to use digital media to mobilise other students, university management and government to pay attention to their demands.

#FeesMustFall has also exposed the different digital capabilities across the Higher Education spectrum. Student’s capacity to make use of digital media to amplify and enable their campaign stand in stark contrast with parliamentarians and higher education execs relative silence within the same medium. Over the last two weeks students, executives and politicians have repeatedly missed opportunities for communication and engagement via web 2.0 technologies and social media. Despite VCs and politicos having access to traditional and new media, communication units and infrastructure, they have not demonstrated that they are able to take advantage of these alternative modalities to connect and engage with students.

If ed techies are to learn and respond to this communication gap between students and executives, then we need recognize this as a digital capability issue, offer leadership and act. Here’s a golden opportunity to promote the use of learning technologies to address many of the any educational issues raised by students. But don’t ask Radio, TV or MOOCS to replicate one size-fits-all, undifferentiated and restricted 20th-century model of higher education in an electronic form. Ed techies need to be part of a conversation envisaging a future where ICT’s are able to offer a flexible and accessible education that can be tailored and customised for each individual.

James Hilton suggests that if we don’t want to miss the opportunity to redefine education for a world in which access to information, networks, and computation is ubiquitous, then we need to do the following (my paraphrase).

  • Embrace the duality of ICT. Digital is both a part of the infrastructure and a strategic asset. At present ICT is seen as a part of the infrastructure. This services delivered on this infrastructure are important, but administration and management is not its only function. ICT is also an innovation platform. The two are not competing with each other. They’re complementary roles.
  • Allow ICT to play an enabling role. We accept that universities are designed to foster innovation, to create an environment in which people research, share ideas and data and come up with something new. The role that communication technologies, computation, and networks play in enabling this innovation should be used to further the teaching and learning mission of a university.
  • Bring back the joy. There was a time when ICT was an enabling force on campus. This additional empowerment brought joy to many academic and student. It would be very easy to turn off the WiFi, restrict device usage and forget the joy associated with the network and become driven by fear. We need to retreat from the fear and reclaim the joy of learning and playing with ICT.

As our interactions between each other, what we are learning and what we are doing become more and more mediated by networks, we have the opportunity to build a global learning laboratory. Higher Education needs to take be invited to be part of this global learning laboratory and combine it with the scholarship of teaching and learning to begin looking for evidence-based practices about what works and what doesn’t work.

ICT can be used to enable an accessible and flexible education. Ed techies need to reclaim this audacious vision and promote a digitally capabilities right across campus, where all are encouraged and enabled to use ICT  to enhance and innovative and not only manage and control. If we are going to respond appropriately to #FeesMustFall, then we need to use this opportunity to rethink about our current use of ICT.

Facilitating Online

Facilitating Online image

Welcome to Facilitating Online

I’ve signed up for a five week Facilitating Online course run by Emerge Africa. Here’s why I’ve joined.

I’ve met some fabulous facilitators in a range of organisational settings. From young adults informally working alongside teens on an outdoor youth camps to expensive organisational development experts hired in by senior managers to in to assist run an important strategic planning event. These facilitators have been confident, wise, open, innovative, real and honest. They are inspiring people and I’ve enjoyed their company and admired their ability to work with others, and assist members of the various groups (whether they be youth or executives).

I also work online. I have a Masters in Computer Assisted Education and a 20 year track record in e-learning and I’ve worked with digital materials development (print, radio, multi-media, new media and electronic platforms, graphic design, HTML, audio, video, etc.) within a range of educational and developmental settings. I have hands-on expertise with learning design (lectures, courses, workshops and seminars), presentation and facilitation skills and significant project leadership.

So…I’m a fan of facilitation and a fairly seasoned online practitioner. But if I am entirely honest with myself, I am not yet able to integrate the two concepts – Facilitating and Online – and make them complement each other in a way that enhances the intended objectives. Regularly bridging this divide between facilitation and online is one of the reasons that I have an interest in the course – Facilitating Online.
During the course I expect to be introduced to

  • The guiding ideas behind online facilitation
  • Theories, methods and tools for the online facilitator
  • Exposed to how online facilitators steward and use the infrastructures available.

Ultimately, within any course, we are judged on the quality of our results. The problem comes with knowing when and how to measure quality. You don’t pull up a carrot to see how they are growing. Those facilitators that I mentioned earlier on that I admired, were capable of assisting a group articulate what they want and take steps towards those objectives. These are quantifiable results and I hope that with time and opportunity, I will also be able to claim such quantifiable results. Learning together as an organisation offers opportunities for a range of results that are not quantifiable to emerge. These results include innovativeness, openness, confidence, authenticity, care for the other. Those facilitators that I mentioned earlier on that I admired were also people that lived these qualities and these only became apparent only as we worked together. I hope that I and others on the course participate in the online facilitation experience, that the course will also offer opportunities for these non quantifiable qualities to emerge.

Facilitating Online image

Welcome to Facilitating Online

An edugroan about our eduroam


KIMComms announces eduroam

Eduroam (education roaming), the secure world-wide roaming access service developed for the international research and education community, made my life in Boston such a breeze. Normally navigating appointments and offices on an unfamiliar campus is challenge but when on MIT & Harvard’s grounds, blanket wireless coverage allowed me, a South African visitor, to find my way around, check email and remain in touch with home, simply by opening my iPad and connecting once to their service.

In October 2013, I was very pleased when CNS announced that Wits had officially joined Eduroam. I’d noticed Eduroam occasionally appear as a wireless option and the October announcement confirmed that Eduroam was officially here. Occasionally eLSI hosts a guest on campus and usually they request Internet Access. Normally arranging guest access is a logistical mission that requires the user to almost sign their life way. With the availability of Eduroam, I thought we had passed into a new era of internet accessibility .

Sadly, as the year passed, I discovered that my optimism was misplaced. The Wits installation of this service was either not available or working, both for Wits staff and our academic guests. Every time I referred guests to Eduroam, the service did not work. Repeatedly I highlighted this problem to CNS when we had from visitors from the University of Groninen, UCT and Rhodes. Each time my query was ticketed, but assurance was given that the service was fine and the problem lay with the other universities authentication.

The ability to access WiFi seamlessly across multiple campus networks without a manual login is a massive plus

  • Wits does not have to manages or provision guest accounts
  • Visitors from participating institution only use their institutional credentials
  • Wits users can travel to other Eduroam institutions and gain seamless access to Guest WiFi

One of the first things I do when arriving on a campus is to join the internet, courtesy of freely available Wi-Fi. I’m not a unique in this behaviour. More than 42% of mobile-phone traffic, and over 90% of tablet traffic travels by Wi-Fi Sadly, we have not got this service right at Wits yet and we cannot offer a seamless internet access experience.

Putting the laptop / tablet debate before the horse

tablets vs laptops

tablets vs laptops

The debate between tablets (iPads and others) or laptops is a discussion that gets to the heart of the intention to use ICT. But before we re-launch the great laptop vs tablet debate, and cost out the budget required for equipping student with tablets or laptops, a department that wants portable computing devices for students should stop quibbling about the merits of each device and  start with clearly articulating how academics and students intend to use this device in their context. I’ve made an attempt to pen a few questions to assist a department ascertain what experience they envisage when their students and staff use devices.

In a teaching and learning context,  portable computing devices should be used for:

  1. Exercises and practise
  2. Informational dissemination and retrieval
  3. Class administration and management
  4. Collaborative work amongst students
  5. Data entry, storage and processing
  6. Initiate a range of engagement opportunities designed to support learning intentions
  7. Promote autonomous learning
  8. None of the above

Portable computing devices, in teaching and learning, positively impacts on:

  1. Student motivation
  2. Student achievement
  3. Students’ higher order thinking skills
  4. Student’s competence in 21st century skills
  5. None of the above

Students will be expected to access the following content on their own  portable computing device:

  1. Professionally marked up content
  2. Content that has been purchased from a commercial publisher
  3. Content supplied by the department
  4. Content that has been authored by peers
  5. Content that is licensed as an Open Educational Resource

Our department envisages academics leveraging these portable devices to:

  1. Offer their students access to course related information, readings & resources
  2. Offer opportunities to deliver multimedia
  3. Offer opportunities to use web 2.0 tools for learning activities (blogs, portfolios, OERs)
  4. Offer opportunities to practice blended learning

In the past two years, academics in our department have undertaken professional development in the following:

  1. Introductory courses on commonly used software or applications provided by general trainers
  2. Advanced courses on particular software or applications provided by specialists
  3. Courses that require use of multimedia
  4. Equipment-specific training
  5. Courses that focus on the pedagogical use of ICT in teaching and learning
  6. Subject-specific training on learning applications
  7. Participation in communities of practice about the use of ICT for learning and teaching
  8. Other professional development opportunities related to ICT

It’s not about the device in your hand — it’s about the experience that the technology can provide. The job of the department is to articulate the vision that goes along with the technology. I’m not talking about rephrasing the universities mission statement and describing how devices can fit this vision. A well-articulated statement needs to make the intention behind the purchase of the device clear and describes how technology can help achieve this objective. The focus should not be on the tablet or laptop but what the device does for a student. Stakeholders within departments need to construct a detailed story of their future success with the device and how this choice will define what their department will look like over the next few years.

Are we ready for Blended Learning?

Blended Learning

Blended Learning

Technologies for teaching and learning are a part of the current and proposed Teaching and Learning plan at Wits. If Wits is indeed going to be tech savvy, going beyond EdTech “solutionism”  and explore how a range of different modes for course provision can best be used, then it is appropriate that a range of campus stakeholders plot out how these two separate modes of teaching and learning (traditional face-to-face learning systems and distributed learning systems) should be combined.
When considering embedding technology, Wits has made progress in the following areas:

  • technology infrastructure
  • integrating the learning management systems with other learning technologies
  • help and support
  • instructional design
  • professional development
  • media production services

CNS is developing a campus infrastructure that can support the embedding of technology into teaching and learning. A wireless network, broadband and communication platforms offer teachers who want to incorporate digital technologies a backbone to support learning activities. Course and student management tools such as Sakai have been deployed and the tools therein are being used in a rudimentary fashion to communicate and disseminate information. Technologies used to support student learning, such as databases of research literatures, e-text books, video lectures, and other multimedia resources, are being piloted by the library and various faculties. eLSI offers training, help and support; CNS offers software and system specialists that can provide technical assistance.

The mechanics of electronic course delivery, however, remain a challenge. Difficulties in relation to servers, tools on Sakai, service levels from CNS, Internet availability, SIMS and other technology elements have been common and have hampered the use of “course portals” (as envisaged in the previous T & L plan). If e-learning continues to grow on campus, as envisaged by current and proposed T & L plans, greater organizational capacity will be required to assist with developing digital delivery, support for online students and teachers, and to carry out the myriad other functions that are needed to keep the system running.

Wallace and Young (2010) point out that the introduction of any new technologies in education will always result in debate and policy decisions around educational methodology, implementation, evaluation and costs. They argue that the introduction of Blended Learning is not only about the introduction of a new pedagogy, but issues about power, control over education, the culture of the university, the privilege of professors, the rights of students as ‘consumers’—not only ‘how’ something is taught, but what, when, why, by whom, and for what purpose. Wits should be aware that the introduction of blended learning is closely linked to these broader contestations of power, control and institutional culture.

The biggest challenges to the proposal to adopt blended learning are the institutional variables. Blended Learning intersects with so many sectors of a university and requires careful policy development and execution. Administrators need to consider the impact of this modality on infrastructure, programmes and planning. Academics will need to reconsider long held assumptions. Some students’ ability to navigate the existing educational system is already limited; Blended Learning could be even more inaccessible to them. For students, the benefits gained by a blended course are realized only if the associated risks are mitigated; for, without careful course planning and design, the blended format could offer the worst aspects of both the live and online modalities instead of offering the best (Dziuban et al, 2011).

Supporting blended learning is challenging. The range of professional skills needed to design and develop blended courses, create and deliver faculty development, produce instructional media content, conduct assessment, and partner with academic units to develop blended courses or programs is greater in scope and depth than exists at present at Wits. If Blended Learning is to succeed at Wits, then a range of macro and meso matters will need to be addressed before an institutional blended learning initiative is realistic.

  • A commonly understood definition among stakeholders for “blended learning”
  • A blended learning strategy that aligns with institutional goals
  • An effective organizational model to support the blended learning initiative
  • Qualified staff capable of supporting diverse faculty needs and lifecycle of courses
  • User support services to support blended learning
  • A robust planning process to identify blended learning faculty/courses to develop
  • A faculty development program to prepare faculty to teach blended learning courses, including incentives and rewards as part of the program
  • Learner support resources to prepare students to learn in blended learning courses
  • The ability to identify blended learning courses in the class schedule
  • Blended learning policies developed around accessibility, copyright, and intellectual property
  • An evaluation program to assess the impact of the blended learning initiative
  • ROI calculated based on resources dedicated to the blended learning initiative
  • Reusable courses and materials shared within departments engaged in blended learning

(From The Blended Learning Toolkit )

Blended Learning offers potential for improving the manner in which we deal with content; social interaction; reflection; higher order thinking and problem solving; collaborative learning and authentic assessment (Moskal et al, 2013). But institutionalising blended learning is not the silver bullet that will turn Wits into an “IT savvy” University and support 21st Century learning. Wits’ 2022 goals will not be accomplished by adopting the term Blended Learning; it will be necessary to align the Institution’s goals with all other stakeholders’ goals.

On a cautionary note, Moskal (2013) suggests that blended learning itself has a very weak statistical correlation with student success and argues that mode of delivery in general has weak statistical correlation with student success. Rather, he suggests a set of institutional variables (Institutional goals and objectives, organizational capacity, faculty development and course development support, support for online students and faculty, robust and reliable infrastructure, institution-level, longitudinal data collection and assessment, proactive policy development and an effective funding model) has come to be accepted as critical factors for blended learning success.

If more attention is paid to the issues of alignment by leadership, an institutionally-initiated blended learning programme can reap benefits that impact face-to-face teaching and learning across departments. However, significant investments in the areas mentioned will be required to build, deliver, and assess the merits of adopting a “blended learning” approach.

Dziuban, C., Hartman, J., Cavanagh, T. B., & Moskal, P. D. (2011). Blended Courses as Drivers of Institutional Transformation. In Kitchenham, A. (Ed.), Blended Learning across Disciplines: Models for Implementation. (pp. 17-37).
Moskal, P., Dziuban, C., & Hartman, J. (n.d.). Blended learning: A dangerous idea? The Internet and Higher Education., 18, 15-23. Available http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S109675161200084X
Wallace, L., & Young, J. (2010). Implementing blended learning: Policy implications for universities. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(4). Available http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter134/wallace_young134.html

Making sense of MOOCs at Wits



The word MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Course. The term emerged in 2008 for a particular type of e-learning activity that was intended to integrate “the connectivity of social networking, the facilitation of an acknowledged expert in a field of study, and a collection of freely accessible online resources” (McAuley et al 2010). Since 2008, this format has rapidly grown in popularity, expanded, evolved (Haggard, 2013) and morphed into a less defined concept with meanings that are vague and contested (Stewart, 2013).

Sir John Daniel (2012) points out that the Wikipedia definition of MOOCs is in flux. On 2012-09-16 Wikipedia defined a MOOC as
‘a course where the participants are distributed and course materials are also dispersed across the web … this is possible only if the course is open, and works significantly better if the course is large. The course is not a gathering, but rather a way of connecting distributed instructors and learners across a common topic or field of discourse’.
By 2012-09-20 the definition had become:
‘a MOOC is a type of online course aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the web. MOOCs are a recent development in the area of distance education, and a progression of the kind of open education ideals suggested by open educational resources. Though the design of and participation in a MOOC may be similar to college or university courses, MOOCs typically do not offer credits awarded to paying students at schools. However, assessment of learning may be done for certification’.
Most recently (2014-06-01) the definition had changed to
‘a MOOC is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for students, professors, and teaching assistants’.
These shifting definitions make it clear that a commonly shared understanding of the term has still to emerge, as suggested by Matthew Plourde’s poster entitled “MOOC: Every letter is negotiable.” MOOCs, at present, remain a quickly moving target with “new material presenting new aspects or insights becoming available on a daily basis” (Gaebel, 2013).

MOOCs are probably best understood descriptively, in contrast to traditional university courses, and may be characterised as follows:

  • MOOCs have content, learning activities and engagement that occur online;
  • MOOCs have a start and finishing time;
  • MOOCs have no formal entry requirements and they are accessible to anyone with a computer and internet connection;
  • MOOCs are free of charge;
  • MOOCs are designed to support an indefinite number of participants; and
  • MOOCs do not earn credits.

The term MOOC was coined by Bryan Alexander and Dave Cormier and first used in 2008 (Daniel, 2012) to describe an experimental course run by George Siemens of the University of Manitoba and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council of Canada. Siemens and Downes opened up an accredited course on their work in connectivist learning theory to the public. The original purpose of this first MOOCs was not only to provide a scaled learning opportunity, but also to improve the learning experience. A few other MOOCs followed in the footsteps of Siemens and Downes model, and the connectivist vision emphasizing “creativity, autonomy and social networked learning” in an environment where participants in the course would act as both teachers and students, sharing information and engaging in a joint teaching and learning experience through intense interaction facilitated by technology was pursued.

The MOOC model caught the attention of the press in 2012 and was touted as a “Campus Tsunami” (Brooks, 2012). When The New York Times labelled 2012 the ‘year of the MOOC’, they were not however referring to the model developed by Siemens and Downes but to high profile ‘Courses’ with enormous enrolment numbers. Popular attention from entrepreneurial vendors, education professionals and technologically literate sections of the public (Yuan & Powell, 2013) shifted to this variant, as can be seen by the large volume of press articles and blogs about the topic.

Since the original instance of MOOCs, the undergirding ideas behind MOOCs have morphed from a connectivist approach to behaviourist, so much so that MOOCs are divided into subsets –cMOOCs and xMOOCs. “cMOOCs emphasise connected, collaborative learning and the courses are built around a group of like-minded individuals’ platform to explore new pedagogies beyond traditional classroom settings and, as such, tend to exist on the radical fringe of Higher Education. On the other hand, the instructional model (xMOOCs) is essentially an extension of the pedagogical models practised within the institutions themselves, which is arguably dominated by the “drill and grill” instructional methods with video presentations, short quizzes and testing” (Yuan & Powell, 2013).

In the developed world, the combination of rising tertiary education costs, distributed communications and venture capital looking for a business opportunity to be exploited (Yuan & Powell, 2013) offered American and European universities an opportunity to think afresh about new business models that may fix or disrupt education, and force it to change. The interest in MOOCs has grown beyond the developed world, because MOOC providers have promised free access to cutting edge courses that could drive down the cost of university-level education. However, much of the early literature about the subject was dominated by thinly disguised promotional material by commercial interests or written by practitioners whose perspective is their own MOOC courses (Daniel, 2012).

MOOC literature can be divided into three classifications:
1) Contributions by individual authors on MOOCs
2) General press writing and journalism.
3) Formal and comprehensive research carried out with methodological approaches
Universities in the developing world may have been influenced by the hype generated by category one and two and I have been party to numerous hallway conversations around MOOCs and whether Wits can and should use this form locally. Two years since the Tsunami proclamation, published research is beginning to suggest that MOOCs are not conceptually as revolutionary as they seem (Bali, 2014). Although strong claims were initially made for MOOCs to drive innovative pedagogies and flexible modes of course delivery, as well as encouraging learner analytics through the processing of course data, the substance beyond the hype is lacking (Walker & Voce, 2014).

While MOOCs do provide alternative routes for students to gain new knowledge according to a given curriculum, they also highlight the many fault lines that exist in the terrain of contemporary higher education. When people express an opinion about MOOCs, they often conflate online education, with globalization, and with networked learning (Stewart, 2013). A hyped interest in technology and its place in education contributed to a shallow understanding of MOOCs and led to unlikely predictions about new educational models that will replace the established system (Hill 2012).

Although many large online free courses describe themselves as a MOOC, there is no unified “ultimate goal” for MOOCs and neither one can it be generalized why MOOCS are used. Some have argued that MOOCs help universities fulfil their ultimate non-profit goals of offering knowledge to society and widening access to education (Bali, 2014). Low completion rates (reported as less than 10% across numerous reports), the low ratio of students from underserved areas and a high percentage of registrants already with an undergraduate degree or higher have undermined this stated intention. Real motivations may not be as philanthropic, but more operational like marketing and branding for future profit-making. Ivy League universities have widely engaged MOOC service providers by lending brand, content, funds, staff, badging and policy support. Their intentions are certainly not only altruistic, and see opportunities for brand enhancement, pedagogic experimentation, recruitment and business model innovation.

In Africa, MOOCs have been positioned as an adjunct to a country’s development process and are hailed as a cost-free way to access excellent resources and learning experiences for students in less educationally privileged geographies (Haggard, 2013). Sceptics suggest that MOOCs, with their high demands for connectivity, online literacy, and English language skills, may be excluding developing world students and privileging learners from the most highly developed educational environments. This is a factor particularly relevant to the South African higher educational landscape. Others take this criticism further and suggest that MOOCs may be “yet another wave in cultural imperialism from the ‘North’ and the ‘West’ crashing across borders, washing over (or possibly washing out) local educational institutions, cultural norms and educational traditions” (Trucano, 2013).

Trucano suggests that in a developing context, there are further questions that need to be addressed around MOOCs.

  • Are MOOCs addressing equity concerns? MOOCs were touted as a way to provide access to education for some of the poorest and most disadvantaged groups in developing countries. However, there is not much evidence to back up such claims. As research into course outcomes has become known, it has become apparent that most people who successfully complete MOOCs already have a university degree.
  • How do MOOCs contribute towards building ‘local capacity’? MOOCs are often offered in partnership with an established platform provider and it could be argued that MOOCs are the first step to outsourcing the teaching of courses to more highly qualified teachers from other countries. If MOOCs are merely about adopting technologies developed and maintained by others, then capacity to develop such technologies ourselves will not be fostered.
  • Are MOOCs vanity projects? – the decision to create a MOOC instead of investing scarce resources in other areas may lead to underfunding of other important programmes.

While this critical discourse around MOOCs is important, from an educational technologist position, there are two ways that Wits can utilize the discussion around MOOCs:

  1. We can participate in the ‘MOOC phenomenon’ as a consumer of things produced elsewhere, or
  2. We can use participation in MOOCs as a strategic opportunity to help to develop related local capacities.

Both options are legitimate, but the latter option, while much more difficult to pursue, may be worth serious consideration. I’d argue that Wits should take the opportunity to develop a more strategic approach to online learning and not let the polarised opinions between those who identify MOOCs as direct access to global quality education, versus those who detect a new form of cultural imperialism distract Wits from exploring a set of opportunities that have been brought to the attention of mainstream education by MOOCs.
MOOCs offer Wits the following

  1. Pedagogic opportunities – for educators to experiment and evaluate different online learning approaches by developing and using MOOCs that challenge the established roles of learner and teacher and offer more flexible forms of learning and assessment that include community as well as content-based models of learning. For some, experimentation will be at the level of the individual lecturer and for others it may be departmental or large-scale cross-institutional change projects.
  2. Research opportunities – MOOCs provide a great opportunity to develop research how courses can draw from a pool of open educational resources (OER) and provide their students with better and more varied teaching than individual instructors could develop by themselves.
  3. Materials development opportunities – In era of knowledge abundance, the structures and roles through which we organize learning experiences are designed on pre-digital concepts of what is possible and valid. Universities’ and academics’ roles are both deeply rooted in the concept of centralized expertise. MOOCs offer opportunities to challenge this model

As a solution to the problems of higher education, MOOCs in their present form are unsustainable and without an established business model, they cannot be replicated by universities worldwide. MOOCs unfortunately are bubble, and the motivation for getting involved stems primarily from the fear of being left behind. The MOOC phenomena has however provide important opportunities to learn about online pedagogy, to research online education and to develop digital materials. MOOCs do not necessarily need to showcase an academic, high-profile ‘rockstar’ and his/her teaching. MOOCs can focus on gateway skills and help prepare students for undergraduate study and introduce skills required. The foundational or enhancement skills would be taken by students prior to applying or attending Wits. MOOCs could help prepare students for postgraduate study and develop general skills and expectations. MOOCs may support continuing education and showcase professional careers and qualifications. MOOCs geared towards vocational skills development, re-tooling and professional development could be offered in conjunction with other organisations or professional bodies (Brown et al 2014).

MOOCs have initiated a long overdue debate about the place of online teaching and learning in higher education. And while this new interest in educational technology has resulted in a lot of hype and in shallow descriptions of the potential for new educational models to replace the established system, the debates have also offered opportunities for universities to reconsider a range of different models for delivering education. Wits need not automatically follow the MOOC agenda, but should use this opportunity to discuss and debate how we as an institution can improve the quality and pedagogy of online education and learn the lessons from research on MOOCs and other earlier educational technologies.

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