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Drop ins: MOOCs and the price of learning

As an undergraduate in the US in the early 1970s, it was not uncommon for there to be people in our classes “auditing” the course. (Auditing in the sense, “listening”, i.e. attending but not enrolled.) While auditing was supposed to be governed by regulations there were a range of practices from entirely informal dropping in, to what amounted to full participation in all but the exam. There were supposed to be fees payable for auditing but as far as I could tell actual practice was to go under the radar and simply ask the prof (lecturer) if she or he minded. Mostly they didn’t. This practice was so wide spread there was even a national network TV comedy drama about it: “Hank”; “He’ll get his degree/ His Phi Beta key/ And get ’em all for free!/ That’s Hank!”. Being an American comedy drama, Hank also ends up marrying the Dean’s daughter, . The point is that a college degree was expensive, but access to the knowledge was free to those with the gumption to drop in. I audited Latin at the local state university before coming to Oxford to study historical and comparative linguistics. As far as I could tell the Classics Department was delighted to have someone interested come to classes.

MOOCs remind me of this practice of dropping in under the radar.

But times have changed a lot. Everyone teaching in higher education has a much less certain tenure, and that tenure depends to some extent on bums on seats in your class. If there are uncounted heads that doesn’t help your job security. But, on the other hand, the Internet makes learning so much more accessible.

MOOCs invert the ratios of enrolled participants to drop-ins. In FSLT12 this was the cause of some tension. Were the enrolled participants the “real” participants?

We will have to work this year to make sure that on the one hand, people who have paid for an accredited course feel that they have got their money’s worth, but equally on the other not to devalue the drop-in seekers after open knowledge.

Facing the Avalanche

The change or die message can be read as a warning – or a threat: a reply to the recent report published by the IPPR:
Barber, M., Donnelly, K., & Rizvi, S. (2013). An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead. IPPR.

Without a “home ground” the inter institutional disciplinary practitioner could no longer practice; without a “field” there can be no stars. There will be other models, variations and hybrids. Change may be more evolutionary than cataclysmic. Or there could be a different cataclysm. The “lower tier” full-service university will continue to perform a useful civic, cultural and educational function. This will be the “home ground” for most academics.

Universities are, the authors of this provocative report imply, an inconvenient bundle of services. It would appear that few universities do very many things in their bundles of services very well. Therefore, for many reasons, these bundles are going to be “unbundled”. Unbundling is the new Business Process Review (BPR), compulsory competitive tendering, outsourcing.

The authors present what they call “unbundling” as inevitable, but they represent organisations (and types of organisation: educational service providers, consultancy firms and and globalised elite universities) that stand to gain from such unbundling. All three authors currently work for Pearson. The lead author, Barbour is Pearson’s chief education adviser, Barbour and Donnelly previously worked for McKinsey. I am surprised this is published under the aegis of IPPR.  Next note that Barber went to Oxford, Donnelly, Duke ( whence Cathy Davidson), and Rizvi went to Yale: three very elite institutions. As an aside, the Report emphasises the importance of the STEM disciplines and economic inconsequence of the liberal arts, humanities and social sciences but the authors respectively read History, Economics and International Studies.

I am not making simply an ad hominem argument. It is a critical imperative to ask of anyone positing the inevitable, whether they stand to gain from the asserted inevitable outcome. If the answer is yes, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong, but there may be other possible outcomes.

The Report is written from a stance that does not appear to question the entitlement of those who would take profit from the unbundling of educational endeavours or the consolidation of the curriculum around an elite, principally US, neoliberal model. It declares the student consumer as king and suggests this way is the only way. They assert that public funding for education must reduce and be replaced by private funding, but this is not inevitable, it is a political position – admittedly dominant, but an ideology, not a force of nature. Similarly presenting “change” as the new normal benefits those who sell services helping to manage change. It is in most consultancy firms interest to present the world as an unstable place, and even to create some of that instability (Andersen and Enron maybe took it a bit too far). Throughout the Report the models of success – heroes if you will – along with the aforementioned consultancy firms, elite universities and companies like Pearson, are venture capitalists, investment banks and derivatives traders, and those who start the kind of business that can enrich those institutions. Universities are urged to emulate or partner with such institutions or be destroyed. The change or die message can be read as a warning – or a threat.

Teachers and researchers are barely mentioned, except for a few big stars. Discipline communities are only mentioned in so far as they transcend or transgress individual institutional boundaries. But far from being an argument for the irrelevance of the individual institution, I suggest that without a “home ground” the inter institutional disciplinary practitioner could no longer practice.

And of course the number of first class honours has doubled in the past decade (p 15). The number of students in University has doubled. This is just bad science, or intentionally misleading rhetoric. Follow the citations? The authors here cite the Daily Mail (!), that well-known source of reliable data.  There may be grade inflation but the number of first class honours degrees is not a signal, unless you take an elitist view that only elite universities should award first class honours and all those students at new universities getting first class honours do not deserve them.

But, they may be right that not all universities are viable. They often refer to second and third tier institutions that will be swept away or unbundled.

The expansion of the University sector in the UK rested on two ideological fallacies. The first was a typical Tory move to take educational institutions -the polytechnics – out of local authority governance with an assertion that they were being “set free”, and then controlling them ever more tightly by central government. The second was to call them universities. This was seized on by Labour, which saw having a degree as being a signal as well as a means of upward social mobility and possibly also earnings. Having a degree correlates with higher lifelong earnings, but it is not necessarily causal. The Thiel fellowships and quote from the President of S. Korea (p 13) illustrate this. If you want real money and a big job, drop out; Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are the poster boys for this campaign. Similarly going to Uni rather than Poly had more social cachet. Hey presto! You all go to university now. But, without the endowments and research funding, which is still concentrated in the old universities, the new universities were  going to struggle to achieve prestige status. There is a much bigger argument that could be entered into about the role of universities in both fomenting and managing dissent. Successive governments have been trying to stifle dissent in all parts of the education sector. They can barely cope with 20 elite universities. They certainly do not want to have to deal with 140 “real” universities, which are vibrant, troublesome hot pots of challenging ideas. I think this Report could be read as an attempt to reel in the wider sector, concentrate “power” in the elite institutions and shut down any activity in the lower tiers other than the production of a usefully compliant workforce at a profit for private enterprises.

The five models are interesting (p 55ff). Clearly the elite will survive – or most of them will. I expect that each of the other models will have many concrete examples. But I also expect there will be other models, variations and hybrids. Change may be more evolutionary than cataclysmic. Or there could be a different cataclysm. The “second tier” full-service metropolitan university, I suggest, will continue to perform a useful civic, cultural and educational function. This will be the “home ground” for most discipline-based academics. Their job will not be simply facilitating the delivery of MOOCs prepared by the elite. To run with a metaphor, there couldn’t be a Premiership without the Championship or even division 4 and non-league leagues. The major leagues need the minor league “farm system”. If nations or regions or cities or societies allow their home universities to die, I suggest that the “academy” will wither and the world will be a much poorer place. Without fertile ground tilled by those many academics chipping away at the face of knowledge there won’t be the stars. Or… are they arguing there is no room in the academy for anyone not attached to one of the elite?

The essay also almost completely ignores other components of the tertiary or post-compulsory sector. The term “continuing education” is not found. Foundation degrees are not mentioned. FE colleges are absent from the argument. There is only one mention of a community college and this is of one which has partnered with a trade association.

Open Courseware History

Alistair Creelman draws our attention to this chart from He says:

What is amazing is that although the present OCW movement dates back to 2001 so few university teachers and leaders I meet have even heard of it. This is not a future vision or a possible scenario, this is happening now. Most of it has already happened. It’s time to step out of our academic cocoons and see the opportunities.

This is one question that the OCSLD First Steps into learning and teaching in higher education mooc will be addressing.

The State of OpenCourseWare
Via: Online College Courses Blog

Family friendly work-life balance may mean working odd hours

I often wonder about what a family-friendly work-life balance is. I perceive it through certain practices and policies as well as through tacit and explicit assertions and exhortations. Does it mean never sending a work-related e-mail outside the Monday-Friday, nine to five envelope? I have colleagues who adhere strictly to this practice. Others who don't. 

Now, I work in an educational institution. I have a family and kids. Nursery and soon school will be setting the social clock and calendar. And, I make other choices: commuting to work by bicycle (environmental transport policy) and doing something approaching my fair share of nursery runs, cooking and other domestic duties (equality and diversity policy). This means the time available to me Monday to Friday is more like 10:00 to 4:00 with a 40 minute cycle ride either side. I do need a lunch break to refuel. So at most, Monday to Friday, nine to five I can put in about five hours of work a day. This could leave me something like 10 hours a week short of my contracted hours.

I enjoy a working environment, line management and colleagues who are not clock watchers. I do not work all my waking hours. But, I do work in the early mornings, evenings and weekends as well as on the weekdays. However I do also sometimes feel that there is pressure to conform more closely to social norms: that it is somehow wrong or inappropriate to do work that is time-stamped outside the nine to five. Should I go online now and look at the developing conversation on the VLE? What kind of signal do I send if I post a message at 11:00 p.m. on a Saturday night? Will people think I have just rolled in from the pub? Actually, my partner went out. I was with the two boys. One of them woke up at about 10:00, crying. It took 20 minutes to settle him. So should I log on now?

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OECD asserts the purpose of higher education is to serve labour market demands

Higher education institutions are expected to provide education and training relevant to labour market demands, conduct research activities that will build a knowledge-based economy, as well as contribute to social cohesion, regional development and global well-being. They must also strive constantly to fulfil their multiple missions, improve the quality of the education provided, increase their efficiency and demonstrate their contribution to society.

This in a nutshell defines UK HE policy. Ars gratia artis? I don’t think so. But, wasn’t that always a bourgeois luxury? Can we understand “social cohesion, regional development and global well being” through a myriad of local perspectives? Is this only a neoliberal, free-trade, carpetbagging vision? To whom in society must universities “demonstrate their contribution”?

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Social networks starting to bubble on my horizon again

Just to apologise if I do not do too much connecting through Mandeley ( I am wedded to Zotero ( for citation management and Bibsonomy ( for folksonomic tagging and bookmarking. ( is starting to bubble a bit with social networking activity. And, of course Twitter. I wonder if Tweetdeck can read the Mendeley newsfeed?

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Seeking the source for a three-part typology of authenticity in teaching and learning. Help if you can. Thanks

I am seeking the source of a particular three-part typology of "authenticity".
  1. with respect to learners current and prior knowledge, skill and understanding: authentic to the person now
  2. with respect to the epistemology of the discipline/field: authentic to the accepted canons and methodological protocols of the discipline, laws, theorems, etc
  3. with respect to the practice of professionals in the discipline/field: authentic to the messy reality of practice, which at times confounds authenticity

These ideas are informed by a number of strands. Fullick (2004) refers to three aspects of authenticity: creativity, activity, language. Tatsuki (2006), following Taylor (1994) speaks of language, task and situation. Both these three-part typologies are quite similar to mine and I wonder if I have unconsciously paraphrased or adapted Fullick?

In these cases:

  • "language" aligns with my concept of authenticity 1): to where the learners are now: don't buffalo them with jargon too early, etc
  • "task" (Tatsuki) and "activity" (Fullick) correspond (I think) with my authenticity 2): to the canons of the discipline
  • Fullick's "creativity" corresponds, I think, with my authenticity 3) and may correspond with Tatsuki's "situation"

Kreber et al (2007) did a thorough lit review of authenticity, but do not reproduce this three-part structure. They cite another 3-part approach to authenticity in teaching where:

The three pedagogical principles … are (a) learners are validated as "knowers," (b) learning is situated within their experience, and (c) learning itself is conceptualized as mutually constructing knowledge. (Taylor 1991)

This, for me, all addresses authenticity 1.

Taylor (1991, cited in Kreber et al 2007) has another three-part conceptualisation:

(i) creation and construction as well as discovery, (ii) originality, and frequently (iii) opposition to the rules of society and even potentially to what we recognize as morality.

This all seems to align with my authenticity 3.

Can anyone shed light on this for me?

Thank you


Fullick, Patrick Leslie. 2004. Knowledge Building among School
Students Working in a Networked Computer Supported Learning
Environment. University of Southampton, Faculty of Law, Arts and
Social Sciences, School of Education.

Kreber, Carolin, Monika Klampfleitner, Velda McCune, Sian Bayne, and
Miesbeth Knottenbelt. 2007. “What do you mean by ‘authentic’? A
comparative review of the literature on conceptions of authenticity in
teaching.” Adult Education Quarterly 58 (1) (November): 22-43.

Tatsuki, Donna. 2006. What is authenticity? In Authentic
communication: Proceedings, 1-15. Shizuoka, Japan: Tokai University
College of Marine Science.

Taylor, C. 1991. The ethics of authenticity Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, D. 1994. Inauthentic authenticity or authentic inauthenticity? TESL-EJ, 1 (2) A-1

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