Thursday, April 7, 2016

Car versus train & machine learning

It was a fascinating Hangout (Week 5 Personal Learning MOOC #NRC01PL,) with Steven Downes’ guest George Siemens. George works with the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University.

Steven started the Hangout by defining a Personal Learning Environment (PLE), where students manage their own learning and interact with a range of learning resources provided by a range of providers; as well a Personal Learning Assistant (PLA) which is a tool attached to the PLE that facilitates access to learning resources and the remainder of the learning environment. He suggested a clear analogy of car versus train, as follows:

In the ELearnspace blog, Open Learning Analytics. Again, Siemens discussed the importance of the development of an open platform for analytics of learning data. He described education today as a data-centric world and highlighted the huge amount of algorithmic sorting that goes on behind the scenes in education today.

In the Hangout, Siemens mentioned an article, No time to think: Reflections on Information Technology and contemplative scholarship by David M Levy. This article juxtaposes the situation where students today have far greater access to digital tools to assess them in their learning while, at the same time, the hectic pace of life has resulted in educators having little to no time for reflection and contemplative scholarship. The challenge is how we learn, interact and share ideas, when we have no time to create and choose.

In response to a question on Learning Analytics, Siemens stated, “The best choice today is the one that gives you the most choices tomorrow.” He spoke of Learning Analytics as antithetical, as serving the skills pipeline with its focus on employment. This skill-based instructional method has a short life-line. You might train for a job in a particular field that becomes automated within a short timeframe. Education should rather focus on future skill sets that will be needed, such as: the ability to think, function, use digital information environments, lead, be socially active, and be part of a functioning and distributed team.

He explained further that future big “start-ups” in education will adopt a machine learning approach, mapping and mining structured data, stitching together learner profiles from activity students have done over many different spaces, and making recommendations, including those beyond the digital. “Recommendations make us more human, not more digital.”

He stressed that we are meeting AI half-way; “dumbing down” our school system so that it can become automated, making us, the educators, replaceable, because we have made the education system something that can be modelled on AI principles rather than making it a creative learning space.

Siemens cited an article, The unreasonable effectiveness of data (Alan Halevy, Peter Norwig, and Fernando Periera. This article deals with problems of human interaction and how these cannot be defined using concise and neat formulae. Halavy and associates suggested that the complexity of these interactions can only be harnessed with the power of data – “if other humans engage in the tasks and generate large amounts of unlabeled, noisy data, new algorithms can be used to build high-quality models from the data”.

Siemens mentioned that the base structural architecture is already in place and this architecture serves as a foundation for creativity. The problem is that developers are trying to build architecture of social processes that run on top of the existing platforms. He suggested that instead of regarding this as just another platform layer, developers need a different frame of reference. This can be seen in the little diagram below:

If working with e.g. WC3 – need structure and routine

Aims at reducing the choices so you do not mess things up, clear away all the ambiguity, need things clear and concise, consistent and predictable
If working at social systems and what that looks like, we need a completely different framework for designing that space

The layer built on top of platforms, the social learning layer must have the opposite attributes. We want ambiguity, want people to grapple with choice, we want unpredictability so that people can interact with one another and create something we had not anticipated

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Where has the time gone?

I must admit that the edX courseware page being unavailable disturbed me a little. I love the MOOC connectivity – the building up of knowledge from the students together with the teacher, but I also like to have predictable and regular access to the “class”. I find this reassuring and comfortable. Perhaps my involvement in BlackBoard for over 16 years has led me to value the constant nature of the LMS. I read the daily newsletter but needed the class page!

I am trying to catch-up on the last two weeks’ material. I justified this procrastination, in my own mind, by referring to the edX class page unavailability and then the tiring nature of three and a half days attending the Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education Conference (VWBPE 2016) on top of a full-time teaching load. But I will catch up. I need to investigate the topics in this course. I need to be involved.

I was fascinated looking at the historical development of the LMS. The idea of the learning object was rather brilliant. Courses were not suitable candidates for sharing. Object-oriented design was a logical progression. XML and JSON allowed the separation of content from styling. Learning objects could be entered into a course through a simple drag-and-drop procedure. The versatility and usability of the LMS rapidly developed. WYSIWYG editing enabled the authoring of multimedia and complex learning objects in the LMS. The durability of the LMS led to its dominant position in the Learning Technology industry and in online education.

Downes (2001) described online LMS courses that were created from prefabricated objects that were not as interoperable as they should be. My own 16-year experience with BlackBoard supports this description. However, there is a huge variety in the use educators make of LMS courses. Over 16 years I have never simply rehashed the same learning objects over-and-over. No two iterations of a course are ever the same. I copy across material, but rework and revamp each learning object to adapt it to the unique mix of students in the class for a particular semester. The LMS is only as limited as you make it!

So far, I have not seen too many advantages of edX over BlackBoard. I clearly see the difference between the conceptualisation of the LMS and the MOOC, particularly the cMOOC. However, it is not as functional as I would like it to be. I am here to learn what the alternatives are. I am here to extend learning opportunities for my students.

Downes, S. (2001). Learning Objects: Resources for distance education worldwide. The International Review of Research in Open & Distributed Learning, 2(2). Retrieved from
Downes, S. (2016). Content knowledge vs practice. NRC01PL Courseware, from

Monday, March 7, 2016

Downes (2012), in a discussion on the rise of MOOCs, claimed that the use of the MOOC had a great following because “it eliminates one of the great advantages the wealthy have always enjoyed over the poor” (para. 6). He further stated that "the demand from people without access to any university resources has been consistent and strong" (para. 6). I was interested to find out if MOOCs, in fact, were successful as open access tools. This is an area of interest to me as I teach in Foundation Studies and access is a persistent issue.

I recently attended a conference, the National Association of Enabling Educators of Australia NAEEA 2015 in Sydney, Australia. Several keynote addresses and presentations focussed on open access. Professor Penny Jane Burke discussed her work with the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education at the University of Newcastle. She highlighted the subtle layers of inequality and the pedagogies of difference that exist in higher education today. She discussed the recent trend towards a competitive focus, compelling individuals to conform to the dominant order or be shamed. She also placed a spotlight on the rise of marketisation and its impact on teaching, with its overemphasis on types of over-evaluation. She used the term “dehumanising measurement” and stressed that what counts as a quality education must value any individual. Professor Burke mentioned transformative pedagogies that demystify taken-for-granted social and academic practices and forms of knowledge value, and recognise the richness and diversity of experiences and perspectives all students bring to their learning. She stated that social and cultural differences should be accessed as a way of developing deeper levels of understanding. Downes (2012) claimed that this was one of the aims of MOOCs, where the evaluation of learning is not about testing for content acquisition and where the student was the one who determined success in the MOOC.

Dr Barry Hodges from the University of Newcastle discussed open-entry enabling programs, i.e. where there are no academic requirements. I work for an institution with open entry. The purpose of open entry is widening participation. Dr Hodges concluded his presentation with the suggestion that the success of open entry requires rejecting the deficit model; a radical redesign of higher education, as universities are failing the students; a dynamic culture embodying a multiplicity of sub-cultures, each imbued with their own discourses, literacies, and practices; a systematic challenge to the machinery of quality assurance; and, a social and economic revolution. “The road to open entry is paved with good intentions”.

So are MOOCs the solution to open access and widening participation, especially from disadvantaged groups in society? Audrey Watters (2015) delivered a talk to Western Oregon University on Ed-Tech's Inequalities. This talk focussed on the aspect of open access. She refuted the claims made by edX CEO Anant Agarwal that technology makes education “borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind”. She cited several studies that indicated access to new technologies still looks quite different for different demographics. She described a “digital Matthew effect…where new technologies actually extend the advantages of the already advantaged” (para. 16). She stated that new research (Hansen & Reich, 2015) concluded HarvardX registered MOOC students tended to reside in neighbourhoods with median incomes .45 standard deviations higher than the US population. They also found that the level of parental education was associated with a much higher likelihood of enrolment in a MOOC. “For instance, a seventeen year-old whose most educated parent has a bachelor’s degree is more than five times as likely to register as a seventeen year-old whose most educated parent has a high school diploma” (Watters, 2015, para. 15).

I would be interested to find out about the demographic for the students in NRC01PL. 

Anant Agarwal (left); Stephen Downes (centre); Audrey Watters (right)

Downes, S. (2012). The Rise of MOOCs. Stephen Downes: Knowledge, Learning, Community, from
Hansen, J. D., & Reich, J. (2015). Socioeconomic status and MOOC enrollment: enriching demographic information with external datasets. Paper presented at the The Fifth International Conference on Learning Analytics And Knowledge, New York.
Watters, A. (2015). Ed-tech's inequalities. hackeducation, from

Friday, February 26, 2016

This is the first week of a seven-week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) with Stephen Downes. This Personal Learning MOOC is designed to help students gain a greater understanding of technologies available for online course delivery. It covers everything from the traditional Learning Management System (LMS) to MOOCs to developing models of personal learning and performance support.

The Personal Learning course is being delivered using Open edX, a Learning and Performance Support System (LPSS). So far the system feels and looks fairly straightforward. It has a clean and open layout and easy navigation. The discussion thread is easy to follow and use.

It seems hard to believe that I have been using an LMS, BlackBoard, for over 15 years. I was using an LMS before most of my colleagues even knew what an LMS was. This year my institution is getting excited about online learning. Yes, they are quite slow on the up-take! The Academic Centre at our NZ MIT is preparing to inaugurate what they thought was the “first” online offering from MIT. Yet, nine years ago, I ran an entirely online course in Intermediate Reading & Writing for the School of English. It was an incredibly successful course and I felt good about the quality of the work and the success of the students. However, I was moved to Foundation and no one was prepared to take over the ESOL online course and it ended up as a ghost on the LMS. After all the effort I made, it was incredibly disappointing.

I mention this as I am always interested in new technologies. I want my students to be absorbed in their learning. I want to offer them the best resources and the most engaging delivery possible. That is why I am doing this course. I want to know what is possible, gauge the needs of my students, and then apply the things I learn to make their educational journeys more successful. I look forward to the full seven weeks of this course.
Informal writing & formal writing on line course guides ©