Let’s Transform Education! (MOOC Hijinks Hilarity! Jinkies!)

I had one of those discussions yesterday that every one in Higher Education educational research comes to dread: a discussion with someone who basically doesn’t believe the educational research and, within varying degrees of politeness, comes close to ignoring or denigrating everything that you’re trying to do. Yesterday’s high point was the use of the term “Mr Chips” to describe the (from the speaker’s perspective) incredibly low possibility of actually widening our entrance criteria and turning out “quality” graduates – his point was that more students would automatically mean much larger (70%) failure rates. My counter (and original point) is that since there is such a low correlation between school marks and University GPA (roughly 40-45% and it’s very noisy) that successful learning and teaching strategies could deal with an influx of supposedly ‘lower quality’ students, because the quality metric that we’re using (terminal high school grade or equivalent) is not a reliable indicator of performance. My fundamental belief is that good education is transformative. We start with the students that schools give us but good, well-constructed, education can, in the vast majority of cases, successfully educate students and transform them into functioning, self-regulating graduates. We have, as a community, carried out a lot of research that says that this works, provided that we are happy to accept that we (academics) are not by any stretch of the imagination the target demographic or majority experience in our classes, and that, please, let’s look at new teaching methods and approaches that actually work in developing the knowledge and characteristics that we’re after.

The “Mr Chips” thing is a reference to a rather sentimental account of the transformative influence of a school master, the eponymous Chips, and, by inference, using it in a discussion of the transformative power of education does cast the perception of my comments on equality of access, linked with educational design and learning systems as transformative technologies, as being seen as both naïve and (in a more personal reading) makes me uncomfortably aware that some people might think I’m talking about myself as being the key catalyst of some sort. One of the nice things about being an academic is that you can have a discussion like this and not actually come to blows over it – we think and argue for a living, after all. But I find this dismissive and rude. If we’re not trying to educate people and transform them, then what the hell are we doing? Advocating inclusion and transformation shouldn’t be seen as grandstanding – it should be seen as our job. I don’t want to be the keystone, I want systems that work and survive individuals, but that individuals can work within to improve and develop – we know this is possible and it’s happening in a lot of places. There are, however, pockets of resistance: people who are using the same old approaches out of laziness, ignorance and a refusal to update for what appear to be philosophical reasons but have no evidence to support them.

Frankly, I’m getting a little irritated by people doubting the value of the volumes of educational research. If I was dealing with people who’d read the papers, I’d be happier, but I’m often dealing with people who won’t read the papers because they just don’t believe that there’s a need to change or they refuse to accept what is in there because of a perceived difficulty in making it work. (A colleague demanded a copy of one of our papers showing the impact of our new approaches on retention – I haven’t heard from him since he got it. This probably means that he’s chosen to ignore it and is going to pretend that he never asked.) Over coffee this morning, musing on this, it occurred to me that at the same time that we’re not getting the greatest amount of respect and love in the educational research community, we’re also worried about the trend towards MOOCs. Many of our concerns about MOOCs are founded in the lack of evidence that they are educationally effective. And I saw a confluence.

All of the educational researchers who are not able to sway people inside their institutions – let’s just ignore them and surge into the MOOCs. We can still teach inside our own places, of course, and since MOOCs are free there’s no commercial conflict – but let’s take all of the research and practice and build a brave new world out in MOOC space that is the best of what we know. We can even choose to connect our in-house teaching into that system if we want. (Yes, we still have the face-to-face issue for those without a bricks-and-mortar campus, but how far could we go to make things better in terms of what MOOCs can offer?) We’re transformers, builders and creators. What could we do with the infinite canvas of the Internet and a lot of very clever people, working with a lot of very other clever people who are also driven and entrepreneurial?

The MOOC community will probably have a lot to say about this, which is why we shouldn’t see this as a hijack or a take-over, and I think it’s helpful to think of this very much as a confluence – a flowing together. I am, not for a second, saying that this will legitimise MOOCs, because this implies that they are illegitimate, but rather than keep fighting battles with colleagues and systems that can defeat 40 years of knowledge by saying “Well, I don’t think so”, let’s work with people who have already shown that they are looking to the future. Perhaps, combining people who are building giant engines of change with the people who are being frustrated in trying to bring about change might make something magical happen? I know that this is already happening in some places – but what if it was an international movement across the whole sector?

Jinkies! (Sorry, the title ran to this and I get to use a picture of a t-shirt with Velma on it!)


The purpose of this is manifold:

  1. We get to build the systems that we want to, to deliver education to students in the best ways we know.
  2. We (potentially) help to improve MOOCs by providing strong theory to construct evidence gathering mechanisms that allow us to really get inside what MOOCs are doing.
  3. More students get educated. (Ok, maybe not in our host institutions, but what is our actual goal anyway?)
  4. We form a strong international community of educational researchers with common outputs and sharing that isn’t necessarily owned by one company (sorry, iTunesU).
  5. If we get it right, students vote with their feet and employers vote with their wallets. We make educational research important and impossible to ignore through visible success.

Now this is, of course, a pipe dream in many ways. Who will pay for it? How long will it take before even not-for-pay outside education becomes barred under new terms and conditions? Who will pay my mortgage if I get fired because I’m working on a deliberately external set of courses for students who are not paying to come to my institution?

But, the most important thing, for me, is that we should continue what has been proposed and work more and more closely with the MOOC community to develop exemplars of good practice that have strong, evidence-based outcomes that become impossible to ignore. Much as students use temporal discounting to procrastinate about their work, administrators tend to use a more traditional financial discounting when it comes to what they consider important. If it takes 12 papers and two years of study to justify spending $5,000 on a new tool or time spent on learning design – forget about it. If, however, MOOCs show strong evidence of improving student retention (*BING*), student attraction (*BING*), student engagement (*BING*) and employability – well, BINGO. People will pay money for that.

I’ve spoken before about how successful I had to be before I was tolerated in my pursuit of educational research and, while I don’t normally talk about it in detail because it smacks of hubris and I sincerely believe that I am not a role model of any kind, I  hope that you will excuse me so that I can explain why I think it’s crazy as to how successful I had to be in order to become tolerated – and not yet really believed. To summarise, I’m in three research groups, I’ve brought in (as part of a group and individually) somewhere in the order of $0.5M in one non-ed research area, I’ve brought in something like $30-50K in educational research money, I’ve published two A journals (one CS research, one CS ed), two A conferences (both ed) and one B conference (ed/CS) and I have a faculty level position as an Associate Dean and I have a national learning and teaching presence. All of the things on that line – that’s 2012. 2011 wasn’t quite as successful but it wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. I think that’s an unreasonably high bar to pass in order to be allowed the luxury of asking questions about what it is that we’re doing with learning and teaching. But if I can leverage that to work with other colleagues who can then refer to what we’ve done in a way that makes administrators and managers accept the real value of an educational revolution – then my effort is shared over many more people and it suddenly looks like a much better investment of my time.

This is more musing that mission, I’m afraid, and I realise that any amount of this could be shot down but I look forward to some discussion!



4 Comments on “Let’s Transform Education! (MOOC Hijinks Hilarity! Jinkies!)”

  1. What makes it more musing than mission? At a time when we can use social media and other technologies to bring the world closer and form new (types of?) communities and not teams with some predetermined notion, what steps can be taken to make research, of any form, more usable and applicable?



    • nickfalkner says:

      The virtual communities concept, long mooted and now possible, is one of the planks of the grand challenges – how do we form grand challenge communities that last and thrive, spanning geography and discipline?

      Sustainability is the key: people have to be confident that their investment (the opportunities that they give up to peruse this one) will bear fruit and continue to do so once personalities have changed or processes have matured. That’s the really tricky thing!

      Thanks, Ivon!



  2. What makes you think that MOOCs will be more open to educational research than conventional universities? What makes you think that they have even a chance of increasing retention and engagement? Early evidence is that they are very much in the “filter” mode of having huge numbers start and only a tiny fraction finish, which seems to me the opposite of what you were claiming as a fundamental belief “We start with the students that schools give us but good, well-constructed, education can, in the vast majority of cases, successfully educate students and transform them into functioning, self-regulating graduates.”


    • nickfalkner says:

      While I have great doubts about the way that they are currently being used, they have the benefit of being instrumented by necessity. I can measure the interaction of a student with a MOOC automatically because I can record visits, downloads, time between view and submission and so on – because the whole thing is online.

      Measuring is given to us ‘for free’ in a MOOC environment and I see this as greatly helping our ability to conduct research in certain educational areas.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s