Coursera founder phones it in at open education conference

Coursera Infographic

#OpenEd2013 is the tenth annual installment of the premiere conference of the open education community, taking place right now in Utah. Open education is currently contested territory, with divisions highlighted yesterday by a flatfooted keynote from Andrew Ng, cofounder of Coursera, that played out to a baffled chorus of mockery on Twitter. Amid the jibes, there’s a serious issue at stake: will the future of education be dominated by a few closed platforms, and limited approaches to teaching, learning and knowledge, or will truly open innovation prevail?

Hope someone warned Ng that he can’t toe the standard Coursera line for #OpenEd13 talk. They have been doing this a lot longer than he has.— Amy Collier (@amcollier) November 6, 2013

Open education was first most closely identified with OER–digital educational resources such as MIT’s Open Courseware that carried an open license, such as the Creative Commons license, allowing them to be freely shared, reused and remixed. For self-identified open and connected educators, though, mostly from the higher ed world, openness wasn’t just a technical designation. They were concerned with democratizing education, making it accessible to all, peer-driven rather than hierarchical, emphasizing the fluid process of learning rather than the rigid gateways of accreditation–“an exploratory, community-created knowledge building process,” in the words of Athabasca University professor George Siemens. In this spirit, Siemens and Stephen Downes ran the first Massively Open Online Course, or MOOC, in 2008, with about 25 University of Manitoba students joined by 2500 students online. The topic–a bit meta– was “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge. ”

Today, of course, the term MOOC means something very, very different. From experiments pursued by a small group of learning and teaching enthusiasts, a handful of platforms — edX, Udacity, and Coursera— have emerged with tens of millions of dollars in backing from venture funders and foundations, hundreds of university partners, and millions of users. There is a dominant format for the MOOCs published by these platforms: they run from six to 14 weeks long, and consist of short video lecture “chunks” presented often by well-known professors, interspersed with multiple-choice comprehension questions, combined with readings, often homework assignments or an exam, and forums for discussion.

–I’m hoping Ng’s keynote is actually a bunch of short videos with intermittent quizzes. #opened13— Jonathan Becker (@jonbecker) November 6, 2013

Most of the MOOCs, while free to access currently, are not open-licensed–they are the intellectual property of the companies and institutions and thus can’t be downloaded, reused, or remixed freely.

–Why isn’t Coursera openly licensed? Ng says that its content creation costs too much money and that wouldn’t be sustainable #opened13 (sigh)— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 6, 2013

Ng is the quieter of Coursera’s two cofounders. He’s also director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, which means he has a deep intellectual interest in the growing field of “educational data mining,” learning research, training computers to grade essays and tracking student engagement. Coursera, like other large MOOC platforms, offers the opportunity to learn a great deal about the learning process, at least as it plays out online.

@jonbecker our analytics have determined your diminished interest and have now dispatched mentors to keep you engaged. #opened13— George Siemens (@gsiemens) November 6, 2013

His keynote, however, failed to address these research questions, and instead delivered a standard pitch about Coursera to people who are already quite aware of what it is. Also, unfortunately for a presentation on hybrid learning, there were technical problems.

–Oh the irony. Andrew Ng is Skyping in for his keynote at #opened13. So we’ve been asked to turn off devices to save bandwidth. MOOOOOOC!— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 6, 2013

The irony is worth underlining: the OpenEd community, whose major criticism of MOOCs is that they enshrine the one-way, rigid lecture format, was asked not to respond via the open web while Ng was lecturing to them over a video link.

Within the open education world, as summarized by George Siemens’ keynote right after Ng’s, there are a range of feelings about MOOCs–both angst and hope. This is not just a group of hipsters who are upset that their favorite band suddenly got really popular, or merely professors angry that someone is turning their life’s work into a business.

–Sorry Dr Ng, but there are heaps of people who create engaging online learning inexpensively. Too bad you couldn’t meet them at #opened13— Brian Lamb (@brlamb) November 6, 2013

These are engaged, excited, experimental educators and learners, with values that they fear are getting lost as MOOCs get even more massive. They want their due as partners in the creation of a diverse and vital future of education.

@GardnerCampbell Ng’s talk had no sense of or much regard for its audience. Conversation would be great, but there’s a sense + #opened13 in which xMOOCers refuse to meaningfully engage thoughtful critiques that was symbolized by what went down #opened13 — Luke Waltzer (@lwaltzer) November 6, 2013

As the K-12 “connected educator” movement grows, this debate will be increasingly relevant across all levels of education. Do we want a future where mass market MOOCs and similar digital resources are primarily prepackaged and delivered to students via a vendor-like, consumption-based model? One that enshrines the several-week course and the talking-head lecturer as the central model of education? Or will more messy, diverse, participatory models of open education have the opportunity to spread and take root? Can the two approaches interact and maybe even reinforce each other?

This was clearly a missed opportunity to raise these questions and more.

–I’m dropping out of this keynote. #opened13— Jonathan Becker (@jonbecker) November 6, 2013





Getting teachers to share nicely

Biomes, from OpenCurriculum

Most teachers have file folders and flash drives full of material that they use to generate awesome lessons year after year: activities, projects, discussion questions, texts, audio, video. But they don’t always have easy ways to share these ideas, or discover new ones.

A new non-profit ed-tech start-up called OpenCurriculum, based in Pittsburgh, launches this week aiming to change all that by focusing on the ease of creation and building local communities of sharing. It’s designed to work as a place where teachers can easily create, edit and exchange textbook-style content and step-by-step lesson plans.

“Youtube made the creation and sharing of videos a much easier process,” says founder Varun Arora. “We’re trying to nail creation for educational content.”

There are lots of other versions of this idea out there: ShareMyLesson is backed by the UFT, BetterLesson was created by a Teach for America alum, and Teachers Pay Teachers has the unique take of having teachers buy and sell lessons rather than sharing for free. 

Open Curriculum is trying to differentiate itself by focusing on the nuts and bolts of creating and sharing resources, and the development of local communities of sharers.

Github, a website where developers can collaborate on open-source software projects, enables “forking” and easy control over many different versions of a single program. OpenCurriculum uses super-simple language and a web-first interface to allow teachers to do the same thing. You can upload using Dropbox, Facebook, or gmail or create projects directly in the browser. 

Making cool learning resources is one part of the problem OpenCurriculum is trying to address. The other issue is finding them. In simplistic terms, the Internet enables anyone t0 learn anything about anything. In practice, that too often means Wikipedia. Tons of Creative Commons-licensed educational content is out there, in “Open Educational Resource” repositories maintained by leading institutions, but it’s often hard to find, hard to browse, hard to adapt and therefore hard to reuse. The anemic reuse of open educational content has been a perennial issue since the beginning of the movement ten years ago, and there’s been a move to shift from talking about open educational resources to talking about open educational practices–what has to happen in schools in order for open educational resources and open learning to be a robust part of education.

I’ll give a simple example. My cousin was teaching a college art history course, and she spent dozens of hours assembling her slides.  In theory, she could have saved that time by adapting other slideshows created in previous years by other people teaching the same or similar courses. But first of all, she didn’t think of that. Secondly, she didn’t know where to find the other slideshows, thirdly, she didn’t know how to easily customize them. Finally, she also couldn’t share her completed slideshow freely because of copyright issues with contemporary artworks.

It turns out that local academic cultures may be hugely important to sharing. Arora, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, studied the One Laptop Per Child program, trying to figure out why the ambitious technology giveaway hadn’t had more of an impact on learning in countries around the world.

“We realized the problem was no locally relevant content,” he says (a common criticism of the OLPC program in various implementations around the world). It’s not just about language–teachers need lesson plans that fit local ideas and academic requirements. “K-12 especially is very specific to certain areas.” This would seem to work against the “universal” premise of sharing free and open learning resources. But Open Curriculum is reaching out to local education communities in Pittsburgh, where they’re based, as well as South Africa and Nepal. The idea is that once teachers get the hang of pooling resources and collaborating locally, the sharing bug will spread.

Can open educational resources rise again?

“I haven’t heard any other journalists use the term OER,” Anant Agarwal of the MOOC platform EdX told me recently.

This is a shame, to put it mildly. OER, or open educational resources, just means any type of material that is useful for learning and either in the public domain or published under Creative Commons license, making it essentially free for schools to adopt. Creative Commons licenses also encourage “remixing” of material, meaning that teachers and learners using a Creative Commons digital textbook, say, can add their own comments or improvements, and upload it for others to use.

OER had a proud beginning with MIT releasing video, outlines, syllabi and other materials for all its courses online beginning in 2001. Today the OCW (Open Courseware) Consortium has hundreds of university members in dozens of countries. But discovery, uptake, sharing and remixing of these resources has never been as robust as the movement would have hoped.

In the meantime, commercial textbook publishers like Pearson, technology companies like Apple and Amazon, venture capital investors, and even previously unrelated companies like News Corp, have started to see a massive opportunity in purveying tech to classrooms. Going digital in K-12 has become synonymous with selling out and buying in.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. One of the standardbearers of an alternative vision, surprisingly, is Agarwal. Edx, unlike the other famous MOOC platforms, Coursera and Udacity, which are venture-backed startups, is a nonprofit funded by the endowments of Harvard and MIT. Earlier this month, they released the code underlying their course architecture under an open source license. This means that universities could host and modify their own version of the code to create their own video-based courses. “We want to be the Linux of online education,” Agarwal told me, referring to the massively successful open-source operating system.

The edX courses themselves aren’t OER, with the exception of those offered by Delft University. Agarwal is currently working with Creative Commons on ways to license the course content itself so it can be reused, but not abused.

More directly relevant to K-12, Professor David Wiley, one of the original unheralded geniuses of OER, has just launched an important startup, Lumen Learning. Its purposes is to help school districts and community colleges adopt the free, high-quality open textbooks and resources that are already out there, so they can cut their textbook costs to zero while maintaining or even improving learning outcomes.

“We do strategic consulting, so it’s not just a faculty member staring at Google,” Wiley says. “We help faculty meet before the term starts and do more assembling, massaging, adapting. That’s the last mile that we hadn’t been getting across in terms of helping adoption of open courseware happen.”

In Wiley’s home state, 30 teachers and 6000 students have participated in a pilot, the Utah Open Textbook Project. The teachers adopted open textbooks that were free to read online and $5 for a printed copy in middle and high school science classes. Initially there was no difference in standardized test scores for students using a $5 book vs a $100 book, while current research reflects a slight improvement in learning for students who used the open resources.

“We want to be something like a Red Hat for the open education community,” says Wiley, referring to a tech company that makes a living by helping people find and use open source software.

This model has a lot of potential because it helps school districts save money, instead of spending money, in the transition to using new technology, and because it gets teachers involved in a collaborative process of adoption: discovering materials that fit their students’ needs and altering them when they don’t.  This compares favorably to what I know of the current procurement model, where administrators and district-level employees make most of the top-level decisions about what kind of materials and tools to purchase.

Does your school use OER? For a list of Creative Commons-licensed resources check out this link.