The dilemma of open courses in an Australian university

The great sage of our time offers the following definition of dilemma

A dilemma (Greek: δί-λημμα “double proposition”) is a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable.

I have at least one course that I should be redesigning, but I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. The two unacceptable possibilities I see are:

  1. I keep the course as a standard course.

    i.e the Australian standard blended course delivered across multiple-campuses and via distance education. Course site, textbook, individual lecturers at each campus running lectures and tutorials, fixed study schedule and learning outcomes to box tick. Students completing and submitting assignments. etc.

    An approach that fulfils the organisational expectations, resourcing, policies, processes, tools, and doesn’t offer any surprises (i.e. run any risks). Saves me time, which I can spend on other tasks (i.e. research)…..and is just slightly hypocritical for a course talking about transforming teaching through ICTs, 21st Century Skills etc. Not to mention going against much of what I use in my own work.

  2. I follow in the footsteps of some intrepid Canadians such as Alec Couros and open the course up and get the students engaging in the broader community.

    This would better much how I learn, think and work. It would, I strongly believe, provide the students with a much better experience. It might even win a few kudos with the organisation, enabling senior management to say “Oh MOOCs/open courses, we’re already doing that”.

Yes, an argument could be made for a third option. Use aspects of the open (#2), but stick largely with the standard course (#1). This is essentially what I do already. This is possibility #1 for me (I could never run a purely standard course). I’ve done this combination for a year. It’s chafing, constrained and makes me feel a little inauthentic.

For the rest of this post, I’m going to reflect on the factors at play.

The MOOC fad

For those of you who have missed it – and apparently some have -

MOOCs are the latest fad to hit higher education.

In the last week, I’ve heard stories about two Australian Vice-Chancellors (not at my current institution) hearing about MOOCs and asking people within their institution for insights into this phenomenon. The first one asked his/her IT division, the second his/her Marketing folk.

So, there’s a bit of a mixed message. It’s increasingly important to the senior management of the institution, which could prove useful. But at the same time it’s a fad and at least some Senior Executive seem confused about the idea.

I also think most senior executive are probably more interested in the Massive letter of MOOC, rather than the Open which is where my interest lays.

Been there, done that

I offered my first totally open, online course in 1996. We evolved those over a few years, with this being the last. The Systems Administration course included a textbook we wrote that was widely used and translated into other languages.

The point is that I’m not the standard University academic. I have a preference for and experience with open courses. I have some technical capability.

Great examples to learn from

As mentioned above, Alec Couros – and others – have designed and implemented significantly better designs that could be used to inform an open re-design of the course I have in mind. A few tweaks of Alec’s approach would work very nicely.

Courses that are made for it

I’m currently teaching two courses, both of which are tailor-made for an open course. In fact, they almost demand it. One is aimed at helping pre-service teachers explore how ICTs can be used to improve their learning and teaching. The other is a Master’s level course helping participants explore and research the implications of Networked and Global Learning to their own teaching. These courses really should “walk the walk”.

Minimum course standards

I’m going to a presentation tomorrow talking about proposed minimum course standards. Sorry, minimum online course standards. Apparently, there are no minimum standards if you aren’t online.

The proposed standards assume you are using/require you to use the institutional LMS. Which, I believe, is set up so that you have to have an institutional account to access. So much for being open.

Of course, the minimum course standards argument reminds me so much of my troubles in 1995/1996 with the battle between traditional print-based distance education and online learning.

A somewhat inappropriate meta-level for networked learning

In this earlier post I suggested that the meta-level of institutional networked learning – i.e. the systems, processes, people and policies used to implement institutional networked learning – are not generally known for their capability to enable and encourage

community, openness, flexibility, collaboration, transformation and it is all user-centred

The nature of the teleological, management science-based processes and practices being adopted by universities means that the meta-level of institutional networked learning is configured to ensure that everyone is using the same institutional resources and approaches. e.g. minimum course standards. The meta-level is not set up to learn, it is not set up to innovate or transform. It is set up to efficiently achieve the decided upon status quo.

Any action that breaks this status quo is problematic. It is seen as inefficient or wrong headed. This creates a need to fight battles to explain the point of the innovation/mutation, rather than receive support. It also means that the meta-level must assume and provide the same level of support for everyone.

It leads to situations where academics are reported to the University solicitor for using a Google doc to allow students to book a Wimba classroom for their group (because when the students put their name and email address in the Google doc this is apparently breaking data privacy laws).

Bringing the students along is hard

This blog post from Dave White talks about the use of the digital visitors and residents metaphor at a conference. It includes the following

Even if this is the case many find being visible in their practice online stressful. Reflecting on her own teaching practice Lindsay Jordan highlighted that moving students from a Visitor to a more Resident mode online is often a painful process. She spoke of how distressing encouraging her students to start sharing in an open manner via blogging was – distressing both for her and for them.

Many students, like many people, don’t like change. They don’t like their expectations being challenged.

Bringing the staff(ing) along is hard

At least one of these courses will have other teaching staff associated with it. This means that the organisational staffing and workload calculation processes are involved. This creates two problems. First, just like the students some of the staff may not adapt well to the new approach. Second, I know that the workload calculation formulas will not work well with the new model.

Workload and research

All of these last few factors create workload. Many of these factors can be gotten around, but they require more work (Yes, another whinging academic complaining about the workload). This could be worked around, if not for the increasing priority on research. Just last week a fairly senior member of staff mentioned that the faculty I belong to is behind expectations in terms of research output. In preceding months, I’ve heard other mentions about research outputs being a major priority for the university.

What’s next?

The obvious question is whether or not the other folk appropriately involved in the redesign of these course(s) can be effectively drawn into the attempt to address these issues. And whether I can be bothered to expend the effort. Can this type of approach be brought in from the edge?

This post is perhaps/hopefully the start of a process of doing this. I wonder what form the process should take?

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23 thoughts on “The dilemma of open courses in an Australian university

  1. cj13

    It’s probably at its best if you can keep it as close to the edge… institutional constraints permitting. HE managers will always try and leverage new stuff for PR but when most folk pick up on it it more or less gets domesticated. But, in terms of all thse nagging tugs every which way, whatever you do is well worth keeping good notes about and pumping out some of those pubs the higher ups get anxious about. Some of thos higher ups are there because they were not very good at doing what they are asking you to do. Some not all. :)

    Reply
    1. David Jones Post author

      I’d settle for enough distance from the edge so I’m not surprised by “Please explain” messages from admin staff and management. And yes, this post is the hopefully a start to the note-taking that will lead to lots of A* journal articles, citations or whatever other KPI is currently most important.

  2. beerc

    G’day David

    I guess, like you, I’m in two minds about the MOOC thing. On one hand, I like that the senior leadership at Australian universities are looking at alternatives mechanisms that encourage networked learning. Given the cookie cutter approach that Aussie Universities have adopted with regards to eLearning, I am pleased that alternative approaches are being thought about at least.

    On the other hand it concerns me that these approaches have to be initiated at the VC level. It suggests to me that innovation at the lower levels of universities has been stifled by managerialism. Imagine a continuum with ‘fail safe’ and ‘risk adverse’ at one end and ‘safe fail’, ‘managed risk’ at the other. Australian universities seem to be entrenched at the risk adverse end. I would suggest that this limits their ability to adapt and evolve.

    I will watch with interest.

    Reply
    1. atscatsc

      The main issue I see as having worked both at a central level (Learning and Teaching unit) and at the coal face at a major Australian university is that sadly it has taken so long for senior management to realise the internet would lead to massive change within the sector. I’ve been working on and off in distance ed and solely in elearning for over 20 years and could see this change coming. Now the problem becomes how can institutions who are face to face intensive with pockets of DE and fully online compete? Having just completed the MOOCMOOC course on Moocs (plus participated in the Bonk MOOC) I can safely say that the future no matter what happens to cMOOCS or xMOOCS is now very different. MOOCS support life long learning. They support the “independent learner”. MOOCs *are* the Facebook of higher ed and we either take part in supporting distance education in our institutions or face a serious crisis…

    2. David Jones Post author

      I agree about the time taken by senior management to recognise the impact. Even with the raise of the MOOCs, I don’t think they fully understand just how much of a challenge this is going to be, not only to the practice of higher ed, but all their assumptions about organisations, strategic management etc. I really do fear that we are in for another wave of faddish behaviour as per

      Pratt (2005) finds connections between the Australian university sector’s adoption of e-learning during the 1990s and the concept of management fashions, fads and bandwagons where a relatively transitory collection of beliefs can legitimise the exercise of mindlessness with respect to innovation with information technology (Swanson & Ramiller, 2004). In particular, given conditions of uncertainty about prevailing technologies organisations may rely on imitation to guide decision making (Pratt, 2005).

      from this paper

    3. atscatsc

      Poorly supported reasoning will be the main problem moving forward and this is the reason I signed up to MOOCMOOC – to ensure I was on the cutting edge with the knowledge to advise people. Australian universities probably can’t compete on a 1 to 1 basis with the likes of Harvard and MIT due to insufficient funding but can learn from the practices of the xMOOCs (and more importantly the cMOOCs) to offer versions of MOOCs and open courses that can be world beating. They may just look different but will be some variation of distance education (which is all a MOOC is after all). If I have gained anything from studying MOOCs over the last few weeks it is the realisation that they support true independent learning through social media (and socially mediated processes) and since inherently people are independent AND social they will have an ongoing market and potentially that market is huge.

  3. Alec Couros (@courosa)

    I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with partly because I believe in open online courses, and selfishly to some extent, I know I will learn a lot from your tweaking. I’ll be watching – all the best.

    Reply
    1. David Jones Post author

      Thanks Alec.

      I’ve been sitting here for 5 minutes writing, deleting, undoing, deleting, writing etc. This morning I really didn’t think I’d go down the open route, simply because of the context and constraints. But, even at this early stage, the comments and RTs have me thinking I’ll go ahead. I’d dearly love to do it, but….. Time will tell.

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  6. pennyjw

    Are you going to stymie the ‘not enough research’ criticism by researching how successful you are at designing and teaching two even-more-open courses? Want some collaborators?

    I think where @courosa ‘s design is so much to be preferred to Coursera’s is in the burning core of institutionally enrolled students and their teacher: this cohort is distinguished from the nebulous halo of visiting experts and international companion students that surround and support them by their passionate commitment and by taking the course very seriously – they demand maximum online standards.

    Reply
    1. David Jones Post author

      Penny, I agree very much with your description of @courosa’s design. I think the presence of this prior work would actually make the task easier because it does show how this new “open” concept can be of a huge benefit to the on-campus students. Thereby addressing “they’ll lose out” argument. Collaborators would be welcome, but I need to work through some local factors first. Get folk on board, test the waters etc.

  7. suifaijohnmak

    Hi David,
    Very interesting ideas. I like open online course. I don’t see it as a challenge for me any more, after so many years of exposure to networked learning and Connectivism. Would the biggest challenge be the support and accreditation of the courses?

    Reply
    1. David Jones Post author

      It would mostly be that an open course would break most of the institutional expectations, processes and policies. e.g. the expectation that lectures and tutorials be run at the three campuses at which there would be “on-campus” students, that the main course site is the Moodle LMS and more broadly that only IT approved systems are used for teaching, that staffing decisions are made on the basis of the number of lectures/tutorials etc. This can be worked around, but it takes effort of which there is only a finite amount.

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