Thoughts from Online Educa 2012 – Mooc-h ado about nothing?

images Well, it’s that time of year again – festive lights, mulled wine can only mean one thing.  Well actually two things and one of them is Online Educa Berlin.  As one of the major conferences in the international  learning calendar, what sets it apart is not just the scale but more specifically the scale of the conference.  Unlike many other shows, this is a huge conference with a small exhibition – in fact at each 1 1/2 hour slot during the day, there are 18 different workshops, presentations, debates and learning labs taking place.  In total, there are 102 sessions, not including video sessions, talking head sessions and the exhibition itself. But amongst the sheer volume of sessions, there is one theme that is the talk of the event – MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  A quick wander around the exhibition and you could see MOOCs appearing on roller banners, multimedia presentations and leaflet stands.  It’s not all that surprising given that the audience for the event is predominantly from the education sector (with a huge showing from Universities worldwide), but it’s not a simple love story by any means.  In 2012, the media have covered extensively the push from Harvard and MIT on their EdX MOOCs initiative and it appears others are eager to follow suit (or at least not appear to be left behind).  But in the conference sessions and debates, there has been evidence of quite the backlash against MOOCs.  Much of the criticism is levelled at dubious design and pedagogy, complexity for the student, high drop out rates and even a new acronym definition ‘Massively Over-hyped Online Content-dump’. So MOOCs are just a fad, right?  Wel it’s not all that easy to pick your way through the objections, are they born of analysis or fear?  It is certainly a legitimate criticism of MOOCs that as a result of size, the varied quality of materials and support by virtue of their open nature poses serious challenges on learner experience, quality and ease of use.  However the unprecedented access to free contents from some of the world’s leading academic institutions is incredibly exciting.  The non-chargeable aspect is one that is shaking the sector and raising concerns over funding for universities and even their existence in the long-term. However, we’ve been here before.  The rise of online distance learning sparked something of a backlash from advocates of traditional models of learning not just in academia but in the commercial sector too.  Face to face will never be bettered, online is a poor substitute, a cheap and not often cheerful solution to budgetary pressure.  However, once design and pedagogy improved, the acceptance that perhaps a better learning outcome could be achieved (through the marriage of formal and informal learning) spread throughout learning and education.  In my view, I see MOOCs as a gateway to learning, a way to promote an interest in developing knowledge in a subject, an opportunity to connect with others, a taster that may lead me to bite and enrol in a more formal programme with an institution.  Perhaps the term loss leader is a little too crass, but MOOCs could be the shop window to the opportunities online learning can provide and a way for a wider population to experience an alternative way to access higher education before committing their money to university fees.  The impact of this is ensuring the MOOC doesn’t ignore sound learning design methodology and it could be that those MOOCs are not being well received may be experiencing a lag between drive to get your subject matter expertise online and understanding of what an effective delivery of your expertise looks like online. In addition (and something that was a key driver for Willow developing Pathway back in 2007) is a better more intuitive way to deliver these programmes.  The massive part should allude to participation, not on volumes of content that are increasingly difficult to navigate and sift.  So perhaps the next phase of MOOCs will focus on what works in order to simplify and refine their offerings.

When the clearest route is best – the virtues of linear e-learning

At Willow, our design team are faced with a whole range of learning design and pedagogical challenges – specialising in complex subjects makes this the case (and frankly makes it rather fun!).  Above all, it means keeping an open mind and immersing yourself in the learning and it’s audience, rather than the tools and techniques available.  Only when you figure out the learner journey and the experiences, conversations and activities that are likely to take place on that journey can you select the formal and social learning interactions that deliver the best solution. So I particularly enjoyed Tom Kuhlmann’s post this week, entitled ‘3 Reasons Why Linear e-Learning May Be The Best Solution‘.  When you are creating a learning scaffold to assist learners in creating their journey through a subject, some structure and signposting can be extremely valuable.  In this environment, e-learning that acts as a springboard to other intensive learning interactions (such as virtual classrooms, workshops, assignments, discussions, coursework etc) can play a very useful and effective role.  Of course there are times when the ability to create interactive scenarios are a great tool, but Tom’s advice on when to deploy which method is very sound. The subject of structured versus unstructured learning in a wider senses is also hotting up, with more coverage of Higher Education establishments (such as the joint edX venture between Harvard and MIT) exploring different models of distance learning.  When recently scanning some comments from students enrolled on MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses – check out Wikipedia’s entry to find out more), one of the criticisms of the approach was the lack of structure and direction.  Now of course, there are students who will welcome the freedom to explore, but the job of sifting, validating and selecting high quality learning resources and understanding the types of online activities that work for a particular learning goal is not an easy one.  An entirely unstructured journey may also make the benefits gained from a cohort experience (i.e. sharing the learning journey with others with whom you can share and converse) much more illusive.   It is giving rise to the greater recognition of the value of great instructional design, where the focus in on the understanding and mapping of the journey, understanding the role of others in your journey and the right types of online learning experiences to support this.


New Entrants in the provision of University degrees: Education on the cheap or the biggest shake-up for higher education in our lifetimes?

The traditional route to a University degree has never been more expensive for the student with the recent rise in tuition fees to £9000 per year. This market is now seeing an unprecedented increase in different providers offering degrees. And with this rise comes new ways of delivering degrees. The recent rise in tuition fees to £9,000 per annum has opened the market to private university colleges, challenging the traditional approach to a university education. With the option to fast track degrees over a two year rather than a three year period, the attractive reduction in the cost of a degree makes considerable sense to students as well as to their parents. As a parent myself to two more potential university candidates in the coming years, I am especially interested in how this is all shaping up. I was delighted to have my company chosen as the digital partner in the provision of a new distance degree due to be launched this Autumn. We have always prided ourselves on dealing with pretty complex material for professional learners. This was a natural next step for us. But as a parent, I wonder what choices my two young sons will have available to them in the next few years. Quite a few years ago, I took my post grad. conversion to IT through the Open University. One of the striking comparisons I made at the time was the much higher quality of materials provided by the OU compared to my recent university experience. Universities have been using VLEs (Virtual learning Environments) for quite some years and the open source platform, Moodle, tends to be ubiquitously used for academic supply of learning content for students. The use of the VLE under these circumstances though, tends to be very much in the hands of the individual tutor and there is frequently little consistency across the campus. Distance learning though, is a different environment. There is no teacher in the classroom, so the materials have to speak for themselves. The OU knew this from their earliest days. With the advent of new technologies the expectation of students who have only known the PC and internet age, for whom social collaboration is norm, is very high. The University colleges of the future who can meet this challenge, plus cut the costs of a degree will be way ahead. The prospect of my two boys entering their adulthood with debts of £27,000 in tuition fees alone is not too appetising.  The educational establishment that manages to pull off lower fees with potentially fast tracked routes will be hugely attractive. And it would not have to be distance learning v. campus learning.  For the educationalist to fast track your student, you will need to be able to compliment your traditional tutoring and lecturing with online access to extra tuition time. Another variation on that theme will be the mostly distance provision with much lower attendance but far more intensive tuition. I recall all too well the relatively low number of timed lectures for my degree. Today though, the very short terms plus almost non-existent lectures for my stepson is an eye-opener in comparison. Is this the result of the cuts in higher education? The biggest challenge of all though will be with perception. Can the new entrants truly challenge Oxbridge and the Russell Group? Or will they be seen as degrees on the cheap by students and employers? I hope not. For my children’s sake I hope this is the opportunity to break into new territory and give the traditional route to a valued and valuable higher education a much needed shake-up!

Script or speak? The importance of the learning voice

ImageLast week, I was at the 2012 Peer Award conference and It was fascinating to see how learning professionals had met challenges with a whole range of learning techniques and approaches.  But one topic in particular really resonated with me and that was the subject of voice. Nick Shackleton Jones, Group Head of elearning at BP shared with us their performance support system, which certainly gave a nod to their knowledge management roots.  Stories from subject matter experts feature highly and encouraging people to share how they have utilised this knowledge is a key aspect.  What was particularly interesting though was, being an organisation where learning truly is at the heart of the organisation, if high production values were regarded as important, the business case would be endorsed.  However, a flip HD camera and authentic unscripted videos are the method of choice for these video stories and a good choice it is too. A trusted voice of experience always features highly in our learning design and short videos are often used.  However in the past, clients new to online learning have been rather nervous about this more casual approach to videos and can be concerned that without a script and well polished performance, the credibility of the content could be compromised.  However, it is useful to consider the age old question of how people really learn.  When the debate on formal and informal begins between learning designers, what is at the heart of it is what learners really want to know – how do things really happen around here? There are plenty of ways to package and capture formal learning but having explore the structure, the frameworks and theories, learners then want to know how this plays out around here.  It’s about supporting people through the learning cycle and when learners are ready to try out what they have learnt , the sharing of a story from a trusted peer on how things played out, what worked and didn’t worked its best achieved in a relaxed, informal and earnest telling of a true story is incredibly valuable.  The value is in that story, not in production values – over engineer it and it loses the authenticity and also, the relevance – having a decent handheld camera available to take along to key events, conferences or even over coffee capture fresh insights in context and keep your learning up to date. So it’s time to break down another barrier to great online learning, good stories make for good learning and anyway, the hair and makeup team needed to look good on HD video is unlikely to to get signed off by procurement!

Get your free guides to creating great online learning in just 5 days

We are very excited about the launch of our new series of guides on ‘5 days to Success: Creating great online learning in just 1 week’. Our first guide is available down for download from our site here.  It is taken from our ‘5 days to success’ workshop so if you like what you read, why not sign up for a place on our next session on 29th March 2012 at Southwark Cathedral.  Places are currently just £99 for those that book in the next 2 weeks, so secure your place today!

Encouraging results from online delivery of CBT interventions

Very interested to read the BBC News story last week on a paper published in the Lancet recently. It explores the delivery of online therapeutic solutions to teenagers suffering chronic fatigue syndrome. What is particularly interesting is that the intervention used was a form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) delivered online with access to an expert via discussion boards. With the severe shortage of qualified CBT therapists, it is an exciting way to increase the access to this valuable technique. Being a psychology graduate, it’s really exciting to read, given the proven benefits of CBT as an intervention compared to other therapeutic or pharmacological treatment packages. So if online could provide a highly effective delivery mechanism, this could be very significant indeed.

Sign up for our 5 free tools for online learning success

In conjunction with our one day workshop ‘5 days to success: great online learning in just one week’ on 29th March 2012 at Southwark Cathedral, London, we are giving away a guide a week over the next 5 weeks.  These guides will help you plan, develop and launch great online learning in just 5 days, using techniques from Willow’s Learning Pathway approach. By taking e-learning out of the box, you can take even the most complex subjects online.  Our free guides will help support some of the most important activities to complete in order to develop a great learning design, create great learning resources and encourage great learner interaction. To get your free guides, sign up here.  You’ll also find more information on our workshop and how to book your place here.

Reflections from Berlin…

Brandenburg Gate at night I was not sure what to expect from online educa. It has been a long time since I had the indulgence of attending a conference with no more responsibility than one presentation. This meant I could soak up the days, attend to the sessions and reflect far more than I normally have the space for. So, on board the return flight, I can write of my main takeaways. The first is the scarcity of business presentations and business people at the conference. It was billed as a conference for corporate, education and public sector but the business angle was thin on the ground. What this did allow me to do though, was to attend far more of the education focused sessions. This gave me some insight into take-up in that sector. Some extraordinary examples, like the virtual electronics lab, available 24 hours a day and always accessible multiple times if wanted. The adoption of cloud computing in schools, an ideal solution providing the school has an eye open for the pitfalls, not least of which is the fact that the kids will almost certainly know more than the teachers to start with. My second takeaway was my love-hate relationship I seem to be growing into with the learning gurus. There is this critical mass (critical being the right word) of gurus jumping into the camp of totally informal learning and rubbishing the formal. If I worked in an organisational role responsible for learning I think I would either feel confused or incensed. Of course, informal learning is the great uncounted factor for many in the past. Unrecognised, unsupported and factored out of L&D strategic thinking. But that has been changing for years. Think Etienne Wenger in the 70s and Peer Drucker, a couple of the truly great thinkers on the reality of learning and systems. It is truly excellent that this has gone full pelt with the recent advent of technology in this space that works, is affordable and socially adopted. The reality of organisational life needs both full-on intelligent acceptance of formal (Aka structured) and informal tucked into a supportive, open, challenging culture. Thats hardly new news though. I did think for one moment that one particular guru last week almost accepted that he was wedded to in-crowd learning groups and accepted that there are other just as necessary norms even within the same organisation. Then he spoilt it all by condeming all elearning as totally irrelevant! It was very heartening to see the scenarios created at the conference embracing different types of learning – totally recommend looking at The trouble I guess, with being a guru, is that you have to back your own brand of wisdom. After all, gurus are vendors too and unpicking your particular take undermines your very own brand. My final takeaway was a surprising one, that an online conference can fail so poorly with adequate technical application at the conference itself. The build up was pretty good, lots of newsletters, albeit as emails, with latest updates and so on. Great myonline facility to pull together your own agenda beforehand. But then came the conference itself. No established #code to enable a consistent twitter dialogue, no interactive technology feedback mechanisms in the sessions, not even a healthy working wifi! Come on Online Educa, you did such a great build up, don’t forget what online means on the day!

Online Educa publish conference info

Online Educa – one the world’s largest e-learning conferences is taking place at the Intercontinental Hotel in Berlin from Nov 30 to Dec 2 and this week, they have published the details of speakers at their very full conference programme. Myself and Debbie Lawley are holding an interactive workshop on thursday afternoon on models of cultural and cognitive development, so if you are coming along we hope to see you there.

The alternative to Moodle – decide for yourselves at our October Seminar

Social learning, mobile learning, learning on demand, bite size learning – the buzz words are seemingly endless which can make the search on how to actually deliver good online learning appear seemingly endless too! But here at Willow, we believe in good instructional design delivered in a simple, well designed way. That’s why we developed our own learning support system to offer the best social learning experience without the complexity of open source systems and the bloat of an LMS. If you want to know more about how we do this, then we have an event for you. Meet the team on the 4th October in London, where we’ll be exploring the key issues in moving from traditional training to World Class online learning. We will also take the audience through our unique approach to online learning supported by “Pathway”, the alternative business solution to Moodle. The sessions will be co-hosted by Patrick Mills, Director of Professional Development for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising who will share their experience of partnering with WillowDNA. These sessions are aimed at Training professionals who wish to move from a traditional training solution to one which incorporates online learning. If you are from a professional body or specialist training company delivering complex or subject specific training, this event is particularly relevant. Some come along, it’s free and you can sign up for the morning seminar or afternoon seminar