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MOOC pedagogy and accreditation

Most of the cacophony of comments and posts about MOOCs and their disruptive potential has focused on their free cost to students, high enrolments, superstar teachers and high prestige Universities.

Relatively little has been published, much less researched, about MOOC pedagogy. A thoughtful article by C. Osvaldo Rodriguez in EURODL mapped the evolution of the so called cMOOCs to connectivist generation of pedagogy that Jon Dron and I wrote about in IRRODL.  Conversely, given the focus on measurable outcomes and dissemination of content, it isn’t too much a leap to suggest (as Rodriguez’s does) that most of the big name xMOOCs are following the mass education model pioneered by open and distance education institution which we referred to as first generation, cognitive behaviourist pedagogy.

But putting labels on delivery models, doesn’t really lead us forward, unless we are also brave enough to venture into issues of effectiveness. However ontological differences between the models make comparisons based on effectiveness challenging. It is easy for traditional and constructivist pedagogues to jump to arguments about educational effectiveness that have at their root, notions of intense interaction with teachers or at least with peers. Of course with 100,000 students one has to change normal definitions of “intense interaction” to even begin to argue about effectiveness from a social-constructivist perspective.  Thus, most social constructivists focus on the opportunities for peer interaction and point to the emergence of meet-ups and online study groups as spontaneous evidence of MOOC effectiveness. I see these as a capacity, but in my experience of adding or even encouraging optional opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction, it doesn’t lead to much take-up  (beyond those exchanging telephone numbers with potential romantic partners).  However, with 100,000 students even a take up of a few percent is not insignificant and may be life-changing for some learners.

From a cognitive-behaviourist  perspective, educators usually want to argue effectiveness in terms of costs and outcomes. How much does it costs to induce and measure a behavioural change in students that evidences achievement of learning outcomes?  Unfortunately assessing learners with care given to reliability and validity – including reducing potential for cheating and identity fraud – costs money. And MOOCs students, normally are adverse to fee based system – unless of the course the fee is associated with something concrete of value- like transferrable credit towards a sufficiently valued reward- such as a university diploma or degree.

Thus, we have been urging our university, Athabasca to get into the business of credentialing learning associated with MOOCs. At Athabasca, and some other institutions, we have a long tradition ofallowing students to challenge courses by writing an extensive examination that attests to their attainment of the learning outcomes from the course. This explicitly recognizes that learning can and does happen, even without following the path prescribed and using the learning resources provided in our courses and without the guidance and feedback of our tutors. This policy is not supported by all faculty who fear that it provides a path that displaces or discounts their own contributions. However, I strongly support the idea that learning happens in many ways and curriculum delivered from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, can not all be that bad!  Resistance to this challenge exam policy resulted in a vote by our Academic Council and Board to raise tuition for challenges exams to $350 for Canadians or $598 for students outside of Canada. This dramatic increase in price cut the number of students by 75% in recent years, as we effectively priced ourselves out of this market.

The opportunity provided by MOOCs creates a great opportunity to regain and build a whole new market and to provide a service to potentially large numbers of students. As a fully accredited Canadian public university and the only Canadian university that is regionally accredited in the US, credit for our courses is readily transferable or can be applied towards a regular Athabasca degree. However, we have not as yet been able to exploit this market and have seen theUniversity of Colorado allow crediting for at least one Udacity course, (for a course challenge fee of $95) while Excelsior College is developing a similar challenge policy for an as yet undecided fee that will depend on the cost of developing and adminstering the examination

This type of challenge exam accrediting presents a classic disruptive technology challenge to our university. Our current leaders are terrified that students will eschew the regular courses and just challenge the exams for credit. They seem more interested in maintaining the current delivery and staff model than in meeting the mission of the University “the removal of barriers that restrict access to and success in university-level study and to increasing equality of educational opportunity for adult learners worldwide” Note that nowhere in the mission statement is there are mention of protecting the existing model or staff from changes, development in new models or even to competition.

We have trying to determine the exact cost of administering challenge exams – which of course depends on real costs of invigilators, exam development and maintenance, marking (by machine and by humans) and credit registration. But the costing effort becomes extremely challenging when we try to estimate overhead costs. Should students who challenge Athabasca exams have to pay a fair share of maintenance costs on buildings, faculty salaries, student union fees etc.? Clayton Christensen in his classic books on disruptive technologies suggests that innovations should  be incubated in “skunk works” to avoid predation from established units and unfair cost burdens required to maintain an older production model, while they develop new models.

To date we have not been successful in creating such alternative accreditation models – but we haven’t given up yet!

By: Terry Anderson
Posted: November 13, 2012, 12:58 am


  • Christensen has a good point and the use of spin-out initiatives to reduce risk can be a very prudent strategy. 

    Designing a spin-out using tools such as Business Model Canvas ("Business Model Generation", Alexander Osterwalder) to describe the business or operational model following a Customer Development Methodology ("Four Steps to E.piphany", Steve Blank or the easier read of "The Startup Owner's Manual : The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company", Steve Blank and Bob Dorf) reduces risks by providing incremental and actionable data.



    Eric von Stackelberg November 14, 2012 - 7:49pm

  • In my experience, "skunk works" only live with the blessing of the powers that be.  If the power environment changes, the skunk is in grave danger of being roadkill.

    Steve Swettenham January 11, 2013 - 1:05pm

  • That's why I prefer spin-outs entities with a documented hypothesis of the business (operational) model.

    The spin-out takes the innovation out of the power environment and allows focus on the key concepts that fullfil the need (eg. customer, client, student etc). This simpified and lean environment changes the very nature of what constitutes a win. Using something like the Business Model Canvas allows a focus on the hypothesis and customer development methodology is a process to validate the hypothesis. Since the success of the validated hypothesis is easy to see in the spin-out, the powers that be have an easier time of seeing the potential value.

    So I look at it as keeping the skunk off the road until it has proven it's value to the powers that be so they are motivated to be fauna friendly. Or if it was a disruptive innovation until it is around 15% adoption.


    Eric von Stackelberg January 11, 2013 - 6:47pm

  • When you refer to the Business Model Canvas would this webpage be accurate?

    In reference to 'spin out entities' would this webpage be an accurate description?

    In my life within public and private sectors, when times are good all is well (like drunk on cash Apple execs).  However, in the bad times, the organizational stresses prevail and predation, or self-preservation, seems to be a priority, resulting in staff reductions etcetera.

    What complicates the skunk's life in a digital world is that the envirionment is rapidly evolving (or de-evolving) depending on your point of view.  Hence, adapt or die.

    Getting back to Terry's MOOC's, the take away lesson for me is that change is good and the opportunities are there to adapt and prosper.

    Steve Swettenham January 12, 2013 - 8:58am

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