Thursday, March 21, 2013

MOOCs - Promise and Opportunity

In case you don't know by now, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course and they are causing an upheaval in higher education worldwide. We should be careful when describing something as a 'game changer' but perhaps this is one instance where it is appropriate and warranted. In essence MOOCs are online courses that are generally free of charge and delivered on a range of topics from prestigious universities and colleges.

MOOCs are made available through various platforms or providers - the big providers are Coursera, EdX, Udacity and ClevrU. A clance through any of these sites will give you a sense of the range and quality of courses on offer.

The numbers taking some of these courses are staggering - class sizes in the tens of thousands are not unusual. However, completion rates are modest enough with an average of about 20% - a good interactive source on completion rates is found here at Katy Jordan's site.

The big question is why a prestigious institution like Harvard, Stanford University and MIT would want to offer courses free-of-charge and risk destroying a valuable source of future revenue?

The answer may lie in a new emphasis on the provision of quality support, assessment and certification rather than content delivery in itself. This is a welcome shift - away from a view of learning in terms of transfer of knowledge and nurturing skills' development such as communication, collaboration and problem-solving.

However, it would be a mistake to belive that participation on a MOOC is all about passive watching of video lectures and very little by way of engagement. I am taking a MOOC on Aboriginal Worldviews and Education by  Jean-Paul Restoule of the University of Toronto and it is really excellent. The learning tasks are varied and interesting and there are ample fora for discussion and integration. The course acts as a portal to an interesting and alternative perspective on how we see education and culture.

MOOCs are certainly disrupting the business models in higher education and perhaps this is for the better. The idea of opening-up learning opportunities to the widest possible audience seems to me to be a very positive development. Perhaps unexpectedly, the 'free' material will build an entire new market for students who would otherwise not have considered taking college courses.

In the end a good shake-up of the sector is long overdue and with the advent of MOOCs we might finally have an opportunity to replace the industrial models of learning and education with something more appropriate for 21st Century living.

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Ten Tips for Writing Academic Papers

Completing academic writing assignments is one of the most important skills you will need to develop as a student.  This is true regardless of your subject or discipline.

Based on my own experience writing and correcting papers and discussions with students I have compiled these ten tips to help you get going.  I have used these at the Academic Writing Club we set up in National College of Ireland to support students through the challenges of this process.

1 Read the task

Spend time reading and analysing the task you have been assigned.  Look for action words such as 'discuss', 'compare', 'critique' and so on.  Check if you need to provide examples or to analyse or deal with a particular context.   Write the task at the head of your essay and make sure you address every component of the assignment.

2 Get on with it!

Start writing straight away - don't keep putting it off.  Many students say they need to read first and write later.  It is better to read and write at the same time (see tip 4 below).  

3 Use the opening paragraph as your plan

Start with something like "In this assignment I will...." and then go on to describe what the reader can expect. Write this paragraph first. Then leave it alone - don't keep reworking it during the writing process - wait until your assignment is near to completion and then (and only then) rewrite the opening.

4 Read and research with purpose

Once you have a plan (based on your opening paragraph) you can then attack the required background reading.  The secret is to be 'purposeful' in your approach.  Continuously ask yourself why you are reading the specific text before you and what it will contribute.  Write snippets as you go. Don't get taken in by mindless reading and avoid 'nice to know' sidetracks - if you come across something interesting but not directly helpful to your assignment put it in a folder for future reading.

5 Make three points

I want to make three points about this tip.  First it's a useful starting point for a new topic - it gives a simple structure and the reader knows what to expect.  Second it stretches your thinking so you can easily compare and contrast the ideas you wish to discuss.  Finally, you can always keep going to add more and more points later.

6 Use paragraphs to provide structure  

One of the most useful and often neglected devices for both writer and reader is the paragraph. It is often possible to write separate paragraphs from different parts of your assignment and to connect these in later drafts.  An advantage of this approach is that your notes and memos will gradually build to become paragraphs.  Each paragraph should have it's own structure - pay attention to the key sentence that usually carries the main message of the paragraph. Make backward and forward connections with linking sentences throughout your paper.

7 Remember you are the writer 

Many students fail to grasp that a term paper assignment is essentially a learning task that requires their engagement in the process of writing.  It is more important to provide your own thoughts (even if you feel they are inadequate) rather than reproducing the work of others. Keep quotations to a minimum and cite all your sources using one system of referencing such as APA, MLA of Harvard.

8 Keep it clear

Write in a clear straightforward style.  Avoid complex sentences.  Make your argument with precision and elegance and use no more words than necessary.

9 Write a little every day

Writing can be tiring especially if you are not used to it.  It's a good idea to break the task down and write something each day until the assignment is due.  Even if you are busy with other things or feeling tired try to accomplish some part of the work - such as proof reading or formatting - in every session.

10 Write a summary and conclusion 

A summary captures the main points that you have made such as "here I have provided ten tips on academic writing for students" while a conclusion provides a key message that can be inferred from your paper such as "it's over to you now good luck with your academic writing".

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Alienation and Learning

I want to talk about alienation as I believe it to be a topic of concern to most of us and it is an important influence on how we live our lives today.

Karl Marx was one of the first to highlight how the structures of modern society inevitably lead to alienation.  He describes how, in industrial settings, many workers are alienated from the products they produce.  For example, an assembly line worker is far removed from the completed product.
The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. 
Marx K, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. First Manuscript p29

In contrast, many professionals such as teachers, architects, entrepreneurs and hairdressers remain closely affiliated with their productive output.

There are other ways in which we experience alienation in the modern world. 

Often we experience alienation as customers when organisations conceive their clientèle in purely economic terms.  We may experience this in for example, in airline, telecommunications and fast food industries - customer-provider interactions are kept to a minimum and are strictly orchestrated - we are reduced to commodities and with each transaction the organisation becomes more powerful at our expense.

Alienation is not the same as isolation or disengagement. It is potentially more sinister - it involves a diminution of aspects of human nature.  It is not simply ignoring someone it's a more active process of regulation and imposition of externally convenient limits.

Alienation is part of the price we pay for progress and economy.  If we want cheap air travel, digital devices and convenient nourishment then we will experience alienation.  Most people can cope and are willing to accept much in exchange for greater freedom at other times. 

Similarly, all those 'small cogs in a big wheel' workers in multi-nationals, manufacturing industries and the like, certainly do experience alienation from product.  However, in contrast with the 1800's when Marx first wrote about the topic, there are many possibilities for fulfilment in other ways.  People work in teams, take pride in achieving goals and have very rich lives outside of the workplace. 

Today, we experience new and often more powerful manifestations of alienation.  One of the most prevalent is the way in which we treat people who are unemployed as economic commodities.  Certain skills are no longer regarded as useful while others are in demand.  The simplistic solution of reskilling is often proposed as a quick-fix for a more complex state of affairs.

Participation is the opposite side of alienation and I argue that 'learning to participate' is the big, on-going task of adult education.  We will continue to experience alienation throughout our lives - for some it's caused by new technology, others experience it in employment or as customers.  The antidote to alienation is participation and the path to participation is through learning.

Participation is empowering, it involves purposeful activity that enriches the person while working with others.  It can manifest as engagement in the digital world but it is also evident in conscious decisions not to follow the trend.  When we learn to participate it may involve acquisition of new skills and competence but it is also an autonomous and liberating action.

Alienation is a powerful influence on all our lives.  This is especially the case during hard times.  It is important that we establish strong foundations for our own well-being. Otherwise we become vulnerable, at risk of being overwhelmed by external forces.  We build our strength by becoming knowledgeable and making our own meaning.  This is what we do.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

From marks to Marx: Shifting your mindset for learning

We all like to achieve and when it comes to doing a course or gaining a qualification we want to achieve the best result possible.

Naturally we want to get an A+ or a First Class Honour in whatever subject we study.  Striving to get a good mark - a Distinction, Merit or Commendation - is a useful approach to learning and for many people it is the driving force guiding their learning effort.

Doo Lough County Mayo
We all like to achieve in learning but what should we really aim for? (My picture of Doo Lough, County Mayo)
However, it is worthwhile to ask if it the 'best' approach?  Is there a better, more fruitful and, in the long-term more rewarding target to aim for?

I argue that there is and want to make a case for moving beyond a simple focus on marks and assessment to the more expansive idea of growing your mind through ideological critique and praxis.

If you are an active participant on a course you will likely have learning goals.  These are implicit and explicit statements of what you wish to achieve.  How you approach different topics and learning challenges, where you apply effort and how you measure progress are all parts of your learning strategy which in turn is guided by your goals.

It is useful to be aware of your learning goals and to be prepared to question and review them regularly. 

What do I want to achieve? 

This is the most important decision you can make about your own learning.  You could decide "I want to pass the exam" or even go further "I want to get an honours grade" or further again "I want first class honours"


you could go beyond grades and shift your goals toward an intrinsic interest in the subject and strive to master the topic in itself. 

You could also consider goals that relate to your own competence such as "I want to develop a new design for...." or "I want to investigate why....." or "I wish to become very knowledgeable on.....".  These goals are stated without reference to the formal assessment process.

Karl Marx in 1861
As an adult, you can go further again.  Here I quote from Karl Marx, the last line from Thesis on Feuerbach
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
The term 'praxis' is used to denote a process whereby theory, skills or knowledge are used to realise and enact the potential therein.  Through the writings of Paulo Friere we see how literacy education results in emancipation.  Lives can be transformed and the prevailing order challenged.  Imagine that as a learning goal "I want to change the world". 

This is not some vague, idealistic notion that can be countered by the shallow challenge of "that's all very well but I need to pass my exams".  The most important goals in adult learning should be ideological critique and praxis.  Everyone who learns has a responsibility to contribute and improve our world. 

Students in our schools, colleges and universities are often well placed to use praxis as a purpose and means of learning.  For example, in National College of Ireland we have an elective module on Service Learning available to our business undergraduates.  However, many students fail to grasp the opportunity.   They see the purpose of college in narrow terms and focus on their next assessment and look for formulae to get good marks without much effort.

As educators we need to take responsibility for providing a limited view of learning.  Much of the assessment infrastructure is built around pre-defined learning outcomes and an instrumental view of what it means to achieve.  We need to question the system and challenge the underlying assumptions.  It's time to critique the ideology of our education system - in short, to shift mindsets from marks to Marx.

Strangely enough, at a personal level if you move your learning mindset beyond the next assessment and adopt critique and praxis as your ultimate learning goals you will likely achieve high marks in all that you do.