About Mark Nichols


DEANZ update…

On Monday 9 March the DEANZ executive got together for its annual planning day. It’s going to prove a significant year for DEANZ. Here’s why.

Firstly, we have come to realise something. We are not about open, flexible and distance learning; we’re actually about making ako accessible for all. As an Exec, we have decided to promote our philosophical objective over specific educational practices. DEANZ as an acronym used to stand for something I won’t repeat (we’re trying to break the habit)… now, DEANZ the brand means a commitment to accessibility. DEANZ: Making ako accessible for all. We’re excited by this, and we figure that you will be, too.

Second, we will soon embark on a major promotion. We know that making ako accessible to all is an objective shared across educators right across New Zealand, and that DEANZ has a role to play in connecting professionals who share that objective. The more members we have, the more valuable the connections. Expect more value from DEANZ membership in the months ahead.

Third, planning is now well underway for DEANZ 2016. The event will be held in Hamilton, with the University of Waikato as our host. There is a conference theme of, well, epic proportions awaiting you in what will truly be a landmark conference.

Fourth, we have a new member of the DEANZ executive. Dr Maggie Hartnett of Massey University, who co-edits the Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, has joined the team. Maggie brings great deal of expertise to the executive as a practitioner and theorist in online education.

Our recent planning day has refreshed our activity toward serving you, our members, in support of your professional roles. I’m certain 2015 will be a year of increased membership, renewed activity, and honed focus toward our shared objective of making ako accessible for all.

With best regards and on behalf of your DEANZ Exec,

Dr Mark Nichols
President, DEANZ.

ODeL and the contemporary challenge of the MOOC

A recent article in the journal Open Learning considers some of the quality and reputational challenges facing open, distance and eLearning (ODeL). Anne Gaskill and Roger Mills are two prominent UK authors, both with previous and long-standing experience with the Open University UK. Reading their article isn’t a pre-requisite for this post!

In the article it was interesting from the outset to see ODeL (Open, Distance, eLearning) as the catch-all term for education alternative to on-campus or face-to-face settings in the article. DEANZ uses OFDL (Open, Flexible, Distance Learning), for reasons broadly outlined in this JOFDL editorial. Whether ‘Distance’ and ‘eLearning’ should be considered related is a perennial problem. The long and short of it is, our terminology and categorisation of education practices using online tools is very problematic. I’ll come back to this point later in the post.

One good thing about the Gaskill & Mills article is that it explores four major challenges that remain for many who critical of ODeL:

  • The quality of teaching, learning and quality processes.
  • Outcomes.
  • Access.
  • Perceptions of students, staff and employers.

Gaskell & Mills point out the significant progress that has been made in these four areas based on established practice, and they offer some valuable citations useful for OFDL (or ODeL?) practitioners seeking to justify their actvities. The article then speculates on the contribution of OERs and MOOCs to ODeL. It’s the MOOC aspect I’ll be exploring from here on.

Gaskell & Mills question the contribution MOOCs are making to the questions of quality, outcomes, access, and perceptions. MOOCs, they point out, are not known for quality (video lectures!?!); outcomes (very poor completions); and access (MOOCS are mainly attractive to those already highly educated). The authors do not explore the issue of how MOOCs are perceived, which is actually rather complicated. There are very mixed views of the value of MOOCs across those involved in higher education. A recent Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty & Instructors post provides a fairly appreciative view. The work of Tony Bates (see his chapter on MOOCs here, for example – and an appropriate rant here) provides a very comprehensive view. Tony also provides a bibliography for those interested in exploring things further, to which I would add the excellent 2014 special issue of Distance Education.

All of this is provides a fascinating area of research and debate. Let me provide my own views in the form of statements, each open to challenge.

  1. MOOCs in their original form (be they cMOOC or xMOOC) cannot provide a sustainable or equivalent alternative to formal education. The evidence for this is already in.
  2. MOOCs are more aligned with the paradigm of informal lifelong learning, than that of formal education.
  3. As MOOCs continue to mature, they will become less Massive and less Open (we are already seeing this).
  4. MOOCs (and their offspring) will, at their best, eventually resemble online distance education programmes.

It is very easy for tertiary educators to embark on distance education and eLearning. The problem is, if distance education and eLearning are implemented easily, it normally follows that they are executed poorly. I suspect that MOOCs were an attempt to embark on ODeL in an ‘easy’ way, or at least an intuitive one (see Daphne Koller’s first TED talk responsible for much of the hype). The adoption of the term ‘MOOC’ also implied something new and unencumbered from existing practice and thought. Unfortunately, MOOCs demonstrate what distance education and eLearning could achieve without reference to any of the lessons learned from decades of related theory and practice. As the lessons from MOOCs are coming in, it is clear that classic distance education theory maintains its relevance.

Coming back to my earlier point about definitions and categorisation. MOOCs are, in my view, no more than an expression of distance education and eLearning. As such, MOOCs do not escape the constraints, opportunities, pedagogies and systems that distance education and eLearning theorists have already debated and discovered. It is for this reason that I believe MOOCs will increasingly resemble online distance education programmes. They have no ontological alternative!

So, are MOOCs new? The acronym was; the provision of course materials online in video-based chunks, reinforced by multiple choice questions wasn’t. The lessons emerging from the great MOOC experiment are of no surprise to those who have been involved in ODeL for some time. Do MOOCs provide a contemporary challenge to ODeL? Not at all; instead, MOOCs are another example of ODeL in action… just not a very good example.