Takeaways from Milan

It has been a little over a week since I returned from the open education conference in Milan. Looking back on it, I think it was a valuable experience for me and a good introduction to the OER and open ed efforts being made by educators and policy-makers in Europe and Asia (there was only modest representation from Latin America or Africa). Much of the talk was oriented on social justice and equity and a great deal focused on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and on the recent UNESCO OER Recommendation, adopted at the 40th General Conference on November 25, 2019. Both these international statements can be easily related to BSU’s Sustainability Goals and focus on educational equity, and I’m going to begin referring to them more explicitly as I design my own courses and activities. The biggest takeaway from the conference, however, may be the rapid pace of change toward a much more decentralized educational system in which traditional institutions such as universities are decentered and greater student ownership and control over curricula and credentials become the norm. The three themes that seemed most prevalent in conference sessions and discussions were online education, MOOCs, and micro-credentialing.

Online education has been widely accepted as a solution for distance learning, but is increasingly seen as a way to enhance students’ learning experience. New technology enables interaction and automates many of the routine activities of running a class, freeing up both students and instructors to focus on the learning. For example, Moodle (one of the conference sponsors) demonstrated several new tools for collaborative learning and assessment. And the increased reach of courses offered in either standard or massively online formats improves discussion and student interaction by raising the number of participants. I’ve already experienced this in my own online East Asia course which has thirty students, triple what I’ve ever had in an in-person 3000-level course at BSU. Next semester I won’t have an online course, but thereafter I plan to lean into online with dual-listed upper-level courses in the summer and every semester for History majors, Social Studies Ed. Students, and High School teachers. And I’m looking forward to trying an online survey, beginning with People of the Environment in Fall 2020 and continuing with Modern World.

Massively open online courses (MOOCs) are much more of a dirty word in the US than they are in the rest of the world, possibly due to the way some American for-profit education institutions have misused the format. In Europe and Asia, MOOCs are to courses as OER are to textbooks. For subjects where there is a significant percentage of fact-learning, assessment can be automated fairly easily. Even when qualitative judgments must be made about discussion posts and forum interactions, vendors like Moodle are developing peer evaluation modules with AI agents that prioritize the evaluations of students who have earned high evaluations on their own work (while still allowing the instructor to have the final say), encouraging student collaboration in course management as well as learning. Even if we don’t decide to go all the way to the MOOC environment, there’s a lot we can learn from these courses and the tools they use to improve the learning experience.

Credentials are central to the power exercised by universities over students. There have been online sources for the highest-quality educational content for the last couple of decades, such as MIT OpenCourseWare, Britain’s Open University, and open learning initiatives at Stanford, Harvard, and UMass. Students can watch and listen to some of the best instructors for free, read open textbooks, and educate themselves in a wide variety of topics – but they generally can’t get credit for that learning. Colleges and universities are being challenged as the gatekeepers of credit, however. Micro-credentialing apps such as Badgr are gaining credibility. Badgr is currently used by more than 12,000 credentialing agencies in 100 countries. The NEA recognizes badges and micro-credentials, and several university systems like SUNY have pledged to lead the way in “High-Quality Micro-Credentials”. I attended a workshop on a new blockchain-based app being developed to allow organizations to decentralize credentialing. I suggested that individuals ultimately will want to own their own “personal wallet” of credentials (as well as other personal digital info such as their genome, credit history, medical history, and CV). Martin Dougiamas (CEO of Moodle) picked up that thread and said Moodle was working on a decentralized network for educators and students that he hinted might include some of these features. MinnState has just been through an extensive formulation of transfer pathways, which may be a good first step in a process of thinking about how we want to respond to this challenge.

As usual, I’m going to advocate for trying to be ahead of the changes and meeting them with a plan. I think my department’s shift toward offering more online courses for concurrent enrollment teachers (teachers in Minnesota who want to teach “college at high school courses” have recently been required to have at least 18 credits in the subject they’re teaching, in addition to education credits) is a great first step. It addresses our need to increase enrollment while giving us practice improving our online courses. Using more automated tools may take some of the pressure off instructors and allow us to focus more on quality interactions with students. And making our courses widely-visible models should help insure our relevance as residential universities begin to lose their position at the center of higher ed.

I’m at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis today, participating in a group for the Open Textbook Network to define specifications for a new OER authoring and publishing tool they’re going to develop. But I’ll be back Friday, and I’ll start talking to folks in my program and on campus about these issues.