Monday, November 9, 2015

My masters: Using MOOCs and complexity thinking to disrupt current debates on educational futures.

As many of you will know, for some time now I have been dabbling in post graduate studies. Although for some time I thought that I might examine some aspect of mathematics education, a chance meeting with the legendary Jane Gilbert in February this year saw me change my mind. I ditched my previous proposals (which fortunately was still very useful in learning how to use words like ontology and epistemology). Although I have met some fascinating and knowledgeable researchers and academics over the past few years, Jane was the first that genuinely listened with intent to the story of #edchatNZ and my passion for bringing about change in the education system. I talked about my hope to develop a MOOC (massive open online course) to deepen the many wonderful discussions I had seen on #edchatNZ. So, together we have embarked on a very exciting project - designing a MOOC examining Education Futures, and then studying what happens. It was an opportunity not to be missed, and one that even early on in this project, has turned my thinking inside out and on its head, inside out and back around. Like all things #edchatNZ, you can sign up to help build and design, or participate in the discussion. Even better, would be if you chose to participate, if you invited friends parents and colleagues. The larger the community that takes part in discussions about education futures, the more likely that we will see the changes that we so desperately know our students need. You can learn more about the MOOC on the #edchatNZ website, as well as sign up for more information or to participate in its design.

For those of you who are interested in the more academic side of things, below is part of the more formal research proposal for this project.

Major changes in the world beyond education have led to calls for a more “future-focused” education system: however, change has so far been slow or small in scale. This project plans to investigate one possible way to bring about the required change on a larger scale. It will explore the extent to which participants in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) talk to colleagues about ideas they are exposed to, and what these conversations are like. It will also explore the extent to which participants’ thinking (about education) changes as they experience the MOOC. 

Major world trends including the rise of technology, globalisation, networked knowledge and the increasing urgency of “wicked problems” such as climate change have led many to argue for change in education (e.g. Berry, 2011; Bolstad et al., 2012; Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2012; Claxton, 2013; Gilbert, 2005; Snyder, 2013). We also know that the way our young people interact with the world via technology is very different from any previous generation (Collins & Halverson, 2010; Gardner & Davis, 2014), and that the nature of knowledge, the traditional foundation of education, is also shifting (Biesta, 2007; Cope & Phillips, 2009; Gardner & Davis, 2014; Weinberger, 2011). However, despite this, change in education is slow, often non-existent. Many authors argue that our education system and its underpinning ideas have not co-evolved with the wider society, and, as a result, are no longer “fit for purpose” (e.g. Berry, 2011; Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2012; Collins & Halverson, 2010; Gilbert, 2005; Weinberger, 2011). Unless shift is generated across the network, our education system’s capacity to meet the needs of today’s students will continue to decline. 

While there have been many attempts at reform in education, most of these attempts have been “top down” approaches, involving new “inputs” into the system (new policies, structures, technologies, curriculum, pedagogical approaches, and/or assessment systems). While these approaches may result in superficially new forms of organisation and/or new ways of talking about what happens in the system, they have not produced the kind of system-wide change that is needed (Snyder, 2013). New approaches are needed. 

According to Forte, Humphreys, and Park (2012), educators who belong to, and regularly participate in, professional sharing and discussion in social networks are more likely to participate in reform efforts. Daly (2010) shows that specific subgroups within a network such as education can inhibit or lend support for overall strategies as they are made up of more densely connected networks. This project’s aim is to explore the possible influence of these networks and subgroups on the system as a whole. While some work has been done in this area, it has (so far) been small in scale (and therefore unlikely to affect system wide change), or unable to foster the kind of in-depth interaction and thinking required (for example, the various Twitter-based professional networks available to educators).

This project’s starting point is the idea that change will not come from adding more “inputs” - more administration, more policy, more ideas, and more processes - into the existing system. Rather, change has to come from within the system. Hence, the focus of this project is a within-system initiative designed to produce more – and deeper - interactions between the system’s elements. The idea is that this increased interaction will produce a shift in the way teachers think about education, across the system, and, following from this, new ways of working with past “inputs”. This within-system initiative is the proposed MOOC.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) became popular in 2012 (Daniel, 2013). These free or low cost university courses allow open access to knowledge traditionally only available in formal university degree programmes. MOOCs potentially allow large numbers of people, irrespective of location and/or circumstances, to participate in discussion and engagement with complex ideas.

This project involves developing a MOOC that is designed to make available some “big ideas” about education’s future, and to encourage participants to discuss these ideas with others. The research part of the project is designed to investigate the extent to which exposure to, and debate about, the ideas affects participants’ thinking about education. 

Research Questions
  1. Do participants who have voluntarily enrolled in a MOOC discuss the ideas they are exposed to in the MOOC with colleagues and/or family and friends?
  2. If they do, how in-depth/ extensive are these conversations?
  3. Do these experiences change the way they think about education?
The broader context is to investigate the potential of MOOCs for facilitating within-system change. 

  • Berry, B. (2011). Teaching 2030: What we must do for our students and our public schools: Now and in the future. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Biesta, G. (2007). Towards the knowledge democracy? Knowledge production and the civic role of the university. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 26(5), 467-479. doi: 10.1007/s11217-007-9056-0
  • Bolstad, R., Gilbert, J., McDowall, S., Bull, A., Boyd, S., & Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching - a New Zealand Perspective: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
  • Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2012). Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Massachusetts: Digital Frontier Press.
  • Claxton, G. (2013). What's the point of school?: Rediscovering the heart of education. London: Oneworld Publications.
  • Collins, A., & Halverson, R. (2010). The second educational revolution: rethinking education in the age of technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(1), 18-27. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00339.x
  • Cope, B., & Phillips, A. (2009). Signs of epistemic disruption: transformations in the knowledge system of the academic journal The Future of the Academic Journal: Elsevier Science.
  • Daly, A. J. (2010). Social Network Theory and Educational Change: Harvard Education Press.
  • Daniel, J. (2013). Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility. Open Education Research, 3(006). 
  • de Waard, I., Abajian, S., Gallagher, M. S., Hogue, R., Keskin, N., Koutropoulos, A., & Rodriguez, O. C. (2011). Using mLearning and MOOCs to understand chaos, emergence, and complexity in education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12(7). 
  • Forte, A., Humphreys, M., & Park, T. (2012). Grassroots Professional Development: How Teachers Use Twitter Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Sixth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media.
  • Gardner, H., & Davis, K. (2014). The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Gilbert, J. (2005). Catching the Knowledge Wave? The Knowledge Society and the future of education. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
  • Snyder, S. (2013). The simple, the complicated, and the complex: educational reform through the lens of complexity theory. OECD Publishing, 96. 
  • Weinberger, D. (2011). Too Big to Know. New York: Basic Books.