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George Siemens, University of Texas Arlington

Dubbed the ‘grandfather of MOOCs’, George Siemens speaks about the changing student-university relationship and, of course, the latest trends emerging from technology in higher education.

The PIE:  You work with two institutions so tell me about what you do.

MOOCs have stayed the same as when the first big ones were rolled our two or three years ago. Maybe the video’s a little nicer; maybe there’s a better use of some visuals, but by and large it’s the same kind of format"

GS: I have two positions – at the University of Texas Arlington I’m Executive Director and Professor for the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge research lab, and I’m also cross-appointed with Athabasca University at the Center for Distance Education as a faculty member.

Right now I’m looking at a range of factors on the impact of technology on really any aspect of the university experience, so the opportunities to use learning analytics is part of that; the opportunity to rethink university structures, teaching practices, pedagogy and so on.

“The digitisation of learning is what enabled us to talk about MOOCS. MOOCS aren’t a trend themselves; they’re an outgrowth of the digitisation trend”

The PIE: What are some of the emerging trends around technology?

GS: I think digitisation of the university is one of the most prominent trends that we really need to be aware of because that’s one of those factors that’s driving all of those buzzwords that we hear. The digitisation of learning is what enabled us to talk about MOOCs. MOOCs aren’t a trend themselves; they’re an outgrowth of the digitisation trend. The growth of analytics in order to better learn how students are learning or how to better support them or recruit them is also a function of the world being digital.

Other trends are government-oriented. This is a little more relevant to the US context than the UK or Australia, but there’s a growing cult of efficiency where your metrics of success are those that can be managed in ‘accountant speak’. So there’s almost a sense that the role of the university in society isn’t being understood in the way it was: this place of contemplation, this space of basic research and science. Now all of a sudden the language of corporate systems is starting to make its impact on universities.

The PIE: How does the MOOC landscape look now compared to how you imagined it when you first began developing MOOCs in 2008?

“There’s a growing cult of efficiency where your metrics of success are those that can be managed in ‘accountant speak’”

GS: I don’t know if I really had an image of what it might be; it was more just a project, an experiment that I was engaged with, but definitely it’s very different – first of all, it’s global in access. The first MOOC we taught had 2,300 students. But now MOOCs are being taught in different languages; instead of 2,300 students they’ve got 100,000 or 200,000, so the numbers are absolutely insane compared to what we were thinking at the time.

Other aspects have to do with the fact that the providers that are currently delivering MOOCs take a very different knowledge view than what we had. Our view was that we were entering a creative economy where you have to be able to learn for yourself, self-regulate, create, connect.  With the current providers – Coursera, edX, FutureLearn – there seems to be more of a focus on duplicating what we know. It’s a more traditional student relationship.

The PIE: Most MOOCs have a very low completion rate, should that be a concern?

GS: It’s a relevant question, so I hope I’m not flippant in my response – but I don’t care. If students didn’t pay and it was an opportunity to explore… it’s kind of like the question ‘who completes a library?’ We don’t have that mindset toward a library; we take the book we want to read and bring it back.

“It’s kind of like the question ‘who completes a library?’ We don’t have that mindset toward a library; we take the book we want to read and bring it back. MOOCs are more like that”

MOOCs are more like that. They’re a resource that you use for parts that you need and when you’ve got what you want you can drop out of it. When we should care about completion rates, though, is when we’re dealing with students of an underrepresented profile, or students who’ve paid to be a part of it.

The PIE: What is the number one trend that you can see emerging for MOOCs?

GS: It’s hard to say, because MOOCs haven’t innovated much since they started. They’ve stayed the same as when the first big MOOCs were rolled out two or three years ago. Maybe the video’s a little nicer; maybe there’s a better use of some visuals, but by and large it’s the same kind of format. So MOOCs haven’t really done much; they’ve sort of stagnated.

“MOOCs haven’t innovated much since they started. They’ve sort of stagnated”

But a trend that’s maybe of note with MOOCs is first of all they’re not competing with universities’ core offerings. They serve an entirely different audience and universities haven’t really paid much attention to the lifelong learners – the idea of having a 40-year relationship with a student. That’s the market that MOOCs are targeting, and so that’s probably the biggest trend: that MOOCs are serving an audience that has been ignored by the universities.

And some have pulled away from platforms like Coursera and brought their courses back to their own space again, because they’re essentially contributing for free to Coursera’s reputation. Coursera and Udacity both started with Stanford, but now Stanford has their own initiative called Stanford Online because they’re realising the Stanford name is what they want to preserve. They don’t want to promote necessarily some start-up.

The PIE: Can you see paid services like Coursera’s Signature Track becoming more common?

GS: One of the things that those organisations try to do is address companies like Google or AT&T that have development needs for staff they want to have reskilled or upskilled, so I think it’s a clever idea. I don’t think, though, that that model will be able to replace the tuition model of existing universities. It’s going to have to be very different economics: instead of saying X number of dollars or pounds for a course, it’s going to have to be a fraction of the cost, but they’re going to have to play a numbers game. I think MOOC providers right now are looking for that silver bullet that will help them bring in profits or will help them pay back the venture capitalists that invested in them.

“MOOC providers right now are looking for that silver bullet that will help them pay back the venture capitalists that invested in them”

The PIE: Tell me about this idea you mentioned of having a 40-year relationship with students.

GS: For most universities, how we’ve been structured – traditionally at least – our job is to take a 17, 18-year-old student and in a span of four years, graduate them into something: employment or whatever they end up doing. And that model isn’t as relevant as it once was. There’s still going to be a section of students that fit that profile, but that’s not going to be the only role and I don’t even think it’s going to be the dominant role for universities going forward.

I think what we’re going to see much more of a lifelong relationship where an individual gets a degree from a university, enters the workforce, drops back on weekends to do upskilling work; or there’s a change in the labour market and they’ll come back to university for six months and so on.

Less than 50% of students in the US fit the traditional student profile. It just goes to show, we’re in a long-rumoured knowledge economy; and you would expect in a knowledge economy, the most important thing you could do is to continue learning. And I think universities that wake up to that fact have some good opportunities to really strengthen their brand, but also to play a valuable role in the lives of their alumni.

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