BLOG POST: Breaking Boundaries – Broadening Access – James Robson

James ProfileThe second of our ESRC funded Breaking Boundaries seminar series was recently held at the Oxford Internet Institute and our speakers discussed the general issue of broadening access, with a specific focus on Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and Open Educational Resources (OER).  The seminar was led by three speakers: Sarah Porter, Professor Grainne Conole, and Dr Rebecca Eynon.  All three critically engaged with issues surrounding inclusion and the ways in which technology in the form of MOOCs and OER can and cannot facilitate greater access to educational opportunities for people who have traditionally been excluded from them.

Sarah Porter, Visitor at the OII, previously Head of Innovation and part of the senior management team at Jisc, acted as chair for the seminar and opened the session with a short presentation on the historical development of MOOCs, drawing on her extensive practical and research experience in the area.  She particularly highlighted the way in which Gartner’s Hype Cycle can be applied to MOOCs.  The cycle represents four main phases of the adoption of new technologies: the technology trigger; the peak of inflated expectations; the trough of disillusionment; the slope of enlightenment; and the plateau of productivity.  Sarah argued that hype around MOOCs increased significantly during 2012 as they became increasing visible in popular culture.  However, as negative news stories are beginning to emerge, 2013 and 2014 may represent the trough of disillusionment.  The shape the plateau of productivity may take, therefore, remains to be seen.

Following this presentation, Grainne Conole, Professor of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester, expanded on Sarah’s discussion by exploring MOOCs and OER’s abilities to disrupt traditional educational structures by also contextualizing them within a historical timeline, charting the development of these, and other, educational technologies.  She highlighted the potential false dichotomy between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, arguing through the use of a self-created ‘taxonomy of MOOCs’ that inter-MOOC diversity is highly nuanced.  A key area she raised, that was touched on by all the presenters, was the ways in which high dropout rates from such courses should be interpreted.  Critics of MOOCs often point to such dropout rates as an indication that technology hasn’t necessarily broadened access to the degree that some of the positive discourses suggest.  However, Grainne argued that completion shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as a mark of success, and that with different users bringing different needs and agendas to their courses, they still had the potential to have valid educational experiences regardless of whether the course was fully completed.

Rebecca Eynon, Senior Research Fellow at the OII and Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, concluded the session with a presentation in collaboration with Nabeel Gillani and Isis Hjorth, focused on conceptualizing interaction and learning in MOOCs.  The presentation offered findings of an ongoing research project that undertook a mixed method analysis of two MOOCs, investigating the different ways in which users interact and communicate within them and how these relate to learner characteristics, experiences and outcomes.  Building on an extensive network analysis, the speakers presented a series of four typologies of learning and learners – just in time learning, just in case learning, life-long learning, and educational access – arguing that each had very specific goals and needs.  Therefore, they argued that recognizing these diverse needs and goals must be considered when discussing the ways in which such technologies should be conceptualized as supporting wider access.

The seminar was very well attended (with a large number of people also following the live stream on the Breaking Boundaries website) and the issues raised by all the speakers were extensively discussed over excellent refreshments provided by the OII following the session.

Recordings of the presentations and copies of the accompanying slides are available on the Breaking Boundaries website.  Don’t forget to come to the final session of this seminar series on Thursday 13th March, Room G/H, Oxford University Department of Education, in which Dr Niall Winters will discuss ICT for Development with a particular focus on the education of healthcare professionals in Kenya.

James Robson

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