Presentation to UNCTAD's Advisory Group on "Developing skills, knowledge and capacities through innovation: E-Learning, M-Learning, cloud-Learning"

Stephen Downes
December 10, 2013 
I'd like to begin with the issue of access. This is not where I usually begin a talk, because the main thing, I have to say, about issues of access is that's, to be outside the scope of the areas that I work in.
But from the perspective of the learner, the online learner, there are two major forms of access that need to be considered. First of all, there is technological access, ranging from power to Internet access, to mobile delivery.
The main thing that, I want to say, there is that there is a very large difference between any sort of access, and all‑the‑time broadband access and that this degree of access might facilitate a difference in your ability to enjoy and use e‑Learning.
As well as digital access, I want to talk about cognitive access, because this is equally a factor in online delivery. In particular, we face issues of, not only literacy, but also, digital literacy, that is, the ability to actually make use of the online learning materials that are made available to you.
As well, people are facing issues finding time to learn. We've discovered in recent offerings of online courses, people started out enthusiastically, but are unable to finish the course because they've run out of time.
As well, there is the idea that, learning is something that needs to be valued. This is something that does not come from the online course, or even the online environment.
This is something that is created by the community, the child's parents, or leaders in the community, the idea that learning and scholarships are something to be valued, and something to be pursued.
You're probably familiar with traditional e‑Learning. e‑Learning looks at the online course, as a course.
What I mean by that is the traditional college/university course. Indeed, e‑learning in many respects begins as a set of course tools for web support. That's what the original learning management system was: course outlines and tests and things like that that the instructor could put online.
From this early beginning, they began to put course content online, which typically consisted of a text and perhaps some images and graphics. Only after this, do we move into the idea, of learning design and pedagogy, which is drawn primarily from the field of distance learning, where courses are rounded up as packages, or what we might call program texts, designed to lead the student through a course of instruction.
As e‑learning developed in the late 1990s, early 2000s, the online course almost began to resemble a book, where the structure of the book was the structure of the pedagogy, and where course content was contained in small learning objects, which were digital materials of chunked content intended for discovery, reuse, and application in multiple online learning environments.
Web course tools, then became mechanisms for collecting, packaging, and presenting these. The course, as a result, began to resemble a publication. You begin to think in course packages complete with content, learning design, everything you need for an online course.
Massive Open Online Course
The Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, is a bit of a reaction to this. It is, in many ways, an unbundling of this traditional course design. I'll talk about that as we go along.
Very briefly, what I mean by a Massive Open Online Course, is a course that satisfies each of those four terms. You've heard from Google and others about EdX, and Coursera, and the rest, and I caution that many of these online courses do not satisfy all four of these criteria.
By massive, I mean, massive by design, capable of handling large numbers of students, but not necessarily actually reaching them. The idea is to build into the design the elimination of bottlenecks or choke points that would make it difficult to deal with very large numbers of participants.
By open, I mean, open across many dimensions. Open, not in the sense of anybody can enroll, but open, in the sense of the content is free and open to use, to reuse, and there aren't limits on the use of the course materials.
Online, obviously means online. That does not mean that all course activity must take place specifically, and only online, but that there are no necessary elements of the course that must be taken offline. Put more plainly, you do not have to show up at a certain university campus, at a certain time and place, in order to pass a course.
By course, I don't mean course as in course package, in the sense we've just discussed, but rather course in the sense that it has a start date and end date and a sequence of materials in the middle.
Open Educational Resources
The Massive Open Online Course in the sense should be thought of as a form of Open Educational Resource. This Open Educational Resource is a concept that was identified and named by UNESCO in 2002 or 2003[1]. The idea of an Open Educational Resource is that it's a digital resource that can be used to support learning.
Now, there is some dispute about the educational in Open Educational Resource, and we could have a long digression here, but what's important is that, it can be used to support learning. In a sense, any digital resource can be an Open Educational Resource.
As Open Educational Resources have been developed, they've been used to form courseware and this, in the traditional sense that I discussed earlier. An example of that is Open Education Resource University (OERu), created by the Commonwealth of Learning, which is made up of what is called anchor partners, universities from various commonwealth countries.[2]
The idea is that, courses are created as course packages using open educational resources. These course packages are offered by different universities for a credit degree.
They follow what is called the logic model, as created by Jim Davies from the University of Southern Queensland. The idea is that you go through stages of openness, from open content, to open learning design, to open educational activities and classes, through open assessment, and open credentialing.[3]
Now OERU does not go all the way to the top. Credentialing in the OERU level is closed to all but the participating universities, but with the idea of progression (through types of openness) is a well-established model.
With open educational resources comes the concept of sustainability. The concept of sustainability refers to the capacity of those supporting resources to continue to fund the productions and distribution of these resources. Models of sustainability[4] can be broken down to the commercial models and the non‑commercial models.
The commercial model includes the end up selling of extended services, the use of the platform for advertising and marketing, or to support a product, or to support a labor force. So, in all of these cases, the resource will be paid for by some commercial entity, and that commercial entity will expect some return on that initial investment.
Non‑commercial models include public knowledge such as, the models provided by public broadcasting corporations such as, TVC, BBC and National Public Radio.
They also include the charity model. OECD released a report called "Giving Knowledge for Free"[5], which really depicts OERs as charity. A third model is based on a foundation or the community such as, the Apache Foundation, the Wikipedia foundation and the open source model, where the costs are borne by the community that is interested in releasing the software.
Publications vs Community
Now, in the study of open educational resources, which I did a number of years ago, for OECD, I looked at the different models of openness, and it seemed to me, at that time, and stills seems to me, that the open model of educational resources themselves significantly acts as a sustainability model.
In a sense, there are two ways of producing an educational resource, which we might distinguish: the publications model and the community model.
In the publication model, a contractor is hired, or in some author is engaged, to produce the resource. Sometimes it is a university, sometimes it is commercial publisher, sometimes it is private contracting firm. The idea is that, first the resource is produced, and then it is distributed as a part of a course.
In the community model, the idea is that the community benefits from both the resource and the production of the resource for itself. One example of this is the student produced resources, where students themselves create the resources that will be used in their courses. This is the model that I advocated to the OECD, and forms the basis of the massive open online courses that we have offered.
This is a major difference between the courses we offer, and those produced by Cousera, edX and the rest. These courses use a publisher model of open educational resources, as opposed to a community model open educational resources.
Formal and Informal Learning
This also points to a significant difference in use application, of open online learning. There are many reasons to take a MOOC. And for the purpose of this discussion, I distinguish two major types. First of all learning in order to know, and second, learning in order to do.
These characterize the differences between formal and informal learning.
In formal learning, the course is defined by the content. While in informal learning, the course is defined not by the content, but rather by the desire of the interest of the user in accomplishing some task or some goal external to the course.
So, there are two different definitions of success. In one case, the formal learning case, success is demonstrated by mastery in the material. But in the case of informal learning, success is demonstrated by completing the task.
This creates a different source of support and a different source of authority for each of the two models.
In the formal learning model, support is intended to be derived from the professor, or the institution offering the course, while the community model receives an example of mutual dependence, and indeed, impendence, for support comes from the community that made the task, and the environment in which the person is working.
Now, in the creation of open line courses, this need for support, I would argue, creates one of these bottlenecks that we are trying to avoid with the design mass of open online courses. And there is a lot of talk about the need of the instructor to be present, with the interaction between the student and instructor, or a student and a team of teaching assistants, or whatever.
This contrasts with the community model, where support is distributed across the community of learners. And it is this distribution of the support, which eliminates the bottlenecks that are inherent in the formal courses.
Learning and Performance Support System
The technology and support that completes the provision of delivery of open online courses, that is to say, what I am describing in the sense to the community model, can be described within a rubric of a program that, we in NRC, are undertaking what is called a learning and performance support system. This will be a $19 million, five‑year program. This program is divided into five major components.
First of all, access to resources or repositories of resources. Here, I refer not to specifically ordinary published materials because that is the model of the formal course. But rather the productions created by the surrounding the student learner.
It also involves the cloud storage infrastructure, In most applications of cloud infrastructure in an educational context the student’s cloud, is managed by, or is essentially the property of, the institutional host of the course. However, what we are looking at is this cloud infrastructure managed by and operated by the student. And this creates the question of synchronization, across multiple cloud providers.
If you look at that, for example, there are many available cloud providers such Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, Cubby, and the rest. A personal cloud is a method of managing access to synchronization of their materials in this cloud infrastructure. Also, this cloud infrastructure serves in turn, as a portal for their E‑portfolio, or collection of materials that they created.
There's still a lot of discussions with E‑portfolio, and the focus here is to manage on personal, rather than institutional basis, on the portfolio. The major components of informal learning, and personal online learning is the personal learning record - this could be a whole‑talk in itself.
Delivery, need to be enabled in a variety of environments and there's a lot of talk about mobile devices. But, in my perspective, this is one and for many platforms which learning needs to be available. This leads to the concept of the personal learning assistant.
In particular, we would speak the idea of projecting learning resources, and projecting learning resources means, making content services available, wherever the person is, whether it be a laptop, desktop, a mobile computer, working with a tool or appliance, working with software system, or any other vehicle. There is a wide range of possible support.
Finally, in the LPSS, or Learning in Performance Support System, is analytics, competence and assessment, and this is essentially the application of artificial intelligence, and the pattern recognition to identify the ways in which a person can become competent at some skill or task, and the gap between where they are, and becoming competent.
Finally, I just want to talk about the model of delivering this type of learning. One model is associated with the Udacity model which is to give up and focus on corporate learning. Of more interest is the Coursera option, but it's only part of the way toward the solution.
The Coursera option is essentially first of all, to focus on the provider, as offering a unique experience. But secondly is the promotion of the creation of learning communities. Now, Coursera has set‑up a set of physical learn communities around the world. This is based mostly at US Consulates and similar sorts of infrastructure provided by the American Government around the world.[6]
I think, full support of a community‑based model of all online learning is to follow what we might call, 'The Triad Model', or "The Host-Provider Framework,” Where, the MOOC stands as an independent entity, not belonging to any particular institution, which can be thought of as an event hosted by an online community practice, that start/stops dates and contents in the middle.
Where experts, or people who are in active in the field, make presentation, provides resources, and generally serve as a focus or an attractor to bring people to the event.
The host is the learning community itself. This maybe online. But very often this will be a physically‑based community, where a mutual support network is created for people in the community to talk about, and discuss among themselves, to create resources for this online course.
Host communities may be online, or may be community based groups or a combination of both.
The idea in here is that the community brings a part of itself into the community‑based open online course. So course becomes, not only a method of propagating and distributing learning, as though it were a publication or a book, but rather an mechanism for sharing and exchanging information and learning, and creating new learning in the model of conversation in the community.
That concludes my talk, I'd be happy to entertain any questions or comments that you may have.
Audience Member: I don't think you can see me, but I'm particularly interested in books right now, I'm doing a feasibility study for OECD which is examining how as an organization that could use massive online courses for its own knowledge production, examination and so on.
I have two questions. One, is on your perspective on MOOC aggregators so the course has new densities and so on. Except for the xMOOCs.
Is there, from your standpoint, a comparison to be made between these aggregators and what else are there and read other sort of journal publishers have done, by basically claiming content produced by universities, by researchers and then selling that content to the same universities, and the same institutions libraries? Just to get your perspective on that.
Thinking and listening to my second question, which is, what would be your advice or recommendation where an organization wants to develop, that makes the decision to develop a massive open online course.
Does an organization today, this is a non‑profit organization. Does it need the organization or the partnership with a formal learning institution or a higher education institution, in order to deliver on a promise of not to be scaling up and opening up knowledge and learning? That's my second question.
Scaling Up

I'll answer your second question first, because it's easy. The answer is no. What really matters is that the organization is able to engage on the community, that is interested in learning, in some way, shape or form. If it was an organization like OECD for example, which just released its PISA results.[7] Just as an example.
OECD could easily create a MOOC around the results by setting up a series of discussions, five, six, seven discussions like people who are involved in the case study creating online event and then encouraging the creation of community supported resources around that.
And any organization can do this. It doesn't require educational institutions; it requires mostly some technical smarts, and the idea, that contact of creating that resource. In any open online course created this way you can use open‑source technology.
We use technology that developed, but you don't need to use that. You should use, for example, WordPress with the BuddyPress plugin, in order to create a community and aggregate content across that community. I can go into that in a lot more detail, but the short answer is that the idea of a PISA MOOC.
It would not be for people to master the material or learn all of the content. It would be a way for people to get together, to explore the idea of these, and to develop their own thoughts and their own ideas around it.
And people would draw from it, different senses, different communities, different learnings and application of that learning.
To answer the first question, it's really hard to distinguish between platform, Udacity, Coursera and the like. The model is...and it's interesting the question was phrased in comparison with a publishing model where professors, universities are invited to contribute their material to a publication, which in turn sells them access to their own material.
The difference between this and Coursera or Udacity is that the publishers are selling the content back to the institution, what they are doing is selling access to the platform in which the content is located back in the institutions.
Technically, in a sense, it's not a case of selling the institutional content back to itself. But that might just be accomplished in any case by sleight of hand. My own preference, and people have heard me express this a lot, is for institutions to manage and publish their own content, their own learning content, their own academic content, their public relations content. There are many good reasons for this, and they are mostly significantly, this content for some raw material on open online course, potential raw material maybe in open online courses, created in many different ways.
If the content is made available for free, then it can be re‑used by people offering online courses where they're first setting up an open online course and inviting participants to populate that course useful converted materials, simply by linking to it. This greatly reduces the cost of production and greatly facilitates the ease of creating a course, not just by your academic institutions, but by any institutional provider around the world.
One of the ways I like to talk about this, and it's an alternative way of thinking about this, is that the academic content that is produced by professors, and universities, and institutes, and the like, is not content to be learned and retained by the learners or students, but rather becomes the words in a vocabulary that they use in order to communicate with each other.
Instead of sending sentences, in text, to each other, they send content which they refer to and talk about to each other, and very often content which they modify, and recombine or mash up with other content, to each other.
This content becomes the raw material, not just for the production of other courses, but for the conversations that people have among each other. It is for this reason that open online content is really essential in order to support a community‑based model of online learning.
It is for this reason that I found myself, as have many others, butting heads against the publishers, who choose to put a subscription or other barrier in front of this content. What they're doing when they do this, is that they're creating barriers to the conversation that happens between academics and between students with academics and with each other. It makes conversation impossible.
Audience MemberI have one question, Stephen, from my side. You mentioned something about the personal learning record. Just try to enlighten my mind, because this could be like medical stuff. How do you see, what is your vision about it?
Personal Learning Records
There's definitely an overlap in the concept between the personal learning record, and the personal health record. One of the important elements here, and I'll start with that, because as I think it characterizes it, is that the personal learning record needs to belong, essentially, to the individual holding the record.
It's not some other institute's record of your learning. It's my record of my learning. This record would need to be able to be supported, or substantiated with reference to individuals, so at least a part of the personal learning record would consist of links to credentials, academic or otherwise, that are held by other institutions.
Much like your wallet contains a driver's license, which is connected to a record in the government department for transportation, certifying that you're able to drive, and contains some insurance record which is connected to an insurance company record, which is a statement of their policy.
What's important here is that, like your wallet, it's personal. You don't show it to people. Other people can't look at it without your permission. You show it only to people that you want to see it.
The other aspect of the personal learning record is that, it contains links, references, and metadata regarding your performance. This would refer directly to evidence of that performance in the form of an e‑portfolio or records in academic content service providers, et cetera.
In its widest sense, the personal learning record will keep track of all of the learning that you've done. This is the basis of a lot of analytics that providers of the MOOCs and learning management systems will talk about, where they talk of tracking a student's performance.
The difference between a personal learning record and a platform‑based analytics, is that a personal learning record, can extend beyond the limits of the platform.
While a platform, such as an LMS, can only analyze your performance inside the LMS, a personal learning record would look at your work inside the LMS and would look at your work in social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or whatever.
It would look at your work in application programs such as Word, PowerPoint, et cetera. It provides a comprehensive picture of your own personal performance. This is why it's very important that access be restricted and security managed, so that your record remains personal only.
The thing is, this can be used as the basis of what we might call personal analytics, as compared to platform analytics, creating a network of voluntary exchanges of information, about personal performance and academic achievement among a community of learners, to create analytics based on the whole person in comparison with relevant information, to other members of the community, or of other members in the community.
Audience MemberI don't know if you can answer this question, but you were talking about the difference between formal learning and informal learning. You were talking about the fact that the formal learning part is more about, how do you define success is by people completing the course, the formal course.
I wonder, because we had someone from Google just before you. We were talking about that, saying that open learning is the news. It seems that people are not really so much interested in getting a certificate of the courses they have done.
I wonder if you had any sense of this evolution, or do you know the percentage of...are people interested in this completion course or certification anymore or not?
Because in the UN system, we are very much into the formal learning approach and the very formal certificate approach of credentials, or maybe compliance legislation. We don't have it good so far, sometimes. I wonder what's your knowledge about that.
I think, probably the major observation of massive online courses has been that, their completion rates are low, and therefore certificates are offered for completion of the course. The certificate rate is low.
A big part of this is caused by the phenomenon of drop‑ins, or tourists as they're sometimes called, people who just look at the course because they're interested in the content of the course, but they don't have the intent of moving from start to finish.
I will say that, the model of learning, where you proceed through course material from start to finish, and complete with some sort of a capstone exercise, such as a test or a presentation or project of some sort, is a very common model in learning.
It's a common model that characterized e‑learning for many years. This model is well‑known. The difference between MOOCs which follow this model, and traditional online courses is actually pretty minimal, the only difference being that the content available to MOOCs would be openly accessible.
Generally, there tends to be a limit or a restriction on completion or certification. As I mentioned, OERu requires that you enroll at the university to receive the capstone. Coursera has a model where they verify a person's identity for a fee, and that's how you get your certificate there.
I think there is demonstrated interest in obtaining the certificates. It's not the majority of participants, but it's a significant, non‑negligible number of participants. I'm thinking of a graph that was drawn by Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein.[8]
Looking at the size of these populations, and as I recall the graph in my mind, it's in the 15 percent range, plus or minus ten percent of people who were interested in the certification.
This is especially the case, among that population that is outside Western Europe and North America, and where there are significant challenges to employment, and where even something like the Coursera certificate, say, would be a significant advantage in obtaining a job.
We do see this and that explains quite reasonably why certificates of completion are of interest to organizations such as UN. Where do I want to go with that?
Community Assessment
From that perspective, I think, Massive Open Online Learning forms a better alternative than the traditional system, but not a dramatically better initiative because the need for certificates faces the same barriers of technological and cognitive access.
It faces the same sort of bottleneck in terms of evaluation and assessment of the credential. The more you attempt to assess a credential, the more time and labor intensive it becomes, and that's a real concern.
Just to put this in context, and to explain partially why, I think that the open community‑based model will ultimately be a better alternative, I think we're right at the point where, instead of evaluating learners by capstone exercises or credentials, we'll be able to evaluate people according to their portfolios, and according their performance in open online networks.
You see this in communities like the open‑source software community already, where people are able to demonstrate their leadership capabilities and their software capabilities in an open community and can obtain employment, by that means.
This is true for Google... we might have mentioned that Google, in particular, has been known to hire people directly out of open source projects, for example people who created Mozilla foundation on the basis of the work that they've done in this environment.[9]
With intelligent analytics, and with learning and performance data shared in an open online environment, it will be possible to create a learning profile of people, drawing on their personal learning record, such that we no longer need these credentials offered by an institution, but rather only need the actual evidence of their performance, in order to create a comprehensive picture.
I think, we're looking at a coming sea change in the nature of assessment and certification. It's not here yet. It's going to take five or ten years, but I think it's definitely coming.
Audience Member:  I don't see any more questions from the floor, but just one sentence can sum up your vision or... I know it's hard, but just so we can go through.
One Sentence
I think that the future of education is in people working communities to provide their own learning, as opposed to having their learning provided for them by publishers or institutions. How's that?
Audience Member: I just have one comment, which concerns the ISO norms in terms of accreditation. We haven't been mentioning it and I'm wondering if someone could. We are not very aware of this inside of the WFP. We know that this has been an initiative. What is actually your experience concerning this?
Stephen:  I now know, what you mean by ISO. I would say ISO. It points to, even if you're using the same language, the problem of translation.
There's a lot about ISO I don't know. I'm familiar with the ISO metadata for learning, I forget the's LMR. I forget what the "R" stands for - Metadata for learning resources, which is a classification, a categorization scheme.[10]
I would not be surprised if there were other ISO standards that I'm not aware of, but I'm going to be careful and say, I don't know the full range of ISO standards with respect to learning, because ISO is just so huge. It's a question of standardization of quality in general.
It's expressed not only by ISO but also, for example, in initiatives like Common Core in the United States and even to some degree in the PISA evaluations which are setting baselines for math, language and science learning (Interestingly, not art, geography, or history, but that's a different issue as well).
It does point to the danger of standardization, and the danger is probably most characterized by the difference between formal and informal learning.
That is, this standardization presumes that everybody has the same objectives, the same understanding of quality, the same concept of mind. That's true of formal learning but it's less true of informal learning.
Standardization implies in many respects, that there is a definition of quality that can be created for a particular set of resources or a particular domain, and again, that's not necessarily going to be the case in informal learning.
That is not to say that, there is no distinction between quality and lack of quality, but rather that quality is a relative property. Quality is in many ways in the eyes of the beholder, and in the case of education, the beholder includes not only the student but the education provider and the society in which the education is provided. If we look at the different values of different societies, we see that there's going to be a very different understanding of quality.
In my own case, I like to distinguish for the purpose of standardization between syntactic and semantic activities.
Syntactic activities refer to the mechanics of the interaction. We think of plumbing. Think of the pipe fitting, the size of pipes, the gauge of the thread, and material used in pipes. These standards are made, in order to make sure that pipes fit together with each other.
Electricity has standards regarding wattage, amps, the gauge of wires, the width of the light bulb that screw into the light socket, et cetera. This is to make sure the light bulb fits into the light socket. The standards do not address what you run through the pipes, mostly.
It certainly does not address what you use the water for, what you use the liquid for. The standards do not address what you're going to light with the light that you're lighting. In cases of meaning, value, content, et cetera. I don't think that they can apply standards.
In cases where you're dealing with semantic elements of learning, I think that it would be a mistake to establish standards, because each person approaches semantics from a slightly different perspective. That, I think, is the role of standardization, where can I identify my syntax mechanism for interaction.
I think, they're really important, but where we're looking at communicating values, I think, we need to look at other non-standardized approaches. It would be a community kind of approach where these things are determined as a result of interaction among people operating in and information network, and that's a short version of a very long concept.



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