Unbundling the University Experience

Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (UMSA) in La Paz, Bolivia

Universities are seeing their costs increasing and their income stable or decreasing, as public funding of higher education is put under pressure, and the ability of students to pay for their education is being reduced.

Paradoxically, one of the main reasons for this financial pressure is the increased demand of the product offered. Worldwide, more students want higher education, but the public funding pool remains the same or in many cases less because of public budget deficits. Moreover, the emergent student segments are not as wealthy and not as able to pay for education as the privileged students of the past. Additionally, in recent years the costs of running universities have increased much more than the average wages of those that pay for university education.

There is no easy solution for traditional universities, and one reason is that their offering does not scale very well. Universities can squeeze more students into lecture halls, but the big cost items (land, buildings, graders, supervisors, administration, marketing) are largely proportional to the number of students.

Online universities have entered the market and have been seen as a panacea, but as pointed out in Why the Internet Isn’t Going to End College As We Know It they have not been able to reduce the costs to the students:

“Even with the efficiencies of the internet, education is still a labor-intensive endeavor. Unless your degree program consists of nothing but multiple choice tests that can be graded via computer, you still need instructors who can grade assignments, supervise in-class discussions (even if those discussions happen in a chat room), and help lagging students with the material.”

Nevertheless, even though online universities have not been able to construct competitive offerings yet, it does not mean that they will be unable to do so in the future – or that others will not unbundle the university experience and change the landscape forever.

There is little doubt that higher education is ripe for disruptive innovation.

There are many ways to unbundle the university offering. One suggestion is to see university education as a set of four deliverables, as suggested by Seth Godin in Stop Stealing Dreams:

  • Access to information (not perspective or understanding, but access)
  • Accreditation/A scarce degree
  • Membership in a tribe
  • A situation for growth (which is where you’d file perspective and understanding)

With the digital revolution, access to information is free or available at a very low cost, so that stronghold is already broken.

Accreditation is next. In addition to traditional universities, accreditation is likely to be provided by emergent specialist assessors like those that provide accreditation in the areas of quality management systems (e.g. Bureau Veritas) or project management (e.g. Project Management Institute). Alternatively, we will see the rise of networked accreditation like Open Badges.

Social media plays an increasing role when it comes to tribes, and even though physical presence still is important, we are already seeing the rise of online-only tribes – also when it comes to learning and education.

The fourth and final stronghold, A situation for growth, on the other hand, might be tougher to break for online-only services.

There are few autodidakts, and current online technologies – including traditional e-learning and telepresence solutions – have not proven viable in engaging the vast majority of learners.

Most students need a physically present teacher/coach/mentor to ignite their passion and guide them through their education. Or in Seth Godin’s words:

“The role of the teacher in this new setting is to inspire, to intervene, and to raise up the motivated but stuck student”.

The interaction between students and teachers can continue to take place in traditional universities, but we might well see the rise of what today is considered alternative locations for higher education. These could include refurbished libraries, community centers or enhanced learning centers, like the ones in Sweden.

What is required of such learning locations is an internet connection, some basic technology, good spaces to work and collaborate, and the guidance of great teachers that motivate and guide the students on their learning journey. The teachers need to be great facilitators and educators, but not necessarily world-class presenters or entertainers, as those services can be accessed via the web.

Such unbundling will not imply the demise of all universities, but it could enable huge numbers of people – especially in developing countries – to get access to higher education.

This is a reflection of the various tensions in contemporary higher education, and it is based on the readings and interactions from the first week of the Current/Future State of Higher Education (CFHE12) open online course.


The Case for Game MOOCs

Epistemic games hold the promise of engaging learners and transforming the educational system.

Recent developments in massive open online courses (MOOCs) could turn out to be the perfect forum for collaborative game-based-learning experiences.

There are currently two main MOOC variants: connectivist cMOOCs and instructivist xMOOCs. As George Siemens explains in MOOCs are really a platform:

“Our (connectivist, ed.) MOOC model emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication”.

In my experience, cMOOCs can be very chaotic, and I would tend to agree with Leitha Delves in Confessions of a linear learner that “most learners need more direction, instruction, and clarity of purpose.”

On the other hand, xMOOCs can be very rigid, and I would tend to agree with Mike James that these MOOCs Fail Students With Dark Age Methods.

Drawing on the best from both worlds, I would propose implementing game MOOCs or gMOOCs.

This hybrid could benefit from the openness, creativity and unpredictability of the cMOOCs, the clarity and structure of the xMOOCs, as well as the engagement of great multiplayer games.

I would suggest some of the characteristics of gMOOCs to be:

  • Based on the four defining traits of games: goals, rules, feedback system and voluntary participation (Jane McGonigal)
  • Massive and multiplayer in the way that World of Warcraft, Halo and business simulations can be huge and collaborative
  • Open as in “everything should be shareable” and “questioning and exploration beyond the limits”
  • Available online wherever you are located and whichever device you are using, and
  • Structured and scripted like courses with some suggested paths from beginning to end, and ways of assessing how the experience is transforming the learners

Would you like to participate in a gMOOC?

Do you know of any games or simulations that would fit these characteristics?

Adjusting the MOOC script

During last week’s #moocmooc an emerging theme was information overflow and how you manage your information filters.

Even on the first level there was a lot to process. Every day you were expected to review articles and solve a number of challenges, including creating new material and reviewing material created by others. There was a very active Twitter stream and discussions on a number of sites.

A connectivist MOOC is boundless by design and being exposed to new thinking and making new connections was the main attraction of the course.

But still it was overwhelming, and many of us:

  • Dropped out or did not participate all days
  • Spent more than the suggested 1-2 hours/day on the course
  • Postponed reviewing the material to after the course
  • Randomly ignored material

The course was scripted, and as long as you managed to read most of the recommended material and solve most of the challenges, you were good, but it seemed very difficult to catch up when you first lost a couple of beats. Not to mention going outside the script.

Most of us lack good time management skills, and it seems to be difficult to schedule your participation in a continuous experience like the #moocmooc – unless you do nothing else.

The natural response is for the organizers to adjust and reduce the “script”, and thus the scope of the course. Moreover, it might make sense to stage different experiences depending on participant level, as it is perfectly possible and indeed desirable to have different types of participants interacting.

Regardless, it was a very educational and enjoyable experience. The daily briefings, material and challenges were really well thought through, and the facilitators did an amazing job in running the course and involving as many as possible.

I would love to participate again – even if it was the same course with the same challenges and same participants.

And that is probably the point.

In order to become proficient in any area you need to practice and do it all over and over again. This applies to connectivist MOOCs just as well as any other endeavor.

So please bring on the MOOCs.

Participant pedagogy and the future of offline learning facilitation

The challenge on day 4 of the #moocmooc is to create a conversation around the topic of participant pedagogy. This is my attempt.

The main idea in Jesse Stommel’s post Participant Pedagogy is that students in classroom settings should be more involved in shaping the learning process rather than relying on the teacher to control every aspect of the it.

The claim is that involving students transforms them into active and reflective participants, who are in a much better position to take responsibility for their own learning.

Taken to the extreme, it is suggested that students could control everything in the classroom, and thus there would be no role for a teacher. This is probably just an illusion, as there will always be some social structure and emergent leaders in any human group, and if the teacher is not there, someone else will be “the teacher”.

The bigger question is whether there will be any significant need for (offline) classrooms in the future learning landscape.

With the increased ease of accessing educational material, immersive educational games and other tools – and with the ability to seamlessly interact with learners and teachers located elsewhere, how will offline learning facilitation develop?

Will it disappear? Or will classrooms remain mostly as they are now with teachers and students? Or will we see a much higher reliance on study groups, and will there be a need for specialized facilitators or coaches in that context?

What do you think?

Video on where learning happens

As part of my participation in the #moocmooc massive open online course I set out to create a 1-minute video this morning answering the question: where does learning happen?

Part of the challenge was the limited time available – the course facilitators suggested capping it at one hours total production time.

Moreover, I had a personal challenge because I was travelling all day, and would have very limited online access.

The practical solution was to install iMovie on my phone and then use it to:

  • Record some scenes through the car window as I travelled to the airport
  • Write a script with text that in my mind answered the question
  • Take some pictures of images on my laptop that supported the script
  • Put it all together while in the plane, and finally
  • Upload it to Youtube when I was back on the ground waiting for my next flight

It was quite impressive that it was possible to do everything with the iMovie app so easily. What took most time were the final tweaks in uploading to Youtube, but in total it took under 3 hours of work time to shoot, script, edit and publish the video. Not quite 1 hour, but ok.

The result can be seen below. Any feedback – especially on the statements that learning takes time, it is unpredictable, and that you learn everywhere – is highly appreciated.

Harness the individual and team energies

In a recent New York Times article The Rise of the New Groupthink Susan Cain argues that we have entered a period with an excessive emphasis on teams at the expense of the individual. The result is “groupthink”, or a mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a group overrides the realistic appraisal of alternatives.


Nonetheless, rather than abolishing the team approach all together, her conclusion is that we need to strike a new balance between the individual and team approaches, and we should embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning.

“Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time”.

Traditionally, classrooms and auditoriums were a way to industrialize learning.  Stuff the room with as many learners as possible and keep them quiet, so that everyone can embrace the wisdom from the lecturer. A side benefit of this approach is that it allows individuals to work on their own without being disturbed too much by others.

As classrooms have become more noisy – partly because of an urge to engage with learners and partly because society’s demand that teachers be less assertive – it has become progressively more difficult for the individual to focus and get into a subject on their own.

This is definitely a challenge for providers of team-based learning like Simprentis.

Our focus is on team-based learning in the upstream oil and gas industry, which has seen a rise of integrated teams of geoscientists, engineers, and other disciplines. This has been hugely successful, and today the ability to collaborate is one of the key requirements if you want to work in the industry.

We feel that we have cracked the code by energizing teams, getting participants to learn from each other in a collaborative setting, and strengthening their team-working abilities as well as increasing their knowledge in hard subjects like geology, geophysics, engineering, and economics.

Nonetheless, we need to constantly remind ourselves that there is an individual drive as well, and that the individual participants should have time and space to work on their own for sustained periods of time. Sure, this can be done in work before and after the course, but we should build (more) white spaces with individual challenges and contemplation into our course schedules.

We should harness all the energy that drives the participants. Not only team energy, but also the energy that fuels solitude.

Putting Energy Into Learning

The name of this blog was actually conceived in 2007 by my friend Mr Graeme A Slaven as the tag line for Simprentis, when he was starting as Director of Business Development. It still serves as the tag line for the company.

The tag line tries to convey the message that we (in Simprentis) strive to energize the learning experience with the learning simulation OilSim and a problem-based approach to teaching. At the same time it hints to the fact that the subjects we teach are mostly in the energy industry, in particular the upstream oil and gas part of that industry.

In this blog I plan to post about energy and learning, and in particular how active learning approaches can improve oil and gas education and training.