Massification and Inspiration through online learning – Part two of two: Humans and computers; when galaxies collide!

Photo courtesy of Abigail Grant.

The closing session of the Sloan Consortium  18th international conference for online learning followed the two themes that I set out in my first post; Massification and Inspiration. The wittily delivered presentation, “Citizen Science- Authentic Participation in Research” was delivered to  an overwhelmingly US audience by fellow Brit Arfon Smith and left me feeling humbled, inspired and strangely proud.

Arfon Smith is Director of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and Technical Lead of the web-based citizen science platform Zooniverse. He leads a team of developers, educators and scientists who build citizen science projects across a range of disciplines including solar physics, papyrology and biodiversity.

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Massification and Inspiration through online learning – Part one of two: Can you create an intimate learning environment through MOOCs?

Two weeks ago, I attended the Sloan Consortium’s 18th annual international conference for online learning in the US . Seeing that many of the over 1,500 attendees have been involved in online learning for many years, it’s not surprising that the current ‘MOOC mania,’ (massive open online courses) was viewed by many with scepticism.

Sebastian Thrun, founder of MOOC provider Udacity, had a hard pitch when he delivered the opening plenary session “Democratising Education” on day two of the conference. He is a Stanford professor and was the creator of the first MOOC. The famous A.I. open course that in September of last year attracted over 160,000 students to enrol in 7 days. “On the 8th day the University Administration asked me to drop by for a chat!” he told us. A story which won over a sizeable portion of the audience.

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It Ain’t What You Do

During a lull in a long meeting over the summer, a couple of colleagues at INTO were wrestling over our “elevator pitch” – what makes us distinctive. And we then broadened it out to think about ways in which universities can communicate their distinctiveness, a word appearing on many people’s lips across the sector. It’s difficult  when there is so much change and much analysis is unremittingly bleak.

The first years of this decade have brought us funding challenges on both sides of the Atlantic, the emergence of the discerning customer, disruptive market entrants to higher education, confusing and poorly executed government policy on student visas and so on.  It’s not easy being a traditional university in this environment. Moreover, after years of steady and quota-secured growth in tertiary enrolments, universities are facing serious structural challenges as various quasi-markets are created by government policy. The squeezed middle is very real.

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