20 April 2018
by Diana Laurillard

Scaling up global higher education – The viable option

Dr Eileen Kennedy and Professor Diana Laurillard made the case for scaling up global higher education in University World News.

At the start of the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) conference on the new geopolitics of higher education, Michael Ignatieff argued the case for academic freedom, that universities are counter-authoritarian institutions, helping to open up societies.

As part of that liberal agenda, we see universities as having a specific moral imperative: to meet the global demand for higher education. By 2030, the global demand for higher education will more than double to around 500 million per year, mostly from emerging economies – far outstripping our current capacity to meet it.

The need for higher education is even greater, as one example shows: universal education for 263 million children not in school requires 69 million new teachers. Universities must find ways of scaling up professional development to train these new teachers.

Scaling up online higher education seems the only viable solution to this challenge. Massive open online course or MOOC platforms have demonstrated that free and open learning at scale is possible.

Perhaps they could offer higher education in a form that CGHE Director Professor Simon Marginson refers to as a common public good, a “shared resource that all can utilise, not subject to scarcity or contaminated by congestion”. But do they work? And for whom?

MOOCs for teachers

MOOCs provide certain educational features that appear effective for many of their participants: free access to new knowledge, social learning, automated testing and peer review.

But they do not support personal nurturing for students, because this is highly labour intensive. That’s why MOOC participants mostly already have degrees – to succeed they must already have had the support to become effective self-regulated learners.

MOOCs will not solve learning at scale directly for children and young people. So we start from the premise that MOOCs can only help to meet the challenge of education at scale via their value for professional development.

However, even for professionals there are high non-completion rates, which indicate that we need to understand how MOOC pedagogies work for professional participants so we can design them more effectively.

To explore how learning works on a MOOC we are combining different kinds of data, from surveys, MOOC platforms and interviews, to give us a much fuller picture than currently exists of how online pedagogies work for scaling up professional development.

Interviews with MOOC participants use repertory grid technique to elicit the ways learners construe their experience. Using an interactive whiteboard, online interviewees from around the world take part in a virtual 1:1 workshop to elucidate their own comparative evaluation of learning in a selection of MOOCs and other online learning experiences.

For example, peer review regularly comes up. Peer review is one of the most important online pedagogies because it gives personalised feedback to each participant on a MOOC. In professional development courses, peers are the knowledgeable others that participants can genuinely learn from, and whose assessment they are likely to value. The whole process is run by the platform for any number of students, making it truly sustainable.

In post-course surveys participants have rated ‘doing a peer review’ as ‘more useful than the videos’, which are usually the high-value activities. However, the platform data tells us, for example, how well activities were completed.

One MOOC showed a significant drop in completion of the peer review activity – it’s valued, but it’s more time-consuming. So we redesigned the activity to spread it over more steps. On the next run, there was a pleasingly significant increase in completion for the peer review steps.

This deep dive into the detail of design research illustrates how small-scale and large-scale qualitative and quantitative data combine to provide a fuller picture of the design of effective digital pedagogies for professional development.

Cascade model

So how can research on MOOCs help us tackle the large-scale challenges in global education?

We use it to co-design MOOCs with local professionals to create relevant and effective MOOCs for thousands of other professionals who can use the resources, interact with each other and share ideas and solutions. Those participants can then support others, using the same resources with their own local groups – other professionals, or young adults lacking education, or children in schools.

Look at the numbers: If we work with 10 local professionals to create a MOOC, and in each MOOC 10,000 participants work together and then share the ideas and resources with their own group of 25, we can reach 250,000 people. We begin to see how, in time, higher education might find ways of using a ‘cascade model’ like this, developed with effective digital pedagogies, to meet some of those large-scale global challenges.

MOOCs enable professionals to inhabit a common place, working together for a common good. Ignatieff suggested a distinctive characteristic of a university as “self-governing scientific associations that do peer review”. These MOOC-based communities of teachers and professionals are such associations, building their own community knowledge of how to meet the big educational challenges.