“I look upon this as a playground.”

Posted on May 27, 2012


Jeff Haywood

This blog post contains the transcript from an interview I held with Professor Jeff Haywood, Vice Principal, Knowledge Management and Chief Information Officer of the University of Edinburgh. Jeff is leading the University of Edinburgh’s participation in a European initiative called OERTest, which is testing the feasibility of OER course certification, and so I was eager to hear his views on the OER university concept.

GW: Thank you for making the time to be interviewed. Edinburgh was important for me to come to because it is the only UK university in OERTest. This is quite an open-ended interview, so I’d like to just start by asking, what motivated Edinburgh to get involved in OERTest?

JH: This project interested us because it was a theoretical exploration of a new educational space, and one of the things that we are doing in Edinburgh is looking for opportunities to explore ways to extend our reach, without necessarily committing ourselves for the long term. As it happens, this project has converged with our strong interest in MOOCs (massive, open, online courses). And so, the thinking that we’ve been doing in OERTest is now sitting alongside the thinking and the action that we’re taking forward with respect to going online into the massive online courses, particularly our collaboration with Stanford.

GW: So, your involvement in OERTest is primarily from a research point of view rather than an implementation point of view?

JH: The project was always designed as a theoretical exercise. It asks the question: how might traditional universities engage with open educational practices? And how might they do it in such a way that they can maintain the quality of what they do? Clearly if you look at all the members of the OER university, they are also looking at ways of doing this.

GW: What do you anticipate to be the benefits for your institution of working with OERs in a more comprehensive way, offering services around OERs?

JH: I think that one of the difficulties in this whole area is the use of the term OER, because it’s got multiple meanings. We don’t mean OER as collections of learning materials that are not necessarily structured and often relatively random and eclectic. Open courseware (OCW) is probably a better term, but even OCW doesn’t have any standards or quality automatically associated with it, so what we’re talking about here are open curricula and learning materials and the associated assessments online. And I came to realise, as a consequence of our movement into MOOCS, that effectively what we’re talking about is MOOCs. So the learning materials are actually exactly the way that massive online courses are constructed with learning objectives, curricula, learning activities, assessments, etc.

For us, OERTest is an exploration of MOOCs plus assessment plus accreditation. This is different from some of the MOOCs we’ve seen that don’t necessarily have rigorous assessment associated with them and they certainly don’t have accreditation. So the interest, from a university perspective, was: how you do assessment in a rigorous way so that you can trust it, and so that you know the identity of the individual being assessed, and you know that they actually understand this work, in the way that we normally do within the university? And then, how do you offer credits?

GW: What was the attraction of MOOCs?

JH: It’s undoubtedly reputational. It’s about global impact. I expect that the MOOCs will cost us money. If we break even, that’s great, but we are going in with Stanford and others because that that way we will get the global reach and the attention that we want. Also, it allows us to play in a space that may actually become seriously important in world higher education, and the sooner we’ve played in that space and understood it, the better. So we’ve decided to step in early.

GW: Are you seeing the accreditation you offer students as being equivalent to the awards that students would get when they’re enrolled as “normal” (non-MOOC) students?

JH: In the first instance as we step into MOOCs, we will offer certificates but we won’t offer credit. But OERTest, which is running parallel with the MOOC initiative, is enabling us to think about how we would do rigorous assessment and accreditation. When we understand how to do it, we will probably step into the accreditation space as well. Any credits that we offer have got to be equivalent to anything we do on campus. The quality would not be different.

GW: Talking about credits, would Edinburgh accept credits awarded to students by other institutions in the MOOC partnership or within the OERtest consortium?

JH: I think the real challenge for academic institutions is not issuing the credits; it’s accepting credits from elsewhere. Everything that European universities do carries ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System) credits, and it’s a legitimate currency that you can take from one university to another, but the university you go to doesn’t have to accept them, and mostly we don’t accept credit transfers.

In general we accept credit transfers in two ways. One way is via Erasmus or equivalent exchange programmes, where we have specific relationships with European institutions in specific subjects. So for instance, our language students go for a year abroad and they get credits over there. The other instances in which we accept them are either where a student has found an exchange and then we assess it and decide whether we’re prepared to take the credits, or where somebody comes to us and says, “I have to move to Edinburgh, and so is it possible for me to transfer from University X to Edinburgh?” We’ll then look at it and decide what to offer them. But we are very, very choosy about the credits we accept. And I think actually that the difficulty with the OERu model, fundamentally, is the fussiness of universities about whether they will accept ECTS credits. This is probably going to be the most difficult issue for learners who have accumulated credit in the OERu way. They will find that probably, mostly, the doors of universities that they may wish to get into are locked. And so if you look at Stanford’s Computer Science 101 MOOC, Stanford offers you a certificate, you take all the assessments and use the same learning materials as enrolled students, but they are absolutely explicit on the site: it says, “This does not count for credit inside Stanford.”

GW: This has come up a lot in the other interviews. But I understand that within the OERu network, each institution works within their existing policy frameworks. There is no requirement for any of the partner institutions to alter their policies on credit transfer.  

JH: OERTest developed a set of scenarios to try to understand this. One of the scenarios is called OER Erasmus. In that scenario, one of your students finds open online resources, which could be a MOOC from another university, studies the course, gets the assessment from that university and then comes back to you. That was one of the easiest scenarios for us to work with. Another model is summer school. Another one is just straight recognition of prior learning (RPL).

GW: Some of the people I’ve spoken to within the OERu network are seeing this as an experiment in outcomes-based education. The triangle diagram by Friesen and Murray (any learner, any instructor, any content with local assessment and credentialing in the centre) shows that the OERu could be making a radical paradigm shift in this regard.

JH: Any learner fine. Any teacher, no problem with that. MOOCs have demonstrated that it can work. Any content, however, is problematic. For instance, let’s say you’ve built an online course with structured activities and put it all online. It’s OCW fully-fledged. It’s what I would call a high-quality MOOC. At the other extreme, you have a course with a video from here, a chapter from there, no curriculum no structure, no anything. So I think the “any content” is the problem. Because if you’re going to do local assessment and credentialing, the cost of doing it is absolutely critically dependent upon the content.

So if somebody came to me and said, “I have studied CS 101 on Stanford’s MOOC”, I can go to that MOOC, I can look it up, I can see exactly what they did, they can present their assessments to me, I know how to test them, and I could do local assessment and credentialing relatively simply. If they’re on the other side of the world, I’ve got a rigour problem: is this the person who’s presenting to me who really did the work? But setting that one aside because we have to deal with it even in traditional on-campus universities, the real problem is the content. That’s why OERTest has said, not any old content, but content specified the way we mean it. And actually as it happens, that maps absolutely onto MOOCs.

Whether you want to do local assessment and credentialing is then an institutional question. I mean why would you bother doing it? The answer has got to be a small number of things, one of which is, it’s a money making service. And actually the calculations we’ve done on cost do not make this cheap. We have done back-of-the envelope calculations and this is seriously expensive. You might want to do it as a pro-bono service to the world, and limit that service to a certain number of students in a year. You might want to do it because those students wish to enter your institution, and so it’s part of your institutional process.

But unless we’ve got a course, a curriculum, a set of learning outcomes, an understanding of the level that it’s at, and the credit weighting that it should carry, it’s difficult for us. We’d have to work all of that out from scratch. The less clear you are about the content that somebody has studied and the kind of credits that you’re looking for, the more expensive it will be to do that RPL.

GW: Let’s move on to learner support. I did an online Masters degree, and so I have quite personal views on what I see as the need for support and scaffolding and so on. Do you have any thoughts on this from the perspective of MOOCs?

JH:  We have real concerns about MOOCs for more than one reason. The reality is that for those individuals who are trying to get access to higher education, and who have had limited experience of independent, self-directed learning, in other words are not graduates, I really doubt whether this provides any kind of solution. Learning to learn is a seriously hard thing to do. Unsupported and unscaffolded learning to learn is virtually impossible for most people to do. One of the things that we have decided is that we will design short MOOCs, because our experience with traditional online learning courses shows that students really begin to struggle as they get around the middle of the semester. It’s just too long. Our MOOCs will run for five weeks because when you sign up you think, hey, I can do that.

I think that the extent to which the student can be a “self-contained student who keeps persevering” depends enormously on the subject you are learning, and some of our concerns with the MOOC model is that they’ve been designed for courses like Informatics, and the model they use is mostly of the independent learner with some chat in the back channel. If you design social constructivist courses, where people have to interact in groups and reflect, with activities built into them, the jury is out; we have no evidence at all as to how those things will work in settings where you take your tutoring support off.

I think on the question of huge numbers of people signing up for MOOCs but very few completing, the very high registration might be that a large number of people just want to look in the shop window. So you can’t treat it as drop-out. But if you look at CS101 for Stanford, they have thousands of people who completed the course. On campus, they can only take about 100 or 150 students. The MOOC gives you an order of magnitude more people. You’ve got to ignore that mega-spike at the beginning and say, well how many people came out the other end? And if that’s ten times the number you could ever put through the course in a year the usual way, that’s impact.

GW: Have you had to deal with any objections to these ideas in your institution?

JH: I decided that I would take the OERTest questions and scenarios to the top-level committee in my university that deals with student progression and curriculum approval. I thought that they would say, “We can’t possibly do this stuff” but they all said “It’s fine. We can do this. We have no internal obstacle; we have no external legislative obstacle that prevents us doing it.” And so the questions for them were why would we do it, and how would we do it?

The issue that worried several of my senior colleagues is the potential situation where a student at our university takes our own MOOC, with our own materials and says, “Would you exempt me?” That begins to break our way of dealing with education where we look upon it as a development process, and indeed there are questions about fees grants and all sorts of associated things that put us into a very messy territory. It wasn’t that in principle we were against it, because we thought that the idea that someone could do their degree faster was actually a very good idea, but students get grants on the basis that they’ve attended courses at our university. Their transcript says they’ve studied at the University of Edinburgh. And so we will not pitch our MOOCs in the same way that we pitch our learning on campus, so that people will not come back to us and ask for exemption from particular courses. The MOOCs will only be worth five credits, whereas the campus-based courses are worth ten and twenty.

GW: So there wouldn’t be a possibility for a student to accumulate credits from MOOCs towards a complete course?

JH: As it stands at the moment there are too few MOOCs to enable that. If someone took the Stanford CS101 and then asked for exemption of that course at Edinburgh, the odds are that we would say, you know they teach different stuff there, and you would miss X, Y and Z. We would not favour it or encourage it and we would probably say no at this point in time.

GW: I can see it’s time to finish now – I’ve already kept you longer than promised. Would you like to make any final comments?

JH: No, but I’d like it to be clear that this is all very exploratory for Edinburgh. I look upon this as a playground. We just don’t have the answers at the moment. Let’s work our way through it.