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ALT’s online opportunities for FE

Maren Deepwell is chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology

Maren Deepwell unveils massive online opportunities launched by the UK’s leading learning technology association for colleges and universities.

We have launched an initiative at the Association for Learning Technology symbolising change that may soon become commonplace in FE colleges throughout the UK – teaching and learning through MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses.

As the leading learning technology association for the education sector, it is important that we get involved in such activities in order to better support our members in their colleges, help share best practice and reveal the wider potential in what is set to tear down college “walls” as competition for students becomes truly international. Along with the walls, the barriers and distinctions between FE and HE will also wither. 

Last week (4 April), ALT began its first ever online Open course in Technology Enhanced Learning (OcTEL) – a MOOC with a different kind of approach. Live webinars – starting with a session led by Professor Diana Laurillard, Vice-Chair of ALT and Professor of Learning with Digital Technologies at the Institute of Education’s London Knowledge Lab – also provide participants with a way to interact with each other in real time.

While there has been free access to courses on the internet for some time, the quality and quantity have changed significantly over the past 2 years with MOOCs gaining momentum globally. They have taken off in a big way in the US in particular where, last year, 90,000 students enrolled for a course taught by Research Professor Sebastian Thrun, a Google Fellow and a leading computer scientist through University of Virginia. A course in Artificial Intelligence also by Professor Thrun at the University of Stanford attracted 190,000 students from 190 countries.

Whether you can really call an online course with (at the time of writing) around 1000 participants massive depends on your own perspective, but the OcTEL course follows the same principles as a MOOC, although with some importance differences. So, whether you are running such courses on a daily basis or considering it for the future, here are some thoughts on what we have learnt thus far.

Openness is the most important, underlying principle that has shaped the course. First, it is open to all and free to attend. There are no entry requirements and we aim to make this course interesting and valuable for anyone who looks to improve their understanding of Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) in a teaching and learning context. Many who register have no prior relationship with ALT or its activities and we are looking forward to engaging with a whole new group of people on this open course.

Second, the course is designed and built by a group of ALT Members using primarily Open Educational Resources while any original content is also published openly under a Creative Commons licence. This means that the vast majority of content published for the course can be re-purposed by others and used in different contexts, whether for staff development, personal research or simply as a resource for looking things up.

So the course is free to attend and open to all, the content is published openly as well, but what, you might ask, about data? MOOCs generate a lot of data and in many commercial contexts this can be a valuable commodity. As the saying goes, if you are using a product for free, you can become the product.

Our approach is that participants can share as much information as they choose openly via the course, which is conducted on the open web. No sign in is required to access course materials for example. There is an open discussion list with a public archive, and forums operate under the same principle. We will be pulling together different types of content from across the web using the #ocTEL hash tag, and again making it available via the course site. All participants will be able to access the data that is generated. Once the first cohort of the course has run, we will further publish data relating to course participation, levels of engagement and other lessons learnt.

There is always a risk that when an organisation does something for the first time, things might go wrong and trialling anything at scale is notoriously difficult. So for the next few months we are preparing ourselves for the unexpected. We have a large group of tutors who all provide their time and input on a voluntary basis, including the entire authoring team. From participants we are looking for willingness to learn from and with each other, but also from and with us. This is a small venture compared to some of the MOOCs we hear about, but the scale of voluntary expertise and engagement the course has attracted thus far is massive.

Participating is easy and registration will remain open . The development of the course was funded by the Transformation and Innovation Fund of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Maren Deepwell is chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), an independent membership charity whose mission is to ensure that use of learning technology is effective and efficient, informed by research and practice, and grounded in an understanding of the underlying technologies and their capabilities, and the situations into which they are placed

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