Like the idea of Facebook University?

The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) last week published an article on the possibility of Facebook, Google and other tech companies offering degrees in the UK. Not as outlandish as you might expect, because the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills white paper Success as a Knowledge Economy sets out plans to “make it quicker and easier for new high quality challenger institutions to enter the [higher education] market and award their own degrees”. THES suggests media reports claim that companies such as Facebook might like to enter this market, although when asked to comment Facebook declined.

Despite being the world’s biggest social media network, Facebook never really struck me as a platform for education. That doesn’t mean that the company’s founder Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t been thinking about it. I found an article he wrote last year introducing a Facebook side project to develop a Personalized Learning Platform in partnership with Summit Public Schools. Granted, K12 in the US is a world away from HE in the UK, but in terms of an underpinning technology platform? Maybe not so far away. At least one major provider of online courses, Futurelearn, sees that the future of online learning at scale is social.

In a timely related piece last week, the Economist reported on some of the concerns and challenges around regulating big international technology platforms including Google and Facebook. A platform provider typically connects consumers with services, and services with other services. The specific content and services on offer, however, are selected, and so reflect the value proposition of the platform provider. A couple of weeks ago there’s was a minor flap when it was alleged that Facebook censors its news feed to present a biased political view. Odd that anyone should be surprised, as some believe that all media are biased, one way or another, even if they claim that they are not.

Could Facebook and others enter the UK HE market, and if they did would it be so bad, or any different to what’s currently on offer in HE? The precedent has already been set, as Pearson PLC, a FTSE 100 company, already offers degrees through Pearson College London. In the words of HM Government’s white paper, “Competition between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their game, offering consumers a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost. Higher education is no exception.” I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Institutional VLEs, why bother?

As part of a current debate on the role of the LMS and the VLE in an agenda of openness, Amber suggests that VLEs can be many things but they are not fundamentally evil:

“VLEs can be used as a platform for fantastic blended and online learning, but even if they are not used to that extent, they are still important.”

The comment I left in response was based upon a consideration that while universities are in the business of education, where students pay a considerable fee to attend a course, there is inevitably going to be a differentiation between what they receive and what someone who doesn’t pay a fee receives. This is actively being played out in many institutions as part of an exploration of pedagogy and platforms for open courses, especially MOOCs,  vs fees-based accredited courses. Usually these are different. For example, platforms tend to be more social to support large communities of dispersed learners in a MOOC, and pedagogies tend to favour tutor-based support for fees-based accredited courses compared with peer-support in massive open courses.

In exchange for the fee that students pay to attend courses at university, currently £9,000 a year in England, they might reasonably expect a consistent standard of experience across modules in their course. I think institutional VLEs should play an important role in that by providing a minimum module standard of content, support, and activities that students can expect. For some teachers however, that in itself can be a challenge to their practice given competing priorities forced upon most academics. Furthermore, not every teacher is an innovator – should they be? – so it’s inevitable that different teachers are going to provide a different experience, some better than others. Nonetheless minimum standards should be a goal expected by the institution for and on behalf of students. The VLE can certainly help with consistency through templates. But minimum standard is just that, a minimum. The maximum need not be described or prescribed. I’ve yet to see a VLE that stops a teacher from being innovative should they wish to be.

Where will the money for MOOCs come from?

The thing that caught my eye about this report in the Chronicle of Bill Gates’ keynote at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit was:

“In the Q&A, Mr. Gates predicted that MOOCs would not be “place-based” classes but would be led by a small subset of instructors who taught to a broad audience. There’s a set of people, he said, who are really good at it and who have big budgets and great support.”

I’ve been wondering where the money will come from to create MOOCs (who hasn’t). Right now most institutions are simply absorbing the cost for their own early ventures with MOOCs because this is a game that everyone wants to get into without necessarily knowing where it will lead, or even the rules of the game. A few of the lucky ones may have external funding to create their MOOCs. However if you’re a university with any ambition for online learning, can you afford not to be dabbling with MOOCs right now? But longer term, when the initial rush to go live is over and the revenue models are known for the big players, how many can afford to remain in this space? I think Gates is probably right. MOOCs, or whatever they turn into, may remain the product of a small number of players with big budgets and great institutional support. Those of us without the cash will have to come up with different sustainable models for production and support for our online learning, or else mooch rather than MOOC.

Splendid new anatomy teaching app

We at Warwick Medical School are proud of the new anatomy teaching iPhone app from Professor Peter Abrahams.

Peter has done a terrific job with his small development team to produce this new app. It uses the capability of the iPhone very well and is a good showcase for the way anatomy can be learnt without dissection. The app works well on the iPad too, and at £4.99 it’s a bargain. Get your copy from the iTunes store.