Author Archives: edwin

ICTs for Skills Development or Educational Transformation?


This post continues the discussion of the disappearance of the social agenda for distance education which I began in my last post. Both these articles were originally published in Spanish in Traspasando la linea, a blog edited by Albert Sangrà which appears in El País, a Madrid-based newspaper.

Another consequence of this myopic focus on information and communication technology (ICT) for skill development is that the educational agenda can get hijacked by the technologists and the emphasis shifts to IT skills as opposed to broader educational competencies that are developed and enhanced through the use of ICTs. ICT becomes conflated with IT. We see evidence of this in the sudden urgency around implementing national tablet initiatives before coherent plans have been developed for how they will be used to support the achievement of educational goals. Considerable effort is spent developing the technical specifications but much less time spent considering the educational specifications. How will the technology be used to support teaching and learning? What content will available on the devices? How will the communicative affordances of the technology be exploited? As Michael Trucano observed in his recent review and discussion of tablet initiatives, “All too often, the … question being asked is not ‘what challenges are we trying to solve, and what approaches and tools might best help us solve them?’, but rather, ‘we know what our technology ‘solution’ is, can you please help us direct it at the right problems?‘.

Also overlooked in this mad rush to jump on the technology bandwagon is the readiness of students and teachers. The uncritical acceptance of the net generation discourse has deluded us into thinking that our students will be like fish in water when they are given the devices. The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, this study concluded that the 17,000 doctoral students it investigated “operate in an environment where their research behaviour does not use the full potential of innovative technology” and that they are “insufficiently trained or informed to be able to fully embrace the latest opportunities in the digital information environment”. At least we are more realistic when it comes to teacher readiness but all too often these technology initiatives are rolled out without a sound plan for teacher development.

Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs have also played a part in this shift by subtly appropriating the access agenda. As so simplistically articulated by Thomas Friedman in his infamous New York Times column of 2012, MOOCs represent the magic bullet. Everybody who wants an Ivy League education will be able to get one by simply enrolling in a MOOC. There will be no credit attached, and the courses will probably not deal with any of the issues of local relevance but that’s a small price to pay if you’re getting access to a prestigious American university.

Even the narrative underlying the Open Educational Resources (OER) agenda has shifted subtly from emancipatory access to access in support of the knowledge economy. We see evidence of this in the aligning of OER and ICT in Education policies, with the latter being driven by a technological/economic imperative.


What can be done about this troubling trend? First, I think those of us who are working in the field of open and distance learning need to remind ourselves what we are purpose is (or should be): to educate, to open up access to education, and to foster social change and economic development. Our use of ICT in education and online learning should always be done with these principles in mind.

Second, we need to remember that, despite the talk of globalization and the rapid diffusion of technology, there are still huge differences in both the physical and, what I would call, the “cognitive” access to technology across the globe. Solutions that may work in South Africa are not necessarily appropriate for Guyana or Belize and we should not assume that the simple provision of physical access will result in the effective use of the technology.

Finally, it’s time we remembered that distance education emerged as a response to a social problem and that problem still exists today: how do we provide access to quality education for all? Allowing the focus to shift from solving the access problem to preparing for the “knowledge economy” may sound like a matter of semantics but I believe it has the potential to undermine our ability to achieve our goal to provide access for all.

What Happened to the Social Agenda for Distance Education?

This was originally published in Spanish in Albert Sangrá’s blog, Traspasando la línea in El País, a Madrid-based newspaper. This is the English version.


Modern distance education emerged in the 1960s as a response to demands for greater and more equitable access to postsecondary education. Beginning with the creation of the UK Open University in 1969, open universities were established around the world with a clear mandate to help eliminate the social and financial barriers to higher education that had effectively limited access to the middle and upper social classes. This situation was particularly acute in the developing world and the open universities that were established in countries such India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand have made a significant impact on postsecondary participation rates in those regions. Until the turn of the century, the discourse of distance education was essentially about access: trying to reach the underserved populations and the second chance and non-traditional learners and trying to help developing countries address their need to educate large numbers with limited resources. This was the social agenda of distance education. But with the emergence online learning in the late 1990s there has been a gradual erosion of this social agenda and its replacement by both a functionalist and a technologically deterministic agenda.

The Functionalist Agenda

Technology-mediated forms of distance education emerged in the late 1990s and the use of the Internet as method of delivering education became increasingly popular. At the same time there were growing financial pressures on public postsecondary institutions that forced them to look for cost-saving alternatives to deal with increasing demand. Many turned their attention to the newly-legitimized online distance education because it was seen as a way of avoiding the costly construction of new buildings. However, instead of using online technology to reach the non-traditional learner, they were incorporated into on-campus teaching to create what was termed blended learning approaches and more recently has been called e-learning. This form of e-learning gradually began to overshadow the socially-oriented distance education programs.


Technological Determinism

The other drive force behind the growing use and pressure to use online learning and, more broadly, ICTs in education, is the idea that “new technologies are changing the world and that, in turn, educational institutions have no choice but to adopt digital technologies, designed elsewhere, for other purposes, for fear of being ‘left behind’” (Selwyn & Facer 2013, p. 9)

The dominant themes in our educational technology discourse are no longer about access but about the technological imperative, and the need to prepare learners for the 21st century, for the “knowledge economy”. Look at any recent government policy on ICT in Education and this theme is front and center. Access, in the sense of participatory access, is rarely mentioned in these policies.

This shift in the discourse troubles me. First, the access problem hasn’t been solved. It is still a major issue, particularly for the developing world. While there was a 53% increase in higher education participation globally between 2000 and 2007, very little of that growth has been in low-income countries. Participation in higher education in low-income countries increased marginally from 5-7%.

Second, this narrow focus on the “knowledge economy” overlooks the current reality of many developing world economies. They are heavily dependent on services such as tourism and agriculture and will continue to be for some time to come. It is naïve to think that there will be an economic transformation in all these countries. Yes, there will be a growing need for “knowledge workers” but a single-minded focus on educating for the “knowledge economy” may have the unintended consequence of forcing people to leave their countries to see work elsewhere, thus undermining already shaky economies.

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It also overlooks the fact that in many of these countries, the basic infrastructure is still lacking. In Belize, for example, 27% of primary schools do not have access to electricity and only 31% of secondary school teachers have formal training (Ministry of Education, Belize). Investing heavily in Internet-based educational technologies clearly doesn’t make a lot of sense in contexts such as this unless it is coupled with a focus on developing the human resource and physical infrastructure at the same time. Not surprisingly, also, Internet access is low in many of these countries. In 2012 only 25% of individuals in Belize, for example, were using the Internet. But even more revealing is that there are 73 countries in the world that have even lower rates of individual Internet use.

More on this topic next week in ICTs for Skill Development or Educational Transformation.


Selwyn, N. & Facer, K. (2013). (Eds.)The Politics of Education & Technology. NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

January 2014

The course will officially open on January 6, 2014. In the meantime the site is undergoing revisions.

As of today the following changes have been made:

  1. the assignment descriptions and due dates have been updated
  2. the course schedule has been updated
  3. the readings list has been updated.

MOOCs as Tools for Development or Profit: Conflicting Agendas

This was originally published in Spanish in Albert Sangrá’s blog, Traspasando la línea in El País, a Madrid-based newspaper. This is the English version.

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Ever since MOOCs hit the headlines in 2012 I have been struggling to make sense of my unease with this phenomenon. There are so many things about MOOCs that bother me I don’t know where to start. There is the fact that the people behind the big three American for-profit MOOC companies (Coursera, EdX and Udacity) seem to know nothing about the history of online learning, the mountains of research that have been conducted on it, and the wealth of knowledge that exists about how to develop quality online courses and teach effectively in an online environment. There is the fact that the fascination with MOOCs seems to be more about solving the financial crisis of American higher education than about improving quality or reaching the underserved. There is the hucksterish tone of the sales pitches replete with heart-warming stories of what Jon Beasley-Murray calls “romanticized pathos” of how MOOCs have changed the lives of poor and disenfranchised. There is the superficial understanding of what constitutes quality tutorial support in online learning. This, of course, is the Achilles heel of MOOCs. Online peer grading, computer-marked assignments and other automated solutions as well as online discussions monitored by underpaid graduate students are no replacement for the kind of online support that a qualified online instructor can provide. But the MOOC financial model falls apart if this kind of human tutorial support is required.

But looking at MOOCs from the perspective of somebody who works in an international development agency, I think what bothers me most are two things:

1) the fundamental contradiction between the humanitarian goals of openness and access that ostensibly underpin MOOCs and the business model that is predicated on using MOOCs as a tool to recruit lucrative international fee-paying students from the developing world.

Sorry, but when somebody tells me the goal is to lift the masses out of poverty by providing free education for all and in the next breath they start explaining how they are going to make money on the venture by luring students from impoverished developing countries to come to expensive American or European universities, I have to question their sincerity.

2) the neo-imperialist mentality that assumes that all we need to do to solve the world’s economic problems is find a way to transmit all the knowledge and expertise that exists in America to the undereducated masses of the developing world.

This was most blatantly highlighted by Thomas Friedman who, in an audacious display of American chauvinism, presented MOOCs as way to not only deliver all that high quality American expertise to the developing world, but to save money on foreign aid at the same time: “Imagine how this might change U.S. foreign aid. For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic.” (NY Times, Jan. 26, 2013). It is amazing that somebody of Friedman’s intelligence could seriously believe that the way to solve Egypt’s educational problems is simply to subtitle lectures by American academics and broadcast them to Egyptians. It is that kind of superficial and myopic world view underlying much of the MOOC discourse that bothers me most.

Furthermore, despite their “openness”(which, by the way, is a restricted openness in that these are not, for the most part, open educational resources), MOOCs will do little to reach the underserved populations in the developing world. MOOCs may be free but to access one you still need a high speed Internet connection, power, and a computer (not to mention fluency in English). Access to the Internet is growing quickly but it is by no means anywhere near universal. In Africa, for example, only 15.6% of the population has access to the Internet. In Asia, the figure is 27.5% and in the entire world it is still only 34.3%.

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I have no problem with MOOCs as an educational technology. Having spent over thirty years in educational technology and over 15 years teaching online, I know that a well-designed and taught online course can be as effective or more effective than a similar face-to-face course. So I don’t dismiss MOOCs. But as Ian Bogost has articulately argued, MOOCs are more than simply an educational technology. They can be understood as a type of marketing, as a financial policy for higher education, as an academic labour policy, as speculative financial instruments, as an expression of Silicon Valley values or as a type of entertainment media. Educators need to understand these nuances so that they can determine if and how MOOCs support their goals for eLearning. MOOC proponents need to be up front about what MOOCs are good for and what their limitations are, and they need to be transparent about what their goals and motivations are.

And please, let’s agree that the solution to world’s educational problems is not the mass export of developed world content to the developing world.

A Critical Perspective on Educational Technology

Audrey Watters is one of my favorite educational technology commentators because she doesn’t accept anything at face value and he is constantly poking sticks in the eyes of the technology hypsters.

Here are three of her recent columns that I missed when they were published. The first takes issue with the popularity of the concept of “disruptive innovation” which, as she rightly points out, is more often than not being applied incorrectly to almost any new technology development. The term was coined by Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma and then applied to higher education in The Innovative University. As Watters points out, even when the term is used correctly the concept seems to have been accepted as gospel and few people have questioned its validity or relevance.

The second is an excellent review of an excellent book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism.

The most recent column pokes fun at the new, new thing in educational technology, learning analytics. I particularly enjoyed reading this column because I have been skeptical of learning analytics since day one and I predict it will soon fade and be relegated to the dustbin of education technology with other fads like learning objects, programmed learning and interactive videodiscs.  Of course my record is not good: I predicted that podcasting wouldn’t last and that was about eight years ago and it it is still going strong, although it has evolved over the years.

In any case, I highly recommend Audrey Watters.

A Canadian MOOC platform

One of the problems with the MOOC discourse is that it focuses on the big three American companies: EdX, Udacity and Coursera and tends ignore the fact that MOOCs not only existed before these three companies got into the business but that there many other MOOC platforms in other countries. One of the newest entrants comes from Canada, It is, home to the first MOOC. Wide World Ed has launched an online platform that promises to return all net profit to the research, development and delivery of new courses and content. It claims to be “dedicated to increasing access to learning for Canadians and other global citizens. The purpose of this platform is to magnify our national social values and demonstrate our capacity for education innovation. “

Check it out

MOOCs and Big Data

Here’s an excellent critique of the “big data” dimension of Coursera, Udacity, Ed-X style MOOCs from John Maxwell. This excerpt sums up his main point:

“So, in the MOOC phenomenon, we take an old idea–putting course materials online and letting students work through them at their own pace, on their own motivation–scale that up to a very large number, and it becomes an attractive business proposition in the world of big data. Now, this point seems to be lost on lots of people, not least the University committees that are getting all hot and bothered about joining the MOOC trend. Somehow, the hype around MOOCs has led us to the point where all critical sensibilities about learning, pedagogy, curriculum, student experience, privacy, research, and the role of Universities in democratic society has been thrown out the window, in favour of this fabulous bandwagon.”

Read the full article

The MOOC Financial Model

Well, ever since MOOCs hit the headlines, people have been wondering when somebody would come up with a viable financial model. It seems the folks at Georgia Tech have figured it out…replace the costliest part of education, instructors, with much cheaper “mentors”.

From Inside Higher Ed:

“Georgia Tech will work with AT&T and Udacity, the 15-month-old Silicon Valley-based company, to offer a new online master’s degree in computer science to students across the world at a sixth of the price of its current degree. The deal, announced Tuesday, is portrayed as a revolutionary attempt by a respected university, an education technology startup and a major corporate employer to drive down costs and expand higher education capacity.

Georgia Tech expects to hire only eight or so new instructors even as it takes its master’s program from 300 students to as many as 10,000 within three years, said Zvi Galil, the dean of computing at Georgia Tech.

The university will rely instead on Udacity staffers, known as “mentors,” to field most questions from students who enroll in the new program. But company and university officials said the new degrees would be entirely comparable to the existing master’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech, which costs about $40,000 a year for non-Georgia residents.”