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“Big Learning:” Can the ePortfolio Movement Survive The Great MOOC Shift?

Posted By Administration, Monday, May 6, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

May 6th, 2013

Trent Batson

Wikipedia - Looking Back and Forward

MOOCs are the buzz, and the buzz this time is so loud it drowns out everything else. How will MOOCs affect the eportfolio community?

Not a Fad

The MOOC, in hindsight, was probably inevitable. We had "big data” as an example of the paradigm-changing power of scaling up massively. "Big Learning,” a term used by companies, initiatives, and conferences already, is perhaps a good parallel descriptor of how learning may be changing in every constituent paradigm (even high impact practices) within the large universe of "learning.” Big data is changing how research is done and now may be changing how learning occurs at an equally deep level.

MOOCs are not a fad. How the MOOC idea is applied may morph quickly. Maybe even the term itself will evolve. But the enabling technology applications are there, the backbone, the storage, the bandwidth for high resolution, the companies and investments, the promise and, perhaps most importantly, the demand, are all there. What at first seemed overblown and flawed has quickly become a broadly transformational movement. MOOCs are big learning.

The knowledge economy needs big learning. College graduates still do better in the job market than those without a degree, although the jobs may not be at the level the graduates hoped for. The unemployment rate for college grads in general is more or less back to normal while the unemployment rate for those without any college at all continues to rise. Jobs that previously did not require a college degree now do. No matter how flawed we educators may realize our current system is, education still is the life blood of our society.

Diverting Attention

We in the eportfolio community have confidently described eportfolios as transformative up until now. They support DIY learning and active learning and learner-based learning and all the trends we believe are appropriate for today’s economy and culture. Yet, on many campuses, whatever attention was dedicated to eportfolios, in teaching and learning centers, in faculty development offices, in academic computing, among campus leaders, and so on, is now to some extent or another diverted to the MOOC idea and to online learning.

I cannot read this diversion as a dismissal of the eportfolio idea, but just as postponement. Yet, postponement is loss of momentum and memory. It is one thing to say that those now striving to get MOOCed will necessarily return their focus to eportfolios in the changed landscape, but it is another to say they will easily pick up where they left off.

The effect on the eportfolio industry is even more profound than in academia. This period is, once again, for better or worse, all about delivery of course content. But, not in the classroom. In the Cloud. What does this new fully-featured virtual classroom offer? What are its dynamics and needs? What business models work in big learning? What is the relationship between campuses and MOOC companies, for profit and not-for-profit? These questions and many more are being worked out as the ground continues to shift and new questions come up.

The Great MOOC Shift; Whither Credits?

Companies that provide both an LMS and eportfolio must focus on the LMS as a delivery platform and how to re-architect the entire enterprise to adapt to big learning. MOOCs deal with thousands of individuals who are not registered students at any one particular institution. This is like the Oklahoma land rush – racing to stake your claim in a large territory. Can the industry deal with millons of individual accounts that are not brokered through institutions?

Is this the Great MOOC Shift from institutionally-centered learning to learner-centered learning? Is this what big learning will mean? Or will our powerful higher education establishment find a way to keep the institution as the arbiter and deliverer of even open education resources, including MOOCs? Will degrees and credits remain viable and in control as the business model in the world of big learning?

A core reason why credits, at least, may be untranslatable into the world of big learning: at the core of whatever justification there is for credits is the idea that all students get the same "treatment.” They all undergo the same learning experiences in the same way. If the experience is different from a lecture, as in a lab, higher education has traditionally offered one more credit. So, there is a tiny recognition in the credit system that different learning experiences should be valued differently.

But, what if, as is becoming obvious in big learning, learners have very different learning experiences, or even unknown learning experiences, but are all aiming for certification of their learning? This conundrum, that the credit system has lost whatever validity it had, is recognized formally in the emphasis over the last decade on outcomes. Outcomes show real achievement, right? Outcomes are "real world”?

In reality, however, "outcomes” often simply mean that a student has received credit in a particular unit of a course, or in a series of courses of increasing complexity over years. How can outcomes be an antidote to credits when credits validate outcomes? Are we running around in circles? Or did the credit monster eat outcomes?

If, even within the current rather structured educational environment, the business model of higher education is beginning to look like only a business model with no credibility as a measure of learning (do a certain number of credits really reflect how much every student has learned?), how is this business model doing in big learning? In big learning, "delivered” in the cloud, or in the cloud plus on the ground, the myth that all students have the same learning experience evaporates.

Absurdity Extended in Online Learning

This problem of knowing that learning is occurring for the registered student has always been a problem for online learning. So, testing centers are set up, and biometric technologies employed to be certain the person "on the other end” is really that person. This is an effort to extend the myth that the true measure of learning is to be present for a certain amount of time and then prove that you can at least remember something on the surface of what was "delivered.” This is behaviorism carried to its logical absurdity. It would seem that since big learning’s first instinct is to extend the traditional classroom, it would also try to extend the myth that presence equals learning. And therefore, that learning can be measured in hours.

The ameliorative of MOOC supported group work, local mentors and other on-the-ground activities is a powerful counter-measure, of course. But, in the end, certification of learning boils down to credit hours in the current picture.

For now, big learning – on campuses and in the MOOC companies and in our culture -- has to focus on the logistics, politics and finances of learning at such a scale. In the rush to "get out there,” is there the luxury to address issues of evidence of learning? It might seem that on many campuses, among the MOOC companies, and in the industry, there is no time for eportfolios at the moment.

The ground is shifting and people are grabbing for solid structures based on decades of practice. Can we just survive the Great MOOC Shift? Can we find opportunities? On the business side, the ground may be shifting even more than in higher education. Many campuses may be unaffected, after all, but probably all technology companies serving learning will be affected.

AAEEBL’s Role in The Great Shift

AAEEBL cannot ignore "the Great Shift.” In theory, this is the time eportfolio advocates, researchers and practitioners have been waiting for. AAEEBL is dedicated to a particular kind of learning, whether realized through eportfolio technology or not. In the Great Shift, thinking may change. The value of eportfolios may suddenly be recognized. But, AAEEBL cannot wait for this to happen but must advocate in whatever ways are open to us.

AAEEBL must encompass this move to big learning in specific ways. AAEEBL must be as much about MOOCs and MOOC technology as about eportfolios. It is the real-world learning, valid assessment, and career success that is important to the AAEEBL community and not what the enabling technology is called. As the Great Shift occurs, entirely new parameters, vectors, relationships, business models, and opportunities of all kinds open.

Home Base

The eportfolio industry is adapting. Some in this industry may build out their LMS’s in ways to accommodate big learning and may find a new need to focus as well on their eportfolio offering. They may find that the two are inseparable in the world of big learning. Some in the industry may offer neither a full LMS or eportfolio but only some important features of one or the other. But with open architecture and APIs, functionality may be found in a number of places – that is, you may have a "home base” interface but the back end may be borrowing functions from a number of applications. You may not need a platform but just a fully-connected home base application.

This idea of a home base in the virtual world of big learning may apply not only to your technology but to your home institution. Your home institution may also become your "home base” for finding learning resources borrowed from other institutions. To some extent both "home base” situations are already happening. Some institutions have traditionally allowed their students to take courses at equivalent nearby institutions when they did not offer that course themselves. Now, the courses are available online, but the principle is the same. Big learning, by extension, could make the "home base” idea the default, or the normal, situation: your home institution helps you choose learning opportunities from the universe of open learning resources to supplement what you take on the campus itself.

AAEEBL must broaden the scope of its conferences, publications, and projects to encompass big learning topics and issues. Authentic, experiential, and evidence-based learning – the words that give rise to "aaeebl” -- may require eportfolios but eportfolio deep learning may fully play out in the arena of big learning. The eportfolio community has embraced change right from the start and now must itself change.


Notes: is moving to YourMembership during the spring and summer months. This is a community-growth online site, a social site where some of the work of the organization can occur; it is our association management environment. We see this as a way for AAEEBL to grow and the eportfolio community to gain visibility and influence. Only with an environment like YourMembership can AAEEBL truly scale up. Judy Williamson Batson, our Vice President, is leading the migration and is trying to focus almost exclusively on this very complex process.

Note 2: the cost of registration at our annual conference in Boston for members has gone down: the discount for the first three member registrations from an AAEEBL institutional member has increased to $250. Also, the conference is located in the middle of Boston where dining choices are much more numerous than at Seaport.

AAEEBL is negotiating new alliances with other associations for events in 2014. We are happy to be adding more services for the whole community.

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