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Will you support open education?

Published at: http://www.saylor.org/2015/12/blog-will-you-support-open-education/ – follow the link for the full post

Posted By David Thompson

“Charity”: from the French word charité, in turn derived from the Latin caritas, meaning preciousness or dearness. But the Latin caritas served also as a translation for the Greek Αγάπη (Agape), an unconditional love for others.

With Christmas – and the end of the tax year – encroaching upon us, so does the influx of charitable organizations beseeching donations. (Before I continue, I must be upfront and tell you that is what I will be doing by the end of this post.) Inevitably, these requests become white noise lost in the matrix of the Internet. Many pressing issues deserve attention and many quality organizations that aim to tackle these issues need funding. But how do we parse the pleas that most appeal to us from all the white noise? How do we choose where the expression of our unconditional love for others will land?

My suggestion for this dilemma is to focus your attention, choose an issue you care about, and don’t let the white noise drown out the inner voice that calls you to action.

My passion lies with education, with making it easily accessible, and with the belief that education can be the tip of the spear in the fight against poverty, oppression, and war. If you feel as I do and you believe that Saylor Academy and its goal of being a leader in the free and open education movement is something that you want to support, then we at Saylor would be very grateful for any help you can give us.

If a fraction of you donated $25 we could fund updates for ten Saylor Academy courses. An even smaller fraction donating $10 could pay for an independent expert to review a course for college credit recommendation. And if everyone visiting Saylor in the final weeks of 2015 donated just $3, we could keep all of our servers running for an entire year and fund updates for all of our courses.

Your support, large or small, helps us grow and continue to be advocates for open education.

Donate to Saylor Academy

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I totally agree and have given in total a hundred dollars. This will probably become more in the future. Just giving a small amount already expresses the importance you give to Saylor Academy, and your education. It is only right that you give something. Gifts can speed up the process by which much needed advancements can be implemented, so that there will be a better flexibility for improvements, and we will all benefit from that. So give! You should.

Edit: Bang! Just gave another 25!

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Absolutely I will support open education.

Open Courseware is important to me. So much so that it’s received every penny of my charity donations for the past five years.

This year, my donations went to providers that, while already at the “top of their game” so to speak, built out more of what they were already doing well. I split my donations 50/50 between Khan Academy and MITOCW.

Saylor, by comparison, completely ditched what made it unique in favor of laser focusing on the two “majors” that are already widely available elsewhere and traded making knowledge available in a variety of less served areas for what I can only assume was a bean-counter’s eye view of what looks good on paper “credits”. The focus on actually “learning” that was so special about Saylor has been lost and rather devalued, in my opinion — it’s as if the current mindset here is that the learning is irrelevant if you don’t get the credits and pursue the degree — which is truly a shame because making a wide variety of learning materials available in a structured and easily used format was a unique and noble goal. Being a credit mill for accounting courses is so paltry by comparison.

I totally understand that this is just my opinion. And, I further understand that my opinion isn’t the important one - Mr Saylor’s opinion is: It’s his playground, he gets to spend his money how he wants. But, so do I, and Saylor just isn’t a good investment any more.

I spent the last 8 months on MITOCW, self-studying courses on Mathematics, Computer Science and Physics. When I needed more practice on a topic, I hit Khan Academy to do exercises. I even managed to fit an MITOCW course in Chinese, a linguistics course, and a history course into my schedule.

What would have been awesome is if all the courses were organized into a cohesive plan of study, maybe like a “portfolio” where one could select a major, and then the courses necessary to fullfill it … but that’s no longer available anywhere because the one place that had it ditched it midyear in favor of promoting credits in business administration “on the cheap”. Business Administration. Oh yeah, there’s Computer Science as well but I don’t count that one because it’s been gutted of higher Math and Science and no longer mirrors what one might expect in an actual degree program. Now it’s just a less rigorous, poorly formatted, pale imitation of the CS one can learn on MITOCW.

this is an edited version of my reply as to why I wanted saylor to remove me from your mailing list

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@P1xt, this is a well expressed and clearly heartfelt posting that probably chimes with the feelings of many students who started with Saylor before the restructuring. As my own postings made clear once the scope of the changes became apparent (far more than the initially advertised ‘cosmetic changes’), I agree that much of what made Saylor unique has been lost. I particularly regret the loss of so many courses for which there are no easy substitutes. Virtually all the courses which were of interest to me are now in the slowly decaying, and uncertified, ‘Legacy’ archive.

Having said the above, it is clear that the previous situation could not have continued unchanged. The ongoing costs of maintaining courses was obviously far more than anticipated (or the income far less) as was all too apparent from the parlous state of some. Perhaps it was simply a case that ambition exceeded capacity. Another major issue was, and remains, Saylor’s low enrolment figures. Total numbers of registered students were low and some courses showed no evidence of anyone every completing them (based on long-broken links, glaring errors and no postings in the course forums).

If we accept that a more focused targeting of resources was necessary, the question is then whether the choices made by Saylor were the best. This is always going to be a difficult discussion to resolve, especially in a charitable context. Should resources be placed where they have the greatest reach, which would imply only supporting popular courses, or where the need is not met elsewhere, which might (although not necessarily) imply the opposite? Saylor evidently chose to follow the former strategy rather than the latter. While we, as individual students, might disagree, the decision was not illogical nor, I am sure, taken on a whim.

Over the last few years, I have written more than once that the quest for accreditation is, for the vast majority of students, simply chasing phantoms. Students will routinely respond positively to survey questions asking about the importance of accreditation yet diminishingly few every pursue such opportunities when they are available. I view accreditation as having value (for most) only as a reassurance of course quality. On the other hand, education in the abstract is almost always to be welcomed as broadening horizons–whatever the status of courses.

Nevertheless, and despite denials from Saylor staff posters, it certainly seems potential accreditation was a significant driver in the selection of the courses to be maintained. For example, of the 29 History courses previously offered only three survive: HIST103 (accepted by TESC) and HIST362 & HIST363 (accepted by University of Memphis); from the 26 Biology courses only two remain: BIO101B (ACE) and BIO307 (‘aligned’ with Straighterline). I don’t see any course outside the two remaining ‘Full Curricula’ which does not have some potential credit or transfer. This is, apparently, purely coincidental.

Yet despite all the above, I am still here (albeit rather less active than previously). The problems of resource that Saylor face are not unique and the decisions made here are not the worst that can be found.

In times of reduced income colleges may (and some have already) come to look on Open Courseware and similar as non-essentials that must be sacrificed in favour of core activities. Berkeley has, for example, discontinued access to lectures recorded after Spring 2015 explaining the change in terms of cost:

. . . in order to reduce service costs and enable us to maintain a lecture capture service focused on students

and:

Resources will be reallocated toward mission-critical activities that support teaching, learning, and research at UC Berkeley. [my emphasis]

This comes after 20 years of publicly available lectures.

Elsewhere (although never ‘open’ in the proper sense), Coursera has now almost entirely ceased the issue of free Statements of Accomplishment in favour of paid Course Certificates (a rebranding of their Signature Track verification) and edX (which is a not for profit foundation) doesn’t issue free certificates for self-paced courses or even allow access to ‘professional education’ courses without payment. Over in Australia, Open2Study is essentially moribund, having released no new courses for two years and with stagnating student registrations. It seems that the economics are finally catching up with all ‘free’ education providers whether ‘Open’ in a full sense or not.

I choose to support all those who aspire to widen open access to education. This clearly includes the Saylor Academy even if their ambitions are somewhat narrower than was once the case. I’m sure that, given greater resources, they would have happily continued to support the previous ‘Major’ model and its full range of associated courses and even gone on to expand this into the reaches of graduate level courses as was once envisaged. The reality is that the money simply isn’t adequate to meet those ambitions. While some of us might have favoured an approach less tied to accreditation and subjects already well covered elsewhere, Saylor still plays a part in the open education movement and still offers a (smaller) range of worthwhile courses.

[For the sake of completeness, I should add that the ‘Legacy’ courses are still made available by Saylor on GitHub and, as openly licensed resources, may be used, forked, modified or maintained as individuals or groups wish.]

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Not wanting to leap in or respond precipitately, I let this stew for a few days (despite what good crisis communications protocols might suggest, but I haven’t finished that course yet…). I welcome pushback on and sideways glances at anything I share below, none of which, to set the tone right away, is intended to be dismissive or combative. Indeed, thanks to both @P1xt and @Paul_Morris. I have “liked”, and do appreciate, all the posts for good measure.

Your point is well-taken, but it is more than just PR formality when I say that, if your opinion is not THE important one, it nevertheless has significant value, the more so for being well delineated and backed by a personal history.

Not to distract from the issue, but that seems like one of the things Degree is trying to do, although I’m unsure of their present status.

I didn’t participate in the long process of nominating active and legacy courses; I would agree that the connection to credit for the non-legacy courses is not “purely coincidental” but would add a bit of nuance. There is a positive feedback loop between an increasingly evergreen/clean/stable course and credit-worthiness. Similarly, lower-level courses often have both the best (or most available) content and the cleanest structure, which also lends them nicely to credit-worthiness, besides the fact that colleges are often looking to accept lower-level, introductory courses vs. more arcane courses. And, indeed, there are a number of courses that we retained in order to not sweep the rug out from programs that were otherwise using them, including both programs we explicitly collaborate in (the Open Course Option for ASBA) and programs we more passively help to sustain (acceptance by Brandman, U. Memphis, etc.). The kept courses represent a Venn diagram of quality, content, stability, popularity, usefulness, and credit-worthiness; the latter both drives and is driven by the others, whether explicitly or accidentally. And without question, it is not the case that we simply skimmed the cream – we left some very good or even better courses in the legacy set.

First, thanks for the word “parlous”, which I forgot if I ever knew it. It sounds like something White’s King Pellinore would say, though. While we do what we do for pennies on the dollar compared to most other MOOC providers, our resources to course ratio was perilously low and remains rather modest. There was, even early on in our history, a miscalculation of what ongoing or even periodic revision would really entail, as well as a tendency to say, “well, that’s done…moving on!” when a few more coats of paint were really needed.

This is related to the broader issue of the degree/diploma as a general and not always dependable signifier. Perhaps only tangentially related…or not…we occasionally get requests for the certificates to include a signature, which seems to be partly about the student’s own impression but more about assumptions of an employer’s impression; related to this is the tendency for students to want and even depend on a paper certificate vs. a digital credential. We might well add a signature (not strictly my department), but the signature only extends the impression of authenticity and credibility. Yet, the root of credibility and credit is…belief. So impressions do matter…how much is a matter for constant negotiation and debate. What does a digital copy of someone’s signature mean on a certificate? Nothing and everything, it would seem. This respect for the humble certificate also speaks to the relatively high value of the certificate, compared to college credit or a formal degree, for a good many students.

Stephen Downes (OLDaily; a great RSS/email subscription for those who like the intersection of philosophy, ethics, edtech, education, pedagogy, and futurism) talks about the economics often. We have been blessed AND cursed by not having to worry much about the business case, although clearly we are beginning to consider that explicitly – although we currently take no revenue from proctored exams and keep the certificates free. But, yes, “free” education is anything but free of costs; the question is who pays, usually based on both public and private priorities driven by both policy and markets.

This was disappointing and somewhat sobering; one gets used to the manna and assumes that tomorrow will bring more.


Some overall thoughts…asking for money is always a bit fraught; it gets easier when one is at one end of a spectrum, either in crisis (“Save the Clock Tower!” or the boiler fund) or putting on a fantastic show and just trying to stay in the black or close to it (“Hey, we’re awesome, and just need a bit of money to stay awesome!”). We are in the more modest middle and and seeking to both strive toward our mission and strive to maintain/improve or, if one prefers, regain our “unique value proposition”.

Seating my PR hat more firmly on my head, I would say that Saylor Academy’s credit options are rather unique; the other MOOC providers do not consistently and explicitly yield college credits except for pretty specialized majors. The audience we serve is less visible and less glamorous than the audience served by, say, coding bootcamps (all respect to the latter). Media outlets know what we do, not that you’d know it from the lack of headlines! Pursuing credit options can seem more quotidian or even mercenary (though a true mercenary would take a good bit of the money up front) and this pursuit also, superficially at the very least, limits our audience. I say superficially because we maintain, and I believe it’s true, that the investments that go into credit recommendations improve the course experience for everyone, even if the ways the experience is improved involves tradeoffs, as it always will. (I acknowledge the counter-argument that investments outside of credit recommendations would also generally improve the student experience.)

What is a bit tricky is that, while I think our pursuit of credit recommendation and our more narrowed course catalog focus is not unrelated, there is coincidence in timing that conflates the two issues more than is strictly warranted. Had we resources enough, we would keep and improve the whole catalog and promote majors and informal diplomas alongside the credit opportunities. It happens that we felt we had to reduce our catalog but also invest more time/attention on the credit side to fill a role that still flies largely under the radar – informal learning has led to credit for years and years, but it is so well diffused as to be largely unknown to the public and even (or especially) to traditional degree seekers. We do not currently get revenue from the credit side of things, although we’d love to find fair and sustainable revenue streams there. No referral fees from schools, no cut of the proctoring fee. Nor does it cost us a great deal of money. We very explicitly want to serve informal learners, including those who are here for recreation, but we also want to ensure that what we put together serves those seeking both informal and formal credentials. Our hypothesis is that measured attention to the latter pays dividends to the former. The pursuit of credit recommendation is turning into an interesting story; problems still before us include boosting alternative/informal credentials for those who do not want or cannot use formal credit, as well as the perennial problem of keeping it all fun and accessible and interesting and more deeply meaningful. That’s a good problem to have though, and demands conversations like this one. Taken all together, that’s a good part of what open education means to me.

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@seanconnor if I get a nod for parlous, a word which, for no obvious reason, I’ve used twice in the last week in different postings then I must recognise your use of quotidian–a word I don’t think I have have ever found occasion to use (before this).

It is interesting (well, mildly) that parlous seems rarely to be found now other than in the phrase ‘parlous state’–typically of the economy in recent years! I didn’t, however, think it an uncommon word; maybe this is yet another transatlantic difference.

Going back to the main topic, I don’t have any problem with the courses which are being maintained. None of them are particularly poor or undeserving of preservation. . . although the same could have been said of many of the Legacy courses. I won’t rehearse the points I made in my earlier post; this ground was well trodden at the time of the restructuring.

I do accept the point about the benefit of maintaining a course in a credit-worthy condition–even to those who do not intend ever to take advantage of such a facility–and almost made the same connection when I wrote that it gave some assurance of quality.

Which is, indeed, what I wrote.

The pursuit of credit transfer options has a very poor record in the MOOC field over the last couple of years. I recall that there was one pilot programme run by a US college (I can’t remember the details and it is too late in the evening here to go searching) two years ago which failed to attract a single registration. How are Saylor students responding so far? Can you give any feedback on the numbers of students paying for the proctored exams?

Finally, I’d observe that credit programmes are essentially US-centric (and yes, I do know where Saylor is based) having little or no traction outside that country. To be honest, even if there were international acceptance, I’m not sure how useful it would be in most European countries which use a quite different model of degree courses (ie far narrower and less flexible than seems the case for US colleges).

wow- thank you!!

It’s been pretty good so far, picking up more steam in 2015. The numbers get a bit muddled because some courses have the free in-person proctor option in addition to remote proctoring, but rough estimates show about 350 individual students who have one or more attempts through our remote proctoring partner and about 300 successful completions of credit-recommended exams over 2014-2015 (with about 75% of these in 2015). Interestingly, a good number of these folks seem to be referred by their schools

A bit late for an end-of-year report, we’ll actually be releasing some organized numbers from 2015 pretty soon.

I obviously wasn’t keeping my finger on the pulse, in fact, edX have now ended all free ‘Honor Code’ certificates since early December. They have, in parallel to this change, launched a financial support facility for their verified certificates.

This leaves no major platform offering free certificates.

On a more positive note, Canvas are starting to offer some really interesting courses and, bucking the trend, more of them are offering free certificates. Although the user interface is not terribly friendly and courses tend to be fairly short, the content seems promising. I recently managed to complete my first ever Canvas course–Biometrics–(although this wasn’t the first I started) and am currently working through an excellent course from the University of Manchester ‘Warfare and Weapons in Ancient Egypt’.

I had not realized that, either. That is a bit disappointing.

I suspect that both edX and Coursera are victims of their own success. Basically, the unverified certificates served well enough for most applications. Although both have offered verified certificates for quite some time, there was insufficient differentiation between those and their free certificates. I think that colleges were not greatly motivated to pay attention to unaccredited courses while employers didn’t value verification.

As the sale of verified certificates is the only successful monetisation of the MOOC project (to date) it became necessary to kill off the free certificates in order to promote the verified versions. Both edX and Coursera use almost identical phrases to explain their decision talking of ‘simplifying’ the certificate structure and enhancing the status of the verified certificates.

To be fair to edX, they always said that free certificates were not guaranteed to continue. The earliest FAQ I can find (Aug 2013) says:

Today, certificates of mastery are free. This may change in the future to help cover our costs.

By 2014 (after the introduction of verified certificates) this changed to:

Honor code certificates are currently free.

In correspondence with edX in late 2014 they confirmed that there were no plans to discontinue Honor Code certificates nor any intention to make it difficult for students to choose that option (that was following a site redesign which made it very difficult to see how to get a free certificate).

I really hope we can fill some of that void with our free certificates.

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Agreed. The recent announcement of the new Technical Writing course should also give renewed hope that there may still be scope for some future growth (albeit at a more cautious rate than was the case in the heady rush of 2011-12).

The situation on most platforms seems to be getting worse almost by the day. Since my last post I have found that Coursera are now restricting access to graded assessments only to those who have paid for verified certificates. Although this currently applies only to ‘some courses’ one hardly needs a crystal ball to see which way the wind is blowing. this, incidentally, makes a nonsense of their recent promotion of the new certificate system:“You only need to pay when you are sure you have passed.” If you can’t take the assessments without paying. . .

Hello Mr Morris,

I have observed that Coursera has launched almost one hundred specializations; the last couple of years it was impossible for one to pay for a curriculum of study of five courses in an enclosured GIS area of study until recently on Coursera- the first course launches on February. Why impossible before? Because it is said that occupations in this field are going to increased after 2018. Is it possible for companys that occupy geographic applications to survive with a few thousand of graduates and with the usage of crowdsource in a related field, such as, imagery analysis ? I believe no. Studying opportunities have to be expand at least in GIS, and previous courses that offered a verified certificate in Geography could be in addition part of the specialization to support a broader knowledge before enrolled in capstone.
Also, most of the specialization titles are same with certificate/diploma offerings by well- known universities. I have seen that creative writing and many others.
While many people have made comments on the web like ’ it’s a fad! traditional studies cannot be replaced by an online program’. But technology is rapidly growing everywhere. Even the degree is getting older and one has to learn more. Such an egotist.

However, how far are we from the truth- how much time we give to technology to reveal that there is no actually a credit. Aquarian age is to teach us that everything depends from independent study either one is a home school student, or appears to the university. The only thing to be approved is that one has successfully passed the exams and within a more convincing signature track, which I find at this time pretty good, because who is going to pass every assignment and do this for someone else. It’s crazy! Furthermore, the certificate will be useless for one who didn’t go through out the completion of each course.
In regard with the payments- because I’m off topic- they are not expensive and I’m sure that not either enough to operate themselves.
Sharing my thoughts and opinions with an admiration of your critical thought.

Best Regards,
Peter

My criticism of Coursera was within the context of a discussion of open education. Although Coursera never claimed to be ‘open’ in the full sense, they did have stated ambitions to widen educational access over and above their need (and, presumably desire) to return a profit.

The latest policy changes doubtless reflect the reality that ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ but are nevertheless disappointing. I would guess that Signature Track (now rebranded simply as Course Certificates) fees are a long way off repaying the $146 million venture capital funds invested in the company!

Yes they are for profit but many took advantage of their free courses and still one can enroll and have access to the material. I assume that most of the students prefer to show a verified certificate instead of the statement of accomplishment online; though, I don’t know what is the difference between of a course certificate and a verified certificate as a result from the students side. All of them at the bottom referring that are verified. Also, the reference ‘verified certificate’ makes them look inferior, and who would believe that it’s more than a course certificate?

But access to graded assessments (quizzes and peer assessments) will not be available to ‘free’ students.

As I argued here in regard to Saylor’s legacy courses, without assessment or certificates a course simply becomes a collection of resources. While we all like to think of ourselves as being intrinsically motivated (eg driven by a desire for knowledge) in reality, many struggle to maintain focus without extrinsic rewards (like badges and certificates) and challenges (assessments).

Without regular testing of knowledge and recognition of achievement–albeit in the form of an unaccredited certificate–even the most motivated will be tempted to skip the ‘difficult’ bits or simply drop a course entirely.

I think the evidence suggest the opposite; the vast majority of students were more than happy with the Statements of Accomplishment. It was this, I believe, which forced Coursera into withdrawing the free certificates.

However, when I was enrolled for the first time three years ago, they were close to 6 million enrolled students, while now they’re almost 13-14 million. I haven’t checked if the participation in the discussion forums have decreased. Do you believe that people want to earn a certificate/soa or to upload on their resume a specialization certificate? I’m not supporting the idea that education shouldn’t be free, but, how much potential can have a dozen of completed courses for those who want to demonstrate their skills for occupational purposes? Without a scope one can simply have an access only to the material and without giving the exams, just for self improvement. Personally, I believe for example that forty completed courses can harm a lot a resume.

To be honest, I suspect that most people do not intend to do either. Although their are certainly students who plan to use the courses to directly benefit their further studies or employment, many simply study for the pleasure and general self-improvement. When one looks at the profile of Coursera students it becomes apparent that the majority (over 80%) already hold at least a first degree and something like 20% have a higher degree.

For those looking to use MOOCs as supporting evidence for a job application, a relevant Specialization would seem more attractive than a random assortment of courses, but because it was a structured sequence, not because it was verified.

It could be said that ‘hobby’ students are not the group whom Coursera intended to serve. Nevertheless, they have formed a substantial part of the student body and alienating them (by withdrawing free certificates and access to assessments) will inevitably shrink the user base. This could have a significant effect on practical issues such as peer assessments as well as on investors’ perception of the company’s performance; much of the early publicity around MOOCs was focused on high registration numbers. If these numbers decline, even if the retention rate improves, as seems likely of more are paying for courses, the impression may be one of a failing enterprise.

Any evidence on a resume should be relevant to the post for which it is submitted. This applies as much to formal education as to MOOCs and other informal studies.

but because it was a structured sequence, not because it was verified.
Despite it looks more attractive there are many relevant courses that could fit onto a specialization and more than ten. But from what I have seen, this is possible only inside the accreditation system. The possibility for an individual to choose the courses and graduate. While Coursera has a plethora of courses at all levels, the inside college courses can be used at all scales;
By saying informal studies probably you mean independent study outside of an accredited curricula. Do you believe is a great investment for an online degree? I believe that it is when one is not going to pay a fortune for it, as it seems logical that the experience won’t be very different, regardless the fact that one has to pay a lot of money for the name. But both of them are self paced, and I suspect expensive studies to be more easy to get the degree because of the pay off in most cases.