• A Small, Offline and Closed (SOC) blueprint for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

    Last week, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago and a number of partners including the University of Trinidad and Tobago and Coursera – one of the largest providers of Massive Open Online Courses – announced announced a multi-stakeholder partnership to create a Knowledge Network. The partnership will see the Coursera courses and learning materials, and learning resources offered by the Khan Academy, offered to all potential students free of cost.

    What sets this partnership apart from existing implementation is the rich network of support – and value – that the students are surrounded with, enhancing the ‘tangible value’ that can accrue to the students and to the country. For followers of the MOOC phenomenon, the hope is that this partnership could create a blueprint to get MOOCs to deliver on their long-standing promise. What is interesting, however, is that the experiment that could create the blueprint for future success is itself small, offline and relatively closed (SOC for short).

    The background first. (If you want to skip the background, please ignore the italicized part)

    This partnership is significant, and for the proponents and detractors of MOOCs alike, couldn’t have come at a better time. The popularity – and instinctive appeal of the MOOC concept has never been in question – Coursera itself signed up approx. 1 million students in its first 12 months of operations, and today boasts of 9 million users. Hardly a day goes by without another university announcing its partnership with one or the other MOOC provider – including edX, FutureLearn, Coursera and Udacity. Over two-thirds of all chief academic officers believe that online learning is critical for their institution.

    Yet, despite all the enthusiasm, there remain a number of concerns around MOOCs, and their potential to deliver the sea-change that we desire in terms of universal education.

    First and foremost are the practical considerations that threaten to wipe out the gains promised by the open-approach. MOOC offerings continue to see very high drop-out rates and efforts to engage students have so far failed to significantly raise completion rates. The change of heart by Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun maybe the most visible ‘defection’ from the open, always-free vision that drove the idealism behind MOOCs in their early days, but his certainly isn’t the only voice. Universities that flocked towards MOOCs as a quick addendum to their course-offerings are beginning to flinch at the high up-front cost of developing the training materials, and professors are wary of expanding effort to develop materials they will not own, particularly when faced with the twin realization that the business model – or the business advantage to the universities themselves – is murky at best. Questions have been raised about the quality of learning that is possible with a MOOC-based education. Not surprisingly, empirical evidence suggests that people registering for MOOCs are generally people who already have college degrees, and are taking these courses purely for their own intellectual stimulation. In other words, they are serving an already privileged and educated community, and have done little to expand educational access as promised. Finally, with a remote educational model, assessment and student verification has always been a problem for MOOCs – which is why many MOOCs offer you a Certification of Completion – but very few allow this to be translated into a college credit; as this infographic explains, very few students see these certificates as a career-enhancing qualification.

    Then there are the philosophical considerations — a problem of the educational experience itself. The initial proponents of MOOC were excited about the emergence of a new pedagogical construct, where the traditional role of a student and a teacher is blurred – the student is the teacher; the course exists to provide the connectivity and glue – while the participants continue to teach themselves and others as the course progresses. This vision of an open educational experience – commonly referred to as the cMOOC vision – was quickly overtaken by the xMOOCs paradigm, with its teacher-centric pedagogical model, where the only difference between a MOOC and a classroom experience is the ‘separation in space and time’ between the ‘teacher’ and the learner.

    In, short MOOCs are failing to meet the high expectations that birthed them and are increasing beginning to look like the building blocks in what David Noble pejoratively called the Digital Diploma Mills. No wonder then that we are beginning to see the early signs of a revolt.

    It is in this light that the announcement’s significance is further enhanced. Then why do I argue that the model is Small, Offline and Closed?

    SMALL: Firstly, in the world of MOOC, where average class sizes are 43,000 and higher, the number of students who will participate under this program are miniscule. Given the population of secondary-school leavers in T&T, the maximum number of new students that could be pulled into university is approx. 30,000 students per year. The current enrolment of the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) on the other hand is estimated to be about 10,000-15,000 students. Even if this initiative doubles the university intake, it would be a fraction of the average class-size for a MOOC.

    OFFLINE: The Knowledge Network envisions Coursera content being utilized within physical classes held at the University of Trinidad and Tobago campuses – in a blended learning environment. Students will have teaching assistance provided by in-person assistants (as opposed to the remote course assistants that are associated with traditional MOOCs. It would be fair to point out though that Coursera itself has been experimenting with ‘Learning Hubs’ – physical centers that complement MOOCs – and now has a number of Learning Hubs across the world.

    CLOSED: Because this rich learning environment will be available through the UTT, physical limitations mean that this will be a closed environment. Student will be required to come in physically so that their attendance – and achievement – can be verified.

    It is this offline and closed nature – and the verification that is allows – that paves the way for what may become the most compelling element of the program for young students – the internship program. That program, open only to graduates of the Knowledge Network, will see 400 recent graduates of the courses being placed within local businesses. It will provide these recent graduates with real-world experience while at the same time increasing the organizational capacities of local business. The concept of internships for new grads is not new (organizations like CareerEdge have been doing this here in Canada for many years), but tying the internship program to the completion of the required courses will create a greater incentive for course completion, helping overcome a traditional limitation of MOOCs.

    So, is Small, Offline and Closed another strike against MOOCs? Far from it. The SCO model actually represents the kind of holistic development approach that we should be taking for all technology-enhanced development perspectives.

    By recognizing that technology is one component in a well-thought-out comprehensive initiative, the architects of this program could have helped us nudge towards a more successful and enduring model of MOOCs – even if it has elements of ‘small, offline and and closed’.

  • Building Innovation – one city at a time

    Not a month goes by, it seems, without another African city, state or national government announcing its plans to start an ambitious innovation city or park. The vision is simple enough – create a space where similar-minded technologists can meet, discuss, theorize, plan, collaborate and finally seed new ventures that will drive economic transformation of the country. So far so good.

    However, a few years after a number of cities and countries embarked upon this strategy, would it make sense to pause and reflect upon the success of the strategy? These are generally huge financial-commitment projects (e.g. Kenya’s Konza Tech city is estimated to cost $14.5B, Ghana’s Hope City will reportedly cost $10B, and Tanzania’s Rhapta City will reportedly cost $1B. Given the huge price tag on these projects, has there been enough thought given to the role that these technology cities will eventually play in creating an innovation ecosystem?

    The previous generation of technology parks in Africa – much more modest in their aspirations and outlay, have largely failed to meet the much lower bar of success set for them. Initiatives like Abuja Technology Village, Botswana’s Innovation Hub and a number of other similar initiatives can boast of world-class plans and infrastructure but have very little to show in terms of impact on the local digital economy.

    The problem with the ‘technology-city’ model of driving innovation is that even when the technology city succeeds, there is no guarantee that the innovation benefits that we seek will accrue. Take Dubai as one example, whose Dubai Internet City today hosts the Middle East and Africa Headquarter of nearly all the major technology vendors. IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, HP and many other companies have moved their sales and customer support operations to Dubai, but next to none of the R&D, or core product development, which is so critical to the innovation spillover benefits that policy makers seek.

    Policymakers in Africa countries are clearly impressed by, and following the model of the likes of International Technology Park Bangalore. The key question to ask, though is whether the success of the technology industry in India is because an IT Park was built there, or whether an IT Park was envisioned to accelerate the growth of the technology business, which had all the key requirements already in place. Remember, Southern India, has a long tradition of a nearly universal literacy. It has historical traditions of interest in, and excellence in, mathematics. It had universities that were producing a critical mass of engineers, computer science graduates and scientists who could come together to fuel the growth of the industry. Karnataka – the state in which Bangalore is based has 42 universities, hundreds of technology institutes, and a greater number of colleges. With investments of the kind being contemplated, merely back-office outsourcing isn’t enough; these investment will only bear fruit if the core technology development and research jobs – with their higher budgets and innovation spillover possibilities – also move as a result of these investments. Do we have the critical mass of technologists, computer scientists and engineers in place to make the model work across the African cities?

    This is not to say that technology cluster development doesn’t have a role to play in incubating the growth of new industries; such clustering is a key innovation policy instrument used globally to foster closer partnerships – between business and academia, and also between business themselves (Research Triangle Park and the Silicon Valley being oft-quoted two examples). The core difference is that such cluster developments are meant to take advantage of resources that are already present. In the case of Africa, could it be said many years later that governments would have been better off building the required building-blocks (high quality education, research expertise etc infrastructure) before embarking on these investments. Only time, we guess, will tell.

  • Virtual Economies or Real Ones?

    It would be a gross understatement to say that the emergence of information technology has had a profound impact on how we live, learn, connect and play. Digital technologies have impacted nearly all aspects of our lives, enriching many smart entrepreneurs and spawning the growth of large technology businesses.

    The developing world has been a keen participant in this process, both as a consumer of technology as well as a supplier of technology and manpower; the universal technology phenomenon owes nearly as much to the Silicon Valley as it does to India in making these technologies ubiquitous. On the consumption side of things, the developing world has been an avid and hungry recipient of technology, modifying and customizing it in many instances to its own needs.

    As the technology-economy has grown, so has the desire of many developing world countries to participate more fully in this process. Countries like Taiwan and Vietnam have staked a part of the technology manufacturing process, India continues to grow its outsourcing business, and countries like The Philippines and Vietnam have been making inroads into outsourced client service as well as video animation industries, to name a few.

    Across the emerging world, policy makers continue to look at digital opportunities and craft strategies to build out a ‘digital economy’ in their countries. Kenya – with its Silicon Savannah – has ambitions to build technology as a key component of its economy, Mauritius identified ICT as the fifth pillars of its economic transformation plan as it looks to lessen its dependence on the textile and sugar industries, and Ghana listed Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES) as a key, targeted growth area as part of its development plans.

    The desire – and the financial allure – to contribute to the global technology industry is understood and appreciated, but from a policy-maker’s perspective, is there more to be gained by targeting technology to drive efficiency and productivity gains in the major economic sectors of my developing country, rather than by creating a new technology sector. If agriculture accounts for 43% of the workforce and 28% of the economic output of my country, can I focus on driving innovation, productivity and efficiency in that sector, thus contributing to the livelihood of a much greater number of people. In a world of limitless opportunities, and limited resources, where should I focus?

    At Innovonomics, we are privileged to have been given opportunities to explore such questions, in partnership with, and on behalf of, a number of entities. We are excited by the work, and are thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to shaping the thinking about how technology can be engaged more emphatically for wide-scale change and economic reimagination. Join us as we ask these critical questions, and help us find the answers – together. Our collective future depends on it.

  • ICT – Innovation Endpoint or Innovation Enabler

    Recently, Innovonomis was given the opportunity to present a thought-paper on the role played by ICTs in national innovative systems. We have removed the client-specific information from the note below, but are sharing it further as a continuation of the discussion of the critical role of ICTs in innovation worldwide.

    In your observations, are you seeing your government, employer, supplier or partner acting consistent with the view of ICT as an end-point or ICT as an innovation catalyst?

    As always, your thoughts are welcome.

    ICTs and Innovation:

    The centrality and criticality of technology and innovation to national economic development has been well documented by a number of scholars. In fact, Drucker had famously argued that any development that has taken place over the past few decades is largely attributable to technology development.

    One of the most profound changes that has happened within the last two decades has been the rapid rise in the emergence and adoption of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). They have changed the way we work, interact, communicate, entertain and even socialize. The effects of technology have been largely positive, on aggregate output as well as productivity, despite the concerns famously expressed by Solow, that ‘‘the computer age is everywhere but in the productivity statistics’’. What, specifically, have been the effects of this widespread adoption of technology globally, and what are the effects specifically on relatively underdeveloped parts of the world.

    Quite significant it seems. Researchers have established a strong link between technology innovation and economic development. Brynjolfsson and Yang, in a through review of existing literature of the topic, researched and catalogued studies that associate ICT with productivity growth. They refuted the productivity paradox, and showed that the mixed results obtained so far had largely been driven by data quality issues. More recently, a study of 120 nations between 1980 and 2006 by Christine Qiang has reported a strong link, and has estimated that each 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration results in an additional 1.3 percent to a high income country’s gross domestic product (and 1.21 percent for low to middle-income nations). There is a broad recognition that digital technologies have the power to create new economies of scale, and efficiencies, driving virtuous cycles of economic growth.

    In preparing for such growth, however countries are faced with two distinct potential areas for growth. They can either focus on harnessing these digital technologies to transform their existing productive sectors, driving efficiency and productive within these sectors and making these sectors more economically viable and internationally competitive. Another strategy has been to look at the new opportunities created by the emergence of information and communication technology industry and to seek to become a producer of information and communication technology products and services.

    It must be pointed out that these two strategies are not mutually exclusive, but we do see countries (or regions) seeking to strategically focus on one or the other. The development of India as a business processing outsourcing center is an example of an intentional focus on the second strategy; the adoption of technology by Iceland to improve the efficiency and productivity of its fishing industry is an example of the first strategy.

    How then should one think of the role of ICTs. When it comes to innovation systems, given the criticality of communication, collaboration and connection between the various players in an innovation system, it can be argued that the biggest value-add from ICTs is in the possibilities it creates for multiple players to interact and collaborate, in real-time, transcending the boundaries of time and space. This role of ICTs is critical because it is cross-cutting, working across sectoral boundaries; it allows a climate change lab in Lagos to collaborate on research with an agricultural innovation lab in Benin, while also working with an infrastructure development project in Kano. It enables universities and researchers spread geographically to collaborate in real-time. It can be argued therefore that the role that ICTs play in this scenario are more catalytic in nature, as their presence serves to magnify the potential impact and outcomes of all the players, if they had been working individually. It is this catalytic nature of ICT that distinguishes it from other inputs and technologies.

    The question then, however, is whether this broader, central and catalytic role of ICT in enabling innovation systems (and consequently innovation-driven-growth) is understood by all players in the innovation systems, including the governments, universities and private sector. If this is the case, we can expect to see a focus from government and universities to (1) emphasize ICT deployments as a strategic asset, (2) deploy ICT widely and broadly internally to see a broad level of collaboration emerging, (3) efforts to deploy digital technologies to connect various innovation system players like universities and research centers, and (4) efforts to integrate the utilization of technology across various disciplines and courses of study.

    Conversely, if the role of ICT is seen at best as a production sector and employment generator (i.e. treating technology as an end in itself), we are likely to see (1) the study of ICT in a silo-ed environment with computer science seen primarily as a subject in itself, (2) incentives for local creation of ICT rather than broad-scale deployment, (3) incentives to create a local ICT industry, focused on the creation of ICT products and services for an export market, and (4) limited penetration of ICT deployment and usage within non-ICT sectors of the economy.

    Similarly, if the private sector players within the ICT sector also take a narrow definition of the role of ICT, then it is likely that their efforts, besides the profit-maximizing strategy of seeking deployments within larger corporate customers, is likely to be one of supporting the development of many technology-creation ventures whose primary focus is to create and sell technology products and services to customers outside of the country.

    The remainder of the discussion paper had client-specific info so has been removed.