Month: March 2013

MOOCs and the unmotivated

When we discuss MOOCs’ potential for scaling up public officials’ learning opportunities in developing countries, many concerns naturally arise. Will they have access to a good internet connection? Will they have a computer or tablet? These are important questions, and I look forward to learning the answers. I’m encouraged that so many people from developing countries are participating in MOOCs; enterprising faculty are even using MOOC resources within schools and universities as a means to strengthen course quality.

Folks with many years of experience teaching in face-to-face and small, facilitated online courses worry that unmotivated officials will fare poorly in MOOCs, since they have less support and structure. I share their concern to a degree. MOOCs certainly demand a higher degree of learner-directedness (and a degree of familiarity with the technology and tools). But, motivation? Do MOOCs require more motivation to learn? Will an unmotivated participant learn much in a face-to-face short course or a small, facilitated online course? I am skeptical.

Keith Devlin, a Stanford math professor, currently offering his second MOOC recently noted that a number of the students in his MOOC are frustrated that his course isn’t teaching them:

many forum posters  seem to view education as something done to them, by other people who are in control. This is completely wrong, and is the opposite of what you will find in a good university.  ”To learn” is an active verb. The focus should be creating an environment where the student can learn, wants to learn, and can obtain the support required to do so. There is no other way, and anyone who claims to do anything more than help you to learn is trying to extract money from you.

Professor Devlin’s suggests the best any course can do is to create an opportunity to learn. And, at least for mathematical concepts, no course can succeed in educating the passive, unmotivated student. I suspect this holds true for policymakers and public officials in developing countries.



What I Talk about When I Talk about Capacity Building

What people mean when they say “capacity building” varies greatly – and in important ways. So, and with apologies to Haruki Murakami, I want to clarify What I Talk about When I Talk about Capacity Building. I think of capacity building as [defn] the planned development of knowledge and skills and other capabilities through provision of targeted learning opportunities to individuals.

I have in mind a range of activities that provide structured learning opportunities for individuals and groups. Among other things, this includes training courses and series of structured topical exchanges among would-be learners with access to valuable knowledge resources.

My own work focuses on helping developing country public officials in building the skills they need; hence, when I talk about capacity building I am thinking specifically about the kinds of activities that will work for learners in this context.

Many people link capacity building implicitly to a reform process (e.g. implementing a new funding system for hospitals). Hence, when they assess whether capacity building is “working” these people would look at what is going on with the reform process. If reform implementation is stalled, they might suspect that capacity building activities were poor or implemented in a way that constrained reform progress. To assess the ultimate effectiveness of capacity building activities, they would scrutinize reform results.

That is not my definition. I recognize that provision of good quality and timely learning opportunities to individuals involved with reforms can be very helpful. However, I am uncomfortable linking capacity building to reforms. There are many opportunities to contribute to valuable development and social goals by providing learning opportunities to public officials in instances where no reform is envisaged. Even where a reform is taking place, the chain of influences that links learning support provided to reform results is typically long and complex; frequently, the complexity of this relationship makes it impossible to meaningfully assess capacity building activities’ effectiveness by scrutinizing  their contribution to reform results.

Hence, I use the phrase capacity building activities to refer to learning and skill-building support for people irrespective of whether there is a reform happening (or hoped-for). I see capacity building activities as any learning opportunity that supports public officials in building the skills or accessing the knowledge they need to do their jobs better. Using this framing, capacity building activities’ effectiveness would be assessed by examining the degree to which they helped public officials to do their jobs better.