Monday, 26 August 2013

Meet the students - An interview with Ronny De Winter

Massive Open Online Courses hold the promise of worldwide access to high quality education for free. MOOCs also allow the highly experienced and highly qualified to stay on top of their game.
The Good MOOC interviews Belgian IT consultant +Ronny De Winter  to find out how.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

I am an IT consultant living in Belgium, working as an independent contractor. In most of my contracts I take the role of project leader for large projects. I am 50, married,  and have two children of 17 and 19.

  • Can you describe what led you to take MOOCs?

Knowledge workers and IT professionals in particular need to constantly upgrade their knowledge. Life-long-learning has been a mantra since the day I left school with an engineering degree. In my early career I worked as an employee for a large company that had its own education center with plenty of opportunities to follow courses during work hours or immediately after (5pm). They often worked together with the major education institutes in the neighborhood. I was able to complete a postgraduate degree ICT in 2000 via a consortium of large companies and a few major universities. Courses were given in real time starting at 5pm, often by video conference.
Company education centers still exist today, but they are more and more relying on self-study packages. As an independent contractor I didn’t have access anymore to these private ‘schools’ but I continued with self-study courses: reading books and playing with new software development technologies and occasionally following a short (expensive) course on a specific topic.
In the beginning of 2012 I discovered Coursera and followed the first online version of UC Berkeley CS 169.1x Engineering for Software as a Service (now on the edX platform). This was a very positive experience for me and the start of a MOOC addiction. Since then I follow Coursera courses regularly, often several in parallel (up to 5 when I am not working on a contract). Until today I successfully finished 16 courses, mainly on topics related to IT technology, MBA and innovation.

  • How do you compare your memories from university education to MOOCs?

Compared to my experience with university education, MOOCs offer several advantages but there are also some disadvantages. For the life-long-learner with a family and a job, MOOCs are a game changer outcompeting traditional universities. First of all MOOCs easily meet my schedule: I learn at times that suits me best, at my own place, and adapt the speed of learning to align the complexity of the material with my current knowledge and available time. Second MOOCs allow me to put together a study curriculum of largely diverse courses given by top institutes, which goes far beyond the flexibility that a traditional degree offers. And last but not least it is free, not that I don’t want to pay for good education but the very low threshold encourages me to follow courses which I would never take otherwise. MOOCs still cannot compete with regular universities on interactivity with other students and staff. The access to a faculty and ambience of a campus are not easily replaced by a virtual community.

  • Where do you see higher education going in the medium to long-term future?

The disruptive nature of MOOCs and open courses will have their influence on higher education. I see higher education evolving from traditional class teaching toward a blended form of learning. Especially the entry level courses, now given in large rooms for big audiences, will be replaced by MOOCs. For such large groups one can provide better, faster and more personal feedback via MOOC infrastructure than in a large auditorium with hundreds of students. Education staff can then spend more effort in coaching smaller groups of students on more advanced topics.
Universities combined with MOOCs will speed up further globalization of education. More opportunities arise for European students to study on American universities and vice versa. For developing countries that lack high-quality education institutes new possibilities open up for their students to participate in the best courses on earth. However adoption of the developing world will be slower than for the life-long-learning professionals, there is still a lot of work to do on bringing basic level education to large populations in these countries.
I don’t see MOOCs replacing traditional university degrees pretty soon, it will take a long time for industries to accept the MOOC qualifications and the campus faculties cannot easily be replaced by virtual ones.

  • There's a fair bit of MOOC skepticism out there... Do you have anything to say about that?

Completion rate of today’s MOOCs versus enrolled students is around 7%. This looks like a low figure but it isn’t. For a course with 100 000 students this means that 7 000 complete the course successfully, for a professor in a traditional university it takes years of teaching to get these results.
Due to the low entry barrier (zero cost, no time, no id) a lot of people enroll without the intention of completing the whole course, often just to browse as a first experience in a knowledge area they are not familiar with. The student prerequisites are not checked upfront. Literally everybody can enroll.
My personal completion rate is above 80%, close to traditional education I would say. I don’t think MOOCs should worry much about retention rates. The only issue I see is when MOOCs want to do team exercises; it is very difficult to form student teams when only 7% will complete the course.

  • Which are you favorite MOOCs so far and why?

My favorite MOOC platform is Coursera, especially those courses that combine sound theoretical concepts as background with practical exercises that make me feel how the material is used in practice. I prefer well-structured courses with a more or less fixed workload of about 8 hours per week so that I can plan my studying well in advance. The weekly cadence helps me to stay in touch for 6 to 12 weeks and move forward. I don’t need the certificates for my professional career, however I am always happy to receive one, it gives me the good feeling of “yes I did it!”. A few Coursera courses I completed that fit in this category: Machine Learning (Stanford University), Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations (Vanderbilt University), Interactive Programming in Python (Rice University), Operations Management (University of Pennsylvania), Software Engineering for SaaS (UC Berkeley).

  • Are there any courses you are looking for but don't exist yet?

More advanced courses will come when MOOCs further mature. It is difficult to find 1000 or up to 100000 students for a MOOC on an advanced topic, As such it is easier to start with introductory courses. Give it a few more years and the MOOCs will reach a far bigger audience, making it easier to also teach the advanced topics.
For example I have been waiting for a Coursera course about Android development for several months already.
What we also see happening is companies starting to deploy MOOCs. I wouldn't be surprised if Google appeared on the scene with an Android MOOC, or Apple with a MOOC on iOS.

  • What tips can you give to fellow students to get more out of MOOCs?

As for any kind of project being well prepared and have a worked out schedule is crucial to be successful with MOOCs. I investigate the course outline, prerequisites, syllabus and suggested workload per week carefully before enrolling. During the first week of the course I estimate, measure and evaluate effort versus return, decide after the first week if I want to continue and complete the course, I do not continue if I’m not fully engaged.
Don’t unroll in too many courses simultaneously, study few subjects deeply instead of many courses superficially. Most of the courses are repeated after the first enrollment, if your schedule does not allow it to take that additional course just wait for a next enrollment.
I make use of the course discussion forum to enhance my learning experience and get answers to questions but often this is a big time consumer.
First enrollments in new courses are sometimes a bit experimental, less structured, buggy, and delayed here and there. This can be fun and engaging, however if this annoys you or if you don’t want to waste time with it wait and participate in the second enrollment.

  • How can MOOC developers improve the learning experience and success rates for the students?

In the answer to the previous question I give several hints to MOOC developers: basically a very clear and not too complex structure: weekly cadence, fixed workload of about 8 hours per week, always have milestones on the same day of the week, ie deliver new lectures every week on Friday, deadline for homework always on Monday (giving people a long week including 2 weekends), a hard deadline one week after the first soft deadline with a penalty of 20% (allowing some slack but not too much). A clear syllabus with overview of all lectures, homeworks, quizzes, exams, ... with an indication of the needed effort for each (allows careful planning for busy people!). Providing a social community for students, not only during the course via the discussion forum, but also after the course has finished. Recruite TAs for a next enrollment of the course from the best students of the previous enrollment. Have a short quiz to check the prerequisites for a course, give advice on how to cover the prerequisites (ie via other MOOCs).  
A more exotic feature: during the course show an individual student's progress versus the full student population.

And perhaps the most challenging one: form virtual student teams and organise team exercises.

As my homework for the Coursera Pennsylvania Design course I did some exercises for the design of a course planner for people following several courses simultaneously. For the User Needs I interviewed several experienced Coursera students about their course planning needs and made the results available.

  • Can you elaborate on how you apply knowledge gained from MOOCs in your professional life?

The act of learning for me is at least as important as applying the learned knowledge in a specific professional setting. I have a broad project management profile, I know a little about a lot but not a lot about anything specific. Combining knowledge from different areas allows me to envision the important risks and opportunities in projects and take the right decisions, going into more details when needed. These learning skills also let me dive quickly into a new setting, a skill that is highly appreciated in today’s fast moving world.  It improves my adaptability and flexibility in everything I do.
Taking MOOCs in combination with a family and professional life asks for structure, discipline and perseverance, virtues a project manager needs to be successful and deliver results.

  • Any final words?

MOOCs are exploding and are changing education all over the world. Don’t wait to adopt it. Students, universities, teachers, embrace it, learn from other’s experiences.
MOOCs are very young and still in their infancy, the best is yet to come!

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