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A short interview with WYSTC 2014 speaker Brian Mulligan

05 September 2014
5 Sep 2014 -

Find out more about Brian Mulligan ahead of his ‘Disruptive innovation in Higher Education: What might the future of learning look like?’ session at WYSTC 2014 on Wednesday, 24 September

Q1: You started your career in mathematics and information technology within engineering. What was it that led you to getting involved in online learning?


It wasn’t a direct route. I was teaching students about how to carry out engineering work more efficiently using IT when it occurred to me that I should be practising what I preached and trying to make learning more efficient using IT. That was in the eighties and the technologies were either very expensive or not very good so I did not act on that thought. However, to be honest, about 10 years later I was getting a little bored with my teaching and the technologies were becoming more reasonably priced and effective. At this point nobody was really active in this in higher education in Ireland so I made an explicit decision to move in that direction.

Q2: What has been the most significant development in online distance learning at IT Sligo over the last 10 years?

IT Sligo made rapid progress in online learning by taking a simple approach, predominantly live online teaching, that made it very easy for existing lecturers to move online. Despite scepticism by many in learning technology who advocated more sophisticated approaches, this approach worked and our online learning grew rapidly. It was gratifying to see the strategy of simplicity vindicated in the popularity of MOOCs, most of which used the simple approach of short recorded videos with regular quizzes and peer assessment.

We have tested this approach successfully in our own MOOC and this will most likely underpin future developments both in scaling up numbers and to be ready for oncoming competition on price.

Q3: What other advancements/innovations in e-learning have caught your attention in recent years – and why?

In the longer term, I think data analytics (Big Data) and adaptive learning will be important. But for the moment building courseware that adapts to suit the specific learner is really only for those with deep pockets and also involves significant risk. So we’ll just keep watching that for the moment. I look forward to reasonably priced tools and content emerging from these areas in time. The more immediately applicable innovations are MOOCs and open learning in general. These will be very significant but the importance of open learning is strongly connected with another lesser known disruptive innovation; Competency Based Education. Learners and employers place great value on accreditation which requires assessment.

In CBE it does not matter how you learn, just that you can formally demonstrate competence. CBE, by separating the learning and the assessment process, will unleash huge competition and innovation in the former. People will be able to make better use of innovations such as MOOCs when they can separately submit themselves for assessment and gain respected qualifications. Watch this space!

Q4: Has e-learning opened-up education for those that cannot afford traditional education or are unable to access classrooms and lecture halls – or is the profile of student generally the same as those investing in traditional education?

To date the big difference has been about access. It has opened up education for working adults for whom it was previously impractical to attend courses. In general, fees have been high although not having to move away or travel has reduced costs somewhat, but most online courses are still quite expensive. However, that may be just about to change. Free courses such as MOOCs have drawn attention to the fact that if you scale up, unit costs can be reduced.

I think we are now moving into a new phase of cost competition and those excluded because of fees will soon have more options available to them. It could be said that e-learning has had only a small impact on traditional campus based education. There is huge potential for improvement in both quality of learning and reduction of costs but the collegiate nature of higher education and lack of real competition in most countries makes it very slow to change.

Q5: What impact do you think Big Data could have on online learning?

They used to say that Artificial Intelligence is the technology of the future and always will be. On the face of it Big Data should be very useful. Imagine being able to mine all the data collected on your university’s learning management system and see what items were working and what were not. This type of feature has been available in multiple choice quiz systems for quite a while but very few seem to go to the trouble of using it. We tend to fly by the seat of our pants. It has the potential to be very useful but unless it becomes available at reasonable cost and is very easy to use, I’m not sure if many people will use it. I think this may be a “slow burner”.

Q6: In your experience, are qualifications gained through MOOCs and online learning held in the same regard by educators and employers as traditional educational qualifications?

A: In relation to employers, in our experience the answer is probably “Yes”. Perhaps that is because we do a lot of technical education in engineering and science and employers actually pay a lot to put their employees on our courses. However, it might be a qualified “Yes”, as they do not have many other options available to them. I suspect that the students themselves may need more convincing before they come on courses.

Again, most don’t have many options available to them, but they tend to be very satisfied with the standards once they have completed. Educators on the other hand in general have a low opinion of online education. This is generally because they are not familiar with the many techniques available online, but it must be said that the underlying threat to their livelihood (perceived or real) and the requirement for them to learn new skills does seem to effect their objectivity.

Q7: In your experience, are universities and other education providers doing a good job of taking on the positive tech and behavioural developments that e-learning brings? Who, in your view, is leading the way?

I’m afraid that my answer to that would have to be “No”. I suspect that it is the collegiate nature of public higher education institutions, where agreement to changes is generally sought from all parties involved, that makes it very slow to react to the potential of learning technologies. Fear may be an issue as well. The best are probably in the US where there is arguably more competition between institutions, but even there change is difficult. Many believe that it is some second tier institutions that are making the best progress as they have most to lose if serious competition emerges. Of particular note is Western Governor’s University and Southern New Hampshire University, a small college that has grown extremely rapidly since adopting an online competency based approach.

It is suggested that online learning is not really relevant to the top tier universities who need the expensive residential experience to remain as elite institutions. However, you must admire the likes of Georgia Tech who recently created a MOOC based masters for a sixth of the price of a residential equivalent, or MIT who have been publishing free online materials for many years. As part of the edX MOOC consortium MIT are working with Google to create a free MOOC platform for all institutions and are considering making their first year courses free online. This is the behaviour of an institution that is not afraid of technology or change and actively seeks to improve both the quality of and access to higher education.

Q8: There are a plethora of courses for students to choose from – what advice would you give to help a student choose the right course/product?

I’m almost afraid to say that accreditation is more important than quality. It is very important that the qualification is recognised by employers and other educators if you wish to continue your studies further. It is essential that you investigate the provider and find out, independently from statements on their own site, what body accredits the institution or the course from the institution. It is then also important to check out that accrediting agency as some have better reputations than others. It is probably fair to say that this is easier to do in Europe than in the US, as accreditation is mostly in the hands of government agencies. This also explains why people have a marked preference for taking online courses from institutions in their own region as they have more confidence in the reputation of the institutions.

Q9: We are looking forward to seeing you at WYSTC in Dublin. Who and what are you looking forward to seeing at WYSTC Dublin?

I’m particularly interested in the workshop on mobile technology by Greg Richards. Increasingly people are accessing the web on mobile devices as opposed to desktop devices ,like many of my vintage. I am interested in how students can keep up their studies as they travel the world and this is likely to happen largely through mobile devices. I want to learn about the characteristics of these young people and the emerging services that will enable them to access learning as they travel.

Q10: What do you never travel without?

I’d love to have an interesting answer to that question but if truth be told it would be my passport and/or cash card or possibly my travel checklist. I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t do without my Chromebook or some way to always be connected. Sad, isn’t it?

Don’t miss Brian’s session at 14.00 on Wednesday, 24 September in the Liffey Meeting Room 3, 1st floor of the Convention Centre Dublin. For more information on the seminar click here.