The MOOC environment and foundation skills

The question about the use of the MOOC environment to the teaching and learning of Foundation Skills is I believe simply one of equity and access. My central contention is that our students can’t afford for practitioners like us to be left out of the e eLearning loop.

Three factors have converged to lead me to that conclusion.

The recent definition of Foundation Skills combining foundation and employability skills; the rise of the Massively Open Online Course (or MOOC) itself and the unequalled opportunity Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Online Games (MMORPGs) offer teachers and learners in the development of foundation skills.

In the adult literacy and numeracy field, it could be considered controversial to contend that a MOOC environment could play a significant role in the development of Foundation Skills in Australian adult learners but I hope I can explore the issues with you and demonstrate that not exploring this path, further isolates already marginalized learners from current education discourse.

The National Foundation Skills Strategy For Adults defines Foundation Skills as “English language, literacy and numeracy-listening, speaking, writing, digital literacy and the use of mathematical ideas and employability skills such as collaboration, problem solving, self management, learning and information and communication technology (ICT) skills required for participation in modern workplaces and contemporary life. “

The 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey showed 40% of Australian workers have low levels of document literacy. This has changed little in the ten years since the last survey. This means that the Language, Literacy and Numeracy demands of modern workplaces in terms of reading and following instructions, communicating reliably by email or interpreting graphs and charts, for example,  are beyond the skill level of 46% of Australian adults. 68% of working age Australians have problem solving skills below level 3. The key finding for educators -and you can see this in my first slide- is that the majority of Australian adults with literacy levels at 1 or 2 are already employed. The same is true for the numeracy and problem solving domains.  For these individuals it is clear that stronger foundation skills would enhance their ability to keep up with technological changes in the workplace, retrain in other areas or change careers.

To come to my second main point, MOOCs. Massively Open Online Courses have been praised for achieving a democratizing and disruptive influence on traditional models of education in the higher education sphere. Sebastian Thrun, Salman Khan, Daphne Koller burst into the scene with irresistible vistas of free accessible and networked education delivered on a global level.  On my second slide you see what happened as disappointing course completion levels, and the limitations of early MOOCs with videoed lectures and static multiple choice quiz style assessment saw MOOCs move on the Gartner Hype Cycle from the Peak of Inflated Expectations to the Trough of Disillusionment. It is human nature to expect a one size fits all savior to perceived problems in education and then be disappointed when whatever the new buzzword or technology of the moment is actually not a panacea to all ills. But there is no doubt MOOCs are adapting and will continue to employ technological advances to reach their full potential and be restructured for different cohorts needs, expectations and previous learning experience.

In the US, higher education is a $400 billion dollar a year business with a more than $1 trillion debt burden owed currently by students- a truly shocking statistic. MOOCs have been sold “not only as an agent to democratize education” but as Rolin Moe a MOOC blogger said, “also as a necessity because the real crisis is about employment not learning.” A recent Stanford Social Innovation Review, Educating a New Generation of Entrepreneurial Leaders says educational institutions do not “adequately prepare students to lead, collaborate with others, and create positive change in the world.” Skills like “problem solving, leadership, teamwork, empathy, and social/emotional intelligence are being left out of the curricula”. The soft skills are the new skills gap.” These soft skills are now defined as much a part of the Foundation Skills as language, literacy and numeracy..

How do vocational MOOCs fit in? Vocational education is generally agreed to be about the acquisition of a range of specific technical skills. Coining the term VOOCs (vocational MOOCs), the UFI charitable trust in the UK describes them as  different from MOOCs in that they address different audiences, need different, more vocational pedagogies but the same in that they are the same, offering a fast, cheap, easy to use, exciting, scalable, low cost solution to vocational learning.” UFI’s first VOOC, Citizen’s Maths addresses “the lack of functional maths (what we would call numeracy in Australia) in the working and potential working population in our country.”

The VET sector is positioned well for incorporating MOOC style environments in delivery models for learners. Video technology suits the practical, hands on approach by VET trainers. Australia’s Open2Study could be described as a vocational MOOC like environment but is more accurately a collection of open online resources. Open2 Study’s Introduction to Nursing in Healthcare and EduOne’s, Introduction to Construction offer a try before you buy approach to careers in the health sector.

Vocational MOOCs can curate huge amounts of e learning materials and pinpoint specific issues and are able to take advantage of the flipped classroom approach where videos are pre-viewed by students and the ‘real’ learning achieved in interactive forums, practical lab like activities and assessment tasks. This pedagogy aligns well with the competency based training ethos of VET.

In 2015, NSW will see students able to study at any Registered Training Organisation (RTO) , in a ‘voucher –like’ system.  Funded by these students (to the maximum cost of the course only on completion), private sector purchase of customised skillsets and students themselves buying currency in licensing or other credential, the VET sector is gearing up in NSW as other states have already tried to do: spin some gold from the straw.  In Northern Sydney Institute, our students are now customers- the focus of the marketing and creative team- in the ‘digital space’: career starters, re-igniters or upgraders.

Today’s vocational education providers are a long way from the area’s local tech. These terms make a veteran literacy teacher cringe but I think it’s time for us to build a bridge. And get over it. Some learners want quick, in time training- either face-to-face or online. Others prefer a blend of face-to-face and online delivery and to take their time. We have the opportunity in blended delivery, to develop digital skills and more importantly technological confidence and an inquiry- learning style in our face-to-face students so they can exercise choice over delivery style if it exists and if choice isn’t available, an enhanced capacity to engage with online learning.  One size will not fit all.

As VET sector funding becomes resolutely tied to completion rates, vocationally oriented MOOCs have invested in language, literacy and numeracy online screening tools, realising that some cohorts may not have the educational background to successfully complete a vocational course. EduOne offers Quick Smart Online, TAFENSW R U ready.  These “bolted on” approaches to language, literacy and numeracy are limited. They tell us which students are likely to experience difficulty in applying LLN skills to the industry context in which they are studying but don’t seek to close the gap.  The traditional models have been prevocational courses, LLN VET teacher team teaching, extra face to face tutorials or the provision of teachers in Learning Centres to assist students. How much longer will we be able to fund these models?

We need to change and innovate with different models including online. As an integral part of a vocational MOOC, especially in abstract concept and technical language dense units of competency- ethics, industry regulatory frameworks- such resources could be viewed as many times as a student requires. Examples of these resources my team in Northern Sydney Institute are currently developing include step-by-step video demonstrations of massage techniques for Cert IV Massage students and contextualized numeracy video tutorials for Certificate III Landscape Construction students. Our next step is to embed these resources into the body of sequenced vocational online resources/courses.

As we have seen, the knowledge economy requires not just training in the technical aspects of a job, not merely a lock step technical skillset but a well rounded and skilled employee who can focus on the task at hand, collaborate with others on a project, negotiate with clients and customers, innovate with new technologies in an industry. If vocational MOOCs can achieve this through the development of interactive and engaging online learning resources, Foundation Skills must to be positioned to play a part. We risk further marginalization of ourselves and our students if we don’t get on board and use our expertise to ensure learning to learn, language, literacy and numeracy, technological accessibility, communication, collaboration and negotiation skills are part and parcel of every vocational MOOC.

T he final piece of this digital accessibility puzzle for Foundation Skill practitioners is Massively Multiplayer Open Online Games. In her book, Reality is broken, Jane McGonigal says, “we are creating a massive virtual silo of cognitive effort, emotional energy and collective attention, lavished on game worlds instead of on the real world”.

Game developers harness cooperation and collaboration, are continually innovative, get their players in and keep them in. This is what MOOCs could learn from them. And what vocational educators could learn from both these types of e learning is that MMORPGS can immerse learners in scenarios to teach the soft –an unfortunate misnomer as they absolutely criticalemployability behaviours that make up the other half of the Foundation Skills.

Players in MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing games) use content and information gleaned in the game to conquer their own goal in the game and level up. In vocational speak, this is demonstrating competency. The guilds and organisations in role playing games ‘apprentice’ new players, instruct them in the narrative of the game, its weapons, quests, rewards, levels and it does this through player interaction, trial and error, learning by active engagement.

Constance Steinkuehler- a leading US games expert and researcher –demonstrated in her cognitive ethnography studies that social knowledge construction takes up 86% of forum discussions on the famous MMORPG, World of Warcraft, for example. That’s players actively posting in forums to build and share knowledge. And yet, in every one of the 65 countries and economies that participated in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment in 2009, girls had significantly higher average reading scores than boys. In the online game world, populated overwhelmingly by boys -4 out of 5 World of Warcraft players are male- ( the reading levels required are at high and sophisticated levels.

Could this indicate that in the world of a game, as an avatar in a safe space, learners are sufficiently engaged to interact with the game’s activities at the very edge of their capacity? Games have us playing at the very edge of our skill level. Failure is not seen as negative, we play again and again until we are competent and move up to the next level.

The difference between school and life? writes one World of Warcraft forum contributor is, in school you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.

“Experience points (XP) allow characters to “level up” as they play. XP has synergies with competency-based assessment. Teachers can take advantage of the ‘big data’ available in online games and measure the persistence and conceptual understanding demonstrated by each player in the two big ticket items- technical/vocational skill and foundation skills.

In Sisine, a Massively, Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), players can take part in an offline ‘gym’ session practicing skills, the teacher can set up a scenario, invite players into a game and play the role of observer. Once logged in, learners enter a 3D graphical environment represented by avatars. They can choose between a first person or a third person view of the scene. The learners can control facial expressions; use verbal and non-verbal behaviour and can control the tone and volume of their voice. Artificial intelligence ‘bots’ also play a scripted role designed by the teacher. Learners can interact with the teacher to clarify or ask questions during the game. Learners can record sessions and a debriefing session is part of the process. Games like these offer enormous opportunities for vocational MOOCs in building real workplace skills.

Where I see the future of e learning and its applicability to the development of foundation skills as a part of life long learning is in the recognition of learning that is personalised, where learners develop their own personal learning environment and build a personal learning network. In the same way gamers use forums, meetups, hackathons and hangouts to construct knowledge about games, adult learners could select, apply and personalise learning resources for themselves to reach goals, or just-in-time training. Vocational MOOCs and MMOORPGs have the opportunity to offer not only courses but just in time skill sets that individual learners could pull in from industry specific and current open learning resources.

That’s a rosy picture but let’s not get stuck with the one size fits all crowd. The contention that vocational MOOCs can address all access and equity issues, and provide a platform of foundation skills, reaching those not engaged in education and training can be questioned.  Many Foundation skill practitioners teach students for whom access to technology is scarce, confidence low and in many cases, anxiety and isolation may be exacerbated by lengthy time alone accessing online training.

However, some serious games like, Superbetter, created by Jane McGonigal, aims to build resilience. Play online on PC or buy the app and play on tablet or phone, this game, was developed by McGonigal as a way to overcome her own brain injury sustained in an accident. Could games such as this assist the most marginalized of students, those with disabilities? The games SPARX and Depression Quest target young people suffering depression with promising

Whenever any of us try to learn something new we are on the Foundation Skill spectrum. Foundation Skills need to be built into all vocational MOOCs – from lowly Certificate IIIs to Advanced Diplomas and Degrees. Flipped classroom pedagogy will be the norm with video demonstrations; self paced tutorials, detailed step-by-step explanations of chunked content. Games will be incorporated into vocational MOOCs so that the power and engagement of MMORPGs and interest based learning can allow learners as avatar authors to develop, change, share and organise content with each other achieving XP and building collaboration, negotiation and creative skills required for innovative workforces..

In the end, it is connected learning, learning based on interest and need, personalised learning that offers us the best opportunities to advance vocational education online. Surely, for us, the challenge lies in designing vocational MOOCs that engage learners whose experience of traditional classes has often been negative. It is to design learning resources in blended teaching and learning models using the power of MMORPGs that will work for students with a lack of post secondary school learning experiences, those who are not yet engaged in education and training, people requiring language, literacy and numeracy, youth, students in ‘earn or learn’ programs, older workers updating qualifications and employers looking to upskill their workforce in Foundation Skills, and integrate them into vocational MOOCs. Learning resources which complement each other offer just in time solutions to just in time skill gaps and champion accessible life long learning for all.


References and Resources



Australian Industry Group


Steinkueler, Constance:  Creating Powerful Learning Environments Thru Games

PISA 2009: Assessment Framework: Key Competencies in Reading, Mathematics and Science

National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults, SCOTESE, 2012

No more excuses: an industry response to the language, literacy ands numeracy challenge.

When Words Fail, Australian Industry Group


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Author: Monique Brunello

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