Micro-education is the future

I have a commentary published in the Norwegian academic newspaper Khrono today with the title “Micro-education is the future”. The reason I ended up writing the piece was because of my frustration with working “against” the Norwegian system when it comes exploring new educational strategies.

As I have written about here on the blog before, I have tested a number of different educational methods and formats over the last years, including Music Moves, Carpentry-style workshops, and, of course, our joint master’s programme Music, Communication & Technology. With all of these, I have experienced difficulties getting them registered in our course system (Felles studentsystem (FS)). For the master’s programme, we have solved this by splitting up courses on the two universities involved. This makes it possible to run the programme, but it creates some unfortunate side-effects, such that it is difficult to have non-programme students sign up for the courses. I am not going to write more about these issues here today, as I am quite confident that we are going to find “in-house” solutions to these problems.

For Music Moves and the workshops, however, we have not been able to find proper workarounds. The end result is that people do not get credits for following these courses. Hopefully, they take the courses because they want to learn, and not because they need credits. But I see that other universities are able to provide credits for MOOCs and workshops, so why should we not be able to do this at the University of Oslo?

Since there are no credits awarded to the students, there are no money paid out to the university for the courses. In Norway we have a model in which a part of a university’s funding is based on the number of credits “produced” every year. We have the same reward system for “research points”, which researchers care a lot about. Much less attention is given to study points, but there is a lot more money paid out in this category. Hence getting students through courses is a big incentive for the institutions.

Since no money comes in from these courses, there is little interest in spending time on such things from an institutional perspective. We have a quite elaborate way of counting our working hours, at least in the part of the position that is set aside for teaching. I have been head of department myself, so I know that these things matter when you are talking to people about what they should spend their (limited) working ours on. Considering whether you should teach a course for-credits versus a not-for-credits MOOC or workshop, is an easy question for any head of department. Since I am back in the teacher role myself, the choice is not so obvious. My main motivation for teaching is not to generate study points, but to disseminate knowledge and start academic discussions. Here I see that the knowledge-per-person ratio is much higher with a MOOC attracting, say, 1000 people than a course with 30 students.

As I write in the Khrono commentary, we need to think anew about how we incentivize higher education. In Norway, we currently have a committee (Ekspertutvalg for etterog videreutdanning) working on how to improve solutions for life-long learning. MOOCs and Carpentry-style workshops are, in my opinion, an obvious solution for how people outside of universities can learn new things. There are a couple of ways to improve the system:

  1. We need to open for awarding credits for MOOCs and workshops, of course given that they follow proper university education guidelines. For a MOOC with a workload of around 40 hours, this could typically be 1 ECTS, while for shorter workshops it could be 0.1-0.2 ECTS. I know that most study officers would probably say that such credit values are too small to handle. And that is exactly my point. Our current system is set up for handling full study programmes, and semester-long courses, most of which are 10 ECTS. We need to revise the system so that it is practically possible to handle smaller credit points.
  2. Our system is currently set up so that you need to have study rights at the University of Oslo. It is possible to apply for getting access to individual courses, but this is a time-consuming process that was made for people following semester-long courses. For MOOCs and workshops with lots of participants it is not possible (neither for the university nor for the learners) to go through the process the way it works today. We need a way of securing student “mobility” in the digital age. This is not something we can solve in Norway alone, it needs to be an international initiative.

Hopefully, the committee will address some of these issues. As for developing an international solution, I hope the European Commission or the European University Association can push for a change.

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.