May 10, 2017

(Not) only in America … Science, Technology and Society in Graz.

When I was thinking about this post, I thought of a course a friend from TU Graz told me about: Gesellschaftliche Aspekte der Informationstechnologie, short GADI (Social Perspectives in/on IT). It used to be a regular offline course offered at the department of computer science, but to reach a wider audience it was turned into a MOOC recently.

Screenshot from the GADI course, it shows a session overview and the first of two videos in this session.
Screenshot from session #3.


I am not only interested in the intersections between science, technology, and society but also curious about how these topics are enacted around me. This is why I chose to have a look at this specific course: It doesn't come from one of the ivy league universities, and it isn't on Coursera. It's being hosted on the first Austrian platform for Massive Open Online Courses, iMooX.  iMooX was founded in 2013 in Graz, by Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz and Technische Universität Graz. It is an open source platform, which not only means that all the courses are free to attend, but also that the content is being published under Creative Commons licenses. One cannot buy a full, for-credit version – but a certificate for attendance can be obtained for free. While this might seem like absolute openness at the first glance, it also means that one needs to officially be a student of TU Graz (in the case of the course I picked) to get actual credits. While the input is openly available for everyone, some exercises and being graded are exclusive to students who are taking the course as part of their regular studies at TU Graz. The platform itself then clearly is no meant to fully replace university courses, but rather as an approach to citizen science. In their about section, they explain that the main goal of iMooX lies in providing scientific knowledge to a broader public while keeping the barriers to access it as low as possible. This also leads to most of the courses provided being held in German.

For every one of the 10 weeks it's running, the GADI course is looking at a specific field or issue at the intersection of science, technology, and society. The course then offers two perspectives on the session topic in the form of short videos, each about 15 minutes long. This is supplemented by online materials,  background information about the “experts” talking, and further questions that are being posed for the students to consider. I think the method of using two speakers with conflictive positions on the issue at hand is really interesting, as it seems like the perfect way to facilitate a fruitful discussion – which they have a designated online forum for.

The course design as described above lends itself well for introducing an interesting public to new fields and I think the courses have the ability to provide an overview for anyone interested in the topics at hand. I can also imagine that having a platform in their own language might be helpful to many German speakers – not only in regards to accessibility for non-academics. But it also opens up a bunch of questions about MOOCs as a practice: The GADI course is running at the moment, and 9 out of 10 sessions are online already – but it has less than 500 participants. From my experience with online courses, that isn't enough for lively discussions and community to emerge. The forum, which would be a great opportunity for learners, is barely alive. So rather than evaluating the model, I want to close this post with a few questions: The platform itself is a collective of Universities in Graz, which compared to the well-known giants in the business of Massive Open Online Courses is a very modest enterprise.
  • What are the advantages a local community can offer?
  • Is bigger always better, or is there anything the global players cannot, or won't, provide?
  • What makes a good learning community, and how many people does a course need for this to work?
  • Is there one good answer to any of these questions, or does it always depend on the specific circumstances of topic and learner?

5 comments:

  1. First of all, I found your post really interesting. As an American studying tuition-free in Austria, I sometimes find it absurd that our program is in English. Although I have a certificate that says I could study in German, I think it would be very difficult to study in another language. Even though the internet is global, place and affiliation, as you seem to point out, matter to learners and language even more so. Although you point out the importance of Austrian's developing their own platform, I think it's disappointing that the Austrian system decided to copy the American model in not providing feedback or credit.

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    1. I really am a bit torn. Because on the one hand, the whole platform seems to aim at a wider public (as opposed to people aiming to earn degrees) - and they are doing fine with that. But it also makes it a place for consuming knowledge rather than the interactive experience it could be.

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  2. Speaking of "accessibility for non-academics": do you think it worked out? Was the language and the topics covered relevant and understandable?

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    1. I think the course provides a rather broad introduction that's already geared towards people not in the social sciences. So I think it should work for a broad range of people.

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  3. A bit late I know, but as I can now post comments, I didn't want to keep our thoughts for ourselves (even though we already talked about it).
    We were really impressed to read, that there is an actual MOOC in Austria, even though not every part of the course you described is open to everyone. So we quite liked to read your post about it and made us curious, because now we would like to know, if you know of any plans for developing the MOOC further and making it completely useable for everyone? (In the meantime we talked about this question already and we totally understand, that 1 single university lecturer can’t take care of the homework of maybe 200 people).

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