Sunday, May 6, 2012

What’s the “Problem” with MOOCs?

In case the quotes didn’t clue you in, this post doesn’t argue against massive open online courses (MOOCs) such as the ones offered by Udacity, Coursera, and edX.  I think they are very worthy ventures and will serve to progress our system of higher education. I do however agree with some criticisms of these courses, and that there is room for much more progress.  I propose an alternative model for such massive open online learning experiences, or MOOLEs, that focuses on solving “problems,” but first, here’s a sampling of some of the criticisms of MOOCs.

Criticisms of MOOCs

Khan Academy 

The organization is unclear and it lacks sufficient learner support.

The videos aren’t informed by research and theory on how people learn, and this may diminish the effectiveness of his videos.[snip].

Also the videos are still basically non-interactive, passively absorbed lectures. [snip].

Udacity and Coursera courses

These courses are clearly putting the traditional college course model online, and the problems are the same as with traditional college courses.  They are a big step above opencourseware sites, which just have notes or long recordings of class lectures online with no guidance or learning support, but as with traditional college courses, there is often a lack of active learning or effective instructional design, and a lack of interactivity or scaffolding of the learning experience for beginners.  [snip]


But the vast majority of MOOCs, just like the vast majority of regular college courses, are completely self-designed by faculty, who are most often not trained in effective instructional design or teaching. [snip]

Are MOOCs a Horseless Carriage?

[snip].  The question is, are MOOCs an example of imposing an existing worldview (traditional instruction, courses, and instructors) on a new medium for learning?  Is it necessary for all the ‘students’ in a MOOC to be learning the same topic at the same time (synchronous learning)?  That appears to be a common defining characteristic of all MOOCs.  [snip]


Imagine a scenario sometime in the future where an employer wants to hire someone.  Maybe in the future, instead of just asking someone if they have a degree or certification in something, they will ask if someone is a member of some learning community or shares some relevant experience.  They might ask questions similar to what one might ask an MMORPG player (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), like what ‘level’ one is at or about one’s accomplishments.


The question some people ask is, are MOOCs and similar ventures the future of education?  Are they going to replace degrees and courses?  Are instructors going to lose their jobs?  To me that’s like asking if horseless carriages are going to replace horses.  Maybe they will replace degrees one day, but if they do, I don’t think they’ll still be referred to as MOOCs, and perhaps not even as “courses,” just as we no longer refer to cars as horseless carriages.  [snip]


MOOC purists would argue that the new courses from Udacity, Coursera, and edX are indeed in the same vein as traditional modes of higher education, and not what true MOOCs are about.  The argument is that MOOCs should be about connecting learners with one another and with the content.  It is the connections that matter.  This philosophy has been variously termed or framed in terms of actor-network theory, networked learning, and connectivism.  The point of this post is not to criticize those theories or ideas, but sometimes there does not appear to be a logical connection to learning and understanding.  ”Connecting” learners to one another or exposing them to content may often not be sufficient to magically cause learning to happen or to cause significant changes in beliefs and practice.  [snip].

Situated learning concerns how all learning happens in context.  Students need a reason to learn, and we shouldn’t just assume they will be able to learn something for its own sake. [snip].

Situated learning also helps us better understand how to focus on the learning rather than the content for its own sake, because often the reason we take the time to learn something is to solve some problem we have.  One of the most popular applications of situated learning research to education is called problem-based learning (PBL).  [snip].

In these kind of problem-based learning situations we may or may not even be talking about a course structure at all, but more broadly any real-world learning experience – MOOLEs (massive open online learning experience) instead of MOOCs.  I’m not saying that MOOCs are not MOOLEs though.

MOOLE = open education + problem-based learning

Maybe a MOOLE might be considered an example of problem-based learning, but for especially widespread and persistent problems, and for which open, online resources and communities can be of help.  It is important that people in a MOOLE have a purpose.  The goal of participating in the MOOLE is changing and improving practice in the real world.  They still have the learning communities and personal learning networks that exist in MOOCs.  MOOLEs might be more self-directed sometimes, or community-scaffolded and driven, depending on the context and problems being addressed.


Why Linux and Wikipedia are not MOOLEs, maybe

I hate introducing new labels or acronyms.  They often introduce arbitrary or unnecessary divisions and separations, where instead connections should be explored.  But this is just a thought experiment.  [snip].

The Linux development community and the community of Wikipedia contributors would seem to qualify as MOOLEs – massive, open, online learning experiences. Is there anything that would preclude them from being considered so?  Well, one issue is that these communities focus on doing and not learning. [snip].


MOOLEness Rubric, Checklist

As I mentioned, I am hesitant to introduce new terms or acronyms as they are are often used to exclude and separate things. The purpose here is really not to say what is and isn’t qualified to be labeled a MOOLE.  [snip].

Similarly, this discussion of MOOLEs is more concerned with identifying the qualities of effective lifelong learning experiences, that may happen to be facilitated by open and online resources and communities.

A rubric or checklist might help identify some things to notice.  That is beyond the scope of this post, but a few potential items might include:

Is there a syllabus, instructor, etc.?  You are definitely looking at a course, and it may be a MOOC. But whether it is a learning and learner-centered experience might be a separate matter.

Is there are *required* textbook you have to buy?  That kind of hurts the openness of the learning environment if some cannot purchase the book ... .

Does the learning end?  Is that ending arbitrary?

Are beginners and new learners/members being scaffolded and supported?  Is there a culture of respect for novices?

Are there mechanisms for helping one another see what each other is learning or not understanding?


How is learning being facilitated? [snip].

But essentially the point is that some MOOCs and college courses are going to continue to have problems if people create them without learning more about how people learn and how to design effective learning experiences.  I proposed creating an open course on the topic of learning and educational multimedia design a couple years ago in this chapter, but haven’t had the opportunity.


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