01 October 2012

MOOCs: the next Big Thing? or What about the teachers?

Ahh, yes … the next Big Thing.

Let’s have a definition first. According to Wikipedia (today at least), a MOOC – a massive open online course – is “a type of online course aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the web”, a recent development in the area of distance education, and a progression of the kind of open education ideals suggested by open educational resources. Typically, such courses are non-award courses, although some institutions are starting to offer credit for such courses and to certify those who complete them, if participants successfully complete some form of associated assessment.

So, what does a MOOC look like?

The first MOOCs were offered by enthusiasts very familiar with web tools and excited about the possibilities they open up for wide-scale participation and collaboration. Notions of constructivist learning were strong drivers for these early MOOCers. In 2005, George Siemens listed these:
  1. Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions. 
  2. Learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources. 
  3. Learning may reside in non-human appliances. 
  4. Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. 
  5. Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning. 
  6. Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill. 
  7. Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities. 
  8. Decision making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.
More recently a number of “MOOC-like projects” have developed – Coursera, Udacity, and edX. These are driven in part, I suspect, by American notions of benevolence (or possibly American notions of entrepreneurship if we are to accept Greg Graham's recent comments in the Chronicle of Higher Education*). These “MOOC-like” courses rely less on constructivist principles, and more on a belief that it’s a good thing to give the poverty-stricken masses access to the vast bodies of knowledge available to the well-educated. They tend to be associated with respectable US universities. In the case of the first two, this is because the founders are or were employed by Stanford University, and the last because it has grown out of MIT’s open courseware project and now involves Harvard University.

Characteristics of MOOCs:
  1. Courses have many, many participants, only a small proportion of whom will be active contributors or even complete the course.
  2. MOOCs of all flavours provide participants with access to content selected and arranged into coherent topics by course designers who may or may not be involved in the delivery of the course.
  3. Some MOOCs, particularly those designed on constructivist principles, include opportunities for conversation, collaboration, and communication between participants. There may be some light facilitation or moderation, but this is not an essential element of the design of the course.
  4. Some MOOCs offer opportunities for assessment and some do not.
  5. MOOCs designed with a constructivist model in mind rely on peer review and group collaboration to leverage learning (rather than formative and summative feedback from a teacher).
  6. MOOCs designed with a more traditional mode of learning in mind replace teacher feedback with automated “pre-made” feedback provided via automatically marked, objective, online quizzes and examinations.
  7. And finally … and for me, this is the defining characteristic of a MOOC:
    While learning may occur in MOOCs (and apart from those that offer some form of assessment, the only people who will be able to attest to this are those who participate), teaching is practically non-existent.
By teaching, I mean proper, old-fashioned interaction between lecturer and student, where the lecturer gives the student information (tells, models, or shows course-related content) and goes on to provide learning experiences, monitor student learning, provide formative feedback, and judge how well students have achieved the learning outcomes for the course as a result of participating in structured learning activities. This sort of old-fashioned teaching may happen in a face-to-face context, but it could happen equally well in an online environment. Wherever it happens, the teacher is essential; it is the teacher who guides, nudges, demonstrates, models, tailors the learning experience to suit the students in this particular class, and provides personalised formative feedback just in time to ensure that students are provided with the bespoke designed experiences that they need to achieve course learning outcomes. Just as each class is distinctive, a good teacher will ensure that each version of the course is customized to suit that unique class. Each class will need something slightly different; a good teacher understands and provides that.

Siemens, one of the earliest MOOC authors, tells us that MOOCs based on a constructivist pedagogy draw on the following principles:
  • Aggregation: A MOOC provides a starting point for a massive amount of content to be produced in different places online, which is later aggregated as a newsletter or a web page accessible to participants on a regular basis.
  • Remixing: The second principle is remixing, that is, associating materials created within the course with each other and with materials elsewhere.
  • Re-purposing: Aggregated and remixed materials are re-purposed to suit the goals of each participant.
  • Feeding forward: This material is shared with other participants and the rest of the world.
Participants construct new knowledge by building on and discussing the content initially presented in the course. This new knowledge is then in turn built on and discussed and woven into the fabric of human wisdom.

These are all very good things, and teachers in traditional institutions can learn a great deal from George’s take on constructivist pedagogies – but if any teaching occurs in George’s MOOCs, it is probably peer-to-peer.

In the end, for me, MOOCs are a great idea, just as libraries are a great idea. They provide opportunities for people to read and talk about ideas new to them, to learn about any number of things. They do not threaten traditional universities, even those that offer an online experience, because the thing that defines an educational institution – even a research-intensive university like my own – is teaching.


* 1 October 2012, Greg Graham, "How the embrace of MOOCs could hurt middle America", Chronicle of Higher Education, found at http://chronicle.com/article/A-Pioneer-in-Online-Education/134654/ if you are a subscriber.

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