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Common Misperceptions of MOOCs and Open Learning

Posted By Administrator , Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

February 20th, 2013

We read in a New York Times lead editorial -- -- that online learning does not work very well. Or we read or hear, from numerous sources, that MOOCs (as one form of online learning) are either the wave of the future or, maybe, the end of college as we know it. Confusion reigns. How should we think about the accelerated growth in online learning opportunities and MOOCs -- Massive Open Online Courses?

A widely-held but false assumption about education can perhaps help explain the confusion: many people seem to believe that, because we have had essentially one dominant model for formal learning (with slight variations) for centuries, we will similarly continue with a new, single, dominant model of learning once the dust settles. MOOCs come along, draw massive numbers, receive significant venture capital, are associated with a number of elite universities, and commentators make it seem this is the next silver bullet, the next singular model of learning. Part of the near hysteria about MOOCs may be grounded in either/or thinking: we either have the traditional classroom model of today or we all do MOOCs. We may be laboring under the false assumption that learning can happen only one way; no matter what direction we go in with formal learning, we will have just one dominant model.

As you may remember from a blog I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I am taking a MOOC course, offered by Coursera and Johns Hopkins University called Introduction to the U. S. Food System. We are in the fourth week of the course. By taking the course and doing the required work, I have learned much about the MOOC experience and how it might evolve.

MOOCs are showing us something significant but unless we understand what it is they are showing us, attempts to replicate MOOCs will falter. Creating a MOOC is not easy. Nor is it easy to understand the general idea of "open learning,” the hallmark of MOOCs. In fact, the only way to understand MOOCs and much of what is going on in the general learning landscape today is by first understanding "open learning.”

Open learning is generally associated with the Web and in particular with the phase of the Web (roughly since 2004) called "the social Web.” The social Web is social in more than one way: first, the popular interpretation is of "social” as people being able to hook up and post and make friends and "like” and so on. But there is a technical sense of the "social Web” as well: data and functionality "socializing” with each other. On many Web sites, you’ll see the icons for Twitter and Facebook and a few other icons. You can link to Facebook from the Web site you are on without having to actually go to Facebook. This inter-linking of applications is the second social aspect of the social Web.

You can "be” one place but use data from another "place” on the Web, or use functionality from another place. The term "Web” is appropriate because both people and applications can connect in many ways not possible before the Web.

Another way to understand the social Web and open learning is that people now have almost infinite opportunities to interact with other people and with knowledge sources. The social Web set the stage for "open learning.”

Open learning is a profound concept and phenomenon. Though the phrase sounds simple, the implications are so complex it takes a while to understand.

The one implication I am concerned with regarding MOOCs is just this: with open learning, all connected humans have multiple sources of learning. This is true right now. But because most learners are not yet adjusted to guiding their own learning, they cannot yet take advantage of the riches of open learning. To be your own learner/researcher is not easy, nor are students in formal learning situations usually taught to be their own researchers. They know one way to learn in most cases and so do most academics. This legacy "one-way” mindset limits awareness of the multiple ways that learning can occur and how new learning designs can be varied and enticing.

The notion that learning depends on passive reception of formed knowledge is so deep in our cultural consciousness that the idea of open learning must seem like a chimera – a vision with no substance.

The MOOC comes along, is a familiar lecture and quiz model, but is open to all, and thousands leap at the chance to take a MOOC course. MOOCs are nowhere near as good as those thousands think, nor are they as bad as commentators say. We cannot miss the lesson of the MOOC or we will have missed the chance to further develop a major vector of learning.

MOOCs are "bad” in these ways (I am basing my analysis on my one MOOC course experience and on the dozens of articles I’ve read about MOOCs):

  • They are the standard passive learning model of lecture and quiz.
  • Students have only online contact with each other
  • The "massive” numbers of students means there is little chance of developing even the usual online friendships.
  • Most students do not complete MOOCs.
  • And, they do not engage learning as researchers would advise: MOOCs seem to ignore the discoveries from research into how humans learn best.

These are the obvious negatives about MOOCs. But I have found some very positive aspects of the MOOC I am enrolled in as well:

  • Though the course I am taking is in fact lecture-based, the lecturers are very good. They "deliver their content” (pardon this antiquated and anachronistic phrase) very well. The visuals are helpful. The technology is smooth and transparent; the videos have good production values. As an advanced learner, I am learning.
  • The video lectures are only around 20 minutes long, indicating that Coursera and Johns Hopkins are aware of the limits of attention span for online lecture. One lecture may be broken into 2 or 3 coherent segments. The short time for lectures may also reflect Coursera’s awareness of students having to catch a lecture between other tasks of life.
  • The lectures have interspersed quizzes so we students cannot just run the lectures while we do something else and get credit for "watching” the lecture.
  • The associated reading materials are varied and engaging; they were chosen wisely. I am reassured that a lot of work has gone into course preparation. The materials are not textbooks, but PDFs or Websites related to the course subject.
  • The quizzes do test memory but they also point to what the lecturers believe are important pieces of knowledge to understand. We students can take the quizzes three times so we can learn from the quizzes. Using quizzes in this way is a step up from the usual "one and done” model.
  • The forums are fairly active. Different people start topics that relate to each week’s general topic. Students can see which topics are most popular and then go to that topic, so in effect there is a moving conversation from week to week, organized around the topic of the week.
  • When students comment about a problem, the course staff responds quickly and appropriately. The negative is that technology problems did crop up, but the positive is that they were attended to almost immediately.
  • The knowledge presented in the course is complex, no holds-barred, and wonderfully assembled with charts and graphs and visuals to help with understanding.

In other words, I’ve been lucky to be in a well-organized MOOC, well run, with excellent material and lecturers. I have been able to get a taste of the Johns Hopkins experience.

In general, the technology in this MOOC is more sophisticated than I expected. It is also easier to use than I expected. I am using broad band so I cannot judge how my course would have deployed over a modem; however, I did have a chance to indicate what connectivity I had as I registered, so I can only assume an adjustment was made so that those with slower connections were able to receive the course satisfactorily.

But MOOCs obviously do not, alone, represent the formal education of the future. For young learners, this course could only be an appetizer to encourage enrollment in a more active-learning course.

We cannot judge MOOCs based on the false assumption of singularity I mentioned at the beginning of the article. They don’t have to be the wave of the future to be important. MOOCs, however, may well be one more key part of the new panorama of multiple learning options. MOOCs have proven that technology can support a learning opportunity for tens of thousands of people. This is no small achievement.

MOOCs can be modified over time to make it easier to include some social pedagogy or experiential learning, and of course the MOOC organizers can offer eportfolio technology to transfer more of the authority and activity in the course to the students. MOOCs, as they are now structured, seem thin and retro in learning design. Still, they demonstrate at the very least how powerful our media are now. They have pushed out the envelope in an important way, opening new territory for learning interaction. That they are not close to perfect yet is no reason to dismiss them.

Thanks to Stephen Downes, Bryan Alexander, Dave Cormier and George Siemans for their pioneering work with MOOCs just a few years ago.

As the cited article indicates, the open education movement was given a big boost by the Kumar and Iiyoshi book on Opening Up Education in 2008, published by MIT Press, in which I had a chapter. The book citation: Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge, eds. Toru Iiyoshi and M. S. Vijay Kumar, MIT Press, 2008.

The idea in my chapter in Opening Up Education was about the problems of "abundance.” MOOCs are now part of the abundance I wrote about. The chapter, written with M. S. Vijay Kumar and Neeru Paharia, is "A Harvest Too Large? A Framework for Educational Abundance.” This chapter anticipated the overwhelming abundance we now struggle with.

Our problem with abundance has a number of facets:

  • Learning opportunities are growing most rapidly in virtual spaces on the Web. We have yet to fully understand how best to use these virtual spaces. It is hard to develop trust with people we cannot touch and can only hear and see through media.
  • Trust, to some extent, depends on familiarity. We have yet to settle on the usual human "rules” for interaction in virtual spaces; we know these "rules” by what feels right to us. It is hard to know what feels right when the nature of the spaces continues to change.
  • We need to figure out how the various new learning models fit together. Can a curriculum be made up of combinations of learning experiences? Of course it can – but can those combinations include some that are not created by one institution? What about learning experiences not monitored by faculty? Can we develop skills and guidelines to assess learning based on evidence and not based on monitoring?

Can we learn to be comfortable with open learning abundance? Can higher education move away from its legacy of lock-step education and begin to offer self-paced learning and other open learning options on the way to a credential? Can colleges and universities learn to assess learning based on evidence instead of close personal monitoring? MOOCs are shaking the establishment at the moment and will probably continue to do so. They are not the one single indication of where education is heading, but the turbulence they are creating is another indication of how quickly technology can change all parameters and vectors overnight.

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