February 20th, 2013
read in a New York Times lead editorial --http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/19/opinion/the-trouble-with-online-college.html?hp&_r=0
-- 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?
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.”
learning is a profound concept and phenomenon. Though the phrase sounds
simple, the implications are so complex it takes a while to understand.
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
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.
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.
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.
have only online contact with each other
"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.
are the obvious negatives about MOOCs. But I have found some very
positive aspects of the MOOC I am enrolled in as well:
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.
lectures have interspersed quizzes so we students cannot just run the
lectures while we do something else and get credit for "watching” 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.
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”
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
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.
knowledge presented in the course is complex, no holds-barred, and
wonderfully assembled with charts and graphs and visuals to help with
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
to Stephen Downes, Bryan Alexander, Dave Cormier and George Siemans for their
pioneering work with MOOCs just a few years ago. http://moocguide.wikispaces.com/1.+History+of+MOOC%27s
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.