MOOC, Mundane, Mediocre, & Other Uninspiring M Words

I’ve been hesitant to weigh-in on the MOOC phenomena. Massive Open Online Courses for those that are not familiar with the acronym. I have read many exciting announcements from the post-secondary side of the tracks regarding its promise to “open” education. I have tried to take a balanced look at the feverish assertions that MOOCs are aiming to topple long-standing delivery modes of traditional education. I’ve listened to the likes of Anant Agarway (President of edX from MIT) and Sebastian Thrun (CEO of Udacity from Stanford) claim MOOCs as a model that will democratize education and transform learning. I’ve created accounts and tried sample courses in Udemy, edX, Coursera, and Udacity. I was interested in gauging how they collectively present information, structure learning, engage the learner, stimulate inquiry, personalize experiences, and monitor success.

The formula seems pretty common across these platforms and their coursework:

  1. The Instructor (or instructors) authors and organizes instructional content as the principal learning material.
  2. Content takes the form of video lecture of instructor talking or narrated media (typically white board with instructor writing and drawing as they talk) or print content similar to a text book, perhaps with some embedded media combining the above.
  3. Informal Assessment tends to take place in the form of discussion items where you openly reflect on and write up responses to ideas, situations, or devise solutions, and then of course there is the full litany of simple quizzes (t/f, multiple choice, short response)
  4. Formalized Assessment is primarily delivered in the form of test questions much the same way quizzes are. In some instances you are asked to submit code in a programming course for instance, or identify elements on an image or graphic such as locations on a map or parts of a cell, or submit a larger written piece addressing a topic, etc.
  5. The learners experience is machine graded in most instances, and at times, receives human review for more summative, open-ended written response items. A certificate, or badge, or credit is offered based on completion, performance, or a combination therein.

Here’s what I DO find intriguing about these MOOC environments and instructional approaches…Some of them, like Udacity, do a nice job with their visual display in which the instructors draw out problems and concepts on a clear glass-like surface and then render those same handwritten items as quiz questions for the learner response by clicking and answering on the screen in which they were drawn.

Here’s what I DON’T find intriguing about MOOCs…everything else.

I did find them intriguing at one point, and that point ended about 2005. From 1995 through 2005 I was involved in developing online courses for educators in the use of technology to enrich classroom instruction. The team I was a part of developed about 25 stand-alone courses representing hundreds of credit hours. (see image, and note AOL icon for historical reference)

ctap 295We ultimately supported upwards of 40,000 educators across the state of California in meeting their training needs through completely asynchronous, autonomous online courses. There was lots of content, too many threaded discussions, quizzes, and portfolios of “learning artifacts”. I’ll admit we did some janky stuff in the name of online learning for sure. But in those early years, we were excited about the prospects of creating more authentic, rich, personalized learning experiences for learners with each evolution of technology. We knew that every year the versatility of assessments, the amount of access to rich, non-centrally produced content, and the levels of integrated learner data would increase and aid in the evolution of online learning.

I am historically proud of much of that early work, but professionally embarrassed at our attempts back then to structure learning experiences in a truly independent online environment. We came up with some well-intended but lame approaches. However, I do recognize it as an awkward point in time that inevitably must occur. As with most new endeavors, the early floundering is a necessary step towards improved understanding and eventually towards improved models.

Here’s the problem; a decade later, MOOCs do not strike me as a substantially improved model. They do seem different in terms of the content transitioning from print to video…but fairly unaltered in relation to the important stuff like instructional design, instructional delivery, and authentic assessment. The learner is still largely cast as an uninspired, isolated, passive receiver of content who is intervened upon at times via simple quizzes. There is little cognitive sophistication, or talk of engaging learners in applied action within their communities or campuses as conditions of the courses. The tools developed try to poorly mimic interactions and engagements that occur in the traditional classroom, which in and of itself was already deemed isolated, possessing limited means for integrated learning. At one point a decade ago, our conversations all resonated around transcending the classroom through better models. Models that connected learners to one another, to unique local experiences as tethered to global movements. We targeted lecture as the dominant instructional method in a desire to supplant it with more inquiry-based structures that do more to engage the learner’s interest and unique applications of the knowledge. It was to recognize that the conventions of a classroom present a set of limited means by which to connect learning to the world of information at large and to our own experiences and relevance on a very personal level.

candy heartSo what new things have MOOCs introduced to an ongoing revolution in education? Well, I guess per their title, they are Massive, their Openness seems to be questionable in most instances, they are obviously Online, and they do possess all the traditional rigidity of a Course…So maybe MOOCs are basically what they claim to be, a scalable machination of the traditional post-secondary education system. And maybe the ideals of radically transforming the educational experience, that many of us have long attributed as being most attainable in the digital environment, have been mistakenly placed upon MOOCs.

Sorry this didn’t work out the way we hoped it would MOOCs, it’s definitely not you, it’s us.