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. He could make the physics videos more effective for example if he directly addressed student misconceptions in the videos. It doesn’t appear that any of the videos ever get revised or updated.
- Also the videos are still basically non-interactive, passively absorbed lectures. While nowhere near as effective as active learning (where students may learn twice as much and may be three times less likely to drop out than in traditional lecture-based courses), lectures do still have a place and can be more effective if given in the right contexts, such as after (not before) students have explored something on their own (via a lab experience, simulation, game, field experience, analyzing cases, etc.) and developed their own questions and a “need to know.” See research on productive failure and a “time for telling.”
- 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. Here are some comments from some folks who have attempted these courses (the vast majority of people drop out of these courses):
- “the Coursera course I’m taking (AI) has longer videos (6-20 minutes) of the instructor mumbling as he draws over and over on ever increasingly confusing Powerpoint slides. Sometimes a video will have one multiple choice question, other times the video will not have any questions at all. The worst part is that only once has the video gone on to explain the question. So if a student has a problem understanding the question, they will have to resort to the forums. There’s no follow-up….Basically, the Coursera course is taught as if I was sitting in a class watching an instructor draw on a Powerpoint — the fact that it’s running in a web browser and can provide a different method of teaching seems to be lost on the instructor.”
- “I’m going through the Coursera machine learning class right now and I have to say that the professor glosses over several details and often makes comments like “if you’re not familiar with calculus…” and “if you’re not familiar with statistics…” which caught me off guard at first.”
- “I’m taking Model Thinking on Coursera and there are at least 2 pdf for each section (20 sections). Some of them from professor’s book, some links on the web or some scientific articles. I even stop reading it all because it’s time consuming.”
- “I have tried a lot of these new online courses that have been created but I still think they have missed the point, the point that khan academy got right. I don’t want to plan my life around weekly assignments. I keep getting emails about about assignment deadlines, causing unneeded anxiety which puts off the whole learning experience.”
- “I tried, believe me I tried hard, but video is not my type. Over 20 years I’ve learnt all I know reading, surfing, browsing the web, not watching videos. I can digest/absorb/ignore a whole page of text in ten seconds instead of being forced to watch boring 10 mins videos that offer only one min of real interesting content.”
- These all sound like the kinds of issues one would expect from traditionally designed college courses and online courses that focus more on content coverage than learning and understanding (one of the “twin sins” of course design).
- Curt Bonk’s open online Blackboard course
- “It’s a class about retaining, motivating and engaging online students, and I’m leaving because I’m not motivated and not engaged.”
- “First assignment included two 44-page pdf files that were expensive to print and difficult to read online”
- “it’s the same old Blackboard” “Same threaded discussion – very 1999.”
Especially disturbing is that none of the major MOOC providers have hired anyone trained in instructional design, the learning sciences, educational technology, course design, or other educational specialties to help with the design of their courses. They are hiring a lot of programmers and recruiting a lot of faculty, who may have various motivations for participating in these open education experiments. To their credit though, edX, backed by $60 million from MIT and Harvard, is hiring one person to help with course development, although they only require a bachelors degree. Most instructional designers or learning scientists have a masters or PhD, partly because designing and developing effective learning experiences is a hard skill to learn and may never be confidently “mastered” in one’s lifetime (Dunning-Kruger effect aside). Some even argue that educational research is the hardest science of all. Another exception is the Open Learning Initiative, which does have teams of learning scientists working on their educational materials (but they are not MOOCs), resulting in much more effective, efficient, and engaging (e3) learning (students in their hybrid stats class learn more in half the time as in the regular face to face course). 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. As someone once wrote, “College teaching may be the only skilled profession for which systematic training is neither required nor provided–pizza delivery jobs come with more instruction.” I don’t argue that faculty should not be involved in designing these courses – it is critically important that instructors have ownership of their teaching and at least be able to customize their learning materials (see 1, 2, 3), and similarly students need to have some ownership in the learning process, too (the key components of motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose). But faculty can be aided by some training or assistance in course design, technology, and teaching and learning to develop technological, pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK). Teaching should be treated as a design science, more like engineering than just an art or craft that we all think we can intuitively do well.
Are MOOCs a Horseless Carriage?
In the book How People Learn (which can be read free online), John Bransford shared the story of Fish is Fish. That link goes to a video of the children’s story. If you don’t have five minutes to watch it, the story is about a fish who befriends a tadpole. As the tadpole matures into a frog, it ventures out onto land and brings back stories of the things it sees, such as birds and cows. But in trying to understand those things, the fish interprets them from its own worldview. A bird is a fish with wings, for example. Similarly, when cars were introduced into society 100 years ago, we interpreted them from our previous experience and worldview as horseless carriages. 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. Does there have to be a single, unchanging instructor? Does it have to be a ‘course’ at all, with a finite beginning and end? Most students forget much of what they learn once a course ends (see “Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University” for a humorous take on that). Many topics are constantly changing and evolving (like science and engineering and technology), and one’s learning may be out of date sometimes within months, if not years, after a course ends. Much of what we learn comes from outside the classroom anyway – what we call lifelong learning and informal learning.
MOOC or MMORPG?
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. Of course, something like this is already happening today. Most employers don’t care about which courses you took or your grades. They don’t look at transcripts. They want to know about your experience, your beliefs, your skills and abilities, and so forth. College degrees may (perhaps mistakenly) be used by an employer as a signal of things like intelligence level (going to a prestigious school means you probably got higher SAT or ACT scores, for example), persistence, and the quality of the instruction you have had. But actual experience is better signaled by things such as previous jobs, internships, and perhaps in the future things like badges and portfolios can help signify skills and experience, as well, similar to the badges one collects in a game.
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. And unlike horses, instructors and the profession of instruction (teaching and professors) can adapt – away from a traditional delivery of content model and perhaps toward a model of designing and refining and facilitating learning experiences, such as described in the book teaching as a design science and as already practiced at some places like Western Governors University, where there are course mentors instead of instructors. And ultimately the existing system is not going to change much without some significant learning experiences on the part of the community of educators to gain a better understanding of their own practice and how people learn.
From MOOC to MOOLE
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. Similarly, making content “open” isn’t sufficient to magically cause learning to happen, although it is a good first step (enabling and expanding access to learning opportunities for more people). Also, even the original MOOCs still often had a traditional course structure with a beginning and end, all the learners learn the same topic at the same time, and the instructors are often still the “sage on the stage.” That is not to say that networking and openness are not necessary and valuable, just perhaps not always sufficient. As noted on the networked learning wikipedia page, Steve Fox (2002) argues that “networked learning is too often considered within the presumption of institutionalised or educationalised learning, thereby omitting awareness of the benefits that networked learning has to informal or situated learning.” And that latter point is important for reflecting on the MOOC model.
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. It explains why for example a Brazilian street kid may be a whiz at math, and a 6 year old may have hundreds of Pokemons memorized. See for example the work by James Paul Gee or Jean Lave. John Dewey said 100 years ago that we shouldn’t educate just to prepare kids for a future they know and care little about – we should educate them for today, teach them stuff that is useful and interesting to them today, and adult learners are even more skeptical of instruction that doesn’t appear to be relevant to their current work or life.
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). Other examples include games or workplace learning. But the instructional technique of problem-based learning was actually invented before the theory of situated learning was understood (similar to how many technologies are invented before the science is understood). PBL was invented in a medical school – students were given patient cases or x-rays and asked to discuss and diagnose them, similar in a sense to an episode of House. Problem-based learning can be applied more generally, however, to solving all kinds of real-world problems big and small. Examples have included water purification, or community playground design, and so forth. The problem, and the learning needed to solve that problem, are now at the center – not the content and not the instructor. And there is not necessarily an arbitrary ‘end’ to learning, nor do students need to be working on the same thing at the same time.
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.
Who’s the teacher in a MOOLE? Who’s the learner? What are the variables, if not time or amount of content as in traditional courses. Can people ‘drop out’ of a MOOLE? Is retention an important variable? Are learning and changes in real-world practices the most important variables? How are they measured?
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. Is MOOLE too vague? What are examples that seem to satisfy many of the elements of openness and solving real-world problems, but might not be the same thing as what a MOOLE describes?
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. They often do not adapt to the needs of new members (over 80% of new editors on Wikipedia quit within a year), and they do not always attempt to ‘bring in the fold’ – the masses of people (the general public) who never contribute to their communities. In fact, they have several mechanisms and unaddressed hurdles in place which specifically function to exclude the majority of people from contributing to their communities. For over 10 years Wikipedia kept in place an arcane syntax and editor, that may have had the effect of excluding many people from contributing to articles, and Linux and several other open source communities were known for “RTFM jerks.”
Can you imagine a museum, for example, which found out about some hurdle to participation and just ignored it or was even proud about the fact that it functioned to exclude a significant portion of the population? Well, the good news is the Linux and Wikipedia communities are aware of these issues and trying to address them, but it is still a challenging effort that might have been easier to address if a culture of learning and a better understanding of learning was in place from the beginning.
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. A better example of a natural perceptual quality used to group things is color. But one does not say that one particular shade of red is the ‘true red’ and anything else is ‘not red’. Instead one might speak of ‘redness,’ and the quality of being red.
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 (and a significant portion of college students do not purchase the textbook for courses)
- 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? See research on formative assessment, for example.
- How is learning being facilitated? See Goals and Strategies of a Problem-based Learning Facilitator for some ideas.
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. However, a group of folks will be offering a MOOC on open learning design this August. It is described so:
Learners and educators of the 21st century are confronted with a vast wealth of open and readily available information, and the accelerated evolution of social, mobile and creative technologies. These offer learners and educators unprecedented opportunities, but also entail increasingly complex challenges. Educators may still provide access to knowledge, but now they also need to carefully craft the conditions for learners to enquire, explore, analyse, synthesise and collaboratively construct their knowledge from the variety of sources available to them. This entails a need for a shift in their role: from providers of knowledge to designers of learning. The call for such a repositioning of educators is heard from leaders in the field of TEL and resonates well with the growing culture of design-based research in Education.
In the course of this MOOC, participants will be exposed to the rationale and motivation for a learning design approach, the state of the art in the field, and the current grand challenges for research and practice. The will familiarise themselves with a variety of tools, methods and practices, and gain the skills to lead learning design initiatives in their context of practice.
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