Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.


MOOCS are an exciting development in the story of distance learning. However, massive open online courses are part of a long tradition in the history of learning technologies.  

For example, during the 1950’s and 1960’s, International Correspondence Schools delivered hundreds of thousands of learning modules/books/pamphlets to home learners using the post office and small delivery trucks. The courses were sold by salesmen who worked in a variety of cities throughout North America. International Correspondence Schools as it was known was founded the 1880’s as the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania and over a short period of time became the learning method of choice for hundreds of thousands of people. (Over a million people had enrolled early in the 20th century, mostly in the US but also in Europe.) Most of the learners were adults from varying backgrounds, although men dominated and their overall goal was to increase their chances of developing skills for new professions. Many of the courses were vocational in nature. The courses ranged from “ornamental design” to “electrical engineering.” There was a course in “show-card writing” (which was a mixture of training in typography, drawing and illustration for posters, placards and store signage.)

In the 1920’s, radio was used as a vehicle of learning for hundreds of thousands of listeners accompanied by material that was sent through the mail. In the 1970’s video was used around the world to teach nearly any subject that could be translated into the medium. Film was used in the 1930’s in particular with some cinemas having audiences attend in the mornings to learn about current affairs. Television has been an important medium to teach learners in their homes almost since the technology became widespread in the 1950’s. In 1926, the BBC explored a ‘wireless university.’ In 1971, Open University, a University of the Air, began teaching thousands of students in Britain with a focus on late night TV broadcasts, which over time became an important part of the lives of many students. To this day, radio is an important part of learning in most of Africa and some parts of Asia. Mobile technologies now play an increasing and important role in learning since they are cheap and easily learned.  

All of these phenomena point to an important set of activities that connect the desire of the public to learn with a variety of media, some more effective than others. MOOCS extend and expand on the already existing networks that have been built to accommodate a seemingly insatiable desire for information and knowledge. They are also opening learning up to groups who couldn't gain access via traditional means either because of cost or because the time needed to go to university.

But, how do you teach 125,000 students? For that matter, how do you teach 125 or 50? I once taught a class with 600 students attending on a regular basis and it was an incredible challenge. I will have more to say about this in another blog entry, but what is missing in many of the discussions of MOOCS is what is new about the pedagogy being used. Tony Bates says the following about Coursera which is a consortium of major universities: “…the teaching methods used by most of the Coursera courses so far are based on a very old and outdated behaviourist pedagogy, relying primarily on information transmission, computer marked assignments and peer assessment.  Behaviourist pedagogy has its value, especially where there are right and wrong answers, facts or procedures that must be learned, or students lack higher-level cognitive processing skills. In other words it works reasonably well for certain levels of training. But it is extremely difficult if not impossible to teach higher order skills of critical thinking, creative thinking, and original thinking using behaviourist pedagogy, the very skills that are needed in a knowledge-based society.” (Tony Bates Website last accessed on February 11, 2013.)

Bates is a bit extreme because some of the courses that are available really do open up a variety of different knowledge portals and even with the constraints, these do lead to some form of experiential learning that may not be dominated by a behviourist approach. He is however quite right to question the teaching methods being used.

Most of the literature on MOOCS tends towards utopian claims of a new age of learning. It is as if the struggles of institutional and non-institutional learning will be solved by MOOCS. The beauty of MOOCS is that they aggregate a large number of interested learners into a community of shared interests. It is however challenging to know whether that community is learning. There is simply no way in which the huge scale of MOOCS can be evaluated but at the same time, as Stephen Downes (a founder of MOOCS) says: “I never had any doubt that the model itself would be successful. Though we hear a great deal about the quality of learning resources and the need for credentials, the demand from people without access to any university resources has been consistent and strong. There is a large following throughout the world for all this work in open online education, because it eliminates one of the great advantages the wealthy have always enjoyed over the poor. And with open access, we can work on things like quality, assessment and credentials on an ongoing basis.” (Stephen Downes Website last accessed on Feb. 11, 2013)

I will explore my own contradictory feelings about MOOCS in another post although for a much less ambivalent view see MIT Technology Review.  

International Correspondence Schools, Scranton, Penn