MOOCS (Part Three)

I have begun and not completed a couple of MOOC-type courses. I have also looked into and closely examined many others. I have spent some time on the Khan Academy site, explored his approach and been generally enchanted by his naïve assumption that when something is explained with clarity, it will be understood. I regularly watch a variety of other “teaching” videos through iTunes University and related sites. There is a common thread in all of the presentations and lessons. What matters most is content and most certainly not form or aesthetics. Outcomes drive the process. Learn, learn quickly, interact through forums and chat spaces, complete exercises, let a robot correct your tests and make tests simple because if the tests are not simple, already astronomical dropout rates will rise even further. Avoid essays. 

Now, if this sounds like I am being negative, I am not. I understand the benefits, even the necessity of engaging with online learning. I support the role online learning can play in providing access to education to thousands of students. Athabasca University in Canada is a leader in this field as is the Open University in England and both organizations can claim many successes.

Part one of this series showed the intimate links between today’s online course material and correspondence courses given over the last hundred years. Millions of people have benefited from learning at a distance through the mail, radio and television. But, the exponential growth in numbers within the context of MOOCS raises some very important issues that have been glossed over in much of the commentary to date. Fundamentally, learning is neither simple nor just driven by the way we shape and transform information into different media. Good information that is well presented may not result in learning. For better or for worse, learning remains a deeply subjective experience, more often than not judged by standards that appear to be objective and driven by the need for results.

MOOCS and online learning in general seem to operate outside of the conventional concerns that most media have about communications. This will change with time and experience. The idea that teaching is just about content or outcomes is of course at the centre of many of the pedagogical challenges faced by instructors in conventional classrooms. The best teachers struggle with the shape and form of their language, the examples they use and the modes of communications that best suit certain subject areas.

The aesthetics of presentation are an integral part of the challenge. A talking head loses his/her audience very quickly. PowerPoint slides that show words without being framed by pictures and some modicum of design, rarely succeed in holding their audience. Yes, design is important. The design of information and the ways in which information can be communicated will have as profound an influence on the content as the medium being used.

The key question is, can learning online be turned into more of an aesthetic experience? Stay tuned.