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.   

MOOCS (Part Two)

Professor Josie Taylor, Director of the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University in England, says: “If you think the target audience for the MOOC you are about to launch could include a lot of inexperienced learners, then as a teacher, you have the obligation to provide for them ways in which they can be supported. If you don’t, you are abdicating your responsibility to the people you are encouraging — and ethically, that is not a good thing to do.” (Times Higher Education, 14 Feb. 2013, p. 13) Taylor was speaking at the Online and Open Access Learning in Higher Education conference in London in early February. 

Taylor also suggested in her presentation that the pedagogical methods used in MOOCS are talking heads based on old styles of presentation that many lecturers no longer believe in and more advanced forms of online learning are reworking.

There is a great deal of truth in what Taylor is saying. The problem with MOOCS is that the technology and its potential have excited universities and the public, with little examination of the learning framework that needs to be developed for MOOCS to work well. For example, how do contextual factors affect the interaction between learners and screen based environments? See Constructivism in Practical and Historical Context.  There is no easy answer to this question. Learning is both a very private and a very public activity. Learning is driven by exchanges and conversations. Most learning is unpredictable, as it should be because why would you be interested if you already know the outcomes of the activities you engage in? Yes, chat rooms and social media expand the base of conversation. And, of course, the Web is an amazing tool for learning all sorts of new things. But, how deep does that learning go? How can we judge?

When over 100,000 people take a course, can context be understood at all? Perhaps, through the stories learners tell others as they learn? It is possible to make all the feeds from Twitter to Facebook unveil more about the individuals in the course. Clearly, the instructor(s) can only engage with a small percentage of his/her learners irrespective of efforts to engage. However, it is likely that a large number of interactions will provide at least some sort of data based measure to think about use and context. It might be possible to aggregate all sorts of information about learners, based on their answers to questions, and the kinds of conversations they decide to participate in.  

Let me step back for a moment from the argument I have been pursuing. The University of British Columbia is offering courses via Coursera ( that enrolled 134,000 students. Even if 5 percent of those students gained something from the course, (7 thousand students) would it not be fair to say that learning has happened? Seven thousand students is the size of a small university or college. What are we talking about here? Let’s hypothesize that most of the learners find something in the course, an idea or an image or even a broad concept that excites them. That detail about their reaction may come available to the teachers through comments and interactions, essays or any other pedagogical techniques the teacher feels will aid the process. Even if students are just interested in information gathering, they may still learn a great deal.

If we agree that dialogue and conversation are crucial to the success of learning, then do chat rooms, Facebook pages and live discussions via Skype add to the quality of conversation? The answer is obviously yes, but to some degree the lack of an embodied interaction must also be examined and, with great care. In the US over half of middle school students use their smartphones to record lectures or take pictures of notes. Over a third of the students use Facebook to collaborate with their peers on projects and papers. These statistics are constantly changing, but they point toward a merging of off-line and on-line experiences and to a smooth continuum of relationships among virtual and real pedagogical experiences.

MOOCS fit into this flow with all of the constraints and challenges these courses have in going beyond information into criticism, analysis and intellectual engagement.

The next entry in this series will look more closely at a specific course.

The following comment was sent via email by Lya Visser, who is a specialist in distance education.

I liked your reflection on MOOCs, especially as it coincides with a course I am currently teaching for George Washington University and where we have discussed RLO (reusable learning objects) and MOOCs extensively.

I just want to mention that I think it is important that we should not only discuss the business model of MOOCs (so often the topic of reflections), but as you argue, discuss whether they improve education, or better still learning. I also want to emphasize that these MOOCs may offer important opportunities to students from developing countries – it considerably increases accessibility to get an affordable quality education not often available to learners in these countries. It seems to me, but has to be researched, that offering instructor-assisted MOOCs  to students in developing countries may be an effective and efficient way of using the current (free) learning opportunities.

Armando Fox, who leads the UC Berkeley electrical engineering and computer sciences department,  told the San Francisco Business Times (1 February, 2013) that fewer than 10 percent of enrolled students have finished the class, but let’s not forget that only 25 percent of students enrolled in the class are from North America. Although the percentage seems to be low, it is only a good decade ago that I did research with one of the external MA programs of the University of London, and discovered that only 32% of the enrolled students finished the very expensive and sponsor supported program. 

Lastly, I saw your reference to Brent Wilson, who is a great scholar and one of the contributors to the Second Edition of Trends and Issues in Distance Education: International Perspectives, edited by Lya Visser, Yusra Laila Visser, Ray Amirault, and Michael Simonson (published by IAP in 2012).