Three tips toward an intelligent conversation about #MOOCs

It’s pretty difficult to find an intelligent conversation about MOOCs out there – one that isn’t based on assumption, media hype and fear.  Based on an online conversation that I had last week I’d like to posit three tips toward an intelligent conversation, getting beyond the mythology and trying to reveal the beast as it actually exists. 


1. You may encounter those who do not know of which “MOOC” they speak.

There’s a lot of experimentation going on right now. Certainly there are many kinds of MOOCs…but on the spectrum of MOOCdom you might identify two extremes. I am not saying that either extreme is ideal. But It serves us well to know that when someone says “MOOC” they might be talking about one of these two or anything in between. 

The Coursera, EdX and Udemy MOOC represents nothing more than a free media-enhanced correspondence course. A video course online with accompanying tests should not be news! This is actually just a technology-enhanced independent learning experience. No one should be excited about this. Video courses on the internet have been around for a very long time – and the fact that colleges are using them to promote professors, or to deliver low-level information is fine – but it certainly should not be anything to celebrate.

On the other hand, the MOOC that is based on Connectivism takes advantage of the technology currently in place to help people make connections with each other, to help people use technology to represent their knowledge, and to build the kind of learning community necessary to maintain basic relevance in a knowledge economy.  This MOOC depends on the engagement of the community to be useful. If no one engages, (shares information, creates resources) it falls on its face.

A lot of administrators I talk to (outside of the UAS campus, of course) seem to have trouble visualizing the connectivist MOOC. To those people, I suggest the #MOOCMOOC. If have a week, #MOOCMOOC can show you the way. It’s intense, it’s fun, it’s inspiring, and for those who haven’t moved into constructivist methodology in their college classroom, it’s a good crash course in constructivist pedagogy and learner-centered activity in an online environment.  

2. You may encounter this sweeping statement: People who take MOOCs feel the absence of instructor feedback.

Okay – again, which MOOC are we talking about? It’s really important to define that prior to addressing this assertion. If you are talking about a video course, and a test, then yeah. I bet people feel pretty isolated. Especially if the CMS they are using doesn’t have a place for community activity, and especially if the design of the course is meant to promote low level mastery of  skills which can be affirmed by a cold and automated test score. 

If you are talking about a MOOC that is based in a connectivist pedagogy (or philosophy – depending on your perspective) then the person making this statement might not have the same definition of “instructor” as you have. In an age of information abundance – who is the teacher? Who is the learner? How do you make the distinction?

The person taking a connectivist MOOC has a LOT of instructors, and they get a LOT of feedback from many of them. Now, that person does have to engage in critical thinking to determine which expert he or she will listen to, and what feedback they might accept. But still – there’s a lot of feedback for those individuals. I did offer to those taking the #diffimooc not for credit an opportunity for instructor feedback. Not one of those individuals took me up on this request. They did, however, enjoy feedback from their colleagues – and I hope their learning community continues even now!

3. You may encounter those who state that the MOOC will replace college professors, and who believe we should all resist the MOOC for this reason. 

A college professor whose definition of teaching is standing in front of a class and dispensing information may well be threatened by the MOOCs which are videoclasses and tests. Because really, those MOOCs could replace them. 

On the other hand, for the college professor who engages in constructivist pedagogy, and who works very hard to stay current, to assist their students in critical thinking, and to “hook” their students into learning – the MOOC is an amazing tool to enhance the learning experience. After teaching online “in a box” for 14 years, I feel the MOOC has finally allowed me to spread my wings – I can actually model for students those things I’d like them to do. I can model discernment. I can model internet safety. I can model contribution to a learning community. 

You can probably tell that I am more fond of one type of MOOC than I am of the other. I see the MOOC as an evolution of online teaching and learning. And the MOOC of which I speak has great potential to empower – if scaffolded well by the technological and human resources. 


*Caveat*  One point of the post I am making here is that we need to refine our language a bit as we talk about MOOCs. In the name of transparency, I’d like to share my perspective. I teach  at graduate level to those who would like to learn more about educational technology. Most of my students are practicing teachers, and those who would be interested in being a part of my MOOC are practicing teachers as well.

I use the MOOC pedagogy or philosophy to offer PD to teachers in isolated parts of Alaska – and I see no harm in offering this PD to the rest of the world as well. My MOOC is not offered for credit, even though we do have those who are taking the course for credit, and for those students their grades are ultimately assigned by me based on their level of mastery of the course objectives. I use twitter and blogs, and I use Livetext for assessment of students taking the class for credit. 

If all of a sudden, now that you know where I am coming from, this conversation seems less exciting, mysterious and elusive – well, you might actually have gotten my point :-). 



2 responses to Three tips toward an intelligent conversation about #MOOCs

  1. Dr.AnneJonesUAS says:

    You make an important and misunderstood difference perfectly clear, Perhaps we need a new nomen for the constructivist, collaborative MOOC; to disengage it and distinguish it from the other?

  2. Virgil G. Fredenberg says:

    Thanks Lee,
    Now I have a place to send people who think a MOOC is only a large correspondence course.
    To think that students will be engaged in learning instead of just memorizing what is given to them should not be viewed as a new way of teaching. A connectivist MOOC can be a vehicle for students to take responsibility and control of their own learning.
    I agree that there is a continuum between the two types of MOOCs you describe and that things will change and evolve. It is exciting to think of where this will all head and what online classes and teaching will become.
    Thanks for the information.

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