Lee Graham, Ph.D.
University of Alaska Southeast
In 2012 the media “discovered” the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC). The term “MOOC” actually originated with Dave Cormier and was coined in 2008 to describe an experience which sought to create order from the chaos of information abundance resulting from widespread access to the internet. (Fini, 2009) However the xMOOC which starred on the cover of Newsweek and in the headlines of the New York Times had a much different focus than the original MOOC. (Siemens, 2014)
Several aspects of the xMOOC are disturbing to knowledgeable pedagogical practitioners in higher education today; however, one aspect of the xMOOC which is especially disturbing to me is the reality that the xMOOC was based on an educational delivery method that pre-dates the Gutenberg press! Allow me to illustrate.
Imagine that in the year 320, Alexander the Great arranged to offer an xMOOC with the technology that existed during that time. He’s going to deliver information about strategies for warfare and world domination. Now of course Alexander would never have shared his trade secrets, but let’s just pretend he was willing to do this sort of thing – you know – for the common good. :-). His organizers determine that this would only be possible by using the Amphitheater – an architectural technology that even to this day we have been unable to replicate: regardless of the place a person is seated, within the Amphitheater the acoustics and sound quality are of very high quality.
The amphitheater will only hold around 5500 people – so Alexander’s organizers have to make a few modifications, to be sure they can accommodate the interest that this xMOOC is certain to attract. The lectures will be delivered to an indiscriminate audience: commoners and intellectuals, adults and children alike. Anyone who can travel to the Amphitheater can participate and will be welcome. Thousands will attend this lecture: farmers, bakers and manual laborers as well as learned clergy, political figures, and elder statesmen. The truth is, so many will attend this unique opportunity, that no one knows WHO will really be there.
Part of the draw of this event is the awareness that participants will be in a space with people who could benefit them. The bakers are preparing their wares so that they can give them away just beyond the amphitheater. Aspiring politicians, strategists and potential world conquerors enroll because not only is Alexander an excellent speaker with worthy information to divulge, but they want to meet those in the Senate who have been inaccessible in the past. At this open event, they believe they might be able to finally make some connections and gain the ear of those who can help their ambitions real. Rumor has it, even Aristotle will be there!
The event grows closer and finally the day arrives. Crowds push through clogged roads making their way to the venue. It’s slow going for many, with all of the donkeys and caravans in the way. But everyone is talking at once and anticipation is high! They want to hear everything Alexander has to say, and they are eagerly anticipating the new people they will meet who may be able to benefit them intellectually, financially, or spiritually. As they file toward the Amphitheater people pause in dismay as they notice an impenetrable fence has been constructed around it. Every participant is stopped at the gate and asked for some limited, but very specific personal information, which is recorded into a parchment by a monk. They are given a coin that insures, each time they come back to the Amphitheater, they will be allowed access. They are then ushered to their seats separately by a courier. As they move down the stairs which serve also as seats they note – again with disappointment – that dividers have been placed so that each person has only a small designated space, and is visually isolated from the people on their left or right, in front or behind them. They can however see, through the slot in the divider, the space from which Alexander will be speaking and demonstrating. At least, they think, the view is good.
Shortly after getting settled in their designated spaces, the participants are given a bit of good news. They are provided a parchment which is quite thick (we will pretend, for the sake of the illustration, that they can all read) hurriedly prepared by 9000 monks (because that is how many it would take), each working in tandem as the individuals registered at the door. (Now just to clarify – in 320 BC, only the elite and the Monks could read and write. We are magically bestowing the gift of reading on our commoners for the sake of illustration; but the skill of writing is something they’d still lack.)
The parchment bears Alexander’s seal. The courier says written on the parchment are some resources that could be helpful to them in understanding strategies for world domination, and also the names of all of those who are participating in the class. The participants are told that couriers have been dispatched to personally deliver any notes they want to send to those in the class. Therefore, they may write notes to people in the course which will be immediately delivered, and they may immediately receive a response. Excitedly the participants open the course document! With dismay, they find 9000 names listed. The list is too long to fully examine it! Some participants hurriedly ask the monks to dash off notes for people whose names they think could be important. After the courier rushes away, these individuals wait anxiously for replies. The lecture commences, and all other activity ceases. All eyes are on Alexander as he begins to share the basics of conquering the world.
At the end of the one hour lecture, as interesting as it was for the most part, many of the participants are blurry eyed and sore from sitting. Some participants perk up as a courier arrives and says they are going to be taken to a shared gathering place where they may mingle and speak to the other people who attended the first lecture. They are excited! They will get to debrief and make sense of the interesting concepts that Alexander shared!
Because many of the participants are commoners, a lot of what Alexander said doesn’t make sense to them – there were words and phrases they didn’t understand. Many, who are more experienced, understand Alexander’s success, but have experiences which don’t seem to jibe with Alexanders’. Because the participants don’t have direct access to Alexander, it seems the only way to try to make sense of these ideas would be to talk to others with experiences similar to their own – who might have the same questions. Couriers begin to return with responses to the notes dashed off at the start of the presentation, and some of the participants relay replies immediately with some of the questions they have now – hardly pausing to read the the note they have gotten. They quickly send the couriers back to deliver the new note they’ve composed. Finally, there are those who have already memorized some of the strategies shared during the talk, and they want to try some of them out. Everybody is ready to gather in this hall and talk to their colleagues!
Individually, in separate lines, the couriers lead the participants to the huge shared meeting space. It is very crowded, to the point that people are standing shoulder to shoulder, almost on top of each other. Some people shout out the names of the people they wrote notes to, with no response. Some groups of people are having quiet, meaningful conversations, but hundreds are standing, shouting questions. As more and more attendees join the meeting, it becomes more and more crowded. As the day wears on, the individuals shouting questions begin to have arguments with the people who refuse to answer them. The participants begin to have disagreements about what Alexander said and what it means. Some walk away, trying to escape shouting and arguments, only to be followed by their pursuers who continue to shout and swear. Some quiet groups gather in corners, but rather than talking about the lecture, they are talking about the chaos of the gathering – which has now become more of an event than the initial lecture. One by one those who have been standing, shouting questions, attempting to get a response, wander away.
The lecture resumes the next week, and fully half of the attendees do not return to hear Alexander. Of those who do return, many stand and leave in the middle of the presentation, because they simply don’t understand what is being said. No problem, says the courier. There are monks who can tell them the meanings of the words and phrases they don’t understand. In hopes that they will be able to quickly get caught up with the lecture, they approach the monks who define the unfamiliar terms for them immediately. The monks define the terms, and use the terms in sentences. But when it comes to explaining Alexander’s meaning, or placing the information he shared in a context that the participants can understand, the monks shrug. They are not sure what the participant really needs to know. Alexander told them the information. It is now their responsibility to figure it out.
In the following weeks, more and more participants stop coming to the xMOOC. Finally, Alexander completes his series of talks. Twenty percent of those who started the experience remain in attendance. These participants are given an exam to determine how well they retained the information Alexander relayed. Five percent of these participants pass the exam. Alexander considers the venture a great success.
So what happened? What is wrong with the experience that so many left and didn’t persevere and learn what Alexander had to offer? From an educational and social perspective we can provide several explanations:
- Learner preparation: Piaget states that motivation occurs when the material to be learned falls close enough to the already existing knowledge so that connections can be made. (Mischel, 1971) For some of these students, a lack of frame of references meant that connections could not be made. Without someone to “scaffold” this understanding, frustration became high, and motivation was lost.
- Social frustration: Vygotsky (Chaiklin, 2003) states language and learning are closely intertwined. When we discuss or work with someone, our own learning is enhanced, regardless of whether they know more or less than we do about the topic. Discussion with others can help us reach a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in which we have our highest potential for learning, which far exceeds what we might have learned individually. Conversation and learning could have occurred when the participants were placed in learning space together; however, there was no “chunking” of learners by interest or by level of experience. The learning space was so large and crowded that finding someone with similar interests was nearly impossible. Certainly the roster of participants might have helped, but to sort through 9000 names and letters of introduction from 9000 students was a completely overwhelming task in and of itself – much less figuring out the strengths of the learners, their commonalities and the information they have to share. So between processing Alexanders’ speech, becoming accustomed to the new and modified Ampitheater, and attempting to make sense of the post-lecture gathering, many participants then became victims of cognitive overload, and in essence, became intellectually paralyzed. (Tyler-Smith, 2006)
- Passive learning: To revisit Piaget, learners must interact with their environment in order to learn. Those students who wanted to act out and apply the information Alexander shared were moving toward self-modified active learning strategies. Many students have learned to do this as they moved through traditional classrooms. (Bliss, 1995) However, practice in this specific case required partners, and within the chaos of the gathering, it became very difficult to find a well-matched partner.
- Isolation: The primary retention factor in retention in any online environment is a sense of community and belonging. (Drouin, 2008) This experience provided no opportunity for community relationships to be developed or refined in any natural manner. Students forced into a crowded room, surrounded by “static” found it difficult to discern the important conversations. Even those participants who took the initiative to stand and shout their desires and questions weren’t well matched with the responses that they received.
Now, I am not saying that this will occur in every xMOOC that occurs. However, I will say – you will find very few teaching professionals familiar with concepts such as multiple intelligences, backward instructional design, differentiation, or discovery learning who will recognize the typical xMOOC as anything other than substandard in pedagogy.
The original MOOCs designed and documented by McAuley, Stewart, Siemens,. & Cormier (2010) were not designed to promote an individual professor and elevate them to superstar status or to promote individual universities. Quite the opposite. They were created to maximize and stimulate human interaction, and take advantage of organic networks and technological tools to manage information abundance. In short, the MOOC was created as a response to the knowledge economy, and therefore sought to design an entirely new learning paradigm which could allow ALL students to contribute and benefit.
The goal was to position all students in the class to be architects, coordinators and expert consultants with faculty. The MOOC assists students in focusing on the objectives of the experience as guiding principles. The students then form networks within a larger networked space for the purpose of locating, organizing and making meaning of and discussing the millions of documents which could exist in cyberspace related to these objectives. The resources of the instructor are on equal ground with all other resources students might vet, create, and use.
The MOOC valued the individual perspectives of students, and didn’t purport to assess the value of those perceptions through a lens of their being correct or incorrect, but instead encouraged students to share this information on equal ground with other open resources so that through crowdsourcing, the most individually relevant, informationally accurate and stylistically appealing information would rise to the top. Formative assessment and group conversation is organic, natural and spontaneous (some would say serendipitous) in the MOOC. The original MOOC was about innovation, chaos and collaboration.
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