Archive for June, 2011

Do open online courses have a role in educational reform?

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

A few days ago, I posted a link to an upcoming open online course on my elearnspace site being run by the University of Illinois Springfield: eduMOOC. The Chronicle picked up on the U of I course and highlighted a point made by David Wiley that “MOOCs and their like are not the answer to higher education’s problems”. This prompted David to post clarifications on his view of MOOCs . I’d like to engage with a few of David’s points.

I agree with David’s assertions that MOOCs are effective for learning, that there is a productive place for them in education, and that the name sucks. I disagree with his assertion that the “massive” aspect is irrelevant, that MOOCs are not potentially significant in driving change (that’s a bit of a misstatement of David’s point, but I believe it is in keeping with the spirit of his post).

First – let’s tackle the name. Bryan Alexander and Dave Cormier coined the term at roughly the same time. It stuck because it reflected what was happening with CCK08 – it was open, online, and we had far more learners sign up than we had anticipated. But it seems that everyone hates the term “MOOC”. I have a colleague in Spain who told me that it means “mucus” in Spanish. On the Chronicle site, someone stated that sounds like the word “pig” in Gaelic. David says it’s goofy. Well, we’re agreed then – it’s not a great word. When I first heard the term “blog” I reacted with equal indignation – what a crappy term! But once a term gains a bit of usage and traction, it’s rather hard to change. Beyond agreeing, I don’t have a solution.

David states “Inasmuch as MOOCs seem to be allergic to structure, and go out of their way to avoid structures that would place any kind of requirement (or even moderately strong suggestion) on anyone, they appear to be an extremely poor fit for individuals who are not well prepared academically”. I personally don’t avoid structure and I don’t avoid assessment or grading. I’ve graded students in all three of the CCK offerings. For our upcoming MOOC, several universities are considering offering credit for the course (Georgia Tech and Athabasca U). Both will be building assignment criteria around the course to ensure credibility. Of the complaints David offers, this one surprised me a bit. From what I’ve seen of his presentations, he has been advocating for some level of disaggretation in education. MOOCs follow that trajectory: teaching is open, marking/grading/accreditation happens at an individual institutional levels. Teaching and assessment do not necessarily need to be connected. Learn globally, accredit locally.

However, this isn’t David’s main point here. He suggests that MOOCs are a poor fit for people who aren’t academically prepared. It’s an important consideration. If, in our attempt to open education, we throw barriers in front of learners, we are defeating our goals. I’m not sure how David defines a “prepared learner”. Going back to an Learning Management System example – in 2000 an LMS was a bit foreign, quite clunky, highly technical, and likely only worked well for prepared people with basic tech skills. Today, LMS’ have buried most of that complexity and they are easier to use. People are generally more technically literate as well – most of us have used social networks, social media, and the participative web. It’s easier to use an LMS and learn online when you’re comfortable with the medium. I have a hard time seeing David’s point here – the fact that people don’t have the skills to participate in distributed networks for learning and sensemaking is exactly why we need MOOCs.

The problem David sees is the solution I envision. This has been a sore spot for participants in each of our CCK courses. When the course begins, we inform learners that the process of clarifying confusion and disorientation – sensemaking and wayfinding in complex settings – is the learning. Grappling with pieces that don’t connect and finding a way to connect them is what the course is all about. In the process, learners may move toward a target where knowledge is defined and educators know what learners need to know or they may move more informally in directions that interest them without a goal of accreditation. Many (no idea if it’s most or not) learners that continue in the MOOC seem to settle into the flow of the course and begin to connect pieces. They don’t do this in isolation, however. We have high levels of support in terms of weekly live sessions, Twitter/blogs/The Daily, peer support, and in the learning analytics course we did in January, Dave Cormier started offering a “learner concierge” forum where irritated and confused learners could go with the expectation of getting help.

If the issue that David highlights is one of academic skills – such as when learners don’t have the skills to use a computer or to traverse distributed information, then, yes, he is right – we have a concern that needs to be addressed because people need unique skills to learn in open online courses. But, as with the LMS example, people are learning these skills. It’s not an insurmountable problem. Many schools and colleges teach study skills, critical thinking, and writing skills courses. However, if David states, which I believe he does with his examples of remedial courses, that people can’t learn basic content in this environment, then he is addressing learner capacity, not skills. The only way of addressing this concern is, as he suggests, to run and evaluate courses that target those learners. Even then, if learners don’t do well, we come up against the question of whether the shortcomings are due to learners not having needed skills (which should then be our real focus) or difficulty with subject matter in the distributed network environment.

For me, MOOCs have been wonderful global learning experiences. This article from 2009 details the diversity of open courses – almost half of the participants don’t have English as a first language. That’s significant. I’ve been surprised at the number of learners from developing countries. A MOOC – even when it’s a messy, chaotic, imperfect, frustrating learning experience is still more accessible to many people than a wonderfully designed and well-delivered course. We’ve had over 10 000 participants in courses that we’ve done. Only a fraction of those were active participants. However, I continue to see a growing body of literature on MOOCs, I receive fairly consistent email feedback from people who have found them to be valuable, and I get a fair amount of positive feedback when I attend conferences. As imperfect as MOOCs are, and as much learning as we’re doing trying to figure out how to run them, they are having an impact.

David states, “MOOCs are not a solution to the problem of large and growing demand for higher education for people who are less well prepared”. What would count as a suitable solution to a complex problem such as this? No doubt, it won’t be a single solution. Growing demand for higher education, coupled with calls for increased accountability of the system, presents a complex challenge. What other solutions are being explored that reflect the realities of budget constraints, open content, decreasing faith in higher education as a good investment (at least in the US), and the rapidly growing higher education needs of developing countries such as India? With my involvement with MOOCs, I’m not stating “I have found the answer, follow me!”. Instead, I’m stating “I’m experimenting, join in”.

The concepts we’re exploring with MOOCs – distributed teaching, sub-networks, peer teaching, learner content creation, social networks, new methods of aggregating information, local institution accreditation – are important in reframing the higher education system of the future. MOOCs may or may not have a future. But the ideas we’re playing with and trying to understand will be foundational in any education system in a technology-infused world.

In terms of “massive”, David states: “There are 100s of 1000s of people in these games. “Massively multi-learner” might have made sense if the goal of MOOCs was to serve 100s of 1000s of people”. If I read his comments correctly, he is asking whether MOOCs are about “massive openness” or “massive in terms of numbers of learners”. I’ve always thought it referred to the latter. Massive openness makes no sense. We’ve had anywhere from 500 to 2000+ learners in open courses that I’ve offered with Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier. In those instances, massive means everything. Just as a city can develop advanced services for citizens (such as public transportation) when population density increases, open online course with large numbers of learners have more options than courses with small numbers of learners. We’ve seen courses with different language translations (CCK08’s syllabus was translated into five different languages), different sub-networks (SecondLife, face-to-face get togethers, learner-created live meetings), peer content and technical support, and universities offering credit for students who have participated in courses that we’ve offered. Sub-networks and learner-defined spaces of interaction are a function of the number of participants. If we only had 25 participants, activities and sub-networks wouldn’t make much sense. We need a level of “learner density” in order for the innovation to develop that we’ve witnessed in previous courses.