MOOCs and Student Support

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I read an article this week that I found via Stephen Downe’s blog that is from the eLearning Africa News Portal called “The Underlying Inequality of MOOCs” by Alicia Mitchell. The main issue that Mitchell has with MOOCs is an old argument against all online education: the “digital divide.” Unlike the education writers of the 1990s, she looks at the issues of poverty and connectivity and says that we have to be mindful that not everyone has access or the same means and skills that those of us in more privileged parts of the world may have. I do not argue that there is not a digital divide, I just don’t think stopping online learning is a great solution to that problem. She does not make the leap that many have in the past with a “therefore,” online learning is not viable or should be curtailed etc. I actually agree with her and my “therefore” is that, broadly, we need to continue to work for economic justice and universal education.  Africa is a hot bed of online learning, open education resources, and innovation specifically because of the problems discussed in her article. And my more focused “therefore” is say this is exactly why we need a MOOC to help students “learn how to learn.” That is what we were getting at when we created “DE 101” – an free, two-week, fully online orientation to online learning. That was in a “traditional” online course format. The one I am working on here at Humboldt State University will be a MOOC called “eLearning 101.”

In another look back to the 90s, I am really concerned about so-called “MOOCs” that are massive, not particularly open, online courses that are based on a one-way distribution of information and then tests. This is a huge step backwards. Especially when there are such better models out there such as Stephen Downe’s and George Siemens’ Connnectivism and Connective Knowledge MOOC or Jim Groom’s project-based DS 106. There are all of these great models out there (often called “cMOOCs”) but the ones that get all the attention are the ones supported by the Ivy Leagues and a lot of grant money. The entire MOOC phenomena is being judged by players like Sebastian Thrun who just figured out that online students need student advisors, mentoring, and tutors. These are things that many people have been writing about and more importantly doing for years now. In the article “Udacity CEO Says ‘Magic Formula’ is Emerging,” David Carr reports:

Thrun’s magic formula is not a fully automated online class featuring prerecorded videos and Web-based assessments. In other words, it’s not a MOOC at all. To get better results, he said, “We changed the equation and put people on the ground.” By adding mentors and a help line, and making phone calls to remind students to do their work, Udacity found it could get more students to do the work, finish the course and pass. Longer term, he has some ideas about using adaptive learning software to eliminate some of this labor, but for now it takes manpower.

The press, publications like the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Information Week are now defining MOOCs by such phrases as “a fully automated online class featuring prerecorded videos and Web-based assessments.” This is not innovation, at least, not innovation in education. It may be an innovation in platform building, fund raising, or grant writing, but it is not an innovation in education. Real online courses and truly massive, open, online courses are engaging, interactive, and focus on building learning communities and networks. There is a rich body of literature and research that discusses the importance of student advising and support. If it has taken this long for Udacity to figure out what we all learned about online education in the 90s, I don’t think I will live long enough to see them figure out the importance of learning communities and PLNs.

But it is not enough just to be against something. I am going to keep using the term MOOC even though the term is missapplied by the press and highly funded institutions and businesses. We need to keep building instances of MOOCs that counter the prevailing notions. I will be posting updates here as I continue to work on the eLearning 101 MOOC.

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