MOOCs: Disruption is the Mother of Invention

Stephen Downes speaking at D2L09.
Stephen Downes

There is an article in the Boston Review by Thomas Leddy called “Are MOOCs Good for Students?” In this article Leddy claims that

“MOOCs pose a great threat to the most important value of higher education: ‘literacy.’ By ‘literacy’ I mean, very broadly, the ability to read, think about, and intelligently respond (both orally and in writing) to the literature of any field of study. Thus, implementation of MOOCs for university credit is bad because it is bad for our students.”

Leddy says this because he seems to be familiar with only one kind of MOOC – those of the MIT and Stanford model. Not all MOOCs are alike, yet despite the fact that he has had the traditional education that would allow him to read, think about, and intelligently respond to any field of study, that does not seem to extend to education itself. I am not sure what publications like the Boston Review or the Chronicle of Higher Ed is up to, but the majority of articles about MOOCs in such publications are typically written by those who have never taught online, taught a MOOC, or even taken a MOOC. They are written by people who have not even reviewed the history or literature (however scant) on MOOCs.

I hate to tell Leddy this, but literacies are changing. I do a lot of writing, but my work depends more on my ability to collaborate with others and the creation of intelligent networks than my ability to write a ten page paper.

Leddy is very concerned with the massive (not “massively” by the way) courses that use multiple choice tests and paints all MOOCs with the same brush. I have taken three MOOCs and in not one did I take a multiple choice test. The MOOCs were assessed with what I would consider portfolio assessment. I could not have finished any of the MOOCs without reading, thinking, and intelligently responding to my peers.

English: George Siemens at TEDxNYED.
George Siemens

MOOCs didn;t just come out of nowhere to just to knock traditional teachers out of their chairs; they came from very thoughtful teachers who said “what if we did for teaching what open education resources was doing for content?” There were problems that needed to be addressed in education that traditional educators have no interest or stake in solving. MOOCs (massive open online courses) are not the disruption. The disruption came when the traditional schools decided that money was more important than access. The disruption happened when educators decided that they were fine with keeping education as an exclusive privilege of the few. The real disruption was the fact that the cost of education rose faster than the cost of living and the cost of healthcare combined.

We need to keep making the distinction between cMOOCs and xMOOCs – cMOOCs “Connectivist MOOCs” are actually community-driven models where the students create knowledge and learning together. This knowledge creation can be facilitated but it is not dependent on a “teacher.” The teacher becomes the facilitator and curator of the learning experience. In a cMOOC the connections students make with one another are just as important, if not more important, than any other kind of interaction in the course.

xMOOCs are getting all of the press because their model more closely fits, for good or ill, the model of education most familiar for traditional academics: sage on the stage, education as information transmission, knowledge as consumable, students as commodity, etc. xMOOCs are not true MOOCs: they often massive online but they are seldom “open” and depending on what you call a “course” they may not be that either. A true MOOC should be free. There is still a lot of hand wringing about money and tuition in some of these models that falls under the “sustainability” issue. I would even question if some of these are actually “courses” in the sense that we mean them in the world of online education. As a Director of Academic Technology, I would not sign off on a course that had no student-student or teacher-student engagement. I would call it a correspondence course, a learning experience, but not a true online learning experience. In contrast, cMOOCs depend on the interaction of the students for their success.

MOOCs are going through the difficult stages of innovation that open education resources and open textbooks have and are still going through. Free, openly licensed (non commercial) textbooks are a great idea – monetizing that is a horrible, counter-intuitive, counter-productive idea. “Lower cost” is not the same as free. Open for business is not what the “open” in OER, open textbooks, of MOOC is supposed to mean.

MOOCs can work. There are ways to design MOOCs to maximize student interactivity and engagement. In the related articles below, I have included some postings I wrote on MOOCs and instructional design and give some of my history with successful MOOCs.  MOOCs are not going away and just like any other learning platform (including face-to-face) there are good and bad ways to use it. We need to research MOOCs thoroughly with an open mind to discover why the successful ones are successful and address potential problems.

I would encourage Leddy and anyone else who is interested in MOOCs to explore the work of David Wiley, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, David Cormier, and Jim Groom before coming to any conclusions. You might just learn something. 

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