Why MOOCs Work

English: Jim Groom as Edupunk
Jim Groom as Edupunk 
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been reading articles lately written by educators who have not participated in MOOCs but nonetheless seem to have some pretty strong opinions about them such as the “What’s the Matter With MOOCs” by Siva Vaidhyanathan from the august (Latin for “dusty, old, and conservative”) Chronicle of Higher Ed. And there is Joshua Kim’s article for Inside Higher Ed, “Playing the Role of a MOOC Skeptic.” I found myself getting a little testy about the issue because I am so passionate about MOOCs. I was in George Siemens‘ and Stephen DownesConnectivism and Connective Knowledge class, and I skirted the fringes of Jim Groom‘s DS 106, his digital storytelling class. If you are not familiar with them, MOOCs are “Massively Open Online Classes” – classes with no limit to who can participate. There are no fees unless you want credit. If you read Vaidhyanathan’s article, you will get a real sense about how this can really threaten the establishment. What if you hold a class and nobody pays? If we at the elite colleges give our stuff away, won’t that devalue the education for the alumni and paying students? There is a lot of hand wringing like that going on. But that is not how MOOCs work. I want to look at how they do work based on my limited experience (which is better than something written by someone with NO experience).

Now I am going to warn you, I have drunk deeply from the MOOC cool-aid – my experience in Connectivism and Connective Knowledge changed how I work, and how I engage with faculty and students in some very positive, deep, and profound ways. I don’t agree with everything that Siemens or Downes has written, they would be the last ones on earth to expect that, but there are no learning theories out there that can contend with, or account for, the rapid changes that are going on in education and technology than Connectivism. Interestingly enough, I think the success of MOOCs counts on an understanding of those principles. George Siemens wrote a great post on those principles in his posting “What is the Theory That Underpins Our MOOCs?

My staff in the Distance Education department at College of the Redwoods also participated in Jim Groom’s DS 106 and this experience is in turn shaping how we do our “DE 101” – our student orientation for distance learning. We are working on cracking that orientation out of the LMS box and turn it into a wider community of learning that we are hoping the students will take far beyond the confines of the orientation – through college and maybe even into their professional lives.

I love George Siemen’s article on the theory of MOOCs, but as an instructional designer by trade, I would add these four points:

1. Student MotivationThis is one of the criticisms of MOOCs and the “flipped classroom model”: students in those scenarios need motivation to be successful. Students are not born motivated. Lack of student motivation is not an excuse for classes not working. If you are a teacher and your students lack motivation, you need to get into another line of work. Part of what teachers do is inspire and motivate. Many teachers can’t help but being motivational because they are enthusiastic about their field. Teachers can provide opportunities for the students to reflect on why they are in the class and be given opportunities to contribute to the class – in my experience, this is often enough to motivate students. I would often get students in my English classes who were used to teachers doing the work for the students. This is not a problem with MOOCs. Students can be taught motivation. As Siemens puts it, we need to foster autonomous, self-regulated learners.

2. Facilitated Connections
True learning occurs when the student chooses the modality in which the learning takes place. In traditional education, that modality is forced (typically, static classroom lecture mode). If the student accepts the choice, he or she is a “good student.” What would happen if the learning materials were in different multiple formats; open, accessible and maybe sometimes asynchronous and the students got to choose which version of the material they used and how they engaged with it? Why can’t “lecture” also be a video stream, podcast, or recorded event? Then the “live” bit can occur when the students decide to get together and review the materials, discuss them, and then later bring their questions to the facilitator. These reviews can happen in a Moodle discussion forum, Facebook, Twitter, or even in virtual worlds like Second Life.

3. Self-Organization
Teachers need to have faith in the students ability to self-organize – this is how revolutions, religions, and AA meetings work. Humans have evolved to do this very effectively, just ask the wooly mammoth. To this end, students need to be encouraged to use the media with which they communicate as a learning tool. If the students like discussion forums, make that available. If the students are texters or use Facebook, encourage them to take the discussion their. Even if you are not a chronic tweeter, why not have instructions available to students who are? What happened in my Connectivsm and Connective Knowledge class was that discussions took place in a wide variety of fora and then a self- or group appointed “leader” would bring our questions back to the course facilitators for clarification. Often the best thing that the facilitators did was to stand back and let us learn.

4. Content Curation
There was no text book for Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. The course consisted of many of the articles and readings that lead the facilitators to Connectivism, but also the people behind those ideas. What George Siemens and Stephen Downes are really good at is bringing the right people together to talk. They have been exploring these ideas for a while and they were good at breaking down how they arrived at some of their conclusions. Fortunately, the ideas are new enough that the people that helped them out along the way are still with us. So a “lecture” in this course consisted of some weekly readings, a video or two, and a live, weekly presentation by the facilitators or someone like Dave Cormier or another “guest lecturer.” These lectures would often start out as a lecture and then evolve into a conversation with the facilitators and students. You would be really surprised at how open people are in your discipline to being a guest in your course via webinar or Skype.

So therefore, getting together with an instructional designer and creating course guides that account for the different media would be really helpful. Fortunately, George Siemens and Peter Tittenberger also thought of that with their “Handbook for Emerging Technologies” which needs to be updated and put back onto a wiki somewhere – maybe at College of the Redwoods or a college near you – so it can be added to and revised.

For Connectivism, the medium is the message – teaching Connectivism any other way than a MOOC is as ridiculous as buying a book about free, open text books from Amazon.Com. I hope that the critics of MOOCs take the time to actually take a course, even as a lurker – they will gain immensely from the experience, and who knows? They might even learn something.

Enhanced by Zemanta
This entry was posted in connectivism, ds106, Instructional Design, MOOC, pedagogy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.