To MOOC or not to MOOC?

4 12 2013

Let me start this post by talking about something I know a little bit about, namely teaching history. Andrew Hartman, an historian I know only through social media but still respect greatly, has a post up at USIH that reflects a way of thinking that I would guess is common in my discipline. It’s called “Can We Learn History in Groups?” Here’s part of it:

I don’t particularly like putting students in groups. I think it breeds conformity, which then acts as a barrier to thinking. I realize this probably reflects my biases, as an American perhaps, or more likely as someone who simply learns best in solitude—reading, writing, and thinking.

To his credit, besides recognizing his own biases, Hartman notes that he nonetheless does sometimes teach history in groups sometimes and he asks for feedback on this question.

Here’s my feedback: I sympathize. However, I think a better question would be, “When is it appropriate to teach history in groups and when is it not?” I teach history in groups frequently. I also lecture frequently (lecturing be the subject of the John Fea post through which I encountered this discussion). Different pedagogies for different learning objectives. It just makes sense.

Expand the scope of that question from history to everything, and you’ve pretty much encapsulated my first day at the MOOC Research Initiative Conference here in Arlington, TX. Most of the day was small group discussions. I aimed to be polite but critical during these discussions, yet everyone has nonetheless been incredibly nice. George Siemens set the climate in his opening speech when he suggested that he wanted people here who think “MOOCs kinda suck.” “That would be me,” I thought to myself, even if my opinions about MOOCs have evolved to become more complicated than that. Siemens also noted that there is no such thing as a MOOC expert, which made me much less reluctant to put forward my less orthodox opinions.

Yet it turns out that when you put a bunch of MOOC enthusiasts in a conference together, whatever orthodoxy that exists isn’t really all that far from mine. Everybody it seemed was critical of commercial xMOOCs. Everybody it seemed was concerned about MOOCs being misused. Nobody I encountered all day wanted to do MOOCs for the wrong reasons, even all the nice people from edX (who seemed primarily interested in making their product better than they were with anything else).

That said, what does set me apart from the rest of this conference I think is a difference in priorities. Most of the conversations were about the pitfalls of producing MOOCs. I wanted to talk more about how universities that may use other schools’ MOOCs might consume them. Most of the people here are from disciplines outside of the humanities, so I tried to explain that what works in math or CS will not necessarily work for history, especially history survey classes. While everyone seemed interested in improving pedagogy, there was a kind of disturbing assumption underlying all my discussions that any class that doesn’t use technology is somehow broken by definition.

The same thing goes for group work. So far, this seems to be an overwhelmingly connectivist crowd, and that’s a very good thing as that’s the easiest place for me to find common ground with the edtech world. However, as Andrew Hartman’s concerns about group work suggest, one size does not fit all. Not only are some disciplines easier to teach in groups than others, some classes within those disciplines are easier to teach in groups than others too.

In survey classes I lecture. In grad classes I don’t. For me, at least, the middle is a great big gray area. Different professors will mix these two approaches in different ways depending upon their desired learning outcomes and on what’s comfortable for them. Like the old joke about herding cats, I think that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, at least from where I stand, the kinds of classes that have the most commercial potential for commercial xMOOC providers (large surveys) are the least conducive to MOOC-ifying one way or the other, be it xMOOC or cMOOC). Even Siemens suggested that the word MOOC should be discarded because it has become tainted, which means the post-MOOC world is not only just beginning but is also up for grabs.

I suspect that the more group work Planet Post-MOOC includes, the more professors will choose to inhabit it. As long as nobody tries to deport every one of my classes there, I’d be perfectly fine with that outcome.




2 responses

5 12 2013

Your comments about teaching differently to undergrad and grad, that got me thinking about the cMOOC and xMOOC difference. xMOOCs are more appropriate to the undergraduate type learning – where learners are typically much more directed but also usually need to gain specific knowledge. Where in graduate learning, education is often more about a deeper exploration of a specific topic – which might align better with the cMOOC model. I had not thought about that.

5 12 2013
Derek Bruff (@derekbruff)

“Nobody I encountered… wanted to do MOOCs for the wrong reasons.” Having not attended this conference but worked with people making MOOCs for more than a year now, I’ll +1 this statement. That’s not to say there aren’t unintended negative consequences from MOOCs, but those involved in MOOCs seem largely to have good intentions, which counts for a lot in my book.

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