27 March 2013

# I talk to the MOOCs, but they don't listen to me...

When I was studying languages with the OU, I found it very difficult to motivate myself to do most of the task.  These tasks I would happily do in a classroom, but on my own, I couldn't be bothered.

What was the difference?  Two things: one, in the classroom, if you don't do the task, you just sit there waiting for the others to finish -- you don't actually get the time back; two, normally your work will be examined by someone else -- either the teacher or a classmate, and if someone reads or hears your work, it has a purpose.  Even if only half of your classwork is ever read or heard, it at least provides some kind of motivation.

But when the book I was reading on my told me to write 200 words on my opinion of the treatment of minority languages in Spain, I knew I could be doing something else with my time, and I couldn't be bothered sitting down and writing something no-one else would ever read.

MOOCs, they would have us believe, address this, by making sure you have peers available at all times to read and comment.  Sadly, there's no guarantees, with some postings to group forums getting lots of views and/or comments, and some getting none at all.  The act of writing becomes an act of uncertainty -- it's like talking to the darkness without knowing whether or not there's actually anyone there.

I don't know about you, but this doesn't really motivate me to write much.  The latest task description:
Before we examine MOOCs in more detail, briefly consider if the MOOC approach could be adopted in your own area of education or training. Post your thoughts in your blog and then read and comment on your peers’ postings.
Well... who am I writing it to?  Who's going to read it?  Is anyone actually going to see it before it rolls off the bottom of the monolithic, uncategorised course blog aggregator?

Looking at the writing style of many of my peers, I'm not the only one with these doubts.  More than a few of the blog posts barely classify as prose, instead being little more than the writer's personal lecture notes.

This creates something of a death-spiral.  Because some of the blog posts don't lend themselves to reading, people don't read them, and don't comment on them.  This discourages them from viewing the blog aggregator, which means they don't see and don't comment on the genuinely readable posts, leading authors to become despondent about the lack of views, leading them to write without the expectation of gaining a readership, which leads to them not putting the effort in to make their posts readable, so people don't read them....

And yet, when we eventually tire of this and give up, the guys behind the MOOC don't view it as a pedagogical failure -- they shrug their shoulders and talk about learning choice and learner independence, and say that by leaving the course we're exercising those characteristics they want most to instill in us.

But I don't take courses to learn learner independence.  I take courses to get expert guidance to aid me in the acquisition of new domain knowledge, because while I can operate adequately as an independent learner, expert guidance gets me there quicker.


smclorl said...

Hi Niall,

Thanks for this post as it has shown me that I'm not alone in some of the reservations I'm having about MOOCs and in particular about MOOCs and language learning.

As an educator, I'm all for lifelong learning and everyone having a chance to learn and develop themselves, but there are some subject areas that really do need guidance and feedback and the assurance that such guidance and feedback is correct. This is my first experience of a MOOC so I'm trying to keep an open mind, but I share your thoughts regarding the suitability of a MOOC for language learning (for a host of reasons!).


John said...

I suppose some people join a Mooc because they want to read and write blogs about the subject area being studied. People who don't want to do that are likely to be disappointed...

Nìall Beag said...

Yes, I suppose some people do.

However, most people join courses because they want to learn about the subject matter, and the want to learn verifiable facts, not opinions.

Nìall Beag said...

Consider that the course is called "Open Education" and hosted by the "Open University". The OU has decades of experience of open education, none of which is reflected in this course.

There was some handwaving over the difficulty of measuring student retention in free courses, but no attempt to qualify that with any data on the relative attendance figures and dropout rates of the OUs courses with face-to-face tutorials vs live online tutorials vs forum-based support only.

No analysis of preference for 10-point, 15-point, 30-point or 60-point modules, or how this changes as the student progresses through a degree track.

No analysis of preference for levels of intensity/duration of courses. Are students drawn to the 3 month courses over the 8 month ones? Is this an increasing trend?

This sort of data may not be immediately applicable to building a MOOC, but it's the sort of thing we need to consider when building the future of education.

Cormier, for one, would do well to heed his own warning. In the interview him and Siemens did with Martin Weller for this course, he suggests the danger in xMOOCs is that they make "robograding" into the new norm -- people are doing it in xMOOCs because it's the only way of handling marking, and he's worried they'll forget why they're doing it.

We all do what we have to to get through from day to day, and there is always the danger of uncritically creating a new orthodoxy. Which is precisely what the cMOOC guys are doing -- a new orthodoxy based on practices which are led by technology and personal whim rather than by research.