08 February 2013

The misunderstandings in MOOCs

I had another article lined up and ready to go, and then I started reading about MOOCs on-line, and in particular a lot of the reaction to the total collapse of Coursera's MOOC Fundamentals of on-line education (#foemooc), one of the biggest and most revealing ironies in history.

One article quoted a law professor as follows:
“Part of what Coursera’s gotten right is that it makes more sense to build your user base first and then figure out later how to monetize it, than to worry too much at the beginning about how to monetize it,” said Edward Rock, a law professor serving as the University of Pennsylvania’s senior adviser on open course initiatives.
Is he mad, or just plain ignorant?  It's this sort of thinking that leads people to compare the MOOC boom to the internet bubble at the turn of the century.  After all, that bubble was based on companies building massive user bases with no idea of how to monetarise them.

We are currently experiencing a similar bubble in Web 2.0.  So-called investors* have ploughed money into companies like Facebook and Instagram, only to see stock prices suffer when the market suddenly realises that they have no business plan.

[* The modern stockmarket makes a mockery of the term "investor".  "Investing" is supposed to mean putting money in so that a company can grow, but most high-profile IPOs, including Facebook and the like, are simply a change of ownership.  The money is for the previous owner, not the business.]

Why do we want to replicate that model at a cost to our valued educational institutions?

I've commented on that side of things before, noting Udacity's move toward corporate sponsorship: MOOCs as adverts for a given vendor.

This MOOC-as-sponsorship model might even work to some extent for the universities too -- the University of Edinburgh's Coursera MOOC E-Learning and Digital Cultures (#edcmooc) is based on a module taken from one of their masters programmes, and it's possible that the increased exposure it gives the course among potential students will get back the cost of putting the MOOC version together and on-line.  The risk, though, is that if too much material is available for free, the adverts will basically kill the market for the product.

One article in particular caught my attention.  Over at the blog online learning insights, blogger and instructional designer Debbie Morrison wrote a post about three takeaways from the collapse of the Coursera Fundamentals of Online Education course.

Her first "takeaway" is, in my ever so humble opinion, completely and utterly wrong.  Totally.  Completely.  Utterly.  Let's take a look:

1) The instructional model is shifting to be student-centric, away from an institution or instructor-focused model.In a massive, open and online course with thousands of students, the instructor must relinquish control of the student learning process. The instructor-focused model is counter intuitive to the idea of a MOOC; in the MOOC model the student directs and drives his or her learning. The pedagogy used for traditional courses is not applicable to a course on a massive scale. With the Web as the classroom platform, students learn by making connections with various ‘nodes’ of content [not all provided by the instructor] on the Web, they aggregate content, and create knowledge that is assessed not by the instructor, but by peers or self. This pedagogy builds upon the constructivist theory, and more recently a theory developed by Downes and Siemens, the connectivist learning model.

Wrong... how so?

Debbie Morrison clearly knows a thing or two about building online courses; unlike me, she's actually written them.  But when she claims that the a tight teacher-led course is "counter intuitive to the idea of a MOOC", she's projecting her views into a reality that is distinctly different.  The origin of the MOOC is in the field of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence.  The original MOOCs were very much instructor-led, with very specific, well defined tasks for the student to follow.

Because the tasks were very tightly controlled, marking could be automated, and hundreds of thousands of students could be individually assessed by machine.

Morrison is mistakenly applying the standards for her own niche, the small-to-medium online course, to a very different animal.

Morrison's courses are comparable to a seminar-based course in more traditional education.  Every generation has accepted that seminar-based courses are better than lecture-based ones, but that they're more work for the teacher because the uncontrolled variables lead to a massive space of potential outcomes and directions for the class.

Online education for small classes is a good realisation of the seminar-based course, because the online medium removes some of the time pressures on the instructor in terms of organisation, logistics and delivery; time which can be devoted instead to tailored group and individual feedback.

But when you've got one instructor and one teaching assistant for a class of 41,000 students (foe) or 1 instructor for a class of 150,000 (claimed by Ed Tech Magazine for a Udacity course), then that's out the window.  A teacher cannot be a "guide" or a "facilitator" to a group that big.  A teacher cannot even have a concept of the individual students as human beings (we're well beyond Dunbar's Number here).

A massive course cannot be student-centred because there are simply too many students.

And let's go back to the seminar-style class for a minute. Seminar-based classes are far more common in taught postgrad courses than in undergrad courses, and while you might encounter them in undergrad courses, you'll only see them in degree-year modules, or in very specialised, low intake degree schemes.  As I said before, seminar based courses are more work, but more specifically, they take a lot more time to grade.  An open-ended course leads to an open-ended assessment.  If you have a class of 400 students, marking essays is an endless task, and it is very difficult to mark them all fairly and equally, but if you give them a structured exam, marking is quick, easy and completely objective.

But more than that, the standard system provides a gradual shift in abstraction.  Perhaps this is a happy accident rather than by design, but as we progress through our degree scheme, we should be building up a toolkit of useful skills and concepts that can later be applied elsewhere.  As that toolkit expands, we are slowly given greater freedom to apply and think.

My opinion is, and always had been, that the MOOC must be seen as a vehicle for "basic skills" courses.  Many within the educational establishment reject basic skills teaching in favour of "whole topic" teaching, but I personally believe that they've done so on the wrong grounds.

If you were to tell me that basic skills teaching is categorically bad, I would disagree with you.  Basic skills are prerequisite to advanced skills.

But if instead you were to tell me that teaching basic skills properly and exhaustively is good in theory, but unfortunately not practical given class sizes and constraints on classroom time, I think I would be able to accept your point.

And this is where online can really flourish: we can take the basic skills load out of the classroom.  Have the students work on the basic skills individually, using constrained tasks that a computer can assess.  These types of tasks can be completed much quicker without all the usual classroom faff of handing out sheets, explaining the task, checking up on students, going over the answers, addressing individual errors with the whole group etc.  The volume of work that is assessed or otherwise receives feedback can be increased, as the teacher's time is no longer a limiting factor.

Then the students can go into the class with the basic skills they need to address larger, more abstract, more challenging tasks.  Lessons can be more rewarding for both the student and the teacher.

Debbie Morrison proposes turning a course with a 5-figure class roll into a student-centred, open-ended seminar course, but that is precisely what the FOE Mooc attempted to do, and it was a total train wreck.  Debbie's "takeaway" from the incident isn't asking us to learn from their mistakes, but to repeat them.

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