Friday, April 12, 2013

MOOCs: Lets Do The Timewarp Again!

The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Lets Do The Timewarp Again
I love all the arguments from the 1990s that were leveled at online teaching and learning that are now being leveled at MOOCs. I re-read all of my favorite straw-man hits from the 90s including the digital divide, lack of credibility, perception by the establishment, lack of interaction, etc. all remixed for the MOOC era.

Currently, educators and journalists struggle to write about MOOCs because the term MOOCs covers a broad category of online courses. When they are writing about MOOCs, they tend to only be thinking of the latest wave of entrepreneurial colleges like Corsera - they do not understand that MOOCs have been successfully working in places like the University of Manitoba and Canada's open university, Athabasca. Those are referred to as the "Connectivist MOOCs" or cMOOCs originally founded by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. And that folks like Jim Groom have been successfully running task-based MOOCs like DS 106 for years before MOOC became the latest scary innovation.

The current jeremiads are being written by journalists and educators who can't distinguish a collection of videos (such as Khan Academy) in YouTube from an online course, have little experience with online learning and no experience with MOOCs (or a single experience with a particular kind of MOOC with which they try to define the whole phenomena).

I am amazed at how few educators get the money issue. There is a lot of hand-wringing out there around questions like "why would the students pay for my class when they can go to MIT or Stanford for free?" The answer is usually something as smug as John Marks' conclusion "they are for self-improvement, we are for self-formation." There are students out there who need the information that MOOCs are providing because they may not live near a college or have the time and money for the "self-formation" experience that Marks is promising.

The criticisms against MOOCs generally fall along the same lines as the arguments they were using against online education - MOOCs are bad because students won't be able to socialize, make connections, join clubs and fraternal organizations, participate in sports, see the instructor talk, and they will be reading on computers instead of sipping sherry in a big leather chair reading a first edition of Keats. How could a MOOC replicate that? Never mind the fact that many students do not have the opportunity of socializing and making connections in college. Some students 20 hours a week and commuted to college.

This points to some fundamental misconceptions about online learning and why students take online classes. Typically, they are not taking them to replicate the "college experience" - they are taking them because they cannot get to the college experience. I have been excited about MOOCs as I have been about online eduction, open education resources, and open textbooks because they are opportunities open up education to more people who would otherwise not get it.
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  1. Thanks for this, Geoff. 'Twas the "strawman" in your tweet about this post that caught my eye, especially since I was considering using the very word in some communications to describe the polarized nature of the coverage/discussion of MOOCs.


  2. then there is the ongoing challenge of explaining to colleagues who really ought to know better... I just want to send them a link and have a stiff drink

  3. I agree with most of this, but I have one quick question. Given the current emphasis on elite brands on the northern hemisphere cMOOC platforms, who have deep pockets when it comes to media production capability, how do we balance the risk to smaller economies who want to sustain their own intellectual capacity to generate content?

    The MOOC situation seems to me on the brink of reproducing some of the irreversible structural inequalities of global entertainment media: a tiny fraction of the world's culture dominates the world's screens, and small cinema industries rely on their own government protection and support to survive.

    Will educational content become a kind of space race, that only the wealthy nations can afford? If this was the case, would it matter?

    I don't think we saw this question asked of online education last time around.

  4. Kate,

    "cMOOCs" are "connectivist MOOCs" - they depend on student interaction and personal learning networks. The educational content is creating by the students interacting with one another about a video, article or webinar. The xMOOCs are the big elite colleges working with corporations in a basically unsustainable model. "Siemen’s famously said 'cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication'. More simply, Smith says 'in an xMOOC you watch videos, in a cMOOC you make videos.'"