Thinking about MOOCs

I’ve been on a whirlwind tour of the US during our teaching break, visiting with several colleagues and also luckily being able to catch up with family. A lot of what we have been talking about during this trip has been the idea of the MOOC, and what the possible impact of MOOCs might be.

Yesterday, we met with some of the staff at Georgia Tech to discuss their experiences. One of the ideas that we discussed was the idea that MOOCs could actually – in the future – provide a better learning experience for students. Although this is obviously still questionable for many reasons, their point was that they were putting so much effort into the course design, working with learning designers and spending so much time planning their course, the activities and the learning objectives, that they were confident that it would be a better experience.

This is only part of the question though, as even with a well designed course, with very clear learning objectives and well produced materials, we still have to solve the issues of how we form active and collaborative learning experiences for students, and how we assess and provide feedback to students that will be effective in this environment.

Today, I attended a seminar by Don Norman, who was also talking about MOOCs and his own experiences with his own course. One of the interesting points that Don made is that he is excited about the potential of MOOCs but not so much for what they represent immediately, but for the way that the work on MOOCs is introducing so much effort related to improving learning and teaching. This immediately reminded me of the discussions yesterday, where it became apparent that much of the effort that was being expended was not related specifically to the fact that a course was a MOOC, but was associated with good course design – regardless of the platform.

It is very interesting, and potentially exciting, that this new idea for teaching could be stirring now interests and motivations for course design.

Don talked about his own difficulties in teaching some more difficult concepts in his course, describing attempts to demonstrate worked examples – the problem is in creating a worked example or demonstration that both captures the attention of the student, and also actually helps them learn. How do you know if someone has learnt something when they are just watching a video?

Don talked about the use of peer evaluation, and the difficulty in making sure that the peer evaluations are robust – requiring training of the students in peer evaluation. So we need to have instructors in there working with the students at some point. Of course, he did point out that none of the existing platforms for MOOCs had the right support for this.

One of the future possibilities for the MOOC is the idea that each student pays a small amount of money to take the course, which – with scale – will provide for instructor support for assessment, collaboration and feedback. What does this actually mean for education? Will we introduce a system where we have 3-4 courses across the globe for each core topic, and we have an enormous team of distributed instructors based at some form of university, working directly with the students to provide feedback and assistance? This idea scares me – with diversity comes innovation. Without it, where would we be?

Are we just going to create this giant fleet of TAs that have no control of what they are teaching, or how?

This is an interesting idea, though – what would we be actually sharing in this scenario? Course materials, activity designs, final assessments? Would it just be the core course materials, and activities would be designed to suit the immediate cohort?

I think if I was confident that we knew enough about teaching, I would feel much more comfortable about this. However, I don’t think we know enough about how we teach. So the idea that we will build MOOCs and they will take over is perhaps premature. I can see, however, that we will expend a lot of energy in constructing online course materials that will be useful exemplars of how to teach aspects of individual courses – and that this will introduce new discussions on how to teach, and how to assess, but that we will continue to build new courses (both online and offline) as we continue to learn more and more about what we are doing.

In the discussion time, Mark Guzdial asked some questions about whether MOOCs were achieving what they set out to do, based on the idea that MOOCs are mostly taken by white, male, US students and so they are not being widely and openly used. Don had a good response to this, which I feel accidentally supports my point – that the reason that most of the people taking MOOCs are white, male and from the US is that the disciplines that are associated with most of the MOOCs also reflect those demographics (at least the white male aspects). His point is that MOOCs just reflect the current reality in education, in that we don’t know how to teach these courses anyway so that they are inclusive for all groups.

So why on earth would we be trying to adopt these same teaching approaches at a massive scale if we already know there are significant problems with them?

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