What’s wrong with MOOCs? Some thoughts

This was a question asked by George Siemens on his blog and discussed by George, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Dave Cormier and Jim Groom in an open Elluminate session (around 45 attendees in all) on 20th Dec.

To think of a MOOC as being wrong is to think of it as a course. For me a MOOC is the antithesis of a course. The principles on which it is based – autonomy, diversity, connectedness and openness cannot be reconciled with a course. Why? Because a course implies assessment. As soon assessment enters the equation, then autonomy – the key principle of connectivism – is lost.

That’s not to say that within traditionally assessed courses we cannot – as course designers – consider more deeply the implications of designing our courses to increase the possibility of autonomy, openness, diversity and connectedness. But within the traditional system of accreditation and validation there are considerable constraints on what we can achieve. Anyone who is paying for a course – open or not – is going to have expectations of what they get for their money and that usually means, in my experience,  of the level of tutoring/facilitation they receive.

So the question of  ‘What is wrong with MOOCs?’  has to be considered in terms of whether the course is accredited or not. The answer to the question for each is different. For the accredited course there has already been much research on what makes for a good online course and what makes for good online facilitation. Of course – the ‘massive’ part of MOOC means that the facilitators’ role has to be reconsidered. Alec Couros realised this when he asked for volunteer mentors.

But for an unaccredited course – and I much prefer Jim Groom’s idea that we should be thinking in terms of online learning ‘events’ rather than courses  – then , in my view, the responsibility lies with the learner and the whole ethos and ethics of the ‘event’ changes. As an aside – a question that has occurred to me is how is an ‘event’ different from a conference? There have been many successful online conferences, but I do not see an event based on MOOC principles as being the same thing as a conference. If the ‘event’ is ‘not for credit’, I cannot see much wrong with the way in which they have been designed to date. Whilst there are things we might not like and also contradictions in the way in which the basic principles of open courses can be interpreted (see Mackness, et al – The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC), the responsibility for learning is ultimately down to the learner.

What I am currently finding interesting is how difficult it is to apply, in practice, the principles of connectivism  – which I see to be the principles of open courses (autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness) in the traditional settings in which most of us educators probably find ourselves.  I strongly believe in these principles, but find when I try to apply them to course design that they are subject to many constraints, not only externally but also internally, i.e. constraints from my own thinking. If I am honest, it is more difficult to truly change my own practice than I would have thought, whatever my changing beliefs. One of the constraints I encounter – which I think has been raised by Lisa Lane in her blog  – is in the teaching of skills. In the MOOCs I have attended (CCK08, Critical Literacies, PLENK) , the course content, i.e. what we are expected to learn has been loose and within the remit of own ideas and thinking. We have been encouraged to navigate our own way through these ideas and follow our own interests and paths of learning. If we learn skills along the way that is a bonus – but they have not been explicitly taught and they have not been a focus of the course content.

But what if the learning of a skill is the focus of the course – in my case  – the courses I tutor on are for participants who want to learn the skills of e-moderation/facilitation.  Then – whichever way I look at it – however much choice is designed into the course – ultimately the success of the course relies on whether the participants can demonstrate the skills of e-moderation/e-facilitation. And for this they need to be pointed to some activities in which they can demonstrate this. As I write this, I wonder if this is true, but my experience to date is – that it is.

So – to come back to the question of what is wrong with MOOCs – my summary answer would be – not a lot so long as they stick to the principles of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness outlined by Stephen Downes.  It is sticking to and interpreting these principles for different contexts that is the difficult bit.

6 thoughts on “What’s wrong with MOOCs? Some thoughts

  1. Alan December 22, 2010 / 11:55 pm

    I could not agree more- for the MOOCs so far have been very “course-ish”; while they are new creatures, they have most of the vestigial anatomy of traditional courses.

    The “event” concept came from Dave Cormier’s lovely What is a MOOC video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW3gMGqcZQc) but its a little bit of a misnomer in suggesting it is short in time duration, like conferences, where you have bursts of activity in short periods of time.

    I do not know the name for an “event” that takes place over longer periods of times (weeks, months) over many places (virtually) and with many people coming and going.

  2. Carmen Tschofen December 23, 2010 / 12:10 am

    Hi Jenny,

    Haven’t heard the Elluminate recording, but a couple of quick thoughts percolating from your post amidst the otherwise pressing demands of the solstice season☺:

    I addressed some initial apparent contradictions of a MOOC during CCK08. A lot of these thoughts still seem applicable. (http://bit.ly/fT7vkP) Additionally, the issue of autonomy continues to crop up. Trying this thought on for size: if one believes that a course structure and/or specific instruction is necessary, the resulting absence of autonomy in this circumstance might actually be form of security. Learners who believe they need these things are relieved of personal responsibility as they can point to the course or instructors as being the ones at “at fault” when they do not learn, or, conversely, as the reason they have been able to learn. And creators of courses and instructors ensure their own necessity (or existence?) through agreeing to the importance of — and accepting the responsibility of—courses and instruction and assessment.

    As long as everyone plays by these rules, autonomy (depending on how you might define that!) is not necessary or desirable, and, as in your example, mutually-agreed-upon desirable ends are still achieved. But where such ideas or tacitly agreed-upon parameters are viewed as open to differing interpretations or (I keep using this word) moot by some of the players, such as in some MOOCs, tensions develop.

    I’m also thinking about whether I can be taught a skill, depending on how we define “teach,” I suppose (or perhaps my degree of blockheadedness:-)). I can be shown a skill, I can practice a skill, I can develop skill as I do work in which it is embedded within other actions. And there are touchpoints in which conversations specific to that skill or skill set occur– thinking that weekly music lessons are a classic example– but these are still based on actions that must occur under the learner’s own purview, otherwise the music “instructor’s” time has been wasted! In this example, the demonstration/proof of skill is ultimately (authentically) in the performance, not in the course/teaching environment for the teacher. And if it is the teacher who ultimately “gives permission” or certifies, rather than simply supports, readiness for performance, then we’re back to the control concern that is inherent to courses, perhaps?

    Finally, I don’t really see a MOOC as a course or event or conference; I see it rather as a three (or more?)-dimensional space; I think MOOCs have more in common with experimental architecture (leading to questions about how people will act within the space, how they perceive any boundaries, etc.) or emerging built environments that occur in neighborhoods/developments based on more organic design principles. For example, in areas where walkways are not planned or visible, people create and gravitate naturally to “desire paths” or “social trails” as they navigate through and among the spaces. Observation of these trails, of course, can help future planning, but often, especially in less developed areas, they remain vernacular and can change as a result of other environmental shifts.

    Not sure this all holds up in extended metaphor, but rather than understand a MOOC using comparisons that depend on attendance (school is still stuck in our brains!), I’m currently inclined to use more organic or spatial or use-based comparisons.


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