Great critique by Tom Worthington of an alleged for-credit MOOC from MIT that was anything but a MOOC. As Tom rightly points out, two instructors, 31 students, and online materials from EdX do not a MOOC make. As he notes, this kind of instructional process has been working pretty well for decades, including at Athabasca, as it happens. What is relatively novel, perhaps, is that the fact that the course itself was supplied at no (extra) cost to the institution. Effectively (though not quite in this case as it was an MIT course in the first place) this was a typical use of an OER course with accreditation and tuition wrapped around it, following a practice that has been common in many places – especially in developing countries – since the earliest MOOCs in 2008. Tom himself has created a great OER course on green computing that we use here at AU, which follows much the same pattern (though we have lightly adapted the Australian course for local use).
Less stress in online learning?
Tom observes that in this intervention, as in his own teaching, students tend to take the online option due to scheduling difficulties, not by preference, but that they are less stressed by the process than their face-to-face counterparts. This makes sense because there’s a lot more teaching presence in a course that is a) designed for online delivery (usually with great care and attention to detail) and b) supported by live teachers. Online learners in this kind of set-up are getting a huge amount of support for their learning, both from course designers/developers and from their own professors. Technically speaking, some of that exuberance of teaching will cancel out due to the inevitable tension between structure and dialogue implied by transactional distance theory, but the opportunities for feedback on coursework, at least, more than compensate for the high transactional distance caused by the industrial teaching approach of a pre-prepared online course. At least, I hope so, because (though mainly with courses we have developed ourselves and only rarely with OERs) this is exactly what Athabasca University has been doing for nearly 50 years, apparently with some success.
More stress in online teaching?
Personally, I have to admit, I normally hate teaching other people’s courses, although it is something I have often done. However well-developed they might be, there are always things I disagree with, factually and pedagogically, and I deeply dislike the strait jackets such structured courses create. This is perhaps a little hypocritical of me because I expect tutors on my courses to do exactly that, and routinely allocate my own faculty to teach courses that others have written, putting them in exactly that position. Whatever. Few seem to suffer my aversion to the same degree and many seem to positively relish it. I guess it makes it easier, with fewer choices to make. To each their own. But even I am very happy to take an existing OER (like Tom’s) and alter it to my own purposes, and am even happier to offer alternative OERs for my students to use within a pedagogical framework I have created. I think this is just common sense, giving both me and my students plenty of freedom to do what suits us best. Either way, re-use of existing well-designed courses is at least as great an idea as it was when Otto Peters came up with his industrial model of distance learning some decades ago.
The reputation of online learning
Tom notes that online and distance education has a bad reputation: to some extent, yes, sure, some people feel that way. Yes, there have been some bad examples of the modality that have resulted in bad press (ahem…Phoenix) and naive folk that have never experienced online learning do tend to believe that there is some magic that happens face to face that cannot be replicated online. They are right, as it happens: some things are difficult or impossible to replicate and it is a kind of magic. But the converse is also true – great things happen online that cannot be replicated face to face, and that’s a kind of magic too. And, just as not everyone gets a great online experience, for many ‘face to face’ learners the experience is uniformly dire, with large impersonal lectures, ill-conceived pedagogies delivered by untrained teachers, and considerably less human interaction than what would typically be found online. On balance, while it is not quite correct to say that there is no significant difference, because there really are some basic differences in the need for self-management and control, there is no significant difference in the outcomes we choose to measure.
But, to return to the point, although some look upon online degrees less kindly, there are many employers who actively prefer those that have learned online because it is strong proof of their self-determination, will-power, and desire to succeed. I can confirm this positive perception: our students at AU are, on average, streets ahead of their traditionally taught counterparts, especially when you consider that a great many do not have the traditional qualifications needed to get into a conventional institution. I am constantly amazed by the skill and perseverance of our amazing students. On my own courses, especially in graduate teaching, I do everything I can to enable them to teach one another, because they tend to come to us with an incredible wealth of knowledge that just needs to be tapped and channelled.
A workable model
Though Tom is a little critical, I see value in what MIT is doing here. For some years now I have been trying to make the case at AU that we should be offering support for, and the means to credential, MOOCs offered elsewhere. This would give freedom to students to pick ways of learning that suit them best, to gain the benefits of diversity, and allow us to provide the kind of tutorial support and accreditation that we are pretty good at, at only a fraction of the (roughly) $100K cost of developing a typical course. It would give us the freedom to extend our offerings quite considerably, and avoid the need to keep developing the same curricula that are found everywhere else, so that we could differentiate ourselves by not just the style of teaching but also the subjects that we offer. This can in principle be done to some extent already through our challenge process (if you can find an equivalent course, take it, then take our challenge paper for a lot less than the price of a full course) and we do have independent study courses at graduate level that can be used much this way, with tutor support. But we could make a lot more of it if we did it just a bit more mindfully.
Teachers who want to learn more about teaching with technology will find this Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Introduction to Technology-Enabled Learning (TEL), informative and engaging. Using up-to-date learning design and simple, accessible technology, the course runs on an easy-to-use learning platform available via the Internet. The course is designed for teachers who want to build on their knowledge and practice in teaching and learning with technology. It will run over five weeks and requires approximately three to five hours of time each week. Designed to accommodate teachers’ busy schedules, the course offers flexibility with options for learning the content. You will learn from readings, videos, discussions with other participants and instructors, meaningful exercises, quizzes and short assignments. Certification is available for those who wish to complete all required exercises and quizzes.
Thanks to Gerald Ardito for pointing this one out to me. It’s about the growing use of libraries for learning circles, where groups of learners get together locally to study, in this case around MOOCs provided via P2PU. Librarians – rarely subject-matter experts – organize these groups and provide support for the process, but most of the learning engagement is peer-to-peer. As the article notes, the process is quite similar to that of a book club.
As the article suggests, such learning circles are popping up all over the place, not just in libraries. Indeed, the Landing has been used by our students to arrange quite similar study-buddy groups at AU, albeit with less formal organization and intent and not always working on the same courses together. Though there are benefits to be had from co-constructing knowledge together, people do not necessarily need to be working on the same thing. Simply being there to support , enthuse, or inspire one another is often enough to bring real benefits. There are two models, both of which work. The first, as in the case of these learning circles, is to use central coordination online, with local communities working on the same things at roughly the same times. The second is distributed the other way round, with the local communities providing the centre, but with individuals working online in different contexts.
This blurring between local and online is a growing and significant trend. It somewhat resembles the pattern of business and innovation centres that bring together people from many companies etc, working remotely from their own organizations in a shared local space. Doing different things in physical spaces shared with other people helps to overcome many of the issues of isolation experienced by online workers and learners, especially in terms of motivation, without the need to move everyone in an organization (be it a university, a class, or a company) into the same physical location. It adds economies of scale, too, allowing the use of shared resources (e.g. printers, 3D printers, heating, conferencing facilities, etc), and reduces environmentally and psychologically costly issues around commuting and relocating. Moreover, decoupling location and work while supporting physical community brings all the benefits of diversity that, in a traditional organization or classroom, tend to get lost. Working online does not and should not interfere with local connection with real human beings, and this is a great way to support our need to be with other people, and the value that we get from being with them. From the perspective of the environment, our local communities, our psychological well-being, our relationships, our creativity, and our bank balances, local communities and remote working, or remote communities and local working, both seem far more sensible, at least for many occupations and many kinds of learning.
The article reports completion rates of 45-55%, which is at least an order of magnitude greater than the norm for MOOCs, although it would be unwise to read too much into that because of the self-selection bias inherent in this: it might well be that those who were sufficiently interested to make the effort to visit the libraries would be those that would persist anyway. However, theory and experience both suggest that the benefits of getting together at one place and time should lead to far greater motivation to persist. Going somewhere with other people at a particular time to do something is, after all, pretty much the only significant value in most lectures. This is just a more cost-effective, learning-effective, human way of doing that.
This acronym is very ripe for satire. My local public library is full of BOOCs, quite a few of which might be thought of as big, open, offline courses.
Dan Hickey explains: a BOOC is in fact a big open online course with up to about 500 members. This size limit is to enable more interactive, participitatory and socially-driven, though still teacher-managed, pedagogies in a large-ish setting without breaking the bank. It’s an open and pedagogically enlightened version of the recently hyped SPOC or, as we normally refer to it, ‘online course’.
Dan’s model is most interesting as a testbed for OpenBadges and the use of WikiFolios, allowing participatory, learner-driven and on-demand assessment in some very admirable and interesting ways. So, though the acronym is a little painful, the ideas behind the implementation itself are most cool. One to follow.
This is a very interesting, if (I will argue) flawed, paper by Margaryan, Bianco and Littlejohn using a Course Scan instrument to examine the instructional design qualities of 76 randomly selected MOOCs (26 cMOOCs and 50 xMOOCs – the imbalance was caused by difficulties finding suitable cMOOCs). The conclusions drawn are that very few MOOCs, if any, show much evidence of sound instructional design strategies. In fact they are, according to the authors, almost all an instructional designer’s worst nightmare, on at least some dimensions.
I like this paper but I have some fairly serious concerns with the way this study was conducted, which means a very large pinch of salt is needed when considering its conclusions. The central problem lies in the use of prescriptive criteria to identify ‘good’ instructional design practice, and then using them as quantitative measures of things that are deemed essential to any completed course design.
It starts reasonably well. Margaryan et al use David Merrill’s well-accepted abstracted principles for instructional design to identify kinds of activities that should be there in any course and that, being somewhat derived from a variety of models and theories, are pretty reasonable: problem centricity, activation of prior learning, expert demonstration, application and integration. However, the chinks begin to show even here, as it is not always essential that all of these are explicitly contained within a course itself, even though consideration of them may be needed in the design process – for example, in an apprenticeship model, integration might be a natural part of learners’ lives, while in an open ‘by negotiated outcome’ course (e.g. a typical European PhD) the problems may be inherent in the context. But, as a fair approximation of what activities should be in most conventional taught courses, it’s not bad at all, even though it might show some courses as ‘bad’ when they are in fact ‘good’.
The authors also add five more criteria abstracted from literature relating rather loosely to ‘resources’, including: expert feedback; differentiation (i.e. personalization); collaboration; authentic resources; and use of collective knowledge (i.e. cooperative sharing). These are far more contentious, with the exception of feedback, which almost all would agree should be considered in some form in any learning design (and which is a process thing anyway, not a resource issue). However, even this does not always need to be the expert feedback that the authors demand: automated feedback (which is, to be fair, a kind of ossified expert feedback, at least when done right), peer feedback or, best of all, intrinsic feedback can often be at least as good in most learning contexts. Intrinsic feedback (e.g. when learning to ride a bike, falling off it or succeeding to stay upright) is almost always better than any expert feedback, albeit that it can be enhanced by expert advice. None of the rest of these ‘resources’ criteria are essential to an effective learning design. They can be very useful, for sure, although it depends a great deal on context and how it is done, and there are often many other things that may matter as much or more in a design, like including support for reflection, for example, or scope for caring or passion to be displayed, or design to ensure personal relevance. It is worth noting that Merrill observes that, beyond the areas of broad agreement (which I reckon are somewhat shoehorned to fit), there is much more in other instructional design models that demands further research and that may be equally if not more important than those identified as common.
It ain’t what you do…
Like all things in education, it ain’t what you do but how you do it that makes all the difference, and it is all massively dependent on subject, context, learners and many other things. Prescriptive measures of instructional design quality like these make no sense when applied post-hoc because they ignore all this. They are very reasonable starting frameworks for a designer that encourage focus on things that matter and can make a big difference in the design process, but real life learning designs have to take the entire context into account and can (and often should) be done differently. Learning design (I shudder at the word ‘instructional’ because it implies so many unhealthy assumptions and attitudes) is a creative and situated activity. It makes no more sense to prescribe what kinds of activities and resources should be in a course than it does to prescribe how paintings should be composed. Yes, a few basics like golden ratios, rules of thirds, colour theory, etc can help the novice painter produce something acceptable, but the fact that a painting disobeys these ‘rules’ does not make it a bad painting: sometimes, quite the opposite. Some of the finest teaching I have ever seen or partaken of has used the most appalling instructional design techniques, by any theoretical measure.
Over-rigid assumptions and requirements
One of the biggest troubles with such general-purpose abstractions is that they make some very strong prior assumptions about what a course is going to be like and the context of delivery. Thanks to their closer resemblance to traditional courses (from which it should be clearly noted that the design criteria are derived) this is, to an extent, fair-ish for xMOOCs. But, even in the case of xMOOCs, the demand that collaboration, say, must occur is a step too far: as decades of distance learning research has shown (and Athabasca University proved for decades), great learning can happen without it and, while cooperative sharing is pragmatic and cost-effective, it is not essential in every course. Yes, these things are often a very good idea. No, they are not essential. Terry Anderson’s well-verified (and possibly self-confirming, though none the worse for it) theorem of interaction equivalency makes this pretty clear.
cMOOCs are not xMOOCs
Prescriptive criteria as a tool for evaluation make no sense whatsoever in a cMOOC context. This is made worse because the traditional model is carried to extremes in this paper, to the extent that the authors bemoan the lack of clear learning outcomes. This doesn’t naturally fall out from the design principles at all, so I don’t understand why they are even mentioned, and it seems an abitrary criterion that has no validity or justification beyond the fact that they are typically used in university teaching. As teacher-prescribed learning outcomes are anathema to Connectivism it is very surprising indeed that the cMOOCs actually scored higher than the xMOOCs on this metric, which makes me wonder whether the means of differentiation were sufficiently rigorous. A MOOC that genuinely followed Connectivist principles would not provide learning outcomes at all: foci and themes, for sure, but not ‘at the end of this course you will be able to x’. And, anyway, as a lot of research and debate has shown, learning outcomes are of far greater value to teachers and instructional designers than they are to learners, for whom they may, if not handled with great care, actually get in the way of effective learning. It’s a process thing – helpful for creating courses, almost useless for taking them. The same problem occurs in the use of course organization in the criteria – cMOOC content is organized bottom-up by learners, so it is not very surprising that they lack careful top-down planning, and that is part of the point.
Apparently, some cMOOCs are not cMOOCs either
As well as concerns about the means of differentiating courses and the metrics used, I am also concerned with how they were applied. It is surprising that there was even a single cMOOC that didn’t incorporate use of ‘collective knowledge’ (the authors’ term for cooperative sharing and knowledge construction) because, without that, it simply isn’t a cMOOC: it’s there in the definition of Connectivism. As for differentiation, part of the point of cMOOCs is that learning happens through the network which, by definition, means people are getting different options or paths, and choosing those that suit their needs. The big point in both cases is that the teacher-designed course does not contain the content in a cMOOC: beyond the process support needed to build and sustain a network, any content that may be provided by the facilitators of such a course is just a catalyst for network formation and a centre around which activity flows and learner-generated content and activity is created. With that in mind it is worth pointing out that problem-centricity in learning design is an expression of teacher control which, again, is anathema to how cMOOCs work. Assuming that a cMOOC succeeds in connecting and mobilizing a network, it is all but certain that a great deal of problem-based and inquiry-based learning will be going on as people post, others respond, and issues become problematized. Moreover, the problems and issues will be relevant and meaningful to learners in ways that no pre-designed course can ever be. The content of a cMOOC is largely learner-generated so of course a problem focus is often simply not there in static materials supplied by people running it. cMOOCs do not tell learners what to do or how to do it, beyond very broad process support which is needed to help those networks to accrete. It would therefore be more than a little weird if they adhered to instructional design principles derived from teacher-led face-to-face courses in their designed content because, if they did, they would not be cMOOCs. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to criticize cMOOCs as a matter of principle on these grounds: given that (depending on the network) few will know much about learning and how to support it, one of the big problems with connectivist methods is that of getting lost in social space, with insufficient structure or guidance to suit all learning needs, insufficient feedback, inefficient paths and so on. I’d have some sympathy with such an argument, but it is not fair to judge cMOOCs on criteria that their instigators would reject in the first place and that they are actively avoiding. It’s like criticizing cheese for not being chalky enough.
It’s still a good paper though
For all that I find the conclusions of this paper very arguable and the methods highly criticizable, it does provide an interesting portrait of MOOCs using an unconventional lens. We need more research along these lines because, though the conclusions are mostly arguable, what is revealed in the process is a much richer picture of the kinds of things that are and are not happening in MOOCs. These are fine researchers who have told an old story in a new way, and this is enlightening stuff that is worth reading.
As an aside, we also need better editors and reviewers for papers like this: little tell-tales like the fact that ‘cMOOC’ gets to be defined as ‘constructivist MOOC’ at one point (I’m sure it’s just a slip of the keyboard as the authors are well aware of what they are writing about) and more typos than you might expect in a published paper suggest that not quite enough effort went into quality control at the editorial end. I note too that this is a closed journal: you’d think that they might offer better value for the money that they cream off for their services.
I have little to add to Tony’s comments apart from to mention the very obvious elephant in this room: that the sampling was skewed by the fact that it only considered considerably less than 10% of the original populace of the MOOC that actually got close to finishing it. It is not too surprising that most of those who had the substantial motivation demanded to finish the course (a large percentage of whom were very experienced learners in related fields) actually did pretty well. What it does not tell us is whether, say, a decent open textbook might have been equally or more effective for these manifestly highly motivated and proficient students. If so, it might not be a particularly cost-effective way of learning.
The study does compare performance of a remedial class of students (ie that had failed an initial course) who received plentiful further face to face support with that of the voluntarily subscribed online students. But the authors rightly note that it would be foolish to read anything into any of the differences found, including the fact that the campus-based students seemed to gain nothing from additional remedial tuition (they may be overly pessimistic about that: without that remedial effort, they might have done even worse) because the demographics and motivations of these students were a million miles removed from the rest of the cohort. Chalk and cheese.
One other interesting thing that is worth highlighting: this is one in a long line of articles focusing on interventions that, when looked at closely, suggest that people who spend more time learning learn more. I suspect that a lot of the value of this and indeed many courses comes from being given permission to learn (or, for the campus students, being made to do so) along with having a few signposts to show the way, a community to learn with, and a schedule to follow. Note that almost none of this has anything to do with how well or how badly a specific course is designed or implemented: it is in the nature of the beast itself. Systems teach as much as teachers. The example of the campus-based students suggests that this may not always be enough although, sadly, the article doesn’t compare the time on task for this group with the rest. It may well be that, despite an extra 4 hours in class each week, they still spent less time actually learning. In fact, given a prima facie case that these students had already mostly demonstrated a lack of interest and/or ability in the subject, then even that tutorial time may have not been dedicated learning time.
A small niggle: the comparison with in-class learning on different courses conducted by Hake in a 1998 study, which is mentioned a couple of times in the article, is quite spurious. There is a world of difference between predominantly extrinsically motivated classroom-bound students and those doing it because, self-evidently, they actually want to do it. If you were to extract the most motivated 10% of any class you might see rather different learning patterns too. The nearest comparison that would make a little sense here is with the remedial campus-bound students though, for aforementioned reasons, that would not be quite fair either.
Little or none of this is news to the researchers, who in their conclusion carefully write:
“Our self-selected online students are interested in learning, considerably older, and generally have many more years of college education than the on-campus freshmen with whom they have been compared. The on-campus students are taking a required course that most have failed to pass in a previous attempt. Moreover, there are more dropouts in the online course (but over 50% of students making a serious attempt at the second weekly test received certificates) and these dropouts may well be students learning less than those who remained. The pre- and posttest analysis is further blurred by the fact that the MOOC students could consult resources before answering, and, in fact, did consult within course resources significantly more during the posttest than in the pretest.”
This is a good and fair account of reasons to be wary of these results. What it boils down to is that there are almost no notable firm conclusions to be drawn from them about MOOCs in general, save that people taking them sometimes learn something or, at least, are able to past tests about them. This is also true of most people that read Wikipedia articles.
For all that, the paper is very well written, the interventions are well-described (and include some useful statistics, like the fact that 95% of the small number that attempted more than 50% of the questions went on to gain a certificate), the research methods are excellent, the analysis is very well conducted, and, in combination with others that I hope will follow, this very good paper should contribute a little to a larger body of future work from which more solid conclusions can be drawn. As Tony says, we need more studies like this.
Diana Laurillard chipping in with a perceptive set of observations, most interestingly describing education as a personal client industry, in which tutor/student ratios are remarkably consistent at around 1:25, so it is no great surprise that it doesn’t scale up. Seems to me that she is quite rightly attacking a particular breed of EdX, Coursera, etc xMOOC but it doesn’t have to be this way, and she carefully avoids discussing *why* that ratio is really needed – her own writings and her variant on conversation theory suggest there might be alternative ways of looking at this.
Her critique that xMOOCs appear to succeed only for those that already know how to be self-guided learners is an old chestnut that hits home. She is right in saying that MOOCs (xMOOCs) are pretty poor educational vehicles if the only people who benefit are those that can already drive, and it supports her point about the need for actual teachers for most people *if* we continue to teach in a skeuomorphic manner, copying the form of traditional courses without thinking why we do what we do and how courses actually work.
For me this explains clearly once again that the way MOOCs are being implemented is wrong and that we have to get away from the ‘course’ part of the acronym, and start thinking about what learners really need, rather than what universities want to give them.
Every institution of higher learning I visit or talk with seems intent on joining the MOOC scrum or, if not, is coming up with arguments why it shouldn’t. There’s also a wealth of poorly considered, badly researched opinion pieces too, many of them published by otherwise fairly reputable journals and news sources. I’ve been doing my bit to add poorly researched opinion too, talking in various venues about a few ideas and opinions that are not sufficiently rigorously explored to make into a decent paper. This post is still not worthy of a paper, but I think the main idea in it is worth sharing anyway. To save you the trouble of reading the whole thing, I’m going to be making the point that MOOCs disrupt because they quietly remove two of the almost-never-questioned but most-totally-nonsensical foundations on which most traditional university teaching is based – integral accreditation and fixed course lengths – and their poor completion rates therefore encourage us/force us to ask ourselves why we do such things. My hope is that the result of such reflection will be to bring about change. To situate my opinions relative to those of others, I will start by offering a slight caricature of the three main stances that people seem to be taking on MOOCs.
Opinion 1 – it’s all rubbish and online learning is pants
The cantankerati are, of course, telling us that there is nothing new here, or that online learning isn’t as good as face to face, or that it is all hype, or that the learning outcomes are not as good as those at (insert preferred institution, preferably one’s alma mater, here) etc. This is a fad, they tell us. They look at things like drop-out rates or Udacity partnering with Georgia Tech or Coursera moving into competition with Blackboard, or the fact that millenial college students prefer traditional to online classes (err – seriously? that’s like asking iPhone users if they prefer them to Android phones) and nod their heads sagely, smugly and in an ‘I told you so’ fashion. No doubt, when the bubble bursts (as it will) they will be the first to gloat. But they are wrong about the failings of MOOCs, on most significant counts.
Opinion 2 – it’s a step in the right direction, but (insert prejudice here)
Others think that there is something worth preserving here and are trying to invent new variants – usually xOOCs of some kind, or MOOxs, or, in rare cases, xOOxs, liking some aspect of the MOOC idea such as openness or size but not liking others. The acolytes of online learning (AOLs for short, oddly enough) are getting all excited about the fact that people are at last paying attention to what they have been saying for years, though most are tempering their enthusiasm with observations about the appalling pedagogies, the creation of a two-tier system of higher education, problems with accrediting MOOC learning, and high ‘dropout’ rates. They are wondering why these MOOCish upstarts haven’t read their own august works on the subject which would obviously steer them right. They will, when pressed, grudgingly admit that these rank enthusiastic amateurs are (dammit) quite signally succeeding in ways they have only dreamed of, but they still know better. There are many of these, some of which are actually very thoughtful and penetrating and by no means unsubtle in their analysis: John Daniel’s well-informed sagacious overview, Paul Stacey’s intelligent mourning of the overshadowing of a good idea, or Carol Edwards’s slightly jaundiced but interesting and revealing first-person report for BCIT, for instance. There are far more unsubtle and far less well-informed rants that I won’t bother linking here that complain about the pedagogies, or tell us that there is nothing new at all in this, or that think they see an alternative future etc. Oh, alright – here’s one that I find particularly silly and here are my comments on it.
Opinion 3 – the sky is falling! The sky is falling!
There is a third group that is fairly sure that MOOCs are very important and that they are causing or, at least, catalyzing a seismic shift in education. The popular press clearly demonstrates that there’s a revolution happening, for better or worse, and most people who hold this position want to be on that bandwagon, wherever it may be going. If not, they fear they will be left in the dust. There are some notable holders of this perspective who justify and examine their beliefs in intelligent ways, such as the ever-brilliant Donald Clark, for example, who has recently written a great series of posts that are both critical and rabble-rousing.
And many in between…
Between and spanning these caricatures are some really interesting and perceptive commentaries, and only a few have as clear-cut an opinion as I portray here. Aaron Bady’s post casting a critical eye on the hype, for example, picks apart the sky falling very carefully, and situates itself a little in the ‘right direction’ camp without being too much on the ‘but…’ side of things. The recent Edinburgh report on their pilot MOOCs is a model of careful research and openness to critical and creative thinking. George Siemens’s excellent analysis of x-vs-c MOOCs is another great piece that avoids much bias one way or the other while identifying some of the key issues for the future.
Where I sit
You could call me a fan. My PhD (completed well over 10 years ago) was largely about how large online crowds can learn together. I’ve signed up for (but not completed) quite a few MOOCs since 2008, and I’ve been a more active participant at times, playing a teaching role in a couple and helping to lead one in early 2011. I ran my first education-oriented web server offering what we would now call open educational resources in 1993. I read an average of two or three articles on MOOCs every day, maybe more. I’ve joined up with the newly formed WideWorldEd project and have been engaged in discussions and planning about MOOCs at three different institutions.
I am definitely not one of the cantakerati though I am highly sceptical of any blanket claim that a particular flavour of teaching leads to better or worse learning than any other, be it online or not. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
I do not believe that the pedagogies of most MOOCs are particularly bad or retrograde. Talking heads, objective tests and other favourite tools of early xMOOC providers are not my cup of tea, and the chaos of cMOOCs (that I like a lot more) seems to favour only a few neterate winners, but most that I have seen are actually at least as good as their paid-for counterparts. There are quite a lot that do not fall neatly into either of these main camps too – e.g. http://ds106.us – and both camps share a lot in common with each other that neither camp seems particularly happy to acknowledge: connectivist networks thread through and around xMOOCs and disrupt their neat outlines, while cMOOCs often employ what look and smell a lot like instructivist lectures as significant parts of the process. But, whatever the similarities, what and how people teach is seldom what and how people actually learn so it is not that important. Quality is not a direct correlate of the pedagogies and other technologies used. In fact, it is interesting to note that a recent article on MOOC junkies highlighted the greater significance of passion in the professor, something I and many others have been saying for quite a while. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
For me, the sky is not falling yet though it certainly has a few more interesting colours than it had a year or two ago and there are some fascinating systemic effects that are mostly, but not all, positive. But this is not the beginning of the end of higher education as we know it. In some ways, it could be the beginning of something much more interesting.
What really appeals to me most about MOOCs is their almost universally low completion rates. Whatever this means for MOOCs themselves, and however much it upsets their providers (not their learners), in my opinion this is by far their most positive systemic feature. While It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, I have one important proviso that needs to be added to that: there are some things that you can do that will most probably and in some cases definitely fail to get results. And this is really what this post is about.
So, what about those completion rates?
One thing that many of the cantankerati, the fearfully curious and the AOLs amicably agree on is that that fact that most people drop out of most MOOCs shows that there is something wrong with the idea, or how it has been implemented, or both. Some MOOCs struggle to keep 2% of their students while the best (on horse feeding, as it happens) have managed a little over 40%. The vast majority (so far) have succeeded in keeping less than 10% of their students to the bitter end. This is particularly odd given that, on most MOOCs, the majority of course-takers have at least one degree, many are educators, and quite a few have post-graduate qualifications. These are, for the most part, mature learners who know how to learn and probably think about how they do it.
For some, this is proof that online learning doesn’t work (self-evidently wrong, I’m glad to say, or I and hundreds of thousands of others would be out of a job, Wikipedia would vanish and Google Search would be largely abandoned). For others, it is proof that the pedagogies don’t work (not entirely right either, or no one would take them). The more informed, also known as those who think about it for more than two seconds, realize pretty quickly that MOOCs do not require any strong interest, let alone any significant commitment to sign up to, nor do they demand any prerequisites. So, of course, most people ‘drop out’ within the first couple of weeks, if indeed they pay any attention at all beyond spending less than a minute signing up and vaguely thinking that it might be interesting to take part. They may have insufficient interest, they may find it too hard, too easy, too boring, or too engrossing and demanding of their time. Maybe they don’t like the professor. Maybe they have better things to do. Nor is it any surprise that people whose only commitment is time might drop out after the first couple of weeks – many get what they came for and stop, or they lose interest, or get distracted, or break their computers, or simply run out of time to keep working on it. There has been a little good research and a lot of useful speculation on this, for instance at http://www.katyjordan.com/MOOCproject.html and http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/04/why-do-students-enroll-in-but-dont-complete-mooc-courses/ and http://www.openculture.com/2013/04/10_reasons_you_didnt_complete_a_mooc.html and http://mfeldstein.com/emerging_student_patterns_in_moocs_graphical_view/ and http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.ca/2013/01/moocs-dropout-category-mistake-look-at.html
But there is something odder going on here that seems to be mostly slipping under the radar, apart from the odd mention here and there by people like Alan Levine and a few others. I’ve long been bothered by the mysterious and improbable fact that, in higher education, all learning is neatly divisible into 13 (or 15, or 10, or something in that region) week chunks. This normally equates to an average of around 100 hours of study time, give or take a bit. Whatever the particular length chosen, they are almost always unaccountably multiples of chunks of the same size at any given institution, and that size is broadly comparable to other courses/modules/papers/units/etc in other institutions. It’s enough to make you wonder whether there might be a god as it suggests intelligent design may be at work here.
Actually, it’s the result of unintelligent design. This is an evolutionary process in which path dependencies pile up and push their way into adjacent possibles.
So, why do we have courses (or modules/papers/units/etc depending on your geographical region)?
Well, in the first place, it is true that some things take longer to learn than others. Not everything can be mastered by asking a question or looking it up on Wikipedia. That’s completely fair and reasonable. It doesn’t, however, explain why it takes the same amount of time (or multiples of it) for everyone, regardless of skill, experience or engagement, to master everything – Modern European Philosophy, Chemistry 101, Java Data Structures, Literary Culture & the Enlightenment, Icelandic Politics: all fit the same evenly sized periods, or multiples of them. For an explanation of that, we have to turn to a combination of harvest schedules, Christian holidays and the complexities of managing scarce physical resources that are bound by physics to a single and somewhat constrained teaching space.
The word ‘lecturer’ derives from the fact that lecturers used to read from the very valuable and scarce single copies of books held by institutions. Lecture theatres and classrooms were thus the most efficient way to get the content of books heard by the largest possible number of people. If you want to get a lot of people to listen at once then it helps if they are actually there so, if they are taking a religious holiday or helping with the harvest (this last point is a little contentious as it doesn’t fully explain a long break from July to October), there is no point in standing up and talking to an empty lecture hall. So, putting aside Easter’s irritating habit of moving around from year to year that continues to mess up university teaching schedules, this divides things up quite neatly into roughly 13 week chunks separating harvest, Christmas, and Easter breaks. The period may vary a little, but the principle is the same.
This pattern has become quite deeply set into how learning happens at most universities, even though the original reasons it occurred might have faded into insignificance had they not become firmly embedded through momentum and the power of path dependencies. Assessment became intimately linked to the schedule, with ‘mid-terms’ and ‘finals’ and then came to act as a major driver in its own right. Teacher pay and time was allocated according to easily managed chunks and resources. Enrolments, registrations, convocations and the familiar rhythms of the university calendar helped to consolidate the pattern, largely driven by a need for efficiency and bureaucratic convenience. It is really hard to allocate teachers and students to rooms. Up to this point, there was no particular reason to divide the learning experience into modularized chunks and many universities did (and some still do) simply have programs (or programmes or, to confuse matters, courses lasting 3-5 years) with perhaps a few streams but without distinct modularized elements. To cap it off and set it in stone, three forces coincided. One was a laudable desire to allow students the flexibility to take some control over what they learned. Another was the need to simplify the administration of programs. The last was the need to assert equivalence between what is taught at institutions, whether for certification purposes or for credit transfer. This last force, in particular, has meant that this way of dividing learning into modular chunks of a similar length has become a worldwide phenomenon, even in countries for which Easter and Christmas have no meaning or value.
All of this happened because there had to be a means of managing scarce resources shared among many co-present people as efficiently as possible but, for centuries, there has been no good reason for picking this particular term-length apart from the force of technological momentum. There have been innovations, here and there. Athabasca University, for instance, gives undergraduates 6 months (extendible at a price) in which to complete work in any way and timeframe that will fit their needs. Similarly, the University of Brighton runs ‘short fat’ masters modules that last for half a week, combined with a period of self-study before and after. But, in order to maintain accreditation parity, the amount of work expected of students on such courses broadly equates to what, in conventional classes, would take – yes – 13-15 weeks. Technically, thanks to a bit of reverse engineering, this translates into roughly 100 hours of study in the UK, a little more or less elsewhere, particularly where people take the insanely bad North American approach of counting teaching hours rather than study hours (what madness gripped people that made them think that was a good idea?). Whatever the rationale, this has nothing to do with learning, nothing to do with the nature of a topic or subject area, nothing to do with the best way to teach. It’s just the way it turned out, and certification requirements reinforce that anti-educational trend.
Courses are not neutral technologies. One of the least loveable things about them is that their content, form and process are, at least ostensibly, controlled by teachers from start to finish. Courses are a power trip for educators that, in institutional incarnations, often require some quite unpleasant measures to maintain control, typically based on long-discredited models of human psychology that rely heavily on rewards and punishments – grades, attendance requirements, behavioural constraints in classrooms, etc. That is just plain stupid if you actually want people to learn and believe that it is your job to help that process. There can be few methods apart from deliberate torture and punishment that more reliably take motivated, enthusiastic learners and sap the desire to learn from them. We do this because courses are a certain length and we think that students have to engage in the whole thing or not at all.
Students, meanwhile, have little choice but to accept this or to drop out of the system, but that’s tricky because those uniform-size credentials have become the currency for gaining career advancement and getting a job in the first place.
Teachers need to work on maintaining that control because there are very few topics that can, in and of themselves, sustain a large number of individuals’ interest for 13 solid weeks and those that do are highly unlikely to naturally fit into that precise timeframe. Sure, some students may passionately love the whole thing and may have learned to gain some immunity from the demotivating madness of it all, or the teacher may be one of those rare inspiring people that enthuses everyone she gets to teach. But, for most students, it will be, at best, a mixed bag. Even for those that enjoy much of it, some will be irrelevant, some too easy, some too complicated, some simply dull. But they have to do it because that what the teacher demands that they have to do, and teachers have to fit their courses to this absurd length limit because that’s what the institutions demand that they have to do, and institutions do it because that’s how it has always been done and everyone else does it.
This is not logical.
So much of what makes a great teacher is therefore the ability to overcome insanely stacked odds and work the system so that at least a fair number of people get something good out of it. Teachers have to find ways to enthuse and motivate, to design assessments that are constructively aligned, to perform magic tricks that limit the damage of grading, to build flexible activities that provide learners with a bit of self-determination and control. Sadly, many do not even do that, relying on this juggernaut and the whole unwieldy process to crush students into submission (of assignments). It really doesn’t have to work like that.
This systemic failure is tragic, but understandable and forgivable. There is massive momentum here and opposition to change is designed into the system. It would take a brave teacher to explain to administrators and examination boards that she has decided that the topic she is teaching actually only needs 4 weeks to teach. Or 33 weeks. Or whatever. And, no, it will not have any parity with other courses on the same subject: OK? I would not relish that fight. It is considerably more tragic and less easy to forgive when, without any of those constraints – no formal accreditation, no institutional timetables, no harvest, no regulations, no scarcity of resources – a few MOOC purveyors do the same thing. What is going on in their heads? My sense is that it is the Meeowmix song…
Thankfully, an increasing number are not doing that at all: a glance through the range of MOOCs currently on offer via the (excellent) MOOC aggregator at http://www.class-central.com/ shows a range of lengths between 2 and 15 weeks as well as a goodly range of self-paced courses of somewhat indeterminate length. After early attempts mostly replicated university courses, the norm now appears to be around 6 weeks, and falling fast. The rough graphs below (that I created based on class-central’s data) of those starting soon and those that have already finished illustrate this trend quite nicely. Note in particular the relative drop in 10-week and higher courses and the rise in those of 4, 6 and 8 weeks. While it is far from all being down to better teaching – some of the rise in shorter courses is notably due to a trend towards samplers that are intended to draw people in to fee-paying courses – there is a pattern here. And, to counterbalance such forces, it should be remembered that a fair number of the longer courses have ambitions to reintegrate their students within their paid-for broken systems, so they are sometimes timetabled with learning as a secondary consideration and so retain their infeasible length.
MOOC lengths till now…
Mooc lengths for courses about to start…
Getting away from courses
Though the interest in MOOCs is fuelled and sustained by the fact they are free (though sadly, increasingly not as open as they were in the halcyon days of cMOOCs), popular and online, the really interesting thing about them is the attention they are drawing to what is wrong with the notion, form and above all the length of the course. This little thing is the real revolution. It radically changes the power dynamics. If people begin to disaggregate their courses, making them shorter and less teacher-controlled, they will put learners ever more in control of their own learning, giving them choices and the power to make those choices. Better still, it means that teachers are starting to create courses without unnecessary time constraints that are the size they need to be for the subject being taught. Pedagogy, though still not coming first, is playing a more significant role. But this is just a step in the right direction.
The power of small things
People who question completion rates for MOOCs almost never ask those same questions about Q&A sites, Wikipedia, Khan Academy, Fixya or How-Stuff-Works tutorials, OERS and Google Search. Indeed, the notion of ‘completion’ probably means nothing significant for such just-in-time tools: they are useful, or they are not, they work or they don’t. People use them or they don’t. You might waste a few minutes here and there on things that are unhelpful and those minutes add up but, on the whole, just-in-time learning does what it says on the box. And people use these tools because they need to learn. If someone needs to or wants to learn, you have to try really hard to stop them. But just-in-time is not always the way to go.
Clubs, not courses
I am not a great programmer but it is something I have been doing from time to time for about 30 years. When I’m stuck, I increasingly turn to StackOverflow, a brilliant set of sites based around a collectivized form of discussion forum – a bit more sophisticated than Reddit, a bit less intimidating that SlashDot (which remains perhaps the greatest of all learning tools for anyone with geek tendencies, but that needs a fair bit of skill and effort to get the most out of). StackOverflow doesn’t have courses, but it does have answers, it does have discussions, and it does have some very powerful tools for finding answers that are reliable, useful and appropriate to any particular need. The need can range from the very specific and esoteric (‘why am I getting this error?’) to matters of principle (‘what methodology is best for this problem?’) to general learning (‘what’s the best way to get started in Ruby-on-Rails?’) and everything in between. It’s like having your own immensely wise team of personal tutors, without a beginning date, an end date, or a fixed schedule of activities. This is not a course – it’s more like a Massive Open Online Club, with no restrictions to membership, no commitments, no threshold to joining. Conveniently, this has the same acronym as a MOOC. In fact, just as MOOCs subtly transform the social contract that is involved with traditional courses, so these ‘clubs’ are not exactly like their hierarchical, closed, membership-based forebears. They are what Terry Anderson and I have described as sets: not exactly a network of people you know, certainly not a hierarchically organized system like a group, just a bunch of people with a shared interest, some of whom know more than others about some things.
But what about accreditation?
Why should accreditation be something that happens only in and as a result of a course? It is bizarre and open to abuse that the people who teach a course should also be its accreditors. It is strange in the extreme that they should be the ones to say that students have ‘failed’ when it is obvious that this failure is not just on the part of the students but also of their teachers, which makes those teachers very poor and biased judges of success. It might be just about acceptable if those teachers really are the only ones who know the topic of the course but that is rare. In Eire, students have a right to write and defend a PhD (by definition a unique bit of learning) in Gaelic. Despite the fact that the number of Gaelic speakers who are also experts in many PhD topics is not likely to be huge (unless the topic is Irish history or somesuch) they still manage to find expert examiners for them. It can be done.
At Athabasca University we have a challenge for credit option for many of our courses that can be used to demonstrate competence for certification purposes. Alternatively, if the match in knowledge is not precisely tuned to the credentials we award, we and many others have PLAR or APEL processes that typically use some form of portfolio to demonstrate competence in an area. And then there are upcoming and increasingly significant trends like the move to Open Badges, closed LinkedIn endorsements, gamified learning, or good old fashioned h-index scores that sometimes tell us more, at least as reliably, and in some ways in greater detail than many of our traditional accreditation methods.
There is seldom a good reason to closely link accreditation and learning and every reason not to. Giving rewards or punishments for learning is the academic equivalent of celery – to digest it consumes more calories than it actually provides, distorting motivation so much that it demotivates.
I have no doubt that some people might bemoan the loss of attention implied by just-in-time learning or this weakly structured club-oriented perspective on learning which has no distinct beginning and no specific end. It is true that courses do sometimes include things like ‘problem solving’, ‘argument’, ‘enquiry’, ‘research’ and ‘creativity’ among their intended outcomes and, assuming they provide opportunities to exercise and develop such skills, that’s a lot better than not having them. And some (indeed, many) courses are a genuinely good idea, because it really does take x amount of time to learn some things (where x is a large number) and learning works much more smoothly when you learn with other people and have a specific goal in mind. But many are not such a good idea, and most get the value of x completely wrong. No more should we assume that a 10-week (or 100-hour) course is the right amount of time needed to learn something than we should assume that the answer to teaching is a one-hour lecture (even though it sometimes really is part of a good answer).
There are those who cynically believe that the sole purpose of going to a university is to build a network of contacts and gain credentials that will be valuable in a future career, so you can do what you like to students while they are in college and it won’t matter a bit. In fact, there’s a fair bit of research that shows that it typically doesn’t, which is yet another reason to express concern that we are not doing it right. If that were really what universities were about then I would stop teaching now because it would be boring and pointless. I think that, if we claim that what we are doing is teaching then we should at least try to do so. But accredited, fixed-length courses get in the way of doing that.
It is true that much of the really interesting learning that goes on in courses is not really about the topic, but the process of learning itself – that is why there is a vague and hard to pin down notion of graduateness that makes a fair bit of sense even if it cannot be well expressed or measured, a problem that Dave Cormier and others have grappled with in interesting ways. I’m not at all against lengthy learning paths if that is what is needed to learn, nor do I object at all to letting someone guide you along that path if that is what will get you where you want to be, and I am very much in favour of learning with other people. My problem is that the fixed-size course with fixed learning outcomes and tightly integrated accreditation is not the only way, is seldom the best way, and is often the worst way to do it. The biggest thing that MOOCs are doing, and the most disruptive, is visibly disaggregating the learning process from the unholy alliance of mediaeval bureaucracy and Victorian accreditation methods. As long as MOOCs retain the form and structure of courses that are tied to these unholies, they will (from their purveyors’ rather than their students’ perspectives) mostly fail, and that is a good thing. Even cMOOCs, that deliberately eschew learning outcomes and fixed accreditation, still often fall into a trap of fixed lengths and processes. If we can learn something from that then they have served a useful purpose.
So there you have it – another long, opinionated piece about MOOCs with little empirical data and a lot of hot air. But I think the central point, that fixed course lengths and integrated accreditation lie at the heart of much that is wrong with traditional university education and that MOOCs bring that absurdity into sharp relief, is worth making. I hope you agree.
You may have seen my recent post on MOOPhDs and might be wondering whether I am contradicting myself here. Well, maybe a little, and there was a little hint of satirical intent when I first suggested the idea that attempted to exaggerate the concept of the MOOC to show the absurdity of courses. But the MOOPhD idea grew on me and it actually makes a little sense – it does not demand fixed length courses and completely separates out the accreditation from the process, and is far more like an open club or support network than an open course. Indeed, the way PhDs, at least those that follow a vaguely European model, tend to be taught provides an expensive-to-implement but workable model of learning that entirely (or, following a sad trend towards great bureaucratization in some countries, to a moderate extent) avoids courses. So, universities do know how to break the chains. Most just haven’t yet figured out how to do that for their mass-produced courses.