Unintelligent design and the modern MOOC

Everyone is talking about MOOCs.

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 overviewPaul 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.

So what?

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…

 Meeow-Mix 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 (past)

 

 

Mooc lengths for courses about to start…

MOOC lengths (future)

 

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.

Summing up

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.

Afterword

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.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair.
I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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