Club Admiralty

v7.2 - moving along, a point increase at a time

Multilitteratus Incognitus

Pondering what to learn next 🤔

Technology will save us all!


...or wait... will it?

It's been a while since I wrote something on here†, and in all honesty, I thought about taking a sabbatical from blogging to focus on dissertation-related matters.  However, I really hate the current practice of threading on twitter where someone writes 10, 20, 30, or 40 tweets in a thread.  We've even invented an app to make these threads more readable.  I can't roll my eyes hard enough at this because it's a solution for a problem we shouldn't have.  We have long-form means of communicating - they are called blogs.  But anyway - I'll cease my "get off my lawn"-ness and move on to the point.  Now, where was I?  Oh yeah... I wanted to respond to something I saw on twitter, but I didn't was to just create a stupidly long thread.

So, in case you have not been paying attention, there is a bit of a global health scare going on, namely COVID-19 (or Coronavirus as the media calls it). It's gotten to the point where cities, states, or even whole regions are under quarantine.

Screenshot of WHO COVID-19 tracker
The question that comes to our mind, as education professionals, is this: well, what happens to school?  And people tend to respond by saying "put it online! problem solved!"  Well... the problem is not solved.  There is no magic fairy dust that will make this a "turnkey" solution or any other marketing jargon that will make this seamless. I've been seeing a whole lot of non-sense tweets about this over the last few days as more and more universities are announcing that they are going online...for now.  I've (snarkily) written responses like "I think I rolled my eyes so hard I experienced whiplash...🙄" to both technoloving, and technohating tweets. But I think it's important to be a little more detailed in my 🙄reaction to some of these so that we can have a constructive conversation around this topic, and so that I don't just come off as a snarky teenager saying "OK, boomer".

So a fellow colleague tweeted the following:
Hello #MOOC platform providers  @edXOnline @coursera @udacity @udemy @FutureLearn @CanvasLMS and others: many higher education institutions are in need of scalable technologies to serve the needs of students and teachers in times of the #COVID19 #coronavirus crisis. Can you help?

Canvas may be the exception here, seeing as they have a "regular" LMS that they also use for their Canvas Network MOOC platform, but most MOOC platforms are awful. I saw this as a user of them!  Yes, I do enjoy the free livelong learning content that they provide‡ but those platforms have been created with very specific UX design constraints in mind. Furthermore, many appear to rely on pre-recorded videos for their pedagogical approach, something which really won't mesh well with the short timeframes that we might be experiencing in the coming weeks♠.  There is also an issue in thinking that a technology solutions provider will be your best bet as a subject-expert contact to help your institution to move online.  They sell a product.  A product with specific design and pedagogical constraints, and - as we've seen recently - with potentially murky data practices.  Your go-to shouldn't be a technology provider to solve your issues.  Your go-to should be the staff that you employ at your university.  Your instructional designers, systems architects, and IT/IS people. They are the ones that know your needs, and they can figure out what the minimally viable product is.  If it turns out that edx is the right platform for you...then guess what?  It's open-source, you can run it on your own!  The same is true with operating systems like Moodle and Sakai, and they are not MOOC related, and have been used to deliver courses at a distance for 18 years!

Another colleague wrote:
Taking college courses temporarily online as an emergency measure to provide minimally acceptable continuity of instruction in response to a pandemic is not an admission that MOOCs are a good or even acceptable substitute for in-person teaching.

The three fallacies here are as follows:

  • You are conflating MOOCs with distance learning broadly.
  • You are assuming that MOOCs are just "lousy products"
  • You are putting on-campus courses on a pedestal.


MOOCs being conflated with any (and all) forms on distance learning has been happening since xMOOCs hit the market in 2011/2012. They are not one and a the same.  MOOCs are a form of distance learning, but they are not the form of distance learning.  MOOCs are also not a bad product.  You always have to go back and ask "what is our goal?" and even then "what is this good for?"  The adhesive used on post-it notes is a lousy product.  Yes, you heard it right.  It's a lousy product because the goal was to develop a super-strong adhesive. However, someone saw this product and created an ingenious use for it, and something that couldn't have existed without the lousy product was created♥. MOOCs have their purpose. It may not be the lofty goal of democratizing education¤ that we kept hearing back in 2012, but that doesn't mean that they are failures in totality.

On another track, many colleagues have been posting about this outbreak being the perfect opportunity for institutions to embrace online learning, and that this global turn of events will (magically) make people see the light. The unspoken assumption being that attitudes will change, and long-term practices will change.  This is completely and utterly false, and it's exemplified by the tweet above.   Vanguards of the "campus is best for learning" camp won't experience an attitudinal change en masse because of this turn of events.  They'll most likely hold their metaphorical nose, get through it, and then go back to their established practices.  Why?  Many reasons§, but here are the highlights IMO:

Attitudinal change requires an open mind - I don't think most campus faculty have that when it comes to pedagogy (sorry!). This lack of creativity, I would say comes from a lack in pedagogical training.  Doctoral programs prepare you to research, and teaching is always secondary (or even tertiary!).  It seems like many doctoral programs just drop people into teaching situations and have them sink or swim (pretty stressful, if you ask me!).  So what happens? Those doctoral students rely on mimicry - doing what they've seen done unto them in the classroom.  Maybe some will break through this cycle and experiment with pedagogy, but that's not a given. And, when faculty are hired lots of attention is paid to attending conferences and publishing, but little (if any) on teaching PD! So, previous behavior and belief patterns are reinforced through the pre-tenure period¶ and in your post-tenure period∞.  I don't need to see the outcome of the coronavirus to know that teaching faculty with these attitudes will use distance learning like a rented car, and when their ride is back from the shop, they will never think about the affordances (and the learners that might need online learning) again...or at least until the next emergency.

Anyway - to wrap this up, one voice that is conspicuously absent is the voice of staff members in this.  Staff will be called upon to support learners at a distance, and/or faculty who will (maybe, possibly, probably) be teaching online for a little while.  What is their role in all this?  How are they supported to do their work, and what are their thoughts and needs in the process.  The university is a complex organism but only faculty are seen as valuable stakeholders here🙄. This attitude needs to change if we are to have productive solutions and discussions when it comes to emergencies.


thoughts? comments?


Notes and Marginalia:
† hey, this is starting to sound like a confessional...let's see where it goes...
‡ I am currently signed up for 2 MOOCs on FutureLearn and 1 on EdX
♠ I'd also argue that Udemy is more of a self-paced eLearning platform and not a MOOC LMS...but that's a whole other discussion.
♥ and used all over the world in offices today
¤ personally I think this goal was overstated as people got swept up in the MOOC fever and institutional FOMO.  We might be seeing another kind of FOMO here with this coronavirus.
§ and probably best suited for a separate blog post
¶ where you might be on emergency-mode all the time while you're attempting to get tenure
∞ if your institution hasn't spent too much time fretting about your teaching until now, why would they do it in the future?

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