v6.2.3 - moving along, a point increase at a time

Of MOOCs, online courses, content, and teaching - whoa, that's a lot!

Alright, being now back from my mini vacation, and back into the regular rhythm of work, reading, and very soon classes, I've caught up with a lot of my saved Pocket articles.  The one thing I saw is, still, the very schizo nature of MOOC reporting and commentary. This reminds me a bit of the headlines, back in the day on Engadget and other tech sites, about studies on cell phones causing/not causing cancer. In the MOOC context this is about whether or not MOOCs (in their many forms?) are/aren't good, revolutionary, the best-thing-since-sliced-bread, etc. Sometimes I feel like the Charlie Brooker of the field of education when I write these, but hey, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Right before the holiday break, one of my colleagues sent me an article from Technology Review which he thought I should publicly respond to (being the crazy MOOCie that I am).  The article is What are MOOCs good for? and I may have read this a while back, but probably didn't really write much about it since it really didn't provide me with any food for through - it seemed at the time as really more of the same.  In the second reading, prompted by my colleague, I came across three things. The first thing is what my colleague pointed out, in which following was written:
“For all the hype, MOOCs are really just content—the latest iteration of the textbook. And just like a book on a library shelf, they can be useful to a curious passerby thumbing through a few pages—or they can be the centerpiece to a well-taught course. On their own, MOOCs are hardly more likely than textbooks to re-create a quality college education in all its dimensions.”
I think that this line of reasoning really shows a massive misunderstanding of MOOCs, or perhaps it's falling into the disillusionment  brought on by the MOOC-bubble driven by xMOOCs in 2012.  MOOCs aren't just textbooks for the new generation.  MOOCs aren't just about content.  I think that the way that open teaching and open learning has been "realized" (using this term loosely here) in xMOOCs does potentially lead the newbies in the group to say that MOOCs are just content.  This is the same rationale  that my dad used about the internet five or so years ago.  He used to say that "it's just a huge library, so what?"  Well, now he is on, reading news, communicating with friends and relatives at a distance, and spreading his daily bits of wisdom to those who want to follow him on facebook.  I would argue that MOOCs, and courses in general, aren't about the content, but about the learning community that develops as part of a learning cohort.  I saw this in recent MOOCs like #Rhizo14 and Connected Courses, and I saw it back in 2011 with the mother of all MOOCs, aka Change11 (man, that was a long MOOC...but I made it to the end...was there a badge for that? ;-)  ).  I could have just taken content from these MOOCs, like I do in the xMOOCs, but I opted to be part of a learning community and write, comment, contribute, and remix as much as I could or as much as I wanted to.

Face-to-face, or traditional online courses, aren't immune to the "courses are only content" mentality.  It is this mentality that has faculty slap copyright notices on their syllabi and their Blackboard course-shells, and their assignments, and their rubrics.  As the Greeks would say, όπα ρε μεγάλε!...or loosely translated whoa there partner!  By slapping copyright notices on all of these things you are feeding into the, erroneous, weltansauung that education is about content.  Perhaps it is partly about content, but the point is that learning content alone does not education make. Education is about knowing the world around you, and knowing what to do and how to handle new and unexpected situations (at least that's my stance). You need some data to process first in order to learn, but you don't stay within that box that the data provides for you. Once your training is done with the data you have, you break through that box. Learning is about engagement, and engagement can be measured in many ways (side note: hence the issue of only measuring engagement in MOOCs by way of deficit - the dropout).

The next point in this article is actually about  engagement. When talking about a computer science MOOC, one of the professors comments:
The paying Harvard students decide for themselves whether to attend the lectures or just catch them online. “I would like to think there’s a nontrivial psychological upside to the shared experience,” he says, but it’s up to them. Instead of necessarily having all 800 students attend each lecture, “I would rather have 400 students who want to be there,” he adds. Besides, “we’re nearing the point where it’s a superior educational experience, as far as the lectures are concerned, to engage with them online.”
The psychological up-tick may or may not be there, even in the on-campus experience (any researchers out there who have studied this? I haven't looked at the literature for this yet).  I am personally of the opinion that the mere physical act of being in the same room, at the same time, does absolutely nothing for learners. The sense that you were there only really works,(for some people) in my book, for historically significant acts like where were you when the moon landing happened? or for my generation perhaps the question would be where were you when Chernobyl happened? I was too young for Chernobyl, but I certainly remember what I was doing on September 11th 2001. This sense of shared togetherness only really works, in my book, for events of great shock and awe.  A lecture isn't necessarily inspiring to me.  That said,  even in a MOOC, where information may be received asynchronously, we've time-shifted that togetherness through other means.  I don't need to look at the back of my classmate's head to know that I am not alone in the course.  I can see reactions (and engage) in the facebook group, or through following hashtaged content on twitter.

This reminds me a lot of discussions I've had on-campus with colleagues in a couple of different departments. They have been concerned that my offering online courses (or allowing campus students to enroll in online courses) would cannibalize their campus offerings.  In effect they were holding campus students hostage because they were local. As I've pointed out to many collegues in the past, the question to answer is what is the benefit of on-campus. If you lecture on-campus, and you lecture online, with little interaction, why come to a 5pm, 6 pm, or 7 pm class and go home close to midnight when you can do it from home, asynchronously? There are definite benefits to on-campus learning, but one needs to use those benefits not only for individual courses but for an entire curriculum and program of study.  If you are just going to campus to get lectured at, why not just the course online where there actually are opportunities for interaction even if the content is predominantly lecture driven?

Next on my list of Pocket articles is this Wired article about free online courses still being the future of education.First it astounds me that in 2015 people still use massively open for MOOCs when, in most cases this isn't true for xMOOCs.  There are many sources out there on this, but I would just direct you to read some of David Wiley's stuff as a primer on the co-opting of the term open. In any case, the following was in the Wired article:
This week, a team of researchers out of MIT, Harvard, and China’s Tsinghua University—all schools that offer MOOCs—released a study showing that students who attended a MIT physics class online learned as effectively as students who took the class in person. What’s more, the results were the same, regardless of how well the online students scored on a pre-test before taking the class.
Part of me is amazed that this is news, because those of us in the education field have been keenly aware of the no significant difference phenomenon for quite some time. This has been so firmly established that it's almost pointless to run new studies to try to  prove/disprove it. Now wired isn't written by, or for, people in education, so this may be understandable, but why not point to the NSD phenomenon and add to it, instead of making this sound like groundbreaking research? The article continues on to say that:
...studies like the one from MIT are providing new fuel for people like Agarwal. It’s an affirmation of the very thing they’ve been saying all along: that it’s possible to get a quality college education without the hefty price tag.
Of course, but as I wrote in my previous post (on PhD/EdD differences) the issue isn't necessarily about education, it's about name brand-recognition. This is precisely what Daniel Lemire wrote in his blog post about lectures not being saleable. You can't make money off the lecture these days, what universities make money on are credentialing of individuals.  Being able to get a good education for cheap isn't something new.  My father, someone who never went to high school, has been an avid reader all of his life. Even though he never finished high school, and certainly never went to college, he's studied literature, classics, history, biology, anthropology, and a whole list of other topics, on his own, either through books he bought, or by going to the library to get books to read.  MOOCs are certainly not a pioneer of democratized content, and content like this isn't even accessible to everyone (see lack of internet access as an example).

Relating to this I had a number of articles in my pocket on the Openness of MOOCs and MOOCs being confused with traditional online courses. This confusion is certainly nothing new. As early as 2012, when xMOOCs first started to show up as the new kid on the block people confused them (this IHE article is what I point my own students to). For most people the distinction is pretty hard to manage, and this seems pretty normal.  As Wiley points out, when  you do an analysis of differences between traditional online education and the MOOC the difference is really the ability of the learner to self-register and attend for free.  While in on-campus courses we've welcomed auditors (or people who sit-in for free in our lecture halls if there is space), in an online environment, where LMS enrollments are automated and connected with the SIS (student information system), it's not easy for many auditors to join in for free because each auditor (at least in my institution) would have to be manually put into the course.  Additionally, as the Technology Review article points out, there is an issue with teaching in open spaces:
Yet while MOOCs’ huge enrollments are fantastic for running educational experiments, it makes them hard to teach. Pritchard’s MOOC represents a much wider range of abilities than his on-campus class at MIT. “It’s like we’re trying to teach from second grade up to seventh,” he says. His new project is an Advanced Placement physics course for high school students. By narrowing the target audience—high school students who believe they’re ready to take AP physics are likely to start within a fairly tight band of knowledge—he thinks he can teach more effectively than would be possible in a more diverse MOOC.
The problem, as I see it, is not one of teaching, but rather of expectations and design.  If you approach Open Teaching and Open Courses with the same design mindset as the one you have for traditional, small, private, courses then you are going to fail.  One needs to fundamentally rethink and reconceptualize what it means to teach, and what it means to design a course for at scale deployment. When I was an undergraduate the on-campus at scale deployment (large auditoria) meant that the course has a lecture section which was lead by a professor, and a a discussion section lead by a Teaching Assistant. In large xMOOCs we've seen this tactic used, but is this just a case of using existing paradigms for new problems, trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? This approach may work, and we need to experiment to see if it works, but should it be our only experiment?

The other problem is fundamentally a problem of audience. This is something we saw at my institution with one of the MOOCs we offered that was open to anyone. This meant that the MOOC was going to have materials for kindergartners learning about the topic to post-docs who were interested in learning more and engaging. I predicted that this would be a massive failure and the reason for this is that you can't be all things to all people.  You might be able to build a platform that adapts to the learner's level and provides them with the materials that they need at their level, but at that point aren't you just a content provider? What about the learning community, that I wrote about earlier, how does that get fostered when you have such a wildly heterogeneous group of learners in your course?

Finally, I want to close out this (lengthy) post about MOOC LMS.  One of the posts I was catching up on was a Connected Courses post on the curious case of JANUX, the University of Oklahoma MOOC platform. I must admit that JANUX has been on my radar since (at least) last spring.  I signed up for a few courses, but I never had time to participate in them.  I think I was more busy with cMOOCs and other endeavors than anything else.  Since the courses, and their content, were archived, I thought I would make my way through them on my own time. I was not particularly keen on getting any sort of certification, so I let things lapse (as I have done with other open course platforms that have self-paced courses).  The LMS is a little janky, at least on a web-browser, but my limited dealings with the iPad app seem to indicate that it's not a bad system.  That said, I don't know why anyone would opt to use this closed system.  In the courses I signed up for I don't see any way to download the videos.  This for me is a must.  In any system that I is reported to be "open" I don't want materials to disappear at the end of the semester, which for me means that I want to retain a copy of any work I do (posted on this blog, scribd, or slideshare), and any of the materials that were used in the thought process around my work. This seems like a gamble gone wrong for the University of Oklahoma.  I think OpenEdX is a better choice (and it would be even better with a federated search and single-signon).

What are your thoughts on these topics?  Have I managed to daze and confuse? 
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