Sunday, April 21, 2013

MOOCs: a breath of fresh air, albeit the same air

A Secretary of State for Education in the US likened Education to a giant blob. No matter what you did to to change the blob, it always healed up or reformed back into its original shape. Are MOOCs puncturing or reshaping the blob? Or are they just orbiting the blob?
Forces from the outside world, namely technology and hard economics are putting pressure on the blob and MOOCs are, potentially, blob busters. Their potency comes from the fact that they’ve burst open the limitations of old teaching methods and reach out with alternatives that are part of the more general open culture of the web.
MOOCs appropriate MOOPs
Nothing’s new with MOOCs. Massive Open Online Pedagogies (MOOPs), such as short videos, search, wikis, quizzes, forums, collaborative groups, online problems, online assignments, peer learning and peer assessment have all been around for some time and are now being absorbed into MOOCs. I haven’t found a single brand-new, online pedagogic technique in any MOOC. This is neither a criticism nor a problem. The iPhone is a cluster of existing technologies where the sum is greater than the parts. Indeed, Brian Arthur’s in The Nature of Technology thinks that this is an essential feature of technology, the coalescence of existing technologies to create something exciting and new.
MOOCs provide an ideal sandbox for reflection, debate, research, experimentation, outreach and real action on pedagogy, on a scale we’ve never seen before. Every facet of learning is being re-examined and in some cases re-evaluated.
So what sort of pedagogies have been appropriated into MOOCs? Here’s just seven MOOPs (Massive Open Online Pedagogy) that have been used in MOOCs:
MOOP 1 – Short videos
Recorded lectures are still relatively rare, accounting for a tiny fraction of those delivered, but they’ve had a profound pedagogic effect. A soon as they took off the digital genie was out of the lecture hall. The evidence is clear, students want, use, like and benefit from them. The unrecorded, 1 hour lecture (only an hour as the Babylonians had a sexidecimal number system) remains the main obstacle to pedagogic progress in HE. It puts a block on the four main evidence-based features of learning; attention, active learning, adequate feedback and spaced practice. MOOCs use recorded lectures/videos extensively.
YouTube, used by hundreds of millions, has had a profound effect on MOOCs,proving that less is often more as was video sequences long inserted or made available in online learning courses. TED, watched by millions, reinforced the need to make video lectures focused, short, with injected passion and less reliance on PowerPoint. MOOCs quickly learnt this lesson. Then we had the Khan Academy, a huge influence on MOOCs, who effectively removed the lecturer from the screen to focus on the content with narration and, in this case hand-drawn maths. This works because, in maths, you need to work semantic and episodic memory. This pedagogic approach was enthusiastically adopted by Sebastian Thrun at Udacity.
MOOP 2 – Content and the humble hyperlink
Under this you have documents, reading lists, links and so on that use the hyperlink, to give students access to content. The humble hyperlink is the hero of online pedagogy, the simple idea that knowledge can be linked and made accessible by a simple click. Long before MOOCs, the hyperlink had been the mainstay for interactivity. It allowed the expansion of, drilling into or jumping across content, thereby personalising learning. This is the glue that holds the course content together.
MOOP 3 – Online assessment
Online formative and summative assessment, always a stalwart of online learning, became the norm in MOOCs. Conditional branching also allowed different routes to be taken, remedial loops presented and simulations to be constructed, all based on performance. Given the very large numbers of students and paucity of teacher bandwidth, this made sense. Students had to get software-based feedback, if large numbers of students were to progress through the course.
MOOP 4 – Peer learning
Forums and chat are among the oldest Massive Open Online Pedagogies, used since the very inception of the web. In MOOCs, forums and other software assisted forms of peer learning genuinely seem to aid learning. Students do like the experience of getting help and encouragement from other students. Peer learning is scalable. Indeed, it is a pedagogy that benefits from scale. The more learners the better and more efficient peer matching and learning can be. Peer learning also encourages critical thinking, peers are often closer to the problems than teachers with bonding a wonderful side effect. An often forgotten benefit is that teaching is also a powerful way to learn. Above all, we know from the work of Mazur and many others, that it increases learning, retention and attainment. Arora, Peerwise and many others have been used for years in sophisticated, peer learning. In practice, by contract, peer learning is still in its infancy in MOOCs. Coursera’s forums are often described as chaotic and confusing. However, MOOCs are bringing peer learning to the attention of many, encouraging its use.
MOOP 5 – Peer assessment
More controversially, peer assessment in terms of comments, judgements and even marks, are given y peers. Peermark and others have been doing this for some time. It gets round the problem of scaling up students numbers while relying on a small number of academics. The real question is what’s lost in the process of scaling. To be fair, many who have seen this in action (and it’s early days) think it is reasonable and pretty fair. Participants in MOOCs are supportive and keen to be as objective as possible. It’s not as if traditional assessment in HE is in any way efficient or even truly objective. Formative assessment is often scarce, very light and late. It is not uncommon to wait weeks for an essay to be marked and returned. This makes MOOC peer assessment seem like a quantum leap.
MOOP 6 – LMS/LCMs/VLE/CRM functionality
Although they would be loathed to admit it, many MOOCs run light LMS/LCMS/VLE/CRM  structures for registration, email, comms, assignments, peer learning, peer assessment, handling large amounts of tracked data and so on. MOOCs are massive and therefore need to be managed by scalable software. None of this is new, as typical LMSs/LMCSs/VLEs have long coped with copious amounts of learners, their management and data.
MOOP 7 - Social media
Social Media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ is a MOOP used by hundreds of millions, so it is natural that they would incorporated into, or at least used parasitically, by MOOCs. In fact, most MOOCs go nowhere near social media but those that do tend to simply have a Facebook page or twitter hashtag and feed. MOOCs are not sophisticated in terms of porosity to outside sources and more sophisticated uses of social media.
MOOCs are aggregated MOOPs
This is just one part of a general move towards the online democritisation, decentralisation and disintermediation of Higher Education. In truth, this had already started with the annihilation of older offline pedagogies with newer Massive Open Online Pedagogies (MOOPs). Most of the components in MOOCs merely reuse what was already established on the web – search (Google), hyperlinks, short videos (YouTube, TED, Khan Academy etc), wikis (Wikipedia, Wikispaces etc), communication (email, chat, forums etc.), collaboration (social media), peer learning, LMS/CRM (mass email and comms management etc.).
MOOCs are not really a single innovation, as all MOOCs are not created equal – they’re all-sorts. Neither are they innovative in terms of pedagogy, as they are invariably assemblages of previously existing online pedagogies. MOOCs assemble different existing MOOP component, and it’s really an. umbrella term for large online courses, and those have been around for a long time. What’s important is that it is a leap forward compared to many high volume, lecture-led, low feedback, low contact courses, that are all too common in Higher Education.
Nothing new under the sun
Ecclesiastes, that most idiosyncratic book of the bible, says ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ and so it is with MOOCs. We have yet to see the serious use of high-end, adaptive techniques, AI, different species of high-end simulation, gaming and the many more adventurous forms of online learning experiences. The use of peer learning has been patchy and the use of social media has been peripheral. To be fair we can already see that the investment and commitment is there to see MOOCs evolve and start to push the pedagogic boundaries. They are a breath of fresh air, albeit the same air.
Arthur, W. B. (2009). The nature of technology: What it is and how it evolves. New York: Free Press.
Mazur, E. (1997). Peer instruction: A user's manual. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall.


William Peregoy said...

We're just not there yet if the use of peer learning is still patchy. Human beings are inherently social creatures. The best learning tools will have to get the social aspect right.

Hunter Maats said...

I 100% agree with your assessment. We've taken the analog solution and digitized. We have yet to see a truly digital solution.

There is, of course, as you say tremendous value in digitizing existing content. The problem is that that's step one. In our excitement, we didn't realize that we missed step zero. Before students can teach themselves, they need to realize that they are capable of teaching themselves. How many times have we heard students say they didn't get the math gene? Or that they don't have a natural ear for languages? How many students actually read their textbooks? There's a mindset and an understanding of how the learning process works that is required before you can take advantage of the resources that are available today.

I thoroughly enjoyed your TED talk and am so glad it lead me to your well thought through blog. Since graduation, I've been working on getting students to teach themselves. The result is a book called The Straight-A Conspiracy: A Student's Guide to Ending the Stress of High School and Totally Ruling the World. If you're interested, I'd love to send you a copy. Send me a message at if you're interested.

Thank you so much for all the work you do!
Hunter said...

How many students actually read their textbooks? This is a good question! I'd like to know its real answer! By the way, after reading this article, I could finally understand everything required for my current project!