What Good Are MOOCs, Anyway?

MOOC. To some, the acronym is a dirty word, like “larvae,” or “spider,” or “A-Rod.” People spit the word out like they are trying to remove a stray hair from their mouth. I can understand their distaste for MOOCs. Change is hard.

Massively open online courses are a natural evolutionary stage in the use of technology in education. Having been an early adopter of technology in the classroom, using Excel and Powerpoint and communicating using email, I’m not surprised by MOOCs.

When course management systems, like WebCT, Angel, and Blackboard arrived on the scene, schools and universities were willing consumers. My community college employer automatically generated course shells for all courses regardless of whether the CMS was used by the faculty or not. My university employer required faculty to submit a request. While my current university employer still leaves the use of CMS to the discretion of faculty, the community college employer allows limited discretionary use.

My community college employer requires a syllabus be posted on Blackboard, along with some form of “welcome” statement. All faculty must also include contact information, such as email and phone numbers. After that, the content provided on the CMS is left to the faculty.

Students are the primary movers behind use of technology in the classroom. They use email, status updates via Facebook and Twitter, and install CMS apps on their smartphones. Blackboard, Instructure/Canvas, and Moodle have apps for the iPad. Many of my students, both online and in-class install and use the apps to keep up with their courses.

One of the areas my online courses are evaluated on is the use of social media, i.e. Facebook integration. Obviously, the administration is a supporter of social media use despite faculty rules to keep social media devices a/k/a smartphones and tablets from being used in the classroom.

Administrators also “encourage” course content delivery using CMS, providing Powerpoint notes, video lectures, and adding voice notes or podcasts to a course’s content. Administrators also like to see the numbers of students increased beyond which a physical classroom can hold. An economy of scale, of sorts. A traditional class of 25 becomes an online class of 50.

YouTube, iTunes University, EdX, and Coursera provide platforms for educators to push out even more content to even more people. I have a YouTube channel for teaching Weather and Climate. At some point, I need to connect those vids with this blog. Many of the emails I receive about the vids are from people outside the United States. This is exactly why I released my vids on YouTube, to provide good content for whoever wants to watch, wherever they are.

I’ve read many criticisms of MOOCs. They ignore individual students. MOOCs are “one size fits all.” MOOCs are impersonal. The faculty person teaching the MOOC does not care about the student. The student does not engage with other students. Evaluating student knowledge and engagement is difficult if not impossible. MOOCs don’t engage students in a culturally neutral environment, or do not recognize cultural differences among students.

Yes, all of these statements are true.

Online learning, or really “distance learning,” has followed a model from years ago of providing education to remote students. Correspondence courses of the mid- to late 20th century were impersonal affairs, the student and teacher removed by both time and space as assignments were mailed back and forth. One can also argue faculty of today even in the traditional classroom model don’t particularly “care” about students. Most faculty cannot remember the names of students from semester to semester, especially in the 100-level courses. We aren’t counselors, or therapists, and unless we teach those areas, have little to no experience with “mental health.” College faculty aren’t responsible for the mental health of other adults. By definition, being an adult means being responsible for one’s own mental health. We are not absolved from encouraging a person in distress to find help, though. Faculty and administrators are people, near as I can tell, and many of them do care about student issues.

The criticism MOOCs are impersonal is a non-starter for me since many intro courses are typically stuffed with lots of students and a generally impersonal affairs. Higher level courses, when class sizes are smaller and interaction is greater, faculty absolutely do care. We spend great amounts of time teaching, training, and mentoring and we are not about to waste our time on people who have little or no interest, or do not care as much as we do. But, then MOOCs may not be appropriate for senior or graduate level classes when feedback is mandatory.

MOOCs can be established which can encourage students to engage with each other using Discussion Boards or other chat technologies. My personal experience is that Discussion Boards are pretty much worthless. For entry-level courses, students hate them and they really don’t advance the discussion or learning. I could see them being useful for Junior or Senior or Graduate courses when students have studied enough material to advance intelligent ideas.

MOOCs don’t have any good way of assessing knowlege or competence, not at this time. I’ve taken numerous courses through iTunes on astronomy, quantum mechanics, quantum physics, cosmology, particle physics. Could I sit down in a 400-level university quantum mechanics course and know what is going on? Sure, I would recognize the words coming from the instructor’s mouth but I’m not sure I would pass a single exam. I’ve taken a couple of iOS programming courses but that doesn’t make me an iOS programmer. I would be disingenuous if I said I knew quantum physics or iOS programming. However, having immersed myself in that realm I would be more comfortable taking a physics course or calculus course dealing with elementary particles.

I don’t have anything to show I’ve been through these courses, either. No paper trail, no downloadable certificate of competency, no transcript. I am the local ESRI Site License Administrator for our ArcGIS software. Being part of a statewide license agreement, we are able to avail ourselves to ESRI’s Virtual Campus courses. These courses include quizzes and exams. The scores are kept within the student’s course dashboard. Course progress and final grades are maintained for the student’s Virtual Campus account. The student can then download and print their transcript and any applicable certificates. I encourage my students to take these courses, manage their progress, and maintain their transcripts. Many employers are using these courses as “proof of competency.” Some employers allow these courses to be used as “professional development” hours or “continuing education” hours. MOOC platforms need to evolve to provide similar quality control / educational assurance.

The criticism leveled at MOOCs I find amusing. The criticisms tend to mirror the precise reasons why people take an online course. “The professor doesn’t seem like they care.” Well, you took an online course so you wouldn’t have to sit in a classroom with other students or listen to the professor. “The class doesn’t have any online meeting time.” You took the course so you wouldn’t be anchored to a chair or a desk at a specific time. “The course doesn’t have deadlines for submitting homework.” The course was designed without deadlines in order to accommodate the details of your life, fixing dinner, full-time job, raising kids, etc.

One recent criticism I read involved the naiveté of faculty who think they intend on “teaching the world.” In particular, the word used was “absurd.” American faculty don’t know what its like to teach to a foreign audience therefore their efforts to teach the world are simple-minded. To me, this statement is like knowingly walking into a Chinese buffet and complaining about the lack of German schnitzel or Irish stew. Or, visiting China and complaining about the lack of Arab Kibsa.

I offer a counter-argument. MOOCs are open, by definition; no one is forcing anyone to submit to them. The student is then knowing and willing to engage the MOOC on their own terms. They know, for example, the course will be in English. Thus, they may find their own way to suitable translate. Or, they may use the chance to increase their own English language skill. In any event, students engage MOOCs due to their own interest, pursue with their own desire and motivation, and bring their own background, experience, and resources. I find the argument foreign students being put-off or stymied by U.S. developed MOOCs naively presumptive and potentially insulting to those curious, intelligent, motivated international students.

I realize this may sound culturally insensitive. I point to the U.S. college and university system which is still the envy of the world, for the most part. The greatest export of the U.S. is knowledge, pure and simple. People come to the U.S. for education, even smaller regional schools we might not see as being attractive to foreign students, like Morehead University, or Eastern Illinois, or Grand Valley State. These are fine schools but why would someone from Iran or Vietnam or the Czech Republic choose one of these schools?

Part of the reason may be a special program. Another reason may be a scholarship. And part of the reason is a diploma from a U.S. university means more than a similar diploma earned at home. Like that or not, it is a fact.

Unfortunately, though, that fact is changing. Our government, coupled with short-sighted Tea Party members and Republicans, has been gutting education for at least a decade. We are losing the benefit of having the best education and educators in the world. China is advancing, as is India and Brazil. I personally find the ignorance, anti-science, and anti-education rhetoric of our elected officials a greater threat to our economy and society than any “leak.”

To soapbox, the United States should never sacrifice education for some other pursuit. Never.

Many people within education and outside feel threatened or at least challenged by what MOOCs represent – unfettered access to education.

In the 21st century we still follow an educational model instilled within our society in the 19th century. To me, this seems bizarre. I think it is bizarre. Our educational system which alleges to pride itself on developing critical thinking skills, “out-of-the-box” approaches to problem-solving, and hands out awards and accolades to colleges and universities who presume to have done so, is still entrenched in 19th century thinking. Phooey on you guys.

MOOCs are not going away, not some passing fad. Their future forms will have evolved beyond their current expression. Distance education will evolve to address accountability, assessments and measuring learning. Technology will evolve to handle present concerns and address future needs.

I’m not saying MOOCs are the way of the future. MOOCs may be “a” wave of the future, one wave among many, eroding the edifice of the archaic 19th century facade of our current educational system. Clay Shirky seems to feel the same way, if his essay in The Awl [link] is any evidence of his sentiment.


3 thoughts on “What Good Are MOOCs, Anyway?

  1. …also: “Many people within education and outside feel threatened or at least challenged by what MOOCs represent – unfettered access to education.”

    Hardly ! ! ! Commercial MOOCs instead of school are part of the cutbacks, not an expansion. You can totally have universal access to education, and lots of distance ed, without turning everything to self-service, automated, prepackaged stuff sold for profit.

    MOOCs can be fine and fun, and I take them, but the idea of using this as a substitute for school for most people, especially students as opposed to recreational learners, is preposterous.

    • In the rhetoric against MOOCs, I read many articles and essays both by administrators and educators that MOOCs are simply a passing fad, at best, and a technological abomination, at worst. Many of my peers feel threatened by technology. They do not know how to use Blackboard beyond posting notes. They do not know what a podcast is. They think showing a YouTube video is “cutting edge.” Many schools, even mine, have professors which forbid the use of laptops, tablets, or smartphones in class, and even go so far as to threaten to take possession of the device, and even have different levels of punishment for using technology in class, “get it back at the end of class,” “see me at the end of the week,” “see me at the end of the semester.”

      Administrators do not understand what “re-purposing” technology means, do not understand the nuances surrounding “hacking,” and have little knowledge of the use of geospatial technologies to improve student’s navigation of campus. I do not make my comment lightly. I’ve been to countless faculty functions and listen to stories about how they refuse to implement technology in their courses or their classrooms. They cite plagiarism, lack of control, and their own ignorance of the technology as reasons for shying away from use. I’ve worked with K-12 and higher faculty in numerous areas across campuses, and the common theme I find is a nervousness, anxiety, and fear concerning technology. I don’t construction a statement like that out of thin air. Having worked at three community colleges and a university, I have talked to literally hundreds of full-time and part-time faculty, and while this is simply an anecdote, it is based on observations. Having recently spent four days at a recent education-based technology conference and listening to the comments, concerns, and issues voiced by K-12 and higher education faculty about distance education and online learning, I feel confident in my observation. So, maybe it is the “unfettered access” which draws your attention. Higher Education is a strange bird; each institution pushes out its own flavor of online education, and conversely, very reticent to accept online courses from other institutions. So, yes, I really do think there are faculty and administrators around the country who are feel either threatened or challenged by the notion of MOOCs.

      The current 19th century model of education needs to be changed. I am not setting for MOOCs as the “new and improved” model, only one model which needs to be examined, researched, and evaluated. Other models exists, like the “flipped classroom,” and the “hybrid course.” And, like I point out, having taken numerous MOOCs myself, I still would not be prepared for a upper-level course on physics. Having been through numerous MOOCs, though, I feel more prepared for enrolling in lower-level courses. I, personally, am not so naive to think that after having some exposure, I’m ready for the real deal. In a sense, a MOOC is like a “course simulator,” like a “flight simulator” provides a sense of flying without the danger of actually dying.

      Also, as I state, MOOCs are new and will evolve. While today, the use of a MOOC as a course replacement might not be a good idea, my prediction is the time is coming when MOOCs will evolve, become academically robust, and will find acceptance. In fact, I know Penn St. is already hosting a MOOC for which a person may receive college credit. I met the educator at a conference last month where he detailed how his class was organized. At last count, over 27,000 students had enrolled.

      And what you say I believe is true, I don’t think administrators read about what works in teaching. In fact, my complaint with our Education school is the faculty rarely go out and get their hands dirty in the local school systems. How can you teach people how to be teachers if you never go out and see what an actual classroom environment is like? Or, if your experience in doing so is 20+ years old? With today’s changing school demographics, K-12 education experience older than 5-6 years is out-of-date. Administrators go to workshops which train them on how to admin better, but as I mention to whoever will listen, they don’t really walk the halls, see what faculty and students need, and work on making that happen.

      Thank you for your feedback and consideration of my essay, btw.

  2. “Change is hard” = the buzzphrase used to quelch disagreement. Usually used by people who think “change” is a change in soda brands. They call dissent “fear of change;” this is bogus.

    Facebook in class, yes surveys ask me about that, too. I have been using it since before I was asked because the university servers do not stay up — in bad weather it was at one time the only thing that worked, although now there are more options.

    However, one would have to have wired classrooms to have these things really work. Wanting us to use distance ed with people not at a distance is to save on equipment costs — you and students would talk from your houses on your own equipment — not to improve teaching.

    I am also not impressed with people buying Coursera when they will not buy library materials. That is stupid. Wanting me to suddenly videotape old-fashioned lectures when I use class time other ways. That is again stupid.

    Your university surveys you about CMS and general internet-type use because that is in fashion now — they all do. Administrators go to (expensive) seminars to figure out what proprietary software to buy.

    But they are not going for actual change and innovation — they are not reading actual pedagogical literature, only listening to what entities like Pearson Higher Education say. They are putting bells on old-old models and calling it new, and when their bluff is called they say that is “fear of change.”

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