Archive for August 2012
While basic topics such as the validity of various learning theories can be joyfully debated until the cows come home in a connectivist cMOOC, this seems less appropriate for the ‘hard’ sciences, such as physics and chemistry, where a knowledge of fundamental procedures and processes is essential for even basic comprehension, let alone expertise. Here, facts are, … well facts, and becoming familiar with them by slogging through the mathematics and other donkey work is likely to be more productive than protracted debate. Now, having joined an xMOOC in the shape of Coursera’s Quantum Computing Course, I am finding out for myself. This is not a course for beginners but I do at least have some of the required background.
Calling a cMOOC a ‘course’ has always struck me as a misnomer – but not so for a Coursera xMOOC. The course I’m on has a well-defined curriculum of 8 week duration ending with a 3 hour timed examination. New course content in the form of notes and several shortish videos are released every week and there are weekly assignments to be tackled. The assignments can be submitted and auto-marked – frustratingly, only correct answers seem to generate feedback! The professor in the videos does a good job but is very much ‘sage on the stage’. His explanations are competent and helpful although sometimes the course notes do not match in very well with the videos. I have yet to see the prof descend from the stage and interact directly with learners in the discussion forums. A TA deals with admin matters there (typos in the notes or gremlins in the marking system etc) but evidently not with queries on course content. Queries of this type, at all levels of difficulty, are left to other participants but fortunately there are several individuals (not me!) who appear well-qualified to help out. They devote considerable time and energy to providing personalised assistance and are able to lead informed discussion. This ‘unofficial’ bonus is clearly appreciated by other participants and contrasts with the relentless one-way transfer of content from sage to student.
Receiving the “statement of accomplishment” depends on overall performance on 7 assignments plus the final exam and there is a complicated marking scheme involving penalties for late submissions of the assignments. No doubt carefully crafted to suit the diverse circumstances of participants, its fairness seems doomed to endless debate in the forums! This obsession with the mechanics of assessment and the tacit assumption that expertise at this level can be properly measured by not much more than multiple-choice questions is disconcerting. I conclude that there’s nothing like a bit of old-fashioned xMOOC behaviourist pedagogy for learning the basics and, like many others on the course, I’ve certainly found the experience interesting and enjoyable – as far as it goes. It may not go much further for me though as real life intervenes and keeping up the pace takes an ever-increasing amount of time. I have no particular interest in ‘passing’ the course but yet part of me is spurred on by the fear of ‘failure’ that still dogs the survivors of 20th century formal education (along with ‘exam dreams’!) Another part of me just wants time to study some of the more interesting course topics in detail before moving on. That’s me – but the ‘Massive’ in MOOC delivers a wide diversity of other participants with other learning objectives who want something else. This of course is not usually the case for the traditional college courses on which Coursera and other xMOOCs appear to be based.
It seems to me that a MOOC has the potential to provide learners with a degree of choice way over and above what is possible in traditional courses. Imagine as an ideal, some sort of multi-layered, many-pathed super-MOOC offering a multitude of different modes of participation. Sub-courses on prerequisite topics are available on tap and the path traversed by different learners can, with or without advice, take many different possible routes through copious notes, videos, interactive quizzes and so on depending on the background and objectives of individual learners – even 3 hour timed exams to be taken if you must! Human assistance is available for the asking – perhaps via scores of previous participants who have already demonstrated their usefulness and are rewarded somehow for their assistance. The financial implications are beyond me but could such a super-MOOC not evolve relatively inexpensively from small beginnings by developing content and infrastructure over several iterations as ever-increasing numbers of participation modes are catered for?
Returning to the humble MOOC of today – this is a testing time as the altruism and openess that gave birth to the original cMOOCs is challenged by the new style xMOOCs with their focus on existing Higher Education practices and ways and means of ‘monetising’. I can only hope that the aspirations (below), expressed almost half a century ago, will not be lost in the process!
Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.
Article 13: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16th December 1966