Milking the MOOC
MOOCs have been around for some time now but exactly what they are for is still not too clear. It’s not that there can be no accounting for what’s learned in a MOOC, it’s just that getting a handle on it all is far more difficult in comparison with the traditional one-dimensional course where knowledge is squeezed into a single linear syllabus and regularly served up in digestible chunks by an instructor who ‘knows best’. Real learning never worked like that anyway. Lectures and assignments got missed and catching up became a social enterprise dependent on the goodwill of others or the ability to identify and flush out relevant stuff in a library. In any case, real learning is about understanding and that comes in fits and starts, with or without help from others and sometimes never, even when formal exams are passed – who hasn’t boasted of passing an exam on some boring topic without understanding the first thing about it?
Enter the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed MOOC and much of the informal and chaotic aspects of real learning move into the animal itself bringing enormous benefits to digitally literate and autonomous learners. Learner autonomy was exploited with much success in the early cMOOCs but admittedly a large proportion of participants were well-educated themselves with the capacity and motivation to get the most out of new learning strategies. Unfortunately, the formal education systems of the world do not produce an abundance of autonomous learners who can be relied upon to make the most of MOOCs and the learning experience of many participants is sadly limited, particularly when they’re dunked in at the deep end. Just look at the massive clunky forums beloved of xMOOCs where numerous participants without the necessary survival skills are deterred from posting much, or anything at all. I’ve written about this elsewhere (‘Learning to Learn‘) but isn’t there a significant gap to be bridged between traditional teaching and the newer forms of learning before many people can properly benefit from MOOCs?
I’ve now registered for the Stanford University ‘Quantum Mechanics for Scientists and Engineers‘ MOOC. I’ve been trying to understand QM off and on for several years without much success so I’m hoping to milk this particular MOOC for a more detailed understanding rather than just general information. In contrast, I was a complete novice in my last MOOC on philosophy with Edinburgh University but I did pick up some of the basics. No doubt some people will want to join the QM MOOC for that sort of reason too.
Inevitably, the massive number of learners attracted by free and open MOOCs have a very wide range of learning objectives and if the aspirations of the greatest numbers of participants are to be satisfied then MOOCS ought to be specifically designed for diversity of purpose (eg see ‘The First Adaptive MOOC‘). This is certainly not the case for many xMOOCs where the sole purpose seems to be to ‘pass the course’ on the basis of rather dubious methods of assessment. The overwhelming majority of participants who, for any reason, do not pass or have no interest in passing are overlooked although many will gain at least some educational benefit. Of course, the more a learner is able to participate in a MOOC the better but there’s nothing wrong with part-participation as Jim Stauffer succinctly points out in, ‘Open letter to an online learner mistakenly self-identifying as a “dropout” ‘. There’s nothing even wrong with no participation or simply downloading stuff for later perusal. With massive numbers and running costs per user near zero why should the MOOC care? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with milking a MOOC for anything you like.
In contrast with traditional face-to-face courses a properly designed, multifaceted MOOC should cater very well indeed for the parallel paths and nonlinear progress of real learning. Isn’t that what MOOCs should really be for?