5 July 2013

How to value the merits and demerits of MOOCs?

MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses over the last year have dominated the headlines, in blogs and periodicals on higher education and educational technology (cf. my collection of scoops). This is particularly so in the USA but increasingly also in the rest of the world. Serious, scholarly journals and their publishers are following suit. Publisher MaryAnn Liebert for instance is about to launch an new journal MOOCs Forum. Even politicians worldwide have become interested, leading to discussions in California and Florida about the mandatory adoption of MOOCs or the European Union’s support for a European MOOC initiative, to mention just two examples.

MOOCs consist of videotaped lectures, interspersed with quizzes, usually concluded by a test that can be automatically graded. MOOCs exemplify online learning environments. Indeed, it looks as if MOOCs mark the discovery of the online realm by universities. However, over 15 years already, universities have used virtual learning environments or learning management systems to support their lecturing. What is remarkable about the current situation is that MOOCs for the first time are positioned as an alternative to lecture-based teaching. Thus far the online was a mere tool to be used in conjunction with lectures. However, positioning MOOCs as the sole alternative to lecturing in brick-and-mortar classrooms is utterly misleading. Doing so sweeps under the carpet a whole raft of learning environments that sit between these extremes. A comparison with the evolution of open and distance learning (ODL) will help explain what is wrong with this.

Open And Distance Learning

Given their brief to allow adults deprived of a higher education to acquire one while having day-time jobs and families, open and distance learning (ODL) institutions developed paper-based courses that essentially replaced lectures. These courses adopted an instructional model that tried to anticipate the problems students would run into by carving up the subject matter text in about four-hour units and interspersing the text with key words, explanations of technical terms, short quizzes to go with difficult passages, formative assessments with feedback, and more. A tutor was available in study centres at set times. They could also be contact by phone or fax. Also, if appropriate for enhancing the learning experience, additional materials were developed, such as television broadcasts, board games, audio interviews and simulations.

The advent of the Internet at first made little difference to this instructional model. Some elements in it were substituted by online versions thereof. Thus, email in part replaced meetings in study centres, paper workbooks became online workbooks, simulations would be done online rather than at a computer at the study centre, etc. Increasingly also, courses would refer to resources that were made available online, thus using the full potential of the information web (Web 1.0).  Notwithstanding the increased use of (Internet) technology, the underlying pedagogy remained unaltered. Very much a behaviourist instructional approach was followed, based on a transmission model of teaching, in which the teacher or course developer made information available that the student subsequently was to consume. Now note how this stage in the evolution of ODL very much resembles MOOCs. MOOCs too sport technological innovations, but the pedagogy they rely on is behaviourist, having a transmission model of knowledge transfer at its heart (Anderson & Dron, 2010).

When the information web became augmented by the social web (Web 2.0) some ten years ago, it became clear to ODL institutions that profoundly new opportunities arose. Online interaction among students and between students and their teachers became feasible. At first this led to the establishment of online classes - still well within the old, behaviourist model - with a teacher catering for small numbers of students gathered in an online class. However, soon enough one realised that the social technologies also could support entirely new pedagogies, with social-constructivist forms of learning; forms in which students were asked to become active producers rather than passive consumers, forms which require student to work in virtual groups on authentic assignments, forms that emphasise skills over knowledge, etc. Indeed, entirely new forms of learning arose, in which one uses the affordances of social networks, existing ones or bespoken ones, to learn by sharing and indeed creating knowledge. Such forms of networked learning are particularly interesting for accomplished learners, such as (budding) professionals. We have only begun to explore the opportunities here. Parenthetically, this networked learning movement has given rise to the birth of the original MOOCs, the so-called cMOOCs, which now have all but been overturned by the current xMOOCs.

Designing learning

ODL institutions ever since their establishment were forced carefully to think through the way they put their courses together, not being able to fall back on a longtime established modus operandi as can traditional universities. That is, they were forced to think about their teaching in terms of instructional designs. Such design thinking means inventorying user requirements, developing solutions to meet those, using existing theories to the extent that they are available and making informed guessed to the extent they aren’t. It also implies evaluating the resulting learning arrangements, in terms of their effectiveness, efficiency and satisfactoriness. Since  for ODL institutions, educational technology plays such a large part in these designs, they also developed a strength in researching technology-based educational innovation. Many open universities therefore have a strong tradition in educational research, particularly research in technology-enhanced learning. Traditional universities never so much felt the need to view their teaching arrangement as an instructional design, and consequently, they have never had the same urge to turn them into objects of research. If research was done, it had a very practical nature that, in design terminology, can best be described as optimising the existing designs, to wit lecture-based teaching. The lesson that particularly ODL institutions have learnt, is that properly evaluating educational arrangements requires them to be viewed as resulting from design decisions (but see footnote 1).

In conclusion

The discussion about the merits and demerits of MOOCs thus far has been conducted within the confines of extant teaching and learning paradigms. Since particularly in the USA, a university education is becoming ever more costly, it is the ability of MOOCs to cut costs that has dominated that discussion (see an earlier blogpost of mine for what I believe is wrong with this narrow economic focus). But if we want genuinely to assess the value of MOOCs, we must consider them as a specific kind of instructional design, one that meets a particular set of requirements and is suited for particular teaching contexts. Once we do that, we realise that MOOCs and traditional lecture-based teaching should not be juxtaposed, nor should the online and the offline for that matter. MOOCs and face-to-face lectures are just two possible learning environments in a plethora of possible ones each of which is dictated by a different suit of design considerations. And MOOCs are not the online incarnation of offline learning, nor are lectures the sole way of learning offline. Unearthing the underlying design considerations for the different MOOCs around, will bring clarity to the discussion as it shows where discussants come from. Of course, this nuanced approach flies in the faces of those who see MOOCs as an instrument to bring education into the Silicon Valley fold, with large profits due to homogeneity and near-zero transaction costs. So much the better, I would say.

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Note 1: I am emphatically not saying that traditional universities don’t do educational research. On the contrary, a lot of research is being done, also on instructional design. However, that research is done in dedicated departments and its success is measured by commonly used academic standards, such as impact of publications, not by its proven capability to change the efficacy of teaching. At ODL institutions, research was necessary to know what pedagogy to use and to measure how successful it was.