10 October 2014

MOOCs, every letter is negotiable

Massive Open Online Courses have put online education on the agendas of the boards of many universities. And that cannot be a bad thing. For too long universities have hand-cuffed innovation by ignoring the opportunities offered by the information and social webs that the Internet has woven. What is at stake here is the quality of the educational experience. And the big question is whether MOOCs make for innovative learning arrangements that enhance the quality of the educational experience. Here I want to discuss this question following a format that is prompted by a popular picture that Math Plourde published in 2013. As you may have noticed, this post carries the same title.

xMOOCs and cMOOCs

Above all, whatever claims one may make about the innovative powers of MOOCs or lack thereof, one should distinguish xMOOCs from cMOOCs. The former are what most people take MOOCs to be, they are grounded in instructivist instructional convictions, often in the guise of mastery learning, knowledge transfer is the name of their game (‘broadcasting’) and peer interaction is at best a byproduct of learning but certainly not its essence. cMOOCs on the other hand are thoroughly social constructivist, people learn by constructing knowledge and they invariably do so together. If these two are the archetypes, then one might conclude that many MOOCs exist that take the middle ground between them. Some argue that this is indeed the case. However, if this is an attempt to argue away the essential differences between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, it is bound to fail. Instructivism and social constructivism do not differ in degree but in principle: they have radically different if not opposing ideas on how people learn. What could be argued, though, is that some learning challenges are better dealt with in instructivist ways and other in social-constructivist ways.

The course format

What xMOOCs and cMOOCs have in common is that they are courses. But one may justifiably wonder whether for open, online learning to be innovative the course format is mandatory. A course has a few defining characteristics. Students need to enrol in it, one studies a defined topic  at a fixed pace in a fixed period of time, there is a teacher and there are tutors, even if they are sparse. These characteristics may be seen as limiting conditions, carried over from face-to-face teaching in brick-and-mortar schools. The wisdom of any one of them may be questioned, though. The open universities of this world have experimented with flexibility in pace and time for decades, the people they employ to design a course are often others than those who run a course. Indeed, the very distinction between design time and runtime comes out of these quarters. Also, experiments are afoot in which lurking (without formal enrolment) is an acceptable form of participation. So we should avoid surreptitiously buying in all of the connotations that the term ‘course’ has when designing innovative online education. In this sense, particularly xMOOCs put us on the wrong footing.


But for sure, such courses must be online, shouldn’t they? Clearly, offline courses cannot scale and online courses seem to scale much more easily. This is the promise for which the venture capitalists, who fund some of the MOOC platforms, have fallen. And they are right, the drastic lowering of the transaction costs has radically altered the music and film industries, and is likely to change the print industry (books, newspapers). So why not education? If education were equivalent to broadcasting content, they could have a point, but education isn’t. It is interactive, perhaps essentially so. This no doubt goes for cMOOCs but even students of xMOOCs, which come closest to broadcasting content, want forums. Nowadays, such social interactivity can be provided online, for sure, but there is no reason why in some cases a blend of offline and online learning could not be the best solution ('blended learning'). So, innovative learning solutions should explore the online realm, as MOOCs do. But one should not conclude from the popularity of MOOCs that innovation that contains both online and offline elements is an inconsistent idea.


Something similar goes for openness. The openness most MOOCs offer is not of the Creative Commons kind, which gives away most rights and retains only some (for example, the right not to sell content for a profit). Most MOOCs are open in the sense in which Google’s services are open: they can be used freely, but they are not for free. For example, usage data are collected, used and even sold. Particularly the xMOOC platforms use openness to attract large numbers of participants, which they hope to sell additional services for a profit. These restrictions are by no means necessarily bad, platforms need to pay their bills somehow too. I do think they are bad, though, if they were to lead to the privatisation of education. And particularly in the US such tendencies may be detected (see my earlier blog post on the purported democratising effect of MOOCs).


And finally, do MOOCs have to be massive and attract thousands or even tenth of thousands of participants? Obviously, if education were to follow in the footsteps of the music and film industries, then massiveness is a ticket to massive returns on investment. But from an educational point of view, massiveness can never be a goal in itself. True, there is nothing wrong with a well-designed course that attracts the interest of many people, all over the world. But there is nothing wrong either with a course that attracts a few hundred people only, because the topic is esoteric or the language community is small only. (Obviously, there is something wrong with a course that attracts a small following only because it is badly designed.)

To conclude

The upshot of all this is that we should stop taking educational formats such as MOOCs as our starting point and then fight over which format is best in some sense. Many of the current MOOC discussions seem to go this way. What we should do in my view is begin with the careful identification of the educational challenge at hand and then design a suitable learning environment. This could be a MOOC, of whatever persuasion, but it could also be something entirely novel for which no acronym is (yet) available. So every letter may indeed be negotiable. But the negotiations should not be about what the characteristics of the genuine MOOC are, but about how we can design the most effective, efficient and exciting learning environment for some challenge at hand. If MOOCs can be of help, so much the better. Parenthetically, it is this principle that we used in the EU-funded HANDSON MOOC for teacher training on ICT in the classroom. (Enrolment is still open, the MOOC starts October 27th, 2014).