The MOOC Heard Around The World

In February, I took a trip London where I spoke at the OBHE conference at a session called “Online and open-access learning in higher education: MOOCs, new pedagogies and business models.” It was actually a fairly lively discussion, debate, and driving conversation about the massive online courses coming out of North America and now beginning to come out of other parts of the world.

What interested me most was what seemed to be about 80% fear and 20% excitement by the gathering of educators (mostly faculty). It was also interesting that most of those who were currently building massive open online courses (MOOCs) were doing so under some kind of duress. From pressure of being left behind to mounting pressure from administrators to even financial pressure to grab a “piece of the MOOC pie,” it seemed rare to find a MOOC builder who was doing so because of the innovation or excitement over the possibilities of helping facilitate learning for so many potential students.

Instead, much of the conversation surrounded problems with the MOOC concept. Primary to this was concern over the educational efficacy of these experiences. Most educators seem to understand that ALL eLearning will be judged on the effectiveness of MOOCs… right or wrong, these massive courses are going to be our litmus test. Obviously this is problematic – imagine evaluating the safety of driving based solely on studying Nascar races.

The next concern was typically voiced with an idiom that I previously assumed to be from American football. The term “end around” was used consistently as another reason that MOOCs had to be constructed by faculty. Not new to me was the voiced feeling / assumption by some faculty that administrators would love nothing more than to find a way to provide education without the need to deal with teachers. I think back to a Chronicle of Higher Education article I read a few years back which described faculty behavior as anything from “eccentric” to “combative” – behavior that would not be tolerated in any other context but higher education. And so, some faculty believe MOOCs are seen by administrators as a potential way to rid themselves of faculty altogether.

Finally, there was a sense of being “left behind” by many educators and schools. The assumption was that because X or Y University was launching a MOOC, that our institution should also build one. Many speakers and delegates noted Teresa Sullivan’s firing last year as a sign that Universities needed to “do or die” in the MOOC game.

But at the heart of the conversation about the efficacy (or at least potential efficacy) of MOOCs were some important questions and concerns. Many issues that even Coursera and Udacity advocates have noted are still relevant and should not only be discussed, but ultimately figured out. MOOCs as they exist today are not very engaging. Unless you are auto-didactic learner (think Abe Lincoln) who can take a piece of content, internalize it, and not only retain it but apply it, MOOCs are likely problematic for you. That likely leads to another problem – 5-8% retention rates. Couple that with weak (aka unauthentic) assessments, basing so much feedback on peer evaluation and assessment (even when the peers are unmotivated or so under-educated regarding the content that they have literally nothing which adds value to a conversation), and finding a way to associate credit with MOOCs makes it all that much more challenging. Then, at least in the states, there are even more accreditation concerns with so much content being provided by outside organizations, which is why most accrediting agencies have a 25% rule.

In MOOCs today there is almost zero student choice, no curriculum integration, no sense of brain-learning interjected into the curricula, a lack of modeling or showcasing creativity and/or critical thinking, and the top-down model promotes a sterile, impersonal experience. Finally (at least for this list), is the data captivity by MOOC platforms. While most believe the data will soon be available for a price, most have made it clear that the data is THEIRS and not a school’s.

So what do we do? I’ve blogged before about possible options and models for the 2nd generation MOOC, but more than that, I just would urge calculated strategy here. Be thoughtful about the entirety of the process and try not to get caught up in the hoopla. Build your own (2nd GEN!) MOOC with purpose, solid learning design, and good pedagogical / andragogical models. Include neuroscience in the conversation as well as what we have learned from Education Psychology. And don’t forget about 2 decades of learning about how to best deliver eLearning. In other words, let’s make sure the driver of MOOCs is not solely about money and/or size. Let’s make it about quality and learning too. Build a MOOC because you are excited to innovate, not because you are feeling pressured to do something…anything! Build a MOOC to show the world how to do it right.

Good luck and good teaching.

Dr. Jeff Borden, VP of Instruction & Academic Strategy and Lead of the Center for Online Learning at Pearson, is also a consultant, speaker, professor, researcher, comedian, and trainer.


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