There has been quite a bit of attention paid to MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) in the past year; most of it positive, though the criticisms have been getting more exposure recently (check out “When MOOCs melt down” in The Chronicle of Higher Education). The momentum for MOOCs appears to be positive still, with the Horizon Report > 2013 listing MOOCs as one of the game-changing technologies in higher education just around the corner. The chorus of doubts is growing, though, and without some fundamental rethinking of how MOOCs should operate, I might consider myself in that camp of uncertainty. Some of my concerns are regarding the practicality of running MOOCs in the way most likely to yield worthwhile results for the enrolled students–as well as for the organizations or individuals responsible for running them. This entry I posted in December of last year touches on that theme.
The concerns I have, though, aren’t all about practicality; they are also about sustainability and viability of the model. This article from U.S. News published a little over half a year ago leads the reader into the premise that there are differences between traditional online courses and MOOCs (primarily scalability), and it is in these differences that the weaknesses of MOOCs are revealed. The truth is a bit more difficult discern in this case.
Scalability is certainly an issue, even in the traditional classroom teaching and learning environment. Very few educators would argue that there is no difference between teaching cohorts of 20 students or cohorts of 200, 2000, or even 20,000 students. The author of the article (Joshua Kim, Director of Learning and Technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College) asserts:
Authentic learning requires a two-way dialogue between student and instructor. College teaching at its best is much more than the delivery of content: It’s about the co-construction of knowledge with students and faculty…
Education is one of those things in life (like friendship) that is based on the relationships between individuals, and therefore is limited in how far it can scale.
The line of reasoning here is that changing the scale of online courses exponentially does not require some fundamental change(s) to the underlying structure of the courses and the relationships within the courses. This isn’t isolated thinking, however. When I attended the ELI Conference in Denver earlier this year, I was quite interested in seeing what other educators were doing in the field of MOOCs so I attended several sessions. Invariably, the sentiment among the presenters was that MOOCs were like super-sized online courses. One phrase that stuck out in my mind was the statement, “when teaching a class of 30,000 students….”
Is there truly a way for a single instructor to teach a class with 30,000 students? Especially if education is based on relationships between individuals?
No, the paradigm needs to shift. MOOCs are not courses so much as they are communities. In fact, if we think of 30,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 students all interacting in a single online community, we realize we are entering into the scale of a small city. And when it comes to a city, we understand that no single person (or even small group of people) is responsible for running the whole city. It’s not just the mayor or the city council members. There are hundreds, and even thousands of other official and semi-official roles to be played in the smooth running of a city: police, firefighters, garbage collectors, teachers, and more with whom I interact as a citizen (student) of my city (MOOC) depending on what kind of assistance I need or interaction I seek.
Running a MOOC should be much more like running a city than running a course. And the citizens of the MOOC all have roles to play in keeping the MOOC running smoothly while providing meaningful and timely services to the other citizens. This is where the education community needs to rethink how MOOCs are built and administered, and ultimately what the role of the instructor is to be. If we develop MOOCs the same way in which we develop smaller online courses with merely a few dozen students, we’ll find that the whole MOOC movement will come crashing down by not being able to meet some very important learner needs.