In his February 28th post called ‘Rethinking the Class Paradigm: The Rise and Potential Fall of MOOCs,’ Hap Aziz posed the question, “Is there truly a way for a single instructor to teach a class with 30,000 students,” and went on to suggest that the answer is no—a MOOC should not be perceived as a course so much as it should be a community. If this perception does not change, he predicted that “the whole MOOC movement will come crashing down by not being able to meet some very important learner needs.” So what are the limitations of the MOOC as we have come to know it, why do those limitations exist, and what do we do to overcome them?
In a sense, the MOOC is a product of evolution. However, it is not a haphazard mutation. It is evolution influenced by the application of technology to education. The problem with this kind of evolution is that our preconceived notions are carried over from its predecessors—along with their limitations.
The first e-books are a great example of dragging physical limitations into the technical sphere. To increase consumer acceptance of the new technology, the e-book experience was designed to be as much like the book experience as possible. The end product was a book—a book that was functionally no more exceptional than a standard book, even to the point of turning pages. The technology was limited in its scope and provided little improvement over the actual book experience (or none, as some opine). It even brought its own limitations—expense, the need for power, and the dangers of reading in the bathtub! The e-book has since all but disappeared, absorbed into the tablet trend, as any tablet in existence can provide a far richer e-book experience while performing other functions as well.
When higher education ventured into online learning, much the same approach was taken. Educators took their paradigms about the classroom and shifted them into the online modality. When this was done, often the limitations of the classroom carried over, the limitations of technology were added to the mix, but the benefits of technology were not adopted, creating a shallow academic experience. After all, what was an in-person classroom? A synchronous group of 15-25 students, perhaps, an instructor, some lecture component, assigned readings, the submission of papers and perhaps quizzes and tests. Not surprisingly, this was the shape that most online courses took (any many still do today). The classroom paradigm has been transferred online with mixed success. When designed and facilitated well, the limitations are mitigated by a sense of community. As noted by the Illinois Online Network (ION),
“Online learning has its most promising potential in the high synergy represented by active dialog among the participants, one of the most important sources of learning in a Virtual Classroom. However, in larger classes…the synergy level starts to shift on the learning continuum until it eventually becomes independent study to accommodate the large class. At this point, dialog is limited as well as interaction among participants and the facilitator. The medium is not being used to its greatest potential (source).”
Enter the MOOC.
The MOOC is the next evolution of online learning. The limitations of the classroom, once passed down to online courses, are now also in the DNA of the MOOC. Often, the MOOC is little more than a standard online course opened up to a much greater number of participants, inheriting the issues of its predecessor without embracing the new opportunities that the structure provides. If ION is correct, then the MOOC that fits this description is the worst of both worlds.
If, however, MOOCs are removed from their historical roots, and considered to be Massively Open Online Communities, as Hap suggests, the limitations of the class may be released along with the paradigm. This view is also espoused by Doug Holton of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Center in Daytona Beach.
“The question is, are MOOCs an example of imposing an existing worldview (traditional instruction, courses, and instructors) on a new medium for learning? Is it necessary for all the ‘students’ in a MOOC to be learning the same topic at the same time (synchronous learning)? That appears to be a common defining characteristic of all MOOCs. Does there have to be a single, unchanging instructor? Does it have to be a ‘course’ at all, with a finite beginning and end? Most students forget much of what they learn once a course ends…Many topics are constantly changing and evolving (like science and engineering and technology), and one’s learning may be out of date sometimes within months, if not years, after a course ends. Much of what we learn comes from outside the classroom anyway – what we call lifelong learning and informal learning (source).”
Holton gets to the heart of the issue. What if the finite classroom model, which is the basis for online classrooms and thus the grandfather of MOOCs, is flawed? After all, what is a course? It is usually a set of predetermined objectives that are stated, accomplished, and measured upon completion. It does not necessarily represent authentic learning. It does not model the professional realm, or the communities for which students are being prepared, in which they will be expected to continuously learn, contribute, and foster relationships. These are the things that a MOOC does well. The question is now, how can higher education leverage the strengths of the MOOC without also applying the limitations of the classroom?