MOOCs: Pedagogy, Success, and Failure in the Advancing Market

In my last post on MOOCs, we looked at the recent timeline and marveled at how fast things are moving.  This time, we’re going to consider the rapidly developing learning curve on MOOC development, pedagogy, and the growing body of “lessons learned” as MOOCs continue to make the transition from novel to mainstream and stratify in terms of quality. MOOCs are entrepreneurial territory, and as such, have undeniable potential for those hoping to cash in and for those hoping to add a new tool to their teaching repertoire.  The real catch is that you have to know what you’re doing to succeed in either or both of those categories.  As someone hoping to profit, you need to know how to develop and market a competitive product line.  As a teacher, you need to know the difference between high and low quality, appropriateness of content and format, and you need to be be able to incorporate, enhance, and advise on the best way to make use of this new tool.  So, let’s explore these topics for a moment…

When we try new things, we sometimes experience unexpected (and unwanted) consequences.  We sometimes fail.  That’s what happened to to a faculty member at Georgia Tech.  If you’ve been following MOOCs in the news, then you’ve seen this.  The question here is whether or not the failure had anything to do with the fact that the course was offered as a MOOC?.  Ga Tech and Coursera pulled the plug on, “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application,” earlier this month.  With over 40,000 registered for the course, it started badly and ended quickly.  Why?  Simple.  The course wasn’t ready.  The preparation had not been done.  It really didn’t matter whether this course was online or face-to-face.  The fact that it was a MOOC on how to develop and use MOOCs made it sensational in its truly mundane reasons for failure.  The instructor tried to use Google Docs to get students to self-organize into groups.  Appropriate administrative controls on document creation and editing were not in place, and students began editing in an uncontrolled environment, resulting in chaos.  In addition, students had problems accessing and reading materials that had been posted at the last minute to the syllabus.  The lesson learned is not a new one and it has nothing to do with new technology.  Faculty should prepare for courses.  Poor preparation is unacceptable online or off.  (Btw – this incident is very unlikely to prevent Ga Tech from offering more MOOCs, and it certainly didn’t cause Coursera to break a sweat.  They have many others that are proving successful.)

If you’re interested in a MOOC, go to its website and take a good look at the instructor, syllabus, resources, and overall structure and philosophy of the course.  If you are not sold by these items, or worse – you can’t find these items, then you may want to think twice. You also need to think about how you prefer to learn.  Do you prefer being a solo-learner or an active and engaged participant learner?  If you’re an instructor, do you prefer to direct from afar or engage actively and consistently, constantly shaping and re-shaping? You may also want to stop and think about course material and whether it lends itself to a structure that is linear, non-linear, or a combination of both.

In one of the more informative and helpful (as opposed to editorial) papers on the topic of MOOCs, we can explore 2 different MOOC formats based on established pedagogy and begin to understand why one may be more appropriate (and successful) than another based on the instructor, topic, and audience (MOOCs and the AI-Stanford like Courses: Two Successful and Distinct Course Formats for Massive Open Online Courses).  The author, C. Osvaldo Rodriguez, looks at emerging MOOC formats as a natural extensions of the distance learning pedagogy, and focuses on 2 distinct types of MOOCs that are offered by Coursera, EdX, Udacity, and others.

The first type is referred to as an artificial intelligence (AI) type course, which is most closely connected to a cognitive-behaviorist learning methodology.  These types of courses follow a traditional pathway with well established schedules, structures, and assignments.  The learner tends to rely on his or her own ability to complete assignments and meet deadlines and requirements, with only some social interaction, and very little dependence on other course participants (which could be as many as 100,000).  Course topics tend to focus on technical, linear, core subjects such as computer programming, introduction to databases, cryptology, anatomy, game theory, engineering, physics, chemistry, and math, etc.  These courses have been offered by Stanford and MIT with resulting success.  Tools used often include a central webpage, videos, posted reading, and additional content to supplement the learning experience.  The primary contribution of this type of online learning experience is the massive increase in distributed learning, or simply put, the ability to engage a huge number of participants.  While students typically receive acknowledgement of satisfactory completion from instructors, direct interaction is often limited to established “office hours” where the instructor or assistants address a pool of questions or topics submitted by students.  Participants in these type of courses are typically experts, professionals, undergraduates, and graduate-level students from across the globe seeking to acquire or improve a skill.  They tend to be objective-oriented and desire acknowledgement of completion or certification for the course.  Success is often dictated through structure, defined objectives, quality of resources, and the quality of the instructor, whose presence – although remote – still delivers material and focus via video and readily repeatable/accessible processes.  If you’re a solo-learner interested in acquiring a new skill or improving an existing skill and you want flexibility in location, schedule, and cost, this may be your style.  If you’re an instructor looking to augment an existing curriculum or transform core courses into an easily replicable format that can be offered on demand, this format may be effective.

The second type is the connectivist construct, or c-MOOC, characterized by a heavy reliance on social activity, self organization, and the inter-connectedness of students (again, numbering in well into the thousands) within the learning experience.  These MOOCs are expanding the definition and application of student-centered learning.  This type of online format is rapidly emerging, and is also where we tend to find the most experimentation in structure and content.  These courses may not be familiar to the traditional learner and require active engagement, flexibility, and use of new tools in social media.  Types of tools employed can include: a central webpage and blog feed; Moodle with wiki; ElluminateUstreamPageflakesNetvibesFacebook; LinkedinTwitterNingSecond LifeTwineFlickr; social bookmarking; and conceptual maps.  These courses can have higher dropout rates, especially when students become lost in the content or fail to successfully engage in the social construct.  In this setting, the student is in control of the learning process and the instructor’s role is transformed into one of facilitator and shepherd of resources.  Courses tend to be based on social and dynamic topics that are non-linear in construct and don’t typically lend themselves to an easily replicable format (watching a series of video lectures and taking online exams).  Participants may not be concerned with receiving certification, but are often seeking an opportunity to improve skills through new methods and approaches in a socially dynamic setting.  This format arguably requires more from the instructor and assistants.  Far from remote, the instructor needs to be present and constantly guiding to maintain positive, purposeful, forward momentum.  Success requires a multi-tasking leader (and assistants), capable of guiding students through learning scenarios.  Otherwise, it’s easy to see how chaos can ensue.  If you are a social-learner and enjoy active participation, engagement, and can self-regulate in large groups, this may be your style.  If you are an instructor looking to augment an existing curriculum or transform specific courses into highly engaged, student-centered, dynamic settings, this format may be effective.

Both formats have their own set of attractors and detractors.  It’s relatively easy to see why a particular subject may be more appropriate for one or the other, or why a particular instructor may be more inclined to one format or the other.  The two methods could easily be used in conjunction with one another, and either could be used to supplement the face-to-face classroom experience and traditional curriculum.  One is not better than the other – the key to success is knowing which format to use, when to use it, and how to use it to effectively to achieve desired educational objectives.  Whether you’re a student or an instructor (or both), you need to be both well informed and somewhat self-aware to ensure a successful outcome.  The next topic for exploration in this series will be focused on equity in education.  The dialogue is fairly polarized on this topic.  Do MOOCs narrow or widen the equality gap in education, and what impact do they really have on the value of higher education?




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