MOOC, we hardly knew ye

By | February 10, 2015

There’s an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week by Steve Kolowich, entitled “The MOOC Hype Fades, in 3 Charts”, reporting on a new survey of academic leaders about their attitudes toward the MOOC phenomenon. Essentially, the results indicated a high degree of disillusionment with this approach, reflecting its failure to deliver on promises related to cost-reduction and/or income generation. At best, these courses seem to have served as advertising vehicles for programs at certain universities, showcasing top faculty talent for recruitment purposes.

When Coursera and its ilk burst on the scene a few years ago, there was considerable speculation as to what the underlying business model might be. Coursera itself left its purposes highly ambiguous in its initial agreements with universities. It seems to continue to thrive, so something is being achieved. But it is now fairly clear that this MOOC model is not the revolutionary restructuring of higher education that many of its initial supporters, myself included, thought it might be

I strongly supported the idea MOOC concept, for several reasons. First, as a committed lifelong autodidact, I thought it offered an interesting kind of structure for pursuing diverse interests without the kinds of pressures associated with standard academic models. Second, I thought it might provide an entering wedge for fundamentally restructuring the units in which education is currently packaged – that is, the “course”, defined by the omnipresent Carnegie Unit with its assumptions regarding the linking of time spent to educational results achieved. The purpose of a course is to tie up a certain amount of learning in a bounded package. Although links between courses are supposed to be achieved through carefully structured curricula, this is seldom achieved as effectively as it ought to be. Courses acquire a certain identity of their own and the longer they are taught, the greater their autonomy and isolation. The more senior and prestigious the professor, the greater the likelihood that he or she will have staked out certain topics and approaches essentially as intellectual colonies, and will like any imperialist power fight to preserve them.

Over the years, I’ve defined, created, and taught an enormous number of courses of different types on widely differing subjects. Yet I have less and less confidence that I have “chunked” learning into appropriate parcels, as the course model requires. The rhythm of a course is well known – introduction, elaboration, assessment, further elaboration, final assessment. And at one point or another almost every possible kind of education gets squeezed into this Procrustean bed, regardless of its suitability. The effect of the course model is to draw a well-defined boundary around a chunk of learning, and whether intended or not, to squeeze off the vital connections that ought to be made to other kinds of learning and other places and times.

Contrast this with the learning model in effect when you turn to something like Wikipedia to investigate a new thought. Wikipedia is explicitly about a lack of bounds on ideas. Every article is shot through and through with links to other places – some of them fairly closely related, many of them peripherally or virtually unrelated – and yet when you start investigating them, they turn out to lead to other ideas that connect often usefully to your original subject for investigation. The links are not designed as explicit pedagogy; they simply reflect the intellectual content of the material and the conceptual threads that run through it. There are as many different ways to read a Wikipedia article as there are people doing the reading. In a real sense, each person structures his or her own pedagogy according to interest and utility. Obviously, the material needs to be curated through its preparation and checking, but that’s what the whole giant wiki community exists to do.

The Wikipedia autodidact model almost turns the course pedagogy model on its head. The focus is on expanding linkages among ideas, not on bounding them, and the organizing priorities are those of the learner, not of the instructor. It’s by no means the only alternative to a course model, but it clearly shows that effective alternatives do exist and can serve critical educational purposes.

Unfortunately, the MOOC approach generally involves simply translating existing course frameworks into online delivery mode, slimming or eliminating the assessment processes, and concentrating attention on the course’s talking head – in short, it exacerbated the errors built into the course model rather than suggesting a way around them into a more open and self-structured inquiry process. To my mind, this fundamental failure to explore alternative learning structures while clearly replicating and exacerbating the frustrating aspects of the course centered instruction is the reason why MOOCs have not achieved anything like their original potential.