MOOCs: Changing Modes of Pedagogy [original Google Doc]

As Bonnie Stewart explains, massive open courses are not a new concept. In the 1970s, Michel Foucault taught courses for free, open to everyone who was interested. Indeed, the concept of free education extends back to Socrates, who reportedly refused payment for his instruction. Nonetheless, the acronym MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, was generated in the context of a course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” taught by Stephen Downes. Let’s examine that acronym:

Massive: Can scale to a high number of students, potentially reaching thousands.

Open: Available for free and to anyone interested in participating, no matter their location, time zones, or previous experience. Tools and educational assets have licenses permitting reuse and sharing, including all generated content.

Online: Allows worldwide participation through any Internet-enabled device.

Course: Collection of ways for learners to collaborate on a common project. Can include expert input and a centralized organizational scheme and evaluation and certification.

A MOOC doesn’t always follow all of the points in its acronym, as David Wiley notes. Indeed, it has become a set of competing concepts. Tanya Roscaria posits two main types of MOOCs: the xMOOC and the connectivist MOOC (or cMOOC). The xMOOC “emphasizes content mastery, centralizes courses on one website and uses automated grading tools to support hundreds of thousands of students.” The cMOOC, in contrast, emphasizes social learning and participation, as Roscaria explains, relying heavily on social media and syndication to decentralize the learning process. xMOOCs often position the instructor as the source of expert information, whereas connectivist MOOCs emphasize students as equal contributors to the learning experience.

Of course, not all MOOCs are the same, nor are they created equal. Just like any other medium, a MOOC can be well or poorly done. As Cathy Davidson explains,

“Some online learning is so smart, really brilliantly researched and designed. Some stinks. Just like face to face. But we have to understand the assumptions about and behind learning, not just the historical contingencies of the particular system of higher education we happen to inhabit in 2012.”

Thus, it’s worth discussing what MOOCs are capable of, whether good, bad, cMOOCs, xMOOCs, or some combination thereof.

What Does a MOOC Do?
MOOCs provide free education for the public through websites where multiple instructors can offer a range of courses, making them accessible to a wide range of participants, regardless of geographic location. At the very least, MOOCs make education opportunities freely available to everyone with access to an Internet connection. cMOOCs utilize the latest Internet technologies to motivate and help learners collaborate, facilitating the process of a high number of people learning together. xMOOCs rely on similar technologies to widely broadcast educational material.

The innovation inherent in cMOOC learning is not so much what happens on the instruction side — which in many cases replicates traditional teaching — but in what the participants are doing. The collaborative aspects of cMOOCs allow for the student to also become the teacher; this creates connections among students, without the intervention of an instructor.

Siva Vaidhyanathan states, “The strangest thing about this MOOC obsession is the idea that something that very wealthy private institutions offer for free, at a loss, as a service to humanity, must somehow represent the magic numbers in the higher-education lottery.” Nevertheless, MOOCs are not entirely the magic potion that will bridge all the gaps and bring social justice to the higher education system; in fact, they raise many issues in pedagogy and learning management.

What Does a MOOC Not Do?
xMOOCs may replace classroom instruction, but they do not eliminate the spaces where learners gather. Like a flipped classroom, the xMOOC instructor designs the opportunities, but it is the learners who enact them.

At the same time, Siva Vaidhyanathan explains that “the delivery of course content is not the same as education.” Similarly, Cathy Davidson argues that “talking heads do not equal an educational paradigm shift.”  xMOOCs rely primarily on the “talking heads” approach to learning, and tend to simply replicate the classroom lecture experience.

Connectivist MOOCs, however, supply more than just talking heads. In a cMOOC, the paradigm shift occurs through the pattern of communication; that is, it becomes multi-directional rather than one-directional.  Even relatively progressive classrooms cannot offer the same scale of possibilities for communication. So, just as we ask what a MOOC cannot do, we should also ponder what classrooms cannot do.

MOOCs: a Wrap-up
MOOCs challenge conventional learning and traditional pedagogy paradigms. Just as TV isn’t simply radio with an image and film isn’t just about broadcasting a stage play, MOOCs aren’t solely about recording and broadcasting lectures.

Laura Gibbs’ vision of an ideal MOOC is that it is an opportunity to create content collaboratively and to curate existing content. Ideally, MOOCs should facilitate active, meaningful, and productive learning relationships. Learning in MOOCs is not about remembering facts, but creating innovative, fresh knowledge through communication with peers, while giving new shape to shared meanings and concepts. In this way, a MOOC becomes an environment where a Community of Practice (CoP) develops, and where members interact and learn from each other, sharing understanding, solving problems collaboratively and defining their identity as practitioners. Etienne Wenger states that a CoP “has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest” and “implies a commitment to the domain”.

One of the challenges for MOOCs is how to reconcile their being massive and serving diverse populations with the need to adapt to the learning preferences, levels of prior learning, and tastes of individual students. In order to meet this challenge, MOOCs of the future will likely need to be in some degree learner-built, with different options for addressing the material created as the courses go on. This will mean allowing learners to be teachers, and teachers to be learners, asPaulo Freire advocates in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. MOOCs need to be communities of “pupilteachers” (to borrow a term from Finnegans Wake), where communication between participants serves as a basis for collaborative knowledge creation.

Finally, here are some reflections from @vrobin1000, one of the many many authors of the above article. And, below, a Storify including excerpts from and links to the other Google Docs.