How MOOCs change the world – do they? Starting a list of myths about MOOCs

Online learning every since its existence has followed certain waves of new innovative developments. Sometimes these were more on the tech side (e.g. when LMS started, rapid authoring tools, social web and social media), some more on the learning design side (bringing new life into old concepts like learner centered learning) or challenging the existing balances of power and business models through new movements of openness (lie OER and open education). A new and very interesting wave is currently running through the scene of learning activists, spreading more and more into reality of reputated higher education institutions, the phenomenon of massive open online courses, in short MOOCs.

From a pedagogical point of view, MOOCing – learning in MOOCs – is basically self-organized learning, the most interesting form of education. Will it be possible for the MOOC movement to substantially push forward the vision of self-organized, autonomous life long learning who are jumping into a stream of learning opportunities with massive crowds and navigate towards their bright future with enriched skill sets and all urgently needed competences fort he knowledge society? Or is it just a new form of massification of higher education? Can we utilize the promises of social learning and community based learning with MOOCs?

MOOCs are absolutely fascinating. The most known and reputated universities are giving away knowledge for free, but unlike the claim oft he OECD in 2007 when they coined this phrase to describe the OER revolution, today universities offer whole courses, not just their knowledge. Like with all previous waves running through the e-learning scene, many promises of innovative, new learning methods and  the realization of learning design supporting autonomy are coming along with the MOOC development as well. The promise of openness and knowledge for all for free is here combined with the vision of innovative learning which leads to a powerful mix of future promises.

Much progress has been made, indeed. Old style thinking of large parts of higher education management is starting to wonder how our traditional higher educational institutions can be turned into leading promoters of life long learning knowledge societies. And if MOOCing can be an alternative to achieve this desired goal. And already we can draw the conclusion that one thing is for sure: MOOC development has managed to gather critical mass to be challenging enough to traditional institutions that it serves as disruptive and innovation stimulating phenomenon. And that is alot!

However, there are some myths, which need to be uncovered and which are blurring the current picture of MOOC style learning:

1. MOCs follow their own quality logic

Unlike many claims, quality methodologies and approaches do not need to be reinvented for MOOCs. MOOCs are large online courses an das such the quality logic applied to eLearning processes also applies to MOOCs. While on first sight it seems  that everything is put head to toe with MOOCs, MOOCs are by nature nothing else than large, and largely self-organized learning opportunities. That means that the quality of learning and learning experiences depends very much on the ability of an individual learner to use the environment for his or her own purposes, analyze what s/he needs to learn, apply learning pathways which work for them and assess their outcomes on a self-evaluation and self-assessment basis. All methods for self-assessment and self-evaluation are useful for quality development of learning in MOOCs, as they all emphasize on the individual learning experience rather than external standard setting.

What is needed is a broad attempt to analyse the real quality of MOOC learning materials and their learning design approaches. often what we will find are old style lecture videos combined with not moderated discussion fora – is this a high quality learning experience?

2. MOOCs are the solution for a better educated world for all for free, especially the developing and emerging countries

The pure existence of books through Google is not leading to a better educated world. While provision of learning materials is one side oft he coin, tutoring is another and certification a third one, and with MOOCs especially the first is addressed, but not the two latter ones. Tony Bates suggests that it is even dangerous to suggest that Coursera is an alternative to conventional university education because it might take away the pressure off governments in developing and emerging countries to find their own, indigenous solutions to access to higher education. Of course it would be different if Stanford and  MIT would give credit for MOOC based courses, and then even awarded full degrees.

3. MOOCs use innovative learning design

With many MOOCs now going into the third and fourth iteration of their existence, more and more pedagogical analysis oft he actual learning design is available, with astonishing results: Most MOOCs are simply a repository of – somewhat meaningful – sequenced learning materials, and do not bother to go beyond the stage of providing old style teaching videos via YouTube which are representing filmed lectures, often cut into digestible pieces. In a recently presented analysis of some of these videos of 101 courses for artificial intelligence and mathematics it becomes apparent that the learning design methodology is a purely old style and simplistic presentation and imitation style transmissive concept.

Newer MOOC developments like the eLearning and cultures MOOC which university of Edinburgh recently launched and which in its first iteration drew 42000 learning into the course, are designed more sensible. Learners have to develop artifacts and are required to participate into the review of three artifacts of their peer learners. Such more advanced learning design approaches lead often to more meaningful interaction between students in online environments.

Yet, the experimentation phase has just started and developing pedagogies for massive group sizes never has been an easy tasks and should not be sold as Top notch innovation.

4. Large data will improve teaching (Taken from Tony Bates Blog: http://www.tonybates.ca/2012/08/05/whats-right-and-whats-wrong-about-coursera-style-moocs/)

Can computer-tracking of student activities identify weaknesses in the teaching? The example which Daphne Koller from Coursera gives in her often cited TED Talk was over 2,000 students giving the same wrong answer to a multiple choice question. In other words, Coursera is using trial and error as a form of teaching: try something, and if it doesn’t work, correct it the next time round. However, if they followed good design principles from the outset – for instance working with an instructional designer who could spot such errors or pre-testing material before it goes out to hundreds of thousands of guinea pig students – many of these ‘errors’ in teaching would be avoided in the first place. It is far, far better to avoid errors in teaching than to try to correct them afterwards: unlearning is much harder. With massive numbers of online students, the negative impact is equally massive.

Conclusion

To be clear: I would like to conclude that in my view MOOCs are worth bothering! They give us the benefit of rethinking education, but for sure they are not yet the solution for many oft he problems we have in education: Innovation speed and  educational opportunities which are restricted to the developed world. But they raised questions and pose challenges which keep the wheel spinning and which provide new shaped visions. And therefore they are furs sure worth bothering, trying and developing further. A whole new wave of research and analysis needs to accompany the currently ongoing trials and future new attempts in order to allow us to learn from these massive learning exercises.

What do you think?

About Ulf-Daniel Ehlers

Prof. Dr. phil. habil. Ulf-Daniel Ehlers is Vicepresident for Quality and Academic Affairs at the Baden Wurttemberg-State University in Stuttgart, Germany. He has been appointed Professor for Educational Management and Lifelong Learning at the same university. Before he has held positions as Associate Professor in the University Duisburg-Essen (Germany), Professor for Technology Enhanced Learning in the University Augsburg (Germany) and Associate Professor of the Graduate School for Management and Technology of the University of Maryland University College (USA). Ulf is an educational scientist and holds degrees in English Language, Social Sciences and Educational Sciences from the University of Bielefeld, where he finished his Ph.D. with honors in the field of Technology Enhanced Learning in 2003, and was awarded his habilitation in 2008 from the University of Duisburg-Essen. He has created many international, European and national projects and was involved in founding the European Foundation for Quality in E-Learning, in which he served as Vicepresident and President for several terms. He has also served as President and Vicepresident of the of the largest german speaking e-learning Association, the Society for Media in Science (GMW e.V.) as well as serving on advisory boards to several professional associations in the field. Before his career in academia he has been a successful and award winning entrepreneur in the field of webbased IT Technologies and founder of several companies.
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8 Responses to How MOOCs change the world – do they? Starting a list of myths about MOOCs

  1. Pingback: How MOOCs change the world – do they? Starting a list of myths about MOOCs | Flexibility Enables Learning

  2. saurilio says:

    Thank you for taking the time post. There’s a journal article to be written for each of your points, no? One of the many observations I’ve made about this discourse is how terms like “education” are thrown around, and by people who arguable have no scholarly or practitioner-based background in “education”. I work in higher education and I studied “education”, which is only to say that I know enough to know what I don’t know.

    There’s a taste of propaganda to all this too. I know the term may seem misplaced but think about the social and political implications. In the United States the privatization of the public sector is non trivial. There’s no evidence to suggest that this is a good thing for the majority of people. McDonald’s comes to mind: harmful food eaten by the masses. Walmart too: exploitative business practices. Amazon too, and the list goes on. We already see a “digital underclass” developing in online education–people who work remotely for substandard pay and with no benefits.

    As to the more direct implications, we know from decades of research that poverty is by far the strongest single indicator of academic success. Underperforming students need more direct support, contact with teachers/tutors, encouragement, not less.

    And it’s all well and good, for the true autodidacts in society to have this sea of knowledge to swim in. I’m one of them. But I STILL need to be taught, motivated directed by someone more knowledgable than me. I like the saying “you don’t know what you don’t know”. It illuminates the naivete’ and arrogance of the “self-directed learning” rhetoric.

    In short, education to me includes developing an individual’s cultural capital, skills and knowledge so that s/he can contribute positively to a society. Dehydrating it to a denominator like “MOOC” is dangerous.

  3. Pingback: How MOOCs change the world? | Learner Weblog

  4. Ulf Ehlers says:

    Thank you for the useful points about MOOC challenges. Very interesting read!

  5. Ulf Ehlers says:

    You bringing up the essential in my view. I guess the next blog post has to be on ” MOOCs and ‘education'” then…🙂
    Thanks!

  6. Pingback: How MOOCs change the world – do they? Starting a list of myths about MOOCs | weiterbildungsblog

  7. Marc Schnau says:

    Great article, thanks a lot for sharing this!

    In my humble opinion, MOOCs are great but very overrated, or perhaps better: Labeled with incorrect attributes. And the train seems to be unstoppable.

    In the current edition of the “Zeit” (for all who have no idea: The “Zeit” is a german newspaper, published on a weekly base), they praise the “Revolution” of Learning through MOOCs, writing about “Harvard for All” (http://bit.ly/UQMdJP – a shorter summary).

    I am absolutely have no idea where the journey is heading. I work together with Prof. Paul Kim and team (Stanford), trying to improve the MOOC “Designing a New Learning Environment” (carried out for the first time in Fall 2012). And we try hard to make DNLE #2 a great, insightful, sustainable experience. But we neverever claim to revolutionize anything!

    Can’t wait for “MOOCs and Education” …😉

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