Are MOOCs Divergent From Online Learning?

One of my research curiosities is on the development of the cMOOC versus the Udacity-like MOOC.  Both go by MOOC, but the methodology, impetus and learning theory behind each seems vastly different.  Seeing is one thing, however; this is about research.  An earlier blog post pointed to distance education as a place to see the evolution of MOOC learning theory, specifically for the Udacity-like MOOC, as the cMOOCs label themselves under constructivist measures.  But there is dissent within distance ed circles in regards to its place in the evolution of online learning.

A 2009 research article in The Journal of Distance Education (author Randy Garrison; note:  I think this should be required reading for anyone looking at learning theory and MOOCs or Online Learning) makes the case that online learning is not borne of distance education, but instead from instructional technology and computer-assisted instruction.  For Garrison, online learning (and it’s important to note he was writing in 2009) is a constructivist endeavor, designed to utilize technology to enable two-way communication between teacher and student, and create a wide and opportunistic place for artifact creation, project development and critical thinking.  Distance education, on the other hand, fell into what Garrison calls an industrial model, selling independence and self-direction as the model for and goal of distance ed (and it’s highly likely the independence discussed here is related to the individualized learning discussed in today’s political arena).  Garrison personally sees this as detrimental:

While self-directed learning (SDL) may be a legitimate educational goal, it is risky if this assumption automatically limits opportunities to collaboratively negotiate meaning and validate understanding. Self-direction is properly constrained in most formal educational contexts depending on the abilities of the students and the educational goals. Students are generally deficient to some extent in terms of the three dimensions of SDL – management, monitoring and motivation (Garrison, 1997). What happens when students do not have the skills or motivation associated with a high degree of self-direction? In such situations, SDL becomes a sink or swim approach. Without skills and/or motivation, students need support.

Further discussion looks at the difficulty of adopting constructivist learning theory to a existing distance model designed to produce content for mass audiences (again, this was written slightly after Siemens & Downes’ 2008 cMOOC, and two years before Stanford’s first large-scale MOOC). How can people negotiate meaning without mentor/pupil interaction?

As noted, collaborative constructivist approaches to teaching and learning are central to developments in OLL in higher education. However, such approaches are problematic in industrial distance education. It is very difficult to introduce constructivist approaches when constrained by economic realities that necessitate relying on self-instructional materials. It is argued here that the self-direction idealized by Peters is what might be referred to as “ ‘naïve constructivism’ where educators have blind faith in the ability of students to construct meaningful knowledge on their own” (Garrison, 1995, p. 138). The views of constructivism made possible by OLL emphasize the need for a collaborative and transactional environment.

The conclusion is somewhat ominous.  Garrison notes the lack of distance learning theory in online learning literature, and wonders if industrial distance ed is at the end of its theoretical line.  Garrison hopes that distance ed incorporates new theory into its definition and expands outside a behaviorist model, utilizing the capabilities of computing to create constructivist opportunities.  Whether that will happen as Udacity-like MOOCs expand remains to be seen, but initial iterations of the format seem to follow the theory of industrial distance education.


One thought on “Are MOOCs Divergent From Online Learning?

  1. Pingback: Siemens on MOOC Theory / Classifying MOOCs | All MOOCs, All The Time

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