Making Sense of MOOC Research – Sir John Daniel & the MOOC Tempest

Very recent (read: September 25) research on the MOOC phenomenon by Sir John Daniel, one of the pioneers of open education (#oped12) and distance learning.  A piece that I will return to for my scholarship (as well as pick from for other cited authors), but on first second glance:

  • I appreciate the focus on the xMOOC (still don’t like that term by the way, as it and cMOOC say that these are just two different apples off the same tree, when it’s more like two distinctly different trees ended up in the same forest because two birds delivered seeds from distant lands).  Most published research comes from the cMOOC side of things, making a foray into the MOOC topic difficult, as the Man on the Street would associate MOOC with the sort of thing being done by Harvard, MIT and Stanford.
  • Daniel is the first person I have seen to put learning theory to the xMOOC, saying it is behaviorist in nature.  Agreed, but I wonder how it would be viewed from the distance learning lens…
  • Daniel also bemoans having to weed through both promo material disguised as research, as well as personal narrative as research, while trying to find salient research in the field.
  • Other than Wikipedia, who Daniel cites in this paper, Daniel is the only person I have seen cite Ivan Illich as a seminal thinker behind the MOOC craze.  He says Illich’s views are pervasive in cMOOCs but not xMOOCs.  I have yet to read Illich, so he goes on the list as soon as this is done.
  • The discussion of MIT’s work (now via edX) and Stanford’s work (now via Coursera) is worth reading in its entirety.  Especially interesting to me was the group of MIT students who took a MOOC course and, based on the demand of the participants, offered a follow-up themselves via the open resources MIT has cultivated over the past 10+ years.  That would be an example of xMOOCs meeting cMOOCs, or at least an example of constructivism or communities of practice.
  • I greatly appreciate the look at economics (systems do not exist in vacuums; there are multiple structure, substructure and superstructure influences on any and all societal systems), and the difference between edX (how do we perfect online education in this disruptive tech landscape) and Coursera (how does this help us with the $$$).
  • There is mention of existing online learning partnerships, specifically Academic Partnerships (by Best Associates), a group working with 20 mid-tier regional universities throughout the USA.  These are programs designed to make degrees available from universities such as the University of Texas at Arlington via online coursework.  How this is the first connection to MOOC that I have seen in the lit is somewhat amazing.  It reminds me of a section of Big Media, Little Media that discusses an effort by the University of Nebraska in the 1970s to offer degrees completely through correspondence.  I need to read up on both.
  • While Daniel notes how ICT (Internet & Communication Technologies) are readily different from other technological advances throughout human history, he mentions that MOOCs could be a passing fad, and wonders why authors and thinkers have not discussed the failed online ventures of colleges over the past two decades.  Fair enough, but again, if you look at the xMOOC as the evolution of distance education pedagogy, its flash-in-the-pan potential seems severely mitigated.
  • In the section on recent failed initiatives in online learning, Daniel dissects MIT’s OpenCourseware project.  Everything I have heard from the layman perspective on OpenCourseware is that it is a fantastic opportunity; free and ubiquitous access to the thoughts and materials taught to MIT students.  Of course, Daniel addresses the elephant in the room — there is still no access to teachers, nor any way to turn that into a degree or accreditation, which is where universities gain their value.  Daniel quotes others as saying this approach is patronizing.
  • Research exists showing the linking of ICT and other educational technology in a distance setting as working throughout some Asian countries.
  • This one is worth quoting:  Nothing suggests that (xMOOC affiliated universities) are particularly talented in teaching, especially teaching online. A related paradox is that these same institutions once opposed the accreditation of the University of Phoenix, claiming that online teaching was inherently of low quality. Although Phoenix has engaged in dodgy business practices, it is likely that because it operates as a teaching-learning system the quality of its instruction is objectively better than the new wave of online xMOOCs. Certainly Phoenix’s completion rates, while nothing to boast about, are much higher.  Reading between the lines, Daniel is advocating for the importance of the teacher/expert in navigating a learning situation. Content alone does not beget learning (though some distance education theorists have said otherwise).  Could this be the MOOC lynchpin?
  • Daniel questions the low completion rates of these courses.  Personally, I see a correlation between those finishing MOOCs and those finishing a project like NaNoWriMo, which consistently sees a completion rate around one-sixth of its users.  I would like to do more research to see how intrinsic motivation relates to that one-sixth, and if we reach that number so often by chance or because there is a definitive variable there.
  • Big Data rears its head when Daniel speaks of learning analytics.
  • Another buzzword pops up in regards to personalized learning, and how the computer can afford that (Daniel quotes Tony Bates in saying that it can’t).  This is an interesting debate point within the MOOC world:  in the world of computer-aided instruction, where the cMOOC can claim its ancestry, a world of policymakers and developers are harping on personalized learning, where students can flip their classroom, get content via a computer, and then depend on the teacher for putting it together.  This way, students can move at their own pace rather than at the pace of the class.  Yet this is what has been behind distance education (by necessity) for its entirety.  There are serious theoretical forces at play in regards to the definition of learning (recitation of content, application of content, understanding of content in context, etc.).
  • Will MOOCs last the long haul?  This time, however, the scale of the involvement is such that something will survive, even if some who can well afford it lose money on the way.
  • What is the future? Daniel sees it unfolding like this:  the developing world will not directly benefit from the MOOC craze, but the teaching pedagogies associated with MOOCs will.  We can perhaps already see this, as Stanford has already commissioned new MOOC platforms to go live in the next several months.  Daniel relates this increase in teaching effectiveness to an increase in learning analytics.

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