A sadness fell over the Ed Tech circles of Twitter yesterday. Maybe not a sadness, but a resignation. The fervor that often accompanies information or artifacts from dichotomal points of view (which I love to call PsOV) was replaced with a more subdued conversation, one indicative of licking wounds, falling back, and regrouping.
A lot of MOOC related information entered into the conversation yesterday, and I’ll dedicate specific blogs to each. But most important, from my perspective, was technology and new media maven Clay Shirky weighing in on the MOOC debate (oddly enough, I linked to a 2009 article of his just the other day when discussing my journey of putting MOOC and disruptive technology together). The article is powerful to say the least, and makes a compelling argument…so compelling that if you haven’t read it and are interested enough in MOOCs to be at a blog all about MOOCs, you should go to it now.
My reading of this work — Shirky doesn’t just argue that MOOCs are a disruptive technology (though he never uses that phrase to describe what’s going on), but that MOOCs already disrupted higher ed, a system long troubled and viewed quite differently from the inside and out. The fat lady isn’t singing just yet, but 1) Shirky sees it coming, and 2) at the least, MOOCs shine a bright light on HE inefficiencies, inefficiencies that are ripe for the picking.
My last several blogs have been about disruptive technology as I work to put my head around the model for which xMOOC developers ascribe. After the first, I did not see how (at present) MOOCs could be disruptive to education, a societal substructure different from any of the tangible goods used in prior business models. After the second, I was still reticent, but saw a parallel to the demise of print journalism, and realized that society’s value of education was content, the learning theorist inside of me did not matter, because the market’s interest was in something different than large-scale notions of learning. After reading Shirky and putting it into perspective with political shifts, globalization and an acute focus on data and measurement, it’s tough to not be depressed about the effect that this push will have on learning.
That being said, I am still not 100% on this disruptive thing. Shirky’s big parallel is to Napster: Napster put .mp3 out in the world, a file quality inferior to existing music files. However, because of its ease for download and use, .mp3 made the CD obsolete, despite its inferiority. Putting that on the MOOC model, a video lecture makes the bricks and mortar lecture obsolete (and, to go a step further as Shirky does, you can just have the best of the best doing the lectures, increasing quality). But, and this is from a learning point of view, lecture-based education (from a theoretical standpoint usually put into behaviorism) is one of the least reliable methods of teaching or learning, perhaps the least reliable (here’s an introductory primer on the topic). You can go back to Dewey or even further, but the last 80+ years of research into how people learn and how people should teach shows the futility of the lecture. At the best, lecture begets a limited result based on short-term outlook: professor says X, student shows he can replicate X, objective achieved. There is an argument to be made that xMOOCs go beyond the lecture. The developers will say it is with the sophisticated interaction made possible within the video, as well as scripted tutorials where students get to practice within the LMS…but that’s still behaviorism. The argument they could make is that video lecture and sandbox space are examples of learning styles, the cognitive approach made famous (via multiple intelligences by Howard Gardner) in the early 80s. Someone could even try to say that the addition of message boards (and the encouraging of networking via social media) would be an example of social learning theory, which many attribute to Bandura but goes as far back as Vygotsky. These arguments would not stand up under scrutiny, but there is at least a conversation to be had that the xMOOC could, in its current state, deliver on these levels.
How we engage on that conversation will be the lynchpin going forward (#cfhe12). The xMOOC developers are not trained educators; they work in education, but picked up their skills through practice and panache. That’s admirable, but ignorant of centuries of research that would prove beneficial to their product, if their purpose is to achieve quality education for all. Despite the skeptics looking at the $$$, I like to believe it is.