MOOCs: Where’s the Lit Review?

One of the purposes of research is to establish a foundation of prior knowledge for future experiments to engage and extrapolate before proposing a new design that will further the field.  This is important; without an understanding of what came before, research runs the risk of reinventing the wheel, or even (worse yet) coming up with something more rudimentary than the wheel.

In my days of teaching creative writing, it used to be quite the stressor to get smart, motivated teenagers to take notes of their plots and characters.  These were students used to doing everything right and being able to beat the system just with what was stored in their heads.  I explained that creative writing was not about beating a system, and the more complex a story and a group of characters became, the more important it was to create a system where you could record those complexities so you could return to it as the story developed.  Some listened right away and got to work.  Some needed trial and error before coming to me so we could devise strategies.  Some never listened and became increasingly frustrated.  In the end, it was more likely for someone from the first or second group to have a coherent, rich story than someone from the third group.

I think about this as I read more literature on the history of MOOCs as described by the MOOC creators.  MOOC developers don’t spend a lot of time writing about this, which is concerning because just like any learning model, MOOCs deserve a thorough literature review prior to implementation (if a middle school teacher has to link a lesson on Where the Red Fern Grows to the saturation of various competencies and skills as dictated by the state department of education, an organization pining to offer courses for more than enrichment should be held to a similar standard).  I don’t necessarily blame them for not doing this on their own; popular media has not pressed the issue (and would rather run the narrative that MOOCs are ordained learning models that will democratize/economize/save education), and the MOOC craze has exploded to the point that I don’t expect Sebastian Thrun or Andrew Ng or Daphne Koller to sit down and comb through the prior research; they have other fish to fry.

But I’m doing it.  And I’m running into a problem.  First off, Thrun, Ng, and even Stanford’s Class2Go link their pedagogical practices to Salman Khan.  This isn’t uncommon or unexpected; Khan started his Academy in 2009, so it was fresh in the minds of these instructors and developers.  There is no written link as of yet between Khan and AI or Machine Learning, though Khan Academy’s movement toward data aggregation and personalized learning (which, as I will get into many times soon, sounds much better than it is) makes sense in an AI context. Khan recently published a pseudo-autobiography, the sort of book that takes a brief look at his history but focuses more on his vision for education.  And Khan puts a lot of stock into the idea that long lectures are not an effective learning model, so breaking up those lectures is paramount.  He cites some research, but not much, and in a number of cases cites the research as so (I am paraphrasing here): Yes, the research says this, but I/We/People figured this out on their own.  I just did this intuitively.  

First off, Khan is right — long lectures are not effective.  The problem is, lectures are not effective.  Or at least lectures are not an effective instrument in which to push a cornucopia of content onto a student.  Khan is drawing from research at the dawn of the cognitive revolution, a period in the late 60s and early 70s when psychologists (many of whom were working for the military) realized that people gained knowledge internally and a didactic exercise of that information was not going to be a reliable indicator of what was learned.  Research of the time looked at how people gain tacit knowledge, which is why future research looked at various learning styles and modalities for projecting information (whether it be auditory, literary, kinesthetic, visual, etc.).

This is what frustrated me about Anant Agarwal walking around a Future of Higher Education conference last month citing a paper from 1972.  There’s a ton of current research out there that builds on the cognitive revolution, realizing its importance but taking that focus to greater levels:  social learning theory, constructivism, connectivism.  Basic cognitive learning is part of it, but it’s not all of it, and we have 40+ years of research to prove that.  You wouldn’t know it from looking at the key players in the game today, though.  And that’s a problem.  There is a rich literature about distance education, online learning, learning theory and pedagogical models that notes the trials and errors since the cognitive revolution, trials and errors that sought to further the field:  PLATO, AllLearn, OpenCourseWare, Connectivism & Connective Knowledge.  MOOCs to this point have not shown an interest in bettering learning, but rather in promoting scale and access.  The approach from Khan Academy, xMOOCs and things like Sugata Mitra’s School in the Cloud is barren of contemporary pedagogy:  give students a computer and vetted content.  Why not give them a Kindle and a universal library pass?

I truly believe people like Khan, Ng, Koller, Thrun, and Mitra want to make the world a better place and see education as a catalyst, and believe in their systems.  I just hope someone in their camps takes a month to go to the library and read on the history.  Because as this phenomenon continues to explode, the $$$ backing it wants to get a return on its investment, and it doesn’t care whether the learning theory behind the model is outdated.


7 thoughts on “MOOCs: Where’s the Lit Review?

  1. Pingback: MOOCs: Where's the Lit Review? | Easy MOOC |

  2. enkerli

    To me, the MOOC craze has strong connections to the OLPC hype. And I’ve been quite critical of that one too:
    The notion that members of a project aren’t doing due diligence may not attract much sympathy when “public opinion” leans towards that project. To some, it sounds like sour grapes for somebody’s ideas not being recognized. To others, it sounds like unnecessary nitpicking. And it’s easy for project leaders to brush this type of feedback under the rug.

    Years after Negroponte’s TEDtalk, I’m still trying to come to terms with the attitude behind this statement:
    “people really don’t want to criticize this because it is a humanitarian effort, it is a non-profit effort and to criticize it is a little bit stupid actually.”
    This semester, I’m the primary instructor for a course meant to prepare volunteers who are going to Uganda so they can work on non-profit projects. The whole course is about global inequalities, the fallacies of humanitarian efforts, impact assessments, cultural awareness, postdevelopment…
    What strikes me about the course is that it’s easy to notice problems in statements like that one from Negroponte’s TEDtalk. Yet the message is left unheard and critiques are easily dismissed (through ad hominem arguments or through tautologies, most of the time).

    MOOCs might become useful tools to enhance learning, if we get to discuss them openly. Their calls resonate with many people who focus on a specific problem with the current system for credentials: access. People who wish they could “go to Stanford” or “attend Harvard lectures” find key benefits in MOOCs. The overall perception that “the Internet is democratizing knowledge” is a strong motivator for important actions. Asking people to look at research on the topic can be difficult, even in a course context. And negative comments about such a “generous” offer, coming from university graduates, sound like the mark of privilege. Had the same experience talking about the problems affecting North American society to Malians who wanted to come to Canada or the US to quickly amass large amounts of money (and get married in style).

    At the same time, several people are noticing the shift away from credentialism. Sure, doctors and lawyers require strong credentials and this part of the system is unlikely to change for a while. But do you require a degree to develop an app or to manage a website? Are universities really appropriate as a context to get training in fields which don’t exist right now? If knowledge is so “democratic”, do we really need courses?

    Personally, I find this discussion easier to handle, with most people, than discussions about MOOCs, OLPC, or the “humanitarian cause of the day”. But maybe that’s just me.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      I totally agree on the open discussion. I am impressed by Sebastian Thrun in this regard; he has directly addressed critique and criticism, though the political movement behind Udacity might hamper his publicity. I don’t know; I hope to meet him at #et4online this week. And from what I’ve seen of Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller at Coursera (and even Anant Agarwal at EdX), they are interested in improvement. The problem is the media cry that these are sacred cows for the moment, or at least that the pros outweigh the cons (without discussion of either). I see great potential in massive education, I also see great peril. My problem comes in people who openly ignore prior research. I don’t know Agarwal, and I’m happy he’s looking at some literature…I wish it had more to do with pedagogy and less to do with cognition, but it’s a start. Salman Khan’s statements show a lack of interest in pedagogy…those are at best ignorant and at worst willfully so.

      The conversation needs to be open and to incorporate a worldview outside of comp sci.

      I am unaware of criticism of Negraponte’s work; even the most fervently anti-corporation educational folks I know have positive things to say about him and OLPC. Please share more of your writing and thoughts…I am always looking for differing perspectives.

  3. Pingback: MOOCs: Where's the Lit Review? | OpenEducation |

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      Exciting! I am interested to see the results. Recently a lot more speakers have defined the MOOC history, and it’s from a very specific perspective and lens…one influential ATO at a MOOC-heavy school linked the Open movement in education to 2010…so just having a lit review does not mean it is factual or worthwhile. But I look forward to the development!

  4. mikecaulfield

    I’m glad you mention OpenCourseWare. Because part of the issue is not just the SoTL that gets skipped, but also the cultural successes and failures of previous attempts. One of the reason I’m obsessed with the “distributed flip” idea is that working for the OCW Consortium I saw first hand how a movement that does not design for institutional reuse can leave a surprisingly small dent in a set of things that really matter. A lit review including OCW would certainly show how much we struggled to show institutional reuse beyond very informal transparency uses (Stian Haklev talks more about this in his dissertation of Chinese OCW).

    So from day one the xMOOCs hit, I’ve been trying to get people to think about cases of institutional reuse,and how we can support that reuse… but it’s hard to talk to people unfamiliar with that history, and explain the “Well, build an they will come” does not work in this area…It’s the same cycle of a quick burn of prestigious institutions producing direct-to-student offerings, wondering why “lesser” institutions don’t use them more, but never bothering to ask people trying to use these institutionally what would be helpful to them…. It’s the same elitist digital colonialism, the same blindness to the professional competence (and excellence) of their peers in the “lesser” schools.

    /rant, I guess. But the idea that is movement sprung fully formed out of Salman Khan’s thigh isn’t only a selfish rewrite of history — it’s a rewrite that has the potential to undermine the very impact its authors are supposedly seeking…


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