Note: I will use this space over the next month to share excerpts from my dissertation The Evolution & Impact of the Massive Open Online Course. The research was a Delphi study bringing together 20 MOOC experts to discuss the MOOC in educational, political, and sociocultural terms (slides from the oral presentation can be seen here). Upon library clearance, the entire document will be available through a Creative Commons license. The following is from Chapter 5, the conclusions of the research study. This excerpt tackles one of the educational implications of the study — the re-emergence of cognitive learning theory in the educational milieu.
1. Computer science replaces education research & theory. In the time since the Delphi research study (note: the expert study ran in October and November of 2013), prominent MOOC voices involved in development and surrounding political affairs have continued to advocate for educational solutions engaged within a cognitive worldview. Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng recently promoted the book “Why Students Don’t Like School: A Cognitive Scientists Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom,” in doing so advocating for the cognitive approach, saying, “[This is a] great book on applying cogsci principles to teach better. Loved this!” (Ng, 2014). This exchange, passed along the social media platform Twitter to over 14,000 followers, marked some of the first recognized link to educationally rigorous learning theory, a change in the histories MOOC developers have heretofore shared with the world. Since 2011, those at the forefront of developing MOOCs have either linked their structures with very recent technological phenomenon such as Khan Academy (Vanderbilt, 2012), or avoided making a link to the history of education at all (Koller, 2013). The link between the artificial intelligence and machine learning backgrounds of the primary MOOC developers and the cognitive principles at the foundation of their academic disciplines now has been linked to existing learning theory literature. This link suggests MOOC developers believe the principles they employ for teaching machines are ideal principles for teaching humans.
Such developments might be ideal if, as Marvin Minsky put it, the brain is a computer made of meat (Minsky, 1982). Such a comparison may be provocative but does not withstand psychological scrutiny. The evolution of educational psychology, generations removed from the dawn of cognition in the 60s and 70s, has rendered cognitive learning theory archaic (Siemens, 2013a). While cognitive theory remains popular in computer science and among some educators, the work of educational psychologists and social scientists such as Jean Piaget, Etienne Wenger, and Bonnie Nardi have identified the limits of cognitive learning theory while using its strengths to create new theories of learning such as constructivism, communities of practice, and activity theory, theories accepted within education as more robust than cognitive theory (Wenger, 2013). A theoretical return to cognition thus creates a rift in the field of educational research, where a focus on the MOOC phenomenon as a learning model substitutes the field of computer science for educational psychology theory. Moreover, the ahistorical attitude of the MOOC movement (Khan, 2012) implicitly invalidates prior education research. The end result is a whitewash of the field of education, where prior initiatives and research are discarded without consideration, and where the MOOC model and similar education initiatives can grow and thrive despite sizable concerns existing within prior and contemporary education research.