Why on earth am I writing about MOOCs again?
I’m not sure why I have this instinct to defend MOOCs. I am generally the last person to be instinctively bullish on purely technological innovations in education even if I tend to be one of the first people to try them out.
Confusing MOOC shortcomings with the failures of schooling in general
The thing that galls me is this tendency of MOOC critics to criticise problems as being specific to MOOCs whereas in fact, they are problems faced by education in general. Clay Shirky outlined the myth of “all college is like Harvard” in this excellent blog post. Essentially, he argues, we are basing our opposition to MOOCs on an image of college experience that is representative of about 3% of the college population. I have argued elsewhere (and Shirky hints at the same) that even this image is to a large extent an illusion of professorial propaganda.
Some critics confuse MOOCs with online or distance education in general and criticise things that stem from not having the teacher and students in the same place at the same time.
Others want MOOCs to prove great outcomes when it is education as whole (and higher education in particular) that has yet to prove its outcomes in the long run (there are some correlations by no sure-fire causations).
Yet others obsess about drop outs from MOOCs. Again, they ignore the fact, that in any course, where some coercion to attend is removed (like individual college courses), the drop outs are staggeringly high (despite much higher possible benefit and initial cost of investment).
Confusing motivation with coercion in education
A final bit of criticism with faint praise is that they require too much motivation. One such bit is what inspired this post:
MOOCs can work well for highly motivated individuals who have the time and/or skills to filter information.
This is the conclusion of a post (derived from a survey). But the problem is that this is true for all of education. The current coercive model of attendance employed in all educational systems (with some exception in the alternative space) don’t work very well for those who are not very motivated or don’t have good strategies (study skills) to deal with the one-size fits all demands of their particular institution. Sure, we may be able to threaten them and their handlers (teachers) enough to make them pass some kind of examination on a given date but the same examination administered five years into the future would probably result in failure. Surely, the purpose of education is not to prepare people for exams?
So, yes, the statement above is absolutely true about MOOCs (I’ve dropped enough to know from personal experience) but here MOOCs just reveal the weaknesses of traditional education. The strength of MOOCs is in giving somebody an option to find their motivation.
I’m currently running a MOOC-like course and amid some positive early feedback, I also got “I’m getting more confused and demotivated”. And this is on a MOOC that’s by no means massive (250 people) and students receive a fair amount of support. The different blogs about MOOCs around the nets indicate that this is a common experience of MOOC participants (whether they use the extension or connectivist MOOC model).
But I’ve seen similar comments in non-MOOC online courses and in straight up attendance courses. (And not just those run by me – even though I am prepared to admit that I am the problem in many of the individual cases).
Confusion and demotivation is a feature of all schooling. Just look at any book of classroom management and you’ll see countless tips on how to minimize it – meaning that it’s very common.
The myth of the student question and the expert answer
Another implied criticisms of MOOCs came in “Students can’t ask a question of real experts”. This came up in several blog posts and most recently in a question about the model of a massive (though not open) model of education practiced by a company called StraighterLine that provides individual support to learners but only on study skills and not the subject themselves (http://edwired.org/2012/11/02/the-future-of-higher-education-conference-4). Mills Kelly’s reaction was:
It’s certainly a very cost-efficient model, but what happens if Student X has a question that we might call an example of “critical thinking”? How can one of those tutors, who knows a lot about how to help students complete the models in the curriculum, respond to such a question? Probably not very well.
As somebody who has both asked and answered a fair deal of such questions, I have my doubts as to their importance. First, they are relatively rare (most questions are about course logistics or focus on how to answer a question on the exam). They leave most of the rest of the class behind. And as often as not, they do not actually clarify things for the questioner. They are also not infrequently misunderstood by the expert. So having these in your typical educational context leads to more confusion and demotivation.
Is motivation, confusion and the resulting disengagement a real problem and if so, how do we overcome it? Yes, it is a real problem. But I suspect that it is a problem as much as tropical storms are a problem. We can’t really prevent them. At best we can mitigate their impact and deal with the aftermath.
Confusion and misunderstanding are a feature of human communication. We have tools for dealing with them (like conversation repair) but none of them are perfect. In most interactions with their teachers, students are like eye-witnesses. And their ability to recall and act on their memory of what they witnessed are about as reliable. Meaning, not very much at all. If there is a teacher who has never experienced the utter devastation of seeing students act on the most clearly presented information in completely random ways, it’s a teacher with enormous powers of self-deception. “We covered that,” “I saw you write it down,” “You understood that last time” are as common utterances in the language of teachers as “Open your textbooks to page…”.
The only successful remedy is giving students multiple opportunities for dealing with the same problems from different directions until one of them finds a way in. And finding multiple sources of explanation. Including having students explain things to other students, teaching half-understood things, etc.
Course outcomes as number of connections (Connectivism again?)
The first blog post I referred to actually hits the nail on the head with a criticism of MOOCs focused on the truly “massive” as a way of being a promotional vehicle for institutions.
Success is the number of connections made to the institution, not the number of connections between the participants themselves.
This is exactly right. Except it is missing one part. The number of connections students make outside the course, to other experts and sources of information, is just as important as the number of connections made within its confines.
But within this is NOT contained an easy remedy to the “demotivation, lack of study strategies” problem. Connectivist MOOCs seem to produce proportionately as many reports of confusion and demotivation among their participants as the more impersonal extension MOOCs. They certainly don’t see many fewer drop outs (which would perhaps be better called drop offs).
I don’t think our MOOC which combines features of both c and xMOOCs with traditional online and blended learning, is any more successful at this than any other form of education. The general advice, viz, “give students as many ways of interacting with each other, the subject and the teachers, as possible” also contains the seeds of its own downfall. More ways of interaction mean more opportunities for learning and personalizing one’s own educational progress. But they also mean more opportunities for confusion and more ways of encountering demotivating experiences.
So all we can do is try our best, then somebody else’s best, and then try some more. But let’s try as much in traditional education, online education, and MOOCs. And let us not fool ourselves. This is never going to get easy.