What I’ve Learned about MOOCs

This week I took part in a wonderful, collaborative experiment called MOOC MOOC (check out the Twitter hashtag #moocmooc to follow all the action), which was billed as a meta-MOOC where we would think about the possibilities and limitations of Massively Open Online Courses.  It definitely lived up to its hype, but it was so much more than this too.  I think a ton of ideas came out of this project–some of which have to do with MOOCs, but others of which have bearing on the future of higher education itself.  We were given one final assignment:  to reflect on our experience in MOOC MOOC.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

What a MOOC Is

If I learned anything it is that MOOCs live or die based on the amount of collaboration and participation you find in the course.  This one was full of collegial participation.  I thoroughly enjoyed the Google Doc assignment on day 2, the mini-MOOC in which people joined me on Day 4, and the group brainstorming we did yesterday.  We all came together to think out loud, construct ideas, compose hypotheses, and simply try to figure things out.  This is a rarity, even in academia, and the sense of common purpose really buoyed us as we wandered into uncharted (for the most part) territory.  Our intrepid facilitators did a terrific job in setting up this fertile environment in which this atmosphere could develop.

As I wrote in my part of the Google Doc on day 2, MOOCs have the potential to fulfill an educational ideal that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks:  an open forum for the production of knowledge to which all are invited as long as they share the goal of developing ideas.  If MOOCs survive in their current form, I think it will be because they have filled a need felt by many who want to get together (virtually, in this case) to simply think, bounce ideas off of each other, and try to solve problems.

What a MOOC Is Not

I say above that *if* MOOCs survive it will be because of this participatory community, but I’m still not entirely convinced that they will last, at least not as they are currently conceived.  MOOCs and universities today are intertwined, but I think one needs to be extracted from the other.  As long as MOOCs are being sold as the “next big thing in higher education,” their future will be limited.  The realities of accrediting bodies, curriculum committees, politics, plagiarism, and good sense will prevent them from bearing any university credit, which is what would need to happen in order for them to go anywhere in higher education.  MOOCs could have a very bright future as their own thing, driven by like-minded thinkers, independent of higher education.  And I truly believe we need spaces like MOOCs where this kind of activity can occur.  I just don’t think they should be linked to our institutions of higher education.  In the end, they are two separate things with separate goals.  To mix them together is to do an injustice to both.

I have gained a respect for MOOCs that I did not have before I took part in the #moocmooc project.  What remains for me, I’m afraid, is the belief that they need to grow and thrive independent of colleges and universities.

So what is “the next big thing in higher education” then?  I have a radical idea.  Let’s stop trying to reinvent the wheel and instead look hard at the ways in which we can design the best, most innovative, and absolutely exceptional learning experiences in our current classes, whether they be face-to-face, hybrid, or online.

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6 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned about MOOCs

  1. Unfortunately, the “next big thing” in higher education will always be technology-based. Always. It’s rather easy to convince a university to invest in technology: simply point to another university that employs it and moan about getting left behind. Throw in some corporate-speak about “technological literacy” and “workforce skills.” Bingo: funding. What’s almost impossible to do is to generate the same level of interest – from administration, trustees, the government – for full-time/tenure-track faculty whose long-term investment in the university will, over time, deliver results. (I’ve only been at SUNY Potsdam for 5 years, and I’ve already seen us implement 2 different online course management systems. How many more will we invest in during my time? How much money will we lose in such efforts, money that could have been used to hire faculty?)

    Also – and this is related to my own recent blog post (nudge! hint!) – there seems to be this unrelenting desire to “improve.” When something works – when you have demonstrated, repeatable results – why should we, as you say, “reinvent the wheel”? Too often, from where I sit, it seems like we are constantly pushed to reinvent the wheel, to find new and “sexier” ways of doing the job. Sometimes, technology can help, as can learning more about pedagogy from people in other fields, who have worked the problem from a different angle. That said, however, technology isn’t in and of itself the solution. (But as someone who actually requests – and is sometimes denied – classroom space without computer technology, perhaps I have a slight bias against the coming Rise of the Machines.)

    Also, I appreciate the Bronson Arroyo video. I bet the Red Sox would trade almost anyone to get him back in the rotation these days.

    • Jim, you’re absolutely right, especially about looking to what others have done in fields different from out own. As you say, most institutions are more interested in the next big fad, because they are afraid of being left in the dust of other universities, which–in turn–they *think* means a loss of students, revenue, etc. My own opinion is that if we ever did truly focus on teaching and creating the best learning environments, the students would come. Deep down, everyone wants to be inspired and to be taught well. If there is going to be a “next big thing,” then we need to look inward, not outward. We need to capture what is best about teaching and learning and look at it from new angles. I guess the only place I differ from you slightly is that I’m willing to look to technology as one option for this. I don’t think it’s the only answer, but I do think it’s a possibility.

      • Oh, I agree that technology can be useful. I’m just tired of being told that technology will somehow inherently make everything better. As with anything else, it can only be useful as part of a thoughtful approach to pedagogy. (I’ve sat through too many meetings where I’ve been told that making my classes “high-tech” will improve them, only to be met with blank stares when I’ve asked how. The best answer I have received was “well, that’s up to the professor.” Too many people assume that technology = improvement, but not everyone has thought out how. For me, the use of technology should be inspired by the pedagogical needs/goals, rather than bringing technology to campus and asking faculty to find ways to justify the expense.

  2. “For me, the use of technology should be inspired by the pedagogical needs/goals, rather than bringing technology to campus and asking faculty to find ways to justify the expense.” Nail on the head, Jim!

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