Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Can MOOCs make learning scale?

One of the big challenges of education is that it doesn't really scale well. At primary and secondary level, pupil teacher ratios are political hot potatoes with good reason. At big ratios students don't get individual attention. Bump classes up beyond any small number and the teacher can't keep a handle on who is or isn't up with the play, can't dip down and interact one to one with the students to work through a difficulty. They can't teach, basically. They fall back on lecturing and crowd control.

Lecturing now, is a different story. Lecturing scales really well. You can lecture a million almost as easily as 10. People (usually lecturers, as you would imagine) often mix up lecturing, as the signature pedagogy of the University, with teaching. Ideas like iTunesU and are great for disseminating lectures, but that isn't teaching and learning. It should be called iTunesLectures, not iTunesUniversity.

Technology has not, so far, been able to solve this problem. People in technology circles who have never taught anything, and evidently, haven't learned much either, often miss this point. The same webtech wheezes that have ripped up conventional media can't rip up Education. Education isn't media.

MOOC, or Massively Open Online Courses, are one fair effort at leveraging technology to make education scale. There's a good paper about the format and the issues involved online now "The Ideals and reality of participating in a MOOC" which gives a good overview of the model, and the issues encountered. It's worth a read. Basically in a MOOC the course is online, it's somewhat unstructured, the format uses pretty much any kind of web tool you can think of to facilitate a big networked conversation on the topic. Courses can have thousands of participants, some for credit, other not, some engaging, some not. The first instance ran in 2008, led by Stephen Downes and George Siemens, key thought leaders in the field.

Personally, I found the format hard to engage with and commit to, but that's probably more to do with me than it. I'm slow to pan the format, because it's early days, and only a handful of MOOCs have run, but the paper linked above seems to resonate with my concerns about it. I don't think it's going to solve the problem as it stands, but it's probably as close as we've gotten.

Learning comes, in part from a dialogue.  That dialogue is one to one, between someone who knows a lot about it, and someone who wants to know a lot about it. Lecturing (or reading) is only half of it, it's a monologue. It's often hard to ask questions in a lecture, impossible in a book.

A core part of the concept of a MOOC is peer to peer learning, through dialogue. But it's a dialogue between 2000 people who all know a little bit about the topic, with the course leaders piping in from time to time. It's as likely to confuse as enlighten. A big online course, with some lecture/readings, some student chats is a good effort at a fusion, but even the most hyperactive educator isn't going to be able to run around and engage with more than a few dozen students, or have any clear idea of who knows what.

I think perhaps the MOOC a stronger model for the humanities, where there is often no single clear answer (I squandered my college years in the hard sciences, where we pretend there is). It's certainly a better model than everyone sitting in a lecture hall taking notes. On balance, until something new comes out on the technology side, it's probably one of the best models around for mega scale cost effective learning. If you teach in University, get on one if you have a chance, and see how they work. If I hear of another coming up I'll let you know.


  1. Criticism here.

    It's not intended so much as a response to your specific post, but rather captures my response to a widish range of objections that have the same form. Please don't take it personally.

  2. There has been a lot of buzz about this super-sized open education course.
    -Online Courses

  3. @Downes...
    I don't take it personally at all. That's life in the big city. I post, someone criticises or praises, I reflect and rethink, we all learn a little and move on.
    Unless it's in a MOOC of course, in which case doing exactly that will get us all confused .
    Although your comment doesn't entirely refute my point, as in the Big Dialogue about MOOC (a meta MOOC, if you will) you are, effectively, the course leader.
    This is all a bit recursive - we really need to see a lot more MOOCs running to learn the strengths and weaknesses, and see how the model evolves in the wild. Truth will out.

  4. Well yes. The first thing to remember about the MOOC - and variour related initiatives - is that they are experiments. Platforms for research. Beta tests.

    There will be critics, and that's not a problem. But at some point I think we as a community will have to define what counts as reasonable criticism, that actually addresses the work being done, and less pointed criticism, that relies on the truisms often accepted contra such work as this, but which does not have an empirical base to support it.

    Many of these truisms suppose that "only a qualified instructor" can do this or that. We will see through experimentation the role an instructor really needs to play, but the evidence suggests that "select quality material", "contextualize content", "plan a pedagogical path", etc., are not among them.

    Other truisms suppose that students acting autonomously are (necessarily) acting without guidance. This supposes that the only form of guidance is management. Our theory suggests that the role of the instructor is to model and demonstrate. Presupposing that the instructor is simply supposed to disappear is not a valid critism of the model.

  5. You probably all know about PLENK2010, it just starting week 4 now. I'm lurking on it and expect I'll blog a bit about it at the end, when my views have congealed a bit more.