Do MOOCs Really Matter In The Overall Picture of Education?

This morning I was pondering what impact Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) would have on the overall landscape of education. Most people involved in education that I speak to haven’t even heard of them. Many people (myself included) drop out of them before they really get started. So the question we have to wonder is: do they really matter if they aren’t going to be the next big thing in education?

Many educators certainly seem to have an obsession for searching for “the next Google” or the next “Facebook for education” or the next big thing to change the face of education.  Some think that MOOCs will be that next big thing, others think they are going nowhere.

The problem is not the with MOOC, but with the question. We don’t need one specific thing to the be THE end-all big thing for education. We have suffered too long in systems that want to have one cookie-cutter answer for everything. Want to teach an online course? Into the LMS box you. Want to blog? The LMS box has that for you, too.

I am starting to talk to more and more students that never read the syllabus of their online course. They feel the courses are becoming too similar and predictable – so why bother re-reading a cookie-cutter syllabus? If students are getting so used to online courses that they are going on cruise mode to take them, then it is time to shake things up a bit.

For most of us, the importance of the MOOC format is not the idea itself, but the fact that it represents a different way of teaching a course or idea or skill. We don’t need it to become the next big thing – we need it to become one of many new formats that online courses can be taught in.

And we need many other formats out there to spring up and gain traction. We need to offer a greater variety of formats and options, just like you see in face-to-face courses. Do you teach Science labs with the lecture method? Do you sit Art students down in the self guided labs and hope they figure out how to create art? Face-to-face courses have different formats (even though some do need to break out of the one or two they are stuck in), so online courses need to follow suit…. maybe even blaze new trails.

So even if you can’t stand MOOCs, you should at least follow their development and support their existence, or else it will be back to the cookie cutter for us all.

Confessions of a Massive Open Online Course Flunkie

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from my years spent in pursuit of a Bachelor’s in Education was really quite simple yet profound: “don’t let your class or syllabus get in the way of learning.”  Some of you might have heard of it also referred to as the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) method.  You want your students to get in to complex thinking as they are learning the topic of the course, not as they are trying to figure out what to do on the first day.

I have signed up for many Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) recently – and never completed a single one.  That is my biggest confession. Most colleagues get pretty shocked to hear that – after all, Mr. EduGeek himself would seem to be the best person to figure out a MOOC and get the most out of it.  Maybe even become a rock star in one.

But the problem is, I just don’t have time to figure out how to use one.  Yes, I will spend forever trying to figure out how to customize a WordPress app, but I won’t take the time to figure out how to participate in a MOOC.

At first, I though it was just me.  But then I found out that the people teaching the courses I never touched had to create a four minute long video explaining how to have success in a MOOC.  That is probably the first bad sign right there.  If you have to take a mini-course on how to take your course, you are probably having to focus too much on the structure and not the learning.  Even in Blackborg, the focus on figuring out the course is knowing what links to click, not what to do with the links after you know what to click.

Dave Cormier (how created the video linked to above) gives five steps on how to have success in a MOOC.  Each one of the steps needs explanation, because they don’t necessarily make sense without the explanations.  See how complex this is getting?

Of course, I was also one of those people that avoided the massive “lecture hall” courses in college.  It was just too easy to get lost in the crowd, even if you tried not to.  Being a male educator in a room full of predominately females, I saw first hand how easy it is for the minority to get lost in the mix, even if they tried not to.  Online, it is usually the minority opinion that gets lost… which is what usually happens to me in MOOCs.  You see, just because you follow and comment on other people’s work, there is no guarantee that they will follow and comment on you, ESPECIALLY if they disagree with you.  They will possibly even get mad that you aren’t stroking their ego and just ignore you (just being brutally honest here – the web is a magnet of narcissism).

My biggest confession is that I don’t see the point of a MOOC if I already have a Personal Learning Network.  I honestly don’t see the need for any type of open course once you have a PLN and have figured out Google.  But that probably also has to do me starting to question the whole concept of “open.”  It seems that “open” is now becoming synonymous with “lack of accountability.”  But that is a topic for another blog post.

To me, the advantage of taking a course is that you get to interact with the instructor or some other type of subject matter expert – and they are the ones that help you focus on what you need to be learning.  The MOOC removes this value but leaves the time lines and due dates.  So in other words, you remove the actual value of being in a course but leave the annoying part.

I know, I know – you are supposed to network with other students and they will give you the feedback and information you need.  That is all great – if you connect with a good group of people.  There is no guarantee you will connect.  And even if you do – what if they just rubber stamp whatever you say because they fear conflict? What if they really have no idea what they are talking about but think they are an expert?  You could end the class with a bunch of new knowledge that is actually worthless because you hooked up with the wrong group.  I know that in some subjects there are no wrong answers so that is not always the case – but it is a danger.  One that is less likely to exist in a traditional course.

Obviously I am focusing on worst case scenarios.  I think that the fact that I am an instructional designer by trade now I know that it is possible to design a “traditional” course that dumps the bad parts typically associated with the “sage on the stage” mentality while still incorporating the good parts of a MOOC (all while also avoiding the pitfalls of a MOOC).  In other words, a course that connects with existing PLNs instead of creating news ones.  You only have so much time after all (another confession of mine – I don’t have time to keep up with the new PLNs formed in MOOCs). The only problem is that a course like this can really only exist in a traditional college course format and not in a MOOC format.  But a lot of that has to do with the “Massive” part.

I think I also just see the MOOC as the technology-driven, socially-networked version of the cattle-herd lecture hall courses so prevalent on college campuses today.   Herding 500 students in a course is still herding 500 students in a course, even if try to put a modern technology spin on it.  Some people think that is fine.  Personally, I like things smaller and more intimate.

Why Do So Many “Educational Leaders” Sound More Like Sheep?

School and universities are going to go away, students are going to teach themselves, the planets will align, we’ll all sing a happy song, and peace on earth will reign. Or so I’m told.

Or maybe a bunch of our so-called “educational leaders” will get finally get some counseling for their childhood conflicts they had with teachers and grow up. Then we can get rid of all of this weird stuff we are debating now and get to some real educational reform. You know – stop throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Look, I get that there are problems out there and we need to change things. But students as co-teachers and teachers and co-students? Are we getting so egotistical as a species that we can’t even stand to admit that we might need to learn from someone else? That it is okay to have a hierarchy in class, as long as we teach those on the top to be open and non-abusive?

If students teach themselves, with teachers as co-students, where will they get their knowledge from? They will go out and read blogs or books or Tweets by experts.  So, if a person has the title of “teacher” or “professor,” students couldn’t just learn from them. But this person happens to, say, go out and start a Google Wave… then it is okay for other students in other schools to then learn from them?

I am all for active learning and students getting to participate in their learning…. but let’s not forget that the instructor is also a valuable resource.

A few people say we don’t need teachers and BAAAA!!! “we don’t need teachers any more” they all say.

Someone says “schools will be obsolete by 2010 and BAAAAA!!! “schools will be obsolete by…”

Oh, wait… what year is it now?

And no one has still explained how people who work in education are going to put food on the table in an open learning new world order future. Every class everywhere in the world is going to learn from a billion experts putting a bunch of free resources out there in their spare time? Yeah, right….

A Reality Check For Open Education

Finally… someone dared to speak out about some of the problems they have with open education.  And not just some old fuddy-duddy outsider that doesn’t get it, but an insider that is well versed in all angles.

I’m no fuddy-duddy open education hater myself… but I have felt a little discomfort over several aspects surrounding the open education movement.  One of the oddest to me has been the predictions that universities will disappear by the year 2000.  Opppsss… missed that one… I mean 2010 for sure.  Oh, wait… gonna have to make that 2020 now.  I wonder how long people have been predicting the death of the university now?  I remember those claims associated with closed circuit tele-courses many decades ago.

Finally, though, we have George Siemens breaking through the cute kitten syndrome barrier (as he calls it) on open education and raising some concerns that need to be addressed… not as a person that hates change for the sake of hating change, but as a person who likes the ideal but wonders if things aren’t going that well overall:

One really disturbing aspect of the open education movement is the continued association with the fragmentation of the entertainment business (mp3s, Hulu, etc, etc).  I have no love for greedy music companies, but the fragmentation of that industry is seen by many as destroying it.  Less and less money is filtering to the artists, and most attempts to fix that have not worked.  Do we really want to change our educational systems to mirror a system that is choking the life out of the very people it needs to survive?  Sure, you will still have people making music even if there is no money in it, but you can only get so far on free services and volunteer work.  Trust me – I have tried.  Eventually, you have to have money flowing in to a system in order to keep the people in that system alive (at least as long as food costs money).  That flow of money will not happen with fragmentation on the level that we are seeing in the music business.

But that is how many have proposed we get rid of universities: make teaching volunteer work.  Really?  I would have to say “good luck on that one!”  How many classes can a full-time worker, parent, spouse, etc. handle in their spare time?  Many of you reading this are wondering what this spare time myth is.  One professor typically teaches something like 3-5 classes.  This would mean that someone out there (this faceless entity that will someone guide education once universities die) will need to grow the general pool of teachers by three to five fold to get all of these volunteers.  Did I miss the end of the teaching shortage some where?  Was there a memo I missed?

Of course, I know I am dealing with some of the more radical ideas out there.  But they always get brought into the mix when open education is discusses.  Don’t get me wrong – I think at its core, open education is a good idea.  I am just glad it is finally getting some close scrutiny.