Reflections on the MOOC model

This topic contains 2 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  Simon Fokt 6 years, 4 months ago.

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  • #25618

    Simon Fokt

    1. Elements of the xMOOC approach that I think could be applicable to your context

    • I like the fact that MOOCs allow people from all over the world to have access to the best teachers, and allow the best teachers to work with much greater numbers of students. Truth is, many academics who are great researchers aren’t really very good at teaching. Perhaps with the rise of TEL those people could teach less and focus on their research, while the teaching could be taken over more effectively by people who are really good at it.
    • I think that the availability of MOOCs is their strongest side. The fact that one complete courses at one’s own time and pace, means that (as mentioned in the video) people can learn and develop at any stage of their lives, and would find it easier to reconcile their learning with other commitments. This could be particularly important for philosophy and the humanities. In the modern world many people incorrectly perceive universities as fancy trade schools in which they can gain a job qualification. This means that they are less interested in humanities, because humanities degrees tend to not give one particularly great job prospects. If people had more chance to study things that interest them later on in their lives, without having to make the commitment of attending classes at fixed times, humanities could gain much wider audiences than they currently do.

    2. Problems I anticipate with the approach

    • I’m worried that many of the solutions MOOCs offer work for teaching sciences, but not humanities. For example, Sebastian Thrun talks about the opportunities TEL gives for breaking up lectures with exercises, allowing for a more engaging type of learning. I can see how this sort of approach can work in subjects in which there is typically one or two correct answers to a question, but this is not the case in humanities and social sciences. Engaging students during lectures often requires them to explain something in their own words, or finding an example illustrating a principle, etc. The best way to engage students in this context, might be actually in class (best a small tutorial group), with a teacher able to respond to the student’s contribution straight away. Basically, knowing how many teaching solutions are ‘transplanted’ from hard to social sciences and humanities these days, I’m worried that all departments might soon be required to offer more TEL, regardless whether it actually is helpful in their particular discipline.
    • I’m not convinced that this strategy will be good for higher education in the long run. The current climate in the academia is bad: we suffer from lack of jobs, constant cuts, the progressing business-ification of universities (which, I don’t think any academic would disagree, is disgraceful). I’m worried that introducing more MOOCs might lead to an increase in those problems: academics will find it harder and harder to justify their existence if most of them won’t even be required to teach. Naturally, in an ideal world this wouldn’t be a problem, because the people who aren’t good at teaching and have to justify their existence probably shouldn’t teach. Problem is, those people are often very good researchers. In an ideal world, our governments would see the need for high quality research, both applied and blue sky, and wouldn’t treat academics as inconvenient but sadly necessary cogs in the graduate-generating-fees-earning business machine. But as we all know, we don’t live in this world.

    3. As to all the situations in which efficiencies might be important in reducing all sorts of costs, I think that this is a hugely misguided approach. We should be focusing on convincing governments and people that education is important, worthwhile and worth investing in, not on presenting ourselves as cheaper value half price deals. Considering the, frankly, dire situation at the academic job market, a situation in which many academics have no jobs for years, or have only temporary jobs for which they have to constantly move, or are on 0-hours contracts which are essentially exploitative; considering that all the governments and university v-chancellors seem to want is to turn us into cheap workforce in their businesses; considering all that, I really don’t think that we should be joining their game and being proud of how much cheaper we can make ourselves.

  • #26202

    guy saward

    Simon, lots of great thoughts, particularly about the instrumentalisation of education. In the more general sense of the term, this might mean the acquisition of skills, knowledge and understanding to achieve a particular action/goal – which is surely a good thing, whether the goal is self-referential (about the learning and subject itself) or external (about problem solving or application).

    But the bigger worry is about the goal being solely oriented towards some form of employment and that the education is shallow in nature and more akin to training – a la the “corporate university” – or the superficial learning that ocTEL participants were less keen on at the start of the course.

    Its also interesting that Thrun, udacity’s cofounder, is working in computer science and using tech to educate about tech. As you say, you are not sure of the transferability of the approach to other disciplines. As a computer science lecturer, I am not even sure about the transferability of the approach to more analytic/discursive elements of my own subject, e.g. why use X rather than Y to build a system to do Z?

    But on the surface, what’s not to like about an xMooc (as supported by the video “evidence”), given:

    • the problem based learning, with assessment of potential solutions and supporting material to help learners who are stuck
    • the less intimidating online interaction, where students are in control and can freely interact with fellow participants, and notionally more efficiently with the instructors
    • lectures (or talking heads) focussed on student engagement and motivation
    • democratised access to high quality, higher level education

    But I think the second to last point (raised by the teacher Michael Wilson in the video?) is an important one. If you are here to collect badges, that’s really easy to do, or to get selected and pushed by the course provider towards specific employers then you fit in with the monetization strategy of the Mooc providers.

    As for the last point, here is not necessarily the place to debate the effectiveness of free market economics. But it is interesting to see how some of the issues identified by Barry Schwartz (in The Costs of Living: How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life) as being problems in education are coming around again – for instance in those badges again!

    So what does this mean for me and my practice at the moment? I will still be trying to make intelligent use of technology to support thought out educational design, whether this is as an x- or cMooc, a flipped classroom, or “just teaching”. And yes, I might worry about the potential erosion or consolidation of the educational market in the hands of a number of big brands. But in the same way that cinema hasn’t killed either the publishing industry (or the book clubs it supports) or community theatre, I won’t be expecting the death of the on-campus student experience soon.

    p.s. sorry Simon – got a bit carried away here!

  • #26326

    Simon Fokt

    Well, I think that one of the problems of the corporate universities is that there’s nothing to dislike about it on the surface, but only if one looks at nothing but the surface.

    Here is one basic problem which doesn’t require much digging below the surface:

    – One of the advantages of MOOCs is that a great teacher can reach many more students, and more students can benefit from the contact with a great teacher.

    – In humanities a great deal of learning comes through small group discussions moderated by the teachers, and being able to receive feedback from teachers about one’s work.

    – If all the students taking a MOOC were to learn in this way (likely the most effective way, at least for humanities), they would all need to get in touch with the teacher. Which means that the teacher would have to reply to the questions of thousands of students.

    – Which in practice means that it’s just not going to happen, and the students will get a very ‘surface’ (here’s that word again) feeling of having received great teaching, while actually receiving very little. Naturally, the business management will be just fine, because the students pay fees whether they learn or not.


    The surface things to like you mention are very general and obviously sound good. But then, our politicians are also very good at talking about all sorts of wonderfully sounding things, from protecting the nation to giving opportunities to our children, which actually stand for higher taxes and increased surveilance. One can do a lot of great work to polish a rotten apple and make it look shiny on the surface. It’s still a rotten apple. I for one am not happy about the fact that I’m sold a rotten apple, even if it has a very well polished surface. In fact, I’d say that a part of what universities are for, is teaching people to recognise a rotten apple under a polished surface, and making them join this game is not furthering their mission.

    I don’t think that your analogy with film and the publishing industry is relevant. For one, films and books are about entertainment, i.e. providing people with what they want, while universities are about education, i.e. providing people with what they need. And regardless, I don’t think that the attitude of ‘I might worry about it, but I won’t because even if it will do something bad it won’t be any time soon’ is a particularly good long-term policy.

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