MOOCs: How good are they from a learning perspective?

I’m currently working through my 3rd course no a MOOC – a Massively Open Online Course. This one is hosted on the Venture Lab platform and is called “Designing a New Learning Environment“. Prior to this one, I’ve completed two on the Coursera platform – one on Cryptography and the other on Gamification. Based on these experiences so far, I thought it was time to reflect on the effectiveness of these environments as learning tools.

I should start by saying that as far as motivation for learning is concerned, I’m pretty driven. I don’t need a structured course to get me interested in learning about something – just an interest or desire to want to know more about it. The problem is that its easy to want to know a lot about lots of things, and you tend to get distracted by others as you’re trawling through the wealth (?) of information available to us now via the the Internet. So I jumped into these as a way of providing some focus for my learning – in that regard, they’ve been pretty successful.

I’ve managed to make the time in my already full schedule to spend a few hours a week working through the materials. I’ve identified topics of interest to me, and devoted the time necessary to get my head around the concepts. Some have been pretty challenging (it had been a while since I’d done any real mathematics, and while the Crypto stuff wasn’t overly complicated, it required getting my head back into the notation peculiarities of the discipline), others pretty cruisy (I never really felt “challenged” by the Gamification course, even though it was interesting). It’s my feeling that there’s something available through these MOOCs that will be of interest to everyone.

The big plus of these platforms is the access it gives you to world class academics. They allow leaders in their fields to present materials to anyone from anywhere, and that’s great for everyone who gets involved. It’s also great marketing for the Universities involved. Actual interaction with the professors is virtually non existent, but given these courses can upwards of tens of thousands of participants, what more can you really expect.

And while there are capabilities in the platforms for people to engage with others (the usual forums, peer assessment tools and the capacity to comment on other people’s work) I have to admit that I haven’t felt the urge to engage beyond what I’m required to do. Perhaps I’m just too busy to do so, but I can’t help but feel that ultimately it comes down to the way the content is being delivered.

You see, it is still based on the lecture-task-evaluation paradigm – sure, evaluation may be by peers, but once something is submitted and assessed, there’s no real reason to go back to it. And given the assessment tasks are primarily individual (there are group tasks coming in DNLE, but we’re not there yet), there’s no motivation to collaborate on them in the lead up to submission either. It is essentially about watching/listening to the lecture, applying that to a problem, then moving on to the next one. All pretty low on the Bloom’s taxonomy classification scale.

The DNLE course is attempting to go beyond that with an emphasis on teams creating a design for a new type of learning. The goal is admirable, but so far I’m not feeling it. I don’t want to be too critical given there’s still a while to go yet, but so far I haven’t really felt the mechanisms for true collaboration have existed in the platform or the method of delivery.

I’ve formed a team with colleagues I know through other means (the OzTeachers mailing list), and we set up a Google+ hangout to throw around some ideas for a team-based project initially. Apart from that though, there has been little collaboration. There is a video-chat capability in the Venture Lab platform, but because of the way we’ve built our team up, I just haven’t had the desire to use it.

For someone like me who is happy to work alone on things and doesn’t require a stack of extrinsic motivation, the existing MOOC structure is fine – it provides a scaffold for me to keep my learning on track, and that’s what I need to keep from getting distracted. However, for people who want to engage with others in meaningful ways (and I enjoy doing this too), these platforms seem to be a bit too disconnected from the networks we already engage in heavily.

MOOCs in general, and platforms like Venture Lab in particular, are still very much in their infancy. But My attitude towards them so far is that if they don’t evolve quickly to offer more than online courses have since early LMSs launched in Universities and Schools in the early 2000s, their appeal for may people won’t last. As a cost cutting measure for universities they’re a great tool, but as they currently exist they use the same methods of teaching that have always existed, and that’s not advancing learning like it needs to.

We know that models of learning and teaching have to change. Moving what we do now into the online space is hardly sufficient to advance things further. We need to see some truly transformative education platforms and tools – MOOCs (at least for now) do not fit that profile.

 

Leave a Reply