The honeymoon with MOOCs is over. The reality check has finally arrived which was inevitable. MOOCs will not solve all the woes of higher education. It is unfortunate it had to be a class on how to design an online course; it was the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application [FOE] offered through Coursera that brought things to a screeching halt. But this experience can provide an opportunity for institutions to re-focus—identify the role and purpose of MOOCs and move forward with a thoughtful, purposeful strategy.
In my last post I discussed the MOOC disaster with Fundamentals of Online Education, which generated a rich dialogue on the purpose and role of MOOCs. The course was suspended on the third day due to the confusion around group work which created a significant technical glitch. In this post I’ll share three takeaways from this experience; principles that higher education institutions and educators might want to consider when offering MOOCs or online learning courses of a smaller-scale. I’m using the challenges within the FOE course to illustrate the struggles within higher education institutions as technology and economics are disrupting the model of traditional higher education and MOOCs are viewed as a panacea.
It was not technical issues that derailed this course (which was a symptom) it was the underlying philosophy that many institutions still hold—that a MOOC is similar to, or the same as a course in a traditional face-to-face classroom. And it can be successful using the same structure, same content and similar instructional methods. MOOC courses offered through Coursera and similar platforms often appear modified to ‘fit’ into a course experience on the Web, albeit with thousands of students.
The Three Takeaways
Below I’ve outlined the key takeaways from the FOE experience. Many ideas presented here are based upon the concepts and principles of Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier, founders of the original MOOC concept.
1) The instructional model is shifting to be student-centric, away from an institution or instructor-focused model.
In a massive, open and online course with thousands of students, the instructor must relinquish control of the student learning process. The instructor-focused model is counter intuitive to the idea of a MOOC; in the MOOC model the student directs and drives his or her learning. The pedagogy used for traditional courses is not applicable to a course on a massive scale. With the Web as the classroom platform, students learn by making connections with various ‘nodes’ of content [not all provided by the instructor] on the Web, they aggregate content, and create knowledge that is assessed not by the instructor, but by peers or self. This pedagogy builds upon the constructivist theory and more recently a theory developed by Downes and Siemens—the connectivist learning model.
This new paradigm highlights an existing tension where the control is moving away from the instructor. Below are two comments from readers that were part of the dialogue from the previous post:
“Her [referring to another educator] critique was that an individual[s] with years of experience and knowledge was reduced to a moderator and facilitator. I tend to think it is more of moving the instructor into a coach, guide and mentor role pointing the way. So I guess that argument between control and openness is at the heart of many of these tensions”. Felicia M. Sullivan
“Other than that I have always had the impression that some teachers want so much certain “desirable” features that they try to force what otherwise is spontaneous and diverse in nature, like class participation, group formation, …. That can’t be done. All we can do as teachers is encourage and motivate but if we force that will be counterproductive”. Leonel Morales
2) Sound instructional design is the key to supporting self-directed learning experiences.
Online courses that adhere to a sound instructional design plan allow students to navigate the course as self-directed learners: access content from a variety of sources, connect with like-minded individuals, and create a learning experience and environment that fits with their objectives. The technology should be not be the focus, but should facilitate the learning. I often have stated that when one has created a sound instructional design plan, the technology becomes invisible.
Creating a solid instructional design strategy for an online course requires considerable work and planning upfront. Stephen Downes posted a presentation on his site called Facilitating a Massive Open Online Course (2012). His Slideshare gives an overview of the planning required to facilitate a MOOC, and highlights the unique strategy required when offering a course online—it does not mimic the traditional classroom experience.
My experience with developing online undergraduate courses is somewhat similar to Downes, but from a different perspective. I usually begin with an existing college course and work with faculty and course instructors to transition their face-to-face courses to the online environment. The instructional design and approach is radically different from what is used for face-to-face, and I use a formal model to guide the process, the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional design model which is systematic approach to developing a course. This model is based upon Robert Gagné‘s nine events of instruction, all which work towards supporting conditions for learning. This model has several phases, and one that is most relevant and necessary is the analysis of the learners (#3). It is in this step that the learning context is considered, where and how the learners will learn the skills and/or knowledge, which in this instance is on the Web. The characteristics of the learner are considered as well, which in the context of MOOCs is necessary given the diversity of learners (Dick, Carey and Carey, 2009).
3) Prepare students for the Learning Experience.
Another theme emerged within the discussions around the FOE course, how much responsibility should the learner assume in a MOOC? Does the responsibility not fall upon the student for the success of a course? These questions were posted, and my answer is yes…however, there is an onus on the course facilitators and designers to prepare students for learning by providing some sort of orientation. The instructors need to support conditions for learning, which prepares students to learn on their own, create their own experiences, knowledge, and potentially a personalized learning community.
Preparing students includes orienting the student to the technical tools that will be used in the course, guiding them to the applications (a blog platform for instance), and providing instruction for the tools to be used as needed. This is most important for students that might be new to technical applications. What I appreciate about Downes, Siemens and Cormier is the thorough preparation and guidance offered to students at the beginning of a MOOC they facilitated, change.ca.mooc. Instructions were detailed within the course home pages on How This Course Works. In addition, helpful instructional videos What is a MOOC, and Success in a MOOC, were available (Cormier, 2011). In the online program I worked with at a four-year university, we created a comprehensive orientation for all courses, that included a set of activities culminating with a quiz that reinforced technical details. This program has proved to be quite successful in reducing significantly, the number of questions by students within the first two-week period of the online course session.
There is much to digest here, yet it is these three principles that are required to support students in massive, open and online courses. Learning has changed, the student is in the center, yet he or she still requires support and guidance upfront through an effective course design that creates a seamless user experience, and through instructors that offer guidance; supporting students in their efforts to become successful and connected lifelong learners.
- Facilitating a Massive Open Online Course, February 24, 2012. Stephen Downes
- Dick, Carey & Carey, The Systematic Design of Instruction, 2009, Pearson Publishing
- Success in a MOOC, YouTube Video, Dave Cormier
- Knowledge in a MOOC, YouTube Video, Dave Cormier
- How this Course Works, change.mooc.ca
- Robert Gagne, About, Boise State University, College of Education
- The MOOC Model: Challenging Traditional Education, J. Mazoue, EDUCAUSE Review
- How [Not] to Design an Online Course, Online Learning Insights
Further Reading on MOOCs and thoughts about the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application course:
- Change 11 SRL-MOOC study: Initial findings, Blog: Learning in the Workplace
- Negating the learner in the learning process, Blog: elearnspace
- Two Thoughts on the crash of the “Fundamentals of Online Education” MOOC, Blog: stevendkaruse.com
- FOE MOOC Notes, Blog: How People Learn Online
- A class is not a commune, Blog: More or Less Bunk
- edX 6.00x – the MOOC that failed to scale, Blog: Just One More Ten Pence Piece
- Oh, the irony: Coursera Suspends on Online Course about How to Run an Online Course, Ki Mae Heussner, GigaOm
- MOOC Mess, Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed
- Crash Sinks Course on Online Teaching, Douglas Belkin, Wall Street Journal