A Tale of Two MOOCs @ Coursera: Divided by Pedagogy

The Web as a classroom is transforming how people learn, is driving the need for new pedagogy; two recently launched courses at Coursera highlight what happens when pedagogical methods fail to adapt.

iStock_appledividedXSmall
Divided pedagogy

I wrote recently about the Fundamentals of Online: Education [FOE] the Coursera course that was suspended after its first week and is now in MOOC hibernation mode. Over thirty thousands students signed up for the course hoping to learn how to develop an online course. It was a technical malfunction when students were directed to sign-up for groups through a Google Doc that shuttered the course, along with hundreds of student complaints about lack of clear instructions, and poor lecture quality. The course was suspended on February 2, and there has been no word yet as to when it will resume :(.

On the other hand there is the e-Learning and Digital Cultures course also offered on Coursera’s platform that began on the same day as FOE, yet the Digital Cultures course appears to be a smashing success if we use the engagement levels of students on social media platforms as a gauge. I enrolled in both courses, and the experience in Digital Cultures has been outstanding; the course content is challenging, thought-provoking and the instructors involvement appropriately on–the-side. Several colleagues within my network also taking the course appear to feel the same way.

The Tale of the Two
What made e-Learning and Digital Cultures successful and FOE not? There were variables common to each—the platform, the start date and length of course. The topics where somewhat similar, enough so that there was an overlap of enrolled students. However, at the root of the differences were the instructors’ divergent perspectives on how people learn. FOE ascribed to the learning model that most of higher education institutions follow—instructors direct the learning, learning is linear and constructed through prescribed course content featuring the instructor. In contrast, Digital Cultures put the learner in control, with choices of how to participate, and access to open resources on the Web for content. The evaluation method for the final assessment also provided learners with options; a peer-assessed, multimedia project created on a Web application of choice, based on a theme of interest covered within the course.

How People Learn: Four Viewpoints
In this post I’ll examine four orientations to learning approaches, the processes and  pedagogical principles that emerge from each viewpoint. To support the overall theme of this post is a chart that compares the two courses on four factors reflective of the learning orientations: pedagogy, content, and assessment and course interactions. The table gives readers a snapshot view of how the courses created divergent learning experiences, with the aim of highlighting how the Web as a platform for open, online and even massive learning creates a different context for learning—one that requires different pedagogical methods.

Orientations of Learning: Four perspective on how people learn with a selection of learning theorists aligned with one of the four based upon the principles of the given theory.

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 2.35.39 PM
Four orientations to learning; each embodies a belief of how people learn including the processes that bring about learning.  Sources: Smith, M.K.(2003), Siemens, (2005) and Roblyer & Doering (2010).

Our current higher education system is grounded in behaviorist and cognitive theories. The behavioral approach suggests that in absence of knowing the internal processes of the learner, the focus is on the external—the behavior of the learner. The behaviorist learning model follows the pattern,  A → B  → C, where the environment presents the antecedent (A), that prompts a behavior (B), that is followed by a consequence (C). Characteristics of this approach include passivity of the learner, rote learning and methods of reinforcement.

The cognitive orientation goes beyond the external environment, and focuses on the internal where learning is a process managed within the learner’s long and short-term memory. The instructor controls and directs learning through planned instruction, selection of content, and teaches the learner through the building of knowledge [or skills] using a hierarchical approach going from the simple to complex (Roblyer & Doering, 2010).

Constructivism and the idea of social learning, or social constructivism is an approach that gained credibility in late 1990’s at which time numerous research studies suggested students learn more effectively when engaged with their world, build on what they already know, and construct knowledge as active participants. In support of the emerging research on active learning, the National Research Council published a volume by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) How People Learn that synthesized the evidence. Bransford and colleagues emphasize three conditions for effective learning: engaging prior understandings, integrating factual knowledge with conceptual frameworks, and taking active control over the learning process (Cummins, 2006).  

Most Recent Learning Orientation for a Digital World: Connectivism
The three orientations mentioned, have serious shortfalls in context of our current social and digital culture. The focus has shifted to the individual, where the learner is in control. Furthermore, with access to information, social networks and tools that allow learners to consume, share and construct knowledge, the paradigm for learning has changed. In response to these changes, Siemens advanced the theory of Connectivism, which integrates principles from theories of chaos, network, complexity and self-organization all of which drive the need for a new pedagogy (Siemens, 2005).

8220513675_3c7aaea7b2

Pedagogies Exposed
It’s the learning orientations, the belief system the instructors ascribe to that determines the pedagogical methods selected for instruction. Numerous higher education institutions and its instructors have incorporated active learning methods in keeping with the social constructivist orientation, yet methods that align with the cognitive and behaviorist model such as the lecture and traditional assessment methods [i.e. multiple choice assessments] are still going strong. In the traditional classroom, these latter methods can still be effective, yet in the context of open and online learning, these pedagogies don’t work, evidenced by the FOE course suspension, and the more recent situation where a professor dropped out of his own Coursera course mid-way through due to disagreements over how to best to teach the course. How people learn in the open, has changed, and institutions would benefit by adapting accordingly when offering courses in an open, online and massive format (xMOOCs).

Now that technology has allowed institutions to broadcast their courses to the world through xMOOCs, the world thus has a window into the methods and learning orientations of instructors of various institutions (granted, some views may not reflect the values of the institution represented, but the instructors’). We are able to see through this open platform the deficiencies and shortfalls of the pedagogical methods.

Two Pedagogical Methods Examined
The pedagogical methods, the content choices, the interaction methods of instructors, and the assessment methods of each course are summarized in the chart below.

Comparison of Pedagogical Methods of Two Courses on Coursera

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 7.02.38 PM
Comparisons of pedagogical methods of two xMOOCs based on my experience as student with both courses [2013]. The methods for the Digital Cultures course created conditions for vibrant learning communities with high levels of student engagement.

Conclusion
The two MOOCs at Coursera discussed here are representative of the clashes between the views on how people learn. And people do want to learn, are motivated; are eager to take charge of their learning, make connections, expand their network and construct knowledge. The Web as a classroom creates opportunities for learning and teaching like never before. As the learner’s needs change, so does the role of the instructor, and if he or she implements appropriate pedagogical methods for the learning context, both will have opportunities to expand knowledge consistent with their own learning goals and needs.

References