Why MOOCs Are Hindering and Not Helping Higher Ed

mooc_web_final_wheel03The Chronicles’ web-diagram Major players in the MOOC Universe published this week, though beautiful to look at, adds to the confusion about what MOOCs are and are not. This confusion is no doubt a significant hindrance to constructive dialogue that educators are having about online learning; including how to leverage technology to improve access, quality and lower costs. The Chronicle is not alone in [unknowingly] promoting myths about MOOCs, which is not helping to move the discussions forward.

Several institutions and platforms associated with MOOCs quite often have little to do with MOOCs.  Khan Academy for instance, and even San Jose University’s pilot project San Jose State Plus are two programs that don’t follow the MOOC model. These misconceptions among others, divert attention away from the instructional and pedagogical models that can provide solutions. Online learning in small classes for example. Small online classes do not resemble MOOCs at all. The closed, online class, with a sound instructional plan, allows faculty to provide feedback and support to students, as well as provide opportunities for small group collaboration guided by the instructor. Another format, the blended model, combines face-to-face class time with web-based instruction. The blended model has proven to be effective in reducing costs and maintaining, and in some cases improving learning outcomes over traditional instructional methods. For further reading on blended learning click here.

San Jose Pilot Program: Not a MOOC
One significant error in recent articles, the Chronicles’ diagram included, is identifying San Jose State University as a MOOC player. There is a partnership between San Jose and Udacity as the link in the image shows, though the connection involves a pilot project with three math courses co-created between the two. Yet the courses are not MOOCs; they  don’t adhere to the MOOC model whatsoever. The classes in San Jose’s pilot were not massive—each had less than 100 students. Classes were closed—open only to high school students, community college students and members of the armed forces. Enrolled students participated within the schools’ learning platform where they could engage in discussion forums with the professor and peers. Yet the key differential was the academic support available to students. Students had access to a help line, instructor-facilitated peer meetings and even outreach counselors for those struggling with the content. Far from a MOOC, this model does provide the instructional support and feedback necessary for a successful college-level learning experience. Furthermore, San Jose’s pilot is an excellent example of a model for online learning that can be effective, though many outsiders are unaware of its instructional strategy.

Khan Academy: Also not a MOOC
Though Khan Academy is often described as a MOOC, it’s not even close. It’s not the first time that Khan Academy has been classified as a MOOC. Khan Academy is a robust library of open education resources that can be accessed by students, institutions, or anyone—for free. That’s it. It’s not a course with a start date and end date. Though it does include resources for teachers to build an instructional strategy of their own, the platform primarily is a repository for a collection of short videos that focus on a specific topic. No MOOCs here. Even Sal Khan emphasizes that his platform is not MOOC, but is what he calls a “transplantation” of a traditional course.

MOOC Players that Aren’t
Cathy Davidson, professor at Duke and founder of Hastac appears to be associated with the MOOC players as per The Chronicles’ diagram. Yet Dr. Davidson has little if anything to do with the MOOC movement. She was part of a small group that crafted a controversial Bill of Rights for online students, yet her involvement ends there. Davidson was quite surprised to find herself featured in the lineup of individuals associated with MOOCs in the web-diagram, describing it as “comical” in a blog post on Hastacs’ site—and even admits to feeling ambivalent towards MOOCs, with “more than a healthy degree of skepticism”.

Technology is a Tool
My point here is not to highlight all that is wrong with the web-diagram in question, or the reporting of the issues elsewhere, but to emphasize that misconceptions about online learning, MOOCS included, that are likely impeding constructive conversations within education circles. The Chronicle and other news organizations are not intentionally writing to deceive, but are caught up in MOOC mania as we all are. MOOCs will not solve the challenges of access, cost control and quality that institutions are struggling with, yet we need to be well informed about the technology, and what it can deliver.  It’s also helpful to remember that technological applications are tools to solve problems. The first step is identifying and analyzing what the problem is, determining the needs, then analyzing potential solutions thoroughly before jumping to a solution. Starting with the solution, and working backwards rarely works.