Sunday, April 21, 2013

MOOCs: a breath of fresh air, albeit the same air

A Secretary of State for Education in the US likened
Education to a giant blob. No matter what you did to to change the blob, it
always healed up or reformed back into its original shape. Are MOOCs puncturing
or reshaping the blob? Or are they just orbiting the blob?

Forces from the outside world, namely technology and hard
economics are putting pressure on the blob and MOOCs are, potentially, blob
busters. Their potency comes from the fact that they’ve burst open the limitations of old teaching methods and reach out with alternatives that are part of the more general open culture of the web.

MOOCs appropriate MOOPs

Nothing’s new with MOOCs. Massive Open Online Pedagogies
(MOOPs), such as short videos, search, wikis, quizzes, forums, collaborative groups,
online problems, online assignments, peer learning and peer assessment have all
been around for some time and are now being absorbed into MOOCs. I haven’t found a single brand-new, online pedagogic
technique in any MOOC. This is neither a criticism nor a problem. The iPhone is
a cluster of existing technologies where the sum is greater than the parts.
Indeed, Brian Arthur’s in The Nature of Technology thinks that
this is an essential feature of technology, the coalescence of existing
technologies to create something exciting and new.

MOOCs provide an ideal sandbox for reflection, debate, research,
experimentation, outreach and real action on pedagogy, on a scale we’ve never
seen before. Every facet of learning is being re-examined and in some cases

So what sort of pedagogies have been appropriated into
MOOCs? Here’s just seven MOOPs (Massive Open Online Pedagogy) that have been used
in MOOCs:

MOOP 1 – Short videos

Recorded lectures are still relatively rare, accounting for
a tiny fraction of those delivered, but they’ve had a profound pedagogic
effect. A soon as they took off the digital genie was out of the lecture hall. The
evidence is clear, students want, use, like and benefit from them. The
unrecorded, 1 hour lecture (only an hour as the Babylonians had a sexidecimal
number system) remains the main obstacle to pedagogic progress in HE. It puts a
block on the four main evidence-based features of learning; attention, active
learning, adequate feedback and spaced practice. MOOCs use recorded
lectures/videos extensively.

YouTube, used by hundreds of millions, has had a profound
effect on MOOCs,proving that less is often more as was video sequences long
inserted or made available in online learning courses. TED, watched by
millions, reinforced the need to make video lectures focused, short, with
injected passion and less reliance on PowerPoint. MOOCs quickly learnt this
lesson. Then we had the Khan Academy, a huge influence on MOOCs, who
effectively removed the lecturer from the screen to focus on the content with
narration and, in this case hand-drawn maths. This works because, in maths, you
need to work semantic and episodic memory. This pedagogic approach was
enthusiastically adopted by Sebastian Thrun at Udacity.

MOOP 2 – Content and the humble hyperlink

Under this you have documents, reading lists, links and so
on that use the hyperlink, to give students access to content. The humble
hyperlink is the hero of online pedagogy, the simple idea that knowledge can be
linked and made accessible by a simple click. Long before MOOCs, the hyperlink
had been the mainstay for interactivity. It allowed the expansion of, drilling
into or jumping across content, thereby personalising learning. This is the
glue that holds the course content together.

MOOP 3 – Online assessment

Online formative and summative assessment, always a stalwart
of online learning, became the norm in MOOCs. Conditional branching also
allowed different routes to be taken, remedial loops presented and simulations
to be constructed, all based on performance. Given the very large numbers of
students and paucity of teacher bandwidth, this made sense. Students had to get
software-based feedback, if large numbers of students were to progress through
the course.

MOOP 4 – Peer learning

Forums and chat are among the oldest Massive Open Online
Pedagogies, used since the very inception of the web. In MOOCs, forums and
other software assisted forms of peer learning genuinely seem to aid learning.
Students do like the experience of getting help and encouragement from other
students. Peer learning is scalable. Indeed, it is a pedagogy that benefits
from scale. The more learners the better and more efficient peer matching and learning
can be. Peer learning also encourages critical thinking, peers are often closer
to the problems than teachers with bonding a wonderful side effect. An often
forgotten benefit is that teaching is also a powerful way to learn. Above all,
we know from the work of Mazur and many others, that it increases learning,
retention and attainment. Arora, Peerwise and many others have been used for
years in sophisticated, peer learning. In practice, by contract, peer learning
is still in its infancy in MOOCs. Coursera’s forums are often described as
chaotic and confusing. However, MOOCs are bringing peer learning to the
attention of many, encouraging its use.

MOOP 5 – Peer assessment

More controversially, peer assessment in terms of comments,
judgements and even marks, are given y peers. Peermark and others have been
doing this for some time. It gets round the problem of scaling up students
numbers while relying on a small number of academics. The real question is
what’s lost in the process of scaling. To be fair, many who have seen this in
action (and it’s early days) think it is reasonable and pretty fair.
Participants in MOOCs are supportive and keen to be as objective as possible.
It’s not as if traditional assessment in HE is in any way efficient or even
truly objective. Formative assessment is often scarce, very light and late. It
is not uncommon to wait weeks for an essay to be marked and returned. This
makes MOOC peer assessment seem like a quantum leap.

MOOP 6 – LMS/LCMs/VLE/CRM functionality

Although they would be loathed to admit it, many MOOCs run
light LMS/LCMS/VLE/CRM  structures for
registration, email, comms, assignments, peer learning, peer assessment, handling
large amounts of tracked data and so on. MOOCs are massive and therefore need
to be managed by scalable software. None of this is new, as typical LMSs/LMCSs/VLEs
have long coped with copious amounts of learners, their management and data.

MOOP 7 - Social media

Social Media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ is a MOOP
used by hundreds of millions, so it is natural that they would incorporated
into, or at least used parasitically, by MOOCs. In fact, most MOOCs go nowhere
near social media but those that do tend to simply have a Facebook page or
twitter hashtag and feed. MOOCs are not sophisticated in terms of porosity to
outside sources and more sophisticated uses of social media.

MOOCs are aggregated MOOPs

This is just one part of a general move towards the online democritisation, decentralisation and disintermediation
of Higher Education. In truth, this had already started with the annihilation
of older offline pedagogies with newer Massive Open Online Pedagogies (MOOPs).
Most of the components in MOOCs merely reuse what was already established on
the web – search (Google), hyperlinks, short videos (YouTube, TED, Khan Academy
etc), wikis (Wikipedia, Wikispaces etc), communication (email, chat, forums
etc.), collaboration (social media), peer learning, LMS/CRM (mass email and
comms management etc.).

MOOCs are not really a single innovation, as all MOOCs are
not created equal – they’re all-sorts. Neither are they innovative in terms of
pedagogy, as they are invariably assemblages of previously existing online
pedagogies. MOOCs assemble different existing MOOP component, and it’s really
an. umbrella term for large online courses, and those have been around for a
long time. What’s important is that it is a leap forward compared to many high
volume, lecture-led, low feedback, low contact courses, that are all too common
in Higher Education.

Nothing new under the sun

Ecclesiastes, that most idiosyncratic book of the bible,
says ‘there’s nothing new under the sun
and so it is with MOOCs. We have yet to see the serious use of high-end,
adaptive techniques, AI, different species of high-end simulation, gaming and
the many more adventurous forms of online learning experiences. The use of peer
learning has been patchy and the use of social media has been peripheral. To be
fair we can already see that the investment and commitment is there to see
MOOCs evolve and start to push the pedagogic boundaries. They are a breath of
fresh air, albeit the same air.


Arthur, W. B. (2009). The nature of
technology: What it is and how it evolves
. New York: Free Press.

Mazur, E. (1997). Peer instruction: A
user's manual
. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall.

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