The Most Unique Thing About MOOCs – And Where Creative Effort is Most Needed

I am, ostensibly, on vacation. But if I don’t get this thought out of my brain it will continue to torment my cross-country driving.

What exactly is most unique / special about MOOCs? Let’s unpack the acronym back to front:

- Courses. Well, we’ve had these for a few hundred years. At least. Many of these are not MOOCs.

- Online courses. Well, we’ve had these for decades. At least. Many of these are not MOOCs.

- Open online courses. Well, we’ve had these for several years now, too. Many of these are not MOOCs.

- Massive. Hmm. This seems new. Ish.

I think in our ever-stumbling hurry to do what we’ve always done with new technology, we’re missing a genuine opportunity to see something new in the “massive” part of MOOCs. Back in 2004 I wrote:

“Is there a form of teaching which is indigenous to the online environment?”

“Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) provide an interesting opportunity to research this question. These games frequently include Guilds and other organizations which allow players to group and cooperate. One of the primary functions of these groups is to train new players, including enculturation, how to slay certain types of beasts, operate certain types of weapons or spacecraft, etc. In informal conversations, it has been my experience that people playing these games have never belonged to guilds in the “real” world, never killed dragons in the “real” world, never flown an X-Wing in the “real” world, etc. They were taught these skills and continue to teach these skills to newcomers online. They have never taught these skills to another person in the “real” world, they have learned to teach these skills online. I would argue, therefore, that the type of teaching and learning occurring in MMORPG guilds is one example of the type of native online teaching we want to find.”

Relatedly, I’ve also thought for some time (but frustratingly can’t find it quickly in my archives): Our traditional pedagogies scale poorly beyond 30 or so people because they were developed in the context of teaching 30 or so people. I think it’s safe to assume that, in the same way that our pedagogies-for-30-people degrade as the number of students goes up, pedagogies-for-1000s-of-people degrade as the number of students goes down. Pedagogies for 1000s of people probably function so poorly in the context of 30 people that we’ve never even really tried them before. In other words, we’ve never taught 100,000 people at a time before, and consequently we’ve never developed pedagogies for teaching this many people at once – the last few years just show us trying to shoe-horn pedagogies-for-30 into MOOCs and then publishing articles about the astonishing drop rates.

MOOCs provide an extremely rare opportunity to completely rethink pedagogy, from the ground up, for a completely new context and configuration. However, until someone gets serious about this line of thinking and looks for legitimate inspiration outside of classroom-based pedagogies-for-30, it’s going to be hard times.

This seems to be an appropriate time to say, “we have to think outside the box.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dkernohan

    I’ve been holding off (possibly wisely) posting something on parallels between the need for new learning theories and the “quantum theory moment” in physics. Wondering whether:
    * we know very little about how an individual learner actually “learns” something, we can’t yet define a “learning moment” precisely. There’s some research in psychology and neuroscience that is beginning to shed some light on this.
    * we know a lot about learning in classroom and cohort situations, and have a toolkit of theories in education to support further experimentation.
    * we know very little about how very large groups of learners function, our best tools may lie in external fields such as anthropology, marketing and communication theory.

    Anyway, didn’t post because I wasn’t sure about it, now you’ve just taught me that I should have been bolder :-)

  • Michelle

    The number 30 reminded me of the Resnikoff-Dolby 30:1 rule described by Marcia Bates in “Indexing and Access for Digital Libraries and the Internet: Human, Database, and Domain Factors,” http://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/bates/articles/indexdlib.html.

  • LisaMLane

    Well, some would say that connectivist learning theory is the approach indigenous to the online environment, and it often tends to be attacked in the same breath with MOOCs. But I like the idea that something very new is needed. People keep talking about “scaling up” old pedagogies. Maybe it isn’t about scaling anything up after all, but rather creating something entirely new (maybe not even based on connectivism). Maybe the new model could be something between the one-teacher model and the peer-grading model.

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  • JeannetteMELee

    Completely agree that we need to invent a new pedagogy for a different learning experience. The model for professor/teacher with 30 or less students will necessarily fail in a massive online environment because it is akin to fitting a square peg in a round hole. Looking at MMORPGs can provide us with a possible blueprint for learning in a large scale digital space. However, most articles on MOOCs focus on scale and profitability. Not many consider pedagogy and learning outcomes.

  • Virgil Boyson

    As a University professor, I disagree strongly with this line of thinking. The other day in class, I smelled pineapple. Turns out, a person in my class had just put on some pineapple lotion. The smell wafted through the room and in that moment I enjoyed it. It felt personal to know and I felt sheepish about commenting on it. But I did. And then it became a little awkward, if one takes personal as awkward.

    There are many things I enjoy knowing about my students – things I enjoy simply because I enjoy getting to know new human beings. There are also many things I MUST know in order to do my job effectively – unless one sterilizes my role as a professor to a point of ridiculousness. For example, how would I write a letter of recommendation for a student I knew only through a MOOC. Would I even? Would anyone even ask me too? Would they just know not to ask because they would know I don’t know them as human beings, but rather as some type of Avatar student? How would I ever counsel them through a change of major, to help them out of a low semester in which their grades have landed them on probationary status (see also, retention rates for MOOCs). If I know them as human beings, I can see through problems in their life, like – and these are real – that they aren’t getting enough sleep because they have a paper route or a drinking problem. I did this with a student the other day who is near graduation but has a GPA too low to get his degree. He said I was the first professor to ever talk to him personally about what he was or wasn’t doing in class. Wow.

    Another thing I can’t do in a MOOC is see their faces during instruction. Now, I can see disconnect immediately on their faces, if I look for it, in a lesson I’m giving on, say, the logic of significance testing. I can ask them to tell me what’s up. At that moment, I smell them intellectually, so to speak, and can instantly react to them. When done properly, if such term can even be used here, I think my students enjoy learning this way. It’s lightning fast and hyper-reactive – compared to less synchronous environments. No waiting, don’t need to be plugged in or logged on. Might be a little awkward, though, if one takes personal as awkward. And here I go humanizing pedagogy again.

    Or, I can amass 10,000 of them in a virtual video game façade of a class and call it University learning. This makes sense in a University setting only to a culture that has already been dehumanized to a point where it cannot recognize anymore how come it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to me yet, on the grounds that I might find difficulty knowing how to write a letter of recommendation for a student, and then either stop doing them or make a stock paragraph to send out to employers who have benefitted from me knowing my students as human beings.
    This is just for starters.

    What I think folks need to grapple with now isn’t how to put more creative energy into how to use technology to solve pedagogical problems. Everyone seems to be doing that. There is plenty of that creative energy around me. To do more of it is to think squarely INSIDE the box. To realize instead the ways the Internet is dehumanizing education, and wonder hard about what losses might accompany MOOCs, that’s creative energy outside the box that has the potential to save what’s best about education.

    From this perspective, it would be a tragedy of epic proportions to watch us try to use technology to solve the problems it created – like a drunk who thinks he can drink his way out of being an alcoholic. I take as evidence of technological inebriation that it might make some sense to craft pedagogies around amassing 10,000 people in a class vs. 30.

    No. 30 is too big. I’m already too insensitive to too many human beings in a class this size.

    I will post this now, having registered with a name that is not my own, which I understand is appropriate for these situations…