MOOC Mania

I’m trying to get my head around the whole MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) thing at the moment. Here’s one definition of an MOOC that I came across:

An educational offering in which students and instructors are distributed (i.e., not in the same geographic location), enrolment is unrestricted (“open”), and course materials are dispersed across the Web.

There are all sorts of practical questions that one can ask about the MOOC concept, most of them pretty obvious and I won’t get bogged down in them here.

But, two questions I like to ask myself when there are new developments in Teaching and Learning are the following:

(i) What precise problem is this new development trying to solve?

(ii) In what way will this development solve the perceived problem?

It’s worth asking these questions in the MOOC context.

Of course, a development may not be designed to solve any problem per se; it may be just designed to improve the learning experience. But traditional methods of education have worked well for centuries and have brought us to where we are. When one considers the history of the world, the West is in a pretty good place now. We should tread very carefully if proposing radical changes in how we structure our education.

Over the years, I have become extremely sceptical of novel T&L developments. At the heart of many of them is a fundamental misunderstanding of the educational process. For lack of a better way of describing them, they frequently suffer from a sort of ‘happy-clappy’, ‘touchy-feely’ view of education that ignores some of the basic feature of the educational processes. These include:

(i) Education is usually hard work for instructor and student, only being fun on rare occasions.

(ii) Effective education requires significant guidance, instruction, motivation and coercion.

(iii) Guidance includes guidance as to what one should learn (and in what order one should learn it) to build up a coherent critical mass of knowledge.

(iv) Most people have, quite reasonably, a utilitarian view of education – learning for the love of it is the luxury of the few. Most view education as the currency of economic and social progress. They want something of tangible value at the end of their studies. In other words, they want a credible diploma that will be recognised and valued by employers.

A problem I see in all of this is that the educators are not disinterested parties. Many are seduced by methods that are more enjoyable to use and which promote student engagement. Anything is better than a sea of blank faces. But the hard question as to whether the students actually learn more effectively is rarely asked.

Putting together an MOOC is probably a challenging and enjoyable experience. It produces something tangible for the instructor (i.e., his/her CV), as opposed to giving a course of conventional lectures; and it showcases his/her talents to the world. It showcases the home University as well; a good marketing exercise, perhaps. But the end product has to be deep learning and this is not achieved in a single module. Effective and meaningful learning is about having acoherent,  critical mass of knowledge and skills in a defined discipline.

So, my prediction for MOOCs?: A passing fad that will play a pretty insignificant role in the education of the vast majority but may play a useful role in Further Education where such education is often driven by interest rather than any pressing need.

 

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to MOOC Mania

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » MOOC Mania

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