Thoughts on MOOCs

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So it’s been an interesting start to 2013 for the state of MOOCs. First I want to reflect on the recent disaster at Coursera in a course entitled “Fundamentals of Online Education” in which the course was forced to close down after a series of unfortunate events. The irony of the failure of an online course about online teaching aside (oh the schadenfreude!), I agree with Debbie Morrison’s astute analysis of what happened over at her blog. (Be sure to read her great post “The MOOC honeymoon is over:three takeaways from the Coursera calamity.”

Right now I am also one of four instructors co-teaching an online course about designing and teaching online courses in the MAET program at Michigan State. I also had technical difficulties this week in our course that caused disruption. Of course it wasn’t to the tune of 40K students unable to access their course, but it was stressful nonetheless. My students are in the midst of weighing CMS system options, and will commit to one to design a course in for the rest of the semester in a few days. We do a weekly check-in with the students and here is what I wrote to them about the incident:

I don’t know about you, but it has been a busy week around 820 for me this past week. As some of you noted (and emailed me), ANGEL had a weird bug that broke many of the internal links. So any link to a PDF stored in ANGEL or to another part of the chapter just suddenly wouldn’t work. At first I thought I just did a bad job checking links, but a conversation with a colleague helped me realize that it wasn’t a problem isolated to our course. This is just one example of an unanticipated issue in teaching an online course that sometimes is beyond even the best planning. One of the things we do in 820 is we check all the links before the semester begins and again as we open each chapter. Even with those precautions, the links still were broken causing frustration to both the students and the instructors. As an instructor, I try to approach this by quickly responding to emails from students, to be as honest as I can about the problem, and work quickly with the CMS provider to resolve the issue.

There is a lesson in the “Week of Broken Links” as you go forward and choose a CMS: there is no “perfect” CMS out there. They all have their problems and hiccups no matter how well we plan. I have found this to be true for face-to-face teaching as well (how many perfect lesson plans did I have interrupted by unexpected fire drills or other disruptions?). As teachers and instructors, we know we have to be ready to be flexible and we just try to do our best with what we have.

As institutions weigh whether or not they decide to wade into the swift waters of MOOC development (and subsequently whether to partner with Coursera), I think the lesson remains the same. There is no perfect system. Things will break. An instructor will think they have planned well when they haven’t. There are always risks with something new.

I see the Coursera disaster as one part a failure of online teaching pedagogy in large as well as a problem with failing to anticipate issues that the scale of a MOOC brings (and I don’t mean to conflate MOOCs with online teaching, because they aren’t necessarily the same animal). What works with 40 students online will not work the same with 40, 000 students online. If 10% of your students don’t understand something in a class of 40, you deal with 4 students and doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal. With 40,000 even 1% of students not understanding becomes an unmanageable issue from the perspective of the instructor.

Finally, I am tired of hearing that it is possible to learn/teach EVERYTHING in the MOOC format. Even in face-to-face courses, we don’t employ the same pedagogical strategies to different content, or even the same format to different content. If we are doing a really good job, we are integrating our technology choices, our pedagogy, and our content (see TPACK –now with bonus badges!). For instance, we wouldn’t want to teach someone to play the piano in a lecture of 400 students. That would be ridiculous and noisy. Are we finally reaching some point of clarity that the MOOC is not the right venue for every type of learning? Can’t it be okay that a MOOC isn’t right for every type of learning? I just struggle with the pro-MOOC rhetoric that sees all learning as possible in this one, quite narrow format. While I see there are lots of possibilities for innovation, I also see that there are some learning experiences better facilitated through other, non-MOOC formats.

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