MOOCs – Distance Learning Done Badly?

Long ago, in the dim distant past, when mobile phones were the size of suitcases and browsers were just people looking around a shop I studied using distance learning materials. It was the 1980s, and I was serving in the Army. I studied with the UK’s Open University and did a number of modules in science and maths. There were no entrance qualifications, and one of the OU’s goals was to make university-level education available to as many people as possible. The only ‘entrance’ restrictions, if we can call them that, were that you paid fees and you had to study foundation modules before moving on to study higher levels. The foundation courses assumed no prior knowledge and minimal or dormant study skills, and taught to that demographic bringing everyone up to the level where they could tackle more advanced courses. The materials were multimedia – they used TV, text, audio cassettes, workbooks, and practical kits, and their quality was excellent. The books the S330 Oceanography course team created were recommended reading when I studied marine biology at a conventional university. Lalli and Parson’s Biological Oceanographyfrom that course is on reading lists at the university where I now work. I still look at the materials I create or use now and ask myself ‘are these OU quality?’. The TV programmes were on Saturday mornings and at other, less sociable hours, and these both publicised the OU and drew people in. One of the reasons I enrolled with the OU was because I’d watched the TV programmes.

I loved studying with the OU. I measured the distance to the moon using a variant of this method. I explored the population dynamics of insects using holly leaves collected from a local wood. I calculated the valency of elements on the kitchen table using the experiment kits. I stared fascinated down a geology microscope at the beauty of thin rock sections under polarising light. I even enjoyed the assessments. There were questions within the texts and at the end of sections to check understanding. I submitted my TMAs (Tutor marked assessments), which came back not only with a mark, but with rich and detailed feedback. CMAs (computer marked assessments) were multiple choice, which I answered by putting a line through the letter for the correct answer and posting the sheet for the computer to scan and mark. When I the time came for my first exam, I was on active service. My unit pulled me out of the field, transported me to the assessment centre, I took the exam and then did the reverse journey and went back out on patrol. It’s certainly one way to put exam nerves in perspective, but not a technique I could really recommend :-). In fact, it was the attitude of my next unit to my studies that was a major reason in my decision to leave the army, but that’s a different story.

In later courses, I joined study groups and attended tutorials, and of course, the residential summer schools. These were a week at a conventional university using their labs and facilities, and where breakfasts could be livened up by ‘people watching’ to see who came down with who, or which pair, apparently inseparable during the rest of the summer school, made a point of coming down to breakfast separately.

So why this nostalgia? Well, it seems to me that the current crop of MOOCs such as Coursera and Udacity, for all the hype they’ve received, are trying to achieve similar aims to the OU, only with different technology and a few decades later. They make claims that they’re open and that anyone can study with them, which is true to an extent, but I question whether a MOOC student without well-developed learning skills would be able to study these courses effectively. There is no ramping up of study skills, and partly that’s due to the length of these courses, but it’s also down to bad pedagogy as I’ve explored in other posts. The forums quite often have a number of posts from students about to drop the course because they find themselves out of their depth, and those students are probably a minority compared to those that silently give up.

The learning design (in the MOOCs I’ve enrolled on) is mostly based on the transmit content and test model. The test can usually be taken a number of times, but feedback tends to be minimal, especially if students need to achieve a particular mark to gain a certificate of completion. Udacity has a better approach to formative assessment with in-video quizzes liberally scattered through the presentations. There’s no real collaboration around making sense of the content, there’s no real conversation to use Laurillard’s model. It’s as if the OU, rather than creating its own materials, simply posted a textbook to the student, scheduled an exam for the end of the academic year and left students to talk amongst themselves if they wanted to. We wouldn’t expect that approach to work offline, so why is it suddenly thought to be a viable model when moved online? And not just viable, but innovative and disruptive? Online learning has a huge role to play in the future of higher education, but not using the model of the Coursera-style MOOCs, which although having solved the problem of scale, has lost much of what we already knew worked well.


7 thoughts on “MOOCs – Distance Learning Done Badly?

  1. Totally agree. MOOCs are a cult of personality, famous talking heads, and they are fetishizing computer and crowdsourced assessments. The course designs don’t implement any research on learning and teaching. In most cases, they don’t even use the latest in technologies and community management… they don’t use any of the tools or insights of social media. Sigh.

  2. I suspect there’s a sliding scale of how rewarding you find MOOCs based on your commitment. Your casual MOOCer is going to be put off by the long hours of video watching and ‘alone in the crowd’ discussion boards. Equally if you expect the kind of engagement, interaction and feedback you’d get from a paid-for course, you’re going to be disappointed. However, I think there’s a band of people in the middle for whom MOOCs fill a gap that wasn’t filled (or felt) before.

    Pedagogically the Coursera variety are lamentable, but the transmission model has the advantage of scaling up painlessly and being reasonably easy to follow. Its use is at least understandable given that the ambition seems to be focused on numbers (lots of courses, lots of students). Whether that is in itself a worthwhile educational goal is another matter.

    Maybe they’ll use the oodles of data they get from all this to produce a new hybrid approach, you never know.

    • I think the commitment issue is key. I’ve signed up for some MOOCs and never started, usually because circumstances have changed in the weeks or months since I signed up. MOOCs are free, and the sort of infrastructure I’ve described for the OU takes significant investment. In one sense you’re correct about the interaction and feedback of a paid-for course being unrealistic, but VCs (venture capitalists) *have* made significant investments, and for MOOCs to live up to the ‘innovative, disruptive, future of HE’ label they’ve been given the pedagogy needs to be substantially improved. And of course, at some point these commercial MOOCs are going to have to find a business model that allows those VCs to get some return.

      • I have no idea what kind of animal a venture capitalist is, but it seems to speak the language of a used car salesman. Why say: “free online courses, creaky pedagogy and technology that looks like Blackboard 8” when you can talk about disruption, innovation and owning the future? I’m not saying they don’t know what their business case is, but I suspect the window dressing is irrelevant.

        Perhaps the plan is something along the lines of: establish “brand dominance”, build up enormous customer base, mine quarryloads of data, exploit the commercial potential of that data. It has been suggested that employers would be interested in the top centile of students on Stanford’s AI course as a short cut to finding candidates with a particular skillset. This is fraught with the usual online issues around verification of identity, but if they fix that, Coursera could act as a gateway to training, education and employment opportunities. Fees could be levied either on students or on institutions.

        I think the MOOC challenges HE to go far beyond seeing itself as as a provider of knowledge, and to make explicit what are traditional benefits of HE: access and membership of an academic community, the opportunity to share in that community’s values and practices, to have good access to experts in a supportive setting, to have responsive, reliable and meaningful forms of assessment and feedback, to grow and thrive. Sorry, went all misty-eyed there for a second. 🙂

  3. Pingback: MOOCs – distance Learning done badly? « Toasting Snowflakes | eLearning Festival |

  4. Pingback: MOOCs: a stroppy teenager? « Toasting Snowflakes

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