Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ What a MOOC Does

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 01, 2012

Clark Quinn is asking where the further developments in MOOCs will come from, suggesting "he courses really require effective self-learners", and I see today that Tony Bates continues this line of questioning:

To what extent do MOOCs really change the nature of the game, and to what extent are they more an extension and development of what has gone before – and hence should aim to incorporate previous best practices? Or will that destroy them?

I'm generally pretty reluctant to compare MOOCs with what went before, and I'm generally pretty reluctant to suggest how MOOCs improve on the previous model, because what we're trying to do with MOOCs is really something very different from what was attempted before. The best practices that previously existed, insofar as they were best practices at all, were best practices for doing something else.

MOOCs don't change the nature of the game; they're playing a different game entirely.

Let's take the whole motivation issue Clark Quinn raises. As he explains in a comment on another post,

I pointed out MOOCs require motivated students because many formal learning experiences don't assume it, and provide support for motivation. Not near enough, mind you. Lots of other potential learning experiences don't, as you suggest.

The presumption - and it is a presumption - is that a MOOC would contain unmotivated students, just like a regular course would, and would have to deal with that in some way. It is even suggested we provide some sort of answer for this sort of problem: "These courses assume that through the process, learners will develop learning skills."

All this is to regard the MOOC through the perspective of the traditional course. This may be our fault, since we offer MOOCs as 'courses'. Better terminology might have avoided this problem.

One big difference between a MOOC and a traditional course is that a MOOC is completely voluntary. You decide that you want to participate, you decide how to participate, then you participate. If you're not motivated, then you're not in the MOOC.

Similarly with the 'learning skills' question. Just what are these supposed to be? Probably, when Quinn is talking about learning skills, he's talking about some set of skills devoted specifically to learning - I'm not sure exactly what they would be (it varies depending on who you ask) but they'd be comprehension skills, analytical skills, memory skills, and the like.

First of all, I don't think it's reasonable to expect all of a person's educational experiences to be embodied in a single MOOC. We don't criticize a grade 12 geography course because the course authors did not first teach participants how to speak English. We expect that they will enter with a certain amount of preparation.

But second, what's different, I think, is that MOOCs expect that their participants will be motivated and will have learned how to learn.

It seems to me indicative of the failure of traditional education that students in university-level courses still have to be motivated and still have to be taught how to learn. Quinn is quite right - most courses still attend to both. What he doesn't say is that they utterly fail at it which is why it must be done over and over and over again.

By starting out with a presumption of a different set of skills, MOOCs explicitly foster and value these skills. So while students who have grown up with the typical command-mode style of learning, it is not unreasonable to assume that students raised on MOOCs will have mastered the different set of skills. Students are adept at learning to follow orders when they are given a steady diet of orders; it is reasonable to assume they will learn to take responsibility when they are given responsibilities.

The other side of the question is whether these skills can be bootstrapped; that is, whether traditional instruction is the only way to teach people how to be self-motivated, how to learn, and all the rest of it. We did explore this a bit with the Critical Literacies course - we tried to see whether a MOOC devoted to learning to be analytical would be successful.

But again - it isn't about teaching these skills in a MOOC. Suggesting that this is or ought to be the function of a MOOC is to misunderstand it.

What we are trying to do with a MOOC is to create an environment where people who are more advanced reasoners, thinkers, motivators, arguers, and educators can practice their skills in a public way by interacting with each other. In such an environment, people can learn by watching and joining in. This is not an 'assumption' that this happens; it is an observation.

If we can get past the idea that the purpose of a MOOC is to 'teach people stuff' then we can begin to talk about what benefits they bring. But so long as we just think of them as another way of doing the same old thing, we'll be misunderstanding them.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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