Problematizing the MOOC


(Image by gbl55, remix of ‘la vaca de los sinvaca‘ by José Bogado/Flickr)

The experience of participating in the Intro to Philosophy MOOC over the past two weeks has my ed-tech brain buzzing with questions and possibilities. I’ll briefly say that my suspicions over lack of a sense of cohort were confirmed when surveying the message boards for the course, where tens of thousands of people are posting messages under the general rubric of whatever the topic of the lecture material is that week. (This week: epistemology.) So I have largely steered clear of the message boards, which in the Coursera sandbox leaves me with watching the lecture videos (which are good) and taking the assessments (which are incredibly easy). Hardly an engaging experience.

Luckily, I found the Twitter hashtag that’s being used for the course – #introphil – and I’ve been following the light chatter about the course there, rather than trying to keep up with the insanity of the message boards. That Twitter is a saner place to quasi-participate in the class (“quasi” because Twitter isn’t required by the course curriculum – more on that below) should say something. Think of it as the hallway outside a very noisy and massive lecture hall.

Interestingly, the few blog posts that I’ve read and commented on from the #introphil stream aren’t about the course content itself, but rather the form of the MOOC as provided by Coursera. So I guess you could say that 1) I’ve found a mild sense of “micro-cohort” w/ the bloggers who are writing about the course and sending links out over Twitter, and 2) I’ve found myself philosophizing about MOOCs more so than learning formal philosophy, which is the subject of the course!

In the process of this philosophizing, I discovered a new and helpful distinction between two approaches to the MOOC: the cMOOC and the xMOOC. (As if one “MOOC” wasn’t enough!) So hang with me while I unpack these distinctions and why they matter for how folks at EMU might approach MOOCs down the road…

(Very) short history of the MOOC

Before going into the distinctions, perhaps it would be helpful to see what Dave Cormier - one of the originators of the term “MOOC” – had to say about them in 2010, when Coursera and Udacity were just twinkles in the eyes of Silicon Valley venture capitalists and entrepreneurial Ivy League profs…

Here are a few highlights from the 4-minute video. MOOCs were intended to be…

  • A response to increasingly distributed (and disconnected) academic disciplines in this digital age of information access (and overload).
  • Open in a range of senses:
    • 1) They play out on the open World Wide Web, using what’s already laying around.
    • 2) Open to the widest number of interested learners possible (where the word “massive” comes into play).
    • 3) Available at no cost. (Though for-credit students in accredited schools could perhaps pay.)
    • 4) Open in that the work is created, shared, remixed, and improved by the whole community of teacher/learners. (More on this below.) Restrictive copyrights bad, Creative Commons good.
  • Courses not wholly confined to nor owned by schools, institutes, or programs; but that they have start and end dates and participants (like a normal course).
  • Decentralized in that both content and communication not live nor take place on any one platform belonging to any one organization (educational institution, software company, etc.) – but should rather be scattered across media networks (blogs, LMSs, YouTube, Twitter) and forms (text, audio, video, photos, digital art).
  • Supportive of life-long networked learning – that one outcome should be that authentic people networks would emerge out of the learning process and persist after the end of the course.

The good MOOC for EMU

The vision that Cormier laid out a few years ago and called “MOOC” is now known as the cMOOC, the little ‘c’ standing for “connectivist,” though you could also say it stand for “constructivist.” This is contrasted with the later form, the xMOOC, ‘x’ standing for “instructivist” (or perhaps “transfer” – see below).

It is my recommendation, should EMU or other Mennonite schools consider going down this road, that we focus on the cMOOC.

The difference between the two can be summarized by referencing what Mennonite peacebuilder and educator, John Paul Lederach has called the transfer (instructivist) vs. elicitive (constructivist) approaches to teaching and learning. What Lederach called “transfer,” Freire called the “banking concept” of education – teacher as banker, information as bits of cognitive currency, student as passive recipients of said currency, and assessment models that basically offer quantitative “balance statements” on the students’ accounts/brains. But a growing body of research on teaching and learning has shown this banking model to be bankrupt (groan – yes, pun intended).

Yet this is the xMOOC, and this is what seems to happen inside the Coursera sandbox, though some (maybe I’m one of them?) are – like educational revolutionaries – trying to “liberate” the xMOOC, indeed the very course I’m taking!

So if we as Anabaptist-Mennonite educators think that our teaching transforms (borrowing a phrase from John D. Roth) – and if we want/need to be imaginative about how to take that elicitive, transformative pedagogical approach into the digital age – then one place we should be looking is the ambitious yet charitable approach that Cormier laid out in 2010, before that vision was co-opted by venture capitalists and Ivy League institutions who seem to think that watching lectures and taking quizzes online is “the future” of higher education. No, there is a more excellent way…

2 Responses to “Problematizing the MOOC”

  1. Gordon Lockhart

    Good and interesting account Brian – nobody seems to have anything very positive to say about the forums but yes the videos are OK. I also find the transcripts useful in making my own notes. I guess the MOOC paradigm has some distance to travel before things clarify very much. Now could actually be a golden age for xMOOCs running as loss leaders before monetisation of some sort sets in – all the more reason to Occupy the MOOC!

    Great to see MOOCow on your page. I’ve been flattered to see the original ( appearing in so many presentations all over the globe since her birth in 2011!