How to Add Depth to the Discussion About MOOCs

The MOOC discourse and debate continues, but I am hopeful that the conversation will deepen and expand beyond the few themes and talking points that tend to emerge in the most current media outlets.  In some ways, this is reminiscent of the ongoing conversation about online learning in general. For decades researchers have examined the affordances and limitations of online courses, and we have a largely informed understanding of such things.  And yet, there continue to be groups that come to the conversation and insist that we return to the same few questions, the most popular being the question about whether online course are as effective as face-to-face courses.  As is often the case with such questions, the answer is deeper than can be represented with a single yes or no reply.

Regarding the role of MOOCs, one of the challenges is that many assessments of MOOCs treat them as a single thing. Consider the variety of methods and models of a traditional face-to-face course.  What do we mean when we say that face-to-face courses are valuable?  Are we talking about a seminar of thirteen students with a committed and knowledgeable instructor, or are we talking about a lecture hall of several hundred students and an instructor who is just doing enough to get by? Also, what is our criteria for assessing “valuable”? Of course, there are any number of other scenarios, and each bring with them different affordances and limitations.

These same considerations are true when it comes to understanding the nature, affordances and limitation of different MOOC experiments. Consider one affordance of a MOOC.  Imagine having a large open online course of 1000 participants studying a topic like academic integrity (yes, this is an historical fiction example from a MOOC that I taught in early 2013).  Now imagine having a simple learning activity where each participant is invited to contribute 1-3 paragraph case studies of cheating experiences for their own life and work.  In a matter of days we can have a massive collection of case studies from which to learn.  Of course, the quality may vary, so a second activity may involve collectively categorizing the cases based upon the common seven categories of academic cheating, refining and pruning the pile of cases.  Here we have a learning experience that also serves as a form of collective knowledge generation, one that incorporates a more diverse sampling of locations and experiences than is present in any current text on academic integrity or that would be available to learners in most other courses (online or face-to-face).  There are certainly limitations with this exercise, but I offer it a rough draft example of an affordance brought about by one MOOC teaching and learning strategy.  There are plenty of other affordances, just as there are many limitations. I would not, for example, consider a MOOC of 2000 students to have the affordance of a close and intimate mentoring experience between each student and the instructor.

Neil Postman often challenged readers and listeners to analyze technology and media with a series of questions.  One such question was, “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” With regard to the Postman question about the problem to which MOOCs are addressing, asking that question is an exercise in which I have been engaging for close to five years now. While the media review of MOOCs currently tends to focus upon less than four or five proposed problems to which some suggest MOOCs are the solution, narrowing the conversation to those few ideas would be limiting and largely unhelpful in developing an advanced understanding of this phenomena. Of course, there is a second question that many are asking as well.  Rather than asking what problems they are addressing with a MOOC, they are asking what possibilities they are discovering.  I often refer to MOOCs as experiments, as many experiments are not driven by a desire to solve a specific problem.  Rather, they are open inquires driven by a question, and the answers discovered show possibilities that did not previously exist or were formerly hidden.

As a result, I contend that both questions about problem solving and possibility discovery are useful aspects of the ongoing conversation about MOOCs. Asking these questions along with a remembering that MOOCs are as diverse as face-to-face learning experiences have the potential to add a needed level of depth to the current conversation.