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Archive for August, 2013

MOOCs are not books

A startling post by Bernard Fryshman – Books Are MOOCs, Too, leaves me with conflicting thoughts. If he is talking about xMOOCs, I could perhaps agree to a level. If he is talking about cMOOCs, I couldn’t disagree more!

Bernard makes the points that books are mobile, ubiquitous, accessible, excellent supplementary material for your degree preparation, comprehensive and “massive”. He likens the MOOC hype to the hype that surrounded television based education. He believes that “reading a book requires much more active involvement than watching a MOOC online” and that “(T)eachers find it easier to assign a specific homework assignment in a book than a “viewing” in a MOOC”. Among other insights is his insight that books have the advantage of privacy and a serendipity that is “unlikely in a MOOC” and the prediction that “it is hard to envision more than 5 percent of the 20 million postsecondary students in the US drifting over to MOOCs”.

I guess books have a massive audience, are available online, are (sometimes) open to those who can afford them or if they are free, and they (especially textbooks) are built around the course. Perhaps Bernard’s conception of the BOOK is that of being Best Oracles Of Knowledge, that if consumed well, should predictably result in knowledge replication.

Books and their contents, whether offline or online, whether backed by collaboration or not, whether available openly or not, are simply one element of any learning experience – they are the compiled thoughts of the authors’ state of knowledge that others can benefit from. Textbooks lend themselves to supporting degree preparation since they are specifically written for that context.

However, to liken them to MOOCs on the basis of these, dilutes the essence of what the online learning world has been talking about for the past few decades.

The xMOOCs can argue that MOOCs can extend the textbook experience by bringing in online collaboration, crowd performance reporting, connect with the instructor and engaging multimedia content apart from other online affordances. But they can only do just that – since their current format is merely an extension of early approaches to open courseware with the addition of these online social elements.

The concept of online (free or paid) multimedia instruction from the experts is hardly new or revolutionary, but the hype machines have been active for the xMOOCs. It is a little depressing that they picked up the MOOC moniker, the result of painstaking work by George, Stephen and Dave, put brand and dollars behind it, and got lucky. It seems that we now have nonsensical variants like SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses). Tony Bates makes a huge indictment of the the xMOOCs when he states:

In my view, MIT will struggle to make an impact on educational research if it continues to ignore the potential contribution of educators. It is as if researchers such as Piaget, Bruner, Vigotsky, Carl Rogers, Gagné, and many later researchers had never existed. Can you imagine anyone trying to develop a new form of transportation while deliberately ignoring  Newtonian mechanics? Yet this is what MIT is doing in its educational research.

cMOOCs are incomparable to textbooks, or to xMOOCs, or for that matter to courses in a traditional context. They are a different paradigm altogether that stands outside the conventional lens – I would go so far as to state that the xMOOCs are literally inside the box of traditional education, while cMOOCs stand outside the box – that cannot be viewed by the lens of what we traditionally define as the formal learning or university experience.

So when it comes to textbooks and the cMOOCs, Bernard’s analysis falls flat. Textbooks and cMOOCs are simply not comparable.

In the cMOOCs, any one resource is not as important as the connection making process itself – the sense-making and way-finding is the core of the learning experience. Navigating the “conversation”, “context” and the “network” in a cMOOC and deriving learning therein, are perhaps the most important parts in a cMOOC.

Learning to define and set your own plateaus of competencies, learning to be instead of learning to do or know, learning to navigate the over abundant flow of digital information, learning to grow your network and make it richer all the time – these are the critical literacies of the cMOOC world.

Textbooks may or may not be part of the design of a cMOOC – that is largely irrelevant. What is important is designing a cMOOC environment so that it is suitably complex and adaptive.

The cMOOC starts not from the definition of a syllabus and design of the videos, but from making available the teacher’s network – the continuously changing and adaptive nature of her learning. Within that, she decides to give focus to a sub-network that she wants to engage learners on, with the expectation that her learners will usefully (to them) conjoin their network to hers, resulting in far richer learning for both.

The cMOOC starts from a technology base that is geared to expose that network of people, resources and concepts, for extension through reflection and practice. Exposition is non-existent, the best practice is to model and demonstrate your learning processes to your students.

The cMOOC starts from an understanding that diversity and autonomy in the network is very important. In that sense, and this is especially tough for critics of the format, it is not controlled or predictable. However, I foresee that soon we will have ways to understand how such complex ecosystems can be designed for maximal learning effectiveness.

Which is another point for cMOOCs – they are nascent and evolutionary as of now. They are directional and aspirational, and not transactional in the traditional sense. Does that make them less useful or applicable? Not really, but you need to know the difference in approach to be able to use them successfully, as George, Stephen and Dave have repeatedly demonstrated, whether with CCK or Critical Literacies or EdFutures.

Let us face it. We cannot bemoan the fact that the education system is broken, while continuing to find ways to reform it. We must look at alternatives and not disparage those alternatives because either we do not understand them or we lack the patience and conviction to fix the issues in education.

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