MOOCs: love ’em, hate ’em, but don’t conflate ’em

“I hate MOOCs because they’re automated and my stuff is peer-graded and I don’t have time for it and it isn’t accredited anyway and professors shouldn’t just be performers and everyone’s gonna lose their jobs.”

“I love MOOCs because the university system is too expensive and it’s just lectures anyway and I didn’t learn anything when I want to a traditional university and students are paying too much for gymnasiums and administrator salaries.”

We’ve got a series of conflations that I’m seeing over and over, to the point where everytime I read an article about MOOCs (and especially the comments after each article, like here at Bloomberg), I can only sigh.

moocmonolithMOOCs are not all created equal. We can’t keep treating them monolithically.

Conflation 1: All MOOCs are taught the same and I hate them/ love them because of this.

As anyone who’s taken ds106 or the Connectivism MOOCs can tell you, all MOOCs are not taught the same. Even the xMOOC and cMOOC distinction that George Siemens created and that I’ve used before isn’t the full story. There are MOOCs with paying students sponsored by real accredited schools with real working professors, and MOOCs that are proto-commercial and provide no individual attention at all. You could group MOOCs into types (go for it), but they’re not all the same so one should at least try to distinguish.

Conflation 2: MOOCs let the third world get knowledge so I love them.

MOOCs can provide a collaborative shell for pre-recorded lectures from big universities that have been available on YouTube for years. That’s good, but it doesn’t provide the “education” the lesser-developed world may need without some form of accreditation accepted in that location. Some MOOCs could help enormously. Others will become like Nestlé, offering something to the third world for free and then charging later for the formula once the babies are hooked on it.

Conflation 3: MOOCs are economic solutions used by universities so I love them/hate them because of this.

MOOCs cannot solve the problems of public education, which is plagued not only by mismanagement but by public misconception about its worth and role in society. People in financial trouble want lower taxes and lower prices and don’t take the long view. Will universities turn toward MOOCs to save money? Yes, they will. Should faculty do something about that? Yes, if they can (but without public support I doubt it will work). Are MOOCs being offered that are about an opportunity to learn, or to offer open education, instead of saving money? Yes, some are.

What isn’t being conflated?

The concern about professorial jobs, both existentially and in terms of roles, is a clear issue. The MOOCs with an instructivist pedagogy set up a model for super-professors performing in well-produced videos. This threatens both professors’ jobs and the whole idea of what it means to teach. This model implies disdain for both constructivist and connectivist pedagogical models. So we must separate those, too. There is a labor issue. There is a pedagogical issue. Let’s talk about those.

The danger of the conflations is that all MOOCs will become the same, that the Coursera model will be the only one available, that universities will think it’s OK to accept protocommercial MOOCs for credit without examining the individual courses. What’s happening is that intelligent discussion of MOOCs is buried in the blog posts of those in the trenches, while the Chronicle, New York Times, Bloomberg and other big media adopt the simplistic models for their analyses, which are rarely written by anyone who knows anything about education.

Sigh.

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