As Phil mentioned in his last post, he and I had the privilege of participating in a two-day ELI webinar on MOOCs. A majority of the speakers had been involved in implementing MOOCs at their institutions in one way or another. And an interesting thing happened. Over the course of the two days, almost none of the presenters—with the exception of the ACE representative, who has a vested interest—expressed the belief that MOOCs provide equivalent learning experiences to traditional college courses. Keep in mind, these folks were believers. They were enthusiastic about MOOCs in general. But they tended to describe the value of MOOCs as reaching a different audience than the traditional matriculated college student and provide a different value. They talked about it extending the university mission. By and large, they did not talk about it as being an improvement on, or even equal to, a traditional class. Now, there were well over 400 participants, so it wouldn’t be fair of me to say that there was unanimity, about this point or any other. But the level of agreement was remarkable.
On the other hand, there was widespread enthusiasm for using MOOCs as essentially substitutions for textbooks in classes that included instructors from the local campus. Vanderbilt created what they called a course “wrapper” around a Coursera MOOC on machine learning. Folks from Stanford talked about the notion of a “distributed flip,” i.e., a group of flipped classrooms participating together in a MOOC. And SJSU talked about using an edX course in a blended course environment on one hand, and a Udacity course with Udacity-provided “course mentors” on the other.
The obvious conclusion is that MOOCs are more of a threat to textbook companies than they are to universities. I think that’s true, but I also think it’s an oversimplification. There is a deeper (and older) trend to boil down a course into a set of digital artifacts that can be “played” by the student at will. It’s worth taking a deeper look at that trend, where it’s going, what’s useful about it, and what’s pernicious about it.
The Course as an Artifact: A Brief History
Course artifacts, in and of themselves, are hardly new. In fact, the textbook as a collection of catechisms (or questions and answers designed to facilitate memorization) goes back to at least the 4th Century A.D. Basically, the catechisms were the course. We tend to think of these being used in what we would call primary school today, but in fact, this sort of text-as-course was used at all levels of education. For example, check out the Catechism of the Steam Engine, published in the 1850s.
In the modern higher education context, there is a strong sense among many teaching faculty of themselves as craftspeople. In this view, they teach their courses their own way and use their unique strengths and knowledge to benefit their students. The degree to which this rhetoric matches reality varies wildly depending on the individual instructor, the level and subject of the course, and the school at which the course is being taught. There is a tendency among instructors of lower-division courses to follow the textbook pretty closely, including the homework and quizzes, and decorate that pre-packaged curriculum with lectures—particularly in courses that are easily machine-graded and tend to have very large enrolments.
This is not to say that the instructors and TAs in these classes add zero value over the textbook content. One of the most important but least valorized functions that an instructor serves in the class is providing support to students when they are stuck—answering questions, modeling good problem-solving skills, providing mentoring about study skills, and so on. Likewise, the curation that these faculty do in terms of picking the books, selecting the problem sets within the book, and so on, provides real value. (And this is a spectrum, rather than a binary distinction between faculty who just follow the book completely and faculty who make up their own curricula completely.) But the point is that much of what we refer to as the “course” is often a packaged up in a set of artifacts that come from the textbook publishers and are augmented by pre-packaged performances of lectures by the professors. The degree to which this sort of thing happens is just hidden from view because it happens behind the closed doors of individual classrooms.
When the LMS first came onto the scene in the late 1990s, the one artifact that every professor would put online if they were putting up just one would be the syllabus. Then they might add lecture notes, and then possibly some readings. None of that really changed anything, since it was still happening behind the virtual closed doors of the LMS course logins. But in 2002, when MIT announced their OpenCourseWare initiative, the conversation began to change. Even though the process of adopting OpenCourseWare wasn’t essentially different from one of adopting a textbook publisher’s book and ancillaries, MIT’s brand imprimatur carried with it a sense of superiority in some quarters. Why would you, a professor at Unremarkable College, think that your course design is better than the famous MIT professor’s? On the one hand, it felt to me at the time like there was a strong undercurrent of elitism in these conversations. On the other hand, it raised the useful question of when the instructor is crafting the course curriculum to meet the particular needs of the students in the room versus when she is crafting it in order to satisfy her own creative needs as a craftsperson. But even here, OCW ultimately didn’t do much to disrupt the Order of Things. At most, OCW courses are recipes that can be adopted either in whole or in part by the instructors, and how they are adopted is still mostly kept behind closed doors.
Meanwhile, the textbook publishers were combining their textbooks—now online—with their ancillary materials and their homework platforms into a kind of higher-end courseware that goes a few steps beyond what you can get from a typical OCW package. Whether we are talking about Cengage MindTap, Pearson CourseConnect, or WileyPLUS, these product packages basically provide the curriculum, the course materials, the assessments and, in some cases, the analytics to track student progress and make study suggestions. Yet still, these are adopted mostly behind the closed door of the classroom.
Enter the MOOC
In some ways, the xMOOC in its current form is this trend to turn the course into an artifact taken to its logical conclusion (possibly ad absurdum). Course lectures are now artifacts in the form of videos. Assignment and assessment functions are packaged into machine-graded tools. Certification of knowledge is provided by the machines as well. Yes, there are still class discussions, and yes, the course instructors do participate sometimes, but they appear to be rather secondary in most of the xMOOC course designs I have looked at. In general, xMOOCs tend to explore the degree to which the pedagogical function can be fulfilled by artifacts.1
One critical difference is that, by raising the question of whether this package is worthy of being offered for credit, the MOOC also is forcing us to begin to articulate the value instructors add—both that they can in principle and what they are adding in practice today in large survey courses under the conditions that they are often taught. This is a big and complex question. It’s far too big to address fully in one post. But I think the conversations that happen in places like the ELI webinar about what MOOC instructors think is missing from MOOCs that keeps them from being credit-worthy is an interesting first approximation at an answer. The sentiment articulated by some of the ELI webinar participants, which was echoed by a presentation at this week’s MOOC colloquium at RPI, is that xMOOCs don’t tend to be able to get at deep skill acquisition because students have limited opportunities to either see those skills modeled for them or to practice them. As Jim Hendler put it during the RPI colloquium, “I don’t hear a lot of talk about using MOOCs to give students PhDs.” To be clear, I don’t believe that it is impossible to give that kind of deep skill learning in an online context; nor do I think that today’s giant lower-division survey courses do a whole lot to teach deep skills, by and large. But I do think that the gut reactions that folks in the MOOC conversations seem to be having is revealing in terms of the limits of what we think we can achieve at the moment with the course as a product—whether that product is instantiated through a MOOC or through an instructor “teaching” a traditional survey class and going through the motions as described to him by his textbook vendor. To the degree that a graduate seminar as a MOOC seems like a strange idea to you, ask yourself what would be missing and whether that missing element also belongs in our undergraduate survey courses.
The “Distributed Flip” and Other Amazing Feats
Equally revealing, in my view, is the significantly higher level of enthusiasm among MOOC veterans for using MOOCs as course materials for blended learning. But not just any blended learning. Two themes have been coming up repeatedly: flipping the classroom and collaboration between professors teaching the same class. You can get a clear sense of what’s going on from this guest column on The Chronicle’s “Professor Hacker” blog by Douglas Fisher of Vanderbilt University, who used a MOOC as the basis for his flipped class:
I now view MOOCs, and the assessment and discussion infrastructure that comes with them, as invaluable resources that I embrace and to which I add value. I, and I am guessing many others, are short steps away from full-blown customizations of individual courses and even entire curricula, drawing upon resources from around the world and contributing back to those resources.
The implications of MOOCs for community between faculty and students, as well as the relationships within and between local and global learning communities, interest and excite me. In fact, it is a nuance on the theme of community that I think is most responsible for my excitement as I embrace online educational content. For the first time in 25 years of teaching, I feel as though I am in a scholarly-like community with my fellow educators. I have long regarded scholarship as the noblest aspect of academia– the scholar’s tenacity in identifying, acknowledging, addressing and building on the intellectual contributions of others. I have not experienced the same profound sense of community among my colleagues in the education realm, however – I have largely been a lone wolf. Now there has been a profound shift in my mindset – I use and build on the educational production of others; I do it openly on public sites, of which I am proud rather than embarrassed; I contribute back, and my students see and learn from this practice of scholarly appreciation, and are even encouraged to contribute to it through their own content creation and sharing. This opportunity for “scholarship” in educational practice is what, as an educator and scholar, I find most exciting about this nascent and exploding online education movement.
I think the point about the missing community around teaching is particularly critical. The aforementioned RPI professor Jim Hendler, who was recognized by Playboy Magazine as “one of the nation’s most influential and imaginative college professors” who are “reinventing the classroom,”2 talked about how he struggled to flip his classroom in a way that his students would embrace and lamented that he had no training in pedagogy. Later in his presentation, he talked about how university libraries and computer labs, which used to be places where students would go and solve problems together, are largely empty now. I wondered about how college education would be different if professors had shared problem-solving spaces for their teaching, like the study carrels and computer centers of yore, and if there were no stigma attached to sharing.
Meanwhile this week, San José State University announced the creation of the Center for Excellence in Adaptive and Blended Learning, the first project of which will be to teach faculty at 11 other CSU campuses how to use an edX course on circuits and electronics as the basis for a flipped class. It’s a short step from training faculty on how to flip a class using the MOOC to a “distributed flip,” where those faculty members are sharing best practices with each other as they teach the same class using the same class using the same materials, and having their students interact with each other on the MOOC discussion board. This is promising.
It also raises questions about the MOOC course designs. At RPI, I was able to ask edX’s Howard Lurie about whether the course design for the blended classes in the SJSU project will be the same as the fully online one. He acknowledged that there would have to be a variant. We’re going to see more of that. To the degree that MOOCs are going to used in this way, they need to (1) have the curricular wrap-around that scaffolds the classroom use, and (2) be designed to be modular so that faculty using them in their own classrooms can customize them to the local needs of their students. In other words, we need to be able to draw different and more flexible lines between where the course-as-artifact ends and human-directed course experience begins. Which, by the way, is essentially what I think Adrian Sannier was saying in his interview with me a while back when he positioned OpenClass courses in contrast to MOOCs:
“Somebody will make a math class with 6 million students around the world. But it will be offered locally with teachers at a scale of between 1 to 20 and 1 to 50. Because teachers matter.”
And this is where we get to the part of the MOOCs competing with the textbook vendors. Both MOOC producers and textbook vendors are beginning to converge on a product model of courseware that is more of a complete curriculum than a traditional textbook but less of a stand-alone, autopilot course than a current-generation xMOOC. Both groups have a lot to learn creating flexible designs that make the right compromises between completeness and ease of localization as well as facilitating communities of practice among teaching faculty. But it’s clear that’s where we’re headed.