Friday, December 28, 2012

MOOCs are for Mooks

So, I couldn't resist the play on the acronym for Massive Open Online Courses (and the fact that it's Courses, plural, renders the s at the end of MOOCs redundant, but that's online learning for you). The equally online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines mook as a slang term denoting "a foolish, insignificant, or contemptible person" and admittedly that's a bit harsh, but then again, I didn't invent the acronym, nor am I anything but one of a multitude of critics of this latest form of distance learning.

And I bring this up because not too long ago I was interviewed by Ellis Booker for an article on the subject published in InformationWeek on December 20th under the title of Massive Open Online Courses Meet Higher Ed, accompanied by the subtitle of Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are prompting discussion about higher education's future and business model.

The article begins, appropriately enough, by posing some key questions:

Can a class contain 100,000 Internet-connected students? Can grading be crowdsourced? Will colleges and universities someday confer certifications on students who've never stepped foot on campus, never interacted with a live teacher and never paid a dime?
These are just some of the existential questions confronting academia thanks to massive open online courses, or MOOCs. MOOCs are distinguished as much by their network- and computer-mediated scale as their free-for-all philosophy.

 So, what's the origin of this new educational phenomenon? That's the next point that Booker tackles:

The first MOOC is believed to have been the 2008 course "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge," created by George Siemens, then an associate director, research and development with the Learning Technologies Centre at the University of Manitoba, and Stephen Downes, an online learning and new media designer and commentator.
Their course content was available through RSS feeds, and students could participate via threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life or synchronous online meetings. The course was taken by 25 tuition-paying students at the University of Manitoba; another 2,300 members of the general public registered for the course online, free of charge.

 From here, Booker takes us directly to the present day:

From these humble beginnings, MOOCs have grown. According to one recent count, there are 230 MOOCs today, with more than 3 million students. In a milestone last year, an online course in artificial intelligence from Stanford attracted 160,000 students -- 23,000 of whom completed it.

In fact, the fastest-growing purveyor of MOOCs isn't a college or a university. Coursera is a venture capital- backed online platform, now with more than 33 participating schools offering online courses to 1.3 million students.

So, now that we have MOOCs explained, I think it worthwhile to add that the acronym MOOC, and especially the terms massive coupled with online have a connection to an aspect of new media that involves something other than pedagogy. What I am referring to are the initials (not acronyms because they're not really pronounceable) MMO and MMORPG.  MMO stands for Massive Multiplayer Online, which is used in reference to gaming, so the typical reference is to MMO games.  MMORPG is a little more specific, referring to Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, sometimes used in reference to MMORPG games, which is of course redundant (and must I repeat myself on the significance of that point?).  MMORPG's include World of Warcraft, and various games based on the universes associated with The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc.

And while we're on the subject, these games are descendents of MUDs, which started out as text-based online games, the acronym standing for Multi-User Dungeon.  As the format, which shares some common ground with chat rooms, was adopted for non-fantasy and even non-gaming functions, alternate meanings for the initials were introduced, i.e. Multi-User Dimension, Multi-User Domain, or even Multi-User Dialogue. One type of MUD is known as a MUSH, a Multi-User Shared Hallucination (the allusion here is to William Gibson's definition of cyberspace in his science fiction novel Neuromancer as a shared consensual hallucination). Another variation is the MOO, which stands for MUD, Object-Oriented, which refers to object-oriented programming, meaning a MUD where the virtual objects contained within it are programmable.

And let's not forget where this all began, with the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, which has been abbreviated as D&D or DnD. Originally played as a kind of board game, albeit without an actual board per se, but with maps and charts and the like, along the lines of war and strategy games, these games were based on computer technology nonetheless, specifically on computer-generated statistical probability tables made available in print form, used in conjunction with rolling a variety of dice with many different sides to determine specific outcomes.

What's the point of all this, you may ask? Well, it's merely to point out that MOOCs can be said to have descended from gaming rather than schooling, and perhaps have as much if not more to do with entertainment than education. That's certainly a point that is consonant with Neil Postman's critique of education via television in Amusing Ourselves to Death. And while we're on that subject, let's note that the very term massive recalls the older term mass, as in mass consumption, mass culture, mass media, and mass communication.  And while these massive forms may have some redeeming qualities, is mass communication really the best model for pedagogical practices?

Okay, this has been a long digression, so let's get back to Booker's piece, and hear from one of the leading cheerleaders for all things online:

"The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled," Clay Shirky, an associate professor at New York University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote in a lengthy post in November.

"Once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment," Shirky wrote.

Umm, increase quality? Really? Shirky may know something about new media, sure, and may be one of the
leading cheerleaders for online communication and social media, but his understanding of quality in education leaves something to be desired. Holding aside the basic economic law of diminishing returns, there's a little thing we call teacher-student ratio that has a great deal to do with quality of education.  But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's move on to a new section of the article, with a heading of "Why Now?":

Distance learning has been a topic of discussion and experimentation for at least two decades, which begs the question: Why the current excitement?

"Why now? That's a question I've been asking myself," Kemi Jona, a research professor in learning sciences and computer science at Northwestern University, said in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

Noting the "long trajectory" and expensive failures of the past, Jona said the answer has less to do with technical advances (broadband connections to the home, tablet computers) than with economics -- specifically, the high cost of tuition and the global fiscal crisis, which combined to cause many to question the value of a post-secondary degree.

Jona is among those who see multiple advantages in online classes, ranging from "not subjecting a 19-year-old to an 8 a.m. chemistry class" to research suggesting that online environments may be more conducive to risk-taking and student participation. "It's not socially acceptable to look stupid [in person]," Jona said.

Jona's last point rings true in reference to online learning, and you might say that it applies to online behavior in general, that people are more likely to take risks when sitting comfortably in front of a computer screen rather than taking the same risks when actually in a real, live situation, which brings us back to gaming, come to think of it. But this has noting to do with massive online learning, as opposed to, say, small seminars conducted over via the internet. Well, maybe a little, as there's safety in numbers, otherwise known as risky shift, but how much participation can there really be in a course with thousands of students? And participation with whom?  Certainly not the professor. So, maybe we're talking about graduate students working as teaching assistants, but now on a massive scale?  Or will it all be programmable, automated, bot-led discussion sections. I can just hear some student say, Professor Siri, a question? Anyway, greater participation is not the same thing as greater learning. 

The earlier point is the one that is most to the point:  economics.  MOOCs represent a cheaper form of education than traditional college classes, and there is no arguing with that, but let's just say, you get what you pay for.

But where do I come in, you might ask. Well, I hope it was worth waiting for:

Not surprisingly, other educators are suspicious about MOOCs.

"It's not an accident [these] are coming out of the most prestigious and well-endowed universities," Lance Strate, professor of communication and media studies and director of the Professional Studies in New Media program at Fordham University said in a phone interview. The initiatives are, he said, "in some ways, a kind of publicity stunt to help reinforce the image of these [schools] as leading institutions of higher education." Fordham has no MOOCs, nor plans for one, according to Strate.

Strate isn't alone in his suspicions. If the unbundling of education happens, Harvard and Yale will be fine, but maybe not the "4,000 institutions you haven't heard of," Shirky wrote in his essay.

So, yeah, I'm a bit cynical, but status and prestige is definitely a factor in the rush of elite institutions to field MOOCs, as opposed to a straightforward desire to bring education to the masses. No doubt, the presence of MOOCs will soon play a role in US News & World Report rankings.

And I give him credit, Shirky does raise an ominous point, in that higher education could go the way of the media industries under this scenario, as in increased concentration of ownership. Could Harvard and Yale become the educational equivalents of Time-Warner and Disney/ABC?

Anyway, Booker gives the "inventor" of the MOOC the last word:

Does this mean existing institutions should lay low?

Not at all, says the professor whose 2008 class is credited with being the first MOOC. "If MOOCs are eventually revealed to be a fad, the universities that experiment with them today will have acquired experience and insight into the role of technology in teaching and learning that their conservative peers won't have," George Siemens wrote in a December post on his blog. These days, Siemens is an assistant professor in the Center for Distance Education and a researcher and strategist with the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute (TEKRI) at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada.

Siemens is no doubt right that there is something to be learned by those who follow the fad, but maybe it's something that the rest of us already know.  And maybe there's also something to be lost, a cost to all this, and who will be the ones to pay that cost? Maybe the students who take these courses, and think they are getting something that they in reality are not? If it's all a grand experiment, or let's say it's all just a game, then there are winners and there are losers. If the experimenters are the winners, then aren't the subjects destined to be the losers, to be the mooks for the MOOCs?

No comments: