MOOC Platforms

I recently received a note from American Online congratulating me for having been a user of their mail service for twenty years.

Unsurprisingly, my kids greeted the news with a sneer followed by an eye roll.  For they, after all, are far more hip than either I or their mom (another AOL user) having revolted against using the subaccounts we had created for them in favor of two brand-new Gmail accounts which promised to not taint them with their parent’s apparently uncool choice of brands.

The thing is, their Gmail accounts seem to do pretty much the same thing as the AOL accounts they shunned.  As far as I can tell, both systems include Compose, Send and Reply buttons, and both seem to display similar lists of messages that make up your typical overstuffed Inbox.  The volume of spam seems pretty consistent between the two services and both AOL and Gmail are plugged into a wider sources of “content” primarily designed to shove advertising in our faces (making us the product for AOL and Google’s paying clients).

The whole debate over which e-mail service is cool vs. not reminds me of the old operating system wars that I participated in back in the good old days when there was a genuine distinction between a character-based OS like MS-DOS (which stands for “Microsoft Disk Operating System” for those of you born after that product went off the market) and the truly revolutionary graphical user interface that ran on the Apple Macintosh.

But current attempts to resurrect that fight by casting one graphical system (Macintosh) against another (Windows) – with UNIX users sneering at us all from the sidelines – never quite came to a boil for me.  After all, even though this blog entry is being written on a computer running that Windows 8 operating system I’m supposed to be embarrassed about using, I can’t remember the last time I actually saw the OS’s allegedly revolutionary/controversial Metro interface, given that I spend all my time either in a browser or a word-processing program – with occasional forays into a spreadsheet, graphics or audio editing product.  And my kids (who use the family Macintosh) rarely touch a local application, instead making use of browser-based tools that are virtually identical on all operating systems and platforms.

I bring this up because, in the context of MOOCs, the MOOCing platform can be seen as much like operating system or free e-mail software.

If you talk to the people who built platforms that successfully distribute free courses to the world, they are justifiably proud of having created software that supports global distribution of top notch educational content from the world’s most prestigious universities to millions. But as good as these systems are, content is still king – even if each course development and deployment system has features the other (temporarily) lacks.

Looking back at a couple of my favorite massive courses from last year, Harvard’s Ancient Greek Hero was (and is) a great MOOC primarily because of the professor and the team behind it.  They were the ones who brought the works of Homer to life for the thousands of us who took the class, who introduced us to a new way of thinking about ancient literature and inspired us to closely read (yes, read) works like the Iliad and Odyssey.  And while the edX system powered that course (including its most most interesting technical innovation – automated annotation exercises that were the basis of our grade in the class), it was the eight hours the course creators put into each week’s assessment that turned such an interesting bit of software into a meaningful assignment.

Similarly, the creators of Wesleyan’s The Modern and the Postmodern had access to Coursera’s strong peer-grading tools.  But it was Professor Roth’s choice to use those tools to ask students to write over half a dozen papers that gave us the chance to put the material he was teaching to work.

These are some of the thoughts that came to mind last week when I had the good fortune of being trained on how to build a course using edX’s authoring tools.  And as I digest that experience, I’d like to look a little more into how such tools might evolve to internalize the discoveries made by the human beings who have been using them to create so many distinct and interesting learning experiences (as well as the students who have been experiencing them).

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