I only learned recently that I’ve not been enrolled in MOOC classes at all, but have instead been involved with something called an xMOOC.
At first I was curious why anyone would want to eliminate the only saving grace of the MOOC acronym (its pronounceability), but apparently two variations are meant to distinguish the type of professor-centric massive courses that have received most of the attention over the last couple of years (xMOOCs) from a different vision for massive online education built around connectivity (cMOOCs).
Lest you think this distinction is just an attempt to glom onto MOOC media mania to push a different educational agenda, the connectivist vision behind the cMOOC actually pre-dates the Stanford experiment (and resulting initiatives from that experiment such as Udacity, Coursera and edX) by several years.
This connectivist vision is best explained by its visionaries such as George Siemens who talks about open online learning as emphasizing “creativity, autonomy and social networked learning” or Stephen Downes whose new book on connective knowledge describes learning this way:
Learning is the creation and removal of connections between the entities, or the adjustment of the strengths of those connections. A learning theory is, literally, a theory describing how these connections are created or adjusted.
If this all seems somewhat abstract, simply consider a massive class which is not centered on a single expert (the professor) transferring his or her knowledge to students. Instead in a cMOOC environment the participants in the course act as both teachers and students, sharing information and engaging in a joint teaching and learning experience through intense interaction facilitated by technology.
There is an understandable appeal to this model (given that it mirrors the open vision of the web itself). And I can understand why people who have been experimenting this area (and either creating or participating in courses built on the cMOOC vision) might look askance at newly popular xMOOCs based on traditional college courses that seem to be replicating the pedagogy of the low-tech classroom, but doing so in a way that eliminates the intimacy between a teacher and his or her students (who, within a MOOC, can number in the tens of thousands).
It would be best to have at least one course that follows the cMOOC model under my belt before commenting on its effectiveness as an alternative teaching strategy, but that’s won’t happen until after my sophomore year completes in June (presuming I can find such a course in my major – so far, the only ones that have surfaced seem to be education and technology specific).
Until then, some ground-level observations I can add to the debate (keeping in mind that they come from someone whose only had xMOOC experience) include:
1. While the courses I’ve taken are all based around a professor sharing his or her (actually, only his so far – a topic for another time) knowledge, I don’t think it’s fair to describe these all as just traditional “sage-on-the-stage” classes transferred to the Internet (a criticism implied when xMOOC are dismissed as glorified correspondence courses). In fact, I’ve seen considerable experimentation within individual courses, which has led to considerable variation between them.
2. There is no doubt that teacher-to-student interaction is non-existent in all but a few xMOOCs, and student-to-student interaction (via shared forums, for example) is one of the weakest elements of my online learning experience so far. But nothing prevents students from going beyond these existing tools and creating their own intimate communities (by taking classes in a group, for example, or building their own small online communities of committed classmates) to fill these gaps.
3. I’ve actually had experience in an online course where students were meant to teach each other (via “forced” interchange in an online discussion group); a course that had no lectures (just assigned readings and the aforementioned required interactions). And even though this class was a graduate-level course with fewer than twenty students, I found the whole experience completely dissatisfying (even after doing all the work and getting a high grade).
4. The experience I just described made me realize that I like to be taught by a “sage-on-the-stage,” or, more particularly, by someone with way more expertise on the subject than I and my fellow students have who is also skilled and experienced at transferring this knowledge to others. In no way does this mean that xMOOCs are inherently superior to cMOOCs on the same subject. But it does mean that different options may be needed to meet the needs of people with widely varying strengths, weaknesses and preferences that make up their learning styles.
5. Which gets me to the key point that every aspect of the MOOC experiment (including what we end up calling the darn things) represent work in progress. I have no doubt that the heavy lifting being done by champions of connective learning will help solve the problem of how to make huge scale a positive vs. a negative within massive online classes (check out this article for interesting ideas that are already brewing). But I also expect that sages (or whatever you want to call the people who know the material and know how to teach) are not likely to leave the stage once the dust settles and we see what the next generation of online learning looks like.