Everything you didn’t want to know about MOOCs

Every few years we concoct a new iconic shorthand for the same old modernist drive to social efficiency. It wasn’t too long ago that virtual worlds were the buzz. Micro blogging has been the firm favourite for the last three or so years but we’ve got a new one; the Massive Open Online Class which has a killer mix of cyber culture, ‘gamification’, white man’s burden and push button convenience. Sounds like I’m down on it, but actually I’m in the race to win.

For the student, a MOOC is the chance to study (for example) poetry at Harvard for free. So long as you understand that (a) you are not really studying or graduating at Harvard and (b) that your assessment and feedback is going to be done by some other amateur, it’s a deal. For the university it seems a way to do all the rote teaching by the least expensive means, until they remember it’s free, and are left scrabbling for any kind of payment system.

For Pearson, a publisher in the textbook game, it’s a nice bit of roots organisation that will hand over a platter of intellectual property for them to gatekeep. Like the indie labels did for the music industry, like lonely people do for Facebook, there’s nothing like enthusiasts jumping into your fishing net.

But for teaching staff it’s what MP3 did for the music industry – good for the very top and very bottom – genocide for the middle. If you’re staff at a regional university and doing your best to teach poetry on limited means, having Harvard come to town is death. Not that anyone needed them to explain poetry, but the lure is in the brand (burned on your rear). The regional university wilts, the university town wilts, an arid patch appears with consequent economic and political damage.There will be cheer squad of course – same people that thought that transferring music rights from EMI to Apple represents some kind of progress.

For me, teaching at a GO8 University with a lab of specialised equipment and my eccentric library; not as worrying. You can’t really learn camerawork over the telephone, nor can any practitioner assess 10,000 student movies. Sure, you can have peer assessment, it’s called YouTube and no one is fooled. That’s why you come to me. I will tell you how not to suck, to your face, with examples.

I’ll state my position up front – MOOCs are the opposite of everything we’ve been told is good teaching practice. The best classes are small with a close mutuality, have a strong practical component, have a teacher that is a practitioner that provides targeted attention and feedback to the individual student. If you are unsure of something I come up to your desk, listen to your questions and provide help, often with physical demonstration. When I assess you, I do so from a rubric, my expertise and my discussions with you. Personal service – and why ANU is top Australian university every year.

It’s the same poor idea that has run over the last decade – cut the cake until you get a big crowd then obsess on the size of the crowd, not the size of the slice. Part of the advertisement is how MOOCs are great for people in extremely poor parts of the world. That’s partly true. But it’s not really contributing to their local educational structure, in fact it’s subverting the development. Harvard comes to town, everywhere.

Put it another way, I bet the idea would be less popular if the MOOC was coming from Beijing. And it will, it surely will.

No, my interest in MOOCs is purely selfish – to not have to deliver the same lectures twice a year for the rest of my life, yet to perform in front of larger circuses. Some things, like how to frame a shot – that I would like to write down once and not again. Plus as an old hand at making interactive publications it’s cute to see it bubble up again. I’ve got 20+ years of computer aided learning experience to sell. 

We had a seminar. That’s one good thing about these icons – something new to research and hold seminars about. Keeps academics fed.

Our first speaker was Curt Bonk an enthusiastic American MOOCher. A nice man who accepted that his name is a perfect shit storm in Australian slang. He should be excused for having less time than he normally needs, but the talk was a blurry top 40 of who had the most students and when, a hit parade of audience size. Perhaps he thought to demonstrate how he engages his online audience – to my eyes it was more manic than empathic. He helpfully mentioned one of his books about every 5 slides – a good demonstration of one way to monetise free teaching.

Richard Buckland was next – a home team speaker and a complete delight. I can’t do him justice, only report some of the best bits: That the least interesting part of ‘MOOC’ is the ‘M’, and that the worth is there if even one underprivileged student was empowered by it. That universities shouldn’t fear MOOCs eating into their entry level courses, because if your entry level can be taught in that way, it needs improving. That once teaching is open, we can all steal ideas from each other and get better at it. That finally you can earn praise for teaching in public, the way a researcher is praised for their publications. And so on. There wasn’t a moment that didn’t kick ass.

Simon McIntyre did an interesting report on COFA Online’s experiments with publishing teaching material and then tracing who picks it up and uses it. Without the cool animated graphics it’s not nearly as fun, so I’ll cut to the conclusion – that a different world map emerges when you trace the flows, one in which a tweeter in New Zealand may the hub of learning spokes in Europe and the USA. I didn’t find that too surprising, I was more impressed by a graphic prepared by a student of all the technologies that person used in their learning, a horrible mesh of boxes with Blackboard squeezed up into one corner. Imagine a Bosch painting made out of Applications. I wish I had that to show you.

Rick Bennett talked about RukSac which looks like a prettied up fork of the Omnium software we use for teaching. You can learn more the site than from me, although I am not sure you can just take a tool that works for 100 people and make it work for 10000 – which might be the point, although it wasn’t clear.

Plenty of questions – the ones that mattered the most to me was the business of IP. I am not going to start giving lectures on the films of Stanley Kubrick on YouTube. To that there was the usual mumbling about Creative Commons. I would have asked about how any course based around essay writing was supposed to have 10000 members. I didn’t because the answer is obvious.


Lots more (MIT article).