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MOOCs: More Hype than Hope!

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

There is so much to like about the concept of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that it is easy to understand why they are taking the higher ed world by storm (Dunn, 14 July, 2012). They are free, so they can help reduce the runaway costs of higher education for students; some of the faculty at the world’s best universities are teaching them; they are available online, so students from anywhere can learn anytime; and they generally offer courses in high demand areas such as computer programming, engineering, and mathematics. The following infographic from Online Colleges illustrates how important the concept has become:

This "hysteria" over what Jesse Stommel of Hybrid Pedagogy calls "Monstrous Open Online Courses" (23 July, 2012) is hiding the fact that MOOCs are not the solution to the troubles with education. They are not a panacea that, regardless of the provider, content, or teaching, can be applied to all of our educational booboos like a giant, one-size-fits-all band aid. MOOCs are just one more teaching methodology that can be effective or ineffective depending on a number of variables. Beyond this limitation, Stommel points out several other problems with the model, cleverly basing them on the acronym itself. In addition to these four problems, there is one further glaring issue with MOOCs that limits their real power far more than the issues pointed out in Hybrid Pedagogy. Here is a look at Stommel’s four problems with MOOCs  and a fifth that might be a deal breaker for this hot new teaching model.

MOOCs Broken Down
In one of the wittier critiques this side of Jonathan Swift, Stommel explains each component of the acronym MOOC to uncover the weaknesses of the concept.

  • "Massive": The argument here is that too much focus is given to making these courses huge, at the expense of sound pedagogy. Stommel argues that, while the financial reasons for making college courses larger provides some justification for doing so, the pedagogical ones generally work against such massive scale, stating: " The process we take through a course should be collaborative and dialogic. Massiveness does not always (or usually) lend itself to engaged participation of this sort (23 July, 2012).
  • "Open": Playing on the second meaning of "open" – free – Stommel lays out the foundation of an argument that these efforts are not free, either to the purveyor of content or the learner. There is always hidden monetization in addition to other costs such as environmental ones and time spent.  The question raised at the end of this section is whether we will invest the time necessary to make MOOCs something worthwhile (23 July, 2012)?
  • "Online": Stommel produces a semantic argument about the word "online" to delve more deeply into the pedagogical model behind MOOCs.  He argues that, while content delivery is online, the actual learning takes place within the human brain. The only way in which these courses can be truly successful is if they are "hybrid[s] MOOC[s] that confronts us online but engages us in the world — thoughtfully, physically, and emotionally" (Stommel, 23 July, 2012).
  • "Course": This point is more a criticism of education in general than MOOCs specifically. Stommel states that "Learning, rather, happens in the attentive unfolding of the rules — in their clever disruption and wild instantiation. We still need courses, at least as conceptual containers, but we can learn from the best MOOCs (like connectivist ones) and make our courses more and more boundless" (23 July, 2012). The point is that any attempts to contain all of the learning that should happen as the result of any course within a strict set of boundaries artificially limits the impact of the effort and does a disservice to the learners by preventing them from reaching the full potential of what they are studying.

These are four interesting points of contention that serve to illustrate that this is not a perfect solution to the problems of education. What Stommel and most other critics have missed in their assessment of MOOCs however, is the one glaring limitation of the medium that makes it a very poor match for the needs of the 21st century learner – they can’t teach innovation.

Innovation is Everything
In a global economy where the final frontier for Americans is the production of the innovative ideas that drive much of the world’s technological advancement, there should be one goal that education strives to meet – producing creative thinkers who can develop unique solutions to the world’s problems. MOOCs, by their very nature as massive (mass-production) enterprises, cannot foster innovation in their learners. Standardization, the massive scale of these initiatives, and the lack of truly individualized support for the learner in most (all?) of them, make it impossible for them to cultivate innovators who can think outside the box.

Until someone crafts a methodology for teaching innovation en-masse, or until technology evolves sufficiently to provide every learner in a MOOC with an individualized experience, this model will accomplish little towards meeting our most dire needs. It may help push people towards more individualized education options that will, in turn, teach them to be creative thinkers, but the MOOC itself does not meet that primary goal.

Is There Hope For MOOCs?
Like most of our educational saviors, MOOCs are overhyped, misunderstood, and misrepresented in the popular media. Unfortunately, if those behind these massive efforts believe the hype about the medium and themselves they are unlikely to see that they are missing the mark in terms of the most valuable service that education should provide.
However, if some of the amazing innovators who are pioneering the MOOC movement can turn their attention from creating the biggest learning environments to fostering the innovative, entrepreneurial spirit in others that they possess, MOOCs might live up to their potential. Some radical changes in the model will have to occur or new technologies such as semantic web tools and adaptive learning systems will have to reach maturity and be incorporated to individualize massive education efforts.

Ultimately, the proliferation of "free" online content benefits everyone. It promotes a culture of intellectualism that is largely missing in our society. Almost as important, it demonstrates that there are individuals out there who are willing to put the interests of the masses ahead of their own individual profit. If those individuals turn their attention to meeting not only the basic educational needs of everyone, but to meeting the innovative needs of society, brighter days may lie ahead for us all. MOOCs may even prove to be a part of that brighter future.