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Debating MOOCs

Michael Trucano's picture

Three recent posts on MOOCs (MOOCs in Africa, Making Sense of MOOCs -- A Reading List & Missing Perspectives on MOOCs -- Views from developing countries) have generated a large amount of traffic and 'buzz' over the past week on the EduTech blog, and so we thought we'd interrupt our normal Friday publishing schedule to bring you one more.

Over the past month, the EduTech Debate site has been featuring posts and comments from authors exploring various issues and opportunities presented by the phenomenon of so-called Massive Online Open Courses. While perhaps it hasn't been a 'debate' per se, it has featured responses and reactions from the authors to each other's posts, and I thought I'd quickly highlight the conversation that has been occurring over there, in case you may have missed it and doing so might be useful.

(I also do this in the hope that some of you will click over and have a look at the posts in their entirety. The EduTech Debate was conceived when I worked over on the infoDev program as a way to feature voices from outside the World Bank on emerging topics of interest in ways not often possible on the World Bank or infoDev sites. Originally supported by infoDev and UNESCO, it has now been officially 'spun out', but thematic linkages remain.)


The April EduTech Debate began with a post by Wayan Vota, which asked, Are Massive Open Online Courses Massive Opportunity or Massive Hype? as a way to kick off the month's online conversation. Wayan cited a result from a recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey of professors who have themselves offered a MOOC; 79% of them said that, considering what they learned as a result of their participation, 'MOOCs are worth the hype'. Given that most all (if not all) of these respondents were from OECD countries (and most likely predominantly from the United States), Wayan then asked if the MOOC hype is worth it in the context of developing countries, is indeed MOOCs present a possible "paradigm shift" -- or if they will "reach a peak of inflated expectations before dropping into a trough of disillusionment already filled with other edu-fads"? (In a related comment, Ed Gaible expresses a concern that "MOOCs create a "winner take all" competition in higher education that will likely undercut the development of capacity in higher education in non-elite universities.")

Roxana Bassi then followed up by exploring 3 Ways MOOCs Unleash the Power of Massive International Attendance. She is quite interested in what "massive" might mean. Among other things, she is interested in the potential to learn from the potential "data bonanza" offered by MOOCs, noting that, "because for the first time we are having thousands of people with different profiles accessing the same content at the same time, the opportunity for doing a statistical analysis of the population’s behavior is fantastic." She also highlights the potential that "the collective intelligence of the worldwide audience can question the course content and turn it into truly globalized experience."

Next, Kentaro Toyama offered a decidedly contrary note with his post, MOOCs Will Come and Mostly Go Like Other EduTech Fads. Kentaro identifies three types of MOOCs. Type #1 describes a situation where, for the most part, a MOOC consists largely of content put online, an exercise that he sees as having minimal impact on education worldwide. Type #3 describes essentially what are 'traditional' online courses -- in other words, "not really a MOOC at all". The impact of such things, he feels will be commensurate with the strength and capacity of the institution offering -- but "never quite be as good as the real thing". In between is a second type of MOOC. He feels that this is where the "most interesting experiments will happen", but that, over time, they will evolve into something that more closely approximates Type #1 or Type #3. He concludes with a strong message that "MOOCS will come and mostly go ... and most students won’t learn that much more or less than they learn today ... unless, of course, we make the hard social and political decisions to pay for excellent adult guidance in education for everyone." [emphasis added] As Kentaro's writings and speeches typically do, this post (which originally appeared in a slightly different version as Kooks and MOOCs on the blog of the ICT4D Jester) generated much interest and divided opinions.
Oscar Becerra, who was one of the leading figures behind the OLPC project in Peru, then explored the The One Laptop Per Child Correlation With Massive Open Online Courses. Oscar feels that many critics are missing something that is truly important about MOOCs: their ability to reach "the millions of students around the world for whom Higher Education is non-existent or unreachable". The real target groups for MOOCs, he writes, "are currently 'non-consumers' of education". He cites Clayton Christenson's research, which finds that "every industry faced with disruptive innovation will eventually be overtaken by those who, in the beginning, seemed low quality available only to non-consumers". He concludes with a plea not to "deprive the ones at the bottom to get at least something that is good enough".

Ismael Peña-López of the Open University of Catalonia (and author of the popular ICT4D Blog) then proceeds to "mostly agree" with Becerra, but notes that a few things are missing that merit further discussion. The Importance of Context and Human Factor in MOOC Education notes that there are really two types of MOOCs: 'connectivist MOOCs' (cMOOCs) and 'non-connectivist MOOCs' (xMOOCs). xMOOCs, he feels, are largely just a "channel of content distribution", whereas connectivist MOOCs are empowering, and "education is about empowerment". Ismael then makes a number of subtle points that I won't attempt to summarize (read the post for them!), but concludes by stating that "MOOCs can be compared to the OLPC in the sense that they both provide good tools to “non-users” of education, but I would refrain myself to say that they both, by themselves, provide rough alternatives to the educational system. Not by themselves."
In Learn Experientially and Connect Globally with MOOCs, Randy Fisher of the ICT Council in Ottawa (Canada), notes the seminal influence of work done by George Siemens and Stephen Downes with their Connectivism MOOC, and then shares lessons from his work with the Learning4Content project from and Commonwealth of Learning, which was "billed as the world’s largest free wiki skills training project utilizing MOOC-style online courses". He writes that there is "considerable debate about the merit and value of MOOCs" and that "MOOCs are in their infancy". Echoing Roxana, he states that MOOCs "offer a tremendous opportunity to learn and share knowledge ... [and to] increase quality, as the offering institution/NGO has access to thousands of potential beta testers to crowdsource improvements and obtain feedback for future iterations." MOOCs, Randy seems to say by way of some interesting examples, are about "imagination, ingenuity and experimentation" -- and what can be learned as a result [or, perhaps more importantly, along the way].

Writing from Queensland (Australia), Jonathan Nadler then concludes the April EduTech Debate by asking, Will MOOC Technology Break the Education Cartel? Jonathan focuses on the potentially disruptive nature of MOOCs, and talks about how new technologies, and the applications of such technologies, have disrupted other industries. He concludes by stating that "what is emerging will be courses and schools based on interest not just on the luck of the draw method we currently have that’s decided by where you live or postcode, i.e. where you happen to live."


OK, that's my quick attempt to summarize some of the interesting arguments being advanced this month over on the EduTech Debate site. You are encouraged to go check things out there yourself -- I have no doubt oversimplified things in some instances, but hopefully you are intrigued enough to click over and have a look at what the authors have to say in greater detail.


This will be the last EduTech blog post on MOOCs for some time (I promise – or at least hope). It will most certainly be the last one to feature pictures of cows for the foreseeable future. On Friday we'll kick off a series of three posts looking at recent regional efforts from different organizations to survey, catalog and assess ICT use in education in different parts of the world: Latin America; Central & Western Asia; and Europe.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of two cows in the French countryside ("MOOOOOOOCs") is © Guillaume Piolle / CC-BY-3.0. It comes via Wikimedia Commons and is used accordin to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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