By Jim Shimabukuro
In 2013, after the hype has settled and the glitter has dulled, we’ll have a clearer understanding of MOOCs and what they mean for higher ed. As 2012 comes to a close, we’re beginning to see glimpses of a growing awareness that Coursera, edX and similar platforms are basically crude constructs that attempt to push traditional practices into the virtual learning environment. As aggregates of new and old technology, they are, at best, makeshift hybrids that don’t quite fit into the new world of online education.
Carole Cadwalladr, Observer (UK) feature writer, took a Coursera course and included her experience in “Do Online Courses Spell the End for the Traditional University?” (Observer, 11.10.12). Her initial impression is, “They’re just videos of lectures, really.” Later, she shares her amazement at the level of interaction and instructor participation in live forums. However, her initial comment, that they are basically videos of lectures, resonates.
Max Crema, a student at Edinburgh University, reaches the same conclusion. In his interview with Cadwalladr, he tells her that “he’s already used online lectures from MIT to supplement his course.” And “the problem with lectures,” he reminds us, “is that they are about 300 years out of date. They date back to the time when universities only had one book. That’s why you still have academic positions called readers.” Crema’s stark observation of the relationship between videos, books, and lectures underscores the fact that all three are more similar than different and share common ground as modes of presentation.
The title of P. Kerim Friedman’s article is “The First MOOC Was a Book” (Savage Minds, 12.13.12). In his title, Friedman, a professor at National Dong Hwa University, Taiwan, points out what ought to be obvious but isn’t: At bottom, MOOCs are a 21st century makeover of textbooks. Like Crema, he exposes the book-like core of MOOCs, and we begin to sense that MOOCs may be less courses than an evolving form of publication that is challenging and will eventually overtake textbooks.
The key to understanding MOOCs is unbundling, or disaggregation. In “Threads and the Wrappable MOOC” (Hapgood, 12.11.12), Michael Caulfield, instructional designer at Keene State College, unscrews the cover of MOOCs and peeks inside. He sees “threads” and “wrappable” modules. Just as professors have done for ages with chapters and pages in textbooks, he realizes that the best use of MOOCs may be as course supplements where specific threads could be wrapped for a wide range of purposes. He says,
Let’s suppose that I am a professor that likes the Psych xMOOC, but at my institution we tend to emphasize cognitive psychology more than the xMOOC does. So I tell my students to participate in the xMOOC, but to ignore exercises in the Reading/Reading Response thread. Instead we’ll do a local track of CogSci focused readings, and do the peer evals in our wrapped portion. Or perhaps we’re using a different textbook or set of primary texts, so the students in my class ignore the textbook thread but use the other threads.
MOOCs won’t disappear, but their uses will change dramatically as we, teachers, begin to unbundle them and take the parts that serve our purposes in either online or blended environments*. Professors who are destined for star status in today’s MOOCs will become tomorrow’s multimedia stars in the new world of instructional publishing. Perhaps the biggest winners will be teachers who learn how to explore and discover threads in MOOCs and, more importantly, how to wrap them in ways that supplement and strengthen the design of their own unique courses.
* Added 12.30.12: Also see Mauri A. Ditzler’s “Make Way for MOOCs!” (Breakfast with Mauri, 10 Apr. 2012): “Initially, it will seem unusual for professors to assign a portion of a lecture being presented at a distant institution as part of an on-campus, face-to-face course. But over time (and perhaps not very much time) it will become as accepted as having students purchase a text written at another college or read an essay written by a distant professor” (WebCite alternative).
* Added 12.30.12: See Eugene Sheehan’s “Mulling MOOCs and Other Innovations” (Education@UNC, 3 Dec. 2012): “I wonder if UNC could get in front of the MOOC world by doing the following: We identify several MOOCs that we deem to be of high quality. We encourage our students to take the approved MOOCs and charge them a significantly reduced per credit rate for completion. We judge completion by having our faculty grade assignments that our faculty set. Given the open access to these materials and the use of other instructional media, e.g, Khan Academy, in coursework and instruction I think my proposal would be permissible.”
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