As in all things MOOC, look northward to Canada for the prevailing winds, and this time it’s to Ontario, and more specifically, to president and CEO of Lambton College Judy Morris. “Over the last few years,” she says, “Ontario colleges have seen enrollment in online learning grow ‘exponentially higher than on-ground learning.'”1
Granted, she’s talking about online courses and not MOOCs, but the difference is superficial. In all but name, online courses are MOOCs that have been literally stuffed into the concrete and glass boxes that define traditional classrooms. In the box, they are subject to the same start and finish dates, registration requirements, enrollment caps, credit policies, fees, and even pedagogy that fail miserably at mimicking F2F (face-to-face) interactions.
Is it any wonder, then, that online courses fare so poorly in comparison to blended courses? As they’re currently positioned, completely online courses are simply poor copies lacking the features that make onground courses so effective for those who can afford to be on campus and attend classes in person for four to six years.
For the promise of online courses, we need look no further than MOOCs. There are some obvious differences: MOOCs attract huge enrollments and there’s usually no cap to class size, registration is free, anyone can register, they’re usually shorter than the standard quarter or semester, there’s no F2F requirement, feedback is provided by peers, they don’t count toward a degree, and they appeal primarily to nontraditional students.
But don’t be fooled. Online courses are MOOCs. Allow them to step out of their boxes and, voilà, they become MOOCs. Another way of putting it is, MOOCs are online courses gone feral. They’ve escaped their boxes and are roaming free in cyberspace. Frightened by all this wildness, many of the big name providers are now trying to lure them back in. The problem is, once developers have stepped out of the box and into the completely digital3 edusphere and experienced the freedom of anywhere and anytime learning and teaching, returning to the box is no longer an option.
MOOCs are the brainchild of Canadians George Siemens and Stephen Downes, who had the audacity to explore the actual online habitat for clues on how it might impact learning. Sounds like the smart thing to do, doesn’t it? To design online courses, study the online terrain. But just south of the border, we, the other North Americans, don’t get it. We’re still trying to juryrig online courses and MOOCs to our onground course model to make our brick ‘n’ mortar buildings fly. When we fail to get off the ground, we decide to change the definition of flight so that partial lift off is equal to full flight. The figure that some genius invented is 80 percent.2 If no more than 20 percent of a course remains on the ground, then it’s the equivalent of a completely online course.
Baloney. The surprising thing is that so many have bought into this illusion. A kite, no matter how big, is still a kite and not an airplane capable of independent flight. A course with as little as a 1 percent F2F attendance requirement is still tethered to the ground. It can serve only those in the traditional student population. That 1 percent automatically excludes nontraditional and distant students who cannot attend F2F classes on campus because of work, family obligations, or geographic distance.
For the vast majority of U.S. colleges, online isn’t a model but a tool to enhance onground models. As a model, it can’t replicate F2F pedagogy, so it’s a crippled onground classroom at best. But as a tool in the hands of a F2F teacher, it can be very useful for retrofitting centuries old classrooms. With high tech gadgets, videos of their lectures online, and flipped approaches, teachers believe they’ve maxed out the potential of online tools.
And they’re right. For blended approaches, online is a very powerful tool.
However, online is also a viable model for delivering courses, but — and here’s the catch — they must be released from their onground cages and tethers and allowed to discover their ultimate forms and best practices in cyberspace.
And this brings us back to Morris, who says, “'(Online learning is) not going to take the place of classroom-based learning, but it’s going to add to it.’” Within the context of her other statements, it’s clear that she doesn’t see online as just a tool for blended courses but as a viable counterpart that accommodates nontraditional students who are “’fully employed'” and unable to attend classes on campus.
What sets Ontario apart from the rest of the pack is their vision for online as not just a bunch of random courses to lighten the load on onground courses, but as a viable program in its own right. “’Online learning,'” says Morris, “‘is to create access to education, so in doing that, I think it would only make sense that students have access to a continuum of learning.’”
The ultimate value of MOOCs is their exploration and mapping of the vast, untamed
terrain wilderness that we refer to as online. They’re rapidly filling in the spaces labeled “terra incognita.” The maps and charts that they’re producing are already guiding the development of true online courses, providing pathways and approaches that are best suited for the digital world.
In the end, MOOCs won’t be remembered as the monsters that destroyed college campuses. Instead, they’ll be recognized for what they are — the leading edge for online education.
1 Barbara Simpson, “Lambton College adds 12 new online courses to its roster,” Sarnia Observer, 25 Feb. 2015.
2 I. Elaine Allen & Jeff Seaman, Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States, Babson Survey Research Group, Feb 2015, p. 7.
3 Beckie Smith, “[Interview with] George Siemens, University of Texas Arlington,” Pie News, 27 Feb. 2015. Siemens: “The digitisation of learning is what enabled us to talk about MOOCs. MOOCs aren’t a trend themselves; they’re an outgrowth of the digitisation trend.”