Why Teaching Is No Longer Relevant in Online Courses and MOOCs

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Harry Keller raises some hot issues in his comment on “Attrition in MOOCs: Is It a Problem or an Advantage?” The good news is that most are attributable to course design, which exposes a critical difference between traditional and blended courses, on the one hand, and online courses and MOOCs, on the other. In contrast to a series of teacher-led onground classes, an online course is more like a pattern of codes in a complex software program.

As such, it shares a trait common to all programs, and that’s bugs. In other words, it’s a perpetual work in progress. It’s never completely free of bugs. In fact, you don’t know what the bugs are until users expose them or bring them up. To make matters even worse, some of the bugs are intermittent, lying dormant for weeks or months and suddenly popping up when least expected.

This is where debugging in the form of creativity and problem solving enters the picture. In short, setting up an online course is just the beginning of a long-term commitment to debugging and improving the “code” until the course does what it’s supposed to. It’s not a matter of a semester or two but years, and the process is open-ended, never ending.

This means that abandoning a MOOC or online course because it fails in the first go around is like expecting a software program to work perfectly the first time it’s used. It’s never going to happen.

A great online course is great because it’s always evolving even after many years. It never stops growing and changing. By the same token, a poorly designed course can only get better IF the debugging is effective. Thus, teachers, students, and administrators really need to be patient and give the process a chance to evolve. 

The challenge is to withhold final judgments about a course that starts off poorly as long as the debugging process is making headway. It may take one or two years before it shows some promise, and even more time after that before it’s successful. For teachers, the experience of debugging a course, of identifying problems and experimenting with possible solutions, is priceless. They begin to realize that they can’t sit still, rely on others, and hope to succeed. They have to constantly learn new technology, improve proficiency in existing technology, and learn how to apply what they’re learning in creative and imaginative ways.

For online courses, including MOOCs, “teaching” translates to “programming.” A course is no longer a series of teacher-led lectures but a sequence of student-centered activities presented in a pattern that’s engaging or, as Dewey would put it, “educative.” It’s not a matter of recording and ordering lectures but of designing an array of activities that facilitates and enhances learning.

The problem is that few professors and teachers are trained or equipped to design effective online courses. As it stands, the only option is to learn by doing, through trial and error, but the upside is that, as teachers gain competence, their courses begin to improve.

Administrators need to factor this learning curve into the cost of developing online courses. Before they can see positive ROIs, they first need to experience and embrace growing pains.

The questions implied in Harry’s comment are: How to design activities to accommodate the widely divergent schedules of nontraditional students? How to design discussion forums to maximize opportunities for constructive peer feedback? How to design lessons to optimize learning?

These are problems to be solved, not permanent roadblocks. The question is, What will it take to solve them? There are really only two answers, and one is wrong because it’s not sustainable, not cost effective. This leaves us with only one answer.

The wrong answer is to hire a layer of course designers to do the problem-solving for teachers. This costs money, and the costs don’t go away after so many years since teachers remain ignorant and forever dependent.

The right answer is to give teachers time and resources to learn how to design their own online courses. And by “time” we’re talking years and not one or two semesters. But the payoff at the end is a corps of teachers that is proficient in designing, maintaining, and improving their own courses. This is a bootstrap model, and the initial costs translate to investments in sustainable future growth.

13 Responses

  1. […] By Jim Shimabukuro Editor Harry Keller raises some hot issues in his comment on "Attrition in MOOCs: Is It a Problem or an Advantage?" The good news is that most are attributable to course design, …  […]

  2. […] By Jim Shimabukuro Editor Harry Keller raises some hot issues in his comment on “Attrition in MOOCs: Is It a Problem or an Advantage?  […]

  3. Jim:
    I agree with you about online courses always being a work in progress, but I believe that is also true about many F2F courses, at least with the faculty and at the university I was at. I think good instructors don’t ever just create a course and then run it over and over.

    Your comment about the lack of preparation to design effective, high quality online courses is on the mark, but missing one element — yes, while teachers and faculty haven’t had the training, neither have many of the instructional designers that are supposed to help those folks design their courses. We conducted a couple of informal surveys to see where online course pedagogy was introduced/included in teacher preparation/grad programs or instructional design programs; not much, even when the courses were online. Yes, there are programs that include the topics, but those are in the minority.

    So, rather than just call the problem, what can we do to help the field, and improve online education for all students?

    • Good point, Ray. So how do we prepare faculty for the rigors of online course design and maintenance?

      One starting point is to ask ourselves if our traditional approach to teacher prep and in-service workshops actually works. If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer would be no. If they were effective, we wouldn’t be asking these questions. Yet, we continue to do the same old same old. We identify a problem. We offer a workshop to address the problem. But the problem remains.

      In direct contrast to this workshop model is the informal learner. One thing I’ve noticed about the people who actually design, construct, trouble shoot, revise, update, and improve their own online courses is that they don’t wait around for workshops to teach them how to do it. They just do it, on their own. What they don’t know, they learn.

      In this way, they teach themselves how to set up course blogs, create multimedia content, gather and incorporate open resources, set up and moderate discussion forums, tweet, use some of the features found in LMSs, use tablets and smartphones, etc.

      Via this independent learning route, they master learning how to learn, and an essential outcome of this approach is the habit of keeping up with the latest trends and developments. They don’t take classes or workshops. They don’t ask others to teach them. They teach themselves. They learn. On their own.

      They don’t wait for permission to learn, to proceed. They don’t wait to be told how to design effective online courses. They don’t wait to be led. They just do it. On their own.

      How can administrators, department chairs, and colleagues help them?

      Simple. Don’t punish them. Don’t penalize their initiative. Don’t judge them too quickly for initial failures. In fact, accept that failure is part of the learning process. Give them space to experiment, learn, grow. Give them essential professional grade software such as a decent photo and video editor. I use Photoshop and Camtasia Studio, but there are many other options.

      Most important, give them time, released time. To saddle them with a full teaching load and expect them to develop an online course is unrealistic. Furthermore, extend this released time over a minimum of two years per course.

      In this model, a teacher no longer stands between the knowledge base and the learner. The teacher has been eliminated. The learner interacts directly with the content.

      The rapid pace of technological change has driven us into the post-teacher era where knowing how to learn on one’s own is the only sure way to develop the just-in-time skills needed to construct successful online courses.

      • Jim makes a very important point here. In addition, instructors taking this approach are modeling the behavior that we hope to see in our students — ongoing, self-initiated learning.

        Really, can we expect students to develop good, lifelong learning habits from instructors who demand to be spoon-fed their development? It’s like expecting science students to learn the nature of science from science teachers who don’t understand it themselves (to beat my oft-beaten drum). Indeed, the instructor should be much farther advanced in the skills than what is expected from the students.

    • Ray Rose says, “I agree with you about online courses always being a work in progress, but I believe that is also true about many F2F courses….good instructors don’t ever just create a course and then run it over and over.”

      Thanks for this clarification, Ray. There are similarities between F2F and online course pedagogy, especially in the attitude of successful teachers who view change as a given. However, similarities often mask fundamental differences that are critical to the continued development of the newer pedagogy, in this case, online instruction.

      The need for attention to whole course design is built into online courses, which must, from the first day of instruction, appear to students as complete. The entire course package must be laid out from the get-go.

      F2F courses, on the one hand, are linear and incremental in the sense that the teacher is ground zero, the focal point for a course’s pace, direction, activities, and emphasis. Students are given a rough schedule, but the bulk of the specifics resides in the teacher’s head and is gradually revealed in the here and now as the class progresses. This means that only the teacher knows for sure what to expect on any given day, and even she may not know exactly what she’s going to do in the next few minutes of class. S/he can make adjustments on the fly — and she often does.

      Online courses, on the other hand, are nonlinear and recursive. Students expect to see the entire course laid out before them in full detail. Each course has to provide all the elements for a full reconstruction of the course in the student’s mind, which allows her to enter and re-enter any part of the course at any time and as often as she needs to.

      This is the gist of this article, the transformation from teacher to programmer in the design of online courses. Just under the surface of the text and graphics that define a course is a massive digital network of hyperlinks, and this body of interactive code requires planning, development, and coordination on a scale that’s unprecedented in the F2F instructional environment.

      With every iteration of subsets that make up a course, the teacher turned programmer tweaks the code, revising functions, adding more links, creating new links, etc. The process is both dynamic and organic, and it relies heavily on student feedback and input. This means “listening” very carefully to their comments and questions for clues on possible problems and solutions. This also means “reading” student performance in the various activities, looking for clues on how to improve their performance in the next go around or even the next activity.

      Thus, with proper nurturing, an online course actually grows over time, taking on a life of its own. It never stops growing, and with every offering, it becomes better, richer, fuller.

      • The important takeaway here is that online instructors have to work really hard. Many F2F instructors do also, but online requires even more effort. Whoever first said that there’s go gain without pain has it right.

        From my viewpoint, the effort will eventually be worth whatever it costs. We are opening a new era in learning, and everything may change.

      • I wonder if we have different definitions of “pedagogy” you say
        “There are similarities between F2F and online course pedagogy, especially in the attitude of successful teachers who view change as a given. However, similarities often mask fundamental differences that are critical to the continued development of the newer pedagogy, in this case, online instruction.”
        And I don’t see pedagogy that way, and I don’t believe there is a single online or F2F pedagogy, I think I’ve counted well over 2 dozen different online pedagogies, and I’ve used at least a dozen different F2F pedagogies over my career.

        • Ray, the definition of “pedagogy” is straight forward. A few keystrokes in Google, and it’s there. I’m curious. Have you ever personally designed, developed, taught and debugged a completely online course?

          • Want to play that game Jim fine. First rather than looking at Google, how about a dictionary: “The method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept” But when you look beyond that into the reality, asynchronous and synchronous are different methods of practice, so to is PBL, etc….

            Re Online teaching, when you started teaching online I’d been directing an NSF oTPD program and was helping to formulate, design, and manage the virtual high school. Since then, Yes, I have personally designed, developed, taught and debugged a completely online course. Now that we have that out of the way….

            So, what online approaches have you used? Do you have synchronous and asychronous experience, and within those what are the variations? Self-paced? Scheduled asynchronous? Live-video?
            Would you call all those one pedagogy? O don’t, so rather than playing the “look it up in Google” card, next time ask!!!

          • Hi Ray. Thanks for the clarification.

            Re your question: “So, what online approaches have you used? Do you have synchronous and asychronous experience, and within those what are the variations? Self-paced? Scheduled asynchronous? Live-video?”

            It goes a long way toward explaining our apparent disagreement. The purpose of my article is to spotlight the changing role of the teacher in online courses and MOOCs. The point is that s/he is no longer the leader in front of the classroom. There is no classroom. In fact, there is no leader in the sense of a conductor orchestrating.

            From the student’s perspective, there’s a learning environment (LE). She enters via a wide range of gateways. She’s her own guide, her own teacher.

            So what is the teacher’s role? She’s the designer of the LE. She observes the students navigating the LE. She receives their feedback via performance in activities, questions, and comments. She makes adjustments in and additions to the LE to address problems. In this way, she’s becoming a programmer.

            Re your question: “Do you have synchronous and asychronous experience?” I used to have both, but I now rely solely on async. The online student population overwhelmingly prefers async. You ask about the variations in sync. I used open chat rooms. I couldn’t make them mandatory because any set time would automatically exclude a portion of the class. So they were optional. I set times when I would be there. I moved it around a given day to accommodate different schedules. It was a bust. Hardly anyone ever showed up. The bulk of the interaction was in email. Async. Simple, quick, natural, effective, efficient.

            You ask if my “approaches” are “self-paced.” My answer is yes, but the self-pacing occurs within “scheduled asynchronous” events. Our online classes are still confined to the standard semester schedule. Thus, I set deadlines for task completion, but students decide when in the day or week to log in and complete the tasks.

            You ask about “live video.” My answer is no, for the same reason that I don’t use sync.

            Your questions indicate that we agree on the definition of “pedagogy” but differ in its application. In my article, I’m using it in the context of a general approach to course design. From this perspective, sync vs. async are methods, or smaller parts of a larger whole that could be included or excluded from the program. In systems language, “pedagogy” thus refers to the system and “methods” to the processes that make up the system. Pacing, scheduling, and videos also fall into the category of methods. They’re parts that can be tweaked. In short, they don’t define the pedagogy. Instead, they’re varying elements within a pedagogy. In the context of this article, they are functions within a program that can be manipulated.

            Ray, I can’t thank you enough for your comments, questions, critique, etc. Thank you especially for taking the time to share them. I’m well aware of your expertise and reputation in the field of ed tech and consider it an honor to have you participate in this discussion. As a gifted teacher, you’re forcing me to rethink and clarify my ideas, and the result, I hope, is an improved vision of the ever evolving role of “teacher” in a brave new world where reality is being digitized and made accessible to everyone on the planet 24/7. With your continued active guidance in our profession, we can’t help but pull our aging schools and colleges into the 21st century.

            With that said, I hope you’ll continue to participate in this and other discussions and provide the kinds of comments and questions that force us to think ever deeper into our perceptions.

  4. I totally agree. My comment was intended to point to ways in which typical MOOCs should be improved, areas that are often overlooked when the courses are set up.

    Jim also makes a great point when he says that the instructor must take responsibility for the entire course, not just delivering lectures for video.

    The MOOC that I took clearly had the usual array of people that all courses do plus a bunch more to handle the technical aspects. The instructor was brilliant and a good lecturer, but he did not (IMO) pay enough attention to those other details, leaving them to the course development “experts.”

    Also, this was not the first delivery of this course. Some of the problems should have been worked out already but were not. I think that these problems mostly were not very visible to the staff.

    It’s definitely a brave new world out there in technology-assisted learning. Cheers to the pioneers who have risked “arrows in the back” to blaze the trails that others will follow — and the trails that we will learn to abandon.

    MOOC and other online instructors must actively seek out commentary from students, including those who do not finish. This is not easy to do. Who are these people? Why did they sign up? Why did they leave? How can our online course design help more people learn? After all, that’s the goal.

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