By Jim Shimabukuro
I was drawn to some of the articles in this special issue1 and found insights that I feel are worth mentioning. One that stands out is in Schuwer et al.’s article,2 in a summary attributed to Fairclough3: “MOOCs are perhaps best understood as ‘imaginary’… a prefiguring of possible and desired realities rather than a unified and coherent domain around which clear boundaries exist.”
Fairclough’s observation takes us a step closer to unravelling the MOOC conundrum. The expanding list of acronyms for different MOOC constructs should tip us to the fact that MOOCs are reifications, figments of our imagination or, more accurately, a specific set of ideas bundled in different ways. In short, MOOCs don’t exist.
By “don’t exist,” I mean they’re not a separate or unique specie. They’re simply a class in the genus online course. Add openness to a traditional online course, and you end up with a MOOC. By “openness,” I mean removing most of the formal trappings that we associate with college courses: capacity limits, traditional registration and pre-requisite requirements, tuition and fees, semester or quarter time frames, required textbooks, and grades and credits.
In other words, MOOCs are projected variations of standard online courses. As such, they represent the outer limits of what online courses could be. The point is that the issue isn’t MOOCs themselves but the innovative features that they present for possible incorporation in online courses.
In this context, Schuwer et al.’s warning that, “in the long run, a threat to MOOCs may manifest, if they are not well-integrated in broader university strategies and do not establish their own role within the university offerings” is only half correct. That is, for the open features of MOOCs to evolve, they must be integrated into existing online course policies and procedures. However, establishing “their own role within the university offerings” may not only be redundant but a costly failure in terms of the growth of 21st century practices.
The authors correctly assess the potential threat of “excessive regulation” on the part of governing or administrative bodies such as ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System), which could easily stifle explorations of innovative practices in the ongoing development of online courses.
I was also drawn to Dalsgaard and Thestrup’s article,4 especially their idea of “transparency.” For the authors, “Transparency differs from collaboration and discussion in the sense that transparency might only be a matter of students viewing the activities and work of each other.” They make a distinction between transparency and interaction, but I’m not convinced that this is necessary.
The web is radically altering the ways in which we explore, create, gather and share new ideas. It’s taking collaboration and discussion out of F2F, person-to-person interactions into an infinitely wider network that theoretically includes the entire globe. In this scenario, traditional principles of communication may not apply.
In any case, Dalsgaard and Thestrup underscore the advantage of openness: “The objective of this kind of openness [transparency] is to provide students with input and inspiration from fellow students.” They also include others besides students as sources of “input and inspiration.”
Mark Brown et al.’s5 warning that “Any strategic decision to invest in MOOCs needs to be weighed up against the opportunity costs of pursuing other innovations” highlights the potential danger of separating MOOCs and online courses. Considering MOOCs as another innovation rather than an existing innovation and, thus, deciding to underfund it impacts the growth of online courses.
The highlight article for me is Marta R. Costa-jussà et al.’s.6 No, not the topic, but their approach. In the education sphere, MOOCs are automatically associated with Coursera, edX, and the other major platforms. And this may explain why MOOCs are seen as separate from the online courses on our campuses. In what I consider a major breakthrough in the MOOC discussion, the authors simply ignore these platforms and roll their own based on the resources they have at hand.
They say, “This paper can be useful to professors and/or researchers that want to develop a MOOC on a fresh topic and independently from the big platforms.”
With this DIY approach, they bring MOOCs down to not only the campus level but to the individual teacher. Yes, we, as individual teachers can convert our online courses into MOOCs with a few tweaks without encumbering the huge costs and compromises associated with transporting them into the Coursera or edX mold. We “can,” however, doesn’t necessarily translate to we “will.” For this to happen, we’ll need the full support of enlightened administrators at all levels in our colleges.
Form follows function, and platforms such as Coursera dictate pedagogy. For example, they rely primarily on recorded video lectures. This is costly, time consuming, and, imho, unnecessary and ineffective in the online learning environment. Online, text is much more efficient – for both students and teachers. Video lectures are vestiges of an old medium serving as content in the new medium of the web. They’re a carryover, an anachronism, from life before the web.
I haven’t had the time to read all the articles. In making my choices, I relied on the titles and avoided the ones that seem to cover topics that are too familiar, e.g., accessibility, democratization, hybrid advantages, and completion rates.
1 Markus Deimann and Sebastian Vogt, eds., “Special Issue: Towards a European Perspective on Massive Open Online Courses,” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 16.6, 2015.
2 Robert Schuwer et al., “Opportunities and Threats of the MOOC Movement for Higher Education: The European Perspective.”
3 Cited in Selwyn et al., “Massive open online change? Exploring the discursive construction of the ‘MOOC’ in newspapers,” Higher Education Quarterly, 2015 (69.2).
4 Christian Dalsgaard and Klaus Thestrup, “Dimensions of Openness: Beyond the Course as an Open Format in Online Education.”
5 Mark Brown et al., “A Strategic Response to MOOCs: How One European University is Approaching the Challenge.”
6 Marta R. Costa-jussà et al., “A MOOC on Approaches to Machine Translation.”