By Jim Shimabukuro
The Malaysian government is taking steps to “make 30 per cent of higher education courses available as massive open online courses (or MOOCs) by 2020” (Financial Review, 2 Oct. 2016). The MOOCs are free, but there’s a fee for assessments that grant credit for courses taken at other universities. From 64 courses in 2015, the number has grown to 300 this year.
The down side, as I see it, is that they’re relying on a single MOOC management system (MMS) — in this case, OpenLearning, which is based in Sydney. This shoehorning of course design and development into a proprietary box is a clear sign that the Malaysian administrators don’t have a clue about MOOCs.
This problem of overreliance on an MMS is endemic in the vast majority of universities that are tiptoeing into MOOCs. It’s the same mindset that tosses all online courses into a single LMS. If this one-size-fits-all approach were applied to F2F courses, professors would be outraged by this brazen violation of academic freedom.
The web is an infinite frontier with limitless resources for creating a wide range of MOOCs. In contrast, boxed platforms being hawked by non- and for-profits such as Coursera, edX, and OpenLearning don’t even begin to scratch the surface of possibilities. Jumping whole hog into one of them is to automatically accept an MMS’s limited views of what a MOOC can be.
It’s like relying on the vendors at Waikiki Beach for your surfboard. For a fee, you can rent one of their boards to surf the crowded breaks, Canoes and Queens. The problem is that the board selection is poor, and the boards are usually in bad condition. The alternative is to have your own board, one that’s custom fit to your needs. Besides saving money, you have the option to surf whenever and wherever you want for as long as you want. In short, you’re not limited to the vendor’s meager offerings.
The bottom line is that a MOOC, any MOOC, isn’t a place. Instead, it’s a manifestation of a pedagogy that’s continually reconstructed by the individual participants, teacher and students. It exists not in the world out there but within each participant’s mind. As such, its shape and form are limited only by the individual’s imagination. Thus, to artificially and arbitrarily confine its form is counterintuitive.
Still, MMSs serve a purpose, albeit limited. They provide a means for teachers and students to test the waters, to dip their toes into teaching and learning as a radically different process with no space and time restrictions. The danger, however, is the illusion that a particular MMS is all there is to MOOCing.
The deeper problem is that MMSs, in providing an “easy” step into MOOCs, are enabling. Their selling point is that they shield converted classroom teachers from the technological challenges that define the actual MOOC environment. They turn MOOCing into a process that requires little or no real change from the way teachers have taught for decades.
But this no-pain approach comes at a high cost. No longer is course design and instruction limited to the teacher. It now includes IT specialists and resources that drive the cost of a course sky high. The teacher is reduced to being a cog in a wheel, usually a talking head that’s captured on video to be played back on demand by students.
Rather than develop tech skills that will set them free from MMSs, teachers grow increasingly dependent on IT services. They remain at square one regardless of how long they’ve “taught” a MOOC.
The fact is, there are no easy answers for successful MOOCing. For MOOCs to fulfill their promise, teachers will have to become personally savvy in all the tech that MOOCs could encompass. In short, they’ll need to not only know how to construct, manage, and maintain their own MOOC platforms with largely open resources that are available and are becoming increasingly available, but they will have to welcome and embrace this challenge as the only practical path to successful MOOCs.
There are many examples of teachers who have abandoned the well worn path of MMSs. In fact, the pioneers of MOOCs, George Siemens and Stephen Downes, jury-rigged their MOOC from the tech that they were familiar with. Years later, Greg Walker, one of their students, constructed his own MOOC from the tech and services that were available to him at the University of Hawaii and in the open web to provide completely online courses for teachers. His MOOCs were free and open to all teachers interested in learning how to create and improve their online courses.
Kudos to the Malaysian government for taking this bold step toward MOOCs that will provide greater access to college courses and degrees. Hopefully, the administrators overseeing this program — as well as the teacher and student participants — will look beyond the walls of OpenLearning to explore the possibilities and become expert in the web technology and resources that are already freely available for MOOCs.