Reading & Reacting: Mooc creators criticise courses’ lack of creativity

Photo: Stephen Downes

courtesy of Times Higher Education – photo by Stephen Downes

By Chris Parr @ Times Higher Education

FInally there is a piece that gets the proper context and perspective about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). It seems like for the last two years all the articles about MOOCs would have you think the folks at EdX, Coursera, and Udacity are the originators of the MOOC concept. Yet nothing is further from the truth. To his credit, Parr gets the story straight and talks to the right sources.

“Mooc” was first used five years ago in Canada by a group of academics who can claim to be the true originators of what has become the academic buzzword du jour: a type of online learning that, although not without its critics, has taken the global academy by storm.

It was Stephen Downes, senior research officer at Canada’s National Research Council, and George Siemens, then working at the University of Manitoba and now a professor in the School of Computing and Information Systems at Athabasca University, who created the online course Connectivism and Connective Knowledge in 2008: it is widely regarded as the first true Mooc.

I suppose there are some that might claim that Alec Couros’s 2007 EC&I 831 might be considered the first MOOC, although the acronym had not yet been coined. Still Couros’s foray into opening his course online, certainly gathered mass. Nevertheless, it is the work of Downes and Siemens, along with Cormier and others, that really pushed concept, evolving and extending the theory of connectivism in consort with the course offerings.

What this article also gets right is the distinction between the connectivist or cMOOC and the xMOOC, as in EdX and the other more commercial ventures, even if it doesn’t specifically use this lingo.  Having participated in multiple MOOCs since that first Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course (CCK08), including both varieties, I can attest that there is a major difference. Downes sums it up pretty well in this article.

Downes fears that modern Moocs are placing less emphasis on providing an “interactive and dynamic” approach to learning (such as he championed with his 2008 course) and more on “static and passive” education.

“Moocs as they were originally conceived…were the locus of learning activities and interaction, but as deployed by commercial providers they resemble television shows or digital textbooks with – at best – an online quiz component,” he argues.

This certainly characterizes my experience.  The MOOCs that I have participated which Siemens and Downes have run are fascinating, sprawling, and fundamentally poke at one’s conception of a course. It took multiple efforts before I felt like I was really getting the hang of things, giving myself participate and engage in the best way that I could. I have grown considerably through participating in MOOCs, expanding my whole range of knowledge and understanding about teaching and learning, as well as the prospects of doing them in an online connected environment.

Siemens, Downes, and their allies are pushing on the possibilities and affordances of online learning and education in a way that is provocative and experimental, deliberately challenging current notions. It is still kind of amazing that they are so open and public about it. As Siemens explains, they have been chasing something completely different from the current xMOOC fad.

Moocs today…are quite different from the ones that Stephen and I developed. Our goal was to encourage the development of learners through open and transparent learning, where the process of knowledge generation was iterative – improving on the ideas of other learners and generating new knowledge through continual…improvement. Most Moocs today are more didactic.

Again, true. The xMOOCs in which I have participated were far more didactic, rigidly structured, and programmed like television now with a multi-screen presence, only less interactive. The more massive they became the more the model began breaking down. That being said, I did enjoy Curt Bonk’s Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success on Blackboard’s Coursesites platform. Coursesites was problematic but Bonk is a whirlwind showman. Still, that course was lot more didactic, worthwhile but not in the connectivist tradition.

I do worry with the backlash that has been happening, which is highlighted in the article, might render MOOCs a thing of the past. At least I could see the xMOOCs disappearing when they discover there is little or no money to satisfy their investors. Downes puts this in perspective too.

We have already seen that in cases where education is managed by commercial corporations, the bottom line often takes precedence over student needs…So I think there is a critical need for there to be a public hand on the tiller, so to speak: there must be a mechanism through which we ensure that education, from the earliest years through university, is designed and delivered to serve the interests of students and society at large.

Ultimately, I can’t see cMOOCs or some variation ever really disappearing. As long as there are educators willing to work in the open and share their work, inviting participants from outside the traditional classroom to join, MOOCs or whatever they will be called will survive and thrive. And there is no shortage of professors interested in doing just that.

Image: iPad

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