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Teaching, Learning, & MOOCs

Author: Matthew Trevett-Smith, TRC Assistant Director & Assistant Professor

Are Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) here to stay? How are they impacting our teaching? How are they impacting ours students’ learning (expectations)?

As more and more MOOCs pop up, I can’t help but wonder if the current MOOC model is flawed. The drive for mass educational attainment (raised most notably by the popularity of MOOCs) concerns me. The success of a MOOC seems to be measured by seat time rather than learning. I grant you that “seat time” may actually be “listening while driving time,” or “on the treadmill time,” or the always popular “half listening while also Facebooking, texting, eating, and watching the muted television time.”

With this technique, I’m left wondering how many students are engaging the material, and how many are distracted by the instructor. Students complete online assessments through Content Management Systems, automatically graded by the computer. Students go the entire semester with the expectation that they will never need to learn their fellow students’ names, or that the course facilitator will ever know theirs.  Thankfully research is being conducted on MOOC learning outcomes, and we’ll know more as continued research unfolds.

Why is this large classroom/disengaged student model becoming the standard? Replicated online throughout the increasingly popular arena of MOOCs?

Other than the pure size of the classroom, this model is nothing new! (It’s called a lecture.) Rather than bring the lecture online, why aren’t we using technology to bring quality learning experiences to the masses?

As a teacher, I want my students invested and engaged in their learning. As a student, I would want an instructor who can make the subject matter relevant. This can be done online (and offline). The online learning experience is at its best when helmed by an educator who understands that knowledge exists in the world rather than in a Podcast. Knowledge exists within systems access through people actively participating in the learning experience. This type of teaching uses the “Connectivist Model of Teaching” also sometimes called “Connectivism.”

Under this model, online learning becomes a knowledge creation process, not a Podcast consumption process. Faculty using Internet technologies are situated perfectly to teach students how to build their learning network and take advantage of the learning opportunities presented by digital technologies. In this framework, faculty become more than bearers of knowledge (or a voice transmitted via earbuds), they become learning architects, modelers, learning concierges, change agents, synthesizers, connected learning incubator, and network gurus.

By treating your students as participants in the learning process, your students are then able to take the skills they’ve gained in building their learning network and foster them throughout and beyond their time in your course.

Why would you enter the realm of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs)? How would your MOOC differ from what is already available? Why should it?

(For an alternative model, please check out Jim Groom’s course DS106 through the University of Mary Washington. I think it is a MOOC model worth replicating. And I’m not alone…)

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