Sunday, November 4, 2012

When Pedagogies Collide: MOOCs

Like most people, I had never heard the term "MOOC" (massive open online course) until several months ago. Yet here we are, in the midst of a MOOC moment. Both the NYT and the Washington Post have run (extremely similar) articles about the rise of MOOCs headquartered in elite institutions. It was big news when Harvard and MIT announced their partnership to form EdX, a non-profit platform for free online courses. The recent articles tend to cover the following angles: 1) what MOOCs are; 2) who takes them; 3) who teaches them; and 4) how they will change everything about higher education as we know it. 
Who takes MOOCs and who teaches them are interesting issues: thus far, it seems that MOOCs attract a diverse student body, comprising students from overseas, those who work full-time (in a variety of fields), continuing education students, and those for whom taking courses at Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, UT, or Stanford would be out of the question (for a number of reasons). What most of these students have in common, however, are there general areas of interest: quantitative topics. As Laura Pappano noted in her NYT article, the overwhelming majority of MOOCs are in the hard sciences, engineering, or quantitative social sciences. One well-known counter-example is Al Filreis' course on Modern & Contemporary Poetry at Penn, offered through Coursera (a for-profit platform, currently offering its courses for free).

After looking at a number of different courses, and signing up for Filreis' poetry class, I am struck by how important the lecture is to the structure and pedagogy of MOOCs. Instead of the 55 or 85-minute lecture that has long been the norm at universities and colleges, these lectures tend to be shorter, usually between 10 and 20 minutes. In some sciences classes, they explicate a problem or a specific equation. Students watch the lectures on-line, then generally do some kind of activity (a quiz or a problem set), and participate in an online discussion forum (although there are IRL meetups and study groups, although these tend to be organized by motivated students, rather than administered by the professor). 

In Modern & Contemporary poetry, the close-reading videos are usually around 12 -15 minutes, and the webcasts of panel discussions (on a particular poem or poet) are an hour. The discussion forums are lively, but they don't seem fundamentally that different from some of the lively commentariat for certain tv shows on websites like TLo, Vulture, TWOP, and a few others. Having proctored discussions about close reading different "texts" has been happening, for years, outside of academe.

I find it fascinating that MOOCs are being touted as the spearhead of a revolution in higher education when they rely primarily on an antediluvian pedagogical technique. Lectures began in medieval universities as a way to provide information--contained in canonical texts--to students. Books were extremely expensive, and students couldn't necessarily purchase all of the books they'd need for their degree course (although they famously wrote many letters home, asking for money), so the professor's job was to read the text and explicate it. The student's job was to take notes and to master the content. 

There are other very old teaching methods that have more student participation than lecture. The Socratic method is often still used in law schools. And the disputatio--invented by Peter Abelard and perfected in medieval philosophy classes--involved debate between teacher and student. But these are both more formalized and rigid than the seminar discussions found mainly in liberal arts colleges. Even the Oxbridge tutorial, which can be (though isn't always) less scripted than the other two examples, dates from the 19th century.

The reliance on the medieval lecture is often still the default in college classrooms, even as it has become increasingly clear, over the past several years, that the lecture is not a great way to promote learning. It's a good format for imparting information, but terrible at getting students to use that information dynamically. Discussion-based learning, or even having regular student discussions of whatever material they're studying, is a relatively new way to teach. "Losing the lecture" is the new pedagogical catchphrase, and there's evidence that peer interaction, rapid feedback, discussion, and face-to-face interaction between students and faculty are even more effective pedagogical methods. To be fair, many MOOCs do incorporate peer interaction and use discussion forums in place of F2F group discussions. Rapid feedback can be more of a problem, given that some students are carrying out (and uploading) problem sets or equations at different times. But they can't offer the face to face interaction with a professor, and a professor, having no students in front of her, can't read their body language and nonverbal cues to make her teaching more effective.

The lecture is central to these new frontiers of education,despite its limited utility. I also wonder if MOOCs have been most effective in quantitative and scientific subjects because these subjects have traditionally been taught in very high-enrollment classes with 3 hours of lectures per week, and smaller groups for lab work or problem sets. The on-line platform for teaching these subjects offers, and perhaps requires, certain changes: breaking up the lectures into shorter units (micro-units) and having more opportunities for students to test themselves and give feedback to the instructor (or an algorithm set by the instructor to score student work). It may also be more effective--after all, "lose the lecture" started out in physics. 

For more on MOOCs, see Jonathan Rees' series. 

A 14th century painting of a classroom. Art imitates life: the keen students are sitting up front, while the sleepers and the talkers are in the back rows.

4 comments:

Unknown said...

Hi, Elly. I signed up for Princeton's History of the World 1300-now on Coursera today because I wanted to see what this was all about. A few thoughts:

1) The de-commodification of knowledge is surely to be welcomed. I was deeply impressed by the enthusiasm of some of the posters on the discussion boards. I think that MOOCs may do wonders for the reputation of universities and university profs. See we're not awful! Or lazy! Or doing something any member of the general public could do with one hand tied behind his/her back! Give people access to the pointy-headed guy, get them to feel that he is welcoming their interest, and they're on his side. Make them feel excluded and despised and guess what, they hate Princeton and its overpaid profs.
2) On the other hand, omg, are we going to sell a lot of books. The Princeton course gently suggests that you buy the prof's textbook. There are 80k people signed up for the course. Let's say 1/4 of them buy the book...
3) Mortar and bricks universities are in absolutely no danger from MOOCs. You might get a certificate (signed by the professor!) for some of them, but no employer is going to consider that the equivalent of a degree now, nor -- given the assessment process (or lack thereof) -- should they. The Princeton course has you write 6 essays, which you then submit for peer-review. You are in turn supposed to peer-review 5 other essays. This only works out for the student if at least 1 of their peer-reviewers actually know the material and how to write. I doubt this works very well in practice (and the discussion boards confirm my doubts).

Bottom line, I'm keen.

-- Justine

E. R. Truitt said...

Hey Justine, thanks for your comments.

What you said, to everything you said.

~Elly

Katherine Rowe said...


Hi Elly, love the blog. I've got a couple of things to add to the conversation. For context: I'm a literature scholar/teacher and I'm lurking in Al Filreis' Modern American Poetry -- Coursera and UPenn.

On the threat to bricks and mortar institutions that MOOCs represent: see Clay Shirky’s really thoughtful analysis of the way MOOCs foreground the cracks in the mortar, opening the possibility for new stories to be told about higher education than the ones we tell: Napster, Udacity, and the Academy.

I'm most interested in Shirky’s observation about the consequence of openness for peer review of the classroom – and the path to improvement that this makes visible. MOOCs can do something those inside the Academy are as yet unwilling / unable to do well, because our classrooms are not open and because privacy is generally our default. That is: publicly show that we care passionately about the quality of teaching and learning.

My own experience with Al's course was similar to Justine’s. I saw a very high level of intellectual exchange in well-curated forums. The attempt to diversify what happens in the video-lectures was successful in the few I have watched. Most importantly, there’s a potentially powerful megaphone for humanities values here: the first fortnight of work was carefully crafted to foster intense discussion around these questions: “how do we read a poem? What kind of reading is this, that the poem asks us to do? How is this different than other kinds of reading? What are the values of reading a poem? How is the value of reading poetry different than other kinds of value that we might foreground elsewhere in our lives?” For me, the possibility of broaching such questions in a sustained way with a wide audience generated an intense desire to teach a MOOC myself.

But I’d add several other observations.

• A good MOOC is not cheap to mount. A huge amount of labor goes into this course. Who is paying for the dozen or so TAs, the guest visitors, the 2 videographers and excellent post-production? The research? Any customer service and tech issues? Al’s time?

• How effective will this course seem the next time around? Then, much of the content will be canned rather than emergent and apparently dynamic – qualities that Al has highlighted very effectively.

• We need to start a conversation about the trove of analytics here: the ethical challenges; pedagogical and commercial possibilities; how they get used and by whom.

Katherine Rowe said...

Blogger clumsiness.

Shirky's post is here