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.

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