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The MOOC as Megaphone

May 20, 2013
"The augmented learner, sporting a MOOC helmet" (Sara Roegiers CC-BY-SA)

“The augmented learner, sporting a MOOC helmet” (Sara Roegiers CC-BY-SA)

News and opinion pieces about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) continue to fuel an ongoing discussion with a group of colleagues who have been following the development of these innovative courses. Two recent articles that have attracted attention and comments are “Massive (But Not Open)” (Ry Rivard, Inside Higher Education, May 14, 2013) and “Laptop U: Has the future of college moved online?” (Nathan Heller, The New Yorker, May 20 2013).

Massive (But Not Open)” reports on the Georgia Institute of Technology’s plan to offer a $7,000 Masters degree in Computer Science to 10,000 students. Working in collaboration with Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity MOOC platform Georgia Tech hopes to teach these fee-paying students by adding only a handful of additional academics, demonstrating the impressive economies of scale of that are possible with this approach. Up until recently, MOOCs have been both open access and free of charge and have not been seen as a threat to the bottom line of traditional institutions of higher education. Initiatives like this that experiment with new business models might cause some concern for university administrators who believed they could afford to ignore the MOOC phenomenon.

Sebastian Thrun’s comment, that  “Udacity was nothing more than a “megaphone” for Georgia Tech” says a lot about Udacity’s version of the MOOC, and it reminded me of William W. Fisher III’s critique in the “Laptop U” article:

Two features that can be found in most of this recent wave of online courses are: first, what could be described variously as the ‘guru on the mountaintop,’ or the ‘broadcast model,’ or the ‘one-to-many model,’ or the ‘TV model,’ ” he said. . . . “The basic idea here is that an expert in the field speaks to the masses, who absorb his or her wisdom. The second feature is that, to the extent that learning requires some degree of interactivity, that interactivity is channelled into formats that require automated or right-and-wrong answers.

Although a bigger megaphone allows for larger scale and reach, we are still stuck in the broadcast model here. Other areas of activity are undergoing a paradigm shift from Push (broadcast) to Pull (accessing an archive) to Co-create (collaborative production). This arrises from changing ideas about knowledge and value creation and the advantages of open practices as much as from digital technologies and networks. We have yet to explore what this could mean for higher education.

Fisher’s hybrid CopyrightX course, described at the end of the “Laptop U” article, looks like a more interesting model that mixes online and offline activity and involves interactivity with a “live” element. Peter K. Bol’s “Chinese History 185: Creating ChinaX” looks like another worthwhile experiment. In this course, students are involved in building a MOOC. The author refers to Bol’s interest in “open-access scholarship”.

As in publishing, we need to pay close attention to the use of terms like “Open” and “Open-Access” in teaching. What does “Open Scholarship” mean? What values and goals might inform the work of an “Open Scholar”? Why would an academic choose Open approaches to teaching, research and publishing? Are we ready for a paradigm shift in higher education?

In “The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice“, Martin Weller devotes a chapter to “Openness in Education” and provides a helpful overview of how digital technology is enabling the practice of “Open Scholarship” in research, teaching, and publishing (the book is covered by a CC-BY-NC licence and can be read for free online). I came across his work in Change11, a Connectivist MOOC run by Stephen Downes and George Siemens in 2011.

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