moocs vs. innovative learning experiences

I’ve been uncomfortable about the MOOC hype. There are a few reasons, ranging from the neoliberal commodification and privatization of education, to the extension of largely passive didactic pedagogies.

Basically, it’s an emphasis on education-as-content, and an exercise in the controlled dissemination of that content1. Students learn through receiving access to content in the context of a course.

Sounds familiar.

the future of education

wait. we’re innovating. there are better graphics now.


spock in school, from Star Trek 2010

Except the students are now removed from an intimate educational context. Course completion approaches gold farming. Eventually, instructors will be reduced so institutions can take advantage of massively open class sizes. Eventually, students will outsource their participation rather than grinding their own experience points. AI instructors, teaching AI students. But massively.

And that’s all fine. Given the environment we’re building, the success stories will be written by those that can best take advantage of the rules and affordances that make up the system.

But what about real innovation in learning? MOOCs are all about the course. And the instructor. And in granting access by students to the instructor and whatever content has been produced. The course is designed within the context of a program and possibly toward a terminal goal of a degree or credential.

What if the course wasn’t important anymore? (is it important now?) What if the only thing that mattered was people coming together to explore and learn together? What would that even look like?

Well. Where’s the venture capital opportunity in THAT? It’ll never fly.

But that’s the real change that can be enabled by the same tools and affordances that have been built to enhance the status quo as MOOCs.

It’s also not a new idea. Dewey wrote about this a century ago. Postman, over 40 years ago. And some old dude, a couple of millennia ago.

This isn’t a technical or software problem. It’s a cultural shift, to emphasize individual control and co-operative learning. That’s where the interesting stuff is happening. And where it will continue happening.

This is why DS106 and ETMOOC2 and many others are so interesting3. It’s not about the stupid animated gifs, it’s about people coming together to explore and play together, and to provide critical analysis and discourse of each other’s work. Most of the participants aren’t there for credit, don’t actually take the course, and do it because they’re interested in doing something for themselves. That’s interesting.

But. As long as we’re collectively spending our time rebuilding and entrenching traditional institutions and paradigms, we’re avoiding the real innovations in education and learning that are far more interesting than forming a consortium of elite lecture providers.

  1. even if the MOOCs are open, the content is carefully constructed, often custom-built to support an instructor’s or institution’s needs, and access controlled - MOOCs that lock content behind logins with enrolment caps. How do they define open? ↩︎

  2. it’s called a mooc, but interesting because it is another of the ilk of experiences that are the anti-Coursera/EdX/Udacity/etc… ↩︎

  3. the interesting ones avoid the temptation of being Massive. Small open online courses. ↩︎


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