The big misunderstanding about MOOCs

(Jared Soares / For The Washington Post)
(Jared Soares / For The Washington Post)

Every day it seems there is an announcement about another school offering another  MOOC, those Massive Open Online Courses that some think will revolutionize higher education. Here educator Larry Cuban  explains why people misunderstand the potential of MOOCS. Cuban was superintendent of Arlington Public Schools for seven years and a former high school social studies teacher for 14 years. He is professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. This was first published on his blog about school reform and classroom practice.

By Larry Cuban

Hard as it is for me to keep up with the spread of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in higher education and the sizable issues accompanying how they are organized, taught, and what students take away from the experience, I have learned a few things from taking one course (although I dropped out), listening to a panel of professors who taught online courses, and reading extensively pro- and anti- MOOCs commentaries. Here is what I have learned thus far.

1.  At least three groups of academics and entrepreneurs have emerged in debating the merits of MOOCs: Advocates, Skeptics, and Agnostics.

Advocates (see here, here, and here) include those recent entrepreneurs into the world of MOOCs and academics swept off their feet by offering their expertise to  thousands–even hundreds of thousands–of students simultaneously as opposed to  hundreds in a lecture hall. Advocates also include those who have labored long and hard in distance learning, e-learning, and earlier incarnations of online courses.  With striking advances in technology, MOOC champions want to open up doors to anyone in the world seeking expert knowledge and skills–including credentials. Anyone, they say, with an Internet connection. In MOOCs, they see a powerful tool to make fundamental changes in the organization and delivery of higher education in the next decade. To them, MOOCs encapsulate a “disruptive innovation” that will transform higher education…for the better.

Skeptics (see here, and here) include many academics who, for various reasons, question the premise of learning online as opposed to face-to-face in lecture halls and seminars. A recent poll had nearly 60 percent expressing “more fear than excitement” for expanding online courses. Skeptics range from Henny Penny shout-outs that the Sky if Falling to some who urge the professoriate to take action or computer screens will emerge victorious, replacing professors.

Agnostics (see here and here) are often academics who question the hype of MOOCs revolutionizing higher education while seeing both pluses and minuses to virtual learning. They know that traditional higher education, specifically, lectures to hundreds of undergraduates, was in of itself a way for colleges to save money and do not defend such practices but they also see how mixes of teaching practices (e.g., face-to-face and online) might be pedagogically superior to live  lecture, video snippets, and demonstrations . Which brings me to my second observation about MOOCs.

2. A MOOC delivers a course to students but a teacher teaches it. What  students learn depend, in part, upon how teachers teach.  Online delivery of instruction is neither the same as pedagogy nor identical to student learning.

In an earlier post, I made the distinction between teacher-centered and student-centered instruction and hybrids of the two, arguing that teacher-centered instruction is the default pedagogy in higher education. In this post, I want to make clear this distinction between delivering a course and teaching it. I turn to Richard Clark whose work three decades ago helped me sort out this crucial distinction.

Personal computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones—and here I would add online instruction–are vehicles for transporting instruction. They are not teaching methods. By teaching methods, I mean practices such as asking questions, giving examples, lecture, recitation, guided discussion, drill, cooperative learning, individualized instruction, simulations, tutoring, project-based learning, and innumerable variations and combinations of pedagogies.

Conflating MOOCs with instructional methods misleads professors, students, and the public about what teachers teach and what students learn. Or as Clark has said: media like television, film, and computers “deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition.” Alan Kay, who invented the prototype for a laptop in 1968, made a similar point when he said schools confuse music with the instrument. “You can put a piano in every classroom but that won’t give you a developed music culture because the music culture is embodied in people.” If, on the other hand, you have a musician who is a teacher, then you don’t “need musical instruments because the kids can sing and dance…The important thing … is that the music is not in the piano and knowledge and edification is not in the computer.” Or online instruction, I would add.

This mushing together of a means of delivering instruction (i.e., MOOCs) with how teachers teach (e.g., lectures, discussions, small groups, “connected learning” and the like) has distorted greatly policy discussions and blogosphere reactions of advocates, skeptics, and agnostics about MOOCs and their impact on teaching and learning.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 24, 2013