Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

What does "MOOC" mean? No, really, what does it mean?

Did you ever get into a frustrating argument before realizing that you and your opponent were each using the same word but with unspoken, conflicting definitions?

Some years back, for example, an argument about the educational outcomes of lecturing came to an abrupt halt when my colleague and I realized we were each using a different definition of "lecture." I meant an unbroken stream of faculty talking, and students listening. My colleague meant 'everything that a faculty member does in a classroom.'

I've called these terms confusors. Some years ago, I developed a web site where I listed confusors that can derail discussions of higher education, words like "technology," "classroom,""assessment," and "teaching,"  each of which have widely-held, conflicting definitions.  Remember: confusor definitions are rarely right or wrong, even though different people may each deeply believe that their definition is the only correct one.  Confusors are like icebergs - the conflicting definitions are invisible and can rip the bottom out of a conversation.

The newest confusor in higher education dialogue is "MOOC." MOOC is an acronym for four words  - Massive Open Online Courses -- and all four words are confusors.

"Massive" can mean that hundreds, perhaps tens of thousands of learners are registered.  But "Massive" can also mean that the course has been designed to handle huge numbers of users (just as any book can potentially be a best seller).

  • Another confusor, hidden deeper, is "registered."  Some people sign up for 30-40 MOOCs at a time, but never visit any of them. Others may attempt a first lesson, realize that this isn't something they want to do, and depart. It's hard to consider either group as "dropouts" from the MOOC.  But, on the other hand, the cited number of registrations may vastly overestimate the actual usage of the MOOC.

In discussing MOOCS, most people define "Open" as "free." But for others, "open" means inexpensive: students may choose to pay a price for textbooks, assessment and coaching.  And for still other folks, "open" means that the materials are not only free but also can be freely used and adapted by anyone: open source.

"Online": for some people MOOCs are something new, a tiny and very specific type of online learning. Others use MOOC as a virtual synonym for "online learning."

"Course" for some people means that the MOOC's content is comparable to a campus course taught by the same instructor. But for others, the MOOC's length and content may be quite different from anything offered on campus, far shorter than a college course.

People also silently make dramatically different assumptions about learning in MOOCs. Some folks assume that MOOCs combine videos of all the lectures from a campus course with mostly the same instructional materials used on campus. These same folks may assume that drop out rates will be high, and learning relatively shallow. Meanwhile, other folks assume that MOOCs should become engaging and effective; they may assume a combination of online tutors that respond to differences in student needs and performance; a wide range of online source materials; illuminating videos that look like public television; self-grading quizzes on complex ideas; and carefully- designed procedures that give learners valid feedback on sophisticated tasks. These folks may expect high quality earning from MOOCs but also expect that considerable time and money will be required to achieve that goal.

Threading these conflicting assumptions together:

  • Some people are leaping into MOOC development because they silently assume that MOOCs are so much like campus practice that they will be inexpensive and noncontroversial. Tens of thousands of learners will use the materials because the MOOCs are online and free, they assume. These folks may also assume that copyright of published materials will be maintained.  Others, who see MOOCs in that same way, are deeply worried; they see MOOCs as a massive step backward in pedagogy, educationally ineffective for all but a handful of exceptionally talented and self-motivated learners and a potential blot on their institution's reputation. 
  • Other folks silently assume that MOOCs will quickly evolve to be quite different from traditional campus courses: shorter, fostering rich peer-peer collaborative learning, and providing sophisticated feedback from sources other than the instructor.  Such MOOCs may require extensive R&D, and will be expensive to develop. Some of these folks also see MOOCs feeding into an emerging, open source universe of interconnected interoperable instructional resources. Or they may see "MOOCs" becoming not free but still dramatically less expensive than conventional education.

Have you encountered other ways in which the word "MOOC" has become a confusor?

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