Here’s why the MOOCs don’t work… (and maybe how they can be made to work)

lecture room
lecture room (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

I spent some time over the holidays looking at some MOOC offerings – either the freebie intro lectures available from some of the major providers, or the clips available on YouTube. I also had a look at some course content, syllabi and related materials. This trawl is, of course, not representative or even properly systematic (I didn’t actually sign up for or try to complete a course), but it was instructive (to me, at least). I found the process dispiriting. Why? Because here are large groups of interested, committed, motivated and enthusiastic individuals (or groups of individuals) coming together to try and deliver something new to 3rd level education. I’ve discussed MOOCs here previously – highlighting their problems and failures at a general level.

The interesting question is why are they failing? The flaw in the thinking is that educational practice can be revolutionised by doing something new and interesting by way of course material delivery. And this is not simply not true.

What is wrong with the focus on delivery? It seems to me to suffer from the following problems, which in themselves are deeply problematic.

MOOC-delivered lectures:

Lack the immersiveness that you get from actually attending a lecture. Too often they feel like something that could just easily be delivered on television – with the same problems of attentional disengagement that occur while television watching. Immersiveness has another dimension – the degree of perceived visual angle that being in a lecture generates. A lecture theatre occupies the greater degree of visual angle, and does not suffer from the visual and other intrusion problems that screen viewing can have. There is a totality of experience in the classroom that sitting at home with a laptop cannot deliver. In other words, the ‘event boundaries’ that generate and support the appropriate cognitions, expectations and behaviours for learning are lacking. I suspect some of this problem could be overcome by using wholly-immersible virtual reality delivery methods, where there is a proper 3d perspective present, and even avatars of the other students too (groups contexts are important for learning – think transactive memories).

Lack structure: by this I mean a meaningful and formal relationship that is deep, broad and fully networked within an institutional context where the student has a personal commitment to individuals and to a culture that supports learning. Here are two instructive examples:

At one extreme:

Take Harvard, where the rising elite chart their paths within well-designed parameters: the college offers a bachelor’s degree in 48 academic fields only to full-time, residential students, who must also fulfill carefully articulated general-education requirements. Their first-year experience unfolds under the supervision of an entire team—a freshman adviser, a resident dean of freshmen, a proctor, and a peer-advising fellow. Residential house tutors and faculty advisers lend support later.

And at the other, community colleges with huge drop-out rates:

Students there choose from upwards of 70 full-time or part-time associate’s-degree or certificate programs, in more than 60 fields, then figure out their ideal course load, and how to best mix online and in-person classes. As to plotting a course of study and then staying on it, community-college students are largely on their own. Student-adviser ratios in the two-year sector are abysmal in many schools: they can run as high as 1,500-to-1.

This is the invisible structure that makes learning possible: the hidden superstructure that students require. When it is missing or defective, it will not be be induced or imposed by the students themselves. How could it be otherwise? 

Sebastian Thrun is quoted in the same Atlantic piece as follows: “To be successful, we need people on the ground to do things, to provide educational services.”

Lack learners who have learned how to learn as a generalisable skill: a key skill acquired in the course of learning is learning how to learn. This takes years of practice, and needs institutional support.

Lack learners who have learned how to learn from the content deliverer: the interactivity required for learning is missing. With a MOOC, the process is one way – from the screen to you. The teaching dyad is missing – because teaching is two-way.

Finally, a more general note: are we about to discover that one-way lecture delivery can be dull and unengaging at elite and revered institutions when a camera is pointed at famous Professor X? This is not a reflection (necessarily) on the content deliverer – but more a reflection of the simple fact that delivering lectures to a video camera is a skill, as different from stage acting is from screen acting. Lecturing is a kind of performance to an immediately present audience (like being on stage): but doing the same for the big screen is very different. The composition of the invisible supports for stage (think what happens behind the scenes in a theatre) versus the big screen (again think what happens behind the scenes in a film production or even a simple television newscast). And think how badly a camera pointed at a stage production fails.

There is a category error present here: MOOC providers are using stage content for what should be a screen production. Perhaps the producers for MOOCs should be professional television and film production companies, and the material prepared by, but not delivered by, professors but rather by professional actors (unless they have been professionally trained in media delivery)! I say this because of the Dr Fox effect: the ‘correlation observed between teacher expressiveness, content coverage, student evaluation and student achievement’ (wiki).

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Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist