Sunday, January 15, 2012

Before we dismiss the massive, networked course...#change11

During Friday’s live session for the Change11 MOOC, Valerie Irvine and Jillianne Code questioned the importance of the recent popularity of Stanford’s online course that registered more than 58,000 participants. One of them asked, “Who would want that?”  

At first glance, from a student’s perspective, an online course of 58,000 cannot provide a learning experience comparable to a traditional course. We know from experience that larger courses mean less contact with instructors. In a large college course with 200 or more students, the instructor typically lectures from the floor of a hall in front of students in stadium style seating. So, as the size of the course grows, the value for the learner seems to shrink. Through that lens, the huge participation in Stanford’s course seems to be an Internet phenomenon, like the 32 million views of The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger , a “viral video” on YouTube.

Irvine and Code are not alone in their skepticism about the learning potential in a large course. According to the Illinois online network, the value of an online course deteriorates when the number of students enrolled exceeds 20.

Online learning has its most promising potential in the high synergy represented by active dialog among the participants, one of the most important sources of learning in a Virtual Classroom. However, in larger classes (20 or more students), the synergy level starts to shift on the learning continuum until it eventually becomes independent study to accommodate the large class. At this point, dialog is limited as well as interaction among participants and the facilitator. The medium is not being used to its greatest potential.

This argument follows a very traditional line of thought that we can hear in the halls of schools right now, where teachers feel their instructional capacity diminish when the number of students in a brick and mortar classroom exceeds 20 or 25. A teacher faced with a classroom of 40 students in a brick and mortar school will typically express a sense of hopelessness. In my role as an instructional coach, I find myself thinking with teachers about how to manage the paper load that is a byproduct of a teacher-centered classroom.

One of my expressed goals in participating in this MOOC is to explore the possibilities of networked learning that Micheal Wesch presents in A Portal to Media Literacy. (I’ve chopped out the pertinent excerpt using Tube Chop, but I highly recommend the hour-long YouTube original.)

In courses like this MOOC or in Stanford’s open course, the role of the teacher is transformed to such a degree that we have to look carefully at the role of the student to really consider the potential value for learners. Wesch cites Metcalfe’s law as a driving force behind rethinking teaching and learning at the university. The learning opportunity of large open courses lies in the ties or potential connections. The number of participants creates the opportunity for social learning among those enrolled, alleviating to some degree the problem of not having instructor contact. 

Seen through this lens, the opportunity to learn from peer participation and interaction in a MOOC compares favorably to so many gigantic lecture style classes at traditional universities, where the structure situates classmates as competitors rather than potential supports. With professors and institutions focusing heavily on research, freshman courses are often tended most closely by graduate teacher assistants, whose availability is often as limited as their teaching expertise and their depth of content knowledge. Now an open course, with the explicit invitation to collaborate with peers, who, by virtue of their sheer numbers, would be accessible around the clock, begins to look favorable to the brick and mortar lecture hall and its steep price tag.

Another consideration: I think it is worth noting that I’ve received more peer feedback on my writing for this MOOC in two weeks than I received on all the papers I wrote during my freshman and sophomore year at a public university. That says as much about the importance of blogging and authentic publication as it does about the learning structures in a MOOC. Before we dismiss MOOCs and open courses as inferior to traditional courses, we have to consider potential of networked learning in comparison to some of the broken, antiquated learning structures bundled into a public university education.

Comments welcome.


  1. What about assessment? It always comes back to that. If not, you are talking about "cooking," as opposed to "running a restaurant."

    So far, the MOOC is "a cool way to cook," not really "a cool way to run a restaurant."

  2. I certainly wouldn't say that a MOOC is superior to university courses in general, but I might say that the self-assessment and feedback principals behind a MOOC can be superior to a large, lecture style university course, where students cram for tests, memorize, test and forget. In these courses, professors with research and career considerations might have graders employed to manage that load. As a teacher, I don't see how that type of assessment practice can support student learning or respond to learners needs half as well as you just did by commenting on my blog post and challenging my thinking.

  3. Great post! Not surprised how many attended the Stanford class. People hunger for learning and will adapt to fit the demands of the format to get it. How many millions of people are locked out of university by cost, social position or just plain exclusion? How big a failure is it that universities as public institutions reject so many?

    I think MOOCs will succeed because they avoid exclusion and put it on the student to account for themselves. There might be an inadvertent exclusion present in MOOCs caused by a lack of a novice category, but expect this will evolve in as the MOOC format becomes more common. Assuming permission onto yourself to participate comes with experience, exposure and I think the qualities of many who may decide to divide off into numbers that, as Joe suggests, reach an optimal level.

    I think it way more likely that a number of volunteer instructors would appear from a MOOC session than could ever emerge from the rigid hierarchy of a standard classroom. Is it possible that connections could generate teachers from a pool of learners that could develop into a continuous role swapping? Sometimes the teller, sometimes the listener? That magic number of 20 seems so compelling as to be a force of nature or a centre of self organization that would benefit from a large initial pool.

    And if the above is too speculative how about the sense I feel in a MOOC that comment is welcome. Where does that come from? It seems very important that openness resides here and engagement happens almost naturally.

    Thanks for the link to the Illinois online network.


  4. Don't you think that in a MOOC there is a tendency to form small groups, to find peers who reflect your own values or who really challenge them? I am not an educational theorist - just an educator with an interest in possibility - so I am lurking a lot and not really commenting - much of the theoretical construction is way over my head and I just don't have enough hours in the day to catch up. But as you point out this is still a productive learning experience for me, I can learn what I find compelling and leave the rest on the table for another day - I am glad that there will not be a quiz tho!!

    1. I think there is the possibility to engage in small group explorations and to move between groups. Another thing I think is interesting is the ability to read blogs and responses by participants who engage directly with the ideas each week.