In “MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses or Massive and Often Obtuse Courses?” (eLearn, Aug. 2011), Lisa Chamberlin and Tracy Parish provide “a participant’s point of view of MOOCs” in the form of pros and cons. It’s a useful introduction to workshops such as iFacilitate because it prepares us for some of the issues that we’re going to face. From a reader’s perspective, what interests me most is not so much the authors’ views but the assumptions underlying them.
One sentence, in particular, caught my attention. In their comment about the “weekly synchronous forums” where “students are able to use the chat feature while the facilitator talks, and also interact with each other as well,” the authors say that “this feels more like a face-to-face class experience and makes for a great learning experience” (emphasis added). Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but Chamberlin and Parish’s assumption seems to be that F2F is the gold standard for “a great learning experience.” In other words, the closer online can get to F2F, the better it becomes. The problem with this perspective, however, is that online is forever doomed to be second-best because it can never equal F2F. It can come close, but that’s it.
Ironically, in their own comments elsewhere, they inadvertently explain why a F2F standard may not be appropriate for online courses. They say that “synchronous forums — hosted during the run of the MOOC — are also prone to limited participation” and, in those featuring speakers, “It is also difficult to interact with the guest speakers …. Although they usually speak on interesting topics, the chats are rapid and filled with so many voices at one time that there isn’t a viable way to ask a question and get it answered.”
In both cases, the carryover of F2F practices into the online learning environment may not be practical. For example, synchronicity runs counter to the anytime-anywhere advantage of online, and it automatically excludes many if not most who aren’t or can’t be free at the appointed time. The timeframe for synchronous events, too, is counterintuitive. With even a handful of active participants, the sidechannel live chat quickly becomes unwieldy. Some synchronous events are fine and add excitement to a MOOC, but they have to be specifically designed for the virtual learning environment (VLE) and not attempt to simply emulate F2F presentations. Chamberlin and Parish, in fact, provide an unintended explanation for the weakness of synchronous forums: They “can be reminiscent of an undergraduate lecture hall with the faceless student in a sea of many.”
The authors’ “bias,” if you will, also explains some of their other negative impressions of MOOCs. For example, they felt that size, “while impressive, might work against the ‘connectedness’ the facilitators and participants often seek.” They also “found navigating the MOOC waters frustrating.” In both cases, they’re highlighting an important learning challenge. MOOCs are different from F2F courses. Thus, they require a new approach to learning. (A workshop such as this is designed to help us do this.) The challenge is: How to deal with massive amounts of information and numbers of people, or, put another way, how to develop a personal online learning environment that helps each of us create order out of the seeming chaos?
The authors say, “If the content and community doesn’t pique or hold learner interest, they will not fully engage in the course and worse may end up deserting before it is over.” This statement reveals a teacher-centric point of view. The VLE, however, is student-centric. That is, in an online class, the student must play an active rather than passive role. Plopping down in front of the computer and saying, “OK, I’m here. Interest me,” isn’t going to cut it. The student must continually participate, construct, connect, synthesize, collaborate, share, interact, update, grow, change — learn. If s/he doesn’t, she is invisible to her classmates and instructors and, for all practical purposes, doesn’t exist.
Chamberlin and Parish are correct in generalizing the feeling that, for many (most?), “the methodology may work for more independent learners but may be too extreme for less prepared learners.” Assuming that “less prepared” isn’t a permanent condition, then the challenge is to prepare all learners for 21st century learning.