Debating Definitions: What Is a MOOC? #cccmroe

= // =We have the technology to offer open online courses to tens of thousands of students and to design adaptive tutoring systems that provide automated, personalized feedback to students on their learning. Given these advances, what questions should research on online education pursue in the next several years?

That was the topic of a workshop I attended earlier this week in Washington, DC. The “Multidisciplinary Research for Online Education” workshop, hosted by the Computing Community Consortium and chaired by Doug Fisher (Vanderbilt) and Armando Fox (UC-Berkeley), brought together computer scientists specializing in educational data mining with education researchers interested in online learning to map out a research agenda for studying learning “at scale.” I’m thankful to Doug for inviting me to participate in the workshop, as it was a very productive two days of presentations and conversations.

I thought I would share a few observations and reflections from the workshop here on the blog over the next few days for those interested in thinking a little more deeply about MOOCs. Please note that I’m not capturing the full complexity of our discussions here, just pointing to a few takeaways for me.

Going into the workshop, I was worried that we would spend the first day talking past each other. Getting researchers from very different disciplines (in this case, computer science and education) to communicate can be a challenge, given different backgrounds, expectations, and jargon. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how easily we jumped into productive conversations during the workshop.

It wasn’t until mid-morning on the second day that I participated in a breakout group that hit a communication wall. The breakout was intended to generate ideas (and associated research questions) for alternatives to MOOCs. I was a bit skeptical that we could do so, as I indicated in a tweet I posted at the start of the session:

I'm curious to know if we come up with anything that's not a MOOC, given a sufficiently robust definition of "MOOC." #cccmroe
Derek Bruff

Coming up with alternatives to MOOCs meant that we needed a shared definition of a MOOC, and it was clear very early in the discussion that we lacked such a shared definition. One participant argued that MOOCs, with their video lectures and robo-graded quizzes, perpetuate the “sage on the stage” model of teaching that does a disservice to many students. I countered that only some MOOCs (“xMOOCs”) feature video lectures and robo-quizzes; the connectivist MOOCs (“cMOOCs“) avoid those tools in favor of more student-centered peer learning and network-building activities. (See the digital storytelling MOOC ds106 or the photography MOOC Phonar for examples.) It was clear that when some of the discussion participants said “MOOC,” they meant “xMOOC” and were either unfamiliar with the cMOOC model or were not thinking of those as MOOCs.

One participant noted that when journalists and university administrators talk about MOOCs, they are usually referring to xMOOCs running on the Coursera, Udacity, or EdX platforms, and so we should use the term that way, too. I pushed back on this point. As a mathematician, I can be a bit obsessive with definitions, but I think that we have to define a MOOC in terms of the acronym itself: a MOOC is a massive, open, online course. The cMOOCs fit those parameters, as do the xMOOCs.

What’s not a MOOC that’s still “massive” and “online” and thus fair game for our workshop’s research agenda-building? As I learned, the UK’s Open University isn’t fully open (most courses aren’t free), and so it’s an example of an alternative to a MOOC. The Khan Academy is massive, open, and online, but it doesn’t feature courses (providing content around finer grain topics and lacking the kind of learning community that comes along with a time-delimited course), and so it’s not a MOOC, either.

Here are a few more tweets from me that indicate the kind of research and development on alternatives to MOOCs that I would like to see:

I think the most promising alternatives to MOOCs are those that cut the "C," learning experiences that aren't courses. #cccmroe
Derek Bruff
Could be smaller than courses--short modules for just-in-time learning. Or bigger than courses, connecting learning across courses. #cccmroe
Derek Bruff
That said, the "C" in MOOC is what brings a community of learners together for a specified period of time. That's powerful. #cccmroe
Derek Bruff

I’ll add that I think those of us who see the current and potential range of educational structures that can be described as MOOCs should work to educate our communities about that rich landscape. In other words, please educate your colleagues about cMOOCs and help them imagine innovations that build on the basic xMOOC structure.

In my next post, I’ll tackle the question, “Whose MOOC is it?”

Image: “= // =” by Antony Theobald, Flickr (CC)

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