MOOCs, student engagement, and the value of contact


I’m a teacher. I teach. But I don’t really teach. I’m a learning helper. Every year, at the beginning of the semester (which is tomorrow), I compare learning chemistry to learning tennis.

Now, I know the basics of tennis. You hold the racket, swing it around this way for a forehand and that way for a backhand.. You hit the ball over the net so it bounces inside the lines. Then the other player hits it back.

Does that make me a good tennis player? No it does not. I never practice. I haven’t held a tennis racket in years. If you don’t actually use the principles, you’re not going to get beyond the most superficial levels.

So as a learning helper, my role is to coach students through learning the content, skills, and thought patterns that make someone competent at sophomore organic chemistry. I can’t unscrew the tops of their heads, dump in a bunch of knowledge, and send them on their way.

In that context, let’s consider the MOOC or Massive Online Open Course. That’s a content delivery system that uses videos of lectures to present academic material. The better MOOCs have an interactive component where there’s some sort of on-line discussion forum, or even automated homework checking.

Some people, especially those who haven’t been in a classroom for years (politicians, academic administrators, etc.) think MOOCs are the future of teaching. Some faculty worry that the MOOC will do to their jobs what movies did to Vaudeville, and they’ll be reduced to ticket-takers and popcorn-sellers.

I think most MOOCs are just textbooks for the Internet age. A brilliantly delivered lecture or a brilliantly written book are both good content delivery systems. But without interaction, feedback, and mutual accountability that is all they can be.

A self-motivated student, with some aptitude, can probably learn just fine from reading a book or watching a lecture. But that is a small slice of the population. Most of the people in a class will get stuck at some point. Only by direct interaction with their learning coach can they get un-stuck to be able to move on.

And teaching & learning is, at heart, a social activity. Us hairless primates like to interact with each other. Any learning experience is an interaction, even if it’s the one-way interaction of reading a book or watching a video. Two-way interactions are vastly more useful, though, and the best learning happens when students discuss and even debate with each other.

At the workshop I did the other day, I had faculty members arguing with each other about made-up rules they were deducing from examples. Now, I could have put those rules on a PowerPoint slide and run through them in a couple of minutes. But the retention would not have been there. It would have been “Here are some facts. Memorize them, then I’ll ask you to dump them back on a test.”

But, when the participants had to deduce the rules, then decide how those rules applied to ambiguous examples, they were much more engaged and involved. It became a discussion about whether the rules they had deduced were correct and sufficient to apply to the given cases, and then see how those rules might have applied in other cases.

One participant asked if the format meant a sacrifice in content covered. I believe the trade-off is worthwhile. The thinking required in a discussion/group work format leads to improved retention. Thus, if you can “cover” 75% of the content but with 2/3 retention, is that better or worse than covering all of the content but with only 50% retention? (For the mathematically declined, the numbers work out to learning half the material either way.)

So, where is the “economics” I tagged? Well, from this item about “How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class”. Basically, the point of the article is that just as advances in robotics have displaced assembly-line workers, advances in computing technology have displaced some jobs such as file clerks. The stable jobs of the future are most likely to be the ones that are extremely difficult for automated systems to handle. Those are the jobs that require significant visual responses to changing situations, interaction with humans, and adaptability. The Jetsons aside, cleaning is a chore that robots have a very difficult time doing. Same for medical interactions, from the basic technologists to the sophisticated thinking required to make the ambiguous calls for a diagnosis.

Similarly, teaching as human interaction, analysis of student points of confusion, crafting materials that can spur thoughtful engagement with course material, and providing useful feedback willo be darned difficult to automate. At least, not in the two decades before I retire…

If teaching is just content generation and delivery, then the MOOC as the next evolution of the textbook is a significant change. But I don’t think It is. The people who really ought to be worried are those companies that exist to sell DVDs and audio CDs of lectures that are now being made available free.

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7 thoughts on “MOOCs, student engagement, and the value of contact

  1. Pingback: more on moocs – go read this post! | Talking Teaching

  2. “But, when the participants had to deduce the rules, then decide how those rules applied to ambiguous examples, they were much more engaged and involved. It became a discussion about whether the rules they had deduced were correct and sufficient to apply to the given cases, and then see how those rules might have applied in other cases.”
    I’d be really interested in hearing more about this!

  3. I love your phrase ‘learning helper’, I’d always considered myself a learning facilitator. I teach also and while I can see your perspective, I’m concerned that we are falling back into the trap of stereotyping, a danger that we all know is incorrect.

    I have helped create 12 MOOCs now which have had over 500,000 enrolments (I do say enrolments, as we all know that MOOC enrolments does not equal participants!). However the majority of these students have gained a lot of knowledge. In saying that, they have learnt more than facts as in many cases they have had meaningful, social interactions with other students and the teaching staff. Not just during the courses, but afterwards as well, with many of these students being active in a community of practice on social media sites like FaceBook that continues after the course has closed.

    I agree that there are MOOCs that have been created as content repositories and the teacher has been absent for the whole course. However I see face to face classes where the teacher might as well be absent as well, for all the active teaching they do, or the little learning that goes on.

    So in my view, MOOCs and ‘teaching’ are like a city. We all know there are some good suburbs where a thriving community of life, learning and liberty goes on. We also know that sadly, there are some suburbs we would not travel through (perhaps especially at night?) if we had the choice as they are not a nice/safe place to be.

    I think the challenge to us as educators is to work out how we can create a motivational and positive learning environment that will nurture learners to achieve their educational goals. This can be achieved in a MOOC as well as a classroom if we plan well and are inclusive of our learners.

  4. Reblogged this on Technology News and commented:
    MOOCs: el futuro de la educaci√≥n. La posibilidad de tomar un curso entero de “Computer Science” de Harvard (el famoso CS50) o del MIT, al alcance en pocos clics. Impresionante.

  5. Pingback: reflections on e-teaching and e-learning | Talking Teaching

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