Scaring Away the MOOC Monster


Why are “massive,” “open,” and “online” often seen as threats within the hallways of higher education?  MOOCs have become the scary monsters under the bed, unpredictable in the dark bedroom of teaching in the age of the Internet.  Are they going to destroy everything professors, administrators, and even students hold dear about teaching and learning?

The distinction between cMOOC and xMOOC is pedagogically very significant for understanding the impact of networked learning on higher education. While the mainstream press has generally approached MOOCs with curiosity and some degree of balance, much of “MOOC Mania” in the higher ed press has been of the fear and loathing variety and readily lumps both styles of MOOCing together.

While xMOOCs “extend” the traditional, lecture-based classroom into virtual environments, cMOOCs have been quietly revolutionizing what we can do as learners and as educators. (If you’ve never done so, take a peek at ds106 for a really cool example.) I’m currently participating in the second networked learning opportunity coming out of Northwestern University’s Masters in Learning and Organizational Change program. Piloted by an unsung hero of connectivist learning, Jeff Merrell, this open learning community (primarily visible on Google+ and on Twitter #MSLOC430) is associated with a face-to-face class of MSLOC students, creating special challenges around the fine lines between openness and structure.  For those of us engaging only with the connectivist open part, we get to re-connect (some of us met a year or so ago in Exploring PLNs, another open MSLOC gig that focused at a meta-level on defining and delineating the nature of personal learning networks, while allowing participants to almost effortlessly make new PLNs). Participants encounter and grow their curiosities as much as their knowledge through our discussion comments, blog posts, and comments on each others’ posts.  The etiquette is to comment, and I have found the pressure to not just “lurk” but also to say something extremely refreshing.  Academics often don’t want to say anything until it is polished and publishable.  Connectivist MOOCing often means a more raw approach, one in which the writer/commenter feels vulnerable and exposed.

Perhaps more messy than massive, cMOOCs can be confusing at first glance. Dave Cormier reminds us that focus is central; you have to have a reason for connecting, for engaging. What am I trying to accomplish by adding another piece to my overblown schedule, spending most of a Friday reading, thinking, and engaging with questions about networked learning?  I want to reflect on how I learn what I learn, so that I can apply those reflections in my teaching.

Instruction is not equivalent to learning.  Such a simple statement, made here by Steve Downes, where he argues that the “clear-instruction-is-all-you-need” philosophy is the central problem with most learning management systems (like Moodle or Blackboard), and ultimately with much of the obsolescence of traditional classrooms.

Maybe MOOCs will go away if faculty and administrators dig their heels in hard enough.  But most likely this impulse is more like closing your eyes and hoping the monster is really just a dust bunny under the bed.  Networked learning is not going away.  And the coolest thing about it is that it means we finally have to relinquish control of the classroom and allow it to become a cooperative, collaborative space – whether virtual or face-to-face.

Faculty dialogue that can actually contribute to shaping change in higher ed has to get off the restricting dualism of choosing between the MOOC-bashing or the MOOC-celebrating bandwagons and attend to the specificities of new pedagogical practices. We need to try, participate, make, and do.


9 thoughts on “Scaring Away the MOOC Monster

  1. Bruno Winck says:

    Hi Mitra,

    Bruno from #MSLoc430

    I don’t get why Moodle or Blackboard (tools) serve the “clear-instruction-is-all-you-need” philosophy. MOOCs wouldn’t serve the same philosophy? I’m not using the two above products design side but followed some courses with them.

    It seems to me that many MOOC plaftforms like coursera or Edx are here to stay. LMS will have to crave a place to let them sit in and will build some bridges. Tech people will arrange bdriges to make possible.

    Don’t you think that the problem is mostly with the persons in charge of the learning (teachers) and how learners have been told it will take place. Tools are just utilities, When they are not fit for the task some other tools can be used to extend the possibilities..

    It seems to me that the very first step is to change the contract between teachers and learners. LMS, Moodle and Blackboard will adapt.

    PS: Your post in dated Jan 2014 🙂

    • Mitra Emad says:

      Hi Bruno,
      Thanks for reading and commenting! I guess I meant the ideologies behind the tools, not so much the tools themselves. Sorry to be confusing. I agree wholeheartedly that it’s not about the platforms or the tools, but about the pedagogies – that was actually the whole point of my post!

      And thanks for noticing that the date was wrong. I was working on an existing draft in wordpress which apparently wonked the date. 😉 Corrected now.

  2. Jeff Merrell says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more: “higher ed has to get off the restricting dualism of choosing between the MOOC-bashing or the MOOC-celebrating bandwagons and attend to the specificities of new pedagogical practices.”

    But I keep wondering if this is just a natural process we all have to go through. An idea emerges. An hyped-up “it’ll solve all our issues!” phase. And then we settle in to sorting out reality. The technology analyst firm Gartner gets exactly at this with its hype cycle:

    But what i am struck by is – why do we always seem to get caught up in this? I think the “try, participate, make, do” mentality is what we need to hang on to; and just share the results of our experiments. Momentum and authentic solutions should emerge, I would think, if we just followed that pattern.

    Maybe we get swept up into the hype because we (in business and academics) get caught up in having to try to prove the value of something (“what’s the ROI of that?” A question I loath). I understand why we do that, and have written business cases proving return, etc etc as a consultant. I really, really get how to do that. But in the end it seems to me a fool’s errand when you can experiment (try, participate, make, do) and actually see the change and impact your technology and actions creates.

    • Mitra Emad says:

      Great comment; thank you, Jeff!! Yes, the hype cycle . . . . >sigh<
      I can't tell you how many presentations/meetings I've attended lately with that handy little visual. Everyone seems to be holding their collective breaths in hopes of reaching that plateau of productivity, of being somehow left alone . . . to create and engage as teachers and scholars.

      I'm reading in your comment a sense that business (as a paradigm) can usurp creativity (delineated in terms of the experimentation and willingness to engage uncertainty inherent in "try, participate, make, do"). If we are focused on investments & fairly immediate returns, then deep thinking, powerful creativity, the juice of academic work can become dangerously compromised.

      I suppose a compromise more fair (not weighted towards business paradigm) is to reflect, make note, document, and post/publish the trying, participating, making, doing. This is what I feel like #msloc430 and #xpln help me to learn how to do, as a regular practice, not just as part of an amazing seminar.

  3. […] concepts we’re covering. Maureen Crawford dissected the term “MOOC;” Mitra Emad debunked the MOOC monster under the bed; Sahana Chattopadhyay made an argument for “cognitive diversity” in our […]

  4. Eleanor says:

    Hey babe – ! I was actually skimming my Facebook tonight (looking for baby pics, my younger cousins are beginning the reproduction cycle) and saw this and clicked the link. And decided to reach out and say hello. (Hello!)

    And I have no idea what the difference between an xMOOC and a cMOOC is, and how the later differs in any meaningful way from a well designed online course?

    I’m skeptical of the enthusiasm for anything that promises further deskilling and de-professionalizing teaching, especially for courses/degrees offered for the children of the non-elite, which MOOCs (c or x) most certainly promised to do – or, at least, that’s why the people in business pages liked them. But, I’m willing to embrace new tools once it’s clear what they can do – (I’m finally using power points! go me!) – So, what is it, exactly, that the cMOOC does that’s different than say, a Blackboard blog? (I’ve never used Moodle, and while I use Blackboard, I loathe it as a poorly designed sink hole, and I use it the way I used to use course websites I put together myself, but these aren’t online classes, and so I never use most of the ‘course management’ functionality, but I’ve looked at some of it at least….)

    Hope this finds you well and warm, I know it’s cold up there tonight –


    • Mitra Emad says:

      Hey Eleanor! Thanks for commenting, and, here, of all places (you found my blog – >blush<)!

      In answer to your question about "what is a cMOOC," I would argue that it really isn't a MOOC in the sense that the NYT and Coursera and EDx and even UofM are defining it. I think a colleague in the seminar I described in this post (Tanya Lau) talks about following the bread crumbs. It's sort of a controlled fall . . . down an Internet rabbit hole around a certain topic. Others have laid out the bread crumbs, and maybe some are rye bread and some are pumpernickel, and you can choose which way to fall. 😉 Not sure if that makes any sense. It's *very* different from an online class. And when it works well (which both this #msloc430 and ds106) are great examples of it working amazingly well), the folks going down the rabbit hole(s) together tend to bond, collaborate and (with some luck) work on other stuff together down the line.

      Does that make any sense?

      We are long overdue for a catch-up phone call!!!

  5. “perhaps more messy than massive” really resonated with me. Part of the cMOOC challenge is to figure out how to handle the mess. I keep trying new techniques and changing my approaches. I actually think this is the point – to NOT approach learning with a learning template or to do list in hand but to treat each development as an emergent opportunity and respond to what you find rather than to how you expect to be able to navigate.

    Mitra, Thanks for triggering some of these ideas.

    • Mitra Emad says:

      Yes! Thanks, Maureen, that really resonates with my own experiences. NOT approaching learning with a template or to-do list and engaging responsively. I love that. BUT I also find that this plays to my strengths. What I am trying to figure out this time ’round is how do you turn that into “stuff you can use” for lack of a better term (and I’m trying to avoid jargon, which gets me no where). So, for example, I thought that given how Jeff has structured #msloc430 (at least these 6 weeks), maybe my goal should be to fuel the new class on Business Anthropology I will be teaching next year. Not a to-do list exactly, but it gives me a focus through which to engage. I suspect you are doing something like that as well, around your research?

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