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Chronicle Interview: Why universities should experiment with open online courses

I did an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education on Why Universities Should Experiment With ‘Massive Open Courses’. Thanks to Jeff and Warren for the opportunity to share some of the work that Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, Alec Couros, and a growing number of educators have engaged in over the last four years. The interview ran over 30 minutes, but was edited down to 12 minutes, so some of my discussion about the history of open courses (Wiley, Couros) was not included in the final version.

I was surprised (disappointed) to read some of the comments.There is a chasm between those who are actively experimenting with educational models and those who are focused on preserving it. This chasm is complicated by different language use and different visions. These two camps are talking past each other.

For example, in the comments I/we (those who run open courses) are presented as being corporate shills:

Not surprising that online learning is being pushed by corporate entities who smell the bottom line figures. Faculty should resist this movement at every turn. It will undermine and dilute higher education as we know it, mass producing degrees that mean nothing. This is why the liberal arts are necessary. Critical thinking skills, writing, and close reading cannot be taught in cyberspace. The movement toward degrees in “Business” and other faux disciplines was the beginning.

Huh? Corporate entities? I haven’t made money on open courses. I haven’t tried.

and in terms of engagement:

For all intents and purposes I am sitting in the middle of a massive coffee-shop or bar and in the middle of hundreds of half-baked, uninformed conversations that while they may be interesting are nevertheless, not grounded in scholarship and since the tendency is for the bloggers and tweaters to flit from conversation to conversation I have no sense of any substantial engagement with any group about any topic.

I have no illusions about open online courses being THE key to education’s problems. To even make a statement of that nature is to misunderstand the interconnectedness of complex problems. As I stated in the interview, researchers need to start experimenting with the system of education. We’re not going to think our way to educational change and reform. Meaningful reform will only come through experimentation – many models, many different approaches. When researchers don’t have answers to a problem, they start hypothesizing and running experiments. Educators and administrators need to recognize that we do not understand what an efficient education systems look like in a complex, networked, and digital world. We’re muddling through.

11 Comments

  1. RoseQ wrote:

    I share your sense of the conversations NOT connecting :(

    I recently used an analogy (hackneyed for sure..)of occupants of a citadel protecting those inside the wall against the marauding infidels as a representation for a discipline trying to “protect” its domain/ body of knowledge from “invasion”. Of course those trying to get in may not be invaders…they may be travelers with much to share….tricky if one misreads the cues? And that got me thinking about the role of the lookouts on the wall of the citadel – What if all the lookouts, as they are sure to be trained to do, are focusing their eyes on the hill and the forest and the area below the citadel looking for “attacks” and in so doing they miss the enormous airship which comes over the horizon – fires an air to ground missile and destroys the citadel?? One would think the inner circle in the citadel would have appreciated having one lookout who thought to look at the sky? Of course- that’s the person they probably reckon is the “chancer”..day-dreaming on the job.

    Why do we always polarise “difference” instead of embracing it? My husband, not an “academic” in the formal sense of the word once commented that some of the most closed-minded people he had ever met would have considered themselves to be “academics” Such a sobering thought…

    Clearly a multifaceted issue but I think it is key that an understanding of “abundance” as opposed to “scarcity” appears to be a HUGE leap for many :) Would be nice if there was a neat answer. Thought you might just appreciate that a fellow traveler shares your sense of disbelief (in your case magnified by the sense of having being “robbed”)

    …enough of the imagery…I’m off to a morning coffee:) Thanks

    Friday, October 7, 2011 at 12:34 am | Permalink
  2. RoseQ wrote:

    Don’t intend the imagery to be stretched any further…clearly it is patchy…what would one do about the airship anyway? even if you saw it coming?! LOL

    Friday, October 7, 2011 at 12:54 am | Permalink
  3. Jon K. wrote:

    “Critical thinking skills, writing, and close reading cannot be taught in cyberspace.”

    What utter crap. Critical thinking can definitely be taught online, in fact there’s plenty of places that critical thinking can be practised online, which often leads to the best kind of learning.

    Talking past each other is a very correct assessment. How sad.

    Friday, October 7, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink
  4. Hi George,
    Here is part of my post:
    may I put these into philosophical propositions?

    1. When you don’t see any rigid structure in MOOC, that is good, as MOOC should be personalized, having adaptive and amorphous structures that are all customized to suit the learners, not just the educators needs.

    2. When there seems to be a chaotic structure in place, that is good, because such structure would challenge even the most intelligent and talented educators, scholars, professors and learners to sort them out, so everyone has to rethink and reflect about what it means to learn in a chaotic Web and internet based learning environment. That is the reality that we are facing, in times of flux.

    3. Where there are more and more problems emerging out of MOOC design, delivery and development, that is good, because this would give a chance for scholars, researchers, administrators, educators, and learners to change and adapt their teaching and learning, based on a shift in the pedagogy, paradigms. This would challenge each of them to re-think about the importance, significance and implications of online participation (with a participatory culture), collaboration and cooperation, as a network, as a cluster of educators, researchers, and learners throughout the global networks, as an institution, or a partnership of institutional networks. This would stimulate and promote stakeholders to research, to learn and to improve and innovate altogether, in order to tackle the challenges ahead of us and that of our next generation. That is the change and transformation needed to keep abreast of knowledge and learning in an ever changing world.

    4. Are we living in an era of disruptive digital media based ecology? The challenge is huge, but the reward is even bigger. The more we know, the more we know that we don’t know. And that is learning as growth and development, both individually and as connective and collective wisdom.

    This is the time to celebrate the successes and failures, through experimentation, and possible failures of MOOCs, where educators and learners could learn together. Without trials, we never learn.

    I would like to see evidences of claim on some comments: “Critical thinking skills, writing, and close reading cannot be taught in cyberspace.”

    For comments: “I am sitting in the middle of a massive coffee-shop or bar and in the middle of hundreds of half-baked, uninformed conversations that while they may be interesting are nevertheless, not grounded in scholarship and since the tendency is for the bloggers and tweaters to flit from conversation to conversation I have no sense of any substantial engagement with any group about any topic.” This relates to personal experience. So, what would the commenter like instead, with MOOC? I haven’t posted these comments with the Chronicle of Higher Education, as I think we want to illustrate how critical thinking is actually learnt through our conversation and discourse. Would this be the spirit of MOOC?

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 2:59 am | Permalink
  5. Chris Lott wrote:

    The most productive engagement with this kind of statement is probably not to convince the person that the revolution is necessary but to show how what you do is working. The philosophy is fun, but…

    One way would be to address this statement “…since the tendency is for the bloggers and tweaters to flit from conversation to conversation I have no sense of any substantial engagement with any group about any topic.”

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  6. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Chris, a more practical focus, as you suggest, is needed in addressing the value of online learning. The messaging around educational change is tough to get right, particularly when it’s far more fun to play with broad overview perspectives than practical details. I wonder though, how much evidence is needed around the value of online learning – there is enough research to suggest it can be an important learning experience.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink
  7. gsiemens wrote:

    @Roseq – I appreciate what you say about valuing differences. Sometimes, individuals who view themselves as being open minded can be the most closed in their perspective of things they have not experienced. In the language of your analogy, you can’t accurately comment on someone else’s journey if you haven’t made the attempt to journey with them.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Permalink
  8. gsiemens wrote:

    @Jon K – yeah, that was a bit of an extreme post. A bit unsure as to whether it’s a troll or legitimate comment

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  9. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi JohnMak – great perspective – many of the discussions around failures of MOOCs indicate a research opportunity. One of my main arguments in the presentation was that universities *need* to start experimenting with the system of education. It’s no different from a chemist or physicist trying to understand new phenomenon in their field(s) – in our case, however, the subject of research is the university system itself.

    Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 9:33 pm | Permalink
  10. Chris Lott wrote:

    George: I’m not suggesting talking about online learning in general (I have to think questions of that general nature are trolling) but specifically about the value of MOOCs and, even more specifically, helping people understand where the deep and substantive engagement happens. That seems like it would be the most powerful way to “defend” them.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 12:10 am | Permalink
  11. Hi George,
    Yes, that is wonderful: “the subject of research is the university system itself.”
    Here is my further sharing http://suifaijohnmak.wordpress.com/2011/10/09/change11-the-challenges-of-technology-on-education-system-and-the-wicked-problems/ John

    Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 4:36 am | Permalink