Learning From MOOCs

Teaching massive open online courses can encourage instructors’ good (and bad) habits. Marie Norman explores how we can use what we learn to improve teaching.

February 27, 2015

I’ve been working recently with a faculty member who is turning his thermodynamics course into a massive open online course, or MOOC. Working on this project, I’ve noticed that MOOCs have distinctive features that can help instructors avoid certain instructional pitfalls while simultaneously steering them in the direction of others.

Paying attention to these features in the context of MOOCs, I think, can help us be aware of -- and avoid -- the same problems in other teaching situations, online or face-to-face.  

Pitfalls MOOCs Can Help Us Avoid

Because MOOC audiences are by definition large, they require faculty to design their courses for the broadest possible audience. This includes students without deep background knowledge in the subject area and students with diverse (and often weak) motivations for taking the course. Having to consider such a broad audience pushes faculty in directions that can help them overcome four common instructional problems.

Expert blind spot. EBS refers to the tendency we have as experts in our disciplines to move so quickly and intuitively through the familiar terrain of our subject matter that we omit important information, skip key steps and fail to point out critical connections. Instructor EBS can leave students, as relative novices, struggling to keep up. In over 10 years in faculty development, I’ve come to regard EBS as enemy number one in teaching.

MOOCs, because of their broad audience, compel instructors to use simpler language and proceed more systematically through content material. By actively working against EBS, the MOOC approach is likely to serve students in other kinds of courses as well.

Takeaway: As an expert in your discipline, you’re subject to expert blind spot. It comes with the territory. But you can consciously work against EBS by developing the habit of asking yourself: Have I left out any important information, connections or steps that students need to make sense of or apply this material?

Prior knowledge gaps. To learn, students have to connect what they’re learning to what they already know. If there are significant gaps between what the instructor assumes students know coming into a course and what they actually know, it can seriously undermine students’ learning, not to mention their motivation. Yet we often overestimate students’ prior knowledge, if we give it much thought at all. Targeting a MOOC audience can help keep this tendency in check, if only by cautioning us to begin at the beginning, define our terms and (perhaps most importantly) clarify the knowledge and skills we expect students to have coming into the course.

Takeaway: It’s important to articulate what you expect your students to know coming into a course, including specific prerequisite skills (e.g., solving differential equations, searching academic journals) and knowledge (basic geography, Newton’s laws). If a large number of students lack these skills, take time to address the gaps. Also be sure not to create new gaps by failing to define terms or moving too fast through complex material.

Content overload. A common mistake in teaching is to assume that the more we cover, the more students learn. But all evidence in cognitive science points to the opposite conclusion. As Herb Simon, the father of cognitive psychology, frequently noted, coverage is the enemy of deep learning. It’s far better to cover less content with more opportunities for practice and feedback.

MOOCs, because of their size, generally don’t provide the necessary practice and feedback opportunities for deep learning. However, because they tend to be shorter than full-length, semester-long courses, they do compel instructors to prioritize and scale back content. While there is serious resistance to this idea in traditional academia (see Craig Nelson’s “dysfunctional illusions of rigor”), MOOCs give us license, even a mandate, to reduce the total amount of content we try to shovel into students’ heads.

Takeaway: Courses tend to grow over time; we add content but we seldom subtract it. To avoid content overload, ask yourself: What are the most important ideas? What do I most want students to know or be able to do by the end of the course? Prioritize and cut what isn’t essential. Then use the time you’ve created to incorporate problem solving, discussion, reflection, etc.

Motivational deficits. We love our own disciplines or we wouldn’t be in them. Our enthusiasm can be contagious to students. However, it can also lead us to assume that the value of our fields is as evident to others as it is to us. This is a mistake. In fact, from the perspective of student motivation, it’s critical not only to teach material that is timely and relevant but also to highlight its relevance.

Again, MOOCs push us in the right direction. By and large, MOOC students don’t pay tuition. They aren’t a captive audience and they don’t have to sit still for our lectures. This makes it essential, not optional, to ask and answer the question: Why should students care? This is a question we ought to ask ourselves more often in the context of tuition-bearing courses as well.

Takeaway: Don’t assume that students immediately see the value of the material you’re teaching. Instead, point out the value or (better yet) ask questions that prompt students to identify the value for themselves. Also, think about what your students care about and try to link what you’re teaching to what they value, personally, intellectually and professionally.

Pitfalls That MOOCs Lead Us Toward

Alas, MOOCs can reinforce bad pedagogical habits as well. Chief among these is the tendency to mistake a set of lectures for a course. Not only are lectures, at most, only part of a course, but they’re not even a terribly effective pedagogical method. Over 30 years of research indicates that, unlike more active forms of learning, lecture does not promote deep learning, knowledge retention or the ability to transfer learning into new contexts. Thus, the overwhelming focus in MOOCdom on lecture delivery is cause for dismay. Indeed, there is a distinct irony to the fact that some of our most forward-thinking learning platforms take such a backward-looking approach to pedagogy.

Takeaway: Use lectures strategically to illuminate core disciplinary ideas, explain tricky concepts or demonstrate problem solving, but don’t overrely on them. Remember that when it comes to deep learning, less is usually more. It’s generally a good idea to prioritize and cut your total lecture content while creating more opportunities for students to actively use what they’re learning.

Second, the educational value of MOOCs is almost always compromised by the M in their title. When courses are massive, the instructor’s ability to utilize robust assessments, provide helpful feedback and create a meaningful connection with students is necessarily limited. Even the best MOOCs (the University of Pennsylvania’s Modern and Contemporary American Poetry is my personal favorite) cannot offer the same kinds of rich, project-based or writing-intensive assessments that smaller courses routinely do. This isn’t a bad habit; it’s just a functional constraint of the medium. The bad habit is believing that multiple-choice quizzes, even good ones, are an adequate replacement for more robust and authentic forms of assessment. 

Takeaway: Multiple-choice quizzes and tests are easy to grade and can, if well designed, test higher-order thinking skills. They’re helpful, especially for managing faculty workload in large classes. But students also need opportunities to produce their own work, to construct meaning and practice using key skills. And this requires projects and assignments that allow students to think, write and speak critically -- and receive feedback on their work.

Why Focus on MOOCs?

Neither the good teaching habits described here nor the bad ones are inevitable for MOOCs: the MOOC format simply makes these habits easier to fall into. Nor are the pitfalls discussed (expert blind spot, prior knowledge gaps, content overload, motivational deficits, overreliance on lecture and inadequate assessment methods) significant only for MOOCs. They’re every bit as relevant -- and arguably far more problematic -- in for-credit courses.

Why focus on MOOCs then? MOOCs have different constraints and challenges that help to shed new light on issues surrounding teaching and learning. And they highlight these issues outside the contexts in which most of us teach, where perhaps we can see them more clearly.


Marie Norman is senior director of educational excellence at Acatar, a Carnegie Mellon-based company, and coauthor of How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Jossey-Bass, 2010).


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