Of MOOCs and Men

MOOCs, MOODs and more.

October 12, 2015

It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this that a dividing line continues to exist between faculty members when it comes to MOOCs in particular and to online teaching in general.

That dividing line was there four years ago when I was working at edX, talking about MOOCs to faculty members at Harvard or Wellesley or Rice or TU Delft or Hong Kong Polytechnic. That dividing line is still there now, although perhaps it has moved slightly in what’s viewed as a positive direction, with more faculty having an open mind about the power of this medium.

In any case, let me break down the two camps.

There are professors who believe that online teaching and massively online teaching work. Let’s call them Massive Open Online Supporters (MOOSs).

These are the professors who believe that these online courses truly connect people with ideas and also connect people to each other. This is partly because MOOSs personally want a massive audience for their teaching. They also believe that the scale of those they can teach makes up for some of the possible limitations of the modality.

But these MOOSs also know that the online format allows for a more measured and more controllable form of interaction. For instance, the asynchronous qualities of online learning elements can help those who are not auditory learners engage with the materials when they might otherwise be discouraged.

On the other side, there are those professors who think that the human element of face-to-face teaching is not replicable in any way outside the four walls of the brick and mortar classroom. For them, the magic of the synchronous classroom is lost when any elements of it are not done face to face and – as David Brooks might have it – soul to soul. Let’s (unfairly) call these professors Massive Open Online Detractors (MOODs).

Most of the MOODs I know are not even remotely Luddites. Many, in fact, are among the most successful and innovative professors I have met, but just not online, and certainly not with MOOCs.

Further, given that students come with devices in hand, there may be a sense of fatigue with technology. Some faculty set up classroom tech use ground rules or even activate Wi-Fi suppression switches. I often find myself in class competing with ESPN, YouTube, texting, e-mail, etc. The frustrations are real, but online teaching tools are not, I argue, distractions, but true tools, even for MOODs.   

The MOOC in the Middle
I don’t believe that there is any longer a question that MOOCs can teach people how to do stuff. I think that much is now quite clear, and the data is voluminous, especially given Coursera’s success with their Specializations. The question that very much remains is whether MOOCs can enable transformative teaching. This is beyond seeing them as consumers who possess newly transferred information. Put another way, can MOOCs transform students as people?

I think that it is fair to say that all good teachers have witnessed this kind of transformation in their physical classrooms. In my view, it is what keeps them going through the rest of the less magical moments that make up a teacher’s life.

Of course, the MOOC providers do a good job of pointing out individuals whose lives have been touched and even changed (e.g., a new job, a renewed love of learning, a connection with a like-minded person thousands of miles away) by MOOCS. But these examples are, as far as we know, relatively few and far between (perhaps due to the new nature of MOOCs … but this is a topic I plan to return to at a later date, so send plenty of counterexamples and data my way!).

Some MOOC students very much want to know how to do stuff and learn skills that can help them make more money (the somewhat ethically deflated 21st century equivalent of winning friends and influencing people). But surveys of students in the most massive of massive online courses also tell us that they want to connect to the professor and to each other.

In any non-brick and mortar setting, or an environment that is asynchronous and off in the cloud, that is a challenge. More recently designed MOOCs put a greater emphasis on chat-room style connections between students, but they remain clunky and limited in both scope and impact.

As with most dichotomies, this one between MOOSs and MOODs is largely a false one. There are fairly simple solutions to at least some of the completely real concerns that the MOODs have. The potential great unifier, no surprise, is a technology-based one, and perhaps that will be a deal-breaker for some among the MOODs. However, this is a technology solution that comes from the basic human need to connect and from the basic human quality of empathy—all things that MOOC learners, and perhaps all students, want.

The Human Touch
The best explanation that I have seen of this human, empathic, connecting bridge between the acronyms was presented to me by Steve Gottlieb, CEO of Shindig, an online video conversation platform.

The professors who teach online and in MOOCs are, of course, as human as any professor. But there’s a problem. The students do not perceive these taped professors as fully human or at least as fully present. Even digital natives have come of age in non-virtual classrooms. They know and are impacted by the fact that there is a living, breathing human being teaching them, who is together with them in the room.

No matter how good the text-based chat function is in a learning environment, it is not personal and does not truly connect. That connection is the first missing element in MOOCs. Others have helpfully identified the social element of learning that is key to success and that is not yet well replicated in these largely interaction free spaces. Physical meetups, while useful for a handful of learners in a massive course, simply don’t scale.    

The second missing element is professorial fallibility. MOOCs and highly designed, scripted online courses give the impression that the perfectly tele-prompted professor is, again, not actually human. There are no mistakes. We instinctively associate people talking at us from a TV screen with things like newscasters, who we don’t quite see as human, either.

As a professor, I know that some of the most powerful moments of teaching I have had are when I don’t know the answer to a probing question asked by a student. What happens next is absolutely essential to the ultimate success of the course as a transformative experience for the students.

Seeing me admit my ignorance, and then perhaps bumble my way through a very partial response – drawing on the knowledge and insight of the students in my stumbling – empowers the students to see themselves in a more active way than any other teachable moment, in my experience.  

Massive courses scale when it comes to enrollments, learning outcomes, and now even revenue. But the MOODs are right that they don’t yet scale when it comes to the powerful moments that constitute the best teaching. And the MOODs are also right that until we get to that point, perhaps learners can get certificates in such non-soul-stirring courses, but they cannot get a “real” degree.

Most of us have seen the relatively clunky faculty-student interactions that happen in many learning management systems, and have been unimpressed. There are a series of solutions already in place. Some of them come from big companies like Adobe.  Some are built into big learning management systems like BlackBoard or Canvas.  2U has made a full solution surrounding this element a cornerstone of their value proposition.

On the other end of the scale, there are some very basic solutions like Google chat. These tools are generally serviceable, but not truly dynamic or deeply interactive. The courses they are added to are more machine than human. These are chat functions adapted to learning, but there also exist solutions custom made just for this problem, to be added to great courses taught by great faculty.  

Perhaps it took a big-time record producer (and Harvard trained lawyer) like Steve Gottlieb, who discovered some of the leading stars in music, to innovate his way to an effectively cool solution to this conundrum. He brings his sense not only of what the people want to this educational space, but also of how actually to get it to them. The result is not anything like AOL chat rooms on technological steroids but nearly a new creature altogether. 

Shindig and its video chat sistren allow for interaction not just between the students and the faculty member, but also allow students to chat and text with each other. Students can see faculty members stumble and construct and – I hope – admit to imperfection and ignorance during live interactions. These sessions can include thousands of total participants, but grouped into manageable chunks of 20.

The professor or a campus based teaching assistant or perhaps someone from the teaching and learning center at the school can run the show, and the professor can just be present, engaging, empowering, and bumbling.

The recent announcement of Harvard Business School’s HBX Live is a powerful salvo from the MOOC battlefield, from territory closer to the MOOD camp. It seeks to integrate the best elements of the brick and mortar classroom but replicated with students floating into the professor’s physical space on individualized screens. It remains to be seen whether the price point and that level of touch will truly scale.

Another moderate path open for online education and MOOCs, and currently being championed by Harvard and others, is the SPOC, the Small Private Online Course, aptly and cutely named by Armando Fox, Berkeley’s uber-professor, engineer, and musician. Terry Fisher’s copyright course was intentionally designed for what ten years ago would have seemed like a massive audience of about 500, but which only seemed small compared to the 100,000 plus learners that some early MOOCs garnered.

SPOCs are far less revolutionary than MOOCs, but it is high time that the wildly revolutionary statements made by some at the start of MOOC mania be clicked on and then dragged and dropped into the trash icon of history. Moderation will allow the online evolution to live long and prosper. The alternative is the continued internecine conflict between MOOSs and MOODs that has brought us very little peace on campus, and that I hope does not have a long life.

Shindig and other such products are building us this bridge between MOOSs and MOODs. But, as we know, the best laid schemes of mice and men – and MOOCs and (wo)men – often go awry. Many of those in the MOODs camp will fail to recognize the bridge available to them now, or perhaps consciously choose to ignore it.

Eventually, the false dichotomy many are now presenting us with between all online and no online will dissolve. The bridge that takes us through the now excluded middle will be too obvious not to take.

When we get to that point, two wonderful things can happen.  The first is that we can leave these horrible acronyms aside.  The second and more important outcome is that we can just return to being teachers, transmitting information to our students while also shaping their minds and their souls.

Akiba J. Covitz (@AkibaHigherEdis Executive Director of YU Global: Yeshiva University Online.  He previously served as associate dean for faculty development at Harvard Law School, vice president for university partnerships at edX, and senior vice president for strategic relationships at Academic Partnerships.  Before all that, he recalls a simpler time as a professor who loved to read John Steinbeck and Robert Burns, and, yes, watch the occasional episode of Star Trek.


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