Previewing the Hallway Conversations at Learning With MOOCs III

3 of the things that we will talk about when we talk to each other.

October 5, 2016

This week I’m participating in the 3rd annual Learning with MOOCs conference.  The tagline for the event (which I love) is - “Being and Learning in a Digital Age”.   The convening is being hosted by the Online Learning Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.

The sessions are all about MOOCs - but I expect that our hallway conversations will be about other things.

Don’t get me wrong, we will talk about open online education.  The thing is - is that those of us working on MOOC initiatives view MOOCs as a means to achieve some bigger ends.  These ends differ from institution to institution, but they are consistent in that the ultimate goals are always much larger than open online courses.

What are those bigger goals that we load up on our MOOC sleds?

What will we be talking about beyond MOOCs?

1 - Enhancing Residential Teaching and Learning:

Everybody that I know in the MOOC producer community joined this movement with the goal of enhancing and evolving face-to-face teaching and learning. 

None of us believed the hype of 3 years ago that MOOCs were somehow a replacement for what we do on our campuses.  Rather, all of us believe that we can use MOOCs to learn about learning.

We all believe that what is vital and valuable about a “traditional” education is that it does not scale.  That is, an education built on a relationships between a highly-skilled (and well-supported) educator, and the students that they teach. 

We see MOOCs as one way to make the case that a valuable education is one that is intimate, richly resourced, and designed around the educator/learner relationship.

Ironic, no? 

MOOC people are in fact the biggest supporters of small-scale and close-knit educational environments.  It makes sense when you think about it - as who would no better about what you can't do educationally at scale than those who have worked to provide education at scale.  

MOOCs can do many things, but they will never replace or supplant the sort of quality education that you get in a small (residential or online) seminar - a seminar where the professor knows each learner.

So what can we learn from MOOCs about residential teaching? 

Can we figure out alternative methods to build foundational skills for some of our students - so that we can focus more resources, time, and attention on higher-order skills and competencies? 

Can we leverage digital platforms to create conditions that allow us to offer smaller enrollment face-to-face classes - more seminars - and a more immersive teaching and learning environment? 

Can we use the data from teaching at scale - say around media or assessments - to better craft digital assets that will aid our faculty in their traditional small-scale face-to-face courses?

We see MOOCs as an means to make the case of the centrality of the educator.  We see MOOCs as a method to bring resources to faculty.  We see MOOCs as experiments that will help us learn about learning.

None of these goals is ever mentioned by the critics of MOOCs - critics who largely come from outside of the MOOC creation community.  Those of us in the MOOC producer community need to do a much better job of aligning with educators, and of sharing why we are participating in the open online learning movement.

2 - The Postsecondary Challenges of Access, Costs, Public Disinvestment, and Adjunctification:

The facts of spiraling costs and growing student debt provide the worrisome context for every higher education discussion.  The reality of state level disinvestment from public postsecondary education is a national embarrassment.  The growing adjunctification and fragility of the faculty role is a trend that threatens the quality, as well as the long-term viability, of many of our institutions.

Those of us in every sector of higher education must work to be part of the solution to lower costs and decrease student debt.  We all need to be doing whatever we can to influence policy discussions around public investments in postsecondary education. And we need to stand with all educators in their fights for reasonable levels of job security, compensation, and autonomy.

The question is - how can the MOOC community be part of these discussions? 

How can those of us working on open online education also influence macro trends around costs and debt, and policy issues such as public funding? 

Where do we come in in supporting contingent faculty? 

The answers are not clear.

Can open online education be one method to improve access and lower costs?   Can we use MOOCs to find ways to invest more of our precious dollars in teaching and learning - and money in marketing and outreach to drive awareness of our institutions?  Will MOOCs become a new admissions funnel?   What role will MOOCs play in alternative lower-cost credentials that will be recognized by employers?  

Again, none of these answers are clear.

What the MOOC producer community must do is contribute our experiences and expertise to the larger fundamental challenges that face higher education today. 

We need to be clear about our higher education beliefs and goals - and do what we can to contribute to positive change for our students, our educators, and our communities.

3 - Sustaining the Campus Conversation on Learning R&D:

The MOOC hype cycle was ridiculous in most ways. 

Unrealistic expectations were raised. 

The world of traditional online education - something that many of us having been doing for going on a couple of decades now - was confounded with MOOCs.  Traditional online programs (small scale, relationship based) and MOOCs have as little to do with each other as your close personal friends and your Twitter followers.

The big thing that the MOOC hype did accomplish, however, is to create interest and excitement on our campuses about learning research and development (R&D).

Suddenly, learning R&D became cool.  This was an odd turn of events for us learning R&D people - as we were used to being marginalized and ignored.

Starting in 2013, the learning R&D people started to get invited to meetings.

Everyone seemed to be talking about disciplined experiments, learning analytics and big learning data, backwards course design, learning objectives, formative assessment, and Bloom’s taxonomy. 

The idea that we can combine learning theory with cutting edge technologies to shake up teaching and learning on campus became - for a time - mainstream.

Again, this was all very strange for the “traditional” online learning crowd - as we have been working with instructional designers and operationalizing the learning research for years.  But we did not complain.

If it took MOOCs to make learning R&D cool - who were we to complain?

The challenge now 3 years later is to keep learning R&D at the forefront of our campus conversations. 

MOOCs were never going to be the answer to the true challenges that face us in higher education.  But we shamelessly used MOOCs to address the issues that we really do care about, and those issues all have to do with learning.

How to keep everyone else interested on campus in research and development for learning, particularly in times of acute resource scarcities and competing priorities, will be one of the hot hallway topics of conversation at the Learning with MOOCs III.

What other hallway conversations do you anticipate at Learning with MOOCs III?

Why is it that the perceptions of the MOOC movement are so different outside of our community than within?

How do you think the open online learning community can contribute to solving the larger challenges that we face in higher education?

How can we change your opinion of what the MOOC movement is really about?

What sort of learning R&D is going on on your campus?


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