I have taken or at least closely observed a few massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and I want to say out loud that in the case of my own discipline of writing studies, the teachers/scholars running them were wonderful. No, I’m not simply bragging about my own discipline, but like most writing teachers tend to be, the instructors whose courses I took were very thoughtful about students’ learning and in the case of the Ohio State University course, they also seemed highly aware of and sensitive to cultural/contextual differences that can affect students’ participation/success.
However, the more MOOCs I observe, the more it seems to me that no amount of awareness/ sensitiveness is going to be enough. The vastly different academic backgrounds, language proficiencies/differences, sociocultural worldviews, material conditions, digital divides, geopolitical realities. . . make MOOCs fundamentally a paradox. (For convenience, let us call these complex and multilayered differences and barriers just “differences” or “learner differences.”) Here’s why I call MOOCs a paradox: unless the objective of a course is to teach/learn about the differences themselves, trying to accommodate those differences will result in a mess, just because there will be TOO MANY of them in the MOOC setting. For instructors to be able to address enough of the differences, the courses will have to stop being massive, being open, and being asynchronous and online at the same time. That means there is a double bind between teaching effectively and accommodating for the many differences that affect learning. Or is it a hydra?
Thus, especially for disciplines like mine, putting together the “massive” and “open” and “virtual” makes effective teaching across the differences almost impossible. I think we must go ahead and “admit” that good teaching really doesn’t “scale” so massively especially across the many differences. I think that we must acknowledge that the best thing we can do is to acknowledge such bad news, adjust our expectations, and adapt whatever we do teach/learn to the realities of massive, open, and virtual learning/teaching. It looks like we must take the lessons and start doing something other than what the promoters of this “revolution”–most of whom don’t seem to care about the quality of learning/teaching–are telling us is possible. If the fundamentals of our profession aren’t very compatible with MOOC, then we must appropriate it rather than be appropriated by it. We must stop compromising too much of our core principles and practices in the name of whatever else it is that we are attracted to, sooner than later. In particular, if the massive aspect of MOOCs too badly conflicts with our basic pedagogical principles as well as our cultural sensibilities, we must not hesitate to say so. Doing so will help us begin a new phase of conversation about scale, openness, and asynchronous teaching/learning can begin.
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While I’m at it, let me also add further reflections based on my observations of MOOCs in general. I want to ask whether non-writing MOOCs are immune to the double binds of the differences that I mentioned above. My broader observations could be taken more critically, because I know less about teaching/learning in other disciplines, but based on my experience, even in other disciplines, MOOCs don’t seem to be immune to the problems caused by the complex and variegated differences among the learners’ backgrounds.
I’ve observed courses in fields like biology, applied computing, and genetics, especially trying to see how the differences in student backgrounds relate to teaching at a “massive” scale. Some instructors in these courses seemed somewhat aware of the differences, but in general (and predictably) most of them seemed to assume that the content of their course is “universal.” In fact, looking at the design and delivery of some courses, it also seemed that they are almost unaware that their local academic cultures are not universal and that there are a great variety of contextual differences across the world that affect the learners.
I must note at this point that a lot of academic practices are shared across the world (the university is to a considerable extent a universal phenomenon) and of course a significant proportion of students in most countries have direct exposure to “Western” style high school and college/university education. So, it is hard to predict by, say, a student’s national background what kind of academic background he/she had.
However, we must remember that academic practices can be vastly different in different parts of the world. For instance, the idea of assignments, identifying your own problem, demonstrating (rather than just learning) how you can solve the problem, discussing the content with peers, and the like are not universal. On top of difference in academic culture/practices, there are the many other factors (as I mentioned above) that directly or indirectly shape/influence academic practices.
Scholars of distance and online education have been pointing out this problem for a long time (even though, unfortunately, their advice seems to never reach the mainstream even among instructors and others involved in online education). But more than ever before, the MOOC revolution in higher education is finally exposing how parochial teachers can be. Obviously, this is not limited to certain countries or cultures, but if we think about academic disciplines as cultures, especially teachers of science and technology seem to be most unaware of (even unwilling to consider) the influence of contextual difference on students’ learning.
Recently, in an exchange of comments on this subject in an online forum, a Canadian MOOC instructor contended that even as she was wrapping up her course, she had not yet seen “any evidence” of “invisible cultural problems.” The irony of her comment was that the problems do exist that they are invisible to her, and I believe that is the case because she seems unwilling to recognize them, even as the rest of her comment seemed to indicate. I went on to enroll in and observe her course along with a friend and I was amazed by how quintessentially Canadian/North American—as well as very well designed, locally viewed—her course was. On the one hand, the professor said that she and her students are eager to learn about other cultures’ perspectives on the subject matter, but the very questions that she used for promoting the course were extremely local in terms of their social, political, and cultural significance and interest. The promotional questions tantalize students by asking them whether there is a “gay gene,” if one can trust a “paternity test,” if “GMOs” are safe, if cousin marriage is “bad,” and (the only issue that seemed more than local to me) if breast cancer in one’s mother increases one’s risk of having it also. Especially after listening to the observation of a Nepali friend who has no exposure of the educational culture here, I realized how absolutely squarely the course was situated in the North American academic culture. As I listened to the course’s introduction video, supplemented by another wonderful outline of course logistics, a second time, using the dual perspective of an American university teacher and someone from with a South Asian academic background, I found myself stunned by how different the mainstream academic cultures of these two parts of the world are.
But the problem doesn’t end with professors being unable or unwilling to take cultural/contextual differences seriously. That inability/unwillingness is just a symptom of a larger underlying pedagogical problem: many MOOC professors in many disciplines don’t seem to draw even on the fundamental principles and best practices of distance/online education. As Ron Legon, the executive director Quality Matters, argued in an Inside HigherEd article in April, the MOOC revolution has paid little attention to quality of learning. It is indeed amazing how the “star” professors at prestigious schools who are dominating the MOOC scene at this time seem to not bother very much about even the fundamental principles of distance education (such as these or these).
The so-called MOOC revolution of higher education is not only largely built on some of the most problematic pedagogies of the past (which are the least effective for us as writing teachers and indeed for any discipline: lecture, standardized tests, machine grading) but the revolution also disregards other fundamentals like academic integrity, need for specialized training for distance education, and a puzzling blindness toward international learners other than as fantastic numbers and evidence of access, diversity, and influence in the world.
In fact, many MOOC professors seem to believe that the “rigor” of the content they deliver makes their MOOCs “academically rigorous.” A survey of MOOC professors reported in a Chronicle of Higher Education article (which I referred to my own blog post for the Chronicle last week, said this: “Nearly half of the professors felt their online courses were as rigorous academically as the versions they taught in the classroom.” Whether the claim means that “lectures” being “rigorous” makes MOOCs “academically” rigorous, or that it means that MOOCs are comparable to their classroom “versions,” it has to be absurd either way. I will not dispute that MOOCs can be a useful form of learning experience for students, but the fact that the “stars” compare (or are willing to respond to a question that asks them to compare) MOOCs against on-site teaching begins to sew invisible clothing for these academic emperors. That is, the stars of the lecture hall may be stars of content but that does not necessarily make them stars of teaching. In reality, more stars of teaching are found working in carrells in the basements of community college buildings, or replying to many students’ emails every day in small online courses, than they are standing in front of gigantic lecture halls of prestigious universities or, in the case of MOOCs, recording lectures and reaching out unilaterally to thousands of students around the world on the backs of for profit companies.
Yes, if teaching means primarily “delivering” and enhancing the delivery of the “content,” a course may be academically rigorous. But if academic rigor must subsume rigor in teaching as well, then the claim becomes suspect. Yes, delivering the content of a course as the primary teaching method can be more feasible in some types of courses than in others. But even in the most content-focused courses, whether it is off or online, learning is most effective and meaningful when there is more focus on one-on-one support by the instructor, student-to-student interaction that is meaningfully facilitated by the instructor, and scaffolded exploration and implementation of ideas in a small classroom than on a one-way delivery of content by the instructor. Courses with 500 students in big lecture halls may have been “efficient” but they have never been effective learning environments. They become worse, not better, when the number is multiplied by a thousand, even if technology helps make up for some of the weaknesses of the lecture hall (for instance by allowing students to absorb the content at their own pace and convenience).
Especially because the leading figures in MOOC teaching have not gone very far from their base of the lecture method, the MOOC revolution of higher education is showing, very publicly, that the emperors of the lecture method are very naked. This reminds me of a MOOC video in which a professor seemed excited to have (apparently) just discovered that students could be teachers (meaning they could provide peer feedback) in the discussion forum!
Of course, MOOCs evidently introduce a whole new set of affordances, some of which will benefit some of the learners around the world and others will be useful for teachers to supplement (or even help rethink) their teaching locally. But delivering one’s best ideas in best ways, and even somewhat enhancing the lectures with integrated quizzes, helpful resources, etc, does not compare with good “teaching” that good teachers have been doing for a long time.
That is, we must honestly question if at all teaching and learning can be rigorous overall in “massive” and “open” environments. This questioning can only begin if we begin to see how significantly the difference in students’ academic backgrounds, language proficiencies/varieties, sociocultural world views, material conditions, digital divides, geopolitical realities and such factors affect their participation and success in MOOCs.
Once we begin to accept that the differences are many and complex and pedagogically/ educationally significant, then we will turn to the literature, best practices, and principles of teaching cross-culturally and online. Let me add a few sites and articles that I’ve come across in the past few weeks, noting how little there is in the intersection of distance education and cross-cultural teaching/learning—not to mention the absence, as yet, of such literature about MOOC itself. Perhaps because of the invisibility of cultural differences, after hours of trying to find and read discussions about this subject on the web, I found myself still reading exclusively “local” reasons for why MOOCs fail, like this one, or general principles of teaching online, like this. Some tangentially touch upon the cultural issue from a broader/global perspective, but because they normally a local conversation, they naturally focus on local issues.
The one article among my finds, which is explicitly on cultural issues regarding MOOCs, titled “Cultural Barriers and American MOOCs,” provides a few useful notes on what aspects of online teaching/learning cultural factors affect. Another article, which is more general, discusses “Cultural Competence and Instructional Design” based on how the teachers who participated in the study had acquired cultural competence from practical experience of teaching online. Responses from two of the participants of this study are worth quoting here:
I am so excited about [the questions about culture] you are asking at one point, but I also feel somewhat drained, because the reality of cross-cultural teaching that I see as ideal is a million miles away from what I am doing, or am supported to do. (“Betty”)
[Teachers/trainers say:] “Oh, we don’t have time.” They don’t have time to do assessment at the beginning and they for sure don’t have time to do assessment at the end…Well, if you don’t have time to really learn about who you are designing training for, you are wasting your time. (“Shawn”)
The “community toolbox” on this site provides a good set of ideas and answers to some important questions regarding adapting to cultural differences. An aviation instructor gives a few important pieces of advice on cross-cultural training (though her approach is a bit conventional) in this brief article. Here is a research/report on cultural competency training for teachers (though it’s not about online educators, it has some useful content). Here’s another paper on global self-awareness for pre-service teachers. Because journalists seem to be doing a great job of raising even the global question, I feel like adding one of the many news items that touched upon that perspective here.
I’ve been reading carefully what the founders of MOOC companies have been saying about “teaching” and I find no better word to describe their “pedagogy” than the logic of “childish.” A founder of one of the companies famously said that in fifty years from now, there will be only ten institutions in the whole world that “deliver” higher education. Another professor turned businessperson claimed that her company’s mission is to “take the best courses from the best instructors at the best universities and provide them to everyone in the world, for free!” But if we ask serious questions about learning and teaching, the MOOC emperors begin to seem more and more naked.
Until the beginning of this month, Coursera’s “Our Pedagogy” page contained mainly of two components, “peer assessments” [sic] and “calibrated peer review.” The page seemed to be updated sometime in mid July but it still didn’t look like the research assistant in the company’s “pedagogy” department no more qualified than the company is interested in teaching/learning. The “literature” on the first component consisted of one article on “calibrated peer review” (seriously!), but to top off their discovery of peer review, they had “crowd-sourcing” the literature review on which consisted of a single article co-authored by, you guessed it, one of the company’s cofounder Andrew Ng. The idea behind the second pedagogy shebang is “Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system, a significantly cheaper and faster method for collecting annotations from a broad base of paid non-expert contributors over the web,” aka a slightly better technology than what produced this product review (where the humans hilariously got the best of the machine) on Amazon.com.
We could just ignore this bizarre educational revolution if universities were not rushing to embrace it and if they did not do so in the form of a “bundle” that contains a learning management system (a technology like Blackboard) and some of the most ridiculous ideas about teaching that we have ever seen as teachers. But it looks like the current situation with MOOCs is best described by the Nepalese idiom “bear’s head in your hands.” Serious teachers do not want to sit on the sidelines and complain because they not only want to prevent the “revolution” from undermining the best things about their profession–making direct, human, personal impact on students’ intellectual and professional development–but also want to adopt/adapt new tools and modes of teaching in ways that they know are best for their students. They want a seat at the table, appropriate tools to work with, and opportunities to show the important work that they do. But it looks like this thing is going to attack the profession of teaching if teachers leave it, and attack their profession in a little while if they keep holding it.
If we as educators want to adopt/adapt MOOCs, we must also at the same time build on time-tested foundations of teaching/learning through direct interaction between teacher and learner; we must resist the wholesale “platforms” that are not easy to adapt to the uniqueness of our disciplines (and must instead adapt the other way around); we cannot overlook issues of academic integrity that distance education researchers have been highlighting for years; and we cannot design courses for “anyone” and leave it to learners to navigate their way through unfamiliar academic and disciplinary territories without scaffolding (which reminds me of a Russian engineer who participated in a Google Hangout in a writing MOOC and provided feedback to the assignment by an Indian college student that made me want to cry). Like I said in the case of writing studies, maybe most university teachers will need to admit that their courses are simply incompatible with the massive and/or the open and exclusively online nature of MOOCs.
In most of the MOOCs I’ve taken, the instructors were not the typical “stars” that were originally marketed by the MOOC companies; they were some of the best teachers in my field, and they tried their very best to make learning in the virtual environment that had thousands of students as meaningful as possible. But no matter how much I liked the delivery of content, the conversations among some of the (highly committed) students, I never found an instance that would replace the intimate support systems of conventional teaching/learning. As an Inside Higher Ed article written by six teachers from community colleges in California state:
the heart of what we do as college educators has to do with the immeasurable human interaction that we have with our students and the vital social experience of the face-to-face classrooms. This is something that simply can never be reproduced by a new technology, no matter how advanced.
And as Tufts University President, Lawrence Bacow puts it, not many parents “want their 18 to 21 year old sitting in their basement looking at the computer for four years.” Additionally, when it comes to international participants, when instructors try to achieve the same or similar curricular objectives through MOOCs that they do in small classrooms, it seems almost impossible to make learning very meaningful for learners in distant societies who had starkly different academic experiences. I discuss this issue in a blog entry for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
So, in my view, the first thing that any serious teacher must do about MOOCs is to “acknowledge” that they (like each of the learners/participants) are situated in a certain society, culture, discourse, and so the effectiveness of teaching/ learning in a globally open space will depend on what participants make of the teachers’ ideas and how they present those ideas. Teachers can share knowledge, and they can also try to teach learners ideas and skills on their local terms; but they must be aware of the localness of their ideas and how they communicate them to the learners. It is by “flipping” the learning environment from presenter centered to participant centered (as much as possible) that open learning spaces can start becoming meaningful.
An effective MOOC must foreground the “awareness” of how cultural, experiential differences will shape students’ participation in the course. But when an instructor is willing to foreground that awareness, it seems to me that they will realize that there are perhaps no way to teach MOOCs without leaving major blind spots. Trying to avoid the pedagogical, cultural, and other blind spots of MOOCs even in their best form will probably mean redefining MOOCs altogether. For instance, the “M” may have very limited usability, and so may the first “O.”
Effective “delivery” is only going to expose the worst pedagogies of the past rather than showcase the best affordances of either today’s technology or good teaching practices. For the “star” professors to come forward with the worst pedagogies and tout the “technology” for essentially delivering content is to help serious educators more clearly see that the star professors are naked–just boasting about their royal robes.
The rest of us should move forward without trying to replace the real clothing that we still have with imaginary ones, making sure that the new ones that we get for us are real also.