Not Sure If I’ve “Taken” a MOOC

I find a lot of things about MOOCs confusing. But when I was responding to Lenandlar Singh’s blog post in which he asked the following three questions (paraphrased), I was more confused than ever before: 1. How long should videos in MOOCs be? 2. How well are discussions happening in MOOC discussion forums? and 3. How long should MOOCs ideally be?

The questions are very clear (so they’re not what confused me). I was confused by the fact that I couldn’t define the term MOOC. At first, I thought that since Len seems to be thinking about the xMOOCs—-which have video lectures and discussion forums and course duration–I tried to answer the questions with that type of MOOCs in mind. But as I wrote a short response in the comments section, I realized that I haven’t really taken, actively participated, or fully completed any such course so far. But I have observed, tasted, audited, and skipped and dipped into many courses, even xMOOCs.

Maybe I shouldn’t say I have “taken” any MOOCs so far, but by the same measure, maybe most people who the big data counts as participants/students haven’t “taken” them either! There are a lot of studies about participation and engagement of those who take xMOOCs. Indeed, instructors of the large Coursera-type MOOCs often tell participants that it’s okay to observe, taste, or participate more fully; to start early or late; to continue beyond the end of course; etc. So, maybe my participation counts. Maybe I am one of the more “active” participants in certain measures. I may not follow the instructor’s instructions, complete all or even many of the assignments, and I may only read/lurk the discussions and skip videos that don’t seem interesting to me. I learn in bits and pieces, and, more importantly, I learn from conversations with participants in ways that don’t follow the structured topics/processes provided by the teacher. Since learning (not credit) is what I want, I’m never motivated to fully “participate” in any MOOC, forget about “completing” them.

Have I “taken” any MOOC yet or not? In the “big data” analysis, am I counted as a participant? Do I count?

If we consider that instructors of many xMOOCs encourage people to join in any way they want, work as much as they like, etc, then I have “taken” quite a few MOOCs. I have learned a lot from them, I have observed the teaching and learning in them, and I have got to know a lot of people (even in xMOOCs). But to the extent that xMOOCs are teacher-centered, that they are called “open” and they remain confused and confusing appropriations of traditional and emerging pedagogies (the best of which they’re still running over), I have a hard time with the very act of defining not only whether I’m taking MOOCs but also what MOOCs are in the first place.

Let us break it down. The term “massive” part of them can be described by the number of students/participants (say 100). But if the “open” only means “open for anyone to enroll” then the whole thing is more full of lies than a life of its own. The first O of MOOC was originally defined as “open for the community” and not “open for ‘anyone’ to consider joining and, if we can figure out how to make you do so, pay” — and educators continue to emphasize the original meaning of “open” in MOOCs. So, the “massive” aspect of MOOCs cannibalizes the idea of “course,” which remains a poor appropriation of traditional, teacher-centered, having a timeline and learning materials and objectives to be pursued by all. And the idea of “open” (nor really, wink-wink) aspect of MOOCs existentially undermine the idea of openness in the first place in a similar way.

So, every time I start having a conversation about my experiences of “taking” MOOCs, I start asking myself, “Have I really ‘taken’ any MOOC at all?” I watch videos, but scrub through them when I know what the lecturer is talking about, or if I find it boring or somehow not worth the time; I would blame myself for being a poor learner, but I also know that I am being counted in! And it feels like being at a party where I was not invited but I also know that it is an open party and everyone who stops by is a “guest.”

In most of the teacher-centered massive online courses, I have participated in a few discussion forums, but they have never appealed to me. I go there, read and respond a little, then quickly lose interest because I realize that I am not following the instructor’s instructions. The few conversations that I participate in probably count very well in the big data analysis (like I easily write a thousand words in response to a simple question, lol), but I know that I am too old, lazy, or lacking in discipline to follow the instructor’s instructions, to meet the course’s objectives in any significant way. I hack, I appropriate, and I take things apart in random ways.

If I find something interesting, especially if I get to know interesting people, I stay longer and engage better. This is why I participate quite actively in cMOOCs and other variations. But in Coursera-style xMOOCs, my typical moocing behavior is to observe a course early in the semester (like watching all the videos posted), going back in a few weeks and then observing again (scrubbing through videos to see what seems interesting), and visiting one more time at the end to see what conversations and lectures were interesting/useful. That may be unique, or it may be more or less representative of participants who “take” MOOCs for informal learning and networking. If this kind of “student” behavior is highly common, xMOOCs will either have a short life, a false life, or a chameleon-like changing life and call themselves MOOC while changing beyond recognition, taking confusingly many forms, and allowing those who pretend to be interested in advancing the cause of education in the world–as well as providing fertile grounds for the evolution of new pedagogies for real educators.

All that said, what is a MOOC? Or what are MOOCs? Can we define any of the terms in the acronym in any logical sense anymore? If not, is MOOC just a metaphor, a placeholder, a proxy for all kinds of things? Should we care?

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  1. A really lively and engaging discussion of MOOCs that I found liberating! I love the fact that you join MOOCs with little intention of ‘fully’ engaging – that you are happy to dip in and out and in again – that you can skim through videos and happily stop watching when they are predictable or boring… On the one hand this is a salutary post for everybody who seems to think that adding an e – any sort of e it doesn’t really matter – to any sort of course will instantly make it meaningful and successful. Obviously it is much more complicated than that. On the other, it demonstrates a non-neurotic way of tackling the information overload age in which we live. Essential reading for the e-learning age! Best, Sandra

    • Sandra, Thank you. That’s a very kind comment. I have taken a lot of MOOCs, but I don’t really engage in those “courses” in the same way that I engaged in conventional, hi-teAch instead of hi-tech, courses. That has always made me afraid that I may be a “fraud” in the MOOC world, someone who is not really qualified to discuss, critique, and write about them. I may be the one who is making the apple and orange comparison, sitting on the sidelines and complaining, not really recognizing the positive affordances. But then, every time I “try” to go back and more fully engage in a conventional MOOC (the types that are taking the world by surprise), I fail again. So, I wanted to think through that feeling, and I am starting to think that there may be a lot of other participants/students who do the same– not just when they’re observing and engaging casually but also when they actually “complete” the courses and get certificates. There is something about human beings–and I don’t think it’s just the younger humans–that seems to make them not want to fully listen when they are just virtually listening to someone in video (except when the other person is absolutely interesting). On top of that, there are just TOO many distractions in life today. And when MOOC proponents come along with the worst pedagogical ideas and say that that is what they will use to replace entire hi-teAch systems of education with fancy hi-tech, I start yawning.

      • I yawn too! It is salutary to be a student and note one’s own behaviours – hopefully rather than encouraging us to more emphatically control *how* our students engage with our courses – it should tell us that a compliant, obedient student is not necessarily the best one!

  2. What do you mean when you say hi-teach? Are you referring to classes that involve debate and discussion? Or classes where the prof is actually in the room? I’m a big believer that we can’t measure participation in MOOCs with the same standards and metrics used in brick & mortar schools. DId you watch videos? Did you pick up anything new? Did you partake in the forums? Did it give you a new point of view? Did you pick up a skill?

    I think MOOCs are there to foster a love of learning. You can get out of a MOOC what you put in. You have to take part in the development of a community, the sharing of info, the exploration of a topic. The instructor presents the content. The students drive the context and understanding. Check out and let me know what you think 🙂

    • Thank for you a thoughtful comment, Elizabeth.
      “Hi-teAch” is a word I made up to parody “hi-tech,” suggesting that it’s the teAching and learning that matters at the end of the day, not the tech itself (as many people try to give the impression). As a student, I have always valued classes/courses that involved an active teaching role from the teacher, though that teaching need not mean lecture and teacher-centered/controlled activities.
      I fully agree with you that MOOCs are a “new” phenomenon in education (so we can’t/should “measure participation in MOOCs with the same standards and metrics used in brick & mortar schools”). It actually disturbs me that the biggest players in the MOOCosphere are dishonestly presenting open online learning as “courses” with lectures and quizzes as the primary mode of teaching/learning. As a teacher, I am disgusted by how they try to reverse engineer MOOCs into traditional “courses” instead of, say, working their way up from the new affordances of MOOCs, from a mode that works best with those who “love learning” independently.
      But, no, they can’t slow down, think, build the new house from the ground up– because they need to make money, fast. Many of this industry’s leaders not only seem greedy but also stupid, because few of them have expertise/background in research/scholarship of education (also, greed normally make people short-sighted and stupid on its own); many of them are computer scientists if not venture capitalists and corporate shills masquerading as “educators.” That’s how angry I get when I see dishonest people taking over a fantastic new phenomenon in education and trying to put in pedagogical boxes that many disciplines like mine left behind in the 1960s.
      I also agree with the second paragraph of your comment. I am going to read and respond to the blog post you shared. For me “context” is a god word (as you may know, this is a nice term from critical theory). Context Matters, and very few if any of the xMOOC’s stupidly dishonest leaders are likely to get it.

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