Sunday, 26 June 2016

Three Books on MOOCs

Paul Kim (Ed.) Massive Open Online Courses: The MOOC Revolution (Routledge 2015)

Jeremy Knox Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course: Contaminating the Subject of Global Education (Routledge 2016)

Curtis J. Bonk et el. (Eds.) MOOCs and Open Education Around the World (Routledge 2015)

When it comes to MOOCs I sometimes feel like an anti-capitalist popping into Starbucks. I know that I shouldn't. I know that they represent just about everything that I am fighting against. It's just that occasionally I just can't resist a Espresso Macchiato to get me going in the morning. At the moment, for instance, I'm enjoying a MOOC on Royal Food and Feasting with the University of Reading and Historic Royal Palaces. It's a well-designed MOOC that seems to incorporate the best of xMOOCs and cMOOCs. (Briefly an xMOOC is a MOOC that relies heavily on video lectures and computer-marked assignments and a closed discussion space for students. A cMOOC - the c stands for 'connectivist' - is relies far more of co-operative learning with students supporting each other and using a variety of social and other media).

Paul Kim's Massive Open Online Courses: The MOOC Revolution reads like it was written by critical friends of MOOCs. There is some discussion about the 'open' bit of MOOCs in several chapters. There is no doubt that MOOCs are accessible to all (as long as you have the right technology) so from that point of view they are open. Yet the curriculum of the MOOC is not open and the content of the MOOC is not open either. Indeed MOOC platforms such as Coursera and FutureLearn have placed heavy restrictions on the use of MOOC content outside of the MOOCs themselves. 

One chapter entitled "Enter the Anti-MOOCs" distills many of the criticisms of MOOCs. They are a part of the increasing commercialisation of higher education. Many of the students (like me - I recognise my privilege) are already highly educated with a large proportion having degrees or higher degrees. MOOCs are being used as marketing tools by the most 'prestigious' universities. The reaction to MOOCs is detailed in this chapter as well and many of these are positive reactions. Initiatives such as LOOCS (Little Open Online Courses) are examined. We cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. For me MOOCs in themselves are not bad but the model on which they are built needs to change. See later for an examination of DOCCs.

I was also intrigued by a chapter on the pedagogy of MOOCs. Rightly this focuses on xMOOCs. cMOOCs already have a strong pedagogy, connectivism, built into them (This article is a good introduction to connectivism). I was always puzzled by the way xMOOCs function. Asking students to just watch a bunch of videos and answer some computer-generated questions seems to me to fly in the face of everything we've been told about how to engage students. No wonder the drop-out rate is so huge. Only the most committed students will see this through to the end. What was also interesting is the exploration of different pedagogies of MOOC platforms. This seems to rely on the countries/areas where the platform was set up. EdX and Coursera (both in the USA) offer a different pedagogic style to FutureLearn (UK-based) or Iversity (Europe-based).

Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course: Contaminating the Subject of Global Education was a difficult read for me. Not because it set out to challenge my views about MOOCs but it approaches it's critique of MOOCs from an academic perspective that I'm not familiar with. For instance, the concept of "posthumanism" was one that I had never encountered before. The author's main contention is that MOOCs are part of a universalist view of humanism in which people are rational and autonomous human beings. For the author there is nothing universalist about this at all. Hence "posthumanism". The principles of rationality and autonomy are the products of a particular time and a particular place and that MOOCs buy into this universalist worldview.

He also regards MOOCs as a form of educational colonialism. Many of the most prestigious universities in the western world have jumped onto the MOOC bandwagon claiming to offer educational opportunities to everybody around the world whilst pushing their own interests in the background. Even the pedagogy used is a form of colonialism as any pedagogic theory is a product of the time and place it emerged from. 

Leading on from that the author also regards MOOCs are being a symptom of the growing influence of Silicon Valley Values (there was a fascinating programme on Silicon Valley Values on BBC Radio 4 a little while ago - you can hear it here). For me Silicon Valley Values place a huge emphasis on technology as providing the panacea for many societal problems whilst at the same time being proud of their 'disruptive' nature (see the rise of Uber and Airbnb as other examples) which actively opposes government regulation and the protection of workers, consumers and the environment. Neo-liberalism delivered through your computer/phone screen.

Like the first book in this review, MOOCs and Open Education Around the World, is a critical but not sceptical friend of MOOCs. There are lots of essays written by "educational leaders" looking at MOOCs and other open educational initiatives around the world.

Again there is some recognition that the "open" bit of MOOCs is problematic. People involved in the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement would simply not recognise MOOCs as being genuinely open. Within the book there is some difference of opinion about what open actually means. For instance, there are some chapters on the development of open universities around the world. Of course they are open access but again not open in terms of curriculum or content.

The chapters on the impact (actual or potential) of Open Educational Resources on the developing world - especially in sub-Saharan Africa - are especially interesting. OERs can open up resources for schools and colleges in the developing world in the same way that generic drugs could transform healthcare. MOOCs could play a part in this but at the moment they are more of a hindrance than a help.

I was especially intrigued by a chapter on DOCCs. DOCCs stands for Distributed Open Collaborative Course. DOCCs are being developed by FemTechNet and are, in their own words:

an alternative genre of a networked learning course that exemplifies feminist principles and pedagogical methods that support decentralized and collaborative forms of learning. A DOCC is built on the understanding that expertise is distributed throughout networks, among participants situated in diverse institutional contexts, within diverse material, geographic, and national settings, and who embody and perform diverse identities (as teachers, as students, as media-makers, as activists, as trainers, as members of various public groups, for example).

I may be wrong but that sounds a lot like a cMOOC to me and seems to draw on not only feminist pedagogies but also the newly-emerging pedagogic theory of rhizomatic learning. It you're interested in true open learning then it may be worth keeping an eye on this.

Most of the chapters in this book, however, are less analytical and are more descriptive of MOOC and OER development around the world. From that perspective, this makes this book the most useful for anybody who is considering creating a MOOC in their institution and wants to be taken through some of the nuts and bolts of doing so.