The Provocation of MOOCs

by Sean Michael Morris

MOOCs provoke. They provoke anxiety. They provoke humor. They provoke horror, apathy, bemusement. But whatever else they provoke, they provoke a response. Educators may not love them, futurists may consider them a solution, students may (and often do) get lost in them. Whether MOOCs are here to stay, or if they’re just passing through, they’ve already changed the conversation we’re having about education.

In some cases, MOOCs aren’t all that innovative for online education. Some very-large-scale courses have employed few innovative technologies, relying on threaded discussions, broadcast-style video lectures, and standard, paper textbooks which students purchase locally. Other MOOCs seek to create a bridge between human learning and the Internet, connecting people and resources virtually to compound learning, and create a slightly chaotic, exponential experience for participants. Still other MOOCs go on continually, seeming to become more a lifestyle than a course.

Regardless of their presentation, duration, or magnitude, though, MOOCs change the way we think about classrooms, students, teachers, outcomes, content, the institution of higher education, and more.

“I'm generally pretty reluctant to compare MOOCs with what went before,” says Stephen Downes, one of the innovators of connectivist MOOCs, “and I'm generally pretty reluctant to suggest how MOOCs improve on the previous model, because what we're trying to do with MOOCs is really something very different from what was attempted before. The best practices that previously existed, insofar as they were best practices at all, were best practices for doing something else.”

Within MOOCs lies not an improvement upon the classroom, nor a substitute for higher education, nor a reduction of all things pedagogical. Within the MOOC lies something yet unstirred, yet unrealized. And that potential requires different personal, pedagogical, administrative, and institutional approaches than we’ve practiced before.

What are those approaches? What potential lurks within the MOOC?

We can begin simply, with an assertion made by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, that MOOCs facilitate “knowledge production rather than knowledge consumption”, and that this automatically shifts the pedagogy from teacher to student -- or rather, participant. Those who join MOOCs -- whether they actively fill up discussion boards or whether they “lurk” in the course, contributing little, but learning a lot -- are those in whose hands the content truly lies. Like an organized conference or seminar, MOOCs begin with a premise and a structure, but outcomes can’t be entirely predetermined. We find out what we’ve learned once we’ve learned it.

This is the approach we should take when entering a MOOC... And one we should consider when engaging with the idea, form, and approach of MOOCs as a strategy. We will only discover what they are when we make them what they can be.

Some Additional Material to Explore

Marc Bousquet, “Good MOOCs, Bad MOOCs
Sean Michael Morris, “Broadcast Education: A Response to Coursera
Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, “Udacity and Online Pedagogy: Players, Learners, Objects
Hundreds in a Google Doc, “A MOOC by Any Other Name
Maria Andersen, “Recipe for Free Range Learning
Alison Seaman, “Personal Learning Networks: Knowledge Sharing as Democracy
Melonie Fullick, “Following the Herd, or joining the merry MOOCscapades of higher-ed bloggers