Published on 2013/03/01
Want Some MOOC With Your TV Dinner? (Part 2)
As MOOCs become more popular, instructors have to decide whether to replicate the limited interactivity of traditional correspondence courses or adopt a new, holistic learning format.

For the first part of this series, which explains the transformation of correspondence courses over the decades, please click here.

Given the possibilities presented by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS); instead of simply looking at achievement gains (or losses), we must begin to ask how self-directed local and global teams as well as personal visits from a MOOC instructor are helping to foster important moments of reflection and change. Not every outcome can be determined from test scores, page-hit rates or student retention data. Lives change. People change. Education is a key vehicle for fostering such life transformations. And MOOCs have the potential to change lives on a grander scale than perhaps any previous form of learning delivery.

As noted by the media hype machine, the MOOCs instructed by Chuck Severance and Paul Kim are rather modest in size. Some MOOCs from Stanford, Coursera and Udacity have reached out to hundreds of thousands of people at one time. Imagine the life-changing possibilities or empowerment moments today compared to the age of TV-based distance education back in the 1970s and 1980s.

In a MOOC, unlike the TV and correspondence courses of the previous century, you learn and interact with peers you never would have met otherwise. If you want to localize or personalize the learning, you can form study groups in your city or village wherein you meet other MOOC participants to discuss learning. Online planning aids might organize such meetings. If you want to work with those outside of your community, you can debate, connect and reflect on ideas using social media, like blogs and wikis. The Venture Lab at Stanford University has a suite of cool tools for its MOOCs that enable participants to easily form teams to discuss topics of interest. Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientists have also built a seemingly endless stream of online learning tools or “widgets” during the past decade, such as those for creating interactive timelines, browsing video content and graphically representing data. Apparently, with the recent emergence of edX and MITX, two MOOC providers, their focus has turned to tools for more intense learner interaction, collaboration and assessment, instead of basic data representation and content access.

The experimentation with, and embrace of, MOOCs during the past year is not a unique phenomenon in the United States. In my travels to three cities in Australia in November 2012, MOOCs and online learning seemed to be making the news every day. In Sydney, I saw a demonstration of a new tool called Ruksacs, designed by Rick Bennett and his colleagues at the University of New South Wales. Ruksacs enhances the social as well as intellectual environment of online learning. With this system, bookmarks of favorite resources for an individual’s studies that are found on the Web can be saved and shared with all of that person’s Ruksacs friends or study group members, and portfolios of Ruksacs users, including images, sounds and videos come alive in a showcase gallery. And there are perhaps a dozen other such knowledge-sharing and social networking tools like Ruksacs. A course taught with such tools continually expands as thousands of participants locate, rate and discuss the learning resources that inspire them.

We live in an age of rich and engaging learning environments where the instructor acts as a tour guide or concierge for one’s learning. As alluded to earlier, Chuck Severance personalized his course by traveling to places such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, London and Amsterdam to hold office hours and meet with students in cafes, bookstores and pubs. When the course finished, he visited Seoul, South Korea and then Barcelona, Spain, meeting highly energized groups of his MOOC participants and quickly posting their testimonials and observations to YouTube and Twitter. After that, Severance engaged in similar “office hour” meet-ups with participants at a Starbucks in Manila, Philippines. And, keep in mind that all of this was after the course had officially ended.

While Chuck Severance engages in personal journeys to meet his online students, other MOOC instructors personalize their courses with online discussions, link sharing and virtual office hours using free and open tools such as Piazza, Course Networking and CourseSites by Blackboard. This is a vastly different age for professors and other experts to share years of accumulated scholarly knowledge and ideas with the vast wisdom of the crowd enrolled in their courses. Sure, as with TV courses of the past, there are often video lectures from the instructor and other forms of direct instruction with extensive passive viewing. But there is also a wealth of additional resources and experiences to customize your own learning path and interact with others about your learning choices.

Without a doubt, MOOCs can be taught with limited social media or learning interaction, as displayed by the online ‘shovelware’ of early online courses during the 1990s. Such passive learning environments align well with a TV-dinner mentality. So the question must be asked: do you want a little MOOC with your TV dinner, or will MOOCs nourish us and quench our thirst for knowledge in ways never before experienced on the planet? I vote for the latter, though I also realize from my own prior learning experiences that lives can and do change with the former. Whatever your decision regarding the nature of the instructional delivery format, let’s MOOC to it, shall we? Hundreds of millions of people around the planet are likely depending on it. And those people are more important than our debates.

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Readers Comments

Madison Riley 2013/03/01 at 9:35 am

I could not agree with you more, Curtis. We are at a watershed in online higher education. Many MOOCs do continue the same pattern of basic knowledge transfer and low interactivity that correspondence programs of the 1990s set out. But instructors like Chuck Severance show us a new way of course design and learning delivery, one I hope many more will adopt.

    Henry Smalling 2013/03/01 at 2:19 pm

    I disagree with you here, Madison.

    I’m not convinced that we will begin to see a more personalized, interactive model of a MOOC — and I’m not sure we need to. We seem to be forgetting that, in its name, the MOOC is targeted at a “mass” audience. This suggests to me that course designers will be more interested in quantity than quality.

    Curtis makes an apt comparison between MOOCs and TV dinners. TV dinners have just enough appeal that none of us is opposed to eating one, but nobody really enjoys it. You eat a TV dinner in certain situations but you would also take the time to prepare a complete sit-down dinner if the opportunity was there. Same thing with MOOCs: they’re here, people will register for courses and gain some knowledge, but they’ll never replace traditional in-class courses (with interactivity and other elements MOOCs are missing).

      Curt Bonk 2013/03/02 at 1:24 am

      Wow, Henry, you state that even better than did. Thanks for that. You are spot on. For many of us, there are times that TV dinners fit our needs perfectly in terms of living though they do not taste as good as most meals that we eat in life. And, of course, some will come along to enhance the TV dinner experience but it will still remain less appealing than 1:1 tutoring most of the time. Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway would have taken any format of learning at any time.

Curt Bonk 2013/03/01 at 10:12 am

Thanks for the kind words Madison. Chuck Severance is a real leader in how to conduct a MOOC. He and I will engage in a “Cage Match” on MOOCs next week Thursday at 9 am in Austin during the SXSWedu conference. Should be fun. We will have several rounds of questions, including those from the audience. Props will including blue (U of Michigan–Chuck) and red (IU–me) boxing gloves. The audience will have blue and red notecards to indicate the winner of each round. Should be fun. Could it be replicated online? I think so.

Those not coming to Austin can sign up for the livestream of my talk the previous day at 4 pm EST on March 6th on online motivation and retention (as well as a talk from Mark Milliron from Western Governors University Texas the day before). Cengage Learning is sponsoring these sessions during SXSWedu.

The Program:

Ursula V.F. 2013/03/01 at 1:04 pm

Thank you, Curt, for writing this piece! I found it interesting when you pointed out that the focus for MOOC providers has shifted from offering MOOCs to providing tools that enhance that experience. This is promising, as any lessons learned or new technologies to come out of this exercise could perhaps be applied to non-MOOCs to also improve their delivery.

Curt Bonk 2013/03/02 at 1:20 am

That is right Ursula. Just like the research on learning strategies for special education learners in the 1970s and 1980s later impacted all students, so might research on MOOCs and the building of more interactive tools and resources for MOOCs impact all types of courses and learning venues or experiences as well as learners in such courses.

Margene Salzano 2014/04/01 at 5:26 pm

Thanks Curt! I find the technological advancements super interesting. I think that MOOC’s are helping with the advancement of learning tools

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