Published on 2012/08/24

Massive Open Online Learning has certainly been making big waves in higher education this year, but the question is whether it’s turning back the clock on learner-centered learning. Photo by Tom McNemar.

Within the higher education community 2012 may well be known as the “year of online learning.” Seemingly legitimized now by the embrace of elite institutions like Harvard and MIT through EdX and the Coursera partnership with Stanford, Princeton and others, online learning and the rise of the MOOC dominates the popular and professional literature.

Those unwilling to accept this “disruptive innovation” are seen as modern Luddites whose static, cognitive world view simply will not encompass the power of teaching and learning through technology. While the increased access to learning through technology is to be applauded and is the logical extension of American higher education’s balance between democracy and meritocracy, online learning’s place in the intellectual context of lifelong learning poses some paradoxes that warrant consideration.

Rooted in Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychology and Malcolm Knowles andragogy, the heart of lifelong learning is the learner themselves from a holistic perspective. Intellect, attitude, emotions, personality, biography and behavior all come into play. Teaching and learning become, as Martin Buber said, an “I-thou” relationship. Here, the teacher—and the subject or academic or applied content—are not the exclusive authority, but instead the informed facilitator, for self-growth.

While the MOOC is indeed content rich and at one’s finger tips, a didactic view of knowledge to be dispensed by experts and banked by learners is limiting. Mediated techniques have, of course, overcome the traditional boundaries of time and space. Still, though, they are just that; mediated by a technological medium. An artifice is introduced in the facilitator-learner dynamic. A caution is that the learner may become a passive observer rather than an active participant in the learning transaction, inhibiting the sense of independence required for the liberation to learn.

As the adult learner moves toward intellectual and emotional maturity, learning becomes increasingly self-directed. Explored as early as 1963 by Cyril Houle and researched more fully by his doctoral student Alan Tough in 1971, an adult’s managed learning projects are fundamental to a learning society. Its threshold premise is that learning is not to be confined to or confused with schooling; it is not delimited to institutional settings. In fact, extra-institutional leaning makes one’s social context a multifarious classroom. Contemporary manifestations of online learning put the institution at the center which is contrary to a lifelong learning tenet; independent learning.

If learning is viewed as a valuable commodity with access determined by institutional capacity and readiness, the learner could again become the recipient of institutionally defined knowledge. In a rush to broaden access, the potential for institutional dependence exists. While elite institutions share information through MOOCs, they still ensure the scarcity value of highly priced degree and face-to-face or hybrid continuing education opportunities.

Inherent then in the celebration of online learning is a paradox. While it is consistent with the liberating access to higher education necessary for lifelong learning, it poses the threat of renewed learner dependence. Teaching and learning are at their best transformative for both the educator and the learner. Technology does not preclude this, in fact if used creatively technology can enhance the experience. But uncritical acceptance of the one-way directional transmission of information may take the learner away from the fulfillment that comes with self-directed awareness and learning.

Reliance on formal schooling confines the parameters within which learning can occur. Lifelong learning enjoys an intellectual heritage that marries Dewey’s progressivism to meet communal ends with the Rogerian quest for intellectual and emotional independence. Used within that framework online learning can indeed further lifelong learning’s ultimate end—freedom to learn.

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Readers Comments

Vera Matthews 2012/08/24 at 2:25 pm

I definitely appreciate where you’re coming from, James, but I can’t say I agree with you.

I think, with so many other students, that MOOCs force individual students to be more self-reliant, to take the guidelines laid out to them by the “lecture” and go forth to learn what they think they need to in order to get the most out of the course.

Also, I think that with the number of big institutions partnering together to deliver these free courses, it’s giving people who would have never otherwise had the chance to attend a course from such prestigious institutions.

WA Anderson 2012/08/29 at 4:23 pm

Is it really “giving people who would have never otherwise had the chance to attend a course from such prestigious institutions” the chance to do so?

I don’t think so. MIT won’t attach their name to certifications you get through their open courses, calling it MITx (or something to that effect). None of the Coursera participating institutions are giving certificates of completion to students; those come from Coursera.

So while you are taking a class delivered by an instructor who is in the employ of top-ranked universities, the university refuses to back the learning that you have done. This should say something.

If anything, right now, MOOCs seem to be providing major institutions with a way to create an underclass of higher education while at the same time touting great advances in outreach and access.

Susan Farber 2012/09/14 at 3:01 pm

I agree with James’ explanation that successful lifelong learners assume responsiblity and seek out experiences which meet their needs (emotional, intellectual) and match their personal traits (prior knowledge, attitude, behavior). I concur that a desirable level of emotional maturity support successful outcomes for lifelong learners.

I also want to share some concerns based on what we are observing as more individuals enroll in MOOCs. There are perceived benefits:
1. Expertise of instructors & course developers;
2. Access for individuals who are truly motivated and may be isolated (for >1 reason) and have reliable Internet access and adequate technology skills.

1. Completion of a course does not translate to credits earned for a credential. For individuals who are honestly concerned with a credential, then a MOOC would not be for them.
2. The economic model is not fully defined. If students are not paying for these courses as much as traditional college course enrollment fees tend to be, how is the cost of providing and preparing all of the instructional resources being covered? Will we continue to depend on instructors’ time investment to be recompensed through good will or other income that these individuals can generate through other responsiblities?
3. Not all students who enroll complete the courses. Do all students have the sophistication or the intellectual and emotional maturity to complete the course? Do all student acknowledge the time commitment of lifelong learning?

Additional thoughts:
Daphne Koller recently spoke on one of the outcomes of starting Coursera. Apparently, they are mining the data they are able to collect to ascertain which instructional resources, technology tools, and problem solving strategies students are using as they complete the courses.
This could be one benefit of this disruptive technology; if it leads to more information about effective learning strategies and uses of technology tools.

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