Sunday, November 4, 2012

A short thought on MOOCS

There are a number of different versions of MOOC and I would suggest that the versions promoted by George Siemens, and Stephen Downs et al, are the most interesting. I have taken part in some of these, and they are a loo sly organized scrum of people generating and discussing content around some core theme. Very much a collaborative and distributed effort which at times has much of the characteristics of an extended research conference.
The very recent development of Massive enrollment courses from such sites as Alison, Coursera and Udacity, are somewhat different, and strike me as being a somewhat transitional use of technology, like early plastics trying to look like more traditional materials and failing.
I have taken part in courses from all of the above. If one views these courses in the traditional manner, then the ability to respond to students is extremely limited, they scale very poorly, and the fall out rates are horrendous. However if you view them as something more akin to an encyclopedia, or revision notes for a topic, then the idea of casual usage of the material, without taking all the tests or listening to all the lectures becomes more understandable, and provides a new model for learning.
When I taught physics at university level, I used to tell my students that there was a very similar course available on line through MIT's open course-ware initiative. I said that if there were topics where my students found my presentation confusing that I recommended Prof Lewin's treatment as an alternative. As he was paid more than me, and had been teaching the material for longer, it could potentially be clearer. My students responded well to this.
So I think we should view these courses as another tool to use in our teaching, playing a role similar to that of an academic library where you went to look for other books on a subject to either explore it further or get a better explanation. All contributing to the ultimate task of dispelling ignorance.