How To Build MOOC's that Fail
Having started a half dozen MOOC's in the recent months, I have found most of them tend to share a common trait. Many MOOC's currently represent a sort of parody of higher education's worst practices, its most spectacular delusions about itself.
And thus they tend to fail--some rather spectacularly.
(In the interest of protecting the guilty, I won't name specific courses. I have no interest in insulting people who are surely earnest and well-meaning in life--they just happen to lack any experience putting a course online, let alone a MOOC.)
For the sake of neatness, I'll organize my thoughts here on four's.
For the same of keeping the reader interested, I'll frame everything ironically: trying to articulate the unspoken assumptions which make so many MOOC's so very dreadful.
I'll start with the Four Delusions of Higher Education. These underwrite the Four Rules for MOOC Failure.
Sink or Swim. This is simple. Provide no guidance. Don't tell students where things are. Make the goal of the course as mysterious as possible. Give the students "freedom"--like plunking a traveler down in the middle of a strange city.
The Heliotropic Professor. The professor is the center of the learning universe. Everything revolves around the professor. The professor is the sun, and the students are tiny tiny planets--really cosmic dust, basking in the glow of the professor's expertise.
Go Figure It Out. No matter what is said, no matter what is asked for, no matter how unclear or obscure, ultimately the student will just have to Go Figure It Out. After all: they're learning, aren't they? We can't make it too easy for them--like explaining what they should be learning. Since in the end, we are all just lonely particles colliding against each other randomly, why not just make the student responsible? Surely they will thank us later.
The Piehole Illusion. Anything that comes out of the professor's piehole can be learned. The professor can say "2 + 2 = 4" and that will be learned--without the student needing to know if she is learning a fact, a rule, a concept, an allegory, etc. The student may have to listen again and again, and that is all to the good, because what the professor says is so very rewarding.
Nothing happens without the professor's instigation. The professor must frame everything, explain everything. Students must do 'exploratory learning'--so they can then find out what the professor thinks, which of course is always right, since assumptions and standards can never be explained. (That would undermine the professor's mysterious sole access to True Knowledge.)
If you accept all four of these precepts, it will be very easy to make a MOOC that fails utterly.
Fails to help a thoughtful person learn anything--because nothing is specificed in the way of learning: nothing about what is to be learned, to what standard, or how.
But if you need to operationalize this knowledge--and here I go further than almost any MOOC instructor does--you may follow three simple rules.
- Conceptualize your course as content. Just imagine all the things you need to tell someone. Then record yourself saying them. That should be enough. If you then add some articles people can read, surely no more is necessary. You will then add a commentary 'explaining' everything--so students understand fully that the professor's view is always the right one.
Don't plan any learning activities. Since your course is just content, it can't possibly matter what the student does to learn. Learning is the student's job. So just give them a sandbox and say--go learn there. Don't tell them what to do, what they'll need to practice, nor how anything need be done. Throw up a discussion board and say "talk amongst yourselves!" Done!
Don't consider pre-requisite knowledge. There's no point in worrying if students are ready or not. It's all sink-or-swim, so just throw them in. No pre-tests. No lists of things they might need to know or be able to do. No expectations.
A course, after all, is just a pile of facts & ideas. The student will just have to go figure out what it all means, how to fit it all together, and above all, how to learn it. (Helping the student learn can't possibly be the instructor's job! The instructor deigns to share his wisdom, and his job ends there. Teaching is like grace: you don't ask why.)
Assume everyone taking your course, no matter where she lives on the planet, is exactly like your current undergrads who pay tens of thousands of dollars for your institutions courses. Assume that nothing about the learner makes any difference.
In short: univeralize utterly your tiny corner of bourgeois North America. Whatever you do: don't reflect on social, national or cultural difference, nor on how well- or ill-prepared your learners might be.
Maybe one addendum.
- Don't hire any instructional designers. No good can come from carefully selecting and arranging carefully designed tasks in a sequence so that the learner is prepared to succeed. (Remember, it's better for the learner to fail--since this proves how terribly complex the subject matter is.) In the 21st century engineers will solve all our problems--you know, like psychoanalysts did in the first half of the 20th century, and nuclear engineers did in the second half of the 20th century. Humanity, you see is not involved. The mind is just a bunch of wetware: so surely engineers know and can do everything that's needed.
Clearly the subtext here is: an effective learning experience, especially one mediated by time, distance and computer technology, really needs to be designed.
If you throw a bunch of content out and say "learn this," the learners will get out exactly as much effort as you put in--which is next to none.
So what you have in front of you now is a really a plea for instructional design. And I know that has issues.
When professionals get together, the thing they talk about is: how everyone needs them so terribly badly. Dentists wish everyone flossed. Doctors warn about germs. I once had a landlord who was a plumber: he insisted a drain should be cleared with baking soda--lest you harm the terrribly delicate lead pipes.
Such is the definition of a "profession." It's a specialized kind of knowledge. And it has to value itself and therefore to devalue anyone who doesn't have its special knowledge.
But if you really want to make a MOOC that makes a difference, if you actually want to share knowledge for others to learn it, not just to show how classy your institution is that it can give away courses (really meaning: lectures), just do the opposite of what most MOOC's do.
Conceptualize your course as things people will be able to do afterwards--with standards attached. A gradated series of tasks and activities is even better. But a final demonstration, with lots of small steps leading up to it will suffice.
Plan activities which will support learning--which let the learner practice and get feedback. Be aware that not everyone will do these activities. Consider making them inherently interesting. Begin with tasks that can be done without specialized knowledge. Maybe even use tasks that have real-world implications--which people find intriguing. And be aware that the students can't possible mentor each other, since their expertise has never been assessed.
Help the learners discover if they are prepared to take the course. You might use a pre-test or a checklist. If this material even links to preparatory activities, you can kill two birds with one stone.
Consider hiring actual instuctional designers: not engineers, not programmers, not someone with a few education courses. Really take seriously that you are designing something. Plan. Make a proof-of-concept. Start small. Scale up. Do all the things that are considered "design thinking"--even if you are not a designer of any sort.
In short, consider that plunking things on a web site is not design--any more than throwing furniture around a room is interior decorating.
Or do what everyone else is doing: record a few lectures, throw up a discussion board, and break your arm patting yourself on the back.
--Edward R. O'Neill