Have MOOCs failed?

While I was watching the Canada’s National History Forum 2013, I was really taken by Dave Cormier‘s talk about MOOC’s (Massive Opean Online Courses) and how they facilitate wider information sharing and collaboration, and hear the perspectives of many people from different cultures than one may not otherwise hear in the traditional, local classroom–over 100,000 enrollments in some cases.  In my experience with online education, I was a bit skeptical of Cormier gushing about MOOCs.  I’ve never participated in a MOOC, but I’ve had some experience in online education having taken one through the Master of Library and Information Science program at Western University (I took “Information Behaviour”), having worked as a customer service rep at BYU Independent Study, one of the largest distance education providers in the United States (roughly 120,000 students were enrolled in various courses in 2010); and having taken many courses at both the undergraduate and graduate with an online component (e.g. OWL, Blackboard, Brain Honey, online textbook/quizzes, etc.).  For the most part, I personally have been dissatisfied with the online education so far.  I have been frustrated with the (dys)functionality of the applications, the lack of connectivity and collaboration with classmates (simple online forums don’t cut it for me), and the lack of in-person contact with professors.  In short, the online experience has not been good to me, and I certainly loath the idea of taking another online course.

Prior to reading this blog post, I read a short article by Dave Kernohan called “Making Sense of MOOCs” published in Jisc.  As I suspected, there is more than one type of MOOC.  Kernohan identified three general types:

xMOOCs involve video lectures from professors, students marking each other’s coursework, but may require students to work at the pace, and within the structure of an institution.

cMOOCs emphasize collaboration and building community and shift away from the classroom model of education and instead participants communicate through social media such as blogs and Twitter.  These are mainly recommended for advanced learners in the subject at hand.

Open Boundary students study alongside fee-paying students with both taking advantage of a wider range of ideas and culture, and a larger variety of resources.

Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, a for-profit company that provides MOOC platforms, recently admitted that the MOOC model is not effective for teaching undergraduates because of a recent Udacity pilot project at San Jose University.  The study showed that many students failed, the monetary cost was too high, Udacity was over-hyped, and other reasons not shared.

As tempted as I was to say “HA!” to Udacity and San Jose University, and feel smug and vindicated, it made me ponder what the term “success” really meant.  Really, it depends on what the student and the course creator seek to achieve through the MOOC–these aren’t necessarily the same thing, by the way.

Jisc’s e-communications office Tom Mitchell, observed of a recent MOOC in which he was participating, “…I am enjoying being able to study in a way that totally suits my schedule and works around my day job…as a freely available source of genuine knowledge and peer review it is really rather good.”

What are some reasons why someone might participate in a MOOC? Because, if they want Tom’s experience of having a flexible study schedule, a freely available source of knowledge, and peer review, then I would say that particular MOOC was a complete success.  However, if you’re a San Jose University student looking to coast through an online course and get your “B” and leave, then maybe that MOOC was a failure, especially if you’re one of the unfortunate ones that failed.

Now, I do realize that my two examples are like comparing oranges to tangerines since I was comparing a for-credit MOOC with a non-credit MOOC, but my point applies to all MOOCs: success and failure are very subjective terms. Whether you’re a student preparing to take a course, or a professor in the midst of creating a course, you ought to figure out what your desired outcome is, and set goals that will (hopefully) lead you to having that experience.  If you achieve what you set out to do, there is no failure there.

Some (non-credit) MOOC administrators are concerned with having extremely low completion rates.  On the surface, it would appear that the course was sub-par since few completed it. The problem with this thinking is that these administrators apparently don’t have an idea as to why their students took their course, maybe course completion wasn’t necessarily the end goal of the students’ participation.  Students could have taken the course for a variety of reasons including: to explore a new subject, have a fun learning experience, learn only a small concept, or even, impress a boyfriend or girlfriend. Who knows? Administrators will have to come up with some metrics to measure why students take courses and if they achieved those goals, then, administrators can properly assess the value of their course.  One thing they could do is administer a student opinion survey at the beginning and end of the course.

In conclusion, I don’t think we can definitively say whether MOOCs have failed, or had success, due to the lack of course evaluation on both the student and the administrator ends.  I also feel like it’s unfair to make any sweeping generalizations about MOOCs because of the various types that exist, and the demographics of students that take them, as well as the variety subject-matter.


Reflections on Historical Building Tours

As I’ve been working on my digital doors open project on Huron University College I’ve been reflecting on the usefulness of historical tours as a means of teaching history to the general public.  Don’t get me wrong, I love building tours, and I’ve been to a few significant buildings in my life like Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey, Salt Lake Temple, Empire State Building, and El Cabildo.

As I was searching through primary sources for old images of Huron College (yearbooks, photograph collections, etc.), I realized that there were relatively few clear, quality images of rooms in the college.  Frustrated, I thought to myself “Why? Why weren’t there good images of the spaces in this building.”  It was important to me because I wanted to kind of do a “then and now” comparison of the rooms.  I realized there weren’t any good pictures because there nothing inherently historically significant about rooms or buildings themselves.  Buildings are transformed by events and relationships.  What I did see in these primary source documents were lots of pictures of intramural teams, dances, clubs, dramatic productions, and random and impromptu social gatherings.  In a nutshell, it’s the tradition and spirit of the institution that’s makes a building historical, not the building itself, hence the lack of images for my project.

As an institution, Huron College has been around since 1863; however, the current building in which the College is housed only opened in 1951. So it’s interesting that Huron was designated an Ontario historic site in 1963, even though the building was just 12 years-old at the time.

Another thing I’ve realized is that. when we do a building tour, we typically go from room to room, with a brief description of the historical significance of the room, and its architectural features.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but it presents an incomplete history of the structure.  What we don’t talk about is the interaction between rooms and how they function together to create events and significant moments.  For example, when planning the Huron Ball–an annual semi-formal dance–certainly the whole thing did was not planned and executed in the Great Hall of the College, where it used to be held.  I’m sure a planning committee was formed, meetings occurred in various offices, classrooms, or dorm rooms, before the Huron Ball happened.  What I’m suggesting is that we talk more about the relationships between the rooms to get a better sense of the building’s function.

So, how do we convey these relationships between spaces in the college or any other historic building?  My suggestion is that we take a significant person who was affiliated with the building and center it around him/her.  For example, suppose we’re putting on a tour of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, what if we put on a tour called “A Day in the Life of Pierre Trudeau“, and took visitors through Parliament as if they were Trudeau through his daily routine during a significant moment during his Prime Ministry like the October Crisis in Québec in 1970 or the Patriation of the Constitution in 1982.  With this kind of approach to building tours, I think the historical significance of the building would impact people more deeply, and leave them with a greater appreciation for the history of the building.