Friday, 14 December 2012

Why I stopped believing in MOOCs

Coursera, Pedagogy, and the Two Faces of MOOCs : E1n1verse | Discovering Blended Learning |

When I was starting out in education, I really longed for an exciting range of technological solutions that could engage students from a distance, and encourage online interaction - or what we now refer to as MOOCs. It never seemed to come though, and as the years went by I found myself becoming disillusioned, and later disappointed. My faith in MOOCs as an educational solution wilted.

I had believed that online courses could provide a level social playing field for students in a way that no other educational forum could - but when eventually the technology did start to be readily available, it didn’t seem to achieve what it promised. No matter what I did, I could not seem to get students to engage with it. They seemed fixed, rigidly, in a distrust of educational technology, and unwilling to take that leap of faith into the world of discussion forums and online chats.

As the years went by, I began to understand why. These students were able to achieve everything that MOOCs promised by using non-educational tools like Twitter, Facebook and Google. Indeed, they seemed more comfortable with social media which did not imply an educational authority overseeing their activities.

I started to realise that there was a fundamental flaw in the idea that MOOCs can provide an abstract forum in which learning can grow organically, socially and deeply. The flaw was that the odds of that happening are so miniscule that only having faith in magic could make it so.

There were, then, logical flaws in the idea of the MOOC. It was a difficult idea for me to accept at first, because having spent much of my career working with technology I had a solid schooling in the belief that the internet can always provide answers to our problems. Every day I would religiously work to identify problems and explore each new emergent technology which might help address them. I had a habitual liturgy of places I would go to for solutions (Visual Basic, VLEs, html, cloud-based apps) and it was difficult to let go of these familiar and comforting securities against what I perceived as pedagogical despair. More significantly, my growing doubts alienated me from much of my own academic and pedagogic community, who saw my doubts about MOOCs as an attack on their own confident beliefs. I was filled, therefore, with a sense of both terror and of guilt.

Eventually though, I overcame these fears and my confidence grew in the logical conclusions which led me to believe MOOCs were not the answer to our problems, and that they could not achieve what they promised. MOOCs, I began to be certain, were a myth.

It itself, this was not really a problem. Certainly I did not feel inclined at this point to force my own views on others and actively oppose those whose faith in MOOCs remained unshaken. I did start to become irked though, that those who believed in the power of MOOCs felt obliged to try and shove their beliefs down my throat.

‘Isn’t it professionally arrogant’ they would argue, ‘to assume that the learning process can only effectively take place through your own individual control?’

‘How can you’, they would insist, ‘refuse to accept the important of MOOCs when they are clearly here, and here to stay?’

It occurred to me at this point, that these expressions of confidence in MOOCs appeared to be expressed more as a resignation than as a enthusiastic embrace. I realised that it was not that their belief in MOOCs was genuinely providing solutions to their own problems, but that they did not believe that there was a viable alternative. Take away MOOCs, and what would you replace it with?

Well, I wanted to cultivate more respect for myself and my students than that. I suspected that the only reason so many academics clung to MOOCs is that they had been let down by their educational system and didn't understand the vast and exciting range of non-technological options on offer. It was difficult to articulate this view because it appeared strangely taboo to criticise the now-established tenet that education must be embedded within technology in today’s culture. Book critics or theatre critics could be derisively negative and earn delighted praise for the trenchant wit of their review. A politician could attack an opponent scathingly across the floor of the House and earn plaudits for his robust pugnacity. But let a critic of MOOCs employ a fraction of the same direct forthrightness, and educational professionals, student groups, and Quality Assurance practitioners will purse their lips and shake their heads.

This was unfair. It was ignorant. Why should I not declare with as much forthright certainty that MOOCs are a myth? I do not believe in them and - more importantly - anyone who does believe in them is deluded. The focus of Universities on MOOCs is detracting from our focus on genuine academic and educational concerns. Much has been made about the negative effects of government cutbacks and tuition fee rises as the source of our current academic crises, but this is a distraction from the real threat to academic integrity and the education of the nation: MOOCs.

So after a long and difficult personal journey I have come to the point where I feel it is my moral duty to disillusion people about MOOCs. They are a myth. They do not exist, and those who are dedicating more and more time to them are working towards the devaluation of education and the corruption of society itself. A society of people deprived of genuine, valuable education because they have been forced to follow a MOOC, will be a society with no ethical or moral foundation, and no grasp of proper knowledge. MOOCs are therefore dragging human societies back down the evolutionary path towards the anarchy of the Stone Age.

If society is to progress, we must abandon our mystical trust in MOOCs. Marx pointed out that any social revolution would be violently opposed by those whose interests are being attacked, and the same could be true here. There are many who now make a living out of MOOCs. They will forcibly defend them, and use every power they have to persuade students to sign up to them. I have already had students arguing (with apparent sincerity) ‘MOOCs do exist’, or ‘I’m on a MOOC’, or ‘I got my degree through a MOOC and I now have a very good job’ - but such students have merely become the junkies of education: Pushed into a dependency on an irrational faith in technology, which has led them to hallucinate.

As painful as it may be, and no matter how violently they are defended, I do not believe that Academia can progress until the spectre of MOOCs is removed.

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