Blog Post

Why Have Students Been Left Out of the MOOC Discussion?

Isn't it curious (or maybe just typical) that with all the mania around MOOC's (Massive Online Open Courseware), and all the "students today learn differently" talk, that there has been almost no conversation with students about (a) whether they would rather learn online or face to face or (b) how they learn best when they do learn online--lectures?  interactives?  quizzes?  challenges?  games?  tutorials?  augmented with social networks?  augmented with actual study groups?  New forms of assessment?   If you do not include students in the conversation, you are merely replicating the hierarchical Sage-On-The-Stage model of pedagogy but on line.  If students and learning are not intrinsically part of the MOOC conversation, then we're not talking education.  We're talking $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.


Next year, in our new PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, we'll be looking at an array of questions around digital learning, digital scholarship, digital research, and so forth---including talking with and working with actual, real students to think about what does or doesn't make for good online learning.  I blogged last week about the course I'm teaching with Dan Ariely next Spring: Our dialogue, prompted by students reading social science experiments and literary works on the same theme, will be the basis for an open online course they create.


The rationale behind the production component of the class is to let students experiment with learning on line but also experiment with how they would express what they are learning to the public in the form of online course offerings, cast in different ways, with online reading and discussion groups, with actual experiments based on the social science in the course, and ways of forming online extended communities beyond the classroom.   It's all a great educational experiment--and one that includes the students and allows students, graduate and undergraduates, to lead the design.   Imagine that!    That's not rhetorical.  I mean it:  let's try to imagine learning where the students are central, not peripheral, where their ideas are included not inferred, where their leadership and input is relevant, not assumed.  Yes, imagine that!



While I agree that students must be part of their own education, you have an assumption that students know what they want out of an educational experience.  From your blog post, it seems that you are primarily working with graduate students.  As adults, we gain a sense of self-reflection and as adult learners, have a better idea about what engages us in learning.  This may not be true of undergraduate students, especially those fresh from highschool.

I've had students tell me that they learn best in way Y (some arbitrary model).  Most of the time this was told to them as a teacher.  For example, I had a student that said she learned best from reading the text.  So I asked her to read the next assignment and come in and talk to me.  She swore she had read the text, but it was apparent from our conversation that all she got were terms.  It showed me and her that learning just from reading was not her best learning process.

During the last spring semester, I used the MOOC model for my undergraduate classes (hybrid face-to-face & online).  While they were not massive, they were open (and some people stopped by).  I tried different tactics with them, but the core was that the students were asked to write in their blogs daily about a topic in their daily newsletter.  The interesting thing is that many  of the students afterwards commented that they never realized how powerful writing about a complex topic could be in helping to understand the topic.  Now, I should add, these classes are in biology.

In summation, when students come to me with preconceived notions of how they learn, I try to find out if it is their best way of learning or whether it is based one something they were once told.  For me, the power of a good  is that it provides multiple different avenues of learning.  It also challenges the learner to experiment with different ways to learn.  #MOOC


Hi Cathy -

After reading your post, I'm feeling doubly lucky!  First, I'm a Master's student in Interdisciplinary Studies, fresh from a two-week residency at Royal Roads University (Victoria BC, Canada) where I'm taking courses in Learning and Technology.  RRU is a world leader in blended learning and student-centred cohort models, and to be looking in-depth at learning and technology issues in this environment is absolutely ideal.  

Second, just a ferry ride to Vancouver away, there will be a great conference October 16-18, called "Beyond Content: Open Education Conference 2012".  The conference is being sponsored in part by BCCampus, a quasi-government body in British Columbia that is working to open education models in many institutions here and elsewhere. The great thing about the OpenEd Conference is that organizers are actively encouraging students to form an integral part of the conference - indeed the whole OpenEd - community.

Here's the link to the conference - I'm going to be there with bells on!  And I hope to meet many other members of the HASTAC community at the conference as well.



     I was still thinking of your post last night, and wanted to share some other experiences.  Again, I realize that you are going to be working with Ph.D. students, while my focus is more on undergraduates.  Your comment about sage on a stage is what kept coming up.

If you do not include students in the conversation, you are merely replicating the hierarchical Sage-On-The-Stage model of pedagogy but on line.

     As a global statement, it is rather disingenuous. While a model of having advanced adult learners collabratively work on learning delivery and assessment, it is not going to work when you have less advanced learners.  This may be something that changes in the future, but among the undergraduates I've seen, it does not work.  Ultimately, they are novices.  Most of them don't even know what questions to ask, let alone how they best receive and demonstrate their understanding.  Part of my function is to facilitate their growth, both in the content and as learners.  Twoards the end of a semester, I might be able to get them to start asking meaningful questions about their learning experiences, and they may be able to articulate their learning needs (that is actually one module I work with), but it is not something that they come in with the ability to do.  Let me state again, this may change in the future.  We are on a cusp of digital technology and web 2.0 enabled learning, but most of our undergraduates are still coming from an environment where they have learned to "game" the traditional educational system.

     That brings me to my story.  Last semester I taught a Freshman and a Junior/Senior level classes.  Both were taught using a hybrid model, and both had daily blogs as a central learning activity.  By the end of the first 5 weeks, most of the Freshman had started to really work with the blogs, and many were excited about rapid demonstration of knowledge.  The upper classmen, not so much.  They complained daily about the work (100word minimum on blogs), and wanted more lectures, study guides, and notes.  They didn't want to write, only take multiple choice tests based upon some study guide.  In talking with students in groups, individually, and as a whole class, they admitted that they didn't really learn anything in classes with study guides, but they did get an A.  They had the impression that the only thing that mattered was the grade, the learning was incidental as long as they got a good grade.  They didn't want the "new" style because it required more effort on their part, and they didn't have a way of KNOWING what was on the exams (they had the learning objectives).  Toward the end, some admitted that they learned more in my class than any of their other classes.  Others still complained about "too much work". 

    If I had asked them to determine the delivery and assessment styles of the course, what do you think would have happened?  Would it have challenged them to be better learners?  Would it have challenged them to become experts in the content?  Would it have challenged them to start integrating the content with the broader field (connections)?  I don't think so.

     Having said all of that, there is a place, even in the undergraduate levels, to bring students into the conversation of their own learning.  But I think you need to first build the context for them.



You make a very good point that the MOOCs getting all the attention don't feature many structures that give students a role in shaping the direction of the course. However, with all the highly motivated students participating in these courses, the students have found ways to build things within the MOOC structure given them. See these examples from one of the MITx courses, for instance.

They're not going as far as your students will in the course you describe here, but I was impressed at how active some of the MITx students were in shaping their learning experience, even in a sage-on-the-stage MOOC.