With the ongoing discussion of whether MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) is the next revolution in education, I decided to embark on a MOOC myself. My first experience with online courses was not Massive nor Open. It was with the Master of Arts in Teaching program with USC. It was a full-fledged master program conducted via video conferencing which meant real-time interaction with professors and classmates. Having thrived in such an environment, I look to MOOCs with great expectations of lifelong learning without a hefty price tag or any price at all if possible.
My first experience with MOOCs was a shaky one. I can’t really say I fully experienced it since I was never fully engaged with the course. There was one course I did with Open2Study and another with Coursera. Both courses were related to learning and education but somehow there was too much going on in my life in the time I was supposed to complete it. The Open2Study course was conducted at a pace which required almost daily attention that I quickly abandoned it altogether. The pace of the Coursera course was much better but I still couldn’t keep up with the myriad of activities that were going on and felt pretty much a non-student. Without a concerted effort and a “studying” frame of mind, those two MOOCs amounted to a faint memory of videos and catchphrases.
Still hoping for a better outcome with MOOC, I recently enrolled for a Coursera course, History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, offered by Duke University and am now in the fourth week of the six-week course. This time I was more prepared to set aside some time to do the course. The first week, however, went by in the flash and I only caught up with the video lectures in the second week.
What got me hooked was the high quality video production with a friendly and engaging presenter (Professor Cathy N. Davidson) and useful presentation pointers appearing from the side. It a short period of 10 to 15 minutes, I learned important concepts and got thinking about the implication of technology in education. The videos were stimulating enough for me to anticipate the following week’s materials.
One of the tools used in the course is forums which drive a socially-connected and engaging form of learning. I was not, however, particularly drawn to the forums because I am inundated enough with articles, debates and discussion on Twitter (my daily feed of news and trends). Furthermore, as a non-fee-paying student, I am just not as motivated to devote time and energy to share and exchange ideas with strangers, even if it means learning new things.
Professor Cathy Davidson reviewing guiding principles of the course
To me, the outcome of watching the videos was immediate knowledge. I could watch the videos anytime and in between tasks and gained a lot from a relative short span of focused attention. Forums, on the other hand, required more thoughtful and time-consuming contribution which had a less obvious reward. There was no tangible carrot nor stick to motivate the more socially engaging aspect of the course. I am a full-time working mother with three young children, and this makes me evaluate how worthwhile any pursuit is on an ongoing basis.
Modes of learning aside, let me move on to what I have been learning so far: 1) We’re teaching like it’s 1992; 2) We need to teach for the future; and 3) Our conception of reality is created through the filter of our own mind and perception.
Pen & paper | Flickr: Loops San
Technology and communication practices have evolved since 1993 but education seems to be largely stuck in the days of pen and paper, individual summative assessments and the like.
1) We’re teaching like it’s 1992.
The significance of 1992 was lost on me until I learnt that the Internet was opened to the world on April 22, 1993. Since then, anyone with an internet connection could communicate with one another, expressing what they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted. Technology and communication practices have evolved since 1993 but education seems to be largely stuck in the days of pen and paper, individual summative assessments and the like.
Personally, I find this to be true in Singapore. National examinations are in the traditional vein of individual summative assessment of the highest order, to the extent of determining your lot in life (whether perceived or real). In post-secondary institutions, however, coursework is more prevalent, especially at the polytechnic. There is a mix of individual and group assignments, some more collaborative than others, but not quite exploiting the full potential of our current technologies.
One reason behind this phenomenon of teaching like it’s 1992 is the fact that educators have grown up in the world pre-1993 and were schooled through and through in the ways and sensibilities of the time before the Internet. I certainly was. Some are looking forward to the future but many are comfortable and used to the past. Whatever the arguments are for staying put and not rocking the boat, I think there are more compelling reasons to decide that we have to change and act on it.
Digital literacies | Flickr: dougbelshaw
It’s not about getting students through a course on digital literacies, it’s about practising digital literacies in and out of the classroom.
2) We need to teach for the future.
I believe that we need to teach our students digital literacies. The post-1993 generation was born into an Internet world of instant communication and gratification. Having taught such students for the past 5 years, I’m convinced that I am more digitally savvy that most of them. They may have the latest gadgets and apps, but most of the time they are too trusting of the first few Google search results, think that, in fact, Google is the originator of the information, and pay little attention to issues of privacy and ethics.
I don’t think students are mastering how to evaluate internet sources because there is a (wrong) assumption that they are naturally digitally savvy and so teachers pay scant attention to this aspect of learning. To put another perspective on this issue, if there are no grades or tangible rewards attached to being digitally literate, students will not become literate. It’s not about getting students through a course on digital literacies, it’s about practising digital literacies in and out of the classroom.
We can never teach our students enough content for the future, but we ought to teach them how to navigate the future with greater critical analytical skills.
3) Our conception of reality is created through the filter of our own mind and perception.
One major concept I learnt and find so true in all areas of my life is Immanuel Kant’s concept of how our perception of the world is filtered by our own preconceived notions and ideas. If we see our students as well-oiled machines, responsive to instructions and high in productivity, then our approach to teaching and assessment will follow suit. Standardised testing, orderliness and measurable results become drivers of education.
While I believe that such a filter is outdated today and that a new filter of creative and collaborative learners is more appropriate, I feel trapped in a factory of deadlines where incomplete or faulty products or tossed aside. Most of the teaching my own children are experiencing right now is highly segmented, time-bound, and considered a done deal by way of tests. Creativity is relegated to physical activity and art lessons or specific assignments.
True creativity and collaborative practice can only be achieved if they are part and parcel of everyday learning – something I have never experienced in my own schooling experience but a future I hope for my children and their children.
A traditional classroom | Flickr: young shanahan
An online course can run like a factory if that’s the vision of the instructors. A traditional classroom can be turned into a laboratory of inquisitive minds if the teachers so wish.
So what about MOOCs?
Will MOOCs then be one of the solutions to instill creativity and collaborative practice in learning? MOOC is merely a vehicle. An online course can run like a factory if that’s the vision of the instructors. A traditional classroom can be turned into a laboratory of inquisitive minds if the teachers so wish. Granted that MOOCs has the potential of reaching out to more by using technologies that are innately collaborative in nature (e.g. forum posting, wikis, etc.), the challenge is to make use of that potential in a sustainable manner for a meaningful learning experience.
My own interaction with the current MOOC has been limited to watching video lectures so far. I have not set my mind on anything collaborative but I may if I find like-minded friends or colleagues who believe that it is a meaningful endeavour for their work or personal growth.
MOOCs can roll out its bells and whistles, but the choice is up to us to ride along with the revolution.