MOOCs and Pedagogy: Teacher-Centered, Student-Centered, and Hybrids (Part 1)

In writing about all of the hype surrounding MOOCs, I saw this photo entitled “University Classroom of the Future.”

From instructional television in the 1950s through updated versions of  “distance education, “a professor professing in front of a camera is familiar and surely will dominate many of the newly established platforms (e.g., Coursera, Udacity, edX). Whether it will be the “University Classroom of the Future,” I cannot say for sure. But the photo makes the professor front and center in teaching content and skills.

The prevailing version of MOOCs offers traditional, technology-enriched teacher-centered instruction, that is, lecturing to large groups of people, asking occasional questions, online discussion sections, and multiple-choice questions on exams. Such MOOCs possess advantages of efficiency in delivering information especially in particular subjects (e.g. procedural knowledge in computer science). Computer science departments at Stanford, MIT, and Harvard launched the initial MOOC offerings, not the Humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences, according to Keith Devlin, a Stanford University mathematician currently teaching a MOOC course on mathematical thinking (and the “Math Guy” on NPR).

These courses, in the words of George Siemens, a Canadian professor at Athabasca University–Canada’s Open University–who started an early version of MOOC in 2008, duplicate knowledge for learners who then replicate that knowledge.

“In a traditional course, the instructor creates knowledge coherence by bounding the domain of knowledge that the learners will explore: i.e. this is the course text, here are the readings, quizzes will validate that you’ve learned what I think is important, etc.”

There are other ways of teaching these courses, however. Some enthusiasts for MOOCs see opportunities for non-traditional forms of teaching where students learn from one another, form online communities, crowd-source answers to problems, create networks that distribute learning in ways that seldom occur in bricks-and-mortar colleges and universities. In other words, student-centered or learner-centered pedagogy.

Again, George Siemens:

“In all of the MOOCs I’ve run, readings and resources have been used that reflect the current understanding of experts in the field. We ask learners, however, to go beyond the declarations of knowledge …. Learners need to create and share stuff – blogs, articles, images, videos, artifacts, etc…. Our first MOOC … started by being primarily centered in a Moodle discussion forum. As the course progressed, interactions were scattered over many tools and technologies. We ended up with many spaces of interactions: Second Life, PageFlakes, Google Groups, Twitter, Facebook, Plurk, blogs, wikis, YouTube, among dozens of others.”

To Keith Devlin, “the key to real learning has always been bi-directional human-human interaction (even better in some cases, multi-directional, multi-person interaction), not unidirectional instruction.” He believes that:

“while the popular image of a MOOC centers on lecture-videos and multiple-choice quizzes, what Humanities, Arts, and Science MOOCs (including mine) are about is community building and social interaction. For the instructor … the goal in such a course is to create a learning community.  To create an online experience in which thousands of self-motivated individuals from around the world can come together for a predetermined period of intense, human–human interaction, focused on a clearly stated common goal.”

And hybrid versions of teacher- and student-centered instruction is about “flipping” classes ala Salman Khan, that is, undergraduate students view the professor’s lecture in dorm rooms or at home and then meet with teachers and fellow students face-to-face for closer examination of the concepts in the lecture, and deeper inquiry into the content. What others call blended learning. (For a taxonomy of blended learning types in K-12, see Classifying blended-learning2 .

In MOOCs, of course, “flipping” cannot be done easily even with teaching assistants, email exchanges, and the like although Devlin, Siemens, and others see social media–the Facebook model–as the instrument for creating peer learning and communities of learners in “flipped” models of blended learning.

Here, then, at the early stage of the hype cycle–somewhere between the “Technology Trigger” and the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” are three kinds of pedagogy vying for attention among MOOCs. Which will prevail?

Based upon my experience in higher education and the research I and others have done, technology-enriched traditional teacher-centered instruction will continue to dominate MOOCs for the following reasons:

1. Professor-centered instruction in courses where procedural knowledge and skills are expected to be learned (e.g., math, computer science, entry-level social sciences, engineering) is easier to deliver to students and, after initial start-up costs are factored in, cheaper than in face-to-face classrooms. At least to one researcher, it will be shown that students learn as much from such technology-delivered instruction as if they were listening to a professor in undergraduate lecture halls. See Bowen lectures SU 102-1 .

2. In those institutions where faculty are expected to do research and publish, the incentives of tenure and promotion drive faculty behavior. Professors are rewarded for spending far more time on  research than spending time on developing and teaching student-centric courses and learning communities. Thus, in research-driven institutions, most professors will not invest in designing and teaching student-centric courses.

For these reasons, chances are that the photo at the top of this post captures a typical higher education classroom in the years to come.

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62 responses to “MOOCs and Pedagogy: Teacher-Centered, Student-Centered, and Hybrids (Part 1)

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