MOOCs and Pedagogy: Part 2

Hard as it is for me to keep up with the spread of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in higher education and the sizable issues accompanying how they are organized, taught, and what students take away from the experience, I have learned a few things from taking one course (although I dropped out), listening to a panel of professors who taught online courses, and reading extensively pro- and anti- MOOCs commentaries. Here is what I have learned thus far.

1.  At least three groups of academics and entrepreneurs have emerged in debating the merits of MOOCs: Advocates, Skeptics, and Agnostics.

Advocates (see here, here, and here) include those recent entrepreneurs into the world of MOOCs and academics swept off their feet by offering their expertise to  thousands–even hundreds of thousands–of students simultaneously as opposed to  hundreds in a lecture hall. Advocates also include those who have labored long and hard in distance learning, e-learning, and earlier incarnations of online courses.  With striking advances in technology, MOOC champions want to open up doors to anyone in the world seeking expert knowledge and skills–including credentials. Anyone, they say, with an Internet connection. In MOOCs, they see a powerful tool to make fundamental changes in the organization and delivery of higher education in the next decade. To them, MOOCs encapsulate a “disruptive innovation” that will transform higher education…for the better.

Skeptics (see here, and here) include many academics who, for various reasons, question the premise of learning online as opposed to face-to-face in lecture halls and seminars. A recent poll had nearly 60 percent expressing “more fear than excitement” for expanding online courses. Skeptics range from Henny Penny shout-outs that the Sky if Falling to some who urge the professoriate to take action or computer screens will emerge victorious, replacing professors.

Agnostics (see here and here) are often academics who question the hype of MOOCs revolutionizing higher education while seeing both pluses and minuses to virtual learning. They know that traditional higher education, specifically, lectures to hundreds of undergraduates, was in of itself a way for colleges to save money and do not defend such practices but they also see how mixes of teaching practices (e.g., face-to-face and online) might be pedagogically superior to live  lecture, video snippets, and demonstrations . Which brings me to my second observation about MOOCs.

2. A MOOC delivers a course to students but a teacher teaches it. What  students learn depends, in part, upon how teachers teach.  Online delivery of instruction is neither the same as pedagogy nor identical to student learning.

In an earlier post, I made the distinction between teacher-centered and student-centered instruction and hybrids of the two, arguing that teacher-centered instruction is the default pedagogy in higher education. In this post, I want to make clear this distinction between delivering a course and teaching it. I turn to Richard Clark whose work three decades ago helped me sort out this crucial distinction.

Personal computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones—and here I would add online instruction–are vehicles for transporting instruction. They are not teaching methods. By teaching methods, I mean practices such as asking questions, giving examples, lecture, recitation, guided discussion, drill, cooperative learning, individualized instruction, simulations, tutoring, project-based learning, and innumerable variations and combinations of pedagogies. [i]

Conflating MOOCs with instructional methods misleads professors, students, and the public about what teachers teach and what students learn. Or as Clark has said: media like television, film, and computers “deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition.” Alan Kay who invented the prototype for a laptop in 1968 made a similar point when he said schools confuse music with the instrument. “You can put a piano in every classroom but that won’t give you a developed music culture because the music culture is embodied in people.” If, on the other hand, you have a musician who is a teacher, then you don’t “need musical instruments because the kids can sing and dance….The important thing … is that the music is not in the piano and knowledge and edification is not in the computer.” Or online instruction, I would add. [ii]

This mushing together of a means of delivering instruction (i.e., MOOCs) with how teachers teach (e.g., lectures, discussions, small groups, “connected learning” and the like) has distorted greatly policy discussions and blogosphere reactions of advocates, skeptics, and agnostics about MOOCs and their impact on teaching and learning.


[i] Richard Clark, “Reconsidering Research on Media in Learning,” Review of Educational Research, 53(4), pp. 445-460; Richard Clark, “When Researchers Swim Upstream: Reflections on an Unpopular Argument about Learning from Media,” Educational Technology, February 1991, pp. 34-40.

[ii] Alan Kay, “Still Waiting for the Revolution,” Scholastic Administr@tor, April/May 2003, pp. 23-25.

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48 responses to “MOOCs and Pedagogy: Part 2

  1. Pingback: MOOCs and Pedagogy: Part 2 - by Larry Cuban | Digital Delights | Scoop.it

  2. Bob Calder

    If your institution’s 4 year graduation rate hovers below 70%, what do you think your online completion rate will be? That’s a suggestion I haven’t seen, thought I haven’t read much of the debate. Although the push for online courses originated at an institution with a high graduation rate, do the other top four seem to be making a big deal of MOOCs?

  3. Jeff Bowen

    What if MOOC’s were the prevailing mode for delivering learning opportunity to high schoolers? Actually, though not prevailing, they are already a serious contender. The prospect raises all kinds of issues relating to funding, equality, governance, and social control –all of them with parallels worth thinking about in a post secondary context. Is the college degree, like the high school diploma sufficient protection against institutional demise? What OTHER purposes do educational institutions serve that could be compromised by MOOCs?

    • larrycuban

      Other than for credit recovery (that is, making up for failed courses to graduate), online instruction is far from being a “serious contender” as the “prevailing mode for delivering learning opportunities to high schoolers.” Sure, a few states have mandated high school students to take at least one online course to graduate. Were that to become a trend, however, your questions become apt, Jeff. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Pingback: MOOCs and Pedagogy: Part 2 | Educación a Distancia (EaD) | Scoop.it

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  6. leoniehaimson

    Good piece; but I’m not sure I understand your distinction about teaching methods and delivering instruction. Doesn’t a MOOC limit one’s teaching methods? how a teacher can be doing “tutoring, project-based learning” etc. when he or she has more than 1000 students, unless you mean handing this role over to someone else.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment,Leonie. In most instances, there is a decided tilt toward teacher-centered online instruction: lectures, demonstrations, videos, etc. There have been, however, many champions of involving students in participating and collaborating in MOOCs and similar offerings. George Siemens and his Canadian colleagues, for example, have developed many ways for thousands of students to “connect” to online content. Some advocates for MOOCs are critical of the video lecture and frontal teaching that has been so common in online instruction since the 1960s; they push different ways for online teachers to get students to do projects, form small groups, and many other similar student-centered techniques. They are a small vanguard in the fast-changing world of MOOCs.

  7. A very good point that delivery and pedagogy aren’t the same thing. But that doesn’t mean delivery is irrelevant to pedagogy. As a professor, how I think about teaching depends on who I’m teaching, how many I’m teaching, where I’m teaching (the institution and the room), and other factors between me and the students.

    When I taught a MOOC, I thought a huge amount about those kinds of questions. I didn’t just teach an in-person course through a new delivery mechanism. I’m not claiming every MOOC instructor takes this approach, or that I was entirely successful — although I learned a huge amount — but it’s wrong to think “means of delivering instruction” isn’t part of “how teachers teach.”

    The MOOC format has huge pedagogical limitations. It’s far more interactive than TV or other one-way delivery mechanisms, but far less interactive (at least, in certain important ways) than in-person or synchronous small-group distance learning. It also has huge pedagogical strengths, few of which we’ve yet realized because the format and the tools are so primitive. I sincerely hope that he pedagogical conversation doesn’t get lost amid the (admittedly very important) conversation about what MOOCs mean for the institutions and economics of higher ed.

    • larrycuban

      MOOCs can transport a teacher-directed form of instruction–most do–a student-centered one (those that seek student participation and collaboration in small groups and loads of feedback) and mixes of the two. Thus, one has to look carefully at how a teacher teaches in a MOOC. Online instruction is not irrelevant to how one teaches, as you say, Kevin, but making the distinction (and keeping it in mind) helps considerably in determining whether students have learned anything from the different pedagogies teachers used in course. Thanks for the comment.

  8. Lyn Goodnight

    I would submit that there is more than one kind of MOOC. Those being offered by the major universities are giant expansions of existing teaching models. You said, “A MOOC delivers a course to students but a teacher teaches it. What students learn depend, in part, upon how teachers teach.” However, the originators of the MOOC model did not intend this. In MOOC courses such as #Change11, the intent is for a contributor to put out some material and observations, but not teach. Learners are encouraged to go out and find more information, to exchange ideas, to bring back new ideas to the MOOC group, and to network widely for both gathering and dissemination of information. In this sense, it is not up to the teacher to provide the learner’s best experience, but to drop a pebble in the pond and let the ripples take care of themselves. Motivated learners will take the ideas presented and take off with them. Lurkers on the sidelines will simply absorb what others provide. Another middle group will spend some time on the MOOC, but what they gain is entirely in their own hands since they choose their level of participation. I would suggest that you abandon the higher education = MOOC from a university idea, and explore more independent MOOCs. If you have not already read Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Dave Cormier on MOOC’s, by all means see what they have to say about them. Their intentions are highly disparate from what is currently offered by the major universities.

    • larrycuban

      Lyn, you are correct that there are different versions of MOOCs. Downes, Siemens, and Cormier have been and continue to be interested in “connected” education of the type that you describe. Thanks for making that point.

  9. Pingback: MOOCs and Pedagogy: Part 2 | Higher Education Business Strategy | Scoop.it

  10. Based on your definition, count me among the agnostics for now. The real question I have for those advocating the use of MOOCs is: What is your reason for doing this? As I see it, there are two broad classes of answers:
    1–to save money: In which case I would advise everyone involved to be VERY VERY careful as extremely rough roads are ahead. Right now, as I see it, the only way you can really trim coats is to use the MOOC as an excuse to cut HR related teaching and learning support. You can probably guess from the tone here how I feel about THAT. :>)
    2–to accomplish things we otherwise cannot do: In which case I would still advise everyone involved to be VERY careful as we all still have much to learn about how to integrate this new delivery system effectively. That said, I have every hope we will…eventually.

  11. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    To Larry Cuban there are 3 types of people writing about MOOC’s: Advocates, Skeptics and Agnostics. I think I’m a (bit skeptic) agnostic, if possible. And you?

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  23. Ian Rae

    People used to say the same about recorded music. That you can’t replace the human contact and rich experience of a live performance. All true, but 100 years of recorded music shows it has immense value to society.

    This makes me skeptical of MOOC skeptics. But be aware that the first
    recorded music was piano rolls. Which is about where MOOCs are now!

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