Category Archives: MOOC

Some more thoughts on MOOCs

The Los Angeles Review of Books just published a debate on the future of the Humanities and the lion’s share was, of course, the idea of MOOC:

MOOCs and the Future of the Humanities: A Roundtable (Part 1 & Part II) by Ian Bogost, Cathy N. Davidson, Al Filreis and Ray Schroeder.

I liked the debate very much, and I was impressed by the ideas expressed, like Professor Al Filreis from the University of Pennsylvania, who, after offering a “classic” course on contemporary American poetry, began opening it up until he found himself doing it in an online, sort-of-massive scale and definitively open way. So Filreis does a quasi-MOOC without giving up intelligence to machines and the usual, quintessential humanities discussions, interpretations and illuminations were given the role they deserve in the newest version of his course.

He writes:

ModPo is not a textbook; it’s a course, having about it the sense of a course: a collective movement through material, in which one learns the material with teachers and learners working at roughly the same time.  […] The 10-week experience of ModPo happens when it happens, during those 10 weeks, creating a sense that a course is being offered. Many ModPo students have described it, despite its size and despite the far-flung inhabitations of its members, as more “personal” than many huge auditorium-based lecture courses from their university days.

ModPo was, and is, the next step in a 30-year evolution of my course. [My underline]

Filreis has a clear sense that he’s using the highest technology with the utmost sense of personalization, and he’s implementing it.

On the other hand, while not expressing different posititons, Cathy N. Davidson, of Duke University, reminds us that the debate on MOOC’s is wrongly biased from the start since, in the US, higher education suffers from a severe disconnect from reality. She writes:

Let’s start with the numbers. 4.1: That’s the grade point average of a high school student entering the University of California, Irvine this year. 450,000: students on the waiting list for community colleges in California alone. 74%: the percentage of students from the richest quartile of households enrolled at the top 150 colleges in the US.

If you have “to be better than perfect to gain admission to your state university”, she observes”, we’re starting off with the wrong foot. If So, what MOOC discussion are we having, really?

Yet our antiquated educational system rewards a hierarchical form of silo’d, standardized teaching and learning that was designed for the Taylorized Industrial Age. Our over-emphasis on standardized testing undermines the intellectual skills of critical thinking and productive contribution needed to thrive in our interactive Do-It-Yourself era.

The idea is then that MOOCs can play an important role in a more democratic, world-wide education. The point here is that this splendid education offered for free to everyone (difficult to resist) is of course American-centered and American-branded. It seems to me analogous to the old Roman ideal of giving Roman citizenship to all conquered peoples, provided they accepted being Roman.

Thus, I am beginning to feel the idea that this is colonization after all. The xMOOCs may be little nicely painted Troyan Horses with no Cassandras advising the populace.

Says Cathy Davidson:

[…] professors at brick-and-mortar institutions have reason to worry that MOOCs are being hyped by venture capitalists who have no real interest in learning. I share that fear. However, our justifiable worry about the future of the professoriate doesn’t help those students being excluded from higher education today.

True. This is why MOOCs are both good and bad, and actually it’s beginning to make no sense at all to discuss about one or the other. I like these two professors mindsets who, while not necessarily agreeing with the Coursera-style MOOCs are simply stating and advancing the value of massive education through creative, organic uses of new technologies. It is not so much a matter of Humanities, thus. Sure, all disciplines subject to deep discussions and interpretations are best taught by opening up such discussions and interpretations, not necessarily closing them up in a machine-controlled environment made of quizzes and video lectures. But I’d like to pinpoint also that Physics and similar hard science should be taught the exact same way, because in the end, we’re just falling in the trap of producing just some “content” for students to consume. That is not the idea of education, no matter if in the Humanities or Sciences. I don’t wish to enter here the dangerous terrain of the old AI discussion. When AI will produce computing systems capable to hold real, engaging, and humane discussions, we’ll talk. I’m sure it will happen.

In the end, a third panelist (Ian Bogost, Georgia Institute of Technology), writes powerful thoughts:

I am not particularly interested in whether MOOCs are “good” or “bad” educational apparatuses, nor whether individual “positive” examples of the uses of MOOCs can be found to disprove wholesale rejections for the form. Rather, I’m interested in what MOOCs generally speaking do to the educational, technological, cultural, social, and economic landscape: in how they function at large. Individual examples of MOOCs illuminate a part of that picture, but not the whole of it. That whole picture is complex; MOOCs may function on many registers all at once, with interdependencies in-between. But, overall, MOOCs seem to function first and most powerfully as new instruments of fiscal and labor policy, rather than as educational technologies. It’s perhaps time we stopped talking about their value as instruments of learning, and started talking more about what choices they are making on our behalf while we are arguing on the internet about their educational potential.

He makes two very important points which I tend to agree with. First, the justification that MOOCs are needed because of people who are left out of the system for economic reasons, both in the US and outside. Not true, says Bogost, because stats suggest the majority of MOOC students are the usual white privileged males. And many already have completed an undergraduate education. But also, he adds, let’s not forget that the current Coursera-style xMOOCs really follow precisely the same old industrialist model of education which is being criticized. That may exacerbate the problem.

Again, I liked this debate and its positions, even if there’s no trace (as it is happening everywhere in a reconstruction of the past) of Siemens’ work (not even in the references!) with the first connectivist MOOCs since 2008. I most closely agree with Al Filreis, who is doing his work as creatively as possible with the affordances of new media and technologies. If he builds MOOCs in so doing, well, that’s OK. Or, as some say: This Ain’t No Silly MOOC!!

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MOOCs: a Flash

MOOCs. Just a quick thought that occurred to me in a flash of awareness, to add to the

Arthur C. Clarke

Cover of Arthur C. Clarke

post I wrote a couple days ago. Let me begin with saying that I don’t dislike Coursera. I think it is very appealing, and I’m going to say why.

First: Coursera-like MOOCs are attractive to lots of people because (1) they are free and (2) because they work in automatic mode, quasi as if there were not an instructor. They can be done without formalities, and their functioning is very simple.

Second: They work on the eternal cycle (1) Lecture (2) Assignments (3) Exams/Quizzes. Wow! progress.

Third: precisely for this reason, they work in a very familiar mode to students everywhere.

Fourth: Thus, they work standalone, with or without teachers. They use AI robots to correct students’ writings, and use peer-based evaluations for the assignments. These courses don’t need teachers.

Fifth: Remember Arthur C. Clarke saying that If A Teacher Can Be Replaced By A Computer, Then He Should.

Sixth: At this point we have no choice but to deduct that MOOCs Coursera-style are propagating (without being aware of this) one truth: education can live and prosper without teachers.

But this is a paradox, right? Yes it is, and it shows with brute force the following message brought to you by our sponsors:

Teachers who work automata-like in the same way as Coursera are doomed. Either we stand up to this task and really, **really** change the way we do education, from classes to admin to edtech, or there won’t b

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MOOCs, oh my

Français : Blason de l'université d'Harvard (USA)

Français : Blason de l’université d’Harvard (USA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reflections and comments on MOOCs

I’d like here to add a few comments to my presentation of yesterday night on MOOCs.

The preso in its Storify form is available herewith. After, I am going to raise a couple of issues from the comments that were brought by two of yesterday’s students.

A hyperbole

So, here are the points I wish to raise here.

  1. The myth of content. Saying “dictatorship of content” is one thing. Which does not mean content is not important. But it is not all-important. In fact, the myth of contents means being slave of one powerful prison: believing that knowledge is freezable into static chunks that need to be passed down (transmitted) from teacher to student. So we get the idea that knowledge can be “delivered” and consumed like a pizza. If content were that important, then a book would be all one would need to learn whatever subject (myself, I learned a few subjects this way). But sometimes we need discussion, passion or simple human participation not mediated by anything.
  2. The role of the professor. Is the gentleman really needed? Schank says AI and robots cannot (yet) analyze or correct a text. Ergo, the role of the teacher is pretty much safe for now! However, in Thrun‘s mind (and operation), a few algorithms are the only subjects who do the evaluation, apart some peer-based student assignment correction. It things were that simple, well, we’d disappear shortly. But things are not that simple, and generally speaking, one cannot set up a self-driving machine to produce a sensibkle learning experience. In some areas one can, actually, and perhaps programming may be that. I didn’t go to many classes, and in a few cases I jumped that part altogether and got the exams only –and passed them. Does this mean there is no need of the professor? Certainly not.
  3. Some say MOOCs will subvert education as we know it. Well, it’s happening, but not in the way MOOCs were supposed to. In fact yesterday I made the point that the Coursera-like MOOC (xMOOC as it is called now) is actually pushing us back to our industrial chain-like view of education. OMG!
  4. One thing MOOCs are subverting is the certification business, credentials and all that. Which may be good, and this may spun new ideas. For instance this may open the doors to competency-based curricula where one students enters a “course” or a micro module and exits when she feels confident about mastering some knowledge or skill. Of course, for this to happen our Universities must loosen the requirement concept, and allow non-credit certificates or similar to be accepted as part of the standard requisites for a given program of studies. This alone is very unsettling for institutions. But we may already have a case with Coursera (which I criticize but publicly say I like their doing).
  5. Last, a very important albeit minor issue is the culture that is propagated through the MOOCs. Apparently MOOCs are given free to everyone, even those who cannot afford an expensive education. But in most countries, unlike the US, education is a social feature free (or low-cost) for all. So, we’re really talking about Harvard-style education being free for all. Great! But, remember: marrying Harvard means marrying its family too: all its culture, which is based on (or at least stands upon) the Great American Values. All right here, but: aren’t thus the GAVs exported or imposed upon all the “poor, ineducate” people of the world? Isn’t this a colonizing principle?
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Zen of Teaching: The Presentation (MOOC version)

I was called to cover for my friend and colleague Rosa Ojeda when she reported she wouldn’t be able to do her talk two weeks ago for George Siemens‘ and Stephen DownesMOOCChange 2011“. I was thrilled to be able to share with the George, Stephen and their co-teachers in this extraordinary feat and feast of learning that i their course. Of course, I was also panicked to be there, on the same spot where Siemens, Downes, Tony Bates, Rory McGreal and Howard Rheingold had talked, among many other giants.

But it seems I didn’t do a very bad job, either. And it was a fascinating and again, thrilling experience. Here is thus my presentation: Zen of Teaching: Myths of Teaching & Learning and Technology.

Just a little comment on the side: Somebody, after I had said how much I appreciated having mentors on my side, helping, encouraging and inspiring me all the time, put this genius line up on the chat:


A big thanks to Siemens and especially to Stephen Downes, who helped me feel at ease and confident with the Elluminate wizardry.

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