Are MOOCs Useful, Roger Schank?

This post is in response to the  Steve Hargadon webcast with Roger Schank entitled, Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools, why MOOCs won’t save schools or the world, and why everything you think you know about education is wrong.

“Roger, I’m a big fan. I truly believe our world needs more people like you to help us critically think about and question our antiquated assumptions surrounding proper education.

First of all, I agree with your pragmatic approach to teaching: it needs to happen in context, and ought to be driven by learners’ wants and needs.

Although you didn’t make a big deal about it in the webcast, I wanted to make sure I understand your criticisms of the MOOC learning trend.  I heard you give three reasons why MOOCs are dumb:

MOOC Cow Image

Get it?! Universities are cattle. It’s a pun. (I know all humor is lost in its explanation.)

  1. MOOCs are not sustainable. (i.e. they’re just too darn expensive to facilitate to remain “open” in the sense that they can be offered for free.) Despite what Harvard and MIT have done, MOOC-crazed universities want to jump on the band wagon, but don’t know how to make one that is  financially sustainable.  Universities will not disseminate information for free.  (If they did, they’d be out of a job.)  Rather, many universities think of MOOCs as giant cash cows—they can herd thousands of undergrads into virtual lecture halls, and as long as they can show, based on “scores” and user feedback, that “the learning experience is equal to or better than f2f classes” they will continue doling out the diplomas and raking in the moolah.  Despite what universities might say, their priority is not student learning in the slightest. (Carnegie-Mellon understands this.)
  2. MOOCs are fundamentally flawed because they (in most cases) remove learners from their appropriate, contextual learning environments.
  3. MOOCs also have a ludicrously insufficient teacher:student ratio (MOOCs lack real-life and wise mentors).

Does that synopsis capture your argument?  Please feel free to add to or take away from my statements above.  Assuming I understand you correctly, and given that the concept of “how MOOCs are suppose to be used” is still under construction, I’d like to propose a few ideas that might appease your MOOCish misgivings:

  1. By definition, I believe MOOCs ought to remain free and open to users.  MOOCs have positioned themselves in the same place as Facebook when they went public. Some will argue that good things happen without money.  (We call these people evangelists and zealots.)   Universities are money-making machines, and not likely  to be sponsoring any major investment out-of-pocket.  (However, if they are smart, like so many other big companies recently, they’ll figure out a way to turn a profit without charging users.  Google Ads?)  MOOCs aren’t going anywhere.  They are currently undergoing rapid transformations, but as long as the technology is there, there will always be altruists and business-minded entrepreneurs fiddling with them. (See Wikipedia and online, content-specific forums.)  Likewise, as long as there are people to pay a premium for education, there will be universities and private institutions to provide the coveted, one-on-one teaching/learning experience.  As MOOCs evolve we are guaranteed to see a distribution of online learning alternatives, each with a distinct blend of teacher involvement, which will be positively correlated with cost of the learning experience.  MOOCs will be the 1970 AMC Gremlin in the education lot. The question remains, can learners get any value from MOOCs?
  2. Although MOOCs are not ideal learning environments, I trust that they will find their place in the education world.  Even MOOCs can teach concepts in-context: I’m currently enrolled in a language-learning MOOC that not only offers “how to” lessons, but also affords me opportunities to meet up with other self-selected language enthusiasts (online) to practice and test my knowledge. Granted, it’s not a “real-life” situation per se, but it’s a pretty effective simulation. So far, the entire experience have been completely free to anyone at anytime at any distance.  It’s a great thing for people who can’t afford a mentoring experience.  But what is the role of the MOOC instructor?  Is there any expert mentoring happening?
  3. I don’t believe instructors have to be the only mentors.  Based on my limited experience in the MOOC discussion, I feel like the Canadian inventors of MOOCs intended for these open, social communities to encourage innovation.  If you view learning from Garrison’s 
    Community of Innovation framework diagramCommunity of Inquiry
     framework, you’ll see the dual function of a “teacher” is to (1) set the climate and (2) select the content for the environment. The “mentoring” you’re looking for in MOOCs, Roger, happens in the informal social discourse happening between peers wh
    o have a shared interest.  Realizing that “experts” could be anywhere, I think an important feature that every MOOC should possess is the ability to identify the degree of participation in a community of practice. (See: Wenger’s Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation)

Despite being seen as just a marketing stunt by some, I do believe MOOCs have two unique benefits to the learning world.

  1. They provide (non-mentored) education to the poor.  The way I see it, MOOCs were born out to the need to supply learning materials to the masses who do not have access to expert mentors.  If Roger had his way, every learner would be paired up with a expert in a one-on-one metoring relationship.   MOOCs fill a legitimate need in that there will never be enough experts to meet the learner demand.  Those who can’t afford to work one-on-one with an expert will have to make do with MOOCs.
  2. MOOCs are ideal breeding grounds for innovation and communities of inquiry/practice.  These are playgrounds for experts in the field to unify and help each other by reaching one anothers’ iches.  Universities are trying to bastardize the integrity of the essence of MOOCs by over structuring them, closing registration, assigning grades, etc.

In order to have the greatest success participating in MOOCs, learners must be self-directed learners.  MOOCs should not be used in education systems or internal business organizations. When used in schools, MOOCs should not replace student-teacher interaction, but should supplement the learning experience as one of many learning resources.  For example, MOOCs should be leveraged to reach across countries and connect learners who share a similar interest and value a global perspective and other cultures’ opinions.  For businesses, an “internal MOOC” is a contradiction in terms and should never be employed. Innovative employees should leverage MOOCs to connect with like-minded individuals, share resources, and create new things!  MOOCs ought to be viewed as semi-formal communities of practice that engage in solving real-world problems. MOOCs shouldn’t be a start date, or end date, rather learners ought to be able to enroll at any time. Learners ought to be offered a series of exercises, and various activities, or tasks that can elevate them from novice to expert status. Badges are a valid assessment system.  Also, they ought to be non-mandatory.  The Socratic Arts can find a home in the conversations that take place here.  Eventually, I would hope that employers will learn to value what people can DO more than how much they’ve paid to an institution over n number of years. As communities of practice increase in reputation, perhaps some MOOC badges will carry more weight than college degrees in the employment process. (When you think about it, what are university degrees other than badges that say you’ve put in the required hours at a prestigious institution?)

So, finally, here is my question for you—do MOOCs have a place in your ideal vision of the future of education? If so, what? (in K-12, Higher Ed, Business Ed, Informal Ed?) How do MOOCs have to change in order to be useful?”



About bryantanner

I'm obsessed with learning via the appropriate technology. My professional mission is to effectively deliver instruction to learners in a way that yields the greatest results for all stakeholders involved.
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2 Responses to Are MOOCs Useful, Roger Schank?

  1. roger schank says:

    sorry; MOOCs mean lectures and tests and neither actually are a way of learning; they are a way people get certified; so if degrees and credentials are your thing, go to lectures (or get them from MOOCs); otherwise doing with the help of mentors and feedback from actual experience is the only way
    learning happens; school and learning are not the same thing

  2. Pingback: Schankism—Roger Schank’s plan to take over the world…of education | Anytime. Anyplace. Learning.

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