Tuesday, February 26, 2013

MOOCs are for mooks

I realize I'm coming off as a bit of a Luddite here, but I find almost nothing appealing about the idea of a MOOC, or a Massively Open Online Course. I say almost nothing because I like the concept of defined coursework, but as for the rest I have issues.

Massive: Bigger isn't always Better

This concept should be banned from higher education. In fact, I once knew a professor who asked me if we (by which he meant students) were too dumb or just too lazy to demand a refund for any tuition that funded lecture courses with over 80 students.

To his point, learning takes place as a collaborative effort. Students have a responsibility to learn, professors have a responsibility to teach, and education is the ideal end result of that balancing act. Whether online or in person, as the number of students increases, I think it's more difficult to say that they we as teachers are educating anyone. They are educating themselves, and that's not what higher education should be.

MOOCs try to compensate for this disproportion by incorporating more experts and educators into the mix, but I fear we'd be left with a free-for-all without any hierarchy. And what motivations do experts even have in participating in MOOCs? What happens when contradictions emerge? Is there a danger of proliferating misinformation here? I honestly have no good answers.

Open: You get What You Pay for?

Higher education is already a fledgling enterprise. Without increased funding from other sources, a no-charge education system like MOOCs isn't feasible. Many universities have expanded into distance education and seen revenue expansion as a result, but those courses aren't "open" in the sense we're talking about here.

I'm also uncomfortable with notion of "open" as it refers to participation by all. Given the current structure of Western society, too many people are attending university already -- or at least too many are pursuing liberal arts degrees. And I want you to understand I'm not making a statement about class or ability, simply about economics.

So, should college be an unhindered time in which students broaden their horizons? Absolutely -- to a point. But there is an overwhelming societal expectation that a college should provide some sense of job training. In my view, there's sort of an educational-industrial complex churning out graduates with the promise of employment, but those graduates all-too-often find themselves buried in a mountain of debt working a job for which they are overqualified and underpaid -- if they're lucky.

The job market in certain fields is already oversaturated, so I'm leery about opening the doors completely as I feel it would only add to a growing problem. Now a MOOC unaffiliated with any university? Go for it. Learning is a worthwhile enterprise at any level, but it shouldn't necessarily come with a university sanctioned stamp of approval.

Online: Plug in, Tune out

Finally, there's learning online. Nothing wrong with the idea itself, though admittedly I'm skeptical. I don't think anything can compare with the face-to-face interaction and learning experience provided in an appropriately sized classroom (5 to 40 students).

And from the limited experience I've had with online learning, I think advocates of distance education would agree -- or at least their methods reflect that. From what I can tell, online learning experiences often attempt to mirror the in class experience. Wimba has a "hand raising" option for God's sake.

But let's go a bit deeper. Consider, for example, the avatar-based virtual worlds we learned about in a prior tech talk. What struck me about the still images presented were how eerily similar they were to a real world classroom. These avatars exist in a virtual world. I could create a character that's half lion, half unicorn, throw on some wings and fly around like some bad ass version of Pegasus, yet we're going to sit orderly in a classroom or in a circle near a lake? And the professor's avatar is going to deliver a PowerPoint presentation?! Why bother?

Having said all that, I think online education through university systems could be great. We just need to accept that it isn't, nor should it be, an in-person classroom. We'll never achieve a good representation of that experience, so let's create a new and different one.

Too that end, I can see some value in MOOCs. At least there's an effort to reconceptualize online learning to  integrate more fully what the Web has to offer and allows its users to do, which is sorely lacking in what I've seen in university online education initiatives.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Twitter Teaching Assistant

The last tech talk got me thinking about how I could and do use social media in the classroom, so I thought I'd share.

First, I don't think I would mess with Facebook. There's no questioning there's some amazing functionality there, and the near universal reach among students adds to the appeal. But for me, Facebook is a very personal public space -- if that makes any sense.

I can't recall who brought this up in class, but being among the first to have access to Facebook when it was only accessible by college students definitely colored our perception of what the site is. I'm guarded about who sees what I post because I speak more candidly and personally on Facebook than I do anywhere else. I don't want to breach that divide with students.

Now Twitter, on the other hand, is a different story. It's an inherently public forum and always has been. The ability to search for a topic based on hashtags is a great way to enter a conversation and it cuts through the clutter on the rest of its site, which I think is extremely beneficial as it relates to teaching. This feature enables students and teachers who don't "know" one another within the social network to engage in meaningful conversations.

I'm living amidst a great example. I currently TA for a communication law course. The professor discovered that students are floating around on Twitter talking about the course under "#commlaw." He's shared some examples of some of the more interesting tweets to begin class, which is good icebreaker for an early morning class and it's typically good for a laugh too.

Recently, I decided to jump into the conversation following our first exam:

We've been studying political speech and laws regarding campaign contributions, so I made a joke about 501(c) groups. Hilarious, I know. You'd have to understand the concept to get the joke.

But that's what makes it good. I think little things like that bring students into the larger conversation, particularly in these giant lecture courses. It also makes me seem a bit more personable and offers me some forum with which to engage students. I don't lecture. I only provide limited counsel and grade exams. I'll be the most hated figure in the room before the semester is over.

And the communication flows both ways. Twitter provides a channel for students to talk with me. Several of them administer an account for the class, @commlawprobs:

So I follow them and I see concerns about the grades. My reply:
Now we're all on the same page. And the account is a good way for the students to blow off some steam, share concerns, or even make a simple joke:
I haven't decided how beneficial I think this whole project is or could be, but it's definitely interesting if for no other reason than it's some good-old-fashioned grass roots fun we can all be a part of.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Flipping the Classroom

Flipping the classroom blurs distinctions of when and where learning may occur by mixing equal elements of interactivity and preparedness on the parts of both students and teachers.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Buck Stops Here

Harry Truman famously kept his "buck stops here" sign in plain view on the Oval Office's Resolute Desk. I think he wished to convey not only the weight of responsibility that rested on his shoulders, but also the authority he had in making important decisions.

In much the same way, we teachers ultimately have a responsible to foster learning in the classroom; but on the other side of the coin, it's important to remember the authority we have in making key choices.

I bring up this point because I noticed in class that we talked at length about our responsibility as teachers to cater to students learning needs -- and that various technological tools can help us do that. Again, we have the authority to act on our best judgment.

But I think our best judgment must include more than simply the students: it must include us. I believe for teachers to effectively use any learning tool, they must first be comfortable with it themselves.

Let me give you an example. I once taught a course on public relations writing, of which blogging assignments were a critical component. Like our EDHI course, I chose Blogger as the platform -- and for many of the same reasons we discussed in class (access through Google, ease of use, benefits of a universal platform, etc.).

However, before I made this decision I reviewed other options and sought the input of students. By far, Blogger and WordPress were the preferred options, so I played around with both. In my opinion, WordPress is far more powerful, customizable, and ultimately useful.

In the end, however, I was simply more comfortable with Blogger, which is the main reason I went with it. Sure, I was worried that the complexities of WordPress would lead to confusion on the students' part, but I was more afraid they would lead to incompetence on my part. I wasn't comfortable integrating a technology into a classroom with which I was not personally confident using.

Important as the student perspective is in learning, I think it's critical to remember that we, as teachers, are a big part of that equation as well. Ultimately, the buck stops with us.