Common Ground for Talking about MOOCs
As a result of the MOOC craze, some of my colleagues are suddenly spending a lot of time thinking and talking about technology and teaching. I suppose I should find this refreshing—my background is originally in educational technology, and everyone is talking about my area! Cool, right? But in practice I’ve found most of these conversations frustrating rather than energizing. I think it comes down to a lack of shared assumptions and vocabulary. Consider this conversation I just had with a colleague, liberally paraphrasing:
Me: In MOOCs, students can’t ask questions to a meaningful degree.
Colleague: But I answer every question I’m asked!
Me: Yes, but the structure of environment discourages question asking. Compare the number of conversational turns per student versus faculty in a traditional class versus a MOOC. The numbers make it impossible for you to have meaningful interactions with students.
Colleague: OK, well students can ask questions of one another. We have ways to get them answers. Why does question asking matter so much anyway?
[NB: This is a rough caricature inspired by a real conversation but does not accurately represent the views of the actual person, which is why there’s no name. I’m making an abstract point here.]
It took me a moment to realize that we didn’t have a shared understanding of the fundamental nature of teaching and learning (for more on this, see Mark Guzdial’s excellent blog). My colleague is right that they can have a lot of FAQs and answer most questions—but is that teaching? What is teaching? My colleague (understandably) had never heard of the work of Lev Vygotsky, and I couldn’t imagine discussing this further without that shared background. For those who are curious, here’s a quick, simplified explanation.
Vygotsky wrote about the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD), which is the difference between what a person can do alone and what they can do with help. Two learners can have identical capabilities, but quite different ZPDs. For example, imagine you are teaching a math concept to children several grades earlier than it is normally taught. Let’s say you are explaining negative numbers to a class of first graders. For some, you could show them a well-done video on negative numbers, and they would understand. Let’s call them group A. For others, you could successfully supplement the video with an intelligent conversation in which you probe and respond to their understandings and misunderstandings. That’s teaching in their ZPD. Call those group B. For others you would perhaps say, “let’s revisit this when they are older.” In other words, this is currently outside their ZPD. Call them group C. You can empirically measure how many students fit into each group. You would find that Group A is a tiny subset—not just the sharpest students, but the sharpest students whose learning style fits with learning from videos.
Many early implementations of MOOCs are currently teaching predominantly to group A. Completion rates for MOOCs are typically low—a figure of 10% is commonly cited. That’s group A. The challenge going forwards is: what can we do to reach at least group B? What does it mean to teach in someone’s ZPD when you can not give them any meaningful amount of personalized attention because there are a thousands of students in the class? Could a software tutor help? How effective are software tutors today, and how expensive is it to develop them? These are fascinating questions to address going forwards.
I don’t want to romanticize traditional higher ed. Large lecture classes also give students no meaningful opportunity for interaction. The interaction takes place in recitation sections. And we’ve all had recitation sections that were a waste of time. Recitations don’t always live up to that ideal of a knowledgeable instructor helping to stretch you as far as you can go in your ZPD. MOOCs as currently being offered in most places are equivalent to that large lecture class with the useless recitation instructor. Not an inspiring image. How do we do better? That’s the challenge going forwards.