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My First MOOC: Not So Hot

MOOCs are hot, the latest educational technology trend to capture people’s imagination and energy. Major universities and start-up companies are offering free courses to the public, leading many to question the viability of the standard model for university-level instruction.

I decided to get a personal MOOC experience by enrolling in Designing a New Learning Environment, offered by Paul Kim, CTO and Assistant Dean of the Stanford University School of Education. You may be interested in checking out the detailed syllabus. Having attended SUSE for my master’s in education degree in 1998-99, I was truly excited to relive the rich educational experience that I had during that nine-month period. I would gain knowledge and skills that would help me better lead innovation in educational programs at my school. The course would challenge my preconceptions, provide new insights in how to design educational innovations, and expand my network of education practitioners.

Overall, I was sorely disappointed. Designing a New Learning Environment did not substantially meet any of my goals for my participation in the course. DNLE is completely different from the graduate courses that I took at Stanford. This MOOC is an experiment in a new mode of teaching that (I assume) deliberately abandons most of the hallmarks of a graduate-level course to develop new methods of instruction.

Perhaps we should not call it a “course.” This feels more to me like the thoughtful establishment of a temporary social network for small groups of participants to connect, imagine, design, experiment, and potentially innovate new educational activities or products. DNLE provided very little course content: one or two short videos each week that explain a high-level perspective on 21st century education and activity design. The principal course expectation was that one would build or join a team of other participants and then design a new educational system (a.k.a., “learning environment”) together.

It won’t surprise you that my favorite week featured seven articles from Dr. Kim that were published in academic journals. This felt like graduate-level education to me. The articles broadened my perspectives, cast new light on issues I had been considering, and provided detailed supporting information that I didn’t have before. I bemoaned the fact that this only happened once during the 10-week course. The assignment connected to the articles was also insufficient: students were instructed only to indicate the “three most interesting or surprising things you learned” and apply the article “to the design or implementation of educational environments or tools.” What a vague expectation for student work.

Good instruction includes the study of content, creation of content, comparing of ideas with peers, and reflection on one’s process. This course has three of the four in abundance. Students are regularly expected to produce work, both individually and in the group project. The course frequently asks students to provide feedback to other students, both within and beyond one’s project group. Self-reflection is emphasized numerous times.

Study of content is the weakest component of the course. Beyond the short videos, seven articles, and occasional web site links, the only other content that the course explicitly provides is the ideas and experiences of one’s peers, particularly in the project team. This could be a rich source of content for one if you really luck out, but for the vast majority of participants, it’s certainly not graduate-level expertise in education design and technology.

I would love to know the reasons that the course team shied away from graduate-level content and assignment expectations. I would imagine that thousands of participants could handle high expectations if they only had the opportunity to do so.

At least the course made it transparent that we are the participants in a research experiment. Chris Dede said as much in his video thanking students for their participation in the course. The Stanford team has surveyed participants several times, and they will also undoubtedly analyze the vast quantities of participation data that their custom online education platform collects. Taking the speculation one step further, perhaps the course title refers to itself. Perhaps DNLE is itself the new learning environment project of the Stanford team, guided by the same principles of culture, environment, and technology that they have passed on to their students.

Did other students better like the course experience? Of the 20 or so BAISNet members who enrolled, I did not find one who completed it. On the other hand, a colleague here at U Prep not only completed the course but also joined a team actively working on a mobile app for classroom management. I noticed that many course teams were organized around one member’s pre-existing product or idea. The course did attract entrepreneurs looking to educators to provide feedback on new product ideas.

Perhaps satisfaction with the course depended largely on one’s prior expectations. If I want a graduate-level course, better to take Calculus I or Intro to Philosophy instead of a course intended to chart new ground both in terms of content and pedagogy.

What role will MOOCs play in education in the future? Perhaps they will fill a space between interest-based social networks, which tend to lack momentum, and university-based learning, which may be difficult to access. Perhaps MOOCs will facilitate connections among people with like interests and create organized spaces and a timeline for them to engage in self-directed learning together. By that standard, Designing a New Learning Environment did a good job for the participants who stuck with the program.

I have already selected my next course, not Calculus I but rather E-learning and Digital Cultures. I have really enjoyed the additional understanding that the fields of sociology and anthropology bring to the fields of education and technology. We will see whether this course will provide substantial content for learning or be another experiment in online instruction.