Mass Pedagogy?

Much of the arguing about Massive Open Online Courses in their xMOOC (proto-commercial) form is about whether it is possible to teach large numbers of people well. This post is partly in response to questions posed in Google Plus by Donna Murdoch, asking about the claim at Hybrid Pedagogy  that “Pedagogy is unfazed by numbers”.

For the most part, xMOOCs consist of three elements:

1. Presentation – usually in the form of filmed set lectures and assigned readings
2. Interaction – usually in the form of asynchronous discussion forums, often monitored and/or moderated by staff from the LMS company or graduate students
3. Assessment – most often in the form of multiple-choice quick-grade quizzes and/or robot-graded essays and/or written work reviewed primarily by peers

Those unhappy with the xMOOC pedagogies (including Laura Gibbs and Jonathan Haber ) complain of poor pedagogy in terms of the interaction and assessment elements, which seem far removed from the professor. At the same time, companies offering such courses insist that their pedagogy is sound. Can both views be correct?

Interestingly, I’ve read few complaints about the quality of the content offered in these classes. This means that the debate about mass pedagogy has two aspects. One is whether the lecture format itself relays good information and well-supported professorial interpretations – this seems to not be a problem. The other is based in the very old argument over whether lecture/presentation itself is good pedagogy.

Then you have to determine what good pedagogy is. Perhaps:

  • Presentation: Good pedagogy presents quality content in ways that encourage depth of exploration
  • Interaction: Good pedagogy provides an opportunity for exploring such ideas with others (experts and non-experts)
  • Assessment: Good pedagogy creates opportunities to demonstrate what has been learned from that exploration

With this model, many xMOOCs provide good pedagogy for presentation, but weaker pedagogies for interaction and assessment. This is primarily because with mass numbers of people, the type of learning shifts from the individual to a more collective experience. The difference of opinion is about whether that shift makes it harder or easier to achieve good pedagogy. (If this seems familiar, it is the same discussion over 500-seat lecture halls and discussion sections being run by graduate students, a debate that pre-dates the internet.)

If you are focused on individual learning and individual evaluation of that learning, either for self-improvement or to be assessed for a grade/credit/degree, then the interaction and assessment elements of xMOOCs can be disappointing. Individualized learners are self-directed enough to do the work and learn well on their own given the presentation, but their efforts at deeper exploration are adversely affected by lack of professorial contact, feedback and input.

If you are focused on crowd-sourced learning and self-actualization through communication with others, xMOOCs may be disappointing for similar reasons. Presentation quality may be high, but presentation is secondary to exploration – it is just a jumping off point. With formulated discussions and automated assessments focused on absorbing that presentation content, there is less opportunity to extend exploration.

But if you are trying to earn that degree in the cheapest, easiest way possible, the xMOOC may provide the model for you. Similarly, if the subject is of only moderate interest, or your focus is to “learn the material”, the quality of presentation offsets the difficulties of interaction and assessment. In fact, broader and deeper interaction and assessment would actually get in your way – deep learning takes time, especially in a larger group.

The weakness of the xMOOC in terms of interaction and assessment are, I’m afraid, directly the result of scale. Deep discussion may occur among people with little experience in a subject, but without that experience it is more likely to be superficial. Assessment may provide an opportunity to demonstrate new knowledge, but when relegated to multiple-choice and robo/peer-graded writing, it is more likely to simply tally retention of content.

Again, none of these ideas should be surprising or new. Those who object to presentation pedagogy in general (the long line of education reformers who continually critique the lecture-based, industrial model) don’t think lecture is good pedagogy anyway and criticize xMOOCs for that reason. Those who object to the commercialization of education (including myself) criticize xMOOCs for that focus. Those who believe that MOOCs are open and free and democratize college-level knowledge, though I think they’re naive, see xMOOCs as a solution to the cost/learning/social problems that plague higher education. But they also see their pedagogy as inherently good, and I just don’t believe that’s true.


* See George Siemens on xMOOCs vs cMOOCs  – this post is not about connectivist MOOCs or task-based MOOCs like DS106.

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