A perspective on MOOCs as experimentation

2 minute read

I’ve been meaning to comment on this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about MOOCs, by Kevin Werbach: “Dont Call Us Rock Stars”. Werbach has been teaching a popular MOOC titled, “Gamification”. He emphasizes that a disproportionate amount of attention has gone to the scale of production of MOOCs, and not enough to the process of educational experimentation and innovation:

The more a MOOC is defined as an expensively staged experience supported by an army of back-stage roadies, the less risk-taking and pedagogical experimentation we'll see. And the less we faculty members will own our teaching. I dont mean just in the intellectual-property sense. I mean that, like many rock stars, we'll be the talent out front, but not the ones controlling the creative process. And as I discovered in my MOOC, students can tell. They don't take MOOCs to watch brilliant actors perform; they do so to learn from and connect with human beings.
Most worrisome, calling MOOC instructors rock stars implies something about the overwhelming majority of faculty members who don't, or won't, or can't teach a MOOC. When someone speaks about giving students access to the best professors, there's serious baggage attached. The most effective teachers may not be best suited to the MOOC performance model, or they may not work for the research-oriented institutions that have the resources and reputation to be net producers of MOOCs. In fact, they almost certainly don't.

Out of all the things I’ve learned so far preparing my MOOC, the one that sticks with me is how every choice along the way has been non-obvious. Every decision has multiple options, each of which has advantages and disadvantages in terms of how the course is built. And most of them lead down interesting pathways. The entire process of developing the course has been one giant experiment, where we are choosing strategies to engage a non-traditional global audience.

Our approach has been totally the opposite of the “rock star” concept. The course is not about one professor with all the answers. It shows conversations between experts, and takes its participants outside of the classroom to the real places where discoveries have been – and are still being – made. To me, that’s the exciting aspect of the experiment. We get to see what a “course” would be like if the professor is not the “expert” – if the professor is acting like a guide to the real experts, who get to speak for themselves.

And you can see how the experiment could take endless different forms – because every expert has a unique perspective, and the choices of sites and people to include will create one distinctive experience of the field, when different choices would have created other experiences.

The real challenge for a MOOC is to make the students into active participants. To give learners a meaningful opportunity to help build knowledge instead of just witnessing others building it. That is where true learning happens.