Why MOOCs are like Farmville, Part II

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On January 18th, I laid out my concerns with Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), understanding their rapid ascent within the confines of Gartner’s Hype Cycle. In doing so, my purpose was to suggest that the true innovations posed by MOOCs will be much different than what is commonly presumed. Ultimately, as MOOCs descend from the peak of inflated expectations, down through the trough of disillusionment, and onto a plateau of productivity, their impact will be less about the wholesale transformation of higher education and more about advancements in modes of learning that will decenter the learning process away from the traditional classroom lecture and empower students as both consumers and creators of knowledge. Simply put, the “Sage on the Stage” model of higher education ceases [http://www.accidentalcio.com/2013/03/the-sage-on-stage-and-end-of-classroom.html] as the role of traditional gatekeepers are eroded and replaced with patterns of collaboration based on a “many to many” model [http://www.accidentalcio.com/2012/02/tensions-inherent-in-many-to-many-world.html]. The traditional classroom lecture, rightfully so, is the first to go.
Along with the classroom lecture, traditional notions of teaching also change, primarily those that presume a gatekeeping role for teachers as the authoritative center of the learning process. As relationships between students and faculty shift from a “one-to-many” model of collaboration, power will be increasingly shared on an equal basis between them. Teaching becomes less about conveying information and more about stewarding a set of experiences and collaborations [http://www.accidentalcio.com/2012/06/what-student-centered-reform-might-look_12.html], which become the means by which higher learning occurs. Some models consistent with this shift include the following.
  • Collaborative Learning. This model presumes that there is an inherent social nature to learning, and that learning is best facilitated through a set of shared experiences between participants. Types of experiences include group projects, engaging in common tasks, face-to-face conversations, as well as those mediated by technology (including social networks, discussion forums, etc.). Equitable sharing of power among all participants, including those stewarding the collaboration, is critical for this model of learning.
  • Service Learning. This model focuses on providing students with a set of applied experiences which complements and extends the consumption of information obtained through regular instruction or self-study. As a form of experiential education, this model presumes that learning requires that content, whether produced or consumed, be reinforced by direct experience. 
  • Undergraduate Research Programs. By engaging students in the process of research, learning becomes more about the processes of discovery and innovation and less about the mastery of content. By teaching students the processes by which knowledge is created, students are provided a set of experiences that spark creativity and critical thinking, and that prepare students for lifelong learning.
Just reading this list, one may wonder whether these newer forms of learning fully represent changes made possible by the Internet. But beyond the technology, change is ultimately a social experience, and the most lasting impact of the Internet is on the nature of collaboration and social relationships between individuals. As higher education embraces these possibilities, the importance of the relationship between faculty and students has never been more critical. New models of learning are centered on collaboration, experience, and the production of knowledge. These processes have been and should continue to be the center of what a higher education is all about.