Tuesday, August 14, 2012


A. Background
The hype about MOOCs ("Massive Open Online Courses") in the media ever since 160,000 students enrolled in Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence course in the fall 2011 semester encouraged some MOOC pioneers, whose involvement predates Stanford's by a few years,  to launch the MOOC MOOC. This is a short, intensive MOOC about MOOCs that is designed to enable participants to discover what MOOCs are and can be from the inside and/or refine their previous conceptions. The MOOC MOOC started on Sunday, August 12th and will run until Saturday, August 18th.

I'm a registered participant in the MOOC MOOC and this is my first MOOC. Midway through the third day, I am currently overwhelmed ... which is, evidently, a common reaction for MOOC newbies. But most MOOCs run for much longer periods, e.g., 10 or 12 weeks, so this one is more likely to give newbies the sensation of drowning while trying to drink from a fire hydrant turned on at full blast. It's a multi-ring circus of readings, videos, discussion forums, and endless tweets ... all of which would be manageable if they were not of such unexpectedly high quality. It just takes a few sniffs of 99 percent of the stuff that's linked to my email, twitter, or Facebook for me to determine that it's not worth more than a few seconds of my attention. By happy contrast, most of the MOOC MOOC stuff has been must-view/must-read.

Wait. I need to back up for a moment. The previous paragraph has to be placed in a broader context. The MOOC MOOC is a cMOOC, i.e., a "connectivist" MOOC, a MOOC as envisaged by the founding fathers of MOOC-dom way back in 2007 (?). It is not designed to "teach" me or any of its participants; it is designed to enable us to make connections with each other and with other potentially relevant sources of knowledge and information, and then to use those connections to determine what each of us individually decides that we want to understand. This makes a cMOOC, by design, a very different experience from the usual course wherein learning outcomes are specified in advance by the instructors as well as a more or less linear path from wherever most students begin to the predetermined finish line.

By contrast, most courses in most colleges and universities would be classified as xMOOCs by the cMOOKers, which is their term for MOOCs that focus on the mastery of specific content. To be specific, the massively enrolled online courses sponsored by Coursera, edX, Udacity, etc, that have been headlined in the media for the last year are xMOOCs.


B. My Reactions So Far
  • Feeling overwhelmed is OK because I'm way past being old enough to understand that the feeling is temporary and will pass as I get my bearings.
  • What's not OK for me as an academic systems analyst is my sense that the cMOOC purists are long on persuasive dogma, but short on systematic data to support their emphatic assertions ... which is not uncommon when new ideas are being developed.

    A good theoretical physicist is someone who has good "hunches." A high proportion of his or her hypotheses are confirmed by experimental data sooner or later. As for MOOCs, the current anecdotal data from the personal experience of their proponents can be a useful guide to forming hypotheses, but it's not sufficient to justify massive reorganizations of our educational systems.
  • I'm especially concerned by their explicit assertion that there are basically two types of MOOCS: cMOOCs and xMOOCs. Interestingly, most acknowledge the existence of a wide range of different cMOOC variations. What concerns me is that some of the MOOC MOOC  readings and videos imply that cMOOCs are "good" and xMOOCs are "bad" ... hhhmmmmmm ... unconfirmed dogma that roundly condemns alternative perspectives has religious overtones that make me nervous.
  • Indeed, I don't believe that xMOOCs really exist except in the minds of the cMOOKers because, as per Aristotle's dictum, man is a social animal. The vast majority of students in most courses will form networks with each other using whatever communications media are available -- face-to-face contacts, telephone, blogs, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, etc, etc, etc. MOOC organizers can facilitate or impede these networks, but they can't take credit for their existence nor can the obliterate them. Indeed, I suspect that cMOOC organizers may give themselves credit for  networks  that would have developed  to a comparable extent if they had done nothing to enable them ... Note: On the morning of 8/17/12 the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article in its "Wired" section, "Students in Free Online Courses Form Groups to Study and Socialize" ... :-)

    Beyond this, it's a common experience for students who "just want to pass the course" to broaden their perspectives when they interact with other students who are more into the subject.  The fellowship of study groups often leads to shared perspectives as to why the subject matter is "inherently" interesting. "So that's why the old geezer was so excited the other day. I didn't understand how anybody could get so worked up over such a boring topic until you guys explained it to me just now. This is really neat stuff." ... :-)

    Furthermore, I suspect that a larger than usual proportion of the participants in the MOOC MOOC are "mavericks" who like setting their own learning objectives ... and probably did this when they were taking those boring classes in college. But what percentage of the student population can do this? Or want to do this? I suspect that it will be about the same size  as the relatively small percentage of the population who can teach themselves new subjects by reading textbooks and journal articles and conversing with colleagues, people who can learn new subjects without enrolling in any classes -- a skill set we expect most educators to develop.
  • I am now very clear about what I would like to understand when the MOOC MOOC officially ends on Saturday. I want to have a better sense of how useful the cMOOC ideas might be for the courses that Howard-Online will launch that are fully online. (Note: I am less concerned about blended courses that have some regularly scheduled face-to-face encounters.)

    Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have long prided themselves on facilitating higher performance from their students because of the TLC (tender loving care) they provide. TLC is a key component of their legacy. To be sure, all colleges and universities are concerned about their students outside of the classrooms, but only small minority of non-HBCUs place as much explicit emphasis on TLC as do HBCUs. HBCUs endeavor to embed their students in an all encompassing web of teachers,  advisors, mentors. and attentive administrative support staff (who play crucial roles in helping HBCU students to navigate the rules and regulations of their bureaucracies).  

    So my intention is to develop a better understanding of how to enhance our online students' capacity to network with other students and with our faculty, advisers, mentors, and staff so that they can have an online experience that is closer to what we try to provide to our on-campus students.
... and A very personal P.S.
As I approach three score and eleven, I awake most mornings surprised that I'm still here and that I still retain considerable intellectual and physical energy; surprised that I'm still at Howard University; and surprised that HBCUs like Howard are still relevant to the future prosperity of black Americans. But then I remember that this these factors are entwined ==> a substantial portion of my energy derives from my allegiance to Howard because it's still needed. Howard and the higher education of black Americans have been my "ministry" for the last forty years.

I've also lived long enough to see some uncanny replications of social movements. For example, the exuberant confidence of the mookers who seek to liberate students from the tyranny of the "sage on the stage" reminds me of the Sixties when consciousness was raised by the counter-culture and the resurgent, non-communnist, political Left that sought to bring "power to the people"-- blacks, women, gays, Native Americans, and other marginalized minorities. Of course the mookers are small waves compared to the tidal thunders that shook Western societies back then; but their sentiments are familiar. Ever since the "Sixties" stumbled to a spiritual close somewhere in the calendar of the mid-Seventies, I have remained convinced that its deeply flawed movements propelled some of the greatest advances in personal freedom in the last hundred years. So I hope that MOOCs and other imperfect wee beasties that go bump in the nights of the first decades of the New Millennium have a similarly positive legacy ... :-)

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