Friday, February 15, 2013

You Got Your Scholarly Communications in My MOOCs!

I was rereading Clay Shirky's ode to the disruptive power of the MOOC, Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, and I had a thought: Shirky, guru of Web 2.0, as well as many like him have a decidedly non-Web 2.0 (interactive, collaborative, social) view of what an MOOC can be. Actually, scratch that: their conception of the MOOC actually looks more like 20th-Century mass media.

Let's look at the definition he gives: "A massive open online class is usually a series of video lectures with associated written materials and self-scoring tests, open to anyone." This is entirely one-directional, from professor to student. In an era where we have normalized the web as a collaborative, interactive medium, Shirky's preferred method of education disruption is a platform for one or two experts to talk at students. It's recreating the massive intro course common at many colleges and universities, but with the definition of "massive" changed from the hundreds to the thousands or hundred thousands.

Shirky is almost certainly right that it is cheaper and more efficient to lecture to 160,000 than two hundred, though there are still upsides to the smaller class.1 But this is only sufficient as a comparison if we accept that lectures are the only ways to teach students. Now, if you happen find constructivist instruction theory; which is to say instruction based on problem-solving, collaboration, and creative instructor-student interactons (Booth 51-52); this seems problematic. How is the most passive, traditional, conservative method of instruction supposed to be the method for disrupting higher education? Can't we do better?2

Well, that's easy to say. Sure, why not? The real question is how? Well, many ways, but one that I find particularly intriguing is put forth in a recent Chronicle post [paywalled, sorry] by Edward L. Ayers: the fusion of teaching and new methods of scholarly communication. I really love the History Harvests  example he gives. William G. Thomas III at Nebraska is planning a new MOOC that, rather than using the web as a tool for one-way broadcasting, uses the web's power to bring people together in real life (which Shirky extolled in Here Comes Everybody) to investigate primary sources of importance to the community. The students then get to get their digital humanities on and digitize and share these artifacts. It's a real chance to actually practice the historical discipline. This need not be limited to the digital humanities, either. It is increasingly common for natural scientists to submit their research data to open data repositories. Why not give students the opportunity to analyze a data set to see if they draw the same conclusions as the original author? That could make for a really practically-minded statistics class. MOOCs and new scholarly communications trends could be meshed together in so many other ways. We just need more people to break the lecture stranglehold, and generative and open access scholarship is a way forward.  

1) Like the ability of students in a class of 100 to be able to raise their hand and ask a question, or send their professor an email and have the slightest hope of getting a response.
2) Shirky could accuse me of being overly concerned with "education of the very best sort" and not what the average college student, not attending an elite university, would receive, which is his major response to most criticism of MOOCs. I call shenanigans. Education at every level could benefit from constructivist instruction, and as I'll get into in a second it could be incorporated into the MOOC.

Booth, C. (2011). Reflective teaching, effective learning: Instructional literacy for library educators. Chicago: American Library Association.

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