Friday, June 7, 2013

MOOCs and One-on-One Teaching

Ahh … home!

I've been away too long writing something else, and I missed my warm, comfortable blog. Fortunately, The Chronicle of Higher Education just published an article by Steve Kolowich entitled MOOC Students Who Got Offline Help Scored Higher, Study Finds (June 7, 2013, 4:55 am) that rattles me a bit, and as I have a spare hour waiting to tutor students who will not likely show this early on a Friday morning, I'll jot down a response.

Mr. Kolowich starts his article by saying:
One of the first things researchers have learned about student success in massive open online courses is that in-person, one-on-one teaching still matters. 
For online learners who took the first session of “Circuits & Electronics,” the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s hallmark MOOC, those who worked on course material offline with a classmate or “someone who teaches or has expertise” in the subject did better than those who did not, according to a new paper by researchers at MIT and Harvard University.
The assumptions in this lede annoy me, and it injures the conversation about MOOCs. First, the statement one-on-one teaching still matters is an ugly little straw man. Who ever said that one-on-one teaching does not matter? I've been listening to hard core connectivists and MOOC providers Siemens, Downes, and Cormier for about four years now, and never once have they suggested that one-on-one teaching does not matter.

Then, use of the word teaching is misleading, especially if most of Mr. Kolowich's readers still associate teaching with teacher-centric lectures, demonstrations, and discussions. This is not the kind of teaching that the report finds evidence for; rather, the report writers say:
On average, with all other predictors being equal, a student who worked offline with someone else in the class or someone who had expertise in the subject would have a predicted score almost three points higher than someone working by him or herself.
Let's unpack this. First, connecting with someone else in the class or someone who had expertise in the subject sounds much more like self-forming, self-organizing study groups or tutorial groups than a traditional classroom. In every MOOC I have taken, these kinds of self-forming networks have been as much a part, perhaps more, of the education I received than the formal presentations. And these connections are very one-on-one. I recall wonderful blog conversations in PLENK2010 with Dave Cormier, LeRoy Hill, and Rita Kop, and more recent blog conversations in ETMOOC with Christina Hendricks and Keith Brennan. Or long walks and conversations with my office mates and colleagues Tom Clancy and Bruce Neubauer as we tried to digest those early MOOCs we attended together. See? Real people with real names. This kind of connectivity is the heart of MOOCs, and this seems to be the kind of teaching that the MIT report uncovers. Well, I'm glad they saw it—it's been there all along.

Then note that the authors report average scores almost three points higher than someone working by him or herself. Is this statistically significant? Perhaps, but just barely, I think. A not quite three points average increase is hardly a ringing endorsement for any kind of instructional strategy. Frankly, I'm surprised that they didn't find a greater difference.

Finally, I'm annoyed because I suspect that the focus of the article and the report is on xMOOCs rather than cMOOCs. Perhaps the pedagogical theories behind xMOOCs do suggest that one-on-one teaching is not important, but the practice behind xMOOCs shows otherwise. The complex connectivity at the heart of MOOCs will come out, like the rhizome that it is, but it won't look much like the traditional classroom, so let's not pander to that myth.