Thursday, May 29, 2014

Reflections on experiences with a MOOC for teachers

In the fall of 2013, I facilitated learning in a MOOC designed for K-12 classroom teachers. In this posting, I share some of my initial insights and questions regarding this experience.
As a facilitator, I felt that the structure of the MOOC was rigid and made it difficult to incorporate tools and techniques I have used successfully in online graduate courses. I understand that facilitating learning in a MOOC is not the same as in a graduate course, but with the focus of this course on technology use and an audience largely of teachers, I think it makes sense to consider how these experiences may have differed.

I found that most of the conversations MOOC participants had about the content and their experiences were typical of teacher talk, i.e., discussions comprised largely of sharing experiences and information about tools, but lacking critical consideration of the context in which those tools are used or their value for teaching or assessing specific student learning needs. This contrasts with rich, substantive conversations reported in successful efforts to promote online or virtual teacher professional development (PD) communities in the research literature. Early research engaging teachers in online professional communities were successful - see LabNet (Spitzer & Wedding, 1995) and the Math Learning Forums (Honey et al., 1994) as examples.

One indicator that I use to identify substantive, productive conversations in online discourse is the appearance of disagreement and questioning of positions or claims made. In the discussions that I viewed or participated in as part of the MOOC, I saw few if any instances of this type of conversation. I find that it is a challenge to “create” or “nurture” substantive, productive discussions in online forums comprised of classroom teachers for many reasons. But my experience is that absent these kinds of critical discussions, teachers do not learn much of substance related to the topics discussed.

Following social cultural or sociocognitive theories of learning as participation in authentic, critical discourse, this is clearly a challenge for online or virtual teacher professional development efforts regardless of the format. Absent critical conversations about pedagogical benefits of technology use in teaching, these experiences are unlikely to provide participants with substantive knowledge regarding the complexities of technology integration. This raises questions, for me, about what “active participants” took from their MOOC experience and the extent to which what they learned helped them incorporate technology into their teaching practices.

I have argued in previous posts that “passive participation” in a MOOC is similar to watching a video or viewing a PowerPoint lecture. Certainly, you can learn something from such activities, depending on how you approach them, but I do not believe that passive participation results in meaningful learning for adults. Much of the PD that K-12 teachers participate in unfortunately is of this form – where they are told/shown what tools to use but do not engage in the critical consideration of how/when/why using them might be beneficial for their students. Technical knowledge and skill are a necessary, but insufficient, if the goal is integration of technology in support of student learning.  

It is difficult to judge whether passive or limited participation in MOOCs is something that eventually is valuable or productive for “passive participants.” One question is: given the time spent as a passive participant, what perceived value is there from participation in the MOOC? What is the link between perceptions of value and expectations for learning?

If perceptions of limited value influence participant’s level of commitment to learning, this would certainly constrain what students will gain from a limited participation experience in a MOOC. In a graduate-level course, students pay to learn how, when and why technology can be helpful in their teaching and assessments. Certainly the money and time spent in a graduate course ensures that most participants are invested in the outcome. Teacher PD, in comparison, is often free or inexpensive, so perhaps expectations are lower, based on perceived value and previous experiences. Likewise, perhaps because MOOCs are low cost or free, some professionals may be less committed to participating deeply and may learn little as a result.

I think another key element of successful online PD is ensuring that the interactions are inherently interesting and valuable, which is another distinction between MOOCs and effective online graduate education. The literature on virtual or online teacher PD reflects the challenges associated with this idea in practice, but I believe it is necessary for sustained teacher development. Dede (2006) and Breit et al. (2009) provide considerations and suggestions, based on research in this domain, for effective online teacher PD.

This is not to suggest that all online graduate courses in educational technology or other subjects are effective or worthwhile. Certainly, as with traditional courses, online instruction can be excellent, average, or poor, depending on a variety of factors. There is, however, strong evidence that the quality of interactions strongly influence students' perceptions of the value of online learning. As we move towards more inexpensive, accessible, and open forms of online learning, I think the issues raised here, based on my limited experiences with a MOOC, may help those considering participation in a MOOC focused on teacher PD determine if the outcomes will be worth their time.



Breit, L., Dede, C., Ketelhut, D.J., McCloskety, E.M., & Whitehouse, P. (2009). A research agenda for online teacher professional development. Journal of Teacher Education, 60(1), 8-19.
Honey, M., Bennett, D., Hupert, H., Kanze, B., Meade, T., Panush, E. Powell, K., & Spielvogel, B. (1994). The Math Learning Forums online: Using telecommunications as a tool for reflective practice. Machine Mediated Learning, 4(2&3), 163-176.
Dede, C. (2006). Online professional development for teachers: Emerging models and methods. Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, MA.
Spitzer, W., & Wedding, K. (1995). LabNet: An intentional electronic community for professional development. Computers & Education, 24(3), 247-255.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

MOOC's, learning and theoretical assumptions

The latest buzzword in educational technology are MOOC’s – Massive Open Online Courses – gaining interest in higher education with numerous articles published on their potential for opening access to higher education for those who cannot currently afford it. A recent search of peer-reviewed publications on MOOC’s returned almost 750 results. One key aspect of MOOC’s that is especially attractive is their cost, with MIT, for example, offering a variety of MOOC’s free and Coursera also offering them as well.    

Ferdig (2013) asks a critical question regarding MOOC's: “under what conditions do (insert specific type of MOOC) work?” (p. 5). He suggests that there is still insufficient research to support a clear or convincing answer to this question. Ferdig, Pytash, Merchant & High (2014) report on their experiences with a MOOC targeted at teachers and 21st century learning, identifying three types of participants: lurkers, who observed but did not actively participate; passive participants, who did a minimal amount of work required to complete the course; and active participants, who were highly engaged in the course.  

An article by Koller, Ng, Do and Chen (2013) explores the issue of retention by students in MOOC’s. The basis for the authors’ argument is that we need to reconsider what we mean by “retention” in light of students’ intentions for enrolling. The evidence provided so far suggests that few students are retained or complete assessments associated with MOOC's, but the author’s argue that student intention should be a filter through which we interpret the low completion evidence. Is this a valid argument, given what we know about learning?

A criticism of Koller, Ng, Do and Chen’s argument is their implicit assumption about the nature of learning that drives their claims regarding MOOC's. Like Ferdig, Pytash, Merchant and High, the authors identify MOOC learners using three categories: passive participants, active participants, and community contributors. They provide analysis of these types using assessments, participation and explore relationships between these groups related to: (a) lecture watching and assignment completion, (b) lecture watching and quiz taking, and (c) quiz taking and assignment completion.

These types of MOOC activities and assessments raise questions about the instruction and learning that occurs in this and other MOOC studies. Questions include: how active or engaged are students in learning? How substantive is their learning as a result of their participation? What is it they are learning? Implicit in some of the MOOC studies are assumptions about learning that could be considered as behaviorist, drawing on the work of Skinner and Watson.  

Behaviorist learning theories make assumptions about learning as passive viewing and often include assessments of learning as recall of factual information using known-answer tests or quizzes. These assumptions stand in contrast to theories of learning generally accepted amongst educational psychologists that look beyond recall and memorization into other areas, including the nature of expertise.

Bransford, Brown & Cocking (2001), for example, provide a synthesis of research on learning and expertise, identifying aspects of effective learning communities: learner-centered environments that consider existing knowledge, skill and beliefs learners bring; knowledge-centered pedagogy that recognizes that learning is (or should be) focused on understanding and adaptive expertise; assessments that include formal and informal feedback on understanding, not memorization, to encourage and reward “meaningful learning;” and incorporation of social environments where individuals learn from each other via active, constructive participation.

Clara & Barbera (2013) offer a critique of MOOC's based on the implicit theoretical perspective of their designers when compared with social-cultural learning theory. “The conclusion of this discussion is that, taken from a psychological point of view, connectivism, as currently formulated, should be abandoned as a learning theory and as a theoretical guide for pedagogy in MOOCs and in Web 2.0 environments in general.” (p. 134).

Bates (August 5, 2012) offers a similar criticism about MOOCs: “… teaching methods used by most Coursera courses so far are based on a very old and outdated behaviorist pedagogy, relying primarily on information transmission, computer marked assignments and peer assessment.” MOOC’s, as currently defined and implemented, may disregard or ignore what we know about the nature of learning and expertise, which could ultimately undermine their value and contribution to higher education.

 “The challenge in a MOOC is whether the levels of support by facilitators and other learners and the affordances of a complex emerging learning environment will align and aid participants in such sense-making, and whether the openness, diversity, and interactivity of MOOCs aids participants on their personalized learning journey.” Kop, Fournier & Mak, 2011, p. 88.


Bates, T. (August 5, 2012). What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs?

Clara, M., and Barbera, E. (2013). Learning online: Massive open online courses (MOOCs), connectivism, and cultural psychology. Distance Education, 34(1), 129-136.  

Ferdig, R. (2013). What Massive Open Online Courses have to offer K-12 teachers and students? Michigan Virtual Learning Research. Available online at:

Ferdig, R.E., Pytash, K.E., Merchant, W., & Nigh, J. (2014). Findings and reflections from the K-12 Teaching in the 21st century MOOC. Michigan Virtual Learning Research. Available online at:

How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school (2001). Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). The National Academies Press, open book available online at:

Koller, D., Ng, A., Do, C. & Chen, Z. (2013, June 3). Retention and Intention in MOOC: In Depth, EDUCAUSE Review. Retrieved on April 3, 2014 from:

Kop, R., Fournier, H., & Mak, J.S.F. (2011). Pedagogy of abundance or pedagogy to support human beings? Participant support on Massive Open Online Courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance learning, 12(7), 74-93.