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.

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