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You either love a good dichotomy or you don’t.

This is about online learning, mostly in higher education.

Especially in the wake of the UVA fiasco, I’ve been pondering online learning and the term “MOOC” (massively open online course), which I believe has been co-opted from folks like George Siemens, Dave Cormier, and Steven Downes. Those guys taught the Connectivism MOOC in 2008 and, most recently, the Change11 MOOC. Here’s a bit of a history of their courses. Dave Cormier made the video below in December 2010:

In a similar vein, though clearly with their own spin and innovations, Jim Groom et al. have been offering ds106 (digital storytelling) as a MOOC in recent years.

Then, along came the folks at Coursera and Udacity and Udemy and… It’s unclear if the founders of these entities explicitly adopted the MOOC terminology or if the “mainstream” media applied the term to those outfits. What’s clear, though, is that these extra-university courses have become nearly synonomous with MOOCs in the MSM (see e.g. this article in Inside Higher Ed. on MOOCs).

So, what we have, essentially, are two VERY different kinds of MOOCs. David Kernohan points to an article written by Steve Carson, which makes the distinction between the Stanford & MITx-ish MOOCs and the “Siemens-Downes-Wiley” variety. Kernohan writes,

But fundamentally there are two kinds of MOOC because there are two competing cultural conceptualisations of the learning process, both of which have value and relevance but which have become politically (small P) polarised. The first, I guess, is easier to monetize as it treats the idea of an expert as a saleable resource.

Hence my categorisation, drawing on Stallman’s legendary “free as in freedom/free as in beer” (libre/free) dichotomy.

Some courses are open as in door. You can walk in, you can listen for free. Others are open as in heart. You become part of a community, you are accepted and nurtured.

So, that’s our first dichotomy…

The second dichotomy comes from Mike Caulfield who writes about “residential online.” Caulfield sees two possible futures for higher education, driven by online learning. He writes that “[w]e can let online evolve outside the residential college experience” or “[t]he other vision is that residential colleges aggressively pursue building online capacity and integrate online seamlessly into the residential experience.”

Maybe these dichotomies are, instead, ends of spectra, in which case we could put them together to create a set of axes like this (my artwork is exquisite, I know…):

[NOTE: I've labeled the endpoints on the x-axis as "community" vs. "content." IMHO, that's what's at the heart of the MOOC dichotomy. That is, the Stanford & MITx-ish MOOCs are about content mastery whereas the "Siemens-Downes-Wiley" MOOCs are about knowledge construction in community.]

So, maybe near-future learning experiences can be placed somewhere on this set of axes. Or, maybe not… (See what I did there?)


UPDATE: Immediately after posting this, I realized the overlap with something that Roger Schank and Kemi Joma wrote in 1999 (not even in the 21st Century!!!). Extracurriculars as the curriculum: A Vision of education for the 21st Century imagines a future somewhere in the top-right quadrant of the set of axes. It’s noteworthy that Schank & Jona wrote about the role of teachers shifting to something more akin to camp counselors, especially considering that the crazy kids running DS106 this summer have framed it within a camping narrative.

UPDATE #2: A tweet from Jennifer Dalby pointed me to David Wiley’s post on The MOOC Misnomer and to a post by Debbie Morrison about what MOOCs are and aren’t. These are good reads, but I want to add that my set of axes are about online learning more generally, and not just about “MOOCs.” I think, ultimately, we’ll have lots of different varieties of Web-based learning experiences (I’m purposely using the language of “learning experience(s) instead of “course(s), BTW). They will vary by enrollment numbers, degrees of “openness,” etc. One additional characteristic of learning experiences may be whether or not there’s some form of accreditation attached (i.e. university credit, a badge, etc.). I do believe the term MOOC will ultimately disappear from our lexicon.

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6 Responses to “You either love a good dichotomy or you don’t.”

  1. As you suggest the term MOOC, erroneously applied to the courses offered by Coursera and Udacity will (or should) disappear, but the format and concept will not. MOOCs (for lack of a new name) in the context of the Coursera realm, IS the future. Granted, there are significant issues to be worked out — to consider, address and resolve, but in 10 years higher education institutions will provide a very different experience for students.

    In consideration of your [quite nifty] diagram, I see education in the short term existing in the top right quadrant AND the lower right quadrant. A community environment does and can exist in online learning experiences (which is where Schank & Jona got it wrong), a rich and robust one at that. Campus experiences will also exist, learning communities will come together face-to-face, and continue the learning discussion and collaboration online. The lines will blur eventually, and it [your diagram] will become a web, a networked web of learning the expands and contracts.

    Good insight – the discussion about MOOCs continues…

  2. Interesting dichotomy – on content and community, residential and non-residential. Here I have linked it to your post in the comments. Content mastery relates more to individual cognitive development and the typical personal mastery learning (as espoused by Bloom). The x MOOC would just become a tool (or a platform) that the learner would use to achieve the mastery of content, if that is the case. Would that be enough to stimulate the learners to solve real problems? To what extent would it prepare learners to tackle challenges in the relevant domains, which requires more than content mastery? Those are challenges and remaining questions. Is x MOOC value neutral in an educational context? John

  3. I like it — I have to think about it a bit. I might say in broad terms the Residential/Non-Residential might be read as “Place-based” or something like that. I have to think if Content/Community makes sense as a continuum. But even as a rough categorization scheme it has me thinking.

    Interestingly I worked with Kemi Jona at Schank’s company many years ago. While I think it’s true that we underestimated the possibilities online communities afford, I think some overestimate them now. The Schank/Jona vision may seem a bit antiquated until you start thinking about what you want for your kid that online education can’t give them (and what employers worry online students won’t have). Most of it comes down to things the place-based education provides — still, even after all this time.

  4. Jon Becker says:

    @Debbie, I do think the Schank & Jona piece is a bit confused in that it anticipates computer-based, individualized learning experiences (thereby essentially eschewing the social aspects of learning), but also uses the “camp counselor” analogy. I spent many summers of my life at sleep-away camp. There were times I hated it, but, in retrospect, I learned a lot about life and there are aspects of the experiences that I think ought to be brought to bear on “place-based” (using Mike Caulfield’s good terminiology) higher education.

    @Mike, I’m less invested in undergraduate education than I am in graduate education. I do note, however, at my university, there seems to be a “movement” to blur the lines between dormitories and classrooms. Our new ASPiRE program is a good example ( I don’t know if that’s some kind of model that scales, but with the integration of community-oriented online learning experiences, I might begin to see a future for place-based institutions of higher learning.

  5. Steve says:

    I’m not convinced that there needs to be a strict dichotomy between community and content. In principle, one should be able to obtain both thru collaborative knowledge construction, no? The idea is that community is the tool for developing students’ understanding of the knowledge. This is one of the themes in the UMW Online Learning Initiative, where we are exploring reproducing the quality liberal arts environment in a fully online environment.
    Of course, if you see content as mere facts, then perhaps there is a dichotomy.

  6. Jeff Nugent says:

    Enjoyed this post, Jon…I love a good dichotomy. The grid got me thinking about the relationships between res / non-res & community / content. On the surface I found it to be a pretty useful way to think about some of the ideas that are stewing.

    One thing I’m trying to get a better handle on is how your grid drawing does or does not represent mediated / networked community. For example, I still see myself as part of communities (lived previously) where I am no longer a resident…so it is the non-resident notion that a bit blurry for me. There is a qualitative (felt) difference for me to identify with and become a member of a mediated / networked community. However, I wrestling with the idea of claiming “residency” in a mediated community.

    Anyway…thanks for a great post and pushing my ticking here.

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