The Oddity of MOOCs as OER and the Issue of Integration Cost

Bryan Alexander has an excellent post on the odd situation we find ourselves in which MOOC mania reigns but OER and OCW are seen as yesterday’s news. The mind boggles, and I spent a good ten minutes trying to come up with a metaphor to explain the absurdity of the situation only to find that there really is no metaphor. I suppose if pressed, I’d say that it was as if you’d invented a groundbreaking programming language and found yourself answering 90 minutes of press questions about the “Hello World” program you wrote. But when you tried to talk about the language itself, the reporters replied no, no, no — tell us more about “Hello World”!

This oddity became more salient to me as I recently researched a paper on classroom use of MOOCs  (for publication hopefully soon, co-written along with Stanford’s Amy Collier and Helen Chen). We’d initially been interested in how the community of the xMOOC interacted with the community of the local class that was “wrapping” the MOOC. Well, we finished the last interviews of practitioners this week, and we have an answer — they don’t. The local cohort and the “massive” cohort don’t interact at all.  In other words, as the hype about classroom use of MOOCs is beginning to hit the inflection point, we find that MOOCs in face-to-face classrooms are essentially being used as OER and OCW. For various practical and pedagogical reasons, classes using MOOCs are not in sync with the online cohorts, and frankly the instructors of these classes don’t see that as an issue.

Did the use of these xMOOCs as resources change their pedagogy? Oh, yes, radically. These were stories of use I would have died to have had on hand back when I was Director of Community Outreach for the OpenCourseWare Consortium. Their use of these resources expanded what they could offer the students in terms of material (and may even broadened the sorts of courses they could offer). They rethought their approach to classroom instruction in radical ways, and rediscovered the value of giving students close personal in-class guidance on application. And the influence was spreading: at the University of Puerto Rico, we found two professors in the Computer Science teaching their different courses with MOOCs from two different sources — and talking to each other about the implications of this for their program.

In other words, here was open courseware starting to radically change what we do in institutions, except:

  1. We were calling it “MOOCs”, and
  2. It wasn’t that open.

What to make of this? There’s a lot of cynical (and true) things I could say. Certainly the vast incestuous relationship of Silicon Valley startups and tech journalism has something to do with it — with VC-funded PR dollars to spend, getting MOOCs onto the front page of every newspaper and onto every TV news program is the full time job of an army of well-funded marketers in a way that OER/OCW never was. And the fact it comes from Silicon Valley facilitates the sort of co-dependent backscratching journalism that that area excels in.

The message that MOOCs would destroy education (not save it) has also been helpful. The OER/OCW message was rather hippie-ish in nature, and could never tap into the interest of the Lou Dobbs/David Brooks set.  It felt too 1967. The MOOC as destroyer meme, on the other hand, has quickly propagated through conservative circles, and with it the hope that colleges (perceived as the last power base of liberalism) will soon be a thing of the past.

But I prefer to put those more cynical takes aside for the moment, and ask what it is that xMOOCs as OER offer professors that traditional OER and OCW did not. And I think one of the answers is integration. Traditional OER and OCW required integration of multiple resources by a time-strapped professor. And, as I found when I tried to integrate OER into my own courses, integration is the hard part. A syllabus with readings doesn’t get you that far, and a series of lectures is great, but if you have to write questions to test knowledge of those materials, or even take questions from a PDF and enter them into an LMS test bank — well, it might just be beyond what you can accomplish before the class launches.

I talked a bit about this last fall in a post on bundling vs. embedding as ways of structuring reuse. I think what we’re finding is that xMOOCs are showing some deficiencies in our approach to OER. It’s easy to mock instructors who want OER that “looks like a class”, but as our conversations with MOOC-wrappers showed, resources that look like a class can actually help instructors radically rethink their classes by giving them time, space, and a safety net.

In short, one of the reason that MOOCs get more attention is that they deal with the hard problem of integration and alignment in a way that OER and OCW avoided for many years.  And if we want to reignite a discussion about OCW/OER, maybe we should take a cue from that and solve that problem.


6 thoughts on “The Oddity of MOOCs as OER and the Issue of Integration Cost

  1. Integration… good thought. It is a one-stop shopping package.

    I’d also add scale. Using open education materials involved too many individual decisions. Ditto making the stuff. But MOOCs start at scale right out of the tin.

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