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MOOCs not the answer for everyone

Online courses can be effective, but “massive” is another ballgame
University Business, October 2013

In the fall semester of 2001, I taught an online course for the first time. Sept. 11, 2001 was traumatic and life changing for millions of people worldwide. But for students, staff, and faculty at Borough of Manhattan Community College, the events of 9/11 were visceral.

Seven students working in the Twin Towers were killed, the newly renovated Fiterman Hall was destroyed when 7 World Trade Center collapsed, and many students and faculty witnessed the destruction from a very close range.

With classes cancelled for weeks, reviewing the events and talking through the trauma—so necessary to the healing process—would have to wait until it was safe to return. Not so for students who were participating in online courses.

I created a discussion board forum intended to give students space to discuss where they were, what they saw, and how they felt when the towers came down.

Via Blackboard, we transcended the brick and mortar barriers that prevented the college community from returning to school. I realized then that online classes could have a profound and utterly unanticipated capacity for something transformative that went far beyond traditional teaching and learning.

Twelve years later, MOOCs have emerged as distance learning’s most recent iteration. To those of us who are committed to the broadest access possible, the notion of busting the gates of academia wide open to any and all with the desire to learn is glorious.

Recipe for success

I’ve taught online for a dozen years and for five of those, I served as my college’s coordinator of distance learning, helping faculty to create asynchronous and hybrid online courses. There are a few fundamental ingredients to successful course development, such as the instructor’s scholarly and pedagogical expertise and access to robust and reliable online course technologies. These are nested within a set of overarching online teaching and learning principles:

  • The technology does not drive the pedagogy
  • Student-centered construction of knowledge is central to what is most effective about online learning
  • Teaching and learning online is not easy

In my experience, students want to take online courses for a variety of reasons but most revolve around work and/or family responsibilities that prevent them from being on campus for traditional course meeting times. I’ve had students who are security guards, waiters, and nannies with unpredictable schedules; pregnant mothers who are due mid-semester; and students whose disabilities make it easier for them to learn online.

Yet I can count on one hand the number of students who want to take a course from a distance because they prefer an online content delivery system. Many students are trepidatious about online learning. Their concerns? “I need to be in a real classroom to do well, and I don’t want my GPA to go down.” “I want to be able to ask questions face-to-face when I don’t understand something.” “I’m not good with writing; I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up.”

MOOCs, with their reliance on a remote sage on a stage, offer the chance to watch and listen to an unparalleled expert delivering course content that, up until recently, only a rarified few have been able to experience. But the very students who need the convenience of an online course are not necessarily the ones who have had the opportunity to develop the skills it takes to learn autodidactically.

Online courses that are created locally can help students develop autonomous learning strategies and academic engagement skills. In the traditional classroom, I am an effective instructor. I’m not easy by any stretch, but judging from my evaluations, students like me. I have expertise in my field based on a sustained record of scholarly and professional activity and years of pedagogical practice. I do not have the fame or charisma of many of my colleagues who have been asked to teach in a MOOC.

Instead, I have the local knowledge of who my students are as learners. I am invested in their learning to develop the discipline and confidence to read, reflect, respond well to prompts and to classmates’ comments, to build new understanding and to actively and thoughtfully engage as members of the communities in which they learn, live, and work.

My concern is that MOOCs (M stands for massive), with all they offer, don’t address the learning needs of the students who need them most.

Lisa Rose is an associate professor and program coordinator in the Social Sciences and Human Services Department of Borough of Manhattan Community College and the City University of New York.


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