The Emperor’s New Clothes, AKA MOOC – The Revolution that never was

I have over 16 years’ of experience with using various LMS as an instructor; – ten years’ experience with Moodle and six years experience with Fronter. I also have close to 20 years’ of experience of using open resources like web, wiki, blog, twitter etc. as tools for presenting my various lectures. In 2014 I started experimenting with Canvas and are now using it on permanent basis since Nord University have chosen this as their official LMS.

Based on my various experiences I wrote a blog post on my thoughts on the concept of MOOC and LMS in 2014, updated it in 2017 and here is yet another update. This time it’s due to Audrey Watters excellent «The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade» from December 2019. Here she writes about MOOC that «So gone — mostly gone, at least — are the free online courses. Gone are the free certificates. The MOOC revolution simply wasn’t».

For many years universities and colleges have been using Learning Management Systems (LMS) to administrate students and lecturers. It is often introduced with the buzz words of «Digitization», «Learning» (as in «better learning») and with the more or less unspoken intention of dragging unwilling lecturers into the Digital Age. The latest addition to this way of distributing higher education is a concept called xMOOC and cMOOC.

This new acronym stands for Massive Open Online Course and signifies online courses aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for students, professors, and teaching assistants. Though said to be a recent development in distance education which began to emerge in 2012, it is in fact just what many university colleges, both in Norway and in other countries, have been doing since the emergence of Web 2.0, including the interactive user forums.

The advocates of MOOCs points to that traditional online courses charge tuition carry credit and limit enrollment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors. The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and massive. Right. I am sure this is marvelous arguments in the USA. Good for them! But in Europe and in Norway where higher education, including online courses, usually are free of charge and institutions need students to take credit points in order to get funding’s from the government, MOOC as such may not be that awe-inspiring.

But its focus on high quality audio-visual lectures and large masses of students might encourage the development of more online courses in English thus increasing the possibilities of internationalisation of Norwegian higher education, especially in smaller University Colleges. And as professor Morten Flate Paulsen says it in his blog post «MOCKING MOOCS«:  «This initiates a welcome debate about all the good online education initiatives during the last decades – and how we can improve future online education».

I have recently experimented with one MOOC platform for students in Social Informatics, based on my Wiki, and named «Social Informatics – Much Ado About ICT in Society» (Not fully developed, just a test MOOC). I have also had a look at the MOOC platform called Canvas. My sentiments so far may best be described quoting Queen Victoria: «We are not amused». As far as I am concerned this is just another LMS. I know that Canvas stated that «Compared to other LMS, Canvas is “a paradigm shift” because it is “open-sourced, cloud-based, and features new technology and an updated experience». Ok? But the LMS Moodle is also open-sourced,  most LMS may be based on cloud computing or resources placed in the cloud (The «Cloud» is strictly speaking nothing more than a set of Internet Services…and the Internet is this big network «out there» in the clouds so to speak…). I’ll buy the «new technology» bit (I think), but «updated experience»? Are someone forgetting that it should be the content that matters, not the system?

Why on earth do we want to spend money on buying new versions of classical Learning Managment Systems, if the aim is to provide open and free educational resources?

Update: In 2017 it was decided that Canvas was to be the preferred LMS for most of our universities and colleges, replacing Fronter (and Moodle). I have for some time had a free instructor account on Canvas and have there experimented with creating courses, etc. I have to say that my sentiments today is the same as when I originally wrote this post in 2014. Canvas may to some extent be more modern in its design than Moodle and Fronter, but it is still very much yesterdays solution to yesteryears challenges.

A LMS gives us a set of administrative tools to know how many students are enrolled in our courses, to send them individual and group messages and to let them upload assignments, and of course – a tool for us to upload and organize our lecturing resources. But personally I still think that open resources like blogs, wikis and various other social media are much better suited for online lectures, both as part of asynchronous online courses and blended learning/flipped classroom. A combination of social media tools gives not only an open resource that may be viewed without logging in, but also makes it possible to support adaptive learning, allowing students to create and navigate their own personal learning path. A LMS is in comparison nauseating linear.

LMS offer a means of regulating and packaging pedagogical activities by offering templates that assure order and neatness, and facilitate an assurance that lecturers at least upload their Power Points and that there is a way to reach all students with general and specific information. But it is not a tool that in it selves support learning. And this makes, in my opinion, the whole concept unnecessary. In fact, if a tool in it selves was the main thing, many universities, including Nord University, already have Office 365 available and thereby everything necessary to distribute lectures digitally, as well as interacting with students asynchronously as well as synchronously. The package includes blogging tool, video conference tool (Skype for Business) and Yammer for discussions (From 2020 Skype will be  discontinued, and Teams will be the tool for both video Conferences and discussions), Office Mix for interactive lessons, etc. So, who needs Canvas?

In fact, what we do need is the understanding that in university education it is content that matters, not tools. When we address our students, we are still doing so based on good old pedagogical theories. The use of digital tools has made some old ideas as «Flipped Classroom» easier to do, but so far, I have yet to see any technology revolutionising teaching and learning.

See also my post from Sept. 2014: «What Will Happen to MOOCs in Norway?«

Forfatter: pagodejord

Førstelektor i IKT ved Handelshøyskolen Nord, tidligere lokalpolitiker for Høyre, tjenestepliktig befal i Sivilforsvaret (pensjonert), over 20 års erfaring med e-læring og 19 års erfaring med flipped classroom.