MOOCs support inefficient learning…and that’s the point

With the shrill emphasis on standardized testing in K-12, some math educators are fighting back with innovative, hands-on learning for their students. Instead of providing equations for, say, calculating the hypotenuse of a bunch of right triangles with different base lengths, they have their students start with the object under consideration. Perhaps students measure a couple of triangles and talk about what they’ve found. Opponents to these constructivist methods scoff at the idea that students are supposed to “discover Pythagoras’ theorem on their own” by performing tests and measurements that will lead them to the same conclusion. As some of the criticisms of the Khan Academy note, efficiency of instruction does not necessarily lead to student learning. In fact, that efficiency may only promote the rote learning for tests that’s too prevalent.

I started thinking about this in the context of my last online course, run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, which was a MOOC: a massive, open online course that in the past has literally registered more than one thousand students in one course. At first, I was irritated with the overwhelming amount of materials I had to go find: although the course started from a few readings each week, the point of the course was to find the blogs, posts, and tweets of other members as well as other materials around the same subjects. In this last iteration of the Connectivism and Connected Knowledge course, Siemens and Downes experimented with a decentralized structure. What this meant was that there was no “learning management system” in which assignments and grades were posted, readings were collected and housed, and discussions were threaded, nested, and archived. Instead, the content was aggregated with gRSShopper (a Downes’ invention) and then housed in people’s blogs, a Facebook group, Diigo, and other online applications.

It took a while to get used to, I’ll admit. And I was often frustrated at the lack of a sort of ongoing, regular discussion base that I had in graduate school, where each week you picked up where you left off the week before and you could see the knowledge growing in your community because somehow it was more contained, physically, in one small college town—it was a bit more visceral. In addition, because I am hyperstudent, I never felt in CCK11 like I had quite done enough, had read enough in the tucked-away blogs of my colleagues and related materials I tried to find on my own. My Moocolleagues (neologism alert!) also seemed more connected to each other and to other networks of learners, whereas I’m on my own in rural Ohio. By the end of the course, I felt a bit weary, and I was looking forward to my next course, more traditionally organized, housed in a learning management system, and holding only about 20 students. Its potential was more restful.

But now a funny thing’s happened: I miss CCK11. Although many times I felt disconnected and frustrated, I paradoxically felt more engaged then. I did more work, so I got more out of it, even though it was hard and sometimes tiresome.  Using connectivism as both its subject matter and its structure, the experience yanked me out of a comfortable identity called “student” and put me in some other role that I still don’t have a name for. It’s stuck with me, in other words, and I’m not the same—and isn’t that what learning is?

And learning is or should be inefficient. It’s when you struggle to make a WordPress widget work the way you want to (see’s slideshow for what cause me an hour’s annoyance) that you gain more understanding about PHP rather than just reading the For Dummies guide and following along. The fact is, my arrogant brain sometimes thinks that internalizing information is enough for me, as though if I read a Honda Repair Manual I could build a Civic in the backyard. That hands-on learning I advocate when it comes to K12 and postsecondary education?—yeah, I need it, too. Reading about something isn’t the same as learning: learning should be messy and should contain some moments you just want to go hire someone to do it for you. Reading about connectivism’s belief that learning is a network phenomenon is one thing; trying to form, navigate, traverse, talk about, and reflect upon the network while you’re swimming around in it is another (this may be connected to Siemens’ discussion of internalization/externalization).

Now I’ve signed up for two more MOOCs: one, called EduMOOC, starts next week through the University of Illinois, and the other will be “the mother of all MOOCs” from our friends Downes and Siemens with the addition of Dave Cormier (who makes the great MOOC videos). I’m bound to be, at times, really frustrated and uncertain. I might even gripe. I bet I learn.

Update 6/27: Dave Cormier’s blog post on MOOCs as ecologies.


4 Responses to MOOCs support inefficient learning…and that’s the point

  1. Pingback: Collaborative Communities and emergent learning | Learner Weblog

  2. Love the title of your blog and your moocolleagues neologism. Thanks for relating your prior experiences in MOOCs. 🙂

  3. learn231 says:

    I could not agree more. I miss CCK11 as well. I have always had a strong belief that learning should be messy and should push you to “get involved”. I have not been brave enough [yet] to sign up for another MOOC…next year.


  4. Sally Pardue says:

    Thanks for the reflections and sharing your frustration in navigating what you want and expect from a “learning” environment while dealing with what we need to remember our students deal with when faced with instructors who are removing the scaffolding that they are so comfortable with and unsure of how to build on their own.

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