Les MOOCModern education is currently at a crossroads. Steadily marching down one road are MOOCs—the massive online courses that are changing the way teachers teach and the way learners learn, both online and in the classroom. Charging down the other is the idea of learner-centered instruction, which has been steadily gaining popularity in training and development departments. On the surface, it seems like these two forces are in opposition to each other—MOOCs involve expanding virtual classrooms to hold literally thousands of people, while learner-centered instruction involves shrinking the classroom to focus on the needs of individuals.

But these two trends are not nearly so far apart as you might think. Although one of the biggest criticisms of MOOCs is that they offer a one-size-fits-all approach to a many-sided problem, the digital learning environment (and the technology-enabled learning tools that support it) is flexible enough to allow for personalized, learner-centered approaches to instruction.

MOOC pioneer George Siemens defines learner-centered instruction like this: “In a true learner-centered environment, the learner is the beginning and end point of the learning process, and his/her needs are the focus of the course/program/organization….Basically, the learner, not the instructor, organization, or software, is in control of the learning experience.” As instructional designer Karen Sieczka notes, learner-centered training is well tailored to how adults learn—rather than “force-feeding information,” the goal is to provide learners with knowledge and skills that they can immediately apply to their jobs. The information needs be realistic, relevant, and delivered in the way adults learn best. The benefits of learner-centered instruction are many: first and foremost, in terms of creating valuable learning experiences, it seems to work very, very well.

MOOC critics have been quick to label the courses as teacher-centered, rather than learner-centered. This is because currently the dominant model is that found on Coursera: students watch video lectures and do readings, and then take tests or do assignments. This approach is teacher-centered, but that doesn’t make this a valid argument against MOOCs in general.

Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, has noted that MOOCs are often confused with pedagogy, which is inaccurate. He writes: “Conflating MOOCs with instructional methods misleads professors, students, and the public about what teachers teach and what students learn.” A MOOC is a powerful method of delivering a course, but a teacher still teaches it. There is no reason that MOOCs can’t be used to create learner-centered digital learning environments, and in fact several MOOCs (including the very first MOOC and several courses found on smaller providers like Canvas Network and NovoEd) already are.

So, how can we create a learner-centered environment in a MOOC?

Maryellen Weimer, who literally wrote the book on the subject, has identified five characteristics of learner-centered teaching. Let’s see how these characteristics can be applied to MOOCs:

1. Learner-centered teaching engages students in the hard, messy work of learning.

MOOCs, almost by definition, are hard and messy. They require learners to be independent and self-motivated, and to take ownership over their own learning experiences. For organizations, this means learners need to be given the opportunities, the tools, and the support they need to be responsible for their own learning. This can range from providing time in the day for employees to access their courses to ensuring that the courses are compatible with mobile devices.

2. Learner-centered teaching includes explicit skill instruction.

This characteristic is practically built in as many training and development programs are geared specifically toward explicit skill instruction. Breaking up learning into bite-sized chunks, which is the hallmark of most MOOCs, supports skill acquisition by providing learners with clear objectives and the tools to reach those objectives without having to invest a significant amount of time.

3. Learner-centered teaching encourages students to reflect on what they are learning and how they are learning it.

According to Weimer, “the goal is to make students aware of themselves as learners and to make learning skills something students want to develop.” This goal can be accomplished in various ways in MOOCs, including providing discussion prompts and developing assignments that ask learners to reflect on their own learning processes. This reflection doesn’t necessarily need to be formalized into the training process; even casual conversations around the water cooler or on Twitter can provoke reflection and discussion.

4. Learner-centered teaching motivates students by giving them some control over learning processes.

In a MOOC, almost the entire learning process is self-directed. Learners decide what they need to learn and can access the information at the moment of need; they decide when, where, and at what pace they engage with the course; they find and share content; and they develop their own personal learning networks. This leads to feelings of autonomy and self-efficacy, which are vital components of learner motivation.

5. Learner-centered teaching encourages collaboration.

Collaboration is another major hallmark of good MOOCs. As we have explored on several previous occasions, students in MOOCs participate in conversations on discussion boards and social media platforms, work together on projects using collaboration tools, share content via social bookmarking sites, and more. Used properly, MOOCs can greatly increase the levels of interactivity and collaboration in training programs, especially considering the baseline in many organizations is lectures, seminars, or individual elearning, which often involve no collaboration at all.

When we think about MOOCs and their applications in 21st century digital learning environments, we need to keep in mind the distinction Larry Cuban describes between technology, or format, and pedagogy. MOOCs are powerful platforms for delivering instruction, but they are not in themselves pedagogies. Instead, they allow organizations to create and deliver training courses to meet their needs while still benefiting from the best practices in instructional design, including a learner-centered approach to teaching. This is just one more area where MOOCs are expanding the boundaries of what is possible in education.

Copyright 2014 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– offers 25+ years of training and talent management helping executives, business owners, and top performing sales executives in taking the leap from the ordinary to extraordinary. Being a big believer in Technology Enabled Learning, Bryant seeks to create awareness, motivate adoption and engage organizations and people in the changing business of education. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual.

Learn more about Bryant at LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/bryantnielson

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Bryant Nielson is heavily involved in the Corporate Training and Leadership and Talent space. He currently is the Managing Director for CapitalWave Inc and the training division, Financial Training Solutions. He brings a diverse corporate experience of organizational development, learning and talent development, and corporate training, that also includes personal coaching of top sales individuals and companies of all sizes.

For the prior 4 years, Bryant was the Managing Director and Leadership and Talent Manager for Lengthen Your Stride! LLC. In this position, Nielson was the developer of all of the courses for MortgageMae University (MMU), the Realtor Development Center (RDC), and of Lengthen Your Stride! (LYS). In that position, he developed material, refined over many years of use and active training, and condensed the coursework and training to be high impact, natural learning, and comprehensive.

Bryant has over 27 years of Senior Management experience encompasses running his own Training and mortgage firm, in New York City.

He strongly believes that the corporate training is not to be static but should ‘engage and inspire’ students to greater productivity and performance.

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