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This is the third in a series of articles that tackle common objections to and arguments against using massive open online courses (MOOCs) for training. Read the previous article: Face-to-Face learning had FAILED.

All learners are different. They come from different backgrounds and have different levels of prior knowledge. They have different learning styles and preferences, different needs and different questions. For education to be effective and engaging, it needs to be adaptable for the needs of individual learners. MOOCs treat all learners the same, and a one-size-fits-all approach works just as well for education as it does for clothing, which is not well at all.

This is probably my favorite objection to MOOCs, perhaps because it is the one (aside from low completion rates) that has gotten the most attention. The basis of this argument is that “massive” courses can never work because they don’t take into account the needs of individuals. In fact, I (and many others) believe that MOOCs are able to support individual learners even better than traditional instructional formats.

To address this issue, let’s start by taking a trip back in time…way back to 2008, when George Siemens and Stephen Downes offered the very first MOOC, a course called “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge.” The course was based on the theory of connectivism, which Downes has defined as “the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.”

The MOOC, which attracted 2,200 students, was completely different from the traditional idea of a course. There was no assigned content and no formal assessments. Instead, Siemens and Downes provided a large supply of recommended content as a starting point and then encouraged learners to explore the content, repurpose and remix the content, contribute content of their own, and share what they’d created and learned, via blogs, online discussions, social media, and so on. The content of the course was fluid—it changed as learners discovered and shared their discoveries with one another.

The goal of the first MOOC was not for participants to memorize anything or answer multiple choice questions correctly. It was for them to approach the content based on their own interests and objectives, build networks of people with shared interests, and thus actively create their own knowledge and knowledge networks.

Far from being one-size-fits-all, this was personalized learning at its best—learners chose not only when and where they participated in the course, but also what materials they engaged with and who they collaborated with, if they chose to engage or collaborate at all.

The MOOCs that started to appear in 2012, from Coursera and Udacity, were much more formally structured, more like a regular college course than an experimental collaborative knowledge-creation environment. There was a set schedule and weekly modules with required content and formal assessments. All students were expected to progress through the course at least somewhat linearly—though they could skip around within modules, the modules were released in a set order on set dates. There was also the possibility of participating in online discussions, but, not surprisingly, many found it difficult to hold a meaningful conversation with tens of thousands of other people.

Many of the MOOCs we see today fall somewhere between the two extremes, allowing learners to choose how they participate in the course, but within a more structured framework. For example, Coursera has started offering many of its courses on-demand, so learners can start anytime and work at their own pace. Many courses use collaborative project-based learning rather than online quizzes and tests, so learners can choose their projects and their teams according to their interests. And many courses now incorporate social media, blogs, and other communication tools, so learners can choose if and how they want to interact with others.

The take-home message is that a MOOC is not a pedagogy, it is a framework, and within that framework many things can happen, including learner-centered instruction. As Stanford professor John C. Mitchell wrote in 2013, “Perhaps the most important lesson thus far is that ‘online education’ cannot be thought of in rigid, monolithic terms—as if all online education looks the same, or requires giving up all aspects of the classroom experience…educational technology does not require a cookie-cutter approach. Quite the contrary: Online education, as it develops, should allow us to customize and personalize the student educational experience to a greater extent than ever before.”

For corporate trainers, this means that MOOCs can be selected, designed, and facilitated according to the needs of the organization as well as individual learners. For example, a course where consistency is paramount and all learners need to acquire certain knowledge by a specific date may be more rigid in terms of schedule and requirements. In contrast, a course that is optional or serves primarily as performance support may be more flexible to allow just-in-time learning. Assessments in any course may include a combination of formal tests and project-based learning. Discussions may or may not be required. The possibilities are bounded only by our imagination and the limits of the available technologies, which are improving all of the time.

Can your company’s instructor-led training or traditional elearning programs do that?

Just because mailboxes in the United States are blue doesn’t mean mailboxes must be blue. In Canada they are red. Similarly, just because some MOOCs have been designed according to a rigid, or one-size-fits-all, approach doesn’t mean they all must be. The MOOC framework is flexible, and it is this flexibility that allows MOOCs to be powerful digital learning environments able to meet today’s complex training needs.

Copyright 2015 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– 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.