-- A guest post by Ned Hall (Harvard)
MOOCs and MOOTs are different things, and we should be working a lot more on the latter than the former. A MOOT is a Massive Open Online Text, a flexible on-line teaching tool that combines searchable, comment-on-able text, multimedia, tools for peer-to-peer collaboration and feedback, and who knows what other goodies we haven't thought of yet.
The big advantage of MOOTs over MOOCs is that you spend your time on pedagogical innovation, not on designing what could only be cut-rate assessment, feedback, and cheater-detection.
If you set out to produce a MOOC – since you take yourself to be designing a course – you will, if you're at all responsible, spend a lot of time and energy thinking about three tasks that are going to be very hard to pull off: assessment, personalized feedback, and cheater-detection. (Maybe the last is optional – but only if you're somehow convinced that no one will ever give official credit to a student who has taken, and received a grade for, your MOOC.)
Let me give a real example of the form this time and energy can take. A colleague in another department (at another university) is mounting an introductory MOOC in his/her field. It's a humanities field, where learning how to write a good essay is one essential skill that the course aims to teach. So the question has arisen as to how to grade and provide comments on, potentially, thousands of papers.
The solution devised by my colleague and his/her teaching assistants: When students hand in their papers, a randomly selected subset will be graded by the teaching staff. Call this set of papers the "control group". In addition, each student enrolled in the MOOC will be required to grade 5 of his/her colleagues' papers. One of these 5 papers will be from the control group (but not marked as such, obviously). If the grade a student gives to his/her control-group paper matches the grade assigned by the teaching staff, then that student will be considered "trustworthy". Finally, grades for each student paper that isn't in the control group will be determined by the grade(s) assigned to that paper by trustworthy graders.
Now, if someone held a gun to my head, and said "Ned: design an intro philosophy MOOC, for 10,000+ students, or else", then I might well decide that this method of assessment was the best of a bad lot. But let's face it: it's bad. Really bad. Maybe it's no worse than what you'd get, if you took an intro course from a disaffected prof, teaching hundreds of bored students, with frustrated and overworked TAs. But if this serves as an example of the kind of exciting, world-shaking pedagogical innovation that MOOCs will inspire, then some of us edu-luddites can be forgiven for having our doubts.
At any rate, what strikes you immediately, as soon as you draw the MOOC/MOOT distinction, is that if you take yourself to be in the business of designing the latter – designing, that is, flexible on-line teaching tools – then you don't have to spend one second thinking about assessment, personalized feedback, and cheater-detection. 'Cuz that's not your job. You're not, in any way, trying to make it your job – any more than a writer of an old-fashioned textbook would be.
What you're trying to do, in fact, can probably best be accomplished if it starts out life as an OT, with the MO to be added later. That is, you ask yourself "What on-line tools would allow me, right now, to teach such-and-such class much more effectively?" Having produced an answer, and having refined this answer through field-tests conducted in your own classroom, you can then export it to the wider world. It's very interesting to note that this is not, at least here at Harvard, what is happening with the few MOOCs that are being created. No one is suggesting that we design MOOCs, and then give them to our own students in place of regular classes.
There are two points worth emphasizing about the MOOC/MOOT distinction.
- They have different aims, and the specific ways in which aiming to produce a MOOC – but not a MOOT – will inevitably channel your efforts into projects that strike me, at least, as pedagogically disastrous.
- They have very different production models. Presumably, most people who are designing MOOCs are not replacing their normal class with their MOOC, working out the kinks, and then publishing the MOOC. (Hmm, why not?) By contrast, it makes perfect sense for a MOOT to start out life as a set of teaching tools adapted to its author's own classroom, tools that will enable that author to engage in much more productive and engaging face-to-face teaching than would be possible in the traditional lecture format. And once these tools are polished, then they can be published to a wider audience. (In just the same way, many and perhaps most excellent textbooks start out life as lecture notes.)
The upshot – to me and many of my colleagues, anyway – is that nothing by way of pedagogical innovation is gained by shifting to the MOOC business, and quite a lot is lost, in the form of efforts wasted on trying to figure out not-completely-pathetic ways to assess, give feedback, and detect cheating, on a massive (and massively anonymous) scale.
But there are great reasons to be in the MOOT business: you can improve your own teaching in very exciting ways, and, just possibly, help other people do the same.