Having worked in online distance learning for 15 years, one of the intriguing things about MOOCs is watching their role as a vehicle for the wider world to “discover” things that are common knowledge to those of us in the field. This is happening across the board (the latest example from California is something for another day), but at the moment it is the technical issues that are feeling a bit groundhog day.
Admittedly technical shenanigans are more likely to happen in platform independent MOOCs rather than the more commoditised Coursera versions, but the technical teething troubles around many MOOCs are giving me flashbacks to the early 2000’s when the technology you used was regularly flaky and just getting people online and enrolled in the multiple tools we stitched together to make a “learning environment” (with extra bonus multiple different passwords and user names) was half the challenge of delivering online learning. When the first VLEs emerged offering one password into a coherently presented (OK not always) set of tools, with the functionality you need to develop a course it seemed like a small miracle.
Now I know VLEs often don’t have all the tools you want and there are learning benefits in their own right in asking students to engage with various open web tools, however I think it is easy to forget just how intimidating this can be for learners – yes still. I tend to characterise it to academics as “you want your students to spend their mental energy on your subject not on the technology”, we know badly integrated, hard to use technology was a major factor in students’ bad experiences of online learning for years, something we have largely eradicated – do we really want to go back?
Technology for online learning is an area where I think you need to be prescriptive to make it work – because if you can manage minimal cognitive overhead with the learning tools, that’s when you can start to reasonably expect students to engage in more challenging learning activities, and the fun really starts.