Wednesday, June 19, 2013

MOOCs, Environmental Education, and Questions

This week, after noticing MOOCs (massive open online courses) featured in consecutive editions of the Chronicle of Higher Education, my curiosity about them has been rekindled. A couple of tech-savvy friends of mine discovered M.I.T.'s MOOCs a few years ago (though I don't remember them being called that at the time). Actual, full-fledged M.I.T. courses, offered to anyone, anywhere, for nothing? "Cool!" I thought. And that is where my consideration of MOOCs ended. It was too good to be true, right? MOOCs were "teaser" courses - higher ed "light," not to be taken seriously by potential employers. Trial versions of real courses, perhaps, to get geeks like me hooked on a subject and sell them on a full-scale degree (with accompanying full-scale tuition).

MOOCs crossed my radar screen again at the 2012 AASHE Conference & Expo, where Hunter Lovins delivered a rousing (if somewhat controversial) keynote on "Saving our Economic Ass". In explaining the business case for sustainability, Hunter made some great points. “With tuition increasing at 2x rate of inflation, higher education [as we know it] may be about to become extinct. Universities are at some risk of becoming irrelevant.” Followed by: "Is TED the new Harvard?"

Being both a learner and educator who thrives on experiential education, I'm understandably hesitant to jump on the MOOC bandwagon, at least not without doing a little research. My experiences at Antioch University New England and the Center for Whole Communities were invaluable, and not only for the ideas and information that filled my brain like fluid in my cognitive sponge. The lasting interpersonal relationships, connection to place (this link will bring you to some good summer reading), emotional and social learning, and appreciation for the cultural differences and common threads among my co-learners could never be replicated by a MOOC.

But because MOOCs are so radically different from the traditional track, and because I have learned to pay attention when things like this come up more than once, I am indulging my curiosity. A brief search turned up a host of MOOC resources (such as TechnoDuet and through which the serious geek can  find courses on everything from accounting to nutrition, software engineering to zoology. (I have not yet found one for basket-weaving, but let me know if you do!)

The other thing I found, which I plan to spend a little time reading, is a guide by UK Professor Allison Littlejohn, "Understanding Massive Open Online Courses", part of CEMCA's EdTech Notes series. The guide is readable, and asks some really great questions:

  • How do learners learn in open, unstructured, networked environments?
  • What do learners do as they learn in open environments?
  • How do learners self-regulate their learning?

I love these questions! First of all, I love questions in general, because they're what comprises the edge of what is known and not-yet known. Learning is all about the edges.  In terms of formalized education, these are the kind of questions we should be asking constantly and using to inform our practice - whether in a K-12 setting (New Hampshire's new Common Core Standards are the big issue here) - or in higher education, where the differing learning styles of adult learners, combined with self-motivation, problem-solving capacity, orientation to to goals, and collaborative possibilities can be truly amazing.

As an environmental educator, I have additional questions: How can MOOCs prepare students for twenty-first century challenges such as climate change, food security, human health, and economic justice? By uplifting screen-based technology as the ultimate educational venue, do MOOCs increase the severance between people and nature that got us into environmental crisis in the first place? Or could it possibly lead us to a more democratic society, one that values openness and maybe even become more resilient in the process?

Where MOOCs meet higher education, they can find a perfect laboratory - and strong reactions (pro and con) from administrators, faculty, and students. I shall continue to ask questions, and let's begin with this one:

What are YOUR thoughts on MOOCs? Contact me using this form or comment on my Linkedin page, and let's discuss!