Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Say hello to SMOC (another pointless acronym ;-) )

A Smock
The other day an article came across my radar with the title "Don't Call it a MOOC." Well, of course, I really had to read it because it kind of sounds like MOOC is an insult, so don't insult a course by calling it a MOOC ;-) As if MOOC isn't a bad enough acronym, UT-Austin somehow found a worse one, SMOC (pronounced "smock").  So, what is this SMOC, other than a poor, and unnecessary acronym?

Basically, what it boils down to a SMOC (synchronous massive online course) is nothing more than a live webcast of two rockstar professors in a television studio.  I really fail to see where the innovation is, considering the fact that what you really have here is the digital equivalent of sitting in a 1000-seat auditorium, in a face to face introductory course. Sure, they say they have tutors for "small" groups of students, but, as a commenter on the article points out, that is still around 80 students per assistant.  Even then, it's not a professor but a graduate assistant, a former student in the course.

One of the two rockstar professors commented that:
“The cons of a MOOC is that you take away a sense of intimacy, a sense of community, a sense of a simultaneous, synchronous experience,” Gosling said.
I am actually wondering how intimate a group it can be between a group of 80 students per graduate assistant.  On top of that, I have a gut feeling that these guys have never attempted to MOOC themselves, or did the cursory try to say that they've tried it, but didn't really give it a go.  I have had MOOCs (granted mostly cMOOCs fall in this category) where the learning environment felt intimate and I got to know my peer learners.  I guess the misunderstanding comes in when Gosling (superstar #2) says that "In that sense, running the course as a traditional MOOC would be more efficient", I guess traditional in this sense means xMOOC. I don't know how xMOOCs can be "traditional" considering they didn't originate the concept.  I would certainly call them "mainstream," but not traditional.

Another thing that is a little disconcerting is this quote:
“I think we were influenced predominantly by this mix of Jon Stewart and 'The View' or Jay Leno,” said James W. Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at UT-Austin.
All of these shows are, at their core, entertainment.  Sure, it's fun to include some elements of "fun" in your course (you don't want to be a bore), but I am failing to see the pedagogical connections between the exemplar shows, and sound pedagogy.  Now, granted, MOOCs are experimental, so we should take as many opportunities to be guinea pigs as we possibly can, so we can learn something from it.  But, it seems to me that there is (or at least there ought to be) research into distance education emanating from previous synchronous distance learning experiments, satellite and television learning programs, and so on.

Finally, I think that institutions seem to be focusing on the wrong type of "massive"
To ensure that students don’t treat the class as a static broadcast, the class will be split into smaller pods monitored by former students, who essentially work as online TAs. The pods will remain static throughout the semester, giving students a core group of classmates to chat with during the lectures.
It seems that the "massive" that institutions are aiming for is the type where one can say "look at how much my IT infrastructure can hold!"...or better yet "mine is bigger than yours." The thing that made "massive" in MOOC such an interesting thing was not just the IT side of things (I admit, I find it interesting given my background) but also the fact that learners can pick from a vast pool of peers to engage with.  I have no problem with recommending peers to follow and engage with, after all some people need that.  But, it seems wrong and counterproductive to keep pods static and segregated in a massive environment.

Your thoughts?

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