Thursday, July 16, 2015

It's the battle of the SPOCs!

"Fractured Spock"
- by me and Net Art Generator,
for #clmooc
Over the past couple of years, since the silly acronym "SPOC" was invented to denote a course that was the antithesis to the MOOC, a Small Private Online Course, I've had issues with the acronym, and took exception to this new discovery on the part of schools that newly invented this form of education, considering that there are schools that have been doing it since the early aughts.

In any case, I was finally going through my Pocket account today, trying to read as many things as I've saved for later reading since
Rhizo15 when I came across a couple of articles that really made me roll my eyes a bit and made me want to facepalm...

The first article is a featured article in Harvard Magazine, July/August issue, titled Is Small Beautiful? This was a fairly quick read, but I couldn't help but think that this was mostly a PR piece on the part of Harvard and Harvardx. There is a lot left to be desired in this article, and about this innovation in general.  For instance, when talking about  the CopyrighX, what does teaching in a "networked" form mean? Does that mean teaching online? I've written before about the application process for Copyrightx and other "limited enrollment" courses, which I think really goes counter to the ethos of Open Education, and it really doesn't take into account the diverse reasons for which learners sign up for MOOC, and their rationales and many varied reasons for the patterns in which they participate in.  Hmm... now that's an interesting topic for research: "activity patterns of MOOC participants and the motivation for learning"! Feed free to borrow this from me and do something with it ;-)

Anyway, some more specifics from the article:

Since the program’s launch, a number of courses at HarvardX have tested a simple solution to many of MOOC detractors’ biggest complaints: scaling down, not up. These experiments—which come with their own acronym, SPOC (small private online course)—enable professors to more fully engage a targeted group of learners, who benefit in turn from an intensive, personal course setting.
First of all, I don't get what the detractor is for scaling up? Is it that you can't practice the same pedagogies?  Well, that to me seems like a no-brainer. New modalities probably require new pedagogies, and those are things we need to discover. We can certainly use our existing paradigms as a base to begin with, but we need to go into this knowing that we will most likely need to adapt.  I'd like to congratulate our colleagues at Harvard for inventing something that those of us in online education have been doing for more than a decade now - the "small, private, online, course" - otherwise known as a traditional online course. There is ample literature out there for these "SPOC"s (horrible acronym) which people should really jump into and read.   Now, don't get me wrong, I think that it's freakin' fantastic that Harvard Law is offering a free course on copyright that looks and feels like something you'd get by paying good money for tuition, but let's not pretend that they've discovered something innovative in terms of pedagogy.

In the end, small courses’ successes rest on defying many of the very promises of the MOOC revolution: they might not be massive, open to everyone, cheap to run, or entirely online. But by using technology to combine the centuries-old lessons of campus education with the best promises of massive learning, SPOCs may be the most relevant and promisingly disruptive experiments the MOOC boom has yet produced.
So, if they aren't MOOCs, why do you bother comparing them to MOOCs?  Even so, MOOCs are not necessarily expensive to run, that is a design decision.  My colleague, Inge deWaard, ran 2 successful MobiMOOC cMOOCs (when cMOOCs were just MOOCs) and I am pretty sure it didn't cost her much. Ray Schroeder ran EduMOOC - again, that was most likely not costly.  We also see examples like #Rhizo14 and #rhizo15, as well as #CLMOOC and #CCourses.  Now, granted all of these are MOOCs of the cMOOC variety, but my point - I hope - still stands.  You can do a MOOC on a shoestring budget.

The other notion that is laughable (please forgive me, I appear to be in an extremely cranky-pants mood today), is the notion that "SPOCs may be the most relevant and promising disruptive experiments..." Really? You mean the thing that my department has been doing for the past 10 years (offering a fully online, accredited, rigorous, Master of Arts degree) is the most disruptive thing to come out of MOOCs? And, the irony is that my department wasn't even first to the online game. There are other departments that have offered online courses that are SPOCs.  They are not free, but nothing in the SPOC definition hints at free. I think this blissful ignorance of what's happening in education outside of the walls of some institutions is astounding.

Fisher’s innovation [with CopyrightX], in a sense, was to be less experimental: using digital resources to engage students in the kind of intense learning experience expected on campus.
Wow... It seems like now we're offering a golden star to everyone ;-).  No, seriously, how can one claim "innovation" when "innovation" is defined as business as usual?

The course was designed to be demanding across the board. “I hoped, from the beginning, that it would be possible to reach these audiences without dumbing down the material at all,” Fisher says. “That was just a hope in the beginning, but it proved to be true.”
I think that there is a sense out there that MOOCs cannot be "demanding" and that materials need to be "dumbed down" for MOOCs.  There is also an assumption that MOOCs are directly correlated to the college course as that course exists for accreditation purposes, based on the credit hour.  It also assumes that the learners want to get exactly out of the course what the instructors want you to get out of the course. These are huge assumptions to make, and they are - in my opinion - largely wrong in the MOOC world.  There are many reasons why people choose to sign up for MOOCs.  Some people just window-shop.  Other people are interested in specific aspects of the course.  Heck, even in a cMOOC, in #rhizo14, we had people who were interested in reading and discussing more of D&G, and people who did not.

Why does learner choice in the matter of what they want to explore not seem to matter here? Some people seemed fairly annoyed that we didn't tackle D&G all the time in either Rhizo, but that's a choice of the learners. Neither Dave, nor anyone else, could force us to engage with the course ins prescribed way. Why should other MOOCs force a specific pattern of participation?  If I were earning 3 graduate credits from a MOOC, I would jump through hoops because I know that I would be assessed for specific things in specific ways.  But when a course is free, and I am not getting formal and generally accepted external recognition of my course accomplishments, why should I try to fit your mold?

The results of this experiment in scaling down from massive are promising. First are the benefits to on-campus learning—one of the oft-repeated goals of HarvardX. The new TF program offers students a rare chance to gain teaching experience in a law-school setting. And by assigning his video lectures as homework for his HLS students, Fisher has cut down the number of weekly class sessions from three to two. The remaining meetings, he says, now feature deeper, more nuanced discussions.
AHA!  So here is a benefit of SPOC, or at least free online courses: They can be training grounds for  people pursuing terminal degrees. Instead of putting them in a 100-level undergraduate course to teach (which they might still do), and have the university catch flak because the professors on departmental listings aren't really teaching those undergrad courses, you can now get teaching experience in SPOCs, and the pressure is (theoretically) less because those few people have been handpicked to attend a SPOC and the SPOC is free (can't complain about a free thing, right?)  Now, the whole cutting down of lecture time...well...again, I congratulate you on discovering Flipped Learning, and possibly even discovering Blended learning!

“Innovation in Health Care,” version two, launched on edX this spring, and the staff has focused on making the team aspect of the course more robust. This has required moving even further away from MOOCs’ one-to-many model. 
Again, here we perpetuate a myth, or perhaps misconception, that the MOOC is a one-to-many broadcast model.  It is not!  It can be, and we've certainly seen this with many xMOOC providers, but it's certainly NOT the only model for Open Online Courses.

Anyway, that's one type of SPOC.  But, did you know that we have competing SPOCs? In a recent (research) article titled Can SPOC (Self- Paced Online Course) Live Long and Prosper? A Comparison Study of a New Species of Online Course Delivery we learn about the new Self-Paced Online Courses! OK, as a Trek fan, and someone who can appreciate a pun, I'll give it to the authors: the title was catchy and it was a nice callback to Mr. Spock. However, that's where my appreciation for the article ends.

There are several issues in this research article, including calling the MOOC a "ore recent variation of the traditional online model". Another is the same folly as the Harvard SPOC article: trying to make something new out of something that isn't.  Self-paced coursed, be they online, offline in the form of CBT (hey, remember that acronym?), or through correspondence education have been around for a while. Heck, there are universities whose entire undergraduate experience is based on self-paced online learning.  I also remember doing professional development and earning a professional certification by learning through self-paced online learning back in 2002ish (if I remember correctly) Where is the novelty?

The conclusion of this study is that there is no significant difference between self-paced online learning and traditional online learning. This doesn't really seem like a shocker - given all the studies on the NSD. It also reminds me of the talk that Rory McGreal gave us during orientation at Athabasca last summer when he said that he didn't want to see yet another study comparing one medium to another to see which is "better" ;-)

To put an end to this long post - what do you think of the battle of the SPOCs?
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