Tuesday, March 6, 2012

On MOOCs and Other Centrifugal Forces in Education

For those who are familiar with the general themes of my blogging over the past couple of years, or who have made it through the first chapters of my new book, the concept of centrifugal forces in education is nothing new.

In brief summary, our traditional educational models tend to follow a pattern of centripetal movement, with everything forced toward an artificial learning center. Students go to buildings, make their way to classes, and focus their attention on teachers and books as the repositories of static knowledge they are supposed to acquire. Real learning, I argue, is and always has been a centrifugal process. We learn by reaching outward, through constant discovery and inquiry, in a world in which knowledge and information are dynamic and ever expanding.

There are obvious historical and societal reasons for having a centripetal education model. Since the advent of the Web, however, it has become harder and harder to control the underlying centrifugal forces of learning that constantly challenge that model. Information is expanding almost exponentially. The democratization of production has loosed the grip of traditional publishers on the contents and availability of learning materials. Each month, new informal learning platforms emerge that challenge the capabilities of traditional education models.

Students and teachers are, to an increasing degree, thinking outside the brick.

All of which brings me to MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. This week, there has been some active discussion on MOOCs, particularly with regards to the differences between the work done by explorers such as George Siemens and Stephen Downes, and the online course offered by Coursera/Standford (Siemens does a great job synthesizing the discussion here).

Inherent in this discussion is a general criticism of MOOCs for not providing enough structure and for a lack of emphasis on the 'basics'. I think Dave Cormier responds to this most effectively by saying, "MOOCs offer a complex ecosystem in which you ‘can’ learn, not one where you ‘will learn.’ It doesn’t come with many guarantees."

I would take this argument a step further by suggesting that the same guarantee for learning (or lack of guarantee) is true of our traditional education systems and pedagogical models as well. Whether we buy into the familiar model of highly structured classes (i.e. centripetal -- in buildings or online) or advocate a more natural (i.e. centrifugal) and learner-centric approached with less structure, the actual learning is still contingent on the learner.

The difference between MOOCs and more traditional or structured models is simply one of complexity. MOOCs provide a complex and fairly pure model of learner-centric, centrifugal learning. The brick-and-mortar classroom is at the other end of the spectrum. Everything else lies somewhere in between.

I think this notion of where the responsibility for learning actually belongs (or inevitably ends up) is something that seems to be missing in many discussions on learning models.

For me, it's really simple.

Learning as an activity is inevitably learner-centric. While it may happen most naturally within communities, each agent (learner) is still responsible for what knowledge is actually acquired. Once we accept this -- that learning is, by definition, a learner-centric activity -- we only need choose a learning model that we think best facilitates the networking, search for, and acquisition of information and knowledge.

While MOOCs are still in the formative stages, I think the work being done there is extremely important. This is because it models newer forms of instruction and learning that seem to align closely with the natural flow of learning. These courses foster and embrace a centrifugal learning model, which in the end is where evolutonary trends are taking us anyway.

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