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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Where MOOCs Miss the Mark: The Student-Teacher Relationship

The mistake about MOOCs (massive open online courses) is that they discount the central component of effective teaching -- the relationship forged between student and teacher.

Sure, students around the world gain access to previously inaccessible and unimaginable content from some of the world's renowned universities and professors from MIT, Harvard and Stanford. These students can grow inspired by the possibility of absorbing information through online lectures and platforms, as 12-year-old Khadija Niazi of Pakistan explained recently at the World Economic Forum. The New York Times reported, "Ms. Niazi has been taking courses, free so far, from Udacity and Coursera, two of the earliest providers of this new form of instruction. Her latest enthusiasm is for astrobiology, because she is fascinated by UFOs and wants to become a physicist."

This is nothing short of amazing and shows the flattening of the education world. Thomas Friedman celebrates the power of the MOOC: "Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty -- by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world's biggest problems."

However, MOOCs make a key assumption that the students enrolling in these courses have a certain degree of motivation and are reasonably adept self-starters as learners.

The Importance of Belonging

For students who know what they want and when they want it in terms of online content, MOOCs are a fabulous new option to build and construct personalized learning ecosystems.

Unfortunately, for many learners, MOOCs lack the possibility of mentorship and close guidance that comes through the building of a meaningful relationship between student and teacher.

One student who was exposed to Khan Academy lectures in a math class commented that she much preferred listening to her math teacher explain the same concepts because she likes this teacher and feels comfortable asking questions and going for extra help outside of class. This student-teacher bond is more challenging to develop and sustain through online learning, which by its design is constructed through distance and the tubes of the Internet.

The fact will always remain that great teachers inspire through their passion for their subject and their ability to communicate and connect with students in face-to-face interactions and relationships.

Noted author and blogger Annie Murphy Paul writes: "The level of comfort we feel in another person's presence can powerfully influence how intelligent we feel, and in some sense, how intelligent we actually are, at least in that moment. Now multiply that one-on-one interaction by tens or hundreds, and you start to get a sense of how important a sense of belonging to a learning community can be."

MOOCs are not yet able to cultivate the sense of belonging in "another person's presence." Not to mention that the completion rate of MOOCs is quite low. According to The New York Times, "Less than 10 percent of MOOC students finish the courses they sign up for on their own." While the exposure to great content is alluring, the lasting impact may be fleeting unless MOOCs can figure out a way to establish the relationship piece between students and teachers.

Do you have any experience with MOOCs? How might MOOCs begin to connect content with relationships?

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Paul Signorelli's picture
Paul Signorelli
Writer-Trainer-Presenter-Social Media Strategist-Consultant

Matt: Please try #etmooc for a first-rate example of how a well-organized and well-facilitated MOOC cultivates a sense of belonging to a community of learners and facilitates the connection between content and relationships.This is one of the best online learning experiences I've had, and rivals anything I've experienced in face-to-face learning.

patrickmlarkin's picture

I have concerns about us defining what a MOOC is because I think it has the possibility to be many things. I wrote a brief blog post on this topic last week after my experience in the #ETMOOC mentioned by Paul above:

Here are my main points from the post http://www.patrickmlarkin.com/2013/02/one-example-of-what-mooc-can-do-et...

"The top thing for me is that a meaningful learning experience must offer participants meaningful opportunities to receive feedback and interact with other learners. The #ETMOOC experience has done this in many ways with options for participants to interact with both facilitators and learners on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook. The other thing that I believe is needed in learning endeavors is an opportunity for fun. While I am not saying that every learning experience has to be fun, I am saying that we need to find more ways for learning and fun to go hand-in-hand."

For me, I think we need to focus on what the qualities of an engaging learning environment are and not be too quick to wrote off something like a MOOC. While I am sure that there are many MOOC's that are not able to "cultivate a sense of belonging" as you describe, I am equally sure that we can say the same about many physical classrooms in our country.

Let's keep our focus on quality learning environments and think outside of the box a bit on this one.

Thanks for your thoughts on this!

David Korfhage's picture

I agree with the point the other commenters have made. Community interaction and feedback is possible even in a MOOC. In fact, having had exposure to two MOOCs recently, one a success and the other a fail, it has become clear to me that the cultivation of social interaction, of community, among MOOC students is critical (my post on the topic, at EdSocialMedia, is here: http://www.edsocialmedia.com/2013/01/a-tale-of-two-moocs/).

I would add, however, that student-student interaction may be just as important as student-teacher interaction. Certainly on E-Learning and Digital Cultures, one of the MOOCs I've been involved with, student-student interaction seemed to be key (though even there, the instructors effectively used social media tools, such as Google hangouts, to promote teacher-student interaction).

Mandy Williams aka Black's picture

The book I co-authored with my sister was intended to be the basis of a sitcom, and uses a conversational format. After hearing about our book, KIPP asked us to develop - and teach - a personal finance curriculum. Since neither of us are teachers (or financial experts) we asked for a task force of students from the KIPP Class of 2010 to help us. The conversations the book generated with those eight students (who we fondly call our guinea pigs) and ultimately with other students and their teachers/mentors/moderators is what we believe makes it the program successful. The book, and our book club approach, has been approved by the Texas State Board of Education.

The book/program has recently been piloted by the Chaplain at a men's prison, and she attributes much of the success of the program to the interaction and discussions it generates.

Having said all that, I think there are applications/topics that are well-suited for MOOC, but we need to be careful as today's students are losing the critical interpersonal skills that are necessary to survive and thrive in the real world.

Matt Levinson's picture
Matt Levinson
Head of School, University Prep
Blogger

I agree with the comments about engagement. Mimi Ito makes the point about starting with engagement (and not outcomes) first as we construct learning environments. A well constructed MOOC can create and foster engagement and "hook" student interest, but the issue still remains how to connect the content of the MOOC with the power of the relationship that gets established between teacher and student (and this may be more of an issue for the younger grades and not for college age students). It's more challenging to build learning communities without sustained face to face interactions and the trust that grows from those interactions.

Lorraine Boulos's picture
Lorraine Boulos
Sixth Grade Teacher

Like Paul, I'm participating in #etmooc. It is my first MOOC, and I love it. I feel very connected to all of the organizers, they comment regularly on my blogposts, answer my questions, and support me in my learning in a way that no teacher has in my educational history. Not only that, but because connecting is a focus, I have managed to network with a group of peers who share my interests and offer further support. My learning has been exponential, and what I love the most is that I truly can learn at my own pace. I've glanced at everything, some of the technology is still over my head and I. Am not ready for it. But everything is archived so I know that when I am ready, I can come back to it. It is scaffolding and differentiated instruction to the extreme!

Rabbi Aaron Ross's picture
Rabbi Aaron Ross
Assistant Principal, Middle School, Yavneh Academy

Are MOOCs meant to replace high school classes or college lectures? If the former, then I agree with the critique of them. However, to the extent that they serve to replace 101-level lectures in colleges, let's be candid and admit that those courses often lack the close connection with a teacher. Obviously, it depends on the size of the school, but in a midsize to large institution, the basic lecture courses can have several hundred students, and those students will have as much a connection with the teacher as they will if they learn via MOOC.

Darlene.Schaefer's picture

Hi Mr. Levinson. I enjoyed this article, and I do agree that in many MOOCs, students lose this sense of connection. Enter North Carolina Virtual Public School. Our virtual institution is built on 4 key pillars - teaching through effective daily learning blocks, teaching through synchronous communication, teaching through individualized feedback, and teaching through unique student connections. Unlike many MOOCs, we teach through connection. I have taught 4 years for NCVPS, and I will say it is the most rewarding experience in my career. I have seen students of all learning abilities - from self-contained EC to AP - thrive and achieve through this means. Our teachers are carefully trained not just in the latest and greatest technology, but in the connections. I would be happy to share more about our model. I am very proud of it, and we presently boast the iNACOL National Teacher of the Year. Regards, Darlene

Jessica R.'s picture
Jessica R.
Spanish language teacher

I see what you're trying to get across, Matt. But you forget one thing: that teacher-student relations can go both ways: they can work *for* the student and this is definitely an area that MOOCs will always fall behind in, but they can also go sour - I can think of at least half a dozen cases when teacher's animosity towards me in school and university were playing against me.

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