Apparently Tony Bates, a lifelong proponent of and researcher into online and distance learning, has announced his retirement. (And I only say apparently because I was sent to his blog, where he seems pretty clear about retiring, via Twitter.) I’ve heard Dick’s name but don’t know him or his work personally, though even a cursory glance at his blog suggests the influence and import of his work.

He included in his retirement post these paragraphs on MOOCs (and for some reason, I wasn’t able to copy and paste the actual text, so I had to screen shot it):

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As someone moderately familiar with MOOCs and the controversy surrounding them (just enough to make me dangerous, I suspect), I know exactly what he’s talking about: slap reputable-college-x’s name on something and all of a sudden it’s automatically amazing, whether or not it actually is; that’s annoying in an emperor’s-new-clothes kind of way. On the other hand, few would say now (after the self-proclaimed year of the MOOCS that was 2013) that MOOCs are the educational panacea (or innovative disruptor; disruptive innovator?) that they were originally touted to be. In fact, few educators would admit that MOOCs are viable for any but the most motivated ‘students’ because of the very pedagogical flaws to which Bates refers.

But let’s not ignore the resources that MOOCs provide, if not to students than to teachers. As a teacher of subject x, can I ignore the free availability of reputable college professors lecturing, often in multi-media and engaging ways, about the subject I teach? Even if such lectures don’t make it to my students, they provide me with an invaluable resource, one both better (probably) and more engaging (definitely) than the books I’ve relied on for years. And from the producer’s standpoint, has a college professor ever prepared for a class in the way that she would prepare for a MOOC? I certainly don’t know, but I’m guessing not, such that the college professors producing such courses themselves are getting an invaluable professional development experience by, on the one hand, maintaining the integrity of their course and its material and, on the other hand, reflecting on how that best can be disseminated to tens of thousands of students at one time.

So let’s look at MOOCs for what they are: great resources for anyone who wants to avail themselves of them for any reason. Once we start getting to MOOC degrees and RIFfed faculty members, then we can start fighting the good fight. But until then I’m going to go back to my video lectures on Roman Architecture (thank you, Yale and Prof. Diana Kleiner).

And then there’s MOOCs. I can’t express adequately just how pissed off I am about MOOCs – not the concept, but all the hubris and nonsense that’s been talked and written about them. At a personal level, it was as if 45 years of work was for nothing. All the research and study I and many others had done on what makes for successful learning online were totally ignored, with truly disastrous consequences in terms of effective learning for the vast majority of participants who took MOOCs from the Ivy League universities. Having ignored online learning for nearly 20 years, Stanford, MIT and Harvard had to re-invent online learning in their own image to maintain their perceived superiority in all things higher educational. And the media fell for it, hook, line and sinker. This is a battle I no longer want to fight – but it needs fighting. But my reaction did make me wonder, am I just an old man resisting the future? And that has definitely left a mark.

Lastly, I am concerned that the computer scientists seem to be taking over online education. Ivy League MOOCs are being driven mainly by computer scientists, not educators. Politicians are looking to computer science to automate learning in order to save money. Computer scientists have much to offer, but they need more humility and a greater willingness to work with other professionals, such as psychologists and teachers, who understand better how learning operates. This is a battle that has always existed in educational technology, but it’s one I fear the educators are losing. The result could be disastrous, but that’s a theme for a whole set of blog posts.

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