The recent media interest in MOOCs has dragged online learning, previously something of a Cinderella industry, into the spotlight. For many years it has continued to show the classic signs of an emerging market – fragmented, parochial, insecure, and without any large, dominating players. Now M&A activity is hotting up, and the sector seems in danger of going mainstream.
One things this sudden influx of daylight is showing, however, is how differently online learning is understood in the Educational and Organisational contexts.
MOOCs are an issue in both these different world, and even a point of convergence. Convergence however, in a situation where no-one is checking their wing mirrors, can easily lead to collision. The different ways this is viewed by the colliding parties could have a big impact for everybody.
Pedagogy and pedagogues unconsciously uncouple
Though online learning for students, on the one hand, and for working professionals on the other, uses the same technologies, standards and even the same software platforms (e.g. Moodle), there exists a noticeable disconnect in the ideas and assumptions each side harbours about how it should be controlled and mediated. And even to what extent, in fact, it should be controlled and mediated at all.
Practitioners on the organisational training side of the fence have tended to back off the word pedagogy somewhat, preferring andragogy (pedagogy for grown-ups) and even heutagogy (pedagogy for self-directed learners) or just dispensing with it altogether in favour of terms like learning design or – more racily – learning architecture. In an environment where instructors have a less dominant role than previously, pedagogy sounds too ‘directive’; learners having gained (within limits) a much greater degree of autonomy.
Though the hopes some might have nurtured back in the days of Computer Based Training (CBT) for training controlled completely by computers has so far failed to stick, the amount of learning that is delivered face-to-face by human instructors has declined year on year within organisations.
Blended learning is the growing trend, mixing human intervention with modules of self-paced e-learning and a growing variety of technology-delivered aids and resources – from ‘virtual classroom’ to games-based modules, social and informal learning, delivered not only on desktop but also on a variety of hand-held devices. Not everything is a course any more.
This is generating a lot of experimentation in how you string the stuff together, and changing the roles of staff in learning and development to focus less on instruction and more on design, consultancy and facilitation.
One result of all this is that pedagogy has become uncoupled from the need for pedagogues. It is quite usual for a learning designer to stand up at an online conference presenting some exemplary module of self-paced e-learning and describe the ‘pedagogy’ she used, even though no instructor was involved in either its creation or its delivery.
Meanwhile on the other side of the fence, in Education, discussions of pedagogy still generally presuppose a teacher or tutor in the driving seat.
The pedagogy of MOOCs
MOOCS bring these two world views together, and they don’t sit particularly happily side by side.
Organisational L&D looks at MOOCs (at least the recent crop, the high-profile Ivy League courses run by academics from Harvard, Stanford etc.) and sees a frankly old-fashioned learning model being perpetuated. Basically, when you boil it down, it’s just some video lectures and forums nobody uses (early e-learning portals were full of forums nobody ever used). To many, it looks like a backward step.
On the other side of the fence, what catches the eye of HE is more the diversity of models on offer within the wider world of MOOCs, and the fairly frightening array of possible futures for teachers some of these seem to threaten. Unease on this score suffuses a recent report by the University of Edinburgh for the Higher Education Academy: ‘The pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK view’.
While reassuring its audience that ‘”The teacher”’ persists in the MOOC’, the report reognises that teachers, like trainers before them, might have to cede a bit of ground to the machines in this new world. ‘We need to be prepared to rethink how certain teacher-functions are enacted in the MOOC space, and by whom, or what.’
But it’s in their literature review that the researchers find the most cause for concern. Here’s a list of their major worries:
‘… The risks of the erasure of current understandings of the university teacher via the promise of ‘teacher-light’ massive courses; the potential for MOOCs to disaggregate teacher roles into multiple functions requiring often difficult negotiation (designer, lecturer, mentor, developer, teaching assistant and so on); and the critiques, emerging in particular within US MOOC commentary, of the involvement of MOOCs with for-profit motives, their association with the drive for budget cuts within universities and the risks some commentators emphasise of their tendency to de-value the importance of teaching and of scholarship itself.’
It’s a bit like that moment on the bridge of the Titanic when the watch spots the iceberg.
All about dollars and cents?
Academics naturally distrust the hype around MOOCs and there is a feeling in this report and elsewhere that MOOCs have really become a proxy for talking about online learning in general. And although many academics see opportunities in online learning, and are very excited about it, they also have worries. They see the potential in online learning for an assault on pedagogy as they understand it – that is, a practice mediated and controlled by teachers. That’s not necessarily such a cause of consternation for all of them, but it leads onto a second, less theoretical worry: once you unseat the pedagogue, you leave things open for the steering wheel to be grabbed with both hands by the commercial imperative.
This worry is stated explicitly in one of the report’s source articles by Aaron Bady, whose tone it would not be unfair to describe as apocalyptic: ‘In an era of budget cuts, sky-rocketing tuition, and unemployed college graduates burdened by student debt … the MOOC phenomenon is all about dollars and cents, about doing more of the same with less funding’.
The for-profit sector in the UK is much smaller than in the US, but no-one in a UK HE institution currently – especially those outside the charmed circle of elite institutions – would claim that commercial imperatives don’t play a role in these cash-strapped times, so UK academics don’t worry any less than US ones.
To put it bluntly, educators are suspicious, when they look at MOOCs, that they are about to be disrupted out of a job.
Online learning drives efficiency in training
One thing that might stoke these fears would be to look across at the organisational side of the fence, where what they fear has already happened.
The first tranche of job losses in Training came with the widespread adoption of learning management systems (LMS) to automate the administrative side of training. E-learning expert Clive Shepherd estimates that around 50% of training staff focused on admin lost their jobs as a result. And the fact that the e-learning industry has grown steadily during a period when training budgets have declined or at best remained flat tells a clear story. Less trainers are needed – though many have been repurposed as ‘learning consultants’, or have otherwise participated in the disaggregation of instructor roles into multiple functions (to use the language of the MOOCs report), becoming learning designers, coaches, learning support officers, etc.
If you didn’t hear the screaming while this was happening it is because there wasn’t any. Corporate and public sector employers alike have been embroiled in successive waves of restructuring, outsourcing, offshoring and strategic change programmes that have seen many other jobs lost or exported. The change in training was just one of many ‘efficiency improvements’ brought about by technology. And anyway, trainers have much lower professional status than teachers and lecturers. As one extremely venerable consultant in the publishing industry who has experience of both camps put it (strictly off the record), ‘it’s far easier to fire a trainer than a teacher’.
MOOCs: a ticking time bomb for the teaching profession?
Meanwhile in the education sector during the same period, not a single teaching job, I would hazard, was lost. Classrooms have filled up with whiteboards, every school has Moodle, children now do an increasing proportion of their homework online, institutional libraries of all descriptions are packed with computers and e-resources and networked to the hilt, but the impact of learning technologies on Education has had close to zero with regards to educator job security.
I asked the question on a couple of LinkedIn groups, ‘does anybody know of a single teacher or lecturer who has lost their job due to disruption from learning technologies?’ and got the social media equivalent of head-scratching (though one e-learning person thought it was ‘an excellent point’). Universities see online learning as a potential new revenue stream, so have tended to take extra people on, rather than fire incumbents – though there are some worried sideways looks at the much looser terms of employment given to this new intake.
This could be because so far the emphasis has been on hardware and infrastructure in education: no-one has really tried to monkey with the pedagogy. Until MOOCs came along.
But teachers are clearly nervous when they look at MOOCs now. Is this a ticking time bomb?