The Role of the Teacher in a Blended MOOC #EDCMOOC

As I am wrapping up my experience with the EDC MOOC, and considering how it will affect the way I approach blended MOOCs in the future (and I do intend to try this again), I have been thinking about the role that the teacher plays in such a course. It’s been a question that I have been considering since before the EDC MOOC even began.

Now, it’s important to point out that the EDC MOOC is unlike any other MOOC that I have participated in. I’ve completed several, and started far more without completing them, taking courses from Coursera, Canvas Network, Open2Study, and Alison. Each MOOC provider has its own approach and mission, and each individual course/instructor has its own objectives and methods, but pretty much all of them have involved some degree of the “sage on the stage” approach. That is, there is some kind of direct instruction from the professor(s) of the course, typically in the form of video lecture (though sometimes through text, or some combination of the two).

EDC MOOC is definitely not like that. There is no real lecturing, no easily-followable structure, no easy guide to doing what needs to be done in order to learn what you are supposed to learn. I, personally, find all of that a strength. My students, however, were less enamored, and probably would have preferred a more traditionally-structured course. My point is, EDC MOOC is not necessarily a model MOOC, at least for the kind of blended MOOCs I will probably construct from here on. And so the role I play as a teacher in future blended MOOCs will not be the role I played here.

That said, the more open structure of the EDC MOOC did offer me a good sense of some of the tasks I need to focus on when I do try this again, precisely because it was so different.

So here are my thoughts on the role I have to play in a blended MOOC:

1. I have to be a Curator

As I discussed in my last post, others who have attempted Blended MOOCs have had problems integrating the MOOC’s content with their own course objectives. I had a slightly easier time that most, because of the more open nature of the EDC MOOC and the fairly open nature of the unit that I was attempting to integrate the MOOC into.

But it showed me that as a teacher of a blended MOOC, I have to make my own objectives the priority. I have to be able to distinguish what fits and what doesn’t, and guide my students (require them, really) to read, watch, write, and discuss certain things but not others. They will likely miss out on some things by my doing this. So I can encourage them to read, watch, write, and discuss those things that look interesting beyond what is required. I am realistic enough to know that most are unlikely to do this, but I can encourage it anyway.

My own objectives must rule, however. The MOOC is one of several tools that I will use; it is unlikely to be the only tool. And just like assigning certain textbook chapters, but not others, I can ask students to focus on certain aspects of the MOOC, but not all.

2. I have to be a Team Teacher

Being a Curator will likely be easier in a course with the EDC MOOC’s open structure. But not all MOOCs (in my experience) have such a structure, and some build on its content week by week. In other words, I can’t necessarily have students do weeks 1 and 2 of a MOOC, but skip week 3, because if we did, they’d be lost in week 4. If that turns out to be the case, then my job is to be a Team Teacher.

Let me explain: I have had the opportunity to team-teach several courses in my career, where I have worked with one or more instructors in teaching the course. I was warned early on that, if I am team-teaching with someone else, my work is not cut in half. On the contrary, if I’m doing it right, my work will be doubled. This is because I will need to know my own contribution to the course, but also know my partner’s contribution well enough to challenge it, or at least offer a different perspective on it. The strength of team-teaching comes from its dialogic nature, and having students see the push-and-pull of ideas from two or more people.

And so it would be in a MOOC. If I found that I was unable to avoid it, I would try to take extra care to engage with it. I would do this anyway, no matter what part of the MOOC we were dealing with. But if it was a part that I would have avoided anyway, I think I would highlight the avoidance, and let students know why I would have not included it.

This is something I didn’t do in the EDC MOOC. Each week, I required students to watch and read certain things, but not others. I think i should have talked more about why. The reasons were typically practical — just not enough time to read and watch and discuss everything — but especially for things I avoided because of the content, I think I should have addressed them more directly. That would have been instructive for them to see some dialogue between my ideas and the ones presented.

(I’m still working through this idea.)

3. I have to be a Participant-Observer

One thing that has frustrated many people who have attempted blended MOOCs is the lack of access to material, assuming they are teaching in real-time. Like everyone else who signs up for the course, the instructor of the Blended MOOC gets access to the material on Day 1, and often does not get access to subsequent weeks’ material until the first day of that week. This makes it very difficult to plan ahead. Again, I was lucky with the EDC MOOC, having signed up for (but not finishing) the first iteration of the course, and having access to the entire course from the first day.

But both of those situations are rare. More likely, I will start the MOOC on the same day as my students. This could be very frustrating for many teachers. It takes extra time to be even a half a step ahead of students, which will be necessary if I want to be a Curator and a Team Teacher, deciding which parts are important and which are not.

Still, I think this weakness could be a major strength in the right hands. Seeing me struggle with the subject matter in real time could be a great model for students, and they see my own though process.

I think of this as similar to the kind of participant-observation that I did years ago in qualitative research, becoming part of the group I was studying, but also being just a little apart from it. In a blended MOOC classroom, I would be a student, signed up for the MOOC, seeing things from the student’s perspective — a participant. But at the same time, I am still a teacher, removed just a little from the situation — an observer, with enough knowledge and skill to be able to see what is going on with  my students and help out.

A participant-observer is never fully part of the group she studies, always just a little bit apart, and a teacher in a blended MOOC will never be fully a student, always in a position of power, always able to decide what to curate (in fact, always the one who decided to use a MOOC in the first place), but also always able to see things, at least a little bit, from a students’ perspective.

4. I have to be a Learning Specialist

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I think it’s important for me to teach my students how to learn. MOOCs in general, and especially the EDC MOOC, are very different from the kind of classes they typically take, even those that have taken hybrid/blended or fully-online courses. They require different skills, and I don’t know if students always have them. As great as many of them are with technology, they are often First-Page-of-Google-Results people. They want their information quick, they want it easy, and they get frustrated if they don’t get it that way.

The EDC MOOC did not make for quick-and-easy learning. It required a lot of independence, a lot of sifting and searching, and it rewarded people who were willing to be that way. Not everyone was willing to be that way, including my students.

That’s where my participant-observation, my real-time teacher/student role, comes in — by modeling for them how to learn. As a teacher of my own course, I can explain how to learn. But I can’t really model. In my own course, I’m always the teacher. In a blended MOOC, at least part of the time, I am also a student. I can show them how to find things, where to look, how to read and analyze, how to be frustrated and work through it, where to go for help.

This is, I admit, not an easy thing to do, especially when taking so much time just to learn the content of the course. there’s an extra step to explaining it all, too. But I think, in the end, it’s probably worth it.

I don’t think I did this as well as I could have in the EDC MOOC. I think that was partly because of the nature of the course. I wanted my students to experience that openness on their own, and to do the searching and sifting. They did, but only as much as they were required to. Which is understandable. In the future, I’ll be more of a presence, especially in the modelling of how to learn.

These are my initial thoughts on the role of the teacher in a blended MOOC. I don’t think I could do all four in a single MOOC experience, because some of those roles are going to contradict one another. But they’ll serve as a good guide for me the next time I do this. And there will be a next time.

I still have more thoughts on my EDC MOOC experience. They are on the way soon.


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