Say MOOC again! How MOOC mayhem might make us better teachers

The MOOCs are coming. Be very afraid. And did you hear them say  that they are coming to take over language teaching???…. OH THE HORROR!


As language teachers we have been here many times.  And as I have said before, (over three years ago!) if our teaching practices are such that they could be replaced by a machine or an online bot or a talking head, then maybe they should.  Because what really matters in the language classroom are the social interactions, the cues, the human dynamics and how language is tightly woven into those interactions, not isolated and set apart from them.

The last time I went  down this path it was when Joshua Kim from Inside Higher Ed started talking about how Language Labs were dead.  Language  Center directors went bezerk! Chaos! Indigination.  And here was part of my response to the yelling:

Ask yourself, please, language center director: What are you doing, in your center, at your school, to prove him and others wrong? What are you going to do today, and tomorrow and the next day to make your center relevant to the teaching of languages and cultures and the academic mission of your school?

Instead of bashing him, we should be thankful for the shot across the bow that Mr Kim just lobbed our way. Like it or not, it is how our centers are perceived by many, and something we need to work very hard to counteract.

Every. Single. Day.

We are back here again, all agitated and concerned, terrified that MOOCs are gonna eat us alive.  And I, for one, am delighted that we are being slapped awake. Teachers are feeling challenged, scared, unsettled.  Well good. It’s about damn time.

Be very afraid.  Or something.

Language teachers have been using online tools for years. The idea of online resources functioning like an “electronic workbook” or a way to reinforce content outside of the class has been around for a couple of decades.   Over the years  the amount of resources has grown exponentially.  First teachers were creating their own exercises (anyone remember SuperMacLang?)   and then textbook companies joined in.  Now we find ourselves in the era of “The Supersite” and are  awash in materials.   Assessment reared its ugly head, so more exercises were needed.  Somewhere along the line we lost our ability to discern which materials are useful and which ones were just tripe. We felt guilty that our students are being charged $$$ to use this stuff  so we  felt compelled to use it more.  Oooh, and it has automatic grading? Instant gratification! Sure! What a great feature!  And down the rabbit hole we slid.




MOOCs are forcing us to stop, yet again, and take stock not only of our teaching practices but the tools we use to support them.  They are also asking us to define what “open” means to us as teachers and whether our definition of open is reflected in the tools we use.   These are all really important conversations  that we should have been having all along, but often in the Academy it takes a crisis to get people talking (and listening to each other) about important stuff.   That’s good. Let’s talk.

I just came back from InnovateOSU2013  in Columbus, Ohio.  While I admit that I went primarily to collect that finder’s fee from the featured keynote speaker,  it was interesting to hear, during one panel,  about the effort and the time that faculty were putting into planning, devising, planning and launching a MOOC. There’s something to be said about  faculty coming together to talk about content creation and scaffolding of materials for 2 hours every Wednesday for 6 or so months, for example.  Another talked about how MOOCs offer data driven feedback that they hope will improve  their teaching.  Another teacher pondered…MOOCs will undoubtedly improve as a tool…but will the University?

What’s not so  great  is the talking head lecture format that seems to be the signature of many MOOCs. One professor talked about how she craved having students present when she recorded  her lectures, and a real classroom setting, because talking into the camera in a studio was too isolating.  Another talked about wanting to meet other Coursera teachers, to get tips and tricks, to get support, because she was the only person MOOCing her subject on her campus.  Hmmm… are MOOCs  making us feel isolated and creating  (yet another) teaching silo?

Rather than isolating us even more, let’s use MOOCs as a catalyst to talk about open-ness and teaching and technology and how to make  the face-to-face experience in the classroom, as wel as the online connections outside of the classroom,  relevant and effective.  Let’s talk about what innovation means — what it is, what it isn’t, what it could be — at our schools.   Let’s think about a place in our teaching for experimentation and exploration (vs pouring everything into a template and a prescribed format, or assgning another supersite).

MOOC madness is making perfectly sensible people babble and scream and fear for the worst.  Let’s use MOOC madness as an opportunity to think creatively, teach passionately, use technology effectively, and challenge the assumptions being made about the value and the importance of what what happens in the classroom.

Say MOOC again!  Say MOOC again!  And then …   make what happens in your classroom matter.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

1 Comment

  1. Bearing Witness to Transformation: innovateOSU | bavatuesdays · April 2, 2013 Reply

    […] Last week at this time I was locked into the 4th annual innovateOSU conference which showcases the work  happening in educational technology at THE Ohio State State University. I was honored to have been invited to kick off the conference, and what I realized in my short time on campus was how engaged and focused group of administration and faculty at OSU is having the right conversations about the possibilities of online education—something that’s been bubbling up globally over the last 18 months. In fact, the great Barbara Sawhill came down from Oberlin, and we talked about just that, and then she blogged about it […]

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