MOOCs burst onto the Higher Education scene with an almost Messianic promise to disrupt and transform educational practice for the better, giving affordable access to millions excluded from tertiary education. While the most optimistic predictions were tempered with a sense of disappointment in high drop-out rates and lack of inclusivity, it is undoubtedly true that many who would never have been able to access quality educational content have been enabled to do so. In part too, the response to the #FeesMustFall protests in South Africa has been for Universities to rely more heavily on online content provision. There was even talk in some quarters of most First Year courses porting online! In America platforms such as Coursera have turned to franchising content to tertiary colleges, with lecturers assuming the role of tutors, helping mediate content for students.
While the focus has been on Universities with #FeesMustFall, our schooling system is also in a critical position, with the actual pass rate being masked by the high drop out rate, and with our position in World Literacy and Mathematics rankings resolutely failing to rise out of the basement! Clearly something needs to be done. There can be no substitute for quality teaching, but until there is a commitment to uplifting skills and teacher training, technology may offer a partial solution through greater quality online provision. This is no magic wand, however, and the investment should always be on training how teachers use the technology rather than the content or the kit itself. It can never be an argument for cost-cutting or deskilling! If you simply got a few master teachers to record content and streamed it into classrooms, nothing would be achieved. For learning to be facilitated you would need empowered and motivated teachers in every classroom re-designing and purposing that content for their own context and the needs of their own students. To argue anything else is to completely misunderstand what teaching and learning entails, and to ignore all the research findings!
Teaching & Learning is founded on the deconstruction and reconstruction of knowledge. A fruitful approach to analysing how meaning is constructed in the classroom is offered by Legitimation Code Theory, a framework based on the work of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu. The architect of the framework is Karl Maton. One aspect of this approach is to look at semantic gravity (how abstract or concrete an idea is) and semantic density (how condensed, how simple or complex an idea is). If we chart the relative gravity or density of classroom interaction over time we can see semantic profiles, expressed as semantic waves.
Often what we see in the secondary school classroom is flat-lining. Either meaning remains at too general or abstract a level, ideas are not unpacked or explored, or the opposite extreme where ideas never move from a concrete prosaic level. What needs to happen for good teaching, and good learning, is a constant movement between the abstract and the concrete. Students need to have ideas unpacked, to understand concepts in their own more concrete idiom. Good teachers do this using metaphors, examples and everyday language to make concepts and academic language understandable. But students also need to be able to explore raw experience, raw data and tease ideas, themes and academic knowledge out of their own experiences.
This process takes many years and requires quality teaching and opportunities for quality guided, scaffolded learning. This process may be described as a series of semantic waves. My own research interest lies in the affordances that technology offers for the construction and deconstruction of knowledge in the classroom. I am still in the early stages of gathering data, but initial findings seem to suggest that technology can be quite good at assisting the movement between abstract and concrete, but needs a great deal of human intervention to facilitate the reverse movement of the wave. For example, students can readily benefit from watching a video on YouTube explaining how to do this or that! If they are motivated they will readily learn how to perform a series of dance moves or how to create back-lighting effects in 3D animation software. The video will painstakingly break down the movement, or the concept of back-lighting and show students exactly what they need to do. The video can be paused and rewound until the concept is grasped.
What is often found in classrooms, and in online instructional material is a similar series of movements from abstract to concrete. Ideas are being explained, and after explaining one, another is explored, and another and another, but students are not being given the opportunity to take these understandings and use these new understanding to reconstruct more abstract knowledge. Put another way teaching is going on, but very little learning. These half waves are called down-escalators. To achieve a better understanding of the concept students need to use their own experiences and go through a process of constructing knowledge in their own voice.
Technology can and does offer affordances for this reconstruction of knowledge. For example I saw a Science class the other day using simulation software to create electrical circuits on computers and immediately see the consequences of their actions. This use clearly assists students build up a better understanding of how electrical circuits work and allows them to begin to draw out a better understanding of the laws of electricity. However, in that class what I observed was a teacher constantly moving between students helping them use the software, and helping them draw the conclusions they needed to draw from what they were doing. If the students had been left alone very few of them would have derived much benefit from the exercise. They often got stuck and did not know what to do, and often drew incorrect conclusions and then couldn’t understand what the simulation was showing them.
All of this is a wordy way of pointing out what is obvious to most teachers, it is important to teach, and learning needs to be scaffolded carefully. Technology can help, but you need to adapt its use to your particular context and students. Plonking stuff online and hoping it leads to learning just doesn’t work!
The University MOOC model, with its Holy Trinity of the video lecture, the readings and the peer-assessed assignment just simply does not offer the level of scaffolding and mediation of content necessary in the secondary school. Some have suggested that the SPOC (Small Private Online Course) is the answer. This would allow for frequent live sessions in which teachers are able to support learning.
SPOCs and other online solutions could be used to achieve inter alia:
- access to enrichment material to extend the regular syllabus, allowing topics to be explored in greater depth
- access for subjects with too few students to support teachers in every school. For example Latin and other second languages or certain A-Level courses
- access to remediation and extra support
- overcoming social inequality through partnerships
- home schooling
- ameliorate teacher shortages
- gap cover between school and university to upgrade necessary requirements
- access to topics such as research skills, plagiarism & copyright protocols or career counselling, areas of the syllabus which are often cut due to pressure of time
- talks and mentoring from global experts
SPOCs and other online programmes within secondary schools are beginning to be implemented and researched, and I believe will increasingly become a feature of the educational landscape. Teachers need to begin experimenting and finding out what works and doesn’t work. I believe they represent the wave of the future and a sphere that schools need to actively explore and gain capacity in. They will not replace schools, but they add an extra tool in the tool-box. I believe that if schools do not begin this exploration we may well face a wave of top-down impositions of MOOC-like solutions, cheap implementations which ignore the pedagogical realities of the classroom, but are appealing to politicians and administrators as cost-cutting measures and a way of de-skilling the teaching profession! If we do not have best-practice models to counter this argument we will have cheap and nasty solutions imposed on us.
Maton, K. (2013) Making semantic waves: A key to cumulative knowledge-building, Linguistics and Education, 24(1): 8-22.
Maton, K. 2014. Knowledge and Knowers towards a realist sociology of education. London and New York: Routledge.