Skills, Not “Stuff”: A Case for a New Kind of MOOC

This week in class, we spent a good deal of time going over the ins and outs of various practices used to assess online learning, including Item Response Theory (IRT) and other forms of computer-aided assessment, such as Automated Essay Scoring (AES), and peer grading. While the former two practices don’t relate explicitly to information literacy (at least not in any way that I could generate), problems inherent with the latter speak clearly to and in fact echo some of the problems I perceive with current educational practices: a failure to develop real, practical skills – specifically, the ability to effectively evaluate and communicate information.

Let me back up a little bit, and explain what I mean about the problems with peer grading. While it can be a useful tool, especially with proper training and practice, the argument against peer grading rests mostly on its shortfalls. Specifically, the major problem with peer grading is that oftentimes, it isn’t constructive – it doesn’t always generate the quality feedback necessary to promote growth and learning. As Jonathan Rees said in his case against peer grading, “Learning . . . comes not through the process of grades, but through the process of students reading comments . . . that’s how students find out how to do better next time.”  Rees goes on to explain that without consistent feedback and monitoring, there is no systematic way to help students to grow in their ability to think and construct an argument.  And yet these are vital skills, the capacity not only to learn but to perpetuate learning by communicating with others. I agree with his argument that “teaching these skills is much more important than teaching any particular . . . fact” (Rees, 2013). Although he was talking specifically about reading and writing skills necessary to develop an argument in an historical paper, I think it is fair to say that the underlying basis of these skills –  discernment and communication –  are in fact closely related to information literacy skills. I find it problematic that MOOCs – which by their nature necessitate the use of the web – leave little room for developing these abilities to evaluate and communicate content. Of course, I’m generalizing here – not all MOOCs have such poor feedback systems (check out an example of a better system here, which I’ll explain shortly) and not all learning occurs in MOOCs – it is possible that students can learn these skills elsewhere. Further, peer grading offers an alternative way to learn skills through critical self-reflection. One interesting take on peer grading is the opportunity it provides for students to, in the process of examining the work of others, make comparisons and reflect on their own work. One MOOC provider implemented a system whereby students qualitatively describe the peer work they evaluate, a “mirroring” practice which allows the original author to determine how effectively they communicated their ideas and met their goals (Wiggins, 2014).

As wonderful as self-teaching and learning sounds,  I do think it is important for students to get expert feedback in addition to peer feedback.  It’s difficult to be critical of one’s own work, and unless your peers are particularly skilled in an area, they may or may not know what constitutes good work or how to improve it. Moreover, even if your peers can give you a good “mirror,” a reflection is only as useful as the action you connect with it. This is called reflective practice – it can be powerful, but only if you know how to engage in it. I don’t know that all students necessarily have this level of self-awareness – in Harvardspeak, if they are that “meta” about their learning.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that I’m not sure that MOOCs possess the same capacity to teach information literacy skills that a teacher or professor can. Perhaps the lesson here is that we need to address these things more specifically in K12 education (college and career readiness, anyone?) but as it stands, much of the learning associated with research – and much of the learning done online – is relegated to higher ed. There are xMOOCs, that are about the “stuff”; cMOOCs that are about the people and connections; but where do critical evaluative and communication skills come in? How can we better foster them in online communities?


One thought on “Skills, Not “Stuff”: A Case for a New Kind of MOOC

  1. Anastasia says:

    Can’t agree more w. the post on peer review. It makes me think back to the structure v. abstraction idea: expert feedback which comes first, being layered with the peer feedback. I think one should be at least familiar w. a project to be able to provide quality feedback.


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