Campus Technology 2016

Why Today's MOOCs Are Not Innovative

At the Campus Technology conference in Boston, Stephen Downes explained the difference between innovation and transformation.

For years, the higher education sector has been talking about the need to innovate. Or has it?

Are the various calls for new methods of delivering educational content truly advocating reform; or are they just new ways of approaching old topics?

That was the question posed by Stephen Downes, program leader for learning and performance support systems for the National Research Council of Canada, at last week's Campus Technology conference in Boston.

As a keynoter for the three-day conference, Downes was tasked with challenging the audience to rethink what it means to be truly innovative in the field of education. The topic was not accidental: Downes immediately followed the presentation of the 2016 Campus Technology Innovators Awards.

While there were plenty of examples of innovation on hand in the awards portion of the session, much of what is passing for innovation in education today is not really that, Downes said. And in the industry overall, is it innovation we are achieving — or change?

"Change is done to you," Downes stressed. "Innovation you do."

Downes is no stranger to dramatic change in education. In 2008 he co-created the first massive open online course in the world, setting off a revolution in online education.

But that sort of thing isn't what will transform education, Downes said. MOOCs are delivery methods – not changes in curriculum. If we want to change education, we have to change how we think about teaching and content.

Downes didn't offer a blueprint for how to do that, but challenged the audience to think about transformation in what we teach, how we teach it and how we personalize the experience.

He began by offering two thoughts on what the future of education looks like. First, he said, "The future is kind of messed up." But the good news: "The future is not as mysterious as thought." Predicting the future is not magic, he said, it's a form of reasoning. Past and future are actually similar in many respects: Both can be analyzed by reading the signs and patterns of change. "Our mechanisms for knowing about the past are the same as for the future," Downes explained. "The future and the past are epistemologically equivalent."

There are a number of drivers of change, noted Downes. They include costs, events, crises, inventions and growth. The attractors of change include values, goals, desires and needs. Drivers work out of the center, toward uncertainly and chaos, he explained. Attractors work toward the center, toward order.

Downes described education's goal of innovation as an attractor of change. If true, that would mean that innovation works toward order – not toward dramatic change. Everyone wants to "disrupt education," Downes said, but what they actually mean is "keep it the same, but with more benefits for me."

That partially explains why Downes said things like MOOCs are not part of the innovation or reform landscape. They are examples of how the way in which education is delivered changed substantially. But they are not examples of substantial change in education content.

Innovation can best be described as idea + execution + benefit, said Downes. In many scenarios, what we call innovation is simply finding solutions to existing problems — the benefit is static. For example, he said, we typically assume that everyone who comes into our courses is working toward the same goal. "That is a ridiculous assumption," Downes asserted. In reality, the benefits are constantly evolving. If we reframe our idea of what constitutes the benefit to reflect the changing definitions of need — only then will innovation result in true transformation.

So what should change? Plenty, Downes believes.

It starts by asking what innovation looks like, and who defines what student success is. With those questions answered, Downes said, we can then tackle the individual issues at stake:

  • Students pay too much for education;
  • Assessment is unreliable and unfair;
  • Resources are unavailable;
  • Content is poorly communicated;
  • Life as a student is incredibly stressful;
  • Research studies are poorly designed; and
  • Education science rarely replicates successes.

Finally, Downes said, to be truly innovative in education we need to think of content not as a body of knowledge to be implanted into others — but as a "field, where we can run around."

Imagine if our university system was structured around helping people accomplish the things that they're trying to do, Downes said — "that would be a real transformation."

About the Author

David Weldon is a freelance education and technology writer in the Greater Boston area. He can be reached at dweldon646@comcast.net.

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