Everything Schools Discussion Boards on Pedagogy

Facebook Schools MOOCs on Engagement.”  That’s a provocative title.  It’s also beyond hollow.

The research at the heart of this EdSurge buzz, coming out of Penn State, looked at three Coursera MOOCs and their supplemental faculty-run Facebook pages.  In each MOOC, students who engaged with the Facebook page remained engaged for longer than those who used the Coursera discussion boards.  This makes sense; the discussion board is not unique to Coursera but rather has a history dating back decades, while the architecture of Facebook does take from Friendster and MySpace to an extent but offers something unique to social media.  There are problems with the research (see Mike Caulfield’s blog on the topic and a subsequent Twitter conversation), in part because the research makes much ado of what is fairly straightforward understanding of discussion boards versus social media engagement in online spaces. People who have logged into Facebook are going to do Facebook things there because Facebook is designed for Facebook things.  Facebook does Facebook Things Better Than Coursera.  That’s a truthful title but it misses the point of the MOOC exchange.  Students who engage external teacher-driven social media networks are happier in those external teacher-driven social media networks than they are using the LMS-provided discussion fora.  Awkward as a title, but it also does not push promises of solutionism onto the Facebook platform.

This is not an attack on Facebook, but we should not be annointing Facebook as pedagogical powerhouses simply because they aren’t an awful Coursera discussion board.  This is also not a knock on Coursera; you could name any learning management system and substitute in their particular discussion board and you’d have the same problems, because the discussion forum is not an ideal place for developing community or collaboration or continuity in an online course.  Example example.  Discussion boards are not low-hanging fruit; they are fruit that fell from the tree weeks ago and is the cause of that unpleasant odor you found upon arrival. Facebook Wins by Providing Any Option Other than Discussion Board.

My problem is in the presentation of the research, and what impressions of the path of MOOCs (or Distance Ed or Online Learning) the EdSurge (or Campus Technology) summary promotes.  The research, nor even the research summary, can stand alone without connective tissue to innovations and disruptions in the marketplace.  In the under-the-fold section entitled Not Your Parents’ MOOCs, author Jason Schmitt asks why MOOC discussion boards do not ‘foster engagement.’  His respondent, ASU Action Lab’s Lou Pugliese (former CEO of Blackboard), evokes the Wild West/MOOC 1.0 tropes in his response

The challenge with the MOOC environment was that it was highly experimental to see if it could disrupt a current system…Coursera, edX and all the platforms were basically designed for a very one dimensional learning experience. ‘If you want to do this and complete this course it’s your choice’—and we designed it that way. So now what we have to do is insert these third-party web service applications and make it more than it is, which is a real problem because it is hard.

Schmitt follows up on the quote to bring home the point

Regardless of MOOCs’ original focus on education for education’s sake, we are seeing their infrastructure grow and mature, and, recently, raid the mainstream higher education markets in a classic case of disruption.

and we get more quotes from people associated with edX and an authorial call to technological evolution of MOOC platforms with a claim that these walled gardens are not only ideal for education but necessary: “… two platforms create holes, and holes lose information. It would be a shame to see great ideas continue to fall in the cracks between two separate platforms instead of fueling our cumulative growth.”

A textual analysis of this EdSurge article brings to light problems and contradictions

  • Why are Lou Pugliese and Anant Agarwal quoted here?  The research comes out of Coursera MOOCs and involves Facebook…yet the author makes great pains to stretch the concept to include Arizona State University’s Action Lab as well as the Global Freshman Academy, rather than quoting people at Coursera.  While I found no online connection between author Jason Schmitt and edX or Global Freshman Academy, his two most recent articles (this EdSurge and a Huffington Post article) rely heavily on Global Freshman Academy and edX sources to espouse a certain solutionistic vision of higher education.
  • The idea that the first wave of platform MOOCs were intended to be one-dimensional is an epic bout of revisionist history.  I don’t remember the famous quote about Udacity’s place in higher education as being In the future there will be 10 universities, and they will all be one-dimensional because of disruption.
  • If the original platform MOOCs were designed for autodidacts as Pugliese is saying, why all of the democratization and globalization discussion?  The reinvention was sold as a win-win for all, yet now we talk about it as the first step in this eventual win-win, and the losers were the students.  To that point, why did Udacity partner with San Jose State to ‘save’ remedial learning if this was a one-dimensional first step of disruption, only to later blame SJSU for not being the right fit for MOOCs?
  • Sure, it’s tricky to ‘insert’ third-party wares into a system.  A former CEO of Blackboard would understand the bloat that comes along with taking archaic software and mutating it into Frankenstein’s LMS monster and selling it as all things to all men.  So isn’t the problem that the platforms were doomed from the start, not that Version X will be our salvation?
  • MOOCs as presented here are 4.5 years old; what would my parents’ MOOC look like?
  • Have I missed the raid on higher education?  As of December 2015, less than 1% (or 323 out of 34,086) of registrants had the option to receive credit for their MOOCs.
  • Has infrastructure grown and matured?  Udacity and Coursera still rely heavily on venture capital, and while edX’s financial model has changed somewhat since 2013, it will be interesting to view ASU’s 2015-2016 financials to see the impact of the Global Freshman Academy versus the benefit to the university in paying students.

The problem is, people will likely not engage a textual analysis of Jason Schmitt’s summary in concert with both the Penn State research as well as the greater context of the last 4.5 years of MOOC.  Life is busy and a link to an article saying Facebook is better than MOOCs will get a click from some who are curious and from others who are looking to engage research in some fashion.  The window dressing creates the illusion.  There is a reason the article is presented as a research summary but given a clickbait title and a technological solutionism addendum.  It’s not that Facebook is better than MOOCs, but rather that MOOCs are the future and it’s time they get to versioning a better discussion board so we can solve this engagement thing.

MOOCAs Holly Yettick’s research on the nature of press releases and research summaries notes, the vast majority of education-based news reporting fails to cite education research.  Moreover, media citations of science and medicine are presented as objective delivery of a thoroughly vetted publication.  At best the notion of objectivity is specious, as John Olvier pointed out with devastating effect on his television show.   At worst, the research is presented in summary form but then used as an instrument to sell a specific vision, in this case of higher education as a space in need of technological disruption and of platforms or technologies as the element of change.

This is where the loss of research in the research summary is at its worst.  The EdSurge article advocates for edX Coursera MOOCs to figure out how to bring Facebook in or how to do Facebook, because MOOCs are the future and let’s get to that Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow technology promises us even though when the promise doesn’t manifest we can find someone to blame or change the history to say we are really and truly now just one step away.  Promoting problematic research for such a purpose sells education as a what and a how rather than a why and a when.  Perhaps the research could be catalyst for a larger conversation.  A conversation about the value of discussion boards versus social media akin to Facebook might start at a simplistic level but could lend value to determining the ways in which online environments can support interactions, collaborations, engagements and potentially community.  It would certainly lend more value than another trip to the MOOC promised land.

Image:  Wavy Illusion (CC BY 2.0) by Alan Levine