MOOCs as Educational Practices – Part 1 (Theory)

It has been recognized in the educational community that over-simplistic categorization of MOOCs is not only misrepresenting, but “may also shape and constrain future MOOC development in unhelpful ways” (Bayne & Ross, 2014, p.22). A number of classifications have been suggested to provide the spectrum for comparison and describe special features (e.g. Conole, 2014; Downes, 2010; Clark, 2013). Although the aspects present in various classifications are useful for describing the varieties of MOOCs, they do not help to highlight the similarities and differences that MOOCs have with other educational provisions, thus making it difficult to place them in a larger context of education.

I strongly believe that MOOCs are not just a pedagogical innovation, but are also heavily driven by the market forces. That is why it is important to move away from dichotomizing MOOC pedagogies, but rather to understand the interplay between knowledge, power and control in learning and teaching situations as it happens in MOOCs, and to be able to related these ideologies to a larger societal development.

Therefore, I would like to describe specific examples of MOOCs using Bernstein’s code theory (1975). 

Bernstein treated education as a social classifier in society, and problematized how the dominant distribution of power and principles of control generate, distribute, reproduce and legitimize dominating and dominated principles of communication (Bernstein, 2000, p. 4). He viewed education as transmitting certain power structures, values and injustices, as they are relayed through the three kinds of “message systems” of educational provisions: curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. These three kinds of “message systems” also allow seeing how knowledge is relayed – transformed into pedagogic communication – along with being able to relate it with the ideology behind pedagogical messages and their institutional, organizational and philosophical foundation (Cause, 2010).

Bernstein defines curriculum as what counts as valid knowledge, pedagogy as what counts as a valid transmission of knowledge, and evaluation as to what counts as valid realization of this knowledge (Bernstein, 2000, p.85). Bernstein theorizes that the three message systems are constructed through classification and framing, which are related to power and control respectively. Strong classification may indicate strongly insulated boundaries between elements of course contents, and strong framing will indicate low degree of strength of boundary between what learners have access to, and what they do not. Framing of the message system shows “how meanings in the classroom are constructed, made public and the nature of the social relationships behind putting it together” (Bernstein, 2000, in Cause, 2010).

Let’s take three examples of MOOCs and show how they can be described through Bernstein’s categories. We may find a case of a content-based MOOC, where engagement in participatory elements is peripheral, and not a part of the curriculum. The curriculum is exclusively chosen and produced by instructors, and forum discussions happen via LMS.

Such a course has strong classification, as the two modules that account for half a grade each, are strongly insulated from each other. Such MOOC maybe also strongly framed, as the learner has a low degree of autonomy in choosing what (curriculum) s/he has access to, and when the content is to be taught – if the instructor chooses to release new content and assignment once a week. However, the framing is not as strong in learners if all the content is put out in advance – giving the learners more autonomy as to when it is content is to be taught and how to prioritize it.

Again, in some content-based MOOC listening to the talking head in the video lecture validates the transmission of knowledge, and forum discussions are un-moderated, which validates the transmission of knowledge – from one head to another. It may also be that the course instructor selects a variety of open access web materials and requires learners to discuss them on the un-moderated course forum on LMS – that would be an example of different pedagogy, and another form of validating how the knowledge is transmitted.

Finally, I will exemplify the category of assessment. In a content-based MOOC assessment may be based on eliciting appropriate information to solve specific problem three times within the duration of the course, and that would equal 100% of the final grade. It may also be that assessment on the test that elicits information applied to a task accounts for 30% of the grade, while forum participation or a group project accounts for 40%, and providing peer review accounts for the rest of the grade. These two very different examples show how realization of knowledge can be differently framed.

On the other hand, a MOOC can have a curriculum, with weak classification and weak framing. For example, a certain MOOC based on connectivism would both treat the readings and the course discussions as the content. The course materials will still be strongly framed – as they may be chosen and produced exclusively but the course instructors, but due to the particular use of technology, the boundaries between what is being taught are weak, as discussing the content produced exclusively by the teacher, may occur at any place on the web, under the power of the learner, and doing it this way is, in fact, the content of the course.  At the same time, learners in this connectivist MOOC have a high degree of autonomy in deciding where to steer the discussion, which is a considerable part of the curriculum. Therefore, this MOOC has weak framing. Its pedagogy is in connecting to other people and ideas, which is translated as the valid transmission of knowledge. There is no assessment, which means that the learner has own decisions as to what was learnt and to which degree.

The practicality of applying the categories of curriculum, assessment and pedagogy, along with weak and strong classification and framing is that they embrace all kinds of MOOCs in their diversity, and are also applicable to other educational practices, which allows for parallels out of the narrower MOOC domain. Moreover, Bernstein’s language of description addresses the issues of power and control, which are brought in through the personalities of teachers and institutional cultures.

Therefore, using such concepts as curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and strong and weak classification and framing when describing different MOOCs, helps the researcher to avoid personal preferences and keep objectivity in comparing MOOCs, as well as allows to bring in contextual features.

To be updated with the empirical plot of the courses, once I finish building the datasets 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *