We learn all through our lives almost unconsciously by watching, reading, listening, testing, failing and persevering. In fact most people don't realize the value of informal learning since it takes place as a natural part of everyday life. We have a natural ability to acquire new skills and the process is mostly social, learning from others, getting advice, copying and adapting. This takes place without anyone planning or leading the activity. However when we want to acquire more advanced skills we turn to formal education which is planned and lead by skilled professionals, teachers. Some people are able to acquire even advanced skills informally as self-directed learners but most of us are dependent on teachers to lead us through the process. The role of the teacher is so crucial that it can either inspire us or make us avoid the subject for the rest of our lives. This teacher dependence is possibly both the strongest and weakest factor in formal education.
When we scale education, either in large campus cohorts of 200 plus students in a large lecture hall or in a MOOC on the net, we tend to emphasize the role of the charismatic teacher, leading the course from the stage (physical or digital) but lose the the benefits of close contact and guidance that works so well in small groups . I've written many times about the problem facing MOOCs, and indeed large campus clases; how to scale interaction and the beneficial influence of good teaching. When you have one or a few teachers leading a massive course the link between them and the learners becomes weak and learners must fend for themselves. Learners either have to develop strategies for effective self-study or take the initiative to establish a study group for mutual support. These are skills that few have since we are so dependent on learning being organised for us.
Most MOOCs are run like formal courses with fixed start and finish dates and a linear progression through a pre-set package of content. This fixed structure provides a clear framework, opportunities for interaction (at least between peers), a sense of participation and the deadlines that many people need to keep on track. However, the downside is that many drop out when other priorities disrupt the tight course schedule. An alternative approach that is growing in popularity is that of self-paced MOOCs where you are free to study at your own pace and you can start the course whenever you want. Here the advantages of flexibility and convenience are offset by the challenges of self-study and lack of support. Self-paced MOOCs are discussed in an article on Class Central, MOOC Trends in 2015: Rise of Self Paced Courses.
Self paced courses are a clear boon to those students who want scheduling flexibility, but they also remove key elements that have been part of the “MOOC” formula that has been so popular. Such elements include the benefits of tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) students taking the course together and learning at the same pace. According to Class Central user Greg Hamel, who has completed more than one hundred MOOCs: “Lack of schedule means students are not all learning the same material at the same time. This makes it harder to get help and discuss course content.
However regardless of the model, massive courses suffer from a low sense of belonging and are therefore best suited to self-directed learners, a rare commodity outside academic circles. A self-paced MOOC sounds attractive but without deadlines only experienced self-directed learners will complete them. As more and more education becomes "on demand" the need to explicitly teach self-directed learning will increase. Until then the vast majority still need the guidance and supervision that a teacher-lead course offers and the question in how to offer this in a massive online course.
One solution to this is to offer learners local or regional teacher-supported groups to complement the MOOC, as described in a new article in the journal IRRODL (Nov 2015), Using MOOCs at Learning Centers in Northern Sweden, Here in Sweden there is a network of municipal learning centres that provide support for distance learning as well as hosting distributed courses. This article describes an attempt to offer local support for a global MOOC where local participants in the MOOC could meet regularly and discuss the course topics in Swedish with support and a university teacher who examined them at the end of the course so they could get a university certificate as well as the MOOC-provider's certificate. This hybrid solution could benefit both learners and universities. By having access to a small local study group and support the learners are more likely to complete the course and gain the additional benefit of getting a certificate that has more local recognition than the one provided by the MOOC provider. An increase in course completion will also benefit the provider. MOOCs should welcome third party add-on services like this. It can be a lifeline for all those who are not self-directed learners.