E-Learning: Going down to the crossroads. Track 2: Same as it ever was: Pedagogical slippage in MOOCs and other top 40 hits

One of the most consistent rules in music is that when something becomes popular, it gets commercialised, sanitised and commodified .  It certainly happened with punk, Britpop and any number of major musical movements.  The Sex Pistols lead to Adam and the Ants.  Nirvana led to Stone Temple Pilots and Blur and Oasis led to Coldplay.   The same could be said of e-learning in higher education.  The innovations, the pioneering and the experimentation that lead to a critical analysis and evaluation of the way we do things, becomes corrupted and made safe by either risk averse faculty, firewall friendly administration or the inevitable gravitational pull of a one-stop ‘software in a box’ commercial solution.  The practices of innovators and early adopters question and challenge the existing pedagogical orthodoxies.  Our understanding of learning, teaching and assessment evolves, and adapts into new ways of thinking about pedagogy.  But as these practices seep into the mainstream, they don’t mutate or replicate, they can become hollowed out, a fresh new shell for the way we have always done ’it’.  This pedagogical slippage occurs across most of the e-learning landscape.  New ideas become old ideas in a shiny new suit.  And in the end, all we are innovating is the technology and not the way it’s used.


Anderson and Balsamo (1997) note that;

‘In practical terms, classroom technologies must be critically evaluated, analysed self-reflexively, and understood as part of broader cultural, economic, and political contexts. Inviting students to think critically about both the tools of technology and the uses to which they may be deployed is an empowering gesture that resonates at every level of educational exchange.’ (Anderson & Balsamo 2007)


What we see in the hype that surrounds methodologies like the MOOC and flipped classrooms is firstly a mad rush to be part of one, whether the pressure is institutional, peer or media driven, and secondly a lack of pedagogical criticality.  Sure there is plenty of incisive (and not so) comment and analysis, to which this blog post clearly contributes, but there is little of what Anderson and Balsamo argue for.  Perhaps this is a consequence of the lag between research and practice, but arguably, taking MOOCs as an example, the learner is not asked to think critically about the platform or the way it’s used, they are numbers plucked out of the air, hurled around as labels to argue whose MOOC is biggest and then dismissed as drop-outs and failures, as the attritions rates are so high from most MOOC offerings.


To support my assertion, I offer you two examples, and then let the controversy begin…


The MOOC ‘phenomena’ embodies all the characteristics of pedagogical slippage.  The first MOOCs (such as the one on connectivism by Downes and Siemens) were not your average on-line course made free.  They were the manifestation of the work done on Connectivism, with mass aggregation of user sourced and generated content, the repurposing of this content for the specific context of the learner and ‘feeding forward’ of this knowledge to be shared openly with the wider network (ie: the open community).  This challenged existing pedagogies in a number of ways.  It de-privileged the role of the teacher, putting them as part of the network, but not the hub of the network.  The design challenged the linear ‘teaching leads to learning’ format of most higher education programmes and finally it clearly identified a significant place for learner-led interaction and knowledge construction.  These are challenging concepts.


However, some of the MOOCs we see emerging today, such as those from Coursera and Edx for example are not as experimental.  Have a read through the course materials of some of these programmes.  They are often presented in the way we have always done distance learning.  They provide the learner with curated material, mainly produced by the lecturer.  They ask the learner to consume that material, perhaps get into a group and discuss it, then produce an assessment which is either auto-marked against an instrumentalised rubric or is peer marked (which in itself is different, but challengeable –  a topic for another day).


The flipped classroom

Generally attributed to the Khan Academy, the flipped classroom has been around a lot longer than that, with some of the early work occurring at Harvard in the late 1990s.  The intention of these pilots was to break down the misconceptions that had begun to creep into learners after they had attended the lecture and provide opportunity for discussion and dialogue, not just broadcast.  The idea of flipped classrooms is quite radical in itself.  Flip the homework so that the learner consumes materials (preferably socially curated) before they come to the lecture and use the time for engagement with debates and the arguments that emerge from the material.  But then, what starts to occur as they become popular can again be attributed to pedagogical slippage; the innovate idea makes way for last year’s lectures reused but not remixed or repurposed.   Then the lecture space becomes an area for the lecturer to effectively run what they used to do in a tutorial but on a larger scale, group discussions, rarely fed back and shared, or as another secondary lecture.


Now it would be wrong of me to argue that all MOOCs and all flipped classrooms are run on a pedagogy 1.0 model (‘Same as it was ever was’, to quote the Talking Heads).  But each time I see a case, or a conference presentation or the ever increasing PR machines pumping out visions of a new radicalism emerging from within the academy in the form of a MOOC, there are significant parallels to when record companies begin to infiltrate and exploit a ‘scene’.


Do I think that all the hype around MOOCs and flipped classrooms is a bad thing? It clearly has drawn attention to the need for change in the way higher education does its business.  It has placed some of the emerging epistemologies on the table and has made people at least acknowledge their existence.  But in the great race to get on the MOOC train to Memphis have we forgotten that it is not about the destination, but the journey?  Simply using a MOOC, or trying a flipped classroom, or making an app, or putting some OERs up for use is not the point.  Identifying why you are using them, in what way can they enhance the student experience, embolden the community to achieve more and change the way we ‘do’ education’ are more critical questions.  A MOOC by itself is simply that, a course put up on-line for free.  As Jesse Stommel notes in an excellent blog post  …‘In fact, a MOOC isn’t a thing at all, just a methodological approach, with no inherent value except insofar as it’s used.’


This debate has surfaced in the almost hysteric rush to MOOCdom that has enveloped the blogsphere, higher education policy making and taken (and returned) of the job of one University manager.  Noted library scholar, Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote a cutting piece for the Chronicle where he quoted Dan Cohen of George Mason University noting his concerns that MOOCs have a…


‘“…lowest-common denominator/old-style learning by repetition aspect….” Instead, Cohen argues, we should be developing projects that help students explore, lead them toward new insights, and help them build digital projects themselves.’


The notion of technology as a vehicle for the ‘old ways’ we do things has been of concern to researchers and practitioner in this area;

‘As we have seen, the likelihood is that educators will engage with Web 2.0 technologies in the same old ways. As Kirkup and Kirkwood (2005) have shown, teaching staff in higher education will probably employ the latest technologies to teach much as they have done in the past, if left to their own devices. To the extent that, say, podcasting has begun to make an impact in higher education, this has already happened. Most podcasts are last year’s lecture in digital format. Student remixing of podcasts, use of syndication to pool collective responses and other more active learning approaches are losing out to those that see podcasting as a high-tech alternative to the audio cassette of the 1980s.’ (Barnes & Tynan 2007) 

‘(VLE’s can create) conservative dependence on pre-digital metaphors, signs and practices which are increasingly anachronistic as digital modes gain in social and cultural significance’.  (Hemmi, Bayne & Land 2009)

Now, I guess the argument could be made about the idea of relativity.  I mention that Blur and Oasis as bands and a successful ones at that were partially responsible for creating the environment that afforded Coldplay the opportunity to sign for a major label.   This is what we call in music fandom ‘a fight startin’ comment!’   However, let’s assume that it is correct.  Coldplay have sold millions of records, are incredibly popular and arguably quite successful.  So, by my logic, MOOCs arising from the 2nd generation (after Siemens and Downes) could equally be the next big thing.  I could go into how Coldplay give the audience what they want to hear and they do what they do extremely well.  They have live shows that engage the audience and involve them in the experience.  However, the analogy is just that.  What I would note is that Coldplay did not copy the chords and lyrics of Blur or Oasis and just make them with new guitars and keyboards.  They adapted, they were influenced, inspired and then made their own thing.  It wasn’t Blur v.2, it was Coldplay v.1 and that was different from what went before. Same as it ever was.


You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?
You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?

(Talking Heads – Once in a Lifetime)




Anderson, S. & Balsamo, A. 2007, ‘A pedagogy for original synners’, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, pp. 241-259.

Barnes, C. & Tynan, B. 2007, ‘The adventures of Miranda in the brave new world: learning in a Web 2.0 millennium’, ALT-J, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 189-200.

Hemmi, A., Bayne, S. & Land, R. 2009, ‘The appropriation and repurposing of social technologies in higher education’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 19-30.

Kirkup, G. & Kirkwood, A. 2005, ‘Information and communications technologies (ICT) in higher education teaching—a tale of gradualism rather than revolution’, Learning, Media and Technology, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 185-199.


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