MOOC: Where’s an Expert When You Need One?

Sometimes you want to talk to an expert, a teacher who knows what you don’t, and who’s willing to share. How do we find such people?

As I wrote in an earlier post, I recently participated in eLearning and Digital Cultures, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) created by professors from The University of Edinburgh and hosted by Coursera. Inside this MOOC, I discovered that the creators of the MOOC were not teaching according to any traditional notion of what a teacher is supposed to do. Instead, like the proverbial watchmakers, they create all the elements that go into the MOOC, and then let the MOOC run its course, with little intervention. The MOOC relies on its students to collaborate and guide each other, and even to provide feedback on each other’s projects.

One of the participants in the MOOC was Mary Stewart, a graduate student at UC Davis, who wrote a thorough research report and posted it to her blog as her final project. Stewart sees MOOCs as examples of what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory communities,” which bring people together around a common interest. In such an informal learning community, “more expert members tend to guide and instruct novice members, and all participants are encouraged to continuously refine their skills or expertise.” The result, Jenkins argues, is that “each participant [feels] like an expert while tapping the expertise of others.’”

Stewart points out a few ways the design of the MOOC helps me find knowledgeable students to support me and show me the way. “In the discussion forums, you can ‘vote up’ responses that you find particularly helpful (similar to Reddit or Digg), you can ‘like’ posts on Facebook, you can ‘favorite’ or ‘retweet’ posts on Twitter.”

But do up-votes and likes and thumbs-up really tell me anything more about a person, beyond how many people found her comments useful, or how well she is liked by the group?

Each student has her own unique profile page, but they get to choose how much or how little they wish to reveal about themselves. Except for the occasional person who puts Dr. before her name, I almost never know anyone’s educational background.

Where’s an expert when you need one?

Beyond MOOCs, I wish there were some way to locate people from whom I would like to learn. And this problem is not unique to Coursera. The same conundrum haunts all schools – how do I know my professors are any good? What makes one teacher better than another?

We need a better way to search people by expertise. Simply adding a few letters behind our names doesn’t work as well as it used to – it only tells where school took them, not their experience and application of their education. In MOOCs, Educators also need to promote and advertise what they know and what they teach, so that students can find the right courses for them. Finally, students need better tools to locate the experts with the knowledge and skills they want.

The MOOCs’ vast scale makes this task a challenge. But I hope that someday schools of every shape and size will commit to matching every student with the very best teacher.

Written by: Michael Mussman
Michael Mussman is Editor of Forward Thinking, the Ashford University blog.

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