MOOCs and “Desirable Difficulties”

We haven’t posted on MOOCs in a while. They’re still around but haven’t gained a lot of traction in higher ed. Here’s an interesting article from The New Yorker: Will MOOCS be Flukes? A key section discusses what we know to be true in education: speed bumps in learning are good. Students learn best and retain more if they are challenged:

How can MOOCs live up to their promise? One possibility is to go back in order to go forward. The MOOC movement started off in a tech whirlwind; the people who pushed it forward were so caught up in its technological possibilities that they scarcely considered decades of research into educational psychology. They might, for instance, have looked at the work of the researchers Patrick Suppes and Richard Atkinson, who in 1962 were charged with designing a course that would use the latest computer technology to teach mathematics and reading to children in kindergarten through third grade. Suppes, a Stanford psychologist and philosopher who had been trained in mathematics, decided to use something called “control theory” as the basis for his approach. Students in his computer-based class wouldn’t all receive the same instruction. Instead, their materials and the order in which those materials were presented would shift according to their past performance and other learning metrics—much like the G.R.E.’s adjusted sections, which become harder or easier depending on how you’re doing. Some students might get stopped every fifteen minutes for a reassessment and summary of materials; others might go for an hour before they reach a stopping point. The approach combined leveling (in which the same material is presented at different learning and reading levels, depending on the student) with dynamic learning (which involves playing around with the manner and order in which information is presented, so that students don’t get bored or frustrated).

The Suppes-Atkinson courses proved so successful that they were soon expanded to include multiple subjects for many age levels. A company called the Computer Curriculum Corporation (which is now a part of Pearson) started distributing them globally. In 1966, the psychologist William Estes, a pioneer of mathematical learning theory, including control theory, presented a paper at the International Congress of Psychology, held that year in Moscow. He spoke Russian. He’d learned it from a Suppes-Atkinson course.

Why don’t MOOCs structure their materials in a similar fashion? The technology to do so has only improved, as have the metrics to measure success. Some MOOCs, like mathematics or economics courses, lend themselves to this approach, but even lecture-reliant classes could incorporate the method by, for example, incorporating pauses for reviews and summaries of material, tailored to each student’s comprehension level. As it is, individualized methodology has largely gotten lost in the excitement over technological capabilities and large-group approaches. According to numerous interviews I conducted, and studies I read, very few MOOCs are using anything like control theory as part of their approach to teaching.

The other major problem is that MOOCs tend to be set up in a way that minimizes frustration for students (who might drop out at any moment). There often aren’t pop quizzes or the kinds of challenges that can alienate students in traditional settings. The problem here is that easy learning does not make good learning. In fact, the very tools that we believe make for better education may also make students more likely to quit. More frequent testing, for instance, can improve memory, learning, and retention. And, sometimes, the best test of all is the test that you fail: recent work from the cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork has shown that pre-testing on never-before-seen materials helps students perform better in a subsequent course covering that material. In general, Bjork has found, speed bumps in learning are good—desirable difficulties, she calls them. MOOCs would likely be more effective if they didn’t shy away from challenging students, rather than presenting a fluid experience which gives the false impression of the learning and retention.

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