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MOOCs Can Teach Leaders About 21st Century Learning

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Do you remember when there was a debate about online courses? Wasn't it just a few years ago? How has the world of higher education changed this quickly?  We have not perceived competitive agility and responsiveness to be the strong suit of that part of the educational universe. Yet, here they are in the world of MOOC's. Higher Ed is leading us into the future. How soon will we, too, be free from our buildings and serving populations from other districts and states? We decided to find out and be a participant, not just an observer.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison offered a MOOC entitled Video Games and Learning.  The course is taught by Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire, both are well know professors from the university. Taking the course is revealing far more than learning and gaming.  Enrolling in this MOOC is uncovering how online learning can be a valuable way of improving the way we teach and learn. An intention of this particular MOOC is to make the course valuable to a broad audience and to conduct research. Participants are learners who are experienced with games, as well as those of us who know little to nothing about games. The course indicates it will offer valuable learning experiences to all.

The first week opened with 8 short engaging videos, 5 of which were done by the two professors.  The videos have presentation slides included.  The videos were divided into an introduction, concepts, and principles.  Additionally, three short videos were included by James Paul Gee, the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literary Studies at Arizona State University. His research involves how good video games create positive, effective learning environments, how they teach problem solving, and how we become good learners.  He has developed 13 principles that will be taught over the six weeks of the course. Finally, there were two readings, one a slide presentation, and another an Infographic of statistics about gaming. There was a lot of information (including statistics that are counter to public assumption about the runaway train that is gaming), some new vocabulary and a realization that note taking was an option.  The instructional videos (a digital variation of class lecture) could be replayed either immediately, or anytime during the course as was the case with the slides and the Infographic.

Admittedly, the videos did make one feel the lecturer was speaking directly to the learner. When might we have the experience of being spoken to by James Paul Gee?   The video also allowed the learner to relax away from the concentration of 'What is important?' and 'What do I have to write down?' into, 'Let me pay full attention' and 'I can look at this again as I realize what I didn't remember or understand.' Following the videos, the assignment was to find and play a game and reflect upon questions like "How does the game structure the player's learning?" and "How does the game maintain engagement yet manage complexity?" (Yikes!). Further, participants were asked to either make a video and post it with reflections on the experience, or write a short paragraph about it.  Then, review other posts and give five thumbs up and five thumbs down on others' reviews.  Questions could be posted  in the forum and hope for help from others in the course. Now get this....reportedly about 35,000 are enrolled in the course.

Here began the real challenge for one who never played a game before.  Searching for a game simple enough to play became overwhelming.  MMORPG's (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) were out of the question!  Too complicated for beginners.  And, the assignment was to play for ½ an hour...MMORPG's would take too long to learn.   Posting on the forum yielded quick and helpful responses, which were a great relief.  It was decided a single player game was in order.  What a relief to find out that 'Plants vs. Zombies' or 'Angry Birds' would fit the assignment!  A concern about the feedback began to arise.  Would there be thumbs up or down on the post?  Clearly, the post was one of a novice.  Who would be interested?  Surprisingly, helpers were.  Helpful advice accompanied thumbs ups.

What does this have to do with leadership?  Everything. Leaders must be learners. This MOOC is structured around the best teaching and learning.  The information needed to set the stage for the learning in this first week's assignment was given, not one time and the bell rings...but it stays there for reference if needed.  The information was shared in bite sizes, so the novice could absorb it and the expert could consider it for depth and breadth of perspective. The learner has the opportunity to get help from peers who may know more than they, in a low stakes environment in which everyone is held to a similar standard of behavior. The experience appeared to hold the learner's behavior in check.  There would be no bullying here because all communication is open to all members of the course.  Interesting.  The learner was immediately placed in charge of his or her own learning experience while being offered the information as well as peer support all along the way.

The MOOC provides information, invites participation, invokes curiosity, and encourages learning.  Surely, there are students who have those capacities without needing partial anonymity or the distance provided by being online, but others will benefit greatly from this environment.  Steinkuehler studies the impact of online learning on the most disengaged students. However, it also shows promise for those advanced in the topic. 

This MOOC mirrors all of our classrooms. We all have classrooms in which students bring a variety of skills and abilities. What we do not have is a well-developed system to meet the needs of each and every student, the capacity for advanced study as well as basic information simultaneously.  If students need help, they need to be with the teacher, or a tutor. Do we have enough?  We have few options to engage learners without creating an expert/novice relationship.  The MOOC, so far, is revealing its capacity to engage learners in a different way. The dynamics are more fluid and less assigned to role than to involvement. Everyone is learning and sharing.  There is no shame in being a novice. Respect and appreciation is extended to those who offer help. Although the course is about gaming and learning, it is offering an experience about online learning that is significant. 

This mode of learning invites the learner into the learning as opposed to being the passive recipient of the learning.  That shift alone changes the entire experience of learning.  If we, as leaders, encourage the development of these learning experiences for our students without having had the experience ourselves, we will have little or no credibility.  Teaching and learning is changing around us. We are looking inward at classrooms and Common Core Standards. Outside, walls are falling down.

The resources are already there.  We have the technology; we have resources such as Khan Academy and hundreds, or maybe thousands of others.  Online learning does not have to be in a MOOC. For us, they can be closed online experiences or blended with face-to-face learning.  But MOOC's are a good place for us to begin because, first and foremost, they are free.  Secondly, they can be taken from renowned universities all across the country, ones that we might otherwise never have access to. Finally, we are leading 21stcentury schools that should somehow include online learning. As leaders of these 21st century schools, we have an obiligation to know what we are talking about.

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