Today I attended some of the early presentations at the ELI Focus Session on MOOCs. One of those was by some instructional designers on how to create an environment conducive to the production of effective MOOCs. I am going to ignore the bulk of what they said and zero in on only one thing:
A well designed course should have clear goals.
This is a mantra to an instructional designer. You hear it almost every time one of them gives a presentation about course design. I wince every time I hear it.
The question is: clear to whom and clear when?
Let me suggest four possible answers to this question:
- Clear to the students at the outset of the course.
- Clear to the students at the end of the course.
- Clear to the instructor at the outset of the course.
- Clear to the instructor at he end of the course.
My understanding is that they mean the answer to apply at the outset of the course, so it is numbers 1 and 3 that hold. But if you think about it a little more, that is problematic. To illustrate why, here are some snips from my students last fall, writing their ultimate blog post. This was to talk about what they got out of the course, what issues they had with the course, and any suggested changes they'd make in a subsequent offering of the course.
One student started out his post with:
This was an interesting course for me to take because so much of what we learned wasn't something I had ever pondered. From transfer prices to transaction costs to the art of bargaining we covered things we see in everyday life but don't really notice. The economics of organizations are more intricate then I imagined, and I realized more than ever that economics is not always based on numbers - instead based on everyday interaction between something like the two separate branches of a company.
Another student followed up her first paragraph with:
To get down to it, this course was truly a breath of fresh air. Up until this point in my economics career at the U of I, many of the core courses- while rich in theory- had not necessarily tapped into economics on a scale of reality in tune with 20-something college students. Your personal insight into your experiences in management offer no only fascinating but tangible examples of organizational economics in action. The marriage of theory and "teaching-by-experience" was rather enlightening. In addition blogging about concepts in organizational economics as it applied in our own experiences was an approach to economics I had never considered. Understanding and applying moral hazard, triangular principal-agent relationship, and reputation in the context of my own life has been a miniature introspective journey, and has taught me to consider economics in an entirely different light.
If learning is the act of acquiring knowledge then prior to that acquisition there is ignorance. While in an ignorant state, how can the goals of what will be learned be clear? Shouldn't those goals be opaque?
You might say that's fine for the student but the instructor who knows his stuff surely has clear goals for the course. Here, I think it is useful to take a page from Made to Stick. The job of the presenter is not to present the ideas in the presentation. The job of the presenter is to create connections between what the audience already knows with the ideas in the presentation. At the outset of the course, the instructor is ignorant of what students already know. Further, if you return to the paragraph from the second student, if the instructor attempts to bring in relevant experience the student has had prior to taking the course, the instructor is also ignorant of that experience at the outset.
Hindsight is 20-20. Foresight is never that good.