This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reflections on a connectivist model and MOOCs #change11

     As a physiologist, I've come across the idea of neural networks and connectivist cognitive models.  Neuroscience is not my area, so while I've come across the idea, I have not read extensively on the subject.  Seeing this referenced by people writing about MOOCs and also in the introductory videos for the Change MOOC, I may be looking into learning more about connectivist models.
     One aspect that intrigues and scares me is the idea that a learner is in charge of which elements of a course they take, which they ignore, and which they discard as they build a unique perspective on the subject matter.  What intrigues me is the idea that the student engages as a full partner in a learning experience.  They are not just participating, but taking charge of their own learning experience.  The idea of students moving from a passive to an active role is exciting, and something I would like to see in my own classes.  But the idea makes me nervous.
     In teaching biology course, especially the introductory courses, there is a great deal of material that must be covered.  In the introductory course I teach, it is expected that at the end of the class, all of the students will show competencies in the principles of cell and molecular biology.  There is a central curriculum for the course, because students will struggle in upper division courses if they do not have a strong common foundation in the principles.  This means knowing and understanding the language, including vocabulary, the ability to identify and describe structures, and the ability to discuss and explain common pathways and mechanisms that occur within the cell.
     I've seen students who fail to build the foundation flounder in the upper division courses, and I've seen instructors become frustrated when it becomes obvious that the student needs to have a refresher on basic topics.  So, now I wonder how, through a MOOC, to get a students to explore and learn a set of core concepts.  Can it be done through course objectives?  If they are receiving credit through my institution, I can require that specific assignments be completed, thus coming to a consensual set of concepts that must be mastered.  Yet, how do you do this if there is no credit cap?  I can not see an answer as flippant as "it doesn't matter," really working.  Yes, I am providing a learning opportunity with a MOOC, but where does my responsibility to the students education begin and end?  If I know that they will need concept X in another course, how do I go about making sure that they are exposed to Concept X and work on mastering that concept?