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The Importance of Context and Human Factor in MOOC Education

Ismael Peña-López

Óscar Becerra has just written The One Laptop Per Child Correlation With Massive Open Online Courses where he compares the OLPC project with MOOC initiatives.

In a nutshell, the Becerra argues that MOOC should not be compared to other higher education initiatives or institutions, but to what MOOCs can bring to “non-users” of education, as the OLPC should be judged not in comparison to schools, but in comparison to “non-schools”, that is, no educational institutions at all.

I mostly agree with the author, but there are some omissions that are very worth being mentioned… as they may place us, at least, in a more skeptic point of view. Or, in other words, nor may MOOCs might be compared with a comprehensive and affordable educational system and neither should the OLPC be compared with the total lack of alternatives.

First of all, it just happens that education is not about the apprehension of content, but about transforming information into knowledge. Or, in other words, education is about empowerment.

Quite often forgotten, there are two kinds of MOOCs: connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) and non-connectivist MOOCs (xMOOCs). While I find the former empowering, the latter I find them not: just an interesting but mere channel of content distribution. Unfortunately, cMOOCs are rarely dealt with and only xMOOCs are the ones being discussed. Like the article in question. Thus, comparing a non-empowering tool like xMOOCs to a supposedly empowering tool, like the OLPC, is a difficult exercise to do.

Education, empowerment, or development, on the other hand, do not happen in the void, but in a given context. A personal context. A personal starting point. And there is increasing evidence that one’s starting point will tell whether one will improve or worsen one’s situation with a given tool, e.g. laptops or MOOCs. We call this the knowledge gap hypothesis and there are many examples on how public libraries, access to newspapers and information, or laptops in the classroom have a multiplier effect: if you’re in a good position, you’ll do better; if you’re in a bad position, you’re very likely to do worse. So, what is the position of these “non-users” that have now access to the OLPC device or to a (c)MOOC?

Last — and very related with the previous point —, development or empowerment is not only about the existence of individual resources and the possibility to use them, but the personal will or emancipative value to want to use them. Welzel, Inglehart & Klingemann called this the having the objective and the subjective choice of development (to which we have to add effective choice, of course).

Indeed, our last point summarizes the first point (access to MOOCs seen as objective choice) and the second one (the knowledge gap hypothesis as subjective choice).

And there are two common issues in our three points: context and the human factor. Context of the user, both the exogenous context (the socio-economic status, their community, etc.) and the endogenous context (level of education, mental and physical health, etc.), both of them determining what will happen with the objective choice. And the human factor as the facilitator or enabler, which will guide the objective choice through subjective choice into effective choice — again determined by the context provided by legal and cultural framework.

So, MOOCs can be compared to the OLPC in the sense that they both provide good tools to “non-users” of education, but I would refrain myself to say that they both, by themselves, provide rough alternatives to the educational system. Not by themselves.

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