Rethinking MOOCx

Clay Shirky in Napster, Udacity and the Academy argues that the emergence of MOOCs will disrupt the system of higher education as we now know it. MOOCs, he argues, give us the opportunity to break the old model of  learning at “elite” schools.

I think I have two real issues with MOOCx and by that I mean the Coursera, EdX, Udacity brand, not the MOOCs that Dave Cormier, Athabasca, and Stephen Downes were working on (I’m not very familiar with those, so I can’t really comment on them, but from what I do know, they have a completely different theoretical model not addressed in this post).

MOOCs are disruptive – by their very nature they tell a different narrative to that of the traditional university. Different philosophically – education now available to all rather than the few with access to traditional universities. Different structurally – by removing the constraints of the classroom, education can take on any form.

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Cognitive Load Theory Reconsidered

For our purposes, cognitive load refers to the processing demands placed on working memory capacity during learning. According to the triarchic theory of cognitive load (Sweller, 1999, 2005), there are three types of processing that contribute to cognitive load:

  • intrinsic processing – cognitive processing that is essential for the understanding the learning content and is a result of the complexity of the material and the prior knowledge and expertise of the learner;
  • extraneous processing – processing that does not directly support learning but is a result of the inherent complexity of the learning environment and interface;
  • germane processing – processing that allows the learner to organize the learning content and integrate it with prior knowledge and experience.

Total cognitive load cannot exceed the limits of working memory capacity. Learning is promoted when instructional design minimizes extraneous load in order to free up resources for intrinsic and germane processing, both of which play an essential role in learning. Cognitive load theory (CLT) is robust in that it is supported by reams of evidence, and successfully predicts outcomes particularly for novice learners.

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