For the last eight months, the world has been captivated by the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) rage. Coursera has led the way with this movement, but edX, Udacity and a few others have also contributed to the fascination with MOOCs. As was recently reported in the New York Times, Coursera attracted 1 million users faster than Twitter and Facebook did and the company has raised about $22 million in venture capital funding. If users and private funding are good measures of a given innovation, the market seems to be screaming support for MOOCs.
However, we need to be careful here. Leaving aside the fact that the business model is still far from clear, there are three additional, substantive issues that should make us wary about the MOOC movement.
The first issue is that the MOOC champions seem to miss the point about what technology can do to enhance the learning experience. I guess it is impressive that a course can be broadcast to 100,000 people at once, just as it is impressive that radio and television are broadcast to a large population. But scale is not what we are trying to achieve in striving for excellence in education, and MOOC offerings miss the point of what technology can do.
I still recall the first time I realized Google was customizing my experience on its site by targeting advertising to my own online behavioral patterns. Once you get over the Big-Brother creepiness of this reality, you realize the power of the data analytics that can be delivered through online technology. Now imagine an online course based on the same principles, one that tracks each online engagement as a way of gathering data to customize the learning experience right down to the level of the individual. A student who is struggling with a given concept can be given extra material to help in this area; a student who is interested in a specific topic that other classmates might not be interested in can be given casework in that area. This is the province of the online learning environment: we can track learning down to the level of the individual and customize the learning experience based on that information. In essence, online learning should strive for quality, not quantity.
Second, education is fundamentally about community. Individuals can certainly learn on their own — through reading, observing or taking a broadcast version of an online course. But a true educational experience must include interaction, both between students and teachers and with other students. Learning, without these interactions, is a lesser experience. You don’t necessarily need face-to-face interaction to build community, but you do need interaction. In choosing scale over customization, the MOOC movement does not seem to emphasize interaction.
Third, there is an odd way in which the MOOC movement seems to mask a strange two-tier class system. While there is a prevalent myth that the MOOC movement makes education free, this is only partially true. While MOOCs make the material available to the masses, the credentialing that is crucial to higher education still remains a province of the elite. So, while the world is invited to observe what the elite institutions are teaching, individuals still don’t have access to the credentials they provide that is so crucial to making this knowledge gained worth anything. If the institutions inviting the world into the MOOC environment were ready to provide the credentials along with the knowledge, that might be interesting. But we have not seen this turn yet.
To be clear, MOOCs are pushing the envelope and they are doing interesting things. However, they are not quite as radical as they present themselves to be. More importantly, they are missing the point of what technology can do in online education. Massification is not the future; customization is.
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