Caution on the MOOC Movement
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Caution on the MOOC Movement

While Massive Open Online Courses are bringing distance learning to the forefront in higher education, it is important to remember that customization should be the goal of online education, not massification.

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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5 Responses to Caution on the MOOC Movement

  1. Yvonne Laperriere Reply

    2013/01/16 at 11:13 am

    I agree that MOOCs do seem to support a “two-tier” education system. Perhaps, as a next step, colleges that offer MOOCs might consider allowing them to count for partial credit towards the completion of a program at their institutions. That could serve to attract more potential students (something smaller institutions might want to take advantage of).

    MOOCs could also be useful as an introduction or a “test run” to higher education. For example, new students could be encouraged to enroll in a MOOC the summer before their freshman year to gain an understanding of what college-level courses are like – provided these MOOCs adhere to the same rigorous standards as a “regular” credit course at the institution. This could ease the transition later on. At the same time, individuals who never thought they would be interested in higher education might reconsider if they took a MOOC and had a positive experience.

  2. Ewan Philipps Reply

    2013/01/16 at 12:26 pm

    I question the assumption that knowledge without credentials is not “worth anything.” Whatever happened to learning for learning’s sake? If all the MOOC movement manages to do is instill a sense of inquiry and curiosity in individuals around the globe, I think it has already made a great contribution. The MOOC movement may have its flaws, but it has at least opened up the dialogue on the importance of education.

  3. WA Anderson Reply

    2013/01/16 at 1:31 pm

    Thank you for this piece, Mr. Guthrie. I’m on the fence about the “customization” of online learning, as you call it. I can see the potential benefits of customization – better student support, which could lead to better results – but there are potential challenges. For example, how are we, as educators, to develop course objectives if each course can be tailored to the individual? I also wish to point out that most courses are already designed with a degree of flexibility in mind, e.g. different assignment options, various suggested/additional readings, various delivery formats, etc.

    Additionally, there does not appear to be much room in your “customization” model for independent learning. If the student in your example was struggling with a concept, he or she should take the initiative to ask for help rather than wait for data analytics to deliver this information to the professor who would then, presumably, have to offer extra material to make up the deficit.

    I do agree that we need to make better use of technology in designing online courses. Perhaps data analytics could be used to gather general feedback on course content, but tailoring courses to the individual might be going too far.

  4. Nina Smith Reply

    2013/01/16 at 3:26 pm

    Because I strongly believe knowledge being created in interactions (between students, teachers and material) I think any massive course can only cater for one part of the learning process, i.e. sharing the information, no matter whether is happens in an auditorium or online. The real learning happens when students can reflect on the new information and get feedback about their own thoughts.

    MOOCs are definitely good tools for transmitting information, and thus they serve teaching purposes. But, as mentioned, they are not the best tools for supporting learning, which is always individual because each learner has different needs and understanding about the subject.

    From my point of view MOOCs are not different from any other published material (books, articles, TED talks, websites, etc.) and should be recognized as such. I personally prefer reading over attending lectures or MOOCs, just because it allows me to move at my own pace and also move easily back and forth withing the material if I need to re-check my understanding about a concept or terminology.

    I think good MOOCs can spark an interest and help people gain information about academic disciplines or special areas of expertise, and maybe realize what they want to study, so I would use them as introductory courses. With current technology we could easily build student-centered learning environments if we stepped outside of the cohort based thinking created by the factory model of education.

  5. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN Reply

    2013/01/17 at 5:30 pm

    Reporters
    Please do not misinform people.

    MOOCs as said are not massive at all and not free too .
    Enrollments are 100,000 at the beginning but after 1 week enrollments drop to 2-5 % that is 2,000-5,000 Still not very bad value. That makes online feasible and costs go down to $ 10 per person or so .

    ONLINE HE is in this country for 20 years by no name or for profits school at very bad quality and at very high price $ 1,500-3,000 per course , already replaced 39 % of the HE in the USA reaching to 7 million out of 18 million students
    ONLINE by elite non profit schools at very high quality and very small fees will definitely replace rest of the HE in the USAd in the world .
    Only research universities will stay alive .

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