MOOCs: A Pragmatic View

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have had a tremendous impact on education.  They have been mentioned in many major news outlets, causing controversy and an anti-MOOC backlash.  Prof. Mohamed Noor of Duke University has shared his personal experiences with running his own MOOC on his blog.  My goal with this post is to cut through the controversy by breaking down what a MOOC is and what it is not.

MOOCs are a natural extension of the Internet age.  The World Wide Web was established with an ethos that information is free.  Search engines such as Google and databases such as Wikipedia and IMDB work under the same premise.  Even Youtube provides a platform for free information dissemination, along with adorable cat videos.  Industries such as print media have struggled in the face of this idea.  Now consumers must ask, “Why should I pay for information that I can find for free with a couple of mouse clicks?”

With the advent of freely available information, some teaching scholars saw a looming identity crisis for academic education.  Previously, students would attend school or college in order to gain information.  Pay for tuition, buy the books, attend the classes, and we will certify that you have knowledge in a particular field.  Professors acted as gate keepers of information that was not easily accessible.

Now, though, information is free and abundant.  In some ways, there is too much information available.  But if the Academy no longer has a monopoly on knowledge, what is the purpose of higher education?  The prevailing answer came to be that universities would show students how to sort through the information, identify what was important, and use it effectively.  I believe that the “flipped classroom” came out of this idea: students find and take in the facts outside of class and apply the knowledge to current topics and real world problems.

In that manner, MOOCs almost seem like a social experiment.  Can we scale up a college-style course and make it freely available online?  The sheer numbers have demonstrated that it is possible.  Hundreds of thousands of students around the world have enrolled into classes from major universities.  Professors are bringing knowledge to the masses like Prometheus brought fire from Mt. Olympus to mankind.

With that lofty goal, most of the press surrounding MOOCs have heavily extrapolated their existence as the first sign of a collegiate apocalypse.  If college classes are available online for free, then why should anyone pay for college?  Universities have used their own online courses for more than a decade, and the results are mixed.  Some motivated students excel in the online environment, some eke by, and others simply do not make it.  The same is true for MOOCs:  of the thousands of students enrolled, often only 10-20% complete the requirements of the course.  That low pass rate still represents thousands of students in most classes, which is more than a single professor usually teaches in many years in the classroom.  The other 80-90% don’t finish for their own reasons, myself included.

So what, then, is the purpose of a MOOC?  MOOCs aim to provide students with  new knowledge.  You can learn basic statistics, how to program a computer, neuroscience, art history, genetics, and hundreds of other topics.  Classes attempt to bring students from the basics up to the current controversies.  For example, a genetics course would present information about how parents pass traits to children, what a gene is, how biotechnology works, and how new advances in the field are impacting shaping our lives and changing the face of medicine.

In the first MOOC I took, I used the course as a primer for using the R programming language.  For me, it was basically a workshop to learn a new skill.  I could put the experience on my resume, or just use it for personal benefit.

MOOCs, in their current incarnation, cannot replace the college experience.  As I mentioned before, colleges are moving away from the knowledge transfer model to more of a skill development and professional experience model.  College graduates should be well versed in functional knowledge in their areas of specialization.  Biology majors should be able to design experiments, interpret scientific data, and potentially apply their knowledge to treat disease.  Spanish majors should not only know how to construct a sentence, but should also understand the cultures of Spanish-speaking countries and be able to apply their linguistic and cultural skills to a community (ESOL teacher, translator, international entrepreneur, etc.).  MOOCs can guide you through information and give you perspective, but they cannot fully prepare you in the same manner as earning an undergraduate degree.

Since MOOCs are completely online (except for local meet-ups), students do not benefit from the extracurricular experience.  There are no research labs, internships, hospitals, or student groups.  A college degree states that you completed a certain amount of coursework with competency.  The college experience encompasses the rich personal growth that comes from new opportunities and interactions.

I am a firm believer in the utility of MOOCs.  Information should be free, and one of the obligations of those of us in higher education is to make our work relatable and understandable by the general public.  Much of work is funded by government agencies.  In some ways, we are beholden to taxpayers and they deserve to know where their money goes.  Various groups malign science, art, and the humanities based on a lack of experience.  If we can reach out to more people in a free and approachable manner, we can show the value of our work to the greater good.

In summation, MOOCs are not a threat to colleges.  If anything, they may inspire students to pursue higher education.  MOOCs can be seen as a form of outreach similar to visiting students at a local elementary school.  Teaching a MOOC can inform your work in the physical classroom by identifying common misconceptions and building a community of learners.  Taking a MOOC can help you experience a new field in a low risk manner.  MOOCs may not make colleges obsolete, but they will push colleges to improve the educational experience.

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