Enter the MOOC, stage left

By | December 26, 2012

yearbookRecently, there’s been a good deal of discussion in the professional blogosphere about the emerging role of what have been termed “massive open online courses”, or MOOC’s. Starting with MIT’s Open Courseware initiative some years ago, MOOC’s have suddenly emerged in the last year as a major force to be reckoned with in higher education. In many respects, the various MOOC consortia that have emerged – Coursera, edX, Udacity, and several other of larger or smaller scope – represent an attempt by the traditional elite universities to coopt the online education movement and regain an initiative that was slipping away from them, by use of the power of their names and connections. Given a chance, wouldn’t you prefer to take a course from a distinguished professor at Stanford than a relative unknown at Trident University? There’s a reasonable summary of this movement and some of its issues at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_open_online_course.

Recently, there was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by the Dean of a major elite business school on the east coast, deploring the general MOOC approach and claiming that it was all just a fad that new software being deployed by his university would sweep away. As might be supposed, this elicited a giant wave of comments, particularly from students who had participated in a recent Coursera offering in “Modern Poetry” (ModPo) and found it magnificent. Amid this wave, I put in my own two cents’ worth, as follows:

An interesting set of comments. I’ve signed up for two Coursera courses to date, and completed one (Gamification); in the other I wasn’t able to get beyond the second week because a series of private events interposed (I wasn’t even charged a $500 “drop fee”). I found the Gamification course extremely interesting, relevant, and well-developed; not to mention dealing with a subject largely unobtainable elsewhere. Admittedly, I took this course essentially for “professional development” reasons; the topic interested me generally, and I saw potential application to the kind of work I have done and hope to be doing in future. So from a pedagogical perspective, I see much to recommend the Coursera model, and I see that borne out by several of the comments here.

The weakness of the model, as have commented in a number of other threads on similar topics, is that an education is not made up simply of taking a number of individual courses, however excellent they might be. Rather, it is the result of a systematized and organized inquiry into a topic, usually requiring several different courses dealing with various aspects of the topic and, it is hoped, working with several different subject matter experts (faculty or other) who have different points of view and can help the student to see the topic from different perspectives. In short, it is a curriculum, carefully developed not only to showcase a body of knowledge but to encourage the student to gradually develop his/her abilities to interact with the topic creatively.

Coursera as presently constituted (and the same could be said for almost all the other MOOC’s) does not deal with this issue of curricula; all the courses are stand-alone. I was perhaps able to get more out of the course that I took than some of the other students, since I brought into it a fairly extensive background in social psychology, experimental design, and marketing. I didn’t need to be brought up to speed on the basic elements behind the rationale for gamification or the utility of its approach.In a sense, I was able to supply some necessary or at least helpful elements of a curriculum that might support the course, from my own background.

I see the long-term utility of MOOC’s and other things like the Khan Academy as limited by their inability to develop the kinds of inter-course coordination that characterizes a true curriculum. It is in this domain, not in the development of fancier software, that schools like the author’s have an edge; unfortunately, they often fail to see this in their odd quest to deliver higher and higher priced “education” to smaller and smaller groups of the already elite. When the MOOC’s figure out how to deal with the issue of curriculum, then the last justification for schools like the author’s will have evaporated. And from the disdainful elitism reflected in this essay, the sooner the better.

I’ll be returning to this general topic of curricula in future postings here; At this point, I think I’ll just put this this out there and see if it stimulates any reactions.

BTW: I realize that the video gallery isn’t much use unless you know what the videos actually are. I’ll be putting titles on them in the next day or so. Sorry about that!  Continue to watch this space, please!