There has been in the Chronicle of Higher Education and BigThink blogs recently considerable debate about the value and role of massive online open-source courses (MOOC’s, in the jargon.) If you’ve been stuck in Lower Slobbovia State U. for the last year and a half or so, you may have missed the emergence of this phenomenon; for anyone else in the educational establishment, the idea has managed to move from unknown to novelty to mainstream to existential threat in record time. Implemented through a number of consortia of elite universities including Coursera, Udacity, edX, and others, this model for delivering course material on topics ranging from computer science to poetry at no cost to recipients other than the time involved in participating is probably the major topic of conversation in higher education today once one has finished deploring the student loan crisis. Everyone has an idea as to where this trend is going, and predictably these range from “flash in the pan” to “the end of higher education as we know it”, sometimes from the very same sources.
Unlike a large portion of the experts who have weighed in on the topic of MOOC’s, I actually speak from some degree of experience – first as the designer of early large-scale courses during my time with my previous University, then as an actual enrollee in three separate Coursera courses. Each experience was different in critical ways, and I’ll try to clarify just what that means in a moment.
Before proceeding further, I’d like to call your attention to a rather amazing short video by “technology guru” Richard Katz called “Edu@2025″ (it’s available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07KnT4Fg9Go.) Ostensibly cast as a history of higher education through the year 2025, the meat lies in the predictions for 2013 and immediately beyond. [NOTE: spoilers follow. Really.] The overall theme is the increasing convergence of education and popular media, including the potential mergers of Google and the University of Phoenix (see intro pic) and of Disney and Sony, leading to standardized national curricula for higher education, elimination of faculty in favor of instructional designers, and the fundamental demise of what one would normally consider to be the college or university experience. As 15 minutes of academic dystopia goes, this is hard to top. The problem is that it is all too real, or at least all too plausible not to become real. If you review this vision in light of what I’m about to say with regards to my own MOOC experiences, you’ll see what I mean.
The first Coursera course that I took was on gamification – that trendy approach to learning and involvement that tries to adapt principles learned from video gaming to the reinforcement of participation in beneficial activities. Taught by a very competent and interesting professor from Wharton, the course was definitely enlightening, bringing together principles from a wide variety of social psychological and related studies. Methodologically, there was nothing particularly innovative about it except for the 35,000 student enrollment. There were some relatively simple multiple-choice quizzes and a couple of short writing assignments that were subject to “peer grading” – an interesting approach, but not one that yielded much of any useful feedback. I did work my way through all the material, but due to some other time pressures did not complete the final assignment and thus did not receive the certificate. I felt that I had gotten all I was going to get out of the course from the lectures and readings, and thus saw little benefit in going out of my way to finish the assignments.
The second course rapidly became legendary for being the first Coursersa course ever to have it its plug pulled after only about 10 days. Interestingly, it was billed as a course on “distance learning” – although it promptly became evident that the course designers had no real idea how to manage a course of that size while at the same time preserving the small group approach to which they seemed committed. After stumbling through a week and a half of trying to organize groups with some coherence and failing to even touch upon the content, the course was unceremoniously shut down, presumably to the relief of all.
I am still in the middle of the third course. It’s interestingly titled “Passion-Driven Statistics”, and I enrolled because (a) I wanted to verify my own data analysis skills against someone else’s criteria, and (b) I wanted to see where the passion came from. Going into the third week, I’m still unclear about the passion. A large portion of the course effort thus far seems to revolve around how to set up and run SAS analysis routines. There has been some moderate attention to the formulation of effective research questions, but relatively little about how those might be driven by passion, either positively or negatively. There is an imaginative presentation system built into this course through the requirement that students create a Tumblr blog for presentation and discussion of their findings, but I have yet to see how this can be significantly enlarged and effective feedback provided. My own blog is in a state of under-development at the moment, so I won’t point you toward it just yet; when I feel I have something useful to say, I will.
I think I will break this discussion at this point and do some more work on my course. In my next follow-up post here, I will begin to make some comments on MOOC advantages and limitations, as well as to draw some conclusions relative to the video I mentioned earlier. At any rate, it feels good to be back online, and I hope that I can continue to attract at least some audience for some of the ideas I hope to develop in future months. Watch this space.