Following up my higher ed posts, I ought at least to link to the NY Times piece on MOOCS – Massive Open Online Courses. Obviously this is the ultimate inexpensive option for higher education, and it is likely to be the bleeding edge of some disruptive wedge, I don’t know which one – several probably. This will change things.
Clay Shirky asked in comments to my last post what I thought about this stuff and I said I was ignorant. Which I am. That said, I’m a big believer that this stuff will somehow work out for the best. The upside is just too way up for any downside to drag it down. As a teacher, I’ve always availed myself of webcast options whenever possible – especially when I was teaching a 500+ student intro module. Webcast kills live theater attendance but it’s just so damn convenient for students to be able to download an MP3 of the lecture to go with their copy of the PPT.
My older daughter – age 11 – and I were going to take a world history Coursera course together, because she was on a world history kick for a while there, reading Gombrich’s little book. I thought I could up her precosity index (measured on the Granger scale, based on Hermione’s behavior in the first two Harry Potter books) by making her realize she is on the edge of being able to understand college level history material, which she is … and isn’t. (It’s the thought that you can think at a college level that counts at this level.) But she sort of lost interest and we got busy with other things. Anyhoo. I’m still planning on taking a Coursera course at some point, just to see how they are doing it.
In the past 3 years, I’ve learned a lot of guitar by subscribing to jamplay.com, which is a great online lesson service. I also rely on lynda.com to teach me stuff – InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, the usual Adobe suspects. My younger daughter is taking drums and I’m learning along with her (tell you the truth, she needs to practice more!) YouTube videos, baby. Short, instructional YouTube videos, to supplement weekly lessons with an actual human drummer. Everyone should have a hobby or two; mine all involve extensive online learning.
But here’s the thing. The book – the old-fashioned paper book – was the original MOOC app. Then again, no. A book is not a course. A library is not a university. And so a library of online learning resources is not an online university. MOOC’s are going to help people who are self-motivated and already know how to learn. They will help those who can already help themselves.
I realize these MOOC’s are trying to semi-interactive. They aren’t just old-fashioned courseware – not just a database of webcast lectures you can download as mp3s. Obviously this means that MOOC’s have to be the new frontier of social networking. Some kind of peer-to-peer bootstrapping, with lots of students helping each other help themselves, because there’s no way one instructor (or just a few) can individually help every student, once you scale up past a certain point. But this still requires the students to be mature and self-motivated, as learners, to start with.
This is such a huge number of people – especially globally – that it’s great news, all in all. But it leaves a lot of people behind – students better served by a more traditional college experience. But, then again, it’s paradoxical to say that MOOC’s are for advanced students, whereas meatspace college is more remedial, in a disciplinary sort of way. (Poor kid, he has to go to Harvard because he’s not ready for Coursera!) College is for students who can’t yet help themselves, don’t know how to study, don’t know enough to know what they want, or what they should want, to learn. They need to be more or less locked into an environment where they will be induced to learn how to learn. Which is, after all, what college is supposed to teach.
In a world of MOOC’s, traditional college is ambiguous between remedial learning for those who haven’t yet learned how to learn, and a premium personal coaching service – because, after all, one-on-one (or one-on-a-few) personal mentoring is always going to be better than the best Coursera can offer.
Oh, and credentialing. (It’s quite crucial that I am not interested in getting a guitar credential or a Photoshop credential. Otherwise my online learning life would necessarily be vastly more complicated.) We can talk about the complicated fact that colleges are a vast credentialing industry. It’s going to be hard for MOOC’s to take their place in that regard. But it’s also hard to regard this vast credential industry structure as very sensible, overall.
Also, as one commenter pointed out in my last thread: we shouldn’t be stampeded by the newness of all this. I was talking about the Western Governors model in that post and it was pointed out that there are lots of generally no-glamour state (2nd or 3rd tier) colleges and universities, plugging along, doing what they have always done, not charging more tuition than Western Governors, probably getting comparable outcomes. So if we are really cash-strapped, we shouldn’t just look for a shiny new inexpensive widget or app. Very true.