The Year of the MOOC?

by John Holbo on November 5, 2012

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.

{ 68 comments }

1

Vinnie 11.05.12 at 3:06 am

One thing that is fairly novel about Western Governor’s offering (or makes it more like a correspondence course than a state uni) is that it’s self-paced. Which means it offers credentials for less money and much less time than the alternatives. If you’re one of those motivated, disciplined learners, that is. As you might well be if you’ve already gone through a meatspace experience and are just retooling…

One consequence of self-pacing is there are no classmates, for good or ill. Though that could change somewhat if they start to mess around more with forums and the various other advantages of the medium.

Also, I’m not quite sure how it works, but my understanding is that Western Governor’s disaggregates almost all of the “professor” role into cheaper, simpler components, including a dedicated cross-course advisor and various graders.

2

John Holbo 11.05.12 at 3:29 am

“One thing that is fairly novel about Western Governor’s offering (or makes it more like a correspondence course than a state uni) is that it’s self-paced. Which means it offers credentials for less money and much less time than the alternatives.”

Yes, the Western Governor model really is very innovative, for better and/or worse. It gets rid of the credit system. As a result, if you are a very competent student, you should be able to blaze right through. Saves money. Saves time. You get your piece of paper. Fair enough. In the process, it pretty much explodes the traditional professor role, too.

3

John Holbo 11.05.12 at 3:33 am

In short, Western Governors is by no means just another budget state school. That said, it may not be cheaper than a budget state school – at least not for the average student. And maybe a budget state school would be better for lots of folks. Maybe Western Governors is better for older students, students who are self-directed and know exactly which course they want, students who already have the knowledge but lack the piece of paper. If that’s the way of it, it’s good that there is a school catering to students who are plausibly worse served by the existing system. But there are tons of different kinds of students and tons of different kinds of schools. My posts all have a mischeviously binary quality, rhetorically. But it’s just a post …

4

Richard 11.05.12 at 3:59 am

This comment really belongs in the earlier thread (and is not an attempt at thread derailment ) but on the question of why tuition has gone up so much, one reason is the withdrawal of state government subsidies. Penn State University, for example, gets only five per cent of its revenue from the state government. It is just about a private university in all but name.

This trend has been widespread. Partly the cause has been state legislatures unwilling and/or unable to finance universities to the extend needed, but also universities have as a matter of strategy sought greater financial independence, which means more money directly from students,which means ever higher tuition fees.

5

Lee A. Arnold 11.05.12 at 4:05 am

I think it is likely to increase discovery and innovation in the hard sciences because children all around the globe who have the aptitude might now have access. I don’t think we have a clear idea how many autodidacts like Ramanujan may be lost to the world, because no one around them can recognize their talents, so they never get the chance to find the expression of the ideas they are having, to develop further. I think this failure of intellectual affordance can be early and subtle, and harm them for life. It probably happens to kids even in advanced countries.

6

tomslee 11.05.12 at 4:25 am

I am not clear what problem MOOCs solve. In the first world at least, lack of materials is not and has not been for a long time the barrier to learning, so it’s not that. Is it a better means of learning than a book? Probably, for some things, but learning is costly in terms of time and effort and that’s going to be the bottleneck for most of us.

Credentials are, as you point out, key, but again “easy credentials” are not credentials worth having, so I can’t see where that takes us.

Which leaves the pile ‘em really high and sell ‘em really cheap model of education. I really hope MOOCs don’t become the second class education for those who can’t make it into the top grade.

Predictions are difficult of course, but I do know one thing. My son could not get into an overbooked undergraduate class a couple of years ago, and then received an email offering a place in an online version of the same class. We looked at each other, shook our heads, and he declined. There are a lot of higher ed teachers here: would recommend that your children sign up for an online version of an undergraduate course at your institution?

7

John Holbo 11.05.12 at 4:27 am

Richard is right about tuition. I was talking to my dad, who taught at the University of Oregon for decades, about the funding situation. And it’s the same: the state provides a shockingly low percentage – something like 5% (don’t quote me on that, re: The U of O. But it’s low.) But the taxpayers think they are still footing the bill – and state officials think the same way. This creates a confusing situation in which the state, which still thinks of itself as paying the piper, still thinks it ought to be able to call the tune. And that creates other sorts of confusion …

8

John Holbo 11.05.12 at 4:57 am

“I am not clear what problem MOOCs solve. In the first world at least …”

But clearly MOOC’s are best at solving a third world problem. How do previously underserved folks – in the third world, or just in rural Kansas – get better access? MOOC’s solve that problem.

I think the worry, in a nutshell, is that the beneficiaries will be the third world and the 1%. Prime education opportunities for the very wealthy, and this will serve a gate-keeping function. For the rest – for the middle class and also for Bangladeshis who want to learn computer programming – let them eat MOOCs!

9

Richard 11.05.12 at 4:58 am

Videoconfencing was supposed to do away with the need for face to face business meetings. In a small way, it has, but as any business person will tell you, there’s nothing quite like personal interaction.

Same with online teaching. Functionally equivalent to the classroom? Maybe, but it just isn’t the same.

Also, students rely on letters of recommendation from their professors for a lot of things. How is that going to work with an online university. “I’ve never actually met Charlotte, but she did take my online English Lit 101 course (along with 10000 other students) and she got enough answers right in the online multiple choice exam to get an A. So I highly recommend her”.

10

sb 11.05.12 at 5:10 am

This is such an idiotic point to make but I’ll make it anyway because I need it refuted (so I won’t constantly think it): What is being missed about what people call ‘the traditional college experience’? I think you mention a lot of it–being induced to learn and what you might call training. We always had books and magazines and classic comics and x for dummies and graphic novels and films–We’ve had many, many tools for autodidacticism. Books have always been there. Records and correspondence courses and things have been there. What is so magical about these web based technologies that are supposed to be disruptive that they do something completely radical these other things like books and recordings and films don’t?

People still pay personal trainers to train them even though there are videos online.

You give some reasons to be skeptical that these technologies are genuinely disruptive of traditional higher education. I am very skeptical unless the goals and standards are drastically reduced in some kind of weird Orwellian universe where people can’t write or do higher math or physics.

11

MikeM 11.05.12 at 5:13 am

Two comments. First re state support. Don’t forget who owns the real estate and buildings: the state, so you can’t turn it into a private institution, even though they don’t pay for its upkeep and ongoing costs.
Second re MOOCs. They don’t have the benefit of getting your snarky 18-year-old out of the house for four years!

12

Antti Nannimus 11.05.12 at 5:44 am

Hi,

The lesson you are describing seems quite obvious: the Academy needs to step up its game to remain relevant. Well yes, so do the rest of us too, but most of us aren’t quite so good at faking it anymore.

Have a nice day,
Antti

13

Yarrow 11.05.12 at 5:57 am

And here’s the anti-MOOC: gSchool, a six-month, $20,000 program “turning novices into skilled web developers”. Three instructors, one éminence grise, 24 students. By folks who did a similar five-month training for Living Social (a Groupon competitor which paid the students in return for a work commitment).

Every weekday you’ll have structured sessions 9AM-4PM including full-class instruction, hands-on workshops, code reviews, and guest speakers.

You’ll deliver presentations, contribute to open source, and participate in reading groups. On top of all that, you’ll spend about 20 hours/week working in small groups on real projects. No moment goes to waste..

Fascinating in a horrifying kind of way. But hmmmm… seems like a six-month intensive like could teach the content of an undergraduate major fairly effectively. And presumably less expensively, if the instructors get less than $200,ooo-ish per year. MOOCs for everything else?

14

GiT 11.05.12 at 6:19 am

I caught this link to a new paper on Baumol (and Bowen) effects on cost for higher ed at Marginal Revolution after the other thread closed, so I thought people might be interested:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2153122

SB @ 10 gave me visions (nightmares?) of academic gymnasiums, equipped with subscriptions to academic publications, multimedia centers and conference rooms, and scraggly PhD students offering one on one and group rate personal academic training…

15

robotslave 11.05.12 at 6:31 am

In which we learn which contributors to the discussion are aware of the origins of the university, and which ones are not.

16

GiT 11.05.12 at 7:34 am

*Yawn*

You don’t know anything about what I’m aware of.

17

Harald Korneliussen 11.05.12 at 7:36 am

In the first world at least, lack of materials is not and has not been for a long time the barrier to learning, so it’s not that.

Yes, in fact, lack of materials is an issue. Curriculum books are horribly expensive, and not available at the libraries, they tend to be loaned out or stolen). Also, these books are not usually written with self-study in mind, and those that are, are rarely any good (with a few exceptions). Materials have not reached saturation by any means.

Also, I’m not a Ramanujan, most of us aren’t. We need feedback to feel confident enough to go on, and we benefit greatly from structure and schedules. MOOCs vary widely in how much they offer of this. For refreshing something I have learned but not used for a while (like calculus) the low-threshold MOOCs like Khan may be adequate, but for learning something new, the more structured Coursera courses have been more beneficial.

18

robotslave 11.05.12 at 7:48 am

@18

No, of course not, but my understanding grows substantially with each post you make.

19

Phil 11.05.12 at 8:20 am

A while ago I saw a video (which I can’t now find) about John Biggs’s idea of “constructive alignment”. It made the argument that, 30+ years ago, when university access was still an elite positional good, the students who aren’t active learners and don’t particularly want to be were a minority which could be safely ignored (or failed) – but, as tertiary education enrolments have expanded, the unmotivated kids have become the majority. So the kids who take notes in lectures and participate in seminar discussions and do the assigned readings are a minority; if all you do is teach, they’re the only students who are going to benefit. You need to organise your teaching so as to make learning happen, even – or especially – for those students who don’t particularly want to learn. (It’s a depressing thought when it first hits you – Not Why I Became An Academic usw – but an interesting challenge in its own way.) Which is one of the reasons why we never talk about “teaching” any more without appending “and learning”.

Online sounds like a great medium for teaching, but I’m not convinced it addresses the “and learning”.

20

Phil 11.05.12 at 8:22 am

the kids who take notes in lectures

Slight overstatement there – let’s say, “the kids who can be relied on to take notes in lectures and participate in seminar discussions and do the assigned readings are a minority”.

21

robotslave 11.05.12 at 8:29 am

@19

While the angle you’re taking there isn’t at all what I had in mind, it certainly illustrates my argument.

22

Chris Bertram 11.05.12 at 9:16 am

FWIW, I _never_ took notes in lectures (not that I attended many, sitting in the library always seemed like a better investment of time). No doubt some people benefit from transcribing what someone is saying to them; I found it got in the way of listening. As a teacher, I hate the fact that my off the cuff obiter dicta get transcribed and then woodenly reproduced in the end-of-year exam.

23

Greg 11.05.12 at 9:19 am

Am I the only one who sees the MOOC model just usefully filling a gap in the market and not being the disruptive bleeding edge of anything very much?

Even if university were free to all, a great number of people still can’t dedicate three years of their life to full-time study. Part-time courses exist, but until professors agree to teach exclusively on evenings and weekends, that doesn’t help those of us with day jobs. Beyond this there are plenty of people (parents, unpaid carers) who can’t physically relocate themsleves to a library, lecture hall or classroom for x hours a week.

By going part-time you’ve already lost whatever it is that people think is sacred about the full university experience… so if you accept there’s a place for part-time, there has to be a place for online. Thinking of this as some kind of slippery slope would be pretty elitist.

24

Phil 11.05.12 at 9:28 am

As a teacher, I hate the fact that my off the cuff obiter dicta get transcribed and then woodenly reproduced in the end-of-year exam.

M3 t00. But there’s note-taking and note-taking; I think at least having a pen in your hand and some paper in front of you is a good way to ward off the Glassy Stare of Vacancy. Which I prefer to seeing students actually talking, checking their phones etc, but not by much.

25

SusanC 11.05.12 at 9:55 am

Lectures scale well: you can give a lecture to as many people as will fit in the lecture theatre. Now that we can video lectures and put them online, the physical size of the room isn’t a limit either.

The things that don’t scale – that have significant marginal cost per each additional student – are the teacher’s feedback on homework assignments, and marking exams.

Online courses seem most effective for people who already know the basics. If you’ve already done a degree in a subject, but there’s one course you didn’t take at the time and now really wish you had, the online materials are great. But if you’re a completely new student, having teacher feedback (etc.) seems more critical.

26

Harald Korneliussen 11.05.12 at 10:32 am

Phil @ 19: “You need to organise your teaching so as to make learning happen, even – or especially – for those students who don’t particularly want to learn.”

“Wanting to learn” is relative. I want to learn, but if you put me next to the aforementioned Ramanujan, I don’t look particularly motivated. Compared to when I was in (community) college, I’m also less motivated, because I have other worries, and other wants. I no longer have my sense of self tied up into having a stellar career, for one, and knowing everything has dropped a few points on the goals in life ranking, behind such things as caring for a son.

If you are perpetually motivated (which I wager many of you are, because it would sure help in becoming a successful academic) I can see why you would think it’s depressing that “students don’t really want to learn”. But students do want to learn – even the act of signing up for a MOOC is an indication of some desire to learn. And it’s really not something to be sad about that we can’t do it at the pace and self-directedness levels of the best full time students.

27

John Quiggin 11.05.12 at 10:40 am

I decided to try the MOOCs for myself and signed up for a Stanford course on “Solar Cells Fuel Cells and Batteries”, which turned out to be lots of solid state physics. I could just handle the first four lectures, but now I’ve decided to give up. Admittedly, I didn’t have the time to put in a lot of work – I just read the slides and tried to do the problem sets. I plan to try again with something easier.

28

Rob 11.05.12 at 10:42 am

I suspect that the MOOCs may compete with the bottom end of the university spectrum and leave the top end almost entirely unaffected.

With all due caveats about how anecdotes don’t prove anything, my personal experience of a lower-tier British university about 10 years ago was largely negative. The lectures were given to very large classes and by lecturers who did not seem particularly engaged with either the subject matter or the students. They seemed to struggle to communicate the basic ideas clearly, let alone why we should care about what they were telling us (some seemed to struggle to communicate at all). There was no narrative or overarching structure to what we were learning – each module was self-contained and some of them were of dubious relevance to the stated aims of the course. I assume that they’re still running courses like this, and are charging kids nine grand a year for the privilege. (Of course, a large factor in my disappointing experience was my own attitude; I could have worked harder, been more engaged, and so forth. But I’m not stupid and I have a reasonable capacity for learning which the university did nothing much to appeal to, and I was in the lucky position of knowing a fair bit about the subject matter before I started.)

The degree I was studying for at the time was software engineering, and I’ve since come to the rather obvious conclusion that lower-tier universities are not especially good places to learn about this subject. However, this was the era of “education, education, education” and if you told someone that you were just going to read some books instead of going to university, they’d have looked at you rather as if you’d grown an extra head. But if you say you’re taking a course, possibly vaguely authored/curated by a professor from MIT/Stanford/Harvard/Cambridge/etc., and the whole thing was going to teach you more, faster, for an infinitesimal fraction of the cost, then you might find it rather easier to justify your position to your peers, parents and prospective employers. In my view, MOOCs exist largely to bridge some of the credibility gap between pure autodidactism and conventional university education.

Now, there’s still plenty of things a university education gives you that MOOCs don’t. Primarily, contact with other humans, and all of the informal knowledge that comes from knowing what makes people tick, what’s considered to be important or relevant within the field you’re studying, and how best to engage others in discussion of your chosen topic. Plenty of autodidacts know a lot of stuff, but lack the understanding of how to talk to others about it – they just don’t have the shared reference points, and if they lack self-confidence then they’ll find it very difficult to “sell” themselves to employers or even to other students as potential collaborators on some project or other. In software engineering a possible solution to this problem is the fact that the internet and blogs/StackOverflow/Quora/open source is a good way of displaying your knowledge and skills for others, and there’s generally a few good tech meetups in any decent-sized city which can provide an opportunity to actually talk to people about what you’re doing. Perhaps this is my ignorance showing, but I can’t see why something similar couldn’t work for much of the humanities; it clearly wouldn’t work for, say, medical students though.

What’s important here is the packaging of the MOOC though. Throw in some network of study groups where people can get their human contact and you’ve got something that is a very viable alternative to a low-end education that students can feel confident about adopting. From my point of view, I don’t see much to mourn in the passing of the bums-on-seats “education” that I received; if anything I’d hope it would encourage universities to find ways of improving the quality of education they provide, not least by eliminating the lazy option of having some nominal “course” in subjects like SE which is of minimal value to students but pays the bills.

29

John Quiggin 11.05.12 at 10:43 am

Like Chris, I never took notes (actually, I never learned how), but I did attend lectures, which were mostly small enough in those long-gone days to allow for a fair bit of discussion.

The people who outdid me (this was in a course in Pure Maths) took notes, rewrote them immediately after class and came back the next day with well thought-out questions. But in most of the courses I took, people scrawled down notes, left them until the end of term, then tried to make sense of them for the exams – reading the textbook was a much better idea.

30

Alex A. 11.05.12 at 11:11 am

I think the author of the article has identified the real issue regarding the capitalisation of knowledge offered by moocs. This is the role of mooc in the credentiality business.

Moocs can provide a great opportunity for a self employed web developer or someone who is trying to refine his knowledge on a certain subject.

But most of the people will always be employees and not employers. And employers will require some credentials.

Who would want to attend mooc college anyway?

31

Katherine 11.05.12 at 11:17 am

I am not clear what problem MOOCs solve. In the first world at least, lack of materials is not and has not been for a long time the barrier to learning, so it’s not that.

I’m not sure about whether or not what I’m looking for are MOOCs officially, but the rise of online learning is crucial to my reskilling. I have a day job, and a family, and I live in a particular place, so finding something that fits my schedule and my geography would be nigh on impossible without being able to spread my search further and wider via the internet.

The idea of the undergraduate version of me earning my degree via a MOOC is preposterous though. Like many (most?) 18-21 year olds, I needed the university-environment compulsion to keep me vaguely on track. And the social environment was a crucial element too.

As John said – this still requires the students to be mature and self-motivated, as learners, to start with. MOOCs have got to be an addition to learning resources, not a replacement.

32

AcademicLurker 11.05.12 at 12:12 pm

I’ve found it telling that the MOOC success story that I’ve encountered far more than any other is a group of online computer science courses offered by Stanford. I don’t doubt its success, but people seem to forget that “continuing professional education” has been a thing in IT for about as long as IT has existed. The Stanford course seems to be essentially replacing those Teach Yourself X books that take up yards of shelf space in the computer section of Barnes & Noble. Additionally, all the people I’ve encountered who took one of the courses and liked it were adults with Bachelor’s degrees and a few years of professional experience.

It seems like a bit of a stretch to extrapolate from that and conclude that MOOCs can easily replace teaching Virgil to a bunch of 18 year olds.

33

AcademicLurker 11.05.12 at 12:16 pm

“easily replace a classroom for teaching Virgil…”

34

Cian 11.05.12 at 1:45 pm

Also, as one commenter pointed out in my last thread: we shouldn’t be stampeded by the newness of all this.

Cough. Open University. Cough. Which manages to be an excellent distance learning university. Though one that suits self-motivated learners.

35

Clay Shirky 11.05.12 at 1:47 pm

AcademicLurker #31: “It seems like a bit of a stretch to extrapolate from that and conclude that MOOCs can easily replace a classroom teaching Virgil to a bunch of 18 year olds.”

This is a reply to something no one is seriously suggesting.

The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility implicit in MOOCs is that some education can be unbundled from those traditional structures, and offered to people who are currently ill-served or completely shut out from the system as it exists today.

This is also a response to TomSlee #6, who writes “learning is costly in terms of time and effort and that’s going to be the bottleneck for most of us.”

This is true, but is in a way tautological, a sentence that only makes sense if the definition of “most of us” refers to people who have much of our time filled with existing commitments.

There is a much larger universe of people who are less time constrained and want to learn. Some of these people are existing workers re-skilling, but some of them are people who have no hope of entering into even the lower reaches of the 4600 or so US colleges.

You also say “I really hope MOOCs don’t become the second class education for those who can’t make it into the top grade.”

I think this isn’t just what MOOCs are, I think it is what they are designed to be. Nobody at Harvard or MIT seriously thinks that EdX will make spending time in the Yard or the Infinite Corridor less appealing. For them, MOOCs are marketing.

The people like your son (and my son and daughter, when they are of age, and the children of everyone who can spend time during the workday reading and commenting on CT and not get fired) will go to elite schools. MOOCs are by people like us, not for people like us.

But it is this very “second class” system that will make them a disruption (to sb #10′s question): the people using these tools aren’t the people who can afford the current system, just as phonographs weren’t originally marketed to people who could get to concert halls, or personal computers weren’t marketed to businesses who could afford real computers.

MOOCs don’t even pretend to answer questions about how to make sure our future leaders will be exposed to Virgil, while they do ask questions most of us in the academy don’t even regard as legitimate, as with “How can we spin up 10,000 competent programmers a year all around the world at a cost too cheap to meter?”

And once you accept that that is even the sort of question an educational institution should be asking, it seems to me that MOOCs will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.

36

jim 11.05.12 at 1:49 pm

SusanC @25 gets it exactly right (to use a locution from another site): lectures scale, feedback doesn’t. I haven’t taught the 500 student class that John alludes to, but I’ve taught 100 student classes and feedback is already failing at that level: tight rubrics for grading to keep some consistency between me and the TAs. It will be difficult for universities to claim that a MOOC is inequivalent to their existing large lecture classes: PSYC 101, SOC 101, PHIL 101, ECON 101 u.s.w. (the lab science classes where labs are coordinated with large lectures might be distinguished). This alone will be disruptive to universities’ (and departments’) budgets. Large lectures are cheap, particularly when staffed with adjuncts. The tuition paid for them covers the cost of the five student upper level seminar. If students can get credit for a (free) MOOC and not take (and not pay for) the large lecture, that cross-subsidy goes away. What replaces it?

37

Ralph 11.05.12 at 1:58 pm

After my second year at university I started skipping the lectures. I found them at the same time boring and hard to follow once that I had missed an important step in the chain of explanations. I learned from books and sometimes in groups and showed up only to the final exams (attendance was obligatory only for lab work). My grades were ok, but in certain areas, where I had troubles grasping the subject from books, I would have benefitted greatly from online lectures and course work.

Another thought about the present, where I’m working as a computer programmer. In my field there is still a high demand and fortunately little regulation. You have to show a college degree in computer science (or physics or maths or alike) but otherwise certificates are not very important as long as you can claim in a credible way that you have experience in technology X (or even just convince your employer that you are willing to learn it). Some years ago I considered taking a summer class at a university on control engineering and found it by far too expensive and time consuming. The professional need is not there any more, but today I would be able to pick a course online, teach it myself and start programming things which were out of reach before. This is truly fantastic.

Ralph

38

Phil 11.05.12 at 2:01 pm

it’s really not something to be sad about that we can’t do it at the pace and self-directedness levels of the best full time students.

It’s sad when we realise we’re directing our teaching at those pace and self-directedness levels, so that we’re not giving the rest of the class the chance to learn – so we end up either failing half the class or massaging the grades down-curve, neither of which is what we wanted to do. And it’s sad when we see kids messing around or zoning out and think “they were obviously motivated enough to turn up, so why can’t I get them to engage?”

The sadness is mostly self-criticism, really.

39

Cian 11.05.12 at 2:05 pm

#17

Curriculum books are horribly expensive, and not available at the libraries, they tend to be loaned out or stolen). Also, these books are not usually written with self-study in mind, and those that are, are rarely any good (with a few exceptions).

Yeah, but this is due to rent seeking, rather than any problem with the model. Outside the US the same curriculum books are a fraction of the price. The solution to these kinds of problems (see also heathcare) is to do something about the monopolistic practices of modern US businesses.

40

Katherine 11.05.12 at 2:12 pm

everyone who can spend time during the workday reading and commenting on CT and not get fired

Busted.

41

AcademicLurker 11.05.12 at 2:27 pm

@Clay Shrky

This is a reply to something no one is seriously suggesting.

While there hasn’t been much of it here at CT, I’ve heard plenty of vacuous boosterism about MOOCS over the last several months.

“MOOCS are the future! The University is so over! Strategic dynamism baby!”

42

Cian 11.05.12 at 2:53 pm

The Stanford course seems to be essentially replacing those Teach Yourself X books that take up yards of shelf space in the computer section of Barnes & Noble.

I’m not sure that’s entirely right. They seem to be the kinds of courses you’d do in your first couple of years at college. The kind of core knowledge that sadly most computer professionals (including many who have allegedly completed a college course in Computer Science) simply don’t have (the quality of Computer Science education generally seems to be quite low, and there’s way too much emphasis on ‘practical’ skills that you simply can’t teach well in a university).

Teach Yourself X books are really aimed at practitioners who have to switch languages/platforms for the Nth time in their career.

That said, I’m not sure how useful, or relevent, this is. There is really no shortage of excellent online resources on programming, plenty of opportunity to get practical experience, and for most areas such as networking/hardware/compilers there is usually a standard text book that will provide you with better info than any lecture. In fact I would say if there was an area that was already well served, it would be Computer Science. There’s a reason that Computer Science is filled with auto-didacts after all.

43

AcademicLurker 11.05.12 at 2:58 pm

The kind of core knowledge that sadly most computer professionals (including many who have allegedly completed a college course in Computer Science) simply don’t have

I was shocked when I heard how many comp sci grads apparently couldn’t pass the fizzbuzz test.

44

Clay Shirky 11.05.12 at 2:58 pm

AcademicLurker @39,

This is not a rhetorical question: Do you have a link to anyone saying that MOOCs will replace the university for those students who were ever going to read Virgil in the first place?

I ask because I have spent a lot of the last month reading various criticism of MOOCs, which seems to fall into two camps — vacuous posturing (e.g. Mark Edmundson’s hand-wringing in the NY Times*) and blistering specificity (as with the Angry Math critique of Udacity’s Statistics 101 course.**)

There lots of people pointing out that a smart 18-year old with $250K and 4 years to invest isn’t going to sit in her basement watching videos and taking self-scoring tests when she could be reading the Aeneid in a bucolic setting. But I really haven’t seen anyone claiming that she would do such a thing in the first place.

Maybe there’s a bunch I’m missing, but I don’t think anyone is worrying about Duke and UVA getting too hard hit. It’s the ~4000 institutions that aren’t even on the US News list, and the millions of potential learners who are not potential US students who seem like the prospective losers and winners here.

* http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/20/opinion/the-trouble-with-online-education.html?_r=0
** http://www.angrymath.com/2012/09/udacity-statistics-101.html

About that second link, the interesting thing about the Angry Math post is that Udacity responded the next day, saying Delta had made some good points, and that they would act to update the class accordingly.

Open systems are open; for people used to dealing with institutions that go out of their way to hide their flaws, this makes it seem like these systems are also terribly flawed. But as anyone who has watched a piece of open source software improve, or remembers the Encyclopedia Britannica people throwing tantrums about Wikipedia, the ability to see and criticize flaws quickly can help those systems get better more quickly than their less-criticizable competition.

45

Clay Shirky 11.05.12 at 3:17 pm

Cian @40,

“That said, I’m not sure how useful, or relevent, this is. There is really no shortage of excellent online resources on programming, plenty of opportunity to get practical experience, and for most areas such as networking/hardware/compilers there is usually a standard text book that will provide you with better info than any lecture. In fact I would say if there was an area that was already well served, it would be Computer Science. “

This is true, but cuts both ways — I have lived for 20 years in the estuary of engineer culture and liberal arts culture. I’m not smart enough to be a real engineer, but I am smart enough to understand some of what they are up to a few years earlier than the theater people I used to collaborate with.

And being in that estuary has taught me two things: first, the near-total contempt much of the liberal arts establishment has for people who know how to build things*, and second, how much the behavior of English majors ends up looking like the behavior of techies from a decade before.

The immernet made my brain catch on fire in the early 1990s, and I went around telling all my book-group-y friends how amazing it was, and what I got in reply was a patient explanation that, since I was a crypto-proto-quasi-geek, my enthusiasms were not predictive of what normal people would do.

The first half of that explanation is true, but the second turned out to be false. I have heard over the years that not everyone will have a computer/mobile phone/internet connection/use email/IM/the web/Friendster/MySpace/Facebook.

And in many, though not all of those cases, what the normals end up doing looked a lot like the very thing they denied would happen.

This isn’t universal enough to be a rule, but it is common enough that criticism of the “Well, this is just for techies” should give you pause, since many things that have just that characteristic, starting with the transistor, end up becoming quite widespread.

* One interesting current manifestation of this contempt is the criticism that MOOCs “only work for lectures and for courses where there is a right answer.” This may or may not end up being true — the work on peer grading right now is going on at a ferocious pace — but even if it is, go to your Dean of Students and ask her what would happen to income if enrollments in lectures and fact-based courses decreased by 10%. (Just be sure she’s sitting down when you pose this question.)

46

radical empiricist 11.05.12 at 3:19 pm

Years ago when I stumbled onto free online courses, I watched an Oxford professor give a guest lecture at Cambridge on the history of religious affiliated healthcare. It was entertaining, thought provoking and a key part of history. (Did you know that Jonathon Edwards’ medical writings were far and away his best selling books during his lifetime?)

Everything new gets over hyped, which is fine because it helps us shove all the possibilities through the winnowing process so that the unique benefits, comparative advantages and disadvantages can eventually be understood.

I’ve always had an affinity for lectures. I never took notes because I found that the process distracted me from directly absorbing the content. Now I have the best of both worlds, being able to repeat certain sections.

The bottom line is the every form of education will find its own constituency. The more content, the more forms of free and low cost available, the more mankind is advantaged.

47

Jeffrey Davis 11.05.12 at 3:26 pm

Sounds like a job for NUMNUTS: National Universal Microscaled Numerical Undergraduate Testing Service

Future employers would just need to certify the truth of your NUMNUTS score in whatever discipline(s) they were looking for.

48

dbk 11.05.12 at 3:46 pm

Like JQ, I started my first coursera course recently. Essentially, it’s a “short-form” (aka watered-down) version of a course taught at a top school of public health in the U.S. The format is Skype lectures (from the Professor’s office, so it doesn’t give you the feel of a big lecture hall). Every 2-3 minutes there are “check questions” (T/F) to make sure you’ve absorbed the material. There’s a quiz (multiple choice) each week as well. Perhaps because of the newness of the material, I had great difficulty following the logical flow of the lectures and understanding what was really being asked in the quizzes. Many other students (esp. but not exclusively non-native speakers) requested sub-titles to the lectures (I think they’re going to post transcripts henceforth). There are several “student forums”, each with multiple discussion threads, the idea being I think that students will peer tutor one another. There’s also a paper which will be “peer assessed” (topic hasn’t been announced yet, presumably this will happen on the first day of the week it’s due). The schedule is tight (coursera is not a “work at your own pace” MOOC), and although the syllabus says “3-5 hours per week” are required, I think this refers only to the lectures/quizzes/following – even casually – the forums. My impression is that more like 10-12 hours are required to even begin to absorb the material. There are two coursebooks (not expensive, but not free – you had to order them in advance), plus some recommended websites, one of which isn’t updated very often. For those of us who don’t have access to any academic journals databases (e.g. Medline, for this particular course), locating academic bibliography is extremely difficult, often impossible.

That said, I’ve signed up for another course – if nothing else, I read two extremely interesting books, and numerous articles and studies that I was able to access. I won’t go for the “certifications” henceforth, however, only the knowledge. I see coursera as a chance to learn entirely new things, delve into subject fields I didn’t study at university but have since acquired at least a passing interest in, and keep myself mentally and intellectually active – all acceptable personal goals, but surely a very insignificant goal of coursera, perhaps merely an unintended side benefit.

49

Cian 11.05.12 at 3:54 pm

#43 Clay,

1) Every time a new technology comes along, grandiose claims are made about how it is going to radically transform education. The telephone, the gramophone, TV, filmstrips, the computer, the personal computer, the internet, etc. And yet, none of them have made any measurable, or substantive, difference to teaching except in narrow areas.

2) I might be less skeptical if the people pushing this stuff were doing this with any rigour. Where are the metrics? What are we measuring? What are we trying to teach? How are we trying to teach it? Why? How do we know if they’ve actually learnt anything

3) Have any of the people pushing this even heard of the Open University?

And in many, though not all of those cases, what the normals end up doing looked a lot like the very thing they denied would happen. This isn’t universal enough to be a rule

Computer programmers mostly don’t use MOOCs. They use conventional text books, online resources and peer networks. So not sure what your argument really is here.

This may or may not end up being true — the work on peer grading right now is going on at a ferocious pace

Either you mean something else, or you don’t understand the point of peer grading. Peer grading is a tool for teaching students the difference between good work, and bad work – and thinking about their audience. It’s not a replacement for marking end of course/year exams, or coursework. Automated marking may work, but then so one day AI may deliver on the promises that have been made on its behalf over the years.

50

Cian 11.05.12 at 3:56 pm

And yet, none of them have made any measurable, or substantive, difference to teaching except in narrow areas.

This should read significant, rather than ‘any’. In education, there’s a long history of technology being over-hyped.

51

Hidari 11.05.12 at 4:20 pm

” Automated marking may work, but then so one day AI may deliver on the promises that have been made on its behalf over the years.”

Decades. Not years.

Many many many decades.

52

Clay Shirky 11.05.12 at 5:37 pm

Cian #43,

There are examples on both sides. Movable type (the 1450 version, not the blogging tool) was a technology that had a pretty big effect on education, as has digital access to research materials, so the most we can say is that most technology has been integrated into the academy without much disruption most of the time. This means the odds are certainly on your side, but they are just good odds, and don’t come anywhere near your “no measurable difference” claim.

To you point #2, about measurement and rigor, I absolutely agree with this criticism, though the conversation around MOOCs also highlights the fact that many traditional models of education can’t answer these questions either.

To #3, I’m not sure how many people at Udacity have heard of Open University — likely far more at Coursera and especially EdX, for the obvious reasons. However, I’m not sure that matters much, as I’m not sure how much of what Open does is worth copying, and if the general message is just “Other people tried something like this, and it worked OK but not great”, I don’t think it would dissuade them, or even really interest them much.

Techies don’t really _have_ the story of “Other people tried this and it didn’t work” in their bones, because they live in a world of counter-examples: videoconferencing was a dud, and then there was Skype. Hypertext went from Vannevar Bush to Hypercard with only minor effect, and then Tim Berners-Lee gave it another shot, in another context, with another set of variables…

The people assuming that they can re-think education in a way that dramatically reconfigures it are probably wrong, just given the historical odds against revolution. But since there have been some revolutions that succeeded despite those odds, the people working on MOOCs et al are going to take the risk that they will be more like Gutenberg than Sarnoff.

And you’d be surprised at how many programmers use MOOCs (and related things like Codecademy.) It is, as Katherine @31 pointed out, part of the general culture of re-skilling (which culture I am betting becomes more general over the next several years.)

As for peer grading, though it came from the ‘train undergrads’ mental antibodies to recognize good from bad’ mold, the MOOC people are looking to it to gauge quality in a way roughly analogous to Larry and Sergey using multiple semi-reliable judgments about quality to create PageRank, and then Google.

53

mbw 11.05.12 at 6:26 pm

I haven’t read the whole thread, but a couple of points:
a) There’s a place for MOOCs; my concern is that it turns into “we don’t need a public university, for one can go to an elite college or do self-paced courses!” This is what’s going on in my state. WGU is touted as an alternative to a university system that serves a lot of non-traditional students. This is my main concern — I think it’s bad if one’s options are either be wealthy or bright enough for an elite college, or a self-paced jobs certificate (and if you need retraining in a few years, I’m sure they’ll sell it.)
b) State universities like the one I teach at offer online courses, and the better ones try very hard to keep some of the structure and feel of a real classroom. The problem isn’t the delivery system (online vs. face-to-face) as much as it is that most people are absolutely horrid at motivating themselves to finish a self-directed project. (That’s not a knock against the target population; I think it’s just human nature.) So the choice here isn’t really between online vs. not online. That’s happening anyway.
c) Large 100-person lecture courses aren’t ideal for learning, but the failure rate in online courses is much higher. I’d be curious to see how many of WGUs students don’t pass or drop out.

54

Clay Shirky 11.05.12 at 6:36 pm

And oops, my response to Cian was @49, not @43.

55

Doug K 11.05.12 at 9:26 pm

Clay @52, “videoconferencing was a dud, and then there was Skype. “
But Skype isn’t videoconferencing nor anything like it.. in my experience Skype is friends conversing, for which it works quite well; and videoconferencing remains a squib.

My experience with Coursera was much like dbk’s. So far we have three CT posters/readers who have flunked out of a Coursera course.
;-)

Certainly it’s better than nothing, but it’s not like an education. With thousands of students, the lecturers might as well be reading out chapters of the textbook. I suspect most of the learning happens in the online forums and chatrooms around the course, rather than in the the lecture videos.

I share tomslee’s fear that this is part of the aristocratization of US society. The rich and well-connected go to Harvard as they always have, to get an excellent education; the merely rich can afford good state universities (like California, which now costs more than Harvard), to get a good education; and the rest of us get cheap online courses, to figure it out as best we can, and fall by the wayside if we cannot.

The question @35,
“How can we spin up 10,000 competent programmers a year all around the world at a cost too cheap to meter?”
strikes me as sociopathic. If the cost of your programmers is ‘too cheap to meter’, they are probably living on a bowl of rice a day.

Cost of Harvard vs California State:
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/03/why-its-cheaper-to-go-to-harvard-than-a-california-state-school/254073/

56

Matt 11.05.12 at 9:27 pm

When I was an undergraduate I wanted to take far more courses than anyone could fit in 4 years. I’m thrilled that MOOCs might let me come back around to all those topics that caught my interest a decade ago but didn’t fit into my schedule. Yes, even without the MOOC I could just search Amazon for “Russian History” or “Molecular Biology,” but most textbooks are not complete tools for self-instruction, even if the reader has the nominal pre-requisites for a course that would use a certain textbook. Of course the MOOC itself isn’t a complete tool for self instruction: I’m not going to get my essays back with thoughtful marking and commentary, or do laboratory exercises with my laptop. But the MOOC looks like it can go further than previous aids for self-study, particularly if you’re simply curious rather than collecting credentials.

I don’t think that MOOCs have to remake or replace traditional higher education to be amazing and worthwhile, but most of the discussion is about about traditional higher education’s reaction. To put it another way: if we were discussing Internet telephony 10 years ago, would the discussion mostly be about all the people who won’t use it? About how it can’t replace a telephone contact number for employers, banks, utility companies, etc.? About how it could threaten public subsidies for traditional phone service in low-income households? Or, veering too far into optimism instead, about how AT&T and BT were going to go out of business in a few years and nobody would ever pay for voice communications again?

57

bianca steele 11.05.12 at 10:06 pm

On these kinds of “schools” and CS courses, or other technical courses: I can see the point of teaching the first- and second-year courses (algorithms, finite math, etc.), or even the basic upper-level courses (OS, AI), to people who missed them, because they came into the field without studying it at a university, or studied at a poor university. I think a few good courses from world-class universities could be quite good. These were the courses where I, personally, often learned from lectures, in part because the textbooks were either dry, awful, or pitched at the wrong level. And in some cases non-existent or simply covered only tangential subjects.

Incidentally, these are, I think, the subjects some programmers (and some managers in some computer-related fields) are talking about when they say, “College is a waste of time, because it teaches you things you can’t use in the real world.” These don’t only teach important concepts, they’re the courses with the sheep-from-goats-separating practical projects. Of course, on the other hand, some people don’t need to know Java and can get by with Perl or whatever.

On the other hand, there are concepts and skills that didn’t exist when one was in college, can be reasonably well self-taught by someone who’s interested, but where there’s no good credentialing mechanism that would convince a hiring manager (as opposed to one’s own existing manager). There are university extension courses for the more popular of these, sometimes taught not by faculty or even adjuncts but by IT staff, which I’d guess are populated in part by people who really don’t know anything about the area, and in part by people who do but would like a credential. And I don’t think those university courses likely serve as very good credentials in the first place. A course from MIT or Stanford might be entirely different.

As far as other kinds of courses, I’d love to see a good set of lectures and a good reading list. I’ve been enjoying some of the Yale Lecture series. But I spent too much time in high school phoning in research papers, and I have a hard time believing I’d be prevented from doing that in a course as big as these are.

58

peterv 11.05.12 at 10:54 pm

Harald Korneliussen #17:

“Also, I’m not a Ramanujan, most of us aren’t. We need feedback to feel confident enough to go on, . . . “

Even Ramanujan needed feedback, which is why he wrote letters out of the blue to foreign mathematicians asking for help. He did his best work not alone, but in close, face-to-face, collaboration with others. Also, it is worth noting that – contrary to the myth around him – his mathematical intuition, extraordinary though it was when it worked, was as often wrong as it was correct.

59

John Quiggin 11.06.12 at 3:05 am

As pro-MOOC data point, there’s the myth of the myth of the paperless office. Although overhyped and prematurely announced many times, the paperless office is now, pretty much, a reality.

60

tomslee 11.06.12 at 3:48 am

Lots of good points here, although it’s no surprise that the discussion is fragmented given what JH points out in the original post: “it is likely to be the bleeding edge of some disruptive wedge, I don’t know which one – several probably”.

I don’t think there is any doubt that MOOCs will gain significant usership, whether it’s Katherine’s reskilling, Matt’s supplemental courses, JQ and dbk’s curiosity-driven learning, or Clay Shirky’s large-scale second class education for those who can’t make it into the top grade. But that leaves several questions unanswered:

- Would the widespread adoption of MOOCs lead to a “democratization of learning”? I’d say no because of the credential issues and the status issues around education. I’m sure there will be many anecdotes of the general form “Jane was a dropout, at the end of her rope. Then she found a course on Coursera in [insert subject here] and now she’s a successful professional.” But such anecdotes will tell us nothing.

- Would the widespread adoption of MOOCs lead to a better educated populace, an educational golden age? Again, I’d say this is a fallacy of composition and the chances are slim. Lots of people go to the gym, but the spread of private health clubs to the populace has not produced and will not produce a healthier population. The relevant question is not “how useful is a MOOC to the individual learner” – which may have the answer “quite useful for a lot of people” – but “how do MOOCs reshape the educational landscape?”

Finally, any story that provides impressive sign-up figures up front and mentions large drop out rates in passing near the end, as the NYT story does, is a fluff piece.

And really finally, surely someone can find a better acronym than MOOC.

61

Harald Korneliussen 11.06.12 at 10:12 am

So far we have three CT posters/readers who have flunked out of a Coursera course.

Not to boast, but if you are counting… I sent in the final assignment for Martin Odersky’s Scala course this Saturday, so I’ve completed that course. Also, data against the hypothesis that us programmers don’t prefer MOOCs.

I did try another course before it, though, which I did not complete: Scott E. Page’s “Model thinking” course. In my defense, I also had a lawsuit and stuff on my mind when it was nearing the end where I dropped off.

62

Timothy Burke 11.06.12 at 1:54 pm

I think you’re at the same point I’ve been arguing for a while: MOOCs are in their best incarnation a digital reinvention of the instructional book, using all the affordances of online communication and digital media. Which is a great extension of the mission of higher education if successful. They’re not a substitute for focused classroom teaching, unless we’re talking the kind of industrialized teaching that very large research universities moved to far towards well before MOOCs or even the Internet appeared. (E.g., if by ‘classroom teaching’ one means a class of 1000 students in which a professor appears, lectures, and leaves and the rest is done by teaching assistants who have no say over the content or approach of the course, then a well-designed MOOC might well be close enough to compare.)

63

Anarcissie 11.06.12 at 3:51 pm

Doug K 11.05.12 at 9:26 pm:
‘… I share tomslee’s fear that this is part of the aristocratization of US society. …’

Of course, but this could be beneficial in certain ways. Right now, higher-level units of the education industry have a mixed set of roles in which imparting knowledge and training, pretending to impart knowledge and training, credentialization, and class filtering and replication are conflated. These roles distort one another. For example, one of my younger relatives, seeing that I made a lot of money as a computer programmer, attempted to major in Computer Science. (Not my route, but times had changed.) She was compelled to take numerous courses which had nothing to do with computer programming in order to fill out a four-year program. She ran out of money, time, and energy and went on to a different fate. She could have been taught computer programming well enough to do productive work without any of the irrelevant stuff. The largely useless parts of her prescribed program of education were dictated by the perceived need of institutions at the lower end of the food chain to imitate those at the higher end, where credentialization, class filtering and acculturization are dominant concerns, and these can supposedly be accomplished by spending a certain number of years (four) in a quasi-monastic setting. Suppose these functions were split apart. She could have learned the computer programming at home, or in some Illichian group at the local library, and at some later point passed a test proving she knew how to program a computer to solve business problems which would have been acceptable to potential employers, at least the more rational ones. Since she was never going to be part of the aristocracy or even the upper middle class, the class filtering and acculturization were superfluous, indeed, highly detrimental.

As for the aristocracy, their withdrawal from the world of real work will make them easier to get rid of when the time comes.

64

Cian 11.06.12 at 5:01 pm

Clay, can I just say as an ex-professional programmer and now Interaction Designer that I find this kind of techno-lunacy embarrassing:

Techies don’t really _have_ the story of “Other people tried this and it didn’t work” in their bones, because they live in a world of counter-examples: videoconferencing was a dud, and then there was Skype.

For those of us with a working memory, the last fifteen years have been filled largely with over-hyped techologies/solutions (and and MOOC is a solution, not a technology) that failed to deliver, punctuated by the occasional success. The fact that your memory only seems to remember the survivors is not an argument. And videoconfering is still mostly not a thing, FWIW.

My problem with MOOCs is twofold:
1) It is being overhyped.
2) It is not particularly innovative.

First the hype. What this seems to be currently is a correspondance course updated for the online age. Well that’s a C19th phenomenon. The teaching company offers lectures by college professors to those who want to pay (or borrow them from their local library). And the OU of course offers a first class distance learning university education that is way more innovative than anything being offered here.

The fact that you single out IT is telling. Programmers are very motivated to keep up to date, it has always been a field where it was possible to self-teach and get a job and there are loads of very good online teaching resources out there (not to mention excellent books). Also programming is a field where you can easily learn on your own – there’s a strong online community (back in the day Usenet, today all the various mailing lists, forums, blogs, etc). Plus of course open source, which is an astonishing learning resource. So while more is good, its hard to see this as anything earthshattering in that field. Outside IT things become trickier, as programming is very well suited to online learning in a way that other things (chemistry for example) are less so.

Thirdly, Open University. Which is way ahead of anything being offered here, plus you get a real degree at the end of it.

Fourthly, the claims seem hyperbolic given that its mostly people who are either educated, or already motivated to keep learning (and programming is a field where that’s part of the culture – at least in comparison to most other fields). There’s no sign as of yet that this will reach those who don’t already have access to educational resources.

Fifthly, peer assessment. Please. Ever taught undergraduates?

And sixthly, the idea that somehow you can make credentialism somehow disappear is techno-utopianism at its most ludicrous.

Seventh, the big problem with students isn’t addressed by this model – they don’t want to learn for the most part. Sad but true.

Secondly the innovation.

There’s not a lot that I’ve seen other than very dated types of assessment (hey, AI assessment goes back to the late 70s, and its still yet to deliver anything very significant). Online communication is nice, but hardly innovative (hey, Open University). Delivery of lectures (which date back to when, the C13th) shows a remarkable lack of imagination (interestingly, the OU mostly uses documentaries to deliver their material, and has done for a long time). There seems to be little thought about how to address the most significant part of the university experience, the seminar, online.

Ongoing lifetime education is hardly a new thing. Long history of it in the UK (much of it at a working class level, interestingly), for example. It’s good, improving it would be good – but its not earth shattering either. I’m not sure this is better than the excellent Pelican books that Penguin used to publish. Or that the model scales better than something like the University of the Third Age.

I don’t have a problem with making universities more accessible, but I do have a problem with the hype and pretense. That somehow this is democratising education, is doubtful. That this will modernize the university is a claim that requires extraordinary evidence (as well a the counter-question, why this rather than the OU model which has been proven to work). If the hype is dialled down, and people have more realistic expectations (hey, you could learn some interesting stuff at the level of a popular science/history book) that would be great.

And when the people pushing something have a history of over-hyping stuff (hey Clay), and seem to be ignorant of prior history, it doesn’t bode well.

65

Chris Williams 11.06.12 at 7:04 pm

(Massive interest to declare: I have worked for the Open University – the best university on this planet – for about 13 years, and have drunk all the Kool-Aid on offer there).

I’m on the same page as Cian here in his general assessment of why MOOCs are less likely to be a game-changer. I think that the key point here is, for better or worse, credentialism. But there are others, which I will now summarise.

Small fact correction – the OU doesn’t don’t use documentary video nearly as much as we used to. Nearly all the key learning outcomes in OU study nowadays are delivered by text featuring interactive self-assessment exercises – the same technology we developed when I was about three years old, and it became clear that ‘lectures on the TV’ would not work alone. Increasingly, this is being delivered with embedded audio, video and hyperlinks: we announced this morning (on our intranet, but it’s leaked to twitter) that we’re sticking everything onto a mobile multiplatform app by the end of next year (Career-saving news for me, because I’ve been designing a course on the basis that this would happen by 2014, and I would have been deeply screwed if we’d stuck to paper…). For a taster of the format, get onto itunesU and check out ‘A207 Brighton Pavillion’. It rocks.

I checked out OERcommons a couple of years ago in order to see if there was anything worth lifting for a module (C20th Euro history) I was convening, and reached the conclusion that the quality there was massively variable (tip: if you’re sticking a lecture course online, get your lighting and your facts right, Rice U) and – more to the point – that the content was integrated into _other peoples’_ curricula, both at the module level and at the course level. Thus it was remarkably difficult to work out how to cut and paste it into any other module. So: if you want integrated teaching material which doesn’t contain morale-cruching amounts of cruft, you have to design from the ground up. Caveat: for subjects where the curriculum is set by a professional body, e.g. Psychology, this doesn’t apply to the same extent.

All this stuff needs to be written, designed, credentialised, stuck online, and maintained, bya couple of thousand reasonably expensive people. I don’t think that you could offer a half-decent comprehensive university curriculum for less than £100m a year, even if you started from a clean techno-sheet. And that’s before you start paying the human tutors. We’ve been trying to automate them for years but the required level of natural language processing has been five years away for a couple of decades.

Still, OCR spent a decade or so being nearly ready, and in the end it arrived, so NLP might, one day. Setting it up right is likely to require quite a few more expensive people on an ongoing basis, though – although it would then make tuition into a fixed rather than a variable cost and allow us to cut our fees by about 25% . . . but our fees are already lower than everyone else’s, except for Coventry’s cut-price offshoot.

Peer assessment? Might work, but there are going to be an awful lot of cock-ups unless you have a significant number of tutors (who need to (a) know their subject and (b) eat)keeping an eye on it all the time.

And another thing: it’s very easy to call yourself a university in China, hand out degrees which have some kind of value, and not get sued. India, not so much. Most other places are closer to the Indian pole than the Chinese.

If ever I get the sack, I would try to do as Grayling’s private university aimed to do, and set up an organisation which was designed to prepare students for examination (which will of course cost them money) in an existing system: the University of London’s external examinations. I think there might be a niche there.

66

Watson Ladd 11.06.12 at 8:35 pm

The danger is that by promoting MOOCs as reskilling and standard education as the making of an elite, we devalue the importance of having a public educated in the humanities. The problem isn’t with an educational elite: it’s arguing that the markers of such an elite are bad and shouldn’t be provided as a social entitlement.

In the US this shows up in the way we consider the provisioning of public education. Schools in areas with resources offer Latin. Schools without don’t, and there is a real suspicion that it takes time away from important things.

67

SusanC 11.07.12 at 9:29 pm

Coursera’s courses seem to be heavily skewed towards computer science at the moment. They’ve managed to recruit some fairly well-known CS academics (e.g. Dan Boneh, J Alex Halderman).

For something that isn’t computer science, Gary Barlow’s Introduction to Improvisation looks interesting. The text-books + CDs from the Berklee College of Music, where he usually teaches, are pretty good. Though I’m a bit sceptical on how the peer-review approach is going to work out with something like musical performance.

68

gmoke 11.08.12 at 6:36 am

Something that increasingly bothers me is the failure to understand the simplest things. I was always surprised in the early days of the Web when a major corporation put up a webpage and failed to include a mailing address and a phone number. I find this still happening in other ways. For instance, #OWS is collaborating with 350.org and recovers.org on Hurricane Sandy relief efforts yet the link on http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/ that points to 350.org is “404.” On 350.org, there was a link related to Hurricane Sandy which asked you to sign a petition and donate to the Red Cross but no link to OccupySandy or recovers.org.

Another example, for the last three years, I’ve been producing a weekly listing of public events at Harvard, MIT, other local colleges and universities, and other community venues on energy and other things (http://hubevents.blogspot.com). I did something similar for two and a half years in the mid-1990s. There are so many lectures, performances, showings, and panel discussions with great people that you could go crazy trying just to pick which ones to go to. This listing service a model that could be useful in any area where there are a number of schools that offer public events.

These opportunities to learn and to network, to collaborate and to develop together are almost infinitely available but what is not there is the simple recognition of that fact and the effort to link people and interests effectively.

MOOC’s will be a ten day wonder and buzzword but can serve a useful purpose. What I worry about is our habitual tendency to ignore the simple stuff that makes it easier for those who want to get together to connect.

Comments on this entry are closed.