Tuesday, February 26, 2013

MOOCs are for mooks

I realize I'm coming off as a bit of a Luddite here, but I find almost nothing appealing about the idea of a MOOC, or a Massively Open Online Course. I say almost nothing because I like the concept of defined coursework, but as for the rest I have issues.

Massive: Bigger isn't always Better

This concept should be banned from higher education. In fact, I once knew a professor who asked me if we (by which he meant students) were too dumb or just too lazy to demand a refund for any tuition that funded lecture courses with over 80 students.

To his point, learning takes place as a collaborative effort. Students have a responsibility to learn, professors have a responsibility to teach, and education is the ideal end result of that balancing act. Whether online or in person, as the number of students increases, I think it's more difficult to say that they we as teachers are educating anyone. They are educating themselves, and that's not what higher education should be.

MOOCs try to compensate for this disproportion by incorporating more experts and educators into the mix, but I fear we'd be left with a free-for-all without any hierarchy. And what motivations do experts even have in participating in MOOCs? What happens when contradictions emerge? Is there a danger of proliferating misinformation here? I honestly have no good answers.

Open: You get What You Pay for?

Higher education is already a fledgling enterprise. Without increased funding from other sources, a no-charge education system like MOOCs isn't feasible. Many universities have expanded into distance education and seen revenue expansion as a result, but those courses aren't "open" in the sense we're talking about here.

I'm also uncomfortable with notion of "open" as it refers to participation by all. Given the current structure of Western society, too many people are attending university already -- or at least too many are pursuing liberal arts degrees. And I want you to understand I'm not making a statement about class or ability, simply about economics.

So, should college be an unhindered time in which students broaden their horizons? Absolutely -- to a point. But there is an overwhelming societal expectation that a college should provide some sense of job training. In my view, there's sort of an educational-industrial complex churning out graduates with the promise of employment, but those graduates all-too-often find themselves buried in a mountain of debt working a job for which they are overqualified and underpaid -- if they're lucky.

The job market in certain fields is already oversaturated, so I'm leery about opening the doors completely as I feel it would only add to a growing problem. Now a MOOC unaffiliated with any university? Go for it. Learning is a worthwhile enterprise at any level, but it shouldn't necessarily come with a university sanctioned stamp of approval.

Online: Plug in, Tune out

Finally, there's learning online. Nothing wrong with the idea itself, though admittedly I'm skeptical. I don't think anything can compare with the face-to-face interaction and learning experience provided in an appropriately sized classroom (5 to 40 students).

And from the limited experience I've had with online learning, I think advocates of distance education would agree -- or at least their methods reflect that. From what I can tell, online learning experiences often attempt to mirror the in class experience. Wimba has a "hand raising" option for God's sake.

But let's go a bit deeper. Consider, for example, the avatar-based virtual worlds we learned about in a prior tech talk. What struck me about the still images presented were how eerily similar they were to a real world classroom. These avatars exist in a virtual world. I could create a character that's half lion, half unicorn, throw on some wings and fly around like some bad ass version of Pegasus, yet we're going to sit orderly in a classroom or in a circle near a lake? And the professor's avatar is going to deliver a PowerPoint presentation?! Why bother?

Having said all that, I think online education through university systems could be great. We just need to accept that it isn't, nor should it be, an in-person classroom. We'll never achieve a good representation of that experience, so let's create a new and different one.

Too that end, I can see some value in MOOCs. At least there's an effort to reconceptualize online learning to  integrate more fully what the Web has to offer and allows its users to do, which is sorely lacking in what I've seen in university online education initiatives.


  1. I tend to agree about huge online courses... that's not why I go to school. I guess the one situation I could see where this would be a huge benefit would be one where the student CAN'T go to a traditional university, but still wants to learn the material (not enough money, location-bound, etc.).

  2. Wow! This was an interesting read for me, we definitely have teaching philosophies and that's cool- most of the people I talk about teaching with have been through similar courses as me so we tend to have similar teaching goals.

    You talk near the beginning about students educating themselves and how that's not what higher education should be, then you say that no hierarchy is (I'm paraphrasing) not desirable. I'm guessing you don't think of teachers as facilitators, then. I really like this concept for my courses and I'm very into students educating themselves, because I want them to be able to use science skills later in life so I want them to practice locating information now.

    Is this just not how you roll, or does this "teacher as facilitator" model not work as well in your field? I know you do very non-ecology things and I know it must be very different from the courses I teach.

  3. Virginia, to your point, I do believe teachers should be facilitators. It's important for students to learn how to learn. By this I mean that all too often students leave a class with a knowledge or skill set without the ability to expand upon those independently.

    My issue with large courses -- whether online or offline -- is the lack of interaction between students and teachers and the lack of availability on the teacher's part. In my view, this limits teachers in their ability to be active educators or more passive facilitators of learning.

    In these situations, the burden is unfairly shifted to the student and he or she isn't getting the full value of the educational service he or she paid for. I don't believe a 300-person class is nearly as valuable as a 40-person class on the same topic, yet they are priced equally. The experience isn't comparable, and I feel like we are doing ourselves, and more importantly our students, a disservice when we structure education in this manner.