MOOC musings – a beginning

Ah Coursera.  I have been putting off this post for some time.  There is much I want to say – so I think to get all my thoughts out there, I’ll take the tactic of mini-posts.  Of course, whenever I attempt a mini-post, ballooning inevitably happens.

MOOCs are getting a lot of press since last April.  Siva Vaidhyanathan has written quite extensively about MOOCs, but I want to point you to here and here.  Vaidhyanathan writes:

Let me pause to say that I enjoy MOOCs. I watch course videos and online instruction like those from the Khan Academy … well, obsessively. I have learned a lot about a lot of things beyond my expertise from them. My life is richer because of them. MOOCs inform me. But they do not educate me. There is a difference.

He goes on to chastise people for implying that MOOC platforms will be able to cull the rising (exploding?) costs of college tuition.  I love his citing Dan Cohen (who doesn’t love Dan Cohen?!) trying to contextualize the recent MOOC-craze:

“We have been working on synthesizing digital media and technology into the classroom and research for two decades and understand how complex it is, and how you can’t just throw a student into a digital environment,” Cohen wrote to me in an e-mail. “We’re trying to do much more than reproducing lectures and quizzes online; we are trying to use the medium to enable new kinds of interpretation and scholarly interaction. So MOOCs seem like a huge step backward.”

Ultimately, Vaidhyanathan and others recognize that MOOC platforms are just another “tool in the toolbox” for educators.  Many of the “successful” courses on this kind of platform are computational.  How well will a philosophy or history course fare?

The second Chronicle article I linked to makes the point that you still have to be a great educator to have a solid course on a MOOC platform.  Beyond that but in the same vein, finally, here’s another historical take on MOOCs by Bonnie Stewart.  She gives some perspective on massively open courses of the past, using Foucault’s courses as an example.  Her conclusion:

This is the piece that I hope the various institutions currently grappling with the question and challenge of MOOCs take to heart: just using the internet to open another giant free lecture hall? Does not a new learning opportunity make.

I think this is the crux of the issue.  The MOOCs in the news do this: they open up a lecture hall to the Internet for the most part (I know because I’ve taken two courses which I will reflect upon in another post soon).  This is relatively sad.  I am of the opinion that to really learn, students must be exposed to more than audio lectures with content they could find on google or wikipedia.  Educators are not using the platform to its fullest potential, perhaps in their rush to get their courses on this “new” thing.  So, I too am wary of the “Coursera will revolutionize higher ed” mantra.

However, there is *clearly* a movement among the digitally savvy generations to be plugged in, to share, to collaborate, to communicate and to learn online.  And, I’ve heard some argue that in a decade we’ll have some folks foregoing college by learning independently and posting results of projects on an online portfolio.  They’ll get hired by proving their skills and they won’t have the debt.  While true that colleges afford some great experiences that help students learn to balance their lives between commitments, I bet this “develop your online portfolio independently” approach will gain traction in the next decade or so.

I have heard that there are MOOCs out there that are attempting to use networked technologies in ground-breaking ways.  I hope to try one of those courses one of these days to see what that experience is like.

Finally, I’m left with a few questions rattling around in my brain as a student and someone interested in how this will all evolve in the future:  What should a MOOC strive for in educating their students?  What projects and ways of interactions are best enabled by this technology?  How should work be assessed?  How should instructors best manage their time and energy?


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