Say what? MOOCs will save education?

I’ve been reading the public thoughts (as expressed through mass and social media) about education; what is wrong with it, teachers, institutions, funding, policy, etc. I’ve noticed how hackneyed some of the opinions are (e.g., we’ve known for at least 20 years that some professors can’t teach because the system rewards research not teaching skills). I’ve thought that some of the criticisms are sound but the proposed solutions are impossible — too costly, too focused, too short-term.

Lately the proposed solutions include MOOCs — massive, open, online courses. I’ve participated in some of the earliest tests of this teaching/learning approach with George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, David Wiley. But now the organization, structure and characteristics of MOOCs have changed and, the intent.

“Our goal is to reinvent education,” said Professor Anant Agarwal,  President of edX, head of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laborator”  cited in Huffington Post article

Perhaps inspired by the success of Salman Khan with his video-based, mastery-style learning site Khan Academy, educational institutions that had already experimented with open educational resources or courses (e.g., MIT, Stanford) began to offer more than just course resources online. One of the first MOOC-style offerings that I knew of was the Fall 2011 Stanford course, Introduction to AI. This wildly successful (if numbers = success) MOOC tested a new approach:  video lectures made specifically for open, online delivery, regular assessment through machine-marked multiple choice exams, peer-to-peer learning through online discussion forums, and a dedicated teacher(s). What made this MOOC model different from previous iterations was the scheduling and organization of student activities. This was a traditional online course delivery made massive through technology.

MITx was the not-for-profit, online platform MIT professors used to test a similar MOOC-style free offering in 2012 which suddenly morphed to edX as Harvard stepped up with cash and commitment to the cause in May.   Note:  edX now includes University of California Berkeley and University of Texas

Sebastion Thrun, left Stanford to launch his own enterprise called udacity a non-profit that  uses the MOOC-like structure and provides free online access to higher education.Initial classes cut off enrollment after the first assignment but are now open enrollment. udacity currently offers in statistics, physics and computer science.

Coursera, a for-profit, educational technology company founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller launched shortly thereafter offering an online, interactive platform to host free online courses (using the structured, video-based, machine-marked assessments model) from five well-respected U.S. educational institutions (Stanford, Princeton, the UofC at Berkeley, Penn State, and U of Michigan) Currently the site boasts 200 courses from 33 partners including University of B.C., U of Toronto, U of Melbourne and U of London.

The rapid growth in massive, free, online courses was made possible by some significant advances in machine-marking and interactive educational technologies. These advances do have potential to provide learning options to different groups of learners (not just those who want to get a free education). But the rhetoric around MOOCs seems to imply that they can solve all the problems of education – providing access to underserved groups, increasing the body of educated workers for business, supporting mastery-style learning to accommodate different learning styles and abilities.

The newest exploration of the potential impact of MOOCs is being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation put a call out for proposals this past September, to create MOOCs to serve those students assigned remedial coursework. If I’ve read the proposal correctly, they mean students who can’t complete the introductory level courses at university. Yet the RFP trumpets their beliefs around education as:

One of our core beliefs is that postsecondary experiences that better personalize learning experiences for students are most likely to deliver the best outcomes in terms of completion rate, time to completion and cost of completion

Using Howard Rheingold’s terminology, my crap detector is starting to work overtime! Or as my communications professor Norbert used to say “Conflicting beliefs cause cognitive dissonance”.  How can anyone believe that putting a course online, increasing the number of students participating, assigning an instructor who is rarely focused just on that course, and leaving the learner to proceed on their own is going to help developmental studies students?  How can an organization staffed with intelligent, caring individuals state on one hand that they believe in personalized learning and then ask for technological solutions to the problems of learners?

When I see investors flocking to educational enterprises like udacity and Coursera, I start to worry. The interactive platform and the technology-supported massive delivery provides a remarkably flexible way for accomplished learners or highly motivated learners to access high quality educational content. It enables individualized learning (NOT personalized).  Although MOOC technologies enable a skilled, motivated teacher to track the progress of individual learners more successfully than has been possible in the massive lecture halls of first year course offerings, I have serious doubts that it is a model that will help students that are struggling to succeed.

And the only reasons I can think of that would attract new investors to Coursera and other free educational sites is that there is money to be made from mining data. It will be interesting to see who benefits the most from “free” learning.

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About Cloudsyl

Now a mid-Island observer of the Cloud
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