MOOCs+ (or Classes + MOOCs) and the MOOC Delusion

From Slate:

For a year or two there, free online classes seemed like they just might be the future of higher education. Why, some influential computer scientists wondered, should there be thousands of colleges and universities around the country all teaching the same classes to small groups of students, when you could get one brilliant professor to teach the material to the whole world at once via the Internet? In a March 2012 Wired cover story about the phenomenon, Udacity founder and Stanford artificial-intelligence whiz Sebastian Thrun predicted that within 50 years there would be only 10 institutions of higher learning left in the world. Udacity, he reckoned, might be one of them.

As of this month, that prediction is looking overblown. After a year in which almost every big-name university in the United States rushed to get in on massive open online courses, or MOOCs, the backlash is in full force. And no wonder: The idea of free online video lectures replacing traditional classrooms not only offends many educators’ core values, but it threatens their jobs. Worse, the early evidence suggests the model may not work very well: A partnership between San Jose State and Udacity this spring ended with more than half the students failing. In the same spaces where advocates not long ago trumpeted the MOOC revolution, critics now warn of the “MOOC delusion.”

As much as everyone wants to see college costs reined in, replacing thousands of professors and classrooms with a handful of websites populated by remote talking heads cannot be the answer. But before we throw the whole idea out the window, it’s worth asking: Mightn’t there be a way that online lectures could complement the traditional higher-education experience rather than replace it?

Anant Agarwal, president of EdX, believes there is. Like Coursera and Udacity, EdX began by offering full-service online classes for free, taught by professors at Harvard and MIT, the initial partners in the venture. Unlike Coursera and Udacity, though, EdX is a nonprofit, which frees it from the expectations of venture capitalists bent on reaping millions from the concept. As a result, EdX has appeared less focused on getting big quickly and more open to experimentation in terms of how it can best serve professors and students. One of those experiments is what UC–Berkeley professor Armando Fox calls SPOCs—“small private online classes,” as opposed to massive open ones. The approach is also known, less acronymically, as “hybrid” or “blended learning.”


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  • Of course as someone struggling to find a long-term position in the academia I find this thought very depressing for this means the numberof positions for lecturers would be considerably reduced everywhere.

    But this is seem unlikely to be a good idea. The human diversity of teachers is a richness which fosters innovative idea and is necessary to avoid a research dominated by dogma.

    Lovely greetings in Christ.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • scotmcknight

    Lothar, while not all will follow this pattern, my suspicion is that many will and we may see the rise of a new class of academics: “intellectual/academic administrative teachers” who find and combine resources, and then mentor students who use those resources. They’ll be a bit like librarians — academic priests.

  • Patrick O

    Given that the present system involves a lot of adjuncts, this seems a step forward. The question is if this would be an actual new class that offers full-time (plus benefits) role, or just shifting adjuncts to a role that offers even less creativity and more management, thus increasing the distance between those who advance through scholarship (by given time to do so) and those who are basically a high school style teacher with an advanced degree.

  • RJS4DQ

    Actually, unlike most articles I’ve read on MOOCs and online education I find this article quite reasonable, and possibly realistic (none of us can really predict the future, hence the “possibly”).

    The idea of “flipped” classrooms and the combination of online lectures, textbooks, and more deeply interactive class time has some real potential advantages. We are experimenting heavily with the concept, especially in the courses that have traditionally been performance lecture dominated.

    But I don’t think it will replace the in person instructor for the reasons given in the article.

  • Does anybody know any compilation of info on how churches may be using online education and/or interactive spiritual activities? It seems there are tons of potential applications for churches to broaden and deepen education via online courses and such. I’m sure some are using it but I’m not sure where/how to quickly explore this.

  • Annie Johnson

    As an adjunct, I’d like to say “you’re welcome” to all of you who have advanced through scholarship. It’s been on my underpaid, uninsured, and benefit-free back on which you’ve been “given time to do so”, at least in many university situations.

    That being said, I love teaching and being able to devote myself to my students and making the college classroom a place where learning takes place (in spite of my lack of advancement). I do not desire the pressure to publish or the endless and soulless meetings that full-timers are subject to.

  • Boyd

    There is also the student side of the equation to consider. MOOCs are designed for people who are self-motivated, who are highly deadline oriented, and who have sufficient reading abilities so that they can process information delivered in that format (since not all MOOCs are 100% talking head delivery format). Throw in all the difficulties of assessing the work of students if assignments are also limited to online submissions only, not to mention verification that the person submitting the work IS the person who signed up for the MOOC ….
    When looking at success rates, one needs to dig a little deeper. Are high achieving students doing well with MOOCs? If so, it may well be that MOOCs work well for those people who would also do well in the traditional format since the students who are self-motivated, deadline oriented, and have high reading levels will do well in almost any format.
    Also, it is interesting that in S. Korea where online lectures are used and hailed as evidence of the formats ability to produce success, many parents send their kids to traditional schools AND spend a great deal of money to ensure that their children get into the best the online classes. Is the higher success rate in that country really due to the online classes or the fact that students basically go to school twice and get the material delivered to them in multiple ways?
    MOOCs may be a tool to help with success, but I would be wary of anyone touting MOOCs as the savior of education.

  • Amanda B.

    I think MOOCs have incredible potential as supplemental education, especially for older adults. I have already graduated university, and do not presently have the desire (nor money) to seek another degree. But I want to keep learning and broadening my skill set, and decided to give MOOCs a shot. My first class starts in a week. 🙂

    MOOCs may also be valuable for the “flipped classroom” approach, getting the lecture off-campus and reserving the classroom time for hands-on instruction and projects. We’ve flipped the classroom for several courses at our Bible school, and so far there has been a staggering improvement in our student engagement level and in the quality of work they submit.

    I do, however, doubt very much that MOOCs will ever replace a live classroom, especially for teens and young adults who may still be mostly looking at school as an obligation to endure rather than as an opportunity to seize.