MOOCs: Education and Technology (I)


In 2011, research professor Sebastian Thrun and Google scientist Peter Norvig decided to turn a course which they co-taught at Stanford University into a Massive-Open-Online-Course, better known in its abbreviated form, MOOC.  Thrun and Norvig digitized all course material for an “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” and created an online forum for collaborative class discussion and networking.  Next, they opened up enrolment to anyone with an Internet connection.

The result?  Over 160,000 people around the world registered for the course and nearly 20,000 completed it for academic credit.  Consequently, MOOCs were celebrated throughout 2013 for  “enriching millions of lives,” by granting a high quality education for those who otherwise cannot afford the college campus experience.  One journalist concluded that, finally, the door of the Ivy League has been open to the masses.

Not wanting to let the “next big thing” slip by, institutions of higher education have started integrating MOOCs within their current educational framework by forming partnerships with well-financed MOOC providers, such as Udacity, Coursera, and edX.  A number of commentators indicated that we were witnessing the beginning of the end for “small-offline-courses” that largely characterize a traditional model of higher education.  According to James Mazoue in “Why IT Matters in Education,”

MOOCs represent a postindustrial model of teaching and learning that has the potential to undermine and replace the business model of institutions that depend on recruiting and retaining students for location-bound, proprietary forms of campus-based learning. [emphasis mine]

A twenty-first century education, if it is to be effective in a post-modern and post-industrial world, must not be bound by place.  Additionally, there must be an overhaul of the antiquated lecture halls, pontificating professors, and sleeping note-taking students, since these are the educational innovations of an industrial mindset.

But there are many within the academic community who are not so keen to jump on the MOOC bandwagon.  Most recently, the Philosophy Department of San Jose State University (SJSU) published an open letter to Dr. Michael Sandel of Harvard University, explaining their collective refusal to incorporate his particular MOOC on Social Justice into their curriculum.  An excerpt from the letter illuminates some inherent problems of a MOOC-ified eduction:

…[W]e fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well- funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.

Baylor’s Alan Jacobs echoes these sentiments in his blog, adding that MOOCs diminish the art form of teaching.  Discussing the joys and challenges of teaching Ulysses to students every year, Jacobs argues that his “lectures arise from where…students are situated in relation to a text.”  The art of teaching, he continues, is to “discover that [students] were confused by something they didn’t even realize they were confused by until someone else raised a question” and to notice how “a question from one student generates quite another question from a different student.”  When he considers turning this craft into a MOOC, he offers two thoughts:

[First] How easy that would be. Just write out a lecture and deliver it? Piece of cake — especially in comparison to the hard work of trying to learn a book and its contexts well enough to be ready when people ask those questions you didn’t expect, offer thoughts you hadn’t thought. 

 [Second] How shockingly boring that would be. To stand up there and recite what you’ve prepared beforehand in complete ignorance of and indifferent to the needs, thoughts, and questions of the people in the room before you, and the hundreds or thousands of other people who are watching and listening on their computers — not my idea of a good time.

 I appreciate Jacobs’ candid commentary on massive online open courses because through his humorous remarks he highlights an important distinction between training and education, which Melbourne Business philosopher John Armstrong recently summarized as follows:

 “Training teaches how to carry out a specific task more efficiently and reliably. Education, on the other hand, opens and enriches a person’s mind. To train a person, you need know nothing about who they really are, or what they love, or why. Education reaches out to embrace the whole person.”  

It is clear that the MOOC is a manifestation of our digital ethos of “openness” and “collaboration.”  It is also clear that MOOCs promise a pragmatic alternative in a post-modern world of uprooted placelessness.  But is a MOOC fit for education, in Armstrong’s sense of the word?  Or is it only fit for training?



One thought on “MOOCs: Education and Technology (I)

  1. I have mixed feelings about this. I love the idea of making a high-quality education universally available to anyone with an internet connection, and being a farmer I especially appreciate the flexibility on-line education provides. But having taken on-line classes I found that they did not provide the same kind of learning atmosphere as a classroom. Perhaps there wouldn’t be any substantial difference between an on-line class and an auditorium class at a large university. But I enjoyed and benefited from interaction with professors and fellow students that isn’t possible on-line (for me at least). And this may also portend something like what has happened to radio, where individual DJs have lost the ability to select the music they play, as some corporation somewhere selects the music and beams it out to the stations. This could be a way to outsource professors. Why pay a lot of money to got to the local college when you can sit in on Ivy league classes for free? Of course the flip side of that is the greatest argument in favor of this.

    Good post.

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