It’s not the “OC” that’s the problem — it’s the “MO”.
It’s weird to think that it’s been six years since The New York Times christened 2012 the Year of the MOOC. I had just finished my first year of a rather traditional undergraduate experience at Bucknell University. I remember reading that within a few years, my younger siblings would be able to forego drafty lecture halls and copious amounts of note-taking.
The truth is that six years later, Massive Online Open Courses still only occupy a niche in higher education. Despite concerns that MOOCs would destroy academia, their limitations have thus far hindered their acceptance and — I would argue — usefulness in higher education. Both of my siblings (and I) still found/find themselves (myself) sitting in lecture halls, taking copious amounts of notes. And I find myself wondering what we in academia have learned from MOOCs.
At a glance, a MOOC seems like a wonderful ideal:
- As a student, you can learn from a knowledgeable professor at an (accredited) institution without having to consider geographic or even temporal locality to said institution.
- As a teacher, you can disseminate your knowledge freely without restricting the audience to the number of paying students who can fit in the assigned lecture hall/room.
- As an institution, you can spread your brand to and share your intellectual capital with every corner of the globe that has an internet connection and a functioning computer (which over time will hopefully increase the number of paying students and the number of knowledgeable researchers interested in attending).
In practice, however, MOOCs have a number of issues:
- As a student, following a novel, free, oft-ungraded MOOC all the way to completion requires a great deal higher intrinsic motivation and timekeeping ability than for a traditional lecture-based, paid-for, graded course. There’s less access to the instructor, and the other students taking the course may or may not be any actual help.
- As a teacher, interacting with all of the students taking my course is next to impossible — both because of the quantity and because half of them already stopped following the course. Tailoring my lectures and assignments to fit the electronic format requires hours of additional preparation each week, and the discussions that can arise on the message boards range from thoughtful to conspiratorial to down-right insane.
- As an institution, the quality of the students attracted to my MOOCs is limited only by their ability to correctly fill out a sign-up form. As with many things in life, the larger my MOOCs get in terms of scale, the lower their perceived (even if not actual) quality becomes. That may reflect poorly on our brand, and it could soak up scant funds and other resources.
The Intermediate Step: Online Courses
Personally, I still believe that MOOCs will one day succeed. I think that in time, they’ll become one of the most efficient forms of higher education — but I think that it will take years of academics such as ourselves innovating, tweaking, and testing to get there. Until then, the easiest way to make massive open online courses success simply requires dropping the “massive” and “open” qualifiers:
- As a student, online courses supplement my traditional courses — I can learn from faculty members working far away from the actual campus while maintaining a regular, focused schedule.
- As a teacher, they enable me to interact with large virtual classes while still guaranteeing some minimum level of student knowledge. Sure, it takes some extra work to record my lectures and encode my notes — but that also allows me to innovate slowly in a controlled environment where I can measure the outcomes.
- As an institution, offering online courses expands my pool of students — I can build satellite campuses near major cities with decent A/V setups in each room. I can also entice additional researchers — don’t want to relocate to the main campus? No problem! We need faculty at our satellite campuses as well, and you can always teach students at the main campus online.
So what will it take to get us from successful OCs to successful MOOCs? I can’t think of any silver bullet, but a two potential remedies might include:
- Give meaningful certificates. Several of the major MOOC providers offer “certificates” (or something thereabouts). As a student, however, I don’t have any concrete method of evaluating the usefulness of a “Certificate in Artificial Intelligence”. How does my certificate compare to, say, a “Bachelors of Science” or a “Masters of Arts” degree?
- Toss out the lecture videos. If I want to spend 60 minutes watching a video, I’ll pull up the latest episode of NCIS. Especially for part-time or working students, dedicating a full hour to watching a dry, uninspired recording of a lecture can be tricky. Instead, break up the lecture into 5-10 shorter discussions, each presenting a single subtopic. Khan Academy does this better than any MOOC provider around — their videos on Differential Equations are the only reason I passed that class.
What do you think? What are the features of the most successful OCs that you’ve taken? And what about the MOOCs that you’ve taken? Comment below!