Friday, August 2, 2013

The Real Issue Associated with MOOCs

As I observe, and occasionally read, the ever-escalating number of articles, polemics, assessments, testimonials, and critiques of MOOCs, I sometimes wonder: “what am I missing here?’  It seems to me that MOOCs are a 21st century, university-level textbook.  Take a star professor (or at least a successful teacher), add state-of-the-art presentation and graphics, mix in a student guide with exercises/problems/study questions, include course and reference materials for instructors, build a marketing campaign, and in the 1990s you got a textbook. In 2013, a MOOC may result.  Both reflect the perspective and pedagogical approach of the author(s). Both may be used by thousands of students simultaneously, who may, or may not, interact very much with each other, or with the instructor for that matter. 
More importantly, in this context students largely split into two major groups.  I was able to learn a lot from textbooks or monographs. Most academics likely share that ability; it’s an attribute that helps us succeed over a lifetime in the academy. Most of the students I taught at Amherst College or Montana State University had difficulty learning material solely from a book, no matter how distinguished the author.  The early results on MOOCs appear to suggest a similar divide among students, based on actual completion rates.  MOOCs, like textbooks, will likely become a very useful tool for learning.  I am skeptical that MOOCs, by themselves, will be adequate for a majority of students to actually master material at the level required.  I also think the Provosts associated with the Committee on Institutional Collaboration (see the link below) did an excellent job outlining the advantages and issues associated with MOOCs and other online learning approaches.
But none of this gets at the real issue. My concern about the current debate regarding MOOCs is that it distracts us from the more important task of fundamentally remaking undergraduate education to meet the urgent challenges of the 21st century.  Consider this: the vast majority of colleges and universities continue to structure education around an academic calendar originally designed to accommodate agriculture, and continue to use some version of an arbitrary credit system vaguely related to occupying a seat in a room for a specified period of time. Further, progress towards a degree is largely measured by the satisfactory accumulation of such credits within specified time periods. I would guess that most of us who have taught in universities have encountered students who could complete all the work associated with a 14-week semester course in 10 weeks, or even seven. We have likely also had students who probably could have succeeded in that same course if they had 15 weeks to do so.  In addition, our grading systems and standards are highly idiosyncratic, and comparisons among and between institutions are frequently fraught with difficulty. To be sure (and when done well and systematically), the definition of specific educational outcomes and the implementation of assessment strategies is an incremental improvement. 
We can do better, and we must.  The magnitude and complexity of the global challenges we face simply demand a more highly educated populace.  We must be able to improve access and student success without driving the cost of public education beyond the means of our average citizen.  To do this we must be serious about creating a 24/7 learning environment for students that takes full advantage of all the relevant and supportive technologies, enables students to learn at the rate best suited to them, continuously challenges students to excel, engages students in research, scholarship, and creative work, and provides opportunities for them to engage in solving real problems.  MOOCs may become a very valuable tool in this endeavor, but only that.