The growing presence of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has generated a lot of discussion among educators and in the news media about the future of higher education.
Some have hopeful visions of lower education costs and far-reaching accessibility.
“The shimmery hope is that free courses can bring the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet, help people in their careers, and expand intellectual and personal networks,” Laura Pappano wrote in the New York Times in a November 2012 piece.
Others have expressed disillusionment or fear about MOOCs. Completion rates are in the single digits and students’ level of engagement drops significantly in the first couple of weeks of a MOOC, according to a University of Pennsylvania study. Additionally, some argue that MOOCs are not taught well.
What are MOOCs?
MOOCs are online courses that are free and available to everyone around the world, often taught by professors from top universities such as Yale, Stanford and the University of Michigan. MOOCs generally include video lectures, webinars or panel discussions; online discussion forums; quizzes on the course material; and peer feedback.
There are MOOCs on just about every topic imaginable: the health care system, negotiation techniques, Internet history, cataract surgery, thermodynamics, poetry, and many more. Coursera, one of the most prominent MOOC providers, offers over 400 courses. edX, another one of the main MOOC providers, offers nearly as many.
However, at its core, “MOOC’ is simply another term for “class,” according to Al Filreis, Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been teaching a MOOC called “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry,” or “ModPo,” through Coursera since the Fall 2012 semester.
“The problem with the media response to the phenomenon of so-called MOOCs is to think of it as a monolithic thing, one thing,” Filreis told me last week. “‘MOOC’ is the unfortunate, kind of awkward acronym, synonym of classes. It just happens to be online and it happens to be open as opposed to closed only to tuition payers.”
Who takes MOOCs?
MOOCs have been praised for their ability to give people all over the world – including remote regions of the world – access to content and instruction by professors at top universities, when many of them would not have had access to this content before.
Filreis believes that this is one of the greatest benefits of MOOCs:
“That’s my main reason for doing it,” Filreis said, “reaching out to thousands of people who would have little or no access to the kinds of poets and poetry that I admire.”
However, some have observed that the utopian notion that MOOCs are providing an education to people in remote parts of the world are far from reaching fruition.
As Jeffrey Selingo observed in the New York Times in October, “the average student in a MOOC is not a Turkish villager with no other access to higher education but a young white American man with a bachelor’s degree and a full-time job.”
Citing data that represents over two dozen Coursera courses, Selingo wrote, “Some 80 percent of MOOC students in Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa had a college degree, while in the overall population only 5 percent did.”
But MOOCs benefit other kinds of people too, according to Filreis. He said that “people who do not do well in traditional learning environments,” such as disabled people and retired people, “could do well in these massive open online courses.”
My mother, for example, recently retired from decades of work in public administration and has been exploring several MOOCs, some related to her career interests and some totally unrelated, such as Filreis’s poetry MOOC:
Is a real dialogue/conversation possible in the MOOC format?
One of the biggest criticisms of MOOCs is that they can’t replicate the in-person conversations and dialogues that occur in the real physical space of universities.
“Because anyone with an Internet connection can enroll, faculty can’t possibly respond to students individually,” Pappano argued.
“How do you make the massive feel intimate?” Pappano wrote. “That’s what everyone is trying to figure out.”
Robert Hernandez – a web journalist and Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who taught a MOOC called “Introduction to Mobile Journalism” through the Knight Center during Summer 2014 – told me he doesn’t believe it’s possible for MOOC instructors to have the same kind of dialogue they would have with students in a normal university setting, but there are benefits to participating in a MOOC even without this dialogue:
I think that is possible in a classroom, where you have more vocal students [as] opposed to quieter students observing, but I don’t think it would be the same. Again, it depends on the expectation of the student. For my type of learning, I would prefer more direct and more frequent interaction with the student and professor, as opposed to, I’m in a sea of thousands of people and I hope that they see my questions and I hope that I learn something from someone else’s ones.
But again, access to that information, access to that classroom, might be so overwhelming that I accept the framework of being a sea of a thousand people. At least I’m among the thousand people to participate, [as] opposed to not being able to participate at all. So that’s basically the tradeoff. It’s not for everyone.
Filreis, on the other hand, disagrees with the notion that MOOC instructors can’t have a comparable dialogue with students in the MOOC format:
There must have been a time in the rise of educational institutions where the scholar or master [was] sitting around a manuscript with two or three acolytes, all looking at the same piece of paper, let’s say in Paris sometime in the Middle Ages, where that pedagogy turned toward a group of fifty or a hundred people sitting in a peered auditorium. I’m sure that people would have said at that time, you can’t possibly stand in a classroom with fifty or a hundred people and do the same thing – create a sense of intimacy or interaction that was achieved sitting around a manuscript with three people. Right? So it’s just a matter of figuring out different kinds of strategies of interaction. The students in my class will tell you, to a one, that they felt that it was an intimate experience, that it was not impersonal.
Additionally, some students taking the same MOOC meet in study groups in real space, as Pappano notes. This could be in addition to or instead of the online discussion forum in the MOOC.
Qian Jin, a lecturer of journalism at the Shanghai International Studies University who took Hernandez’s “Intro to Mobile Journalism” MOOC, told me last week that these “offline” study groups – in which MOOC students can talk to one another in-person, watch video lectures together and do assignments together – should be an essential part of MOOCs, particularly in countries with a different native language than that of the MOOC instructor.
How will MOOCs and higher education change in the years to come?
One general area of agreement seems to be that the days of professors simply dictating information to students in lecture halls are numbered.
“This is something that you can displace outside of class, so the students don’t have to waste precious time that could be used for qualitative interaction, seeing something that could be automated,” Filreis said.
He believes that this realization will improve the teaching that is happening on campus in real space.
Qian also predicts that professors who merely transmit information to students will “disappear,” thanks to MOOCs. Instead, he said, we need professors who can “put things into perspective” for students and turn “information into knowledge”.
He believes that in the future, the university campus will be a “space of interaction,” where students can meet and talk to each other, professors would serve as “consultants” or “moderator[s]” for the students, and there would be a “real dialogue” reminiscent of Plato’s Academy.
However, it is difficult to tell what will happen twenty years from now, and that has sometimes contributed to fears about this technology’s impact on the future. But Hernandez said that these kinds of fears are nothing new.
“I’ve been in the digital journalism industry since the late 90s, and there’s always this fear or this discussion of ‘Will X replace Y? Are we dead? Are we the future?’ And the truth is, I have seen over time that it’s still inclusive to both,” Hernandez said.
He believes that MOOCs should be embraced in the years to come.
“The ones that don’t embrace this technology will simply die out like dinosaurs did, like all these other types of evolutionary things,” Hernandez said. “The traditional – those who put their head in the sand – will be left behind, but those that embrace it, that are constantly innovated, that are on top of this technology, that are not threatened by it, but are energized and empowered by it, they’ll succeed – wherever it evolves to, they’ll be present.”