Throw a brick out a window nowadays and you are liable to hit an article about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs); conveniently, The Chronicle of Higher Education has grouped most of their coverage of the development of MOOCs going all the way back to 2008. The one sentence summary (and the details of this are disputed by different critics) is MOOCs are free online classes made up of thousands of students engaging in the class. Both the controversy and interest in MOOCs have increased significantly as several Silicon Valley start-up enterprises– notably Coursera– have entered the market with millions of dollars in venture capital.
In late July, the tension about both the definition and future of MOOCs played out in a series of talks that are available online. First, there are these two TED talks, the first from Daphne Koller, who is the cofounder of Coursera.
The second is by Peter Norvig, who taught a MOOC on artificial intelligence at Stanford in 2011.
Last and far from least is a talk that George Siemens gave at EDUCAUSE recently called “MOOCs: Open Online Courses as Levers for Change in Higher Education.” The slides are below, but this link will take you to Siemens’ site and a link to his actual talk.
I don’t have a recommended order for looking at these talks and I also realize that watching them all is going to take more than an hour, but if you’re interested in the whole MOOC thing, I’d encourage spending the time.
For me, these three talks– and really the TED talks vs. Siemens– cover a lot of the possibilities, perils, and frustrations of the current “MOOC-olution” that’s going on in higher education right now. A few highlights for me:
- Koller begins by talking about the issues of access to higher education all over the world and relates the story of a stampede of people trying to get into the University of Johannesburg, an event that the New York Times reported as embodying the “broad crisis in South Africa’s overstretched higher education system.” Coursera, Koller argues, is part of the solution. That’s a noble sentiment and it went over well during Koller’s TED talk, I suspect because the audience is made up of a lot of people who could have also been characters in that South Park “Smug Alert” episode. (For those who don’t remember and/or non-fans: this is where Kyle’s family has to move to San Francisco after his father buys a hybrid car; while in SanFran, the Broflovski’s befriend similar high-n-mighty smug folks who also enjoy the smell of their own farts).
- And it’s also worth noting that Siemens mentions in his talk the encouraging signs he saw first hand of MOOCs being used by students in India. But I have to wonder: do those thousands of largely poor South Africans have the level of computer and internet access to take advantage of MOOCs? And given the larger problems for poor blacks in South Africa (the NYTimes article mentions that the jobless rate among poor youths is 70%, for example), isn’t this a bit of a “let them eat cake” type of proposal?
- The thing I find most surprising and even irritating about both Koller’s and Norvig’s videos is they make it sound as if they have “discovered” online teaching. For example, Norvig makes a big deal about how it turns out that one of the ways to help students succeed in online classes is to have deadlines. Koller makes a big deal out of one way to deal with the huge numbers in Coursera courses is to have peer evaluations. It’s maddening, and as you see in the beginning of Siemens’ talk, he feels the same way. To paraphrase/more or less quote him, “It’s as if they are discovering North America all over again.” Coursera et al, Siemens argues, have spent a lot of money on hiring a lot of programmers to get the infrastructure up and running, but they have clearly not paid a lot of attention to the well-developed thinking about online teaching.
- And just to be clear: online teaching is a) not particularly new, and b) it is not only happening in proprietary schools like University of Phoenix or Kaplan. I’m far from a “pioneer” in the field, but I’ve been teaching online for seven years, and I’ve always had online classes that included these radical pedagogical innovations called “deadlines” with students all working together on projects (sometimes even collaborating!) and “peer review” where students comment on each others’ writing drafts. I’m not alone in this. As Siemens points out, about one third of U.S. and Canadian college students have taken at least one class online, and these are at “traditional” universities. That’s hardly undiscovered territory.
- I think Siemens is correct in assessing why MOOCs have all of a sudden become a big deal: money. He say’s in the last 8 months, there’s been around $100 million invested in MOOCs by venture capitalists. You put that much money into anything and there’s going to be at least a ripple. You put that much money into higher education, which runs on the cheap as it is and which has been all about slashing budgets every which way to stop the rising costs of tuition and fees, and you’ve got more than a ripple.
- Finally, I think Siemens draws a good contrast between his MOOC experiments and what Coursera (et al) are doing with MOOCs. Siemens and his colleagues were all about demonstrating how knowledge creation is messy and social, about using relatively low-powered and open-source tools, about emphasizing the development of social relationships that can be fostered after the class, and Siemens describes how he ran his MOOCs “off the side of my desk.” Coursera is all about delivering knowledge in a rather conventional “sage on the stage” lecture format, about using a mix of proprietary tools (like its course shell software) and more open media tools (like YouTube), also about social relationships inside and outside of the class, and Coursera is ultimately about a hope/dream for making a lot of money. Again, Coursera’s founders stated goal of giving the world access to “the best” higher education is noble, but I guarantee that the investors who have put up the money have other goals.