While most people spend the start of the New Year looking forward, I’ve been looking back at my old MOOC posts today, trying to think of something new to say for the book chapter that I’m drafting. Luckily for me, there have been a few good MOOC-y (or at least MOOC-ish) posts showing up in my Twitter feed lately that have helped get all those happy, happy memories flowing.
Apparently, David Wiley and I are re-reading David Noble at the same time. However, I think he’s using the original articles and I have the published book, Digital Diploma Mills, permanently perched on top of my desk with a bunch of Post-Its popping out of the edges. I think the differences between the two texts are minimal, but this still confuses me:
I use these quotes to further reinforce the point that there really is very little difference between traditional online courses and MOOCs. What difference there is – the free auditing difference, with its accompanying brand inversion – is a very small delta, but one that moves the field significantly closer to the state that Noble foresaw over 15 years ago. If anything, Noble’s old warnings about online courses are even more important now than they were in 1998.
I agree that Noble’s old warnings about online courses are even more important than they were in 1998, but how those warnings prove that there is no difference between MOOCs and traditional online courses totally eludes me.
The giant, obvious, glaring difference between MOOCs and traditional online courses is scale. In a traditional online course, particular back in the last century when there were far fewer online students, it was possible for a single professor to supervise the learning of an entire class. In the MOOC age, students have to win raffles in order to get join a Google Hangout with the superstar they know only from video. As online education has matured, some such courses have gotten much better than what Noble described. Others have gotten much worse. MOOCs, on the other hand, have to function on the “you’re on your own” kid pedagogical model – otherwise they wouldn’t be MOOCs.
Or at least xMOOCs. Daniel Lemire takes us back to the difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs in explaining why MOOCs are probably doomed. Without the interaction between professors and students, universities with MOOCs are simply pushing content. As Lemire describes it:
What colleges do not do, at least on campus, is to make money off course content. As it is, you can easily order all the textbooks you could possibly read on Amazon. You can join discussion groups about them. You sneak into lectures, or find tons of them online. There is simply little value in the course content.
Do not believe me? Run the following experiment. Make all courses tuition free. Students can enrol for free and if they pass the exam, they get the credit. However, they must pay $20 for each hour of lecture they choose to attend. You know what is going to happen? Nobody but the instructor will show up. How do I know? Because, as it is, with free lectures once you have enrolled in a class, most students never show up for class unless they are compelled to do so. Why would anyone think that it is going to be somehow different with pre-recorded lectures online? You know, the lectures colleges like so much? The truth is that there is only value at the margin for course content.
Not only that, contrary to what Koller et. al. tell us at every opportunity, plenty of college professors never lecture at all. It’s as if they think they can create an entire college education made up entirely of survey courses. That’s like trying to understand American cuisine by only eating fast food.
Of course I still hope Lemire is right about MOOCs being doomed, but what if the MOOC purveyors succeed in redefining education as nothing but selling content? Here’s the disruptors’ playbook as summarized by a report out of the University of Denver called Unsettling Times: Higher Education in an Era of Change:
While a disruptive technology may not perform as well as established products or services, the new, less expensive innovation is “good enough” for those in markets that have been ignored or priced out of mainstream providers. Over time, however, the quality of the innovation improves and it becomes more broadly accepted.
Online education, delivered by respectable institutions, has indeed improved and become more broadly accepted as a result. I’m not saying it’s all good, but it’s certainly not all bad either.
MOOCs (or at least xMOOCs), on the other hand, can never improve because of the scale at which they are conducted. Superprofessors will not suddenly clone themselves so that they can be there to help everyone in need of help. Universities will not reach out to troubled students at risk of leaving their MOOCs because those students simply stop logging in to watch the lectures. They have no skin in the game, and should they be asked to provide that skin the number of students involved will hardly be massive anymore. At that point, your MOOC becomes nothing but a conventional online course and if the total number of students involved is higher than what one professor can follow it probably isn’t a good one.
Those of you have read all (or even most) of the posts that I’ve written about MOOCs have seen me constantly vacillate between optimism and despair as to whether the kind of education that I’ve invested my career into will ever be “disrupted.” Sometimes I’m optimistic that the students will never accept higher education on autopilot. Sometimes I’m convinced that administrators only care about money and our students only really care about getting a degree so therefore we’re all doomed.
Looking back on what I’ve written, this is the best I can do now with respect to offering everyone something new: This issue is too important to leave to chance. Every professor, online or in-person, needs to make it abundantly clear what they bring to the table when they’re doing their job. That list should include, experience, insight, knowledge and inspiration, among other traits.
Without those things, education will become a chore and fewer students will succeed. When potential students see what’s headed down the road at them and opt not to pay tuition in the first place, then the real disruption will begin and faculty will not be the only ones getting disrupted.