Academia is said to be one of the societal institutions which has best resisted the changes that have come with the e-revolution. MOOCs may be changing all that. MOOC is the acronym for Massive Open Online Course—a post-secondary education course where anyone with an internet connection can sign up, complete the coursework online, receive feedback and ultimately recognition for finishing the course. Class sizes can be huge, over 150,000 in some instances, and a MOOC is sometimes combined with regular bums-in-seats-in-the-lecture-hall students.
MOOCs (pronounce it the same way a cow pronounces everything, then add the hard ‘C’) made their first appearance in 2008, and institutions as venerable as Stanford and Harvard have since introduced them. Why not, since, like so many web-based operations, they’re cheap to set-up, and ready-made for promotion. Fees are usually not charged for MOOC students, but I suspect that will soon begin to change.
But think of it. You too can enroll in a course from Harvard, presented by an eminent Harvard professor, if only virtually. It’s more of the greater democratization so often brought about by the internet. All good thus far.
As is so frequently the case with digital innovation, however, the picture is not a straightforward one. There is little genuine accreditation that comes with completion of a MOOC. You may receive some sort of ‘certificate of completion’ for a single course, but there’s no degree forthcoming from passing a set number of MOOCs. Sorry folks; no Harvard degree available via your laptop set upon the kitchen table.
The attrition rate is also high for MOOCs. Many students who have eagerly signed up find it difficult to stay with and succeed at an online course from the unstructured isolation of the kitchen table. The potential for cheating is another obvious issue.
Back to the upside for a moment though. With MOOCs, learners are engaged in an interactive form of schooling which, research tells us, is considerably better than the traditional bums-in-seats model. MOOCs are typically constructed via modules, shorter lessons which require the passing of a concluding quiz to demonstrate that the student has grasped the modular content and is thus ready to move on. If not, then the material is easily reviewed, and the quiz retaken. It’s a form of individualized learning which has obvious advantages over the scenario where a student, having failed to comprehend the message being delivered orally by the sage professor at her lectern, is obliged to raise his hand and make his failure known to the entire student assemblage.
One of the most interesting aspects to the MOOC phenomenon emerged with one of the early Stanford MOOCs, when the regular, in-class students began staying away from lectures, preferring to do the online modules along with their MOOC brethren.
But online learning is also, as we all know, hardly restricted to deliverance by august institutions of higher formal education. Anyone who has ever typed in “How to…” in the Youtube search box knows that much. The Khan Academy, started by MIT and Harvard grad Salman Khan in 2006, now has more than 3600 mini-lessons available via Youtube. A website like Skillshare offers lessons on everything from how to make better meatballs, to how to create an Android app. At Skillshare you can sign up as either a teacher or a student, although as a teacher your course proposal must be vetted by the Skillshare powers-that-be. Nevertheless, Skillshare courses are a bargain. For one course I recently looked at, the fee was just $15 for the first 250 students to sign up.
But here’s the real kicker from a Skillshare course on how to become a Skillshare teacher. The course is presented in just two video modules over three weeks, including office hours, and the instructor advises that you’ll need to set aside an hour per week to complete the class. “By the end of this workshop,” gushes the young woman offering this golden opportunity, “You will be able to teach an excellent class.” Well, to employ a pre-revolutionary term, what utter codswallop. No one, neither Ghandi nor Einstein, should be guaranteed the ability to teach an excellent class after taking a part-time, three-week workshop. With the internet, especially when it comes to start-ups, you’ll always want to watch your wallet.
The most significant downside to online learning is of course that it lends itself far better to certain kinds of subject matter than it does to others. It works best with subjects where there is one and only one right answer. That or a very defined skill, say the proper way to prune a fruit tree. Any subject where individual interpretation, subtle analysis, critique, or indeed genuine creativity is required is not so easily adapted to a MOOC template. Whether a computer will ever write something so sublime as King Lear is one thing; whether a computer will ever be able to legitimately grade hundreds of essays on the same work is another.
Quite simply, and despite all those from C. P. Snow on down who have argued so persuasively for the melding of arts and sciences, there are certain studies—those where the goal is insight into and appreciation of the ineffable—that will never lend themselves well to the MOOC model. Praise be.