140,000 students in a single course? C'mon...there's no way! Or is there? A LOT of people have taken notice of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in the past few months. And when I say people, I mean highly positioned, well respected, very powerful people in the education sector. People like Presidents, CEOs, Provosts, etc., of places like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and many more have at least publicly inquired about MOOCs if not actually starting programs to invest in their own.
A respected colleague of mine who talks almost exclusively to C-level educators put it simply but effectively, "...the genie is out of the bottle."
Of course, this is exciting. Anything to further the discussion around eLearning is wonderful from my perspective. The ridiculous, antiquated, fallacious arguments about leaving teaching and learning alone are growing tiresome. So anything that promotes the use of technology to enhance and augment learning is a powerful thing. But with that in mind, and as an "early-adopter" much of the time, my next statement might surprise you.
We need to blow up the MOOC.
No, not blow up as in destroy. Blow up as in, let's get to v2 as fast as humanly possible because v1 is NOT a good poster child for online education. Why? Simple. Today's MOOC takes many of the worst elements of teaching, instruction, assessment, etc., and simply presents them over the Internet. For instance:
Lectures - A big name in both the MOOC world as well as his discipline (aka, the smartest guy in ANY room) was describing the process he used to create his MOOC. He said, "I was shocked when I started researching ways to disseminate information to find that lecturing is actually a really bad way to present information. I have been lecturing for over 40 years and didn't know that..." And yet, this great scholar and innovator did exactly that in his MOOC. He simply recorded himself lecturing, put it on YouTube, and tied it to his MOOC. Eric Mazur talks about a fantastic study he did at Harvard where students had their brains continually monitored for a week. EVERY single student had similar brain patterns with regard to class (lecture) time. Their brain waves were almost completely flat. That's right - no activity. The only other time in the week their brains were that inactive? When watching tv. Even when sleeping, the human brain is more active than during a lecture. And yet the lecture is still the predominant means of "teaching" students today. So, if MOOCs are to "change the world" for the better...we have to figure out how to incorporate much better ways of teaching and learning through them.
Learning - What is learning, really? Isn't it the acquisition of information and then the assimilation of that information? If we agree that it is, at its core, those two things, then I would bet we could also agree which of the two things is harder. Dissemination of information is easy. It can be done through a book, a lecture, etc. The HARD part is actually making sense of it in a contextual, meaningful, connected way. Yet for decades (if not centuries) educators have performed the easy part, while leaving the hard part to students. (Actually to students who are alone, at home, with only a book...) The flipped classroom, which is a remixed way of talking about what educational psychologists have known for decades, is finally starting to shine a light on the notion that the hard conversations should take place in class, while the dissemination activities happen at home. MOOCs, as they exist today, do not even approach this.
Assessment - We can create objective tests that are manually graded and start to identify what a student does or does not understand. In fact, a few MOOCs in the past month have finally started to do just that. (This is why the very first MOOCs were not taken seriously - they really had little to no meaningful assessment.) However, even with such heavy reliance on standardized assessments in our Universities today, most professors still agree that much of the way we know if our students do "get it" is through interaction, conversation, dialogue, and transference of ideas. This can happen in discussions (before, during, and after class), as well as through ideas presented in papers, etc. However, the only real way to even approach this in a MOOC is through peer review and peer assessment. And that is a tough one for a lot of people. For example, I recently took a Udacity MOOC on statistics. I had opportunity to join a discussion group that I found purely by happenstance, with others from the class. It was a study group of sorts. However, after asynchronous discussions with about 10 peers, I soon realized that I was likely the most knowledgeable person in our group when it came to statistics. (My mother and father are giggling right now...) In other words, nobody had anything of value to bring to the table. Social learning is indeed a powerful thing, but without what Vygotsky would call the "More Knowledgeable Other" in the group, it starts to break down quickly. MOOCs could rely solely on high stakes, standardized, auto-graded tests, but again, that would simply perpetuate a bad practice from face to face teaching in the online realm.
There are others here, but I think you get my point. The MOOC as it exists today, with millions of dollars being poured into figuring out how, when, and where to use it, needs a quick overhaul. I am hopeful that it will happen sooner rather than later as (hopefully) it hasn't become an "institution" to anyone yet. Hopefully nobody is so tied to the notion of something that didn't really even exist until less than a year ago that they can retool, reconfigure, and rethink the MOOC. Because a MOOC has tremendous possibility. Delivering global education at scale with ties to real-world competencies...that could be a game changer. So let's make sure we get it right. Let's flip the MOOC.
Good luck and good teaching.