Higher Education Strategy Associates

The MOOC Conversation We Should Have (But Won’t)

In all the hype and backlash about MOOCs, it seems that we forgot to have a really important conversation about what MOOCs actually tell us about traditional higher education.

The thing that freaked absolutely everybody out (some positively, some negatively) about MOOCs was the idea that a single instructor could teach tens of thousands of students around the world, simultaneously.  “Oh my God”, people panicked/enthused, “what will happen to the university once content is available freely everywhere”.  Well, not much, as it turned out.  Certainly, no more than print, radio, television, or videotapes – all previous knowledge-transmission technologies that allegedly threatened the monopoly of official education providers – did.

But the bigger point of MOOCs is that they reminded us that what makes universities special as teaching institutions isn’t that they are superior content providers.  MOOC instructors are usually tenured professors – just like in universities.  And the topics they cover are university level.  So why do many persist in thinking of them as “less than university”?  Partly, it’s a legalistic reason: they aren’t delivering “credits”, which lead to a “degree.  But this can be remedied: Coursera’s new X track now has many prestigious institutions giving away certificates of completion in return for completing bundles of related MOOC courses.  It’s not a degree, but it’s getting closer.  What then will distinguish MOOCs and “real” universities?

The answer, basically, is the learning environment.  What MOOCs lack are not profs, but meaningful, durable relationships, both among students, and between students and professors.  Yes, they can deliver some classroom interaction through chat groups, etc.  But these by-and-large don’t lead to the kinds of interactions you get on campus just through serendipity.

There’s an architecture of discovery on physical campuses that isn’t, at the moment, replicable online.  It’s in the conversations you have in hallways, in libraries, and cafes.  It’s the learning that happens through extra-curricular activities, and arguing with your TA over a beer at the campus bar.  It’s the shared experiences that build up over time.  That’s a university’s real advantage. Maybe a MOOC delivered via Oculus Rift might be able to get you halfway there, but we’re still a ways from that.

But – and here’s the conversation we aren’t having – if we accept that universities are about environment and not about content, why aren’t we putting the environment at the centre of our discussions about universities?  Why do we still hire professors (more or less) exclusively based on research ability?  Why, even on the rare occasions where we take learning outcomes seriously, do we still assume this gets achieved exclusively through what happens in classrooms?  Why aren’t we thinking night and day about how to make higher education a more immersive experience, investing more in the pastoral care (broadly defined) of students?

Yeah, yeah, I know.  The faculty would never wear it.  But isn’t that the real problem?

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5 Responses to The MOOC Conversation We Should Have (But Won’t)

  1. Terence Trent D'Arby says:

    Ha ha ha!

    You think that a classroom experience in a 500 seat auditorium is a more immerse student experience than introverts finding a way to connect online? You, sir, may be speaking to a generation of academics and non-academics who may actually believe you.

    My humble belief is that MOOCs currently only offer snippets of content and environment. The LMS style online interactions are in their infancy. When students begin choosing their environment online, rather than choosing to have to travel by inadequate public transit for an hour after a long workday just to attend a 500 seat classrooom, is when the impact of MOOCs and online courses will begin to be felt.

    We’re not there yet, and it won’t be for everyone. Thankfully some folks in Canada are realizing that an online course is more than just posting a course outline on Moodle (thanks MOOCs!), and the richness of a well funded online course will one day bear fruit.

    Researchers will need to find private enterprise to fund their brilliant jerk attitudes when they realize no one is showing up to their boring egotistical one way monologue classes.

    • David B. says:

      I went to two colleges (B.A. and M.A.) which had less than 500 students on each campus. I chose the schools I did precisely because I did not want to sit in an auditorium w/ 500 other students. It depends on the setting. In my case, it was the interaction and relationships that the f2f environment allowed for which made my studies as wonderful and memorable as they were. As much learning took place in the library, student centre and the grass outside classroom buildings as in the classroom. Talking to a computer, in a sense, would not have been the same. Learning is best done in a social setting; it is a social act. I do a lot of MOOCs, but for a major degree one should not just blow off all f2f. F2F is not just the stereotypical 500 seat auditorium alluded to above. At the same time, it is true that not all online courses are just using MOODLE. The ideal future learning environment is going to be a blend of the two. Critics of f2f are being very narrow-minded when they blow off all brick and mortar with attitudes that seemingly all teachers provide only “boring egotistical one-way monologue classes.”

  2. Sean Lawrence says:

    Personally, I find that it’s faculty who are most interested in working closely with students in close, residential settings.

    The problem is that there’s no money in it: much cheaper to build 500-seat auditoriums or, better, just move everything on line and turn infrastructure into the students’ problem. Then hire sessionals with no distracting research agenda to do the instruction.

    The problem, I think, with building universities around an immersive experience isn’t that the faculty oppose it — who wouldn’t want motivated students and a vibrant intellectual atmosphere? — but that administration just doesn’t get it. A certain fraction are pyramid-building pharoahs. Even assuming we could eliminate the desire to build campuses to alienating size as an end in itself, however, community is precisely what can’t be measured and therefore managed. Rather, it comes about when faculty aren’t made to think of themselves as employees, nor students as customers, when the campus provides the means both for rich interaction and for focussed solitary study, when teaching and research come together instead of pulling apart, when work is an expression of self instead of an imposition by management-types.

    I can only imagine in horror an administration-led “proactive initiative” towards “the new, excellent, world-class team-building environment.” It would probably consist in driving out introverts, then urging everyone — by incentive or threat — to a cynical achievement of tangentially-relevant metrics.

  3. Barbara Stadler says:

    The problem I see with most MOOCs and other online classes is with verified evaluation of students if college credit is involved. How is what the student has learned measured? Ours is still a society of ratings or grades in education. I hear too many stories about students paying a substitute to attend an online class and take exams, which also can also happen in traditional on-campus classes. How we evaluate learning will have to catch up with the technology. In my mind, a certificate of completion is not generally the same as earning an “A” or other grade in a traditional classroom. There is still a difference between training and college education. Both are needed in our world and should be valued and respected equally, but the difference should be acknowledged.

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