To MOOC or Not to MOOC: That is the Question

I have been reading a lot of articles and seeing a lot of online chatter lately about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). For those who are unfamiliar with MOOCs, they refer to large online classes that are sometimes composed of thousands of students all over the world who want to learn more about a specific topic online, ranging from the Emancipation Proclamation to gender roles through comic books. I must admit that I have never taken a MOOC (I am plenty busy with my current course load, but I hope to take one someday), but I know that the general idea is for students to watch a professor’s lectures, read the required readings (if there are any), and take the exams (if there are any). At the end, students receive a certificate of completion.

MOOCs have been around since 2008, but have gained serious attention over the past year or so. Companies such as Coursera and university created programs like edX have popularized the MOOC model and have given people all around the world the opportunity to take an online course through some of the most prestigious schools in the world, including Harvard, MIT, and several others. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has lavishly praised the MOOC model, and to a certain degree he is right. Given the appalling rises in college tuition costs and a weak market for college graduates, the idea of “blending in technology to improve education outcomes in measurable ways at lower costs” is a rational starting point for discussing ways to reform college education, in my opinion.

There have been concerns among many college professors and faculty about MOOCs, however. They have suggested that MOOCs hold the possibility of destroying higher education as we know it. Professors at Amherst College showed concern about putting the Amherst brand name on an certificate of achievement for a MOOC administered by edX. Furthermore, since MOOCs are composed of thousands of students, their work is graded by computers, not actual professors, which also concerned Amherst. Even faculty at Harvard University–one of the co-creators of edX–have voiced their concerns about MOOCs and have called for a committee to review the “ethical issues” connected to them. Some professors have expressed their desire to have more oversight into how MOOCs are used at the college level. Many have also expressed concerns about the possibility of MOOCs being used to cut full time professors and/or decrease the hiring of new professors and replacing them with computer lectures.

So far, the best essay that I’ve seen describing the concerns of college professors came in the form of a letter from the philosophy department of San Jose State University to Michael Sandel, who is mentioned in the aforementioned Friedman article. In it, SJSU faculty state the following:

There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX [another MOOC program] solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course. We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours. Unfortunately, the move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university. We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice.

In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience, we believe that having a scholar teach and engage his or her own students in person is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students. Indeed, the videos of you lecturing to and interacting with your students is itself a compelling testament to the value of the in-person lecture/discussion. In addition, purchasing a series of lectures does not provide anything over and above assigning a book to read. We do, of course, respect your work in political philosophy; nevertheless, having our students read a variety of texts, perhaps including your own, is far superior to having them listen to your lectures… what kind of message are we sending our students if we tell them that they should best learn what justice is by listening to the reflections of the largely white student population from a privileged institution like Harvard? Our very diverse students gain far more when their own experience is central to the course and when they are learning from our own very diverse faculty, who bring their varied perspectives to the content of courses that bear on social justice.

I recommend reading the letter in its entirety. It is good.

While admitting that my reading on MOOCs has only recently begun, I have observed thus far a great deficiency in this ongoing debate. As we have seen, many professors have been fairly vocal about their opinions on MOOCs as they relate to the teaching profession and, to a limited degree, the students. But where are the students in this discussion?  How have MOOCs impacted their education or their job prospects? What does it mean to have a certificate of completion? Have MOOCs made any impact at all? This article shows us that for many students, learning new material isn’t necessarily the primary goal of taking a MOOC, at least those who are most dedicated to the model. It is also telling that the article is geared towards college professors and what they can learn from “Hardcore” MOOC students and not the other way around.

Well, we finally got an article today from a student who has taken a MOOC. What was the author’s conclusion? MOOCs can be rewarding, exciting, and enlightening, but they do not constitute a real college class. Perhaps before we invest large sums of money into MOOCs, we should consider the needs of students and teachers, whose views should be taken into account well before those of an outside third party company. As MOOC instructor Andy Szegedy-Maszak explains, “I’m pretty sure the current obsession with MOOCs will subside, and, I hope, administrators will then realize that such offerings can enhance but cannot substitute for in-person instruction.”

How can we use digital technology and online resources to enhance the classroom experience? The discussion continues…