The Promise of MOOCs
Massive Online Open Classes (MOOCs) will make higher education more accessible. They will bring courses and teachers to the most remote corners of the world (assuming the corners have Internet connections). If you agree that ignorance is a key cause of many of our biggest problems, you can immediately see the appeal of MOOCs on the macro level. Accessible higher education will bring us closer together, help us with a common global viewpoint that can narrow the gap between ideologies and (hopefully) economies. And that is what made The New York Times proclaim in November that this is the year of the MOOC (not very clear if they meant 2012, or 2013). Ivy League schools jumped in with classes, startups launched and investors started drooling at the smell of investment opportunity. People like me, with somewhat grown kids, and well-on-their-track careers, rejoiced that there was finally something intellectually stimulating that goes outside of the bookclub experience.
And there lies the problem with MOOCs — it is a great way to enrich your knowledge, to broaden your intellectal foundation and expliore subjects adjasent to your field or that you have a personal passion about. What MOOCs fail to do is inspire the initial desire to learn, or offer a straightforward path to a comprehensive base of knowledge.
First, there is the issue of content. At the time of this post Coursera lists 374 classes available from a long list of colleges and universities. While the number is impressive, and there is a pretty good varierty of content — from Introductory Physics, to Growing Old Around the Globe. What is missing is a path —what do I do when I finish my Intro to Psychology class? Would there be a follow up course that will help me delve deeper into a subject I loved? EdX, which is a MOOC platform funded by Harvard and MIT, offers only 51 classes. Wouldn’t it make sense to have some standards that identify where the class fits within a full curriculum, so that you can chart your own path? And how do you deterimine which class is worth your time and which isn’t? How do you know what you do not know?
Second, the course may be massive and open, but it sure does not feel like there is a community around it. By the social media standards of today, courses are using a “first generation” technology. It does not help that each course brands the tools they are using with their own creative names and each has slightly different capabilities. One class I signed up for sent me to three different websites for the homework, for the lectures and for the discussions. I tried this class exactly once, for 10 minutes. Instead of innovating on top of what is available in terms of community and social networking technologies, MOOCs seem to be relying on the most basic of these technologies.
And here is the third challenge. This kind of learning requires very little commitment and investment. That is what makes the courses attractive but it also what makes dropping out painless and guilt-free (and guilt is a big motivator for me). It does not help that you cannot see ratings of previous classes or the professors that teach them so that you know what to expect — we did not have that system of reviews in our analog colleges either, but the real social interactions we had in the dorms and between classes told us which professor to avoid and which class was a drag. So I blindly sign up for mildly interesting classes, knowing fully well I would stick with one.
Helping people find the right classes and encouraging them to stick with their choices will be key if MOOCs want to become a valid educational option. What motivates people is knowing that they are investing their time, even if they do not invest their money, in something meaningful. And this is where the MOOCs fail — they are intellectually titillating, but not that meaningful. Yet.