MOOCs—The Great Equalizer or Divider?

As Bady states in his 2013 piece, MOOCs are an omnipresent reality that have changed the definition of education. These classes are designed to educate the masses; they can meet large, changing and busy audiences where they are and allow those using them to adapt them to their needs. They are easy to digest, often in a YouTube-style delivery that, as Bady notes, are “literally built to cater to the attention span of a distracted and multitasking teenager, who pays attention in cycles of 10–15 minutes”. At face value it would be tempting to look at MOOCs as the saving grace in higher education, since their capacity to reach large audiences and be tailored to the educational needs of those audiences is so great.

I think MOOCs do provide an incredible opportunity for the dispersion of information, and their flexibility makes them ideal for students who are typically harder to reach consistently. However, I also think there is something to the argument made by Morris and Stommel. The distinction they point out is that “instruction does not equate to learning”; people can be taught to do things, but will not have a deep understanding of whatever it is they are trying to learn unless they study it under a more traditional system of education. I do think there is something to be said about retention and understanding in education in relation to the depth of study. Some areas of study do require some deeper understanding of the subject matter, and MOOCs are not really able to create that depth. The question is then what areas of study do require depth. Is there more value to longer education that leads to a better understanding of the subject matter? Or, is it enough to have students learn in the MOOC format, where they can return again and again to the same lesson if they don’t retain it the first time? I also think this brings back a lot of our conversations about what the intent of higher education is. The traditional model of education favors the former, but clearly this model is not working for huge numbers of students. Would MOOCs work better for some students than others? And, if so, are some students advantaged/disadvantaged by the MOOC system?

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