Leading? Learning? Both? Neither?

It’s fair to imagine that one of the 2013 ‘words of the year‘ will be MOOC (which is not really a word, but an acronym that stands for Massive Open Online Course). It seems that everywhere you look in the higher education and professional development space we are seeing MOOC’s talked about and debated.

HBR editor Eric Hellwig, writing for the HBR blog, reported on a recent panel on MOOC’s held at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos with leaders like Bill Gates, Peter Thiel and Larry Summers. His report reflects the exuberance of the MOOC and the techno-deterministic spirit of much of the discourse on these tools:

The advent of massively open online classes (MOOCs) is the single most important technological development of the millennium so far. I say this for two main reasons. First, for the enormously transformative impact MOOCs can have on literally billions of people in the world. Second, for the equally disruptive effect MOOCs will inevitably have on the global education industry.

One of the panelists was Stanford professor Daphne Coller, the co-founder of Coursera, one of the largest MOOC providers offering more than 200 courses to millions of students worldwide. Coller has convinced top faculty at leading universities to provide high quality digital courses through Coursera for free and the result has surprised her.

We’re at 2.4 million students now. The biggest lesson I’ve learned on this is I underestimated the amount of impact this would have around the world. I really didn’t envision this scale and this impact this quickly.

Disrupting Education

Of these panelists, Peter Thiel may be the most controversial. He has spoken at length about the need to revamp education and sees technology and platforms like Facebook as a means to do it. (It’s worth noting that Theil was also an early investor in Facebook). He points to the multiple roles that education plays well beyond learning and suggests that when we go beyond that goal we start creating false economies of value within higher education:

You have to ask yourself, ‘What is the nature of education as a good?’ Ideally you want it to be learning. But it also functions as insurance. Parents will pay a lot of money for insurance against cracks in our society. Education as insurance has something to be said because it connects to the economy. You know computer science, you can get a job. But education also functions as a tournament. You do well if you go to a top school but for everyone else the diploma is a dunce hat in disguise. People need to understand what they’re trying to do? Is it insurance? A tournament? Learning?

Among Thiel’s biggest concerns is with the current educational system’s ability to support the kind of innovative thinking needed to make technological and scientific breakthroughs. So steadfast is he in the belief that some of the best minds are rotting in traditional classrooms that he founded the Thiel Fellowship, a scholarship fund to support promising young entrepreneurs in dropping out of school to pursue their ambitions of making social impact.

Thiel is disrupting education by taking learning away from the educational institutions charged with providing it. MOOC providers are seeking to develop a business model that puts them in the drivers seat of education and learning, drawing potential revenues away from traditional educational institutions. This will no doubt add to the pressures that universities and colleges are already facing as they rationalize ever more of what they do.

Education For All, Learning For Whom?

Free online learning of the calibre provided by Stanford University, Caltech, Harvard University, University of Toronto, MIT, and the Santa Fe Institute  for anyone, anywhere sounds like a dream come true.

In some ways it is. In others, it’s an illusion.

This comes back to the metrics we use in evaluating the impact of education and asking what its point is in the first place. What do we mean by learning and are we serious about it?

It’s been suggested that less than 10 per cent of those enrolled in a MOOC complete it. And of this 10 per cent, it isn’t clear what they learn, how well they learn it, and what kind of application (if any) that content is made to issues away from the course. Online courses with video tutorials, self-organized learning and largely uni-directional teaching bring together the best of former teaching methods like instructional TV, self-help, and classroom lectures.

The problem is that this ‘best’ isn’t particularly effective. A 2000 meta-analysis of distance instructional methods found:

There does not appear to be a difference in achievement between distance and traditional learners. Of the ten instructional features that were analyzed, only three had an impact on student achievement. These three features were type of interaction available during a broadcast, type of course, and type of remote site. There was an insufficient number of studies to ascertain whether or not the education level of the distance learners effected their achievement in the course (Machtmes & Asher, 2000).

While this review was done before widespread Internet use, the methods included reflected the same list above with one- or two-way audio and video. The studies were also done on programs that were designed for credit, not voluntary non-credit courses. Research on motivation will show that optional programs are far less likely to engender behavioural shifts than those that are mandated.

So who then is benefitting from MOOC’s? We don’t yet know, but it is likely those with time to attend to the content, high levels of intrinsic motivation (< PDF), the technological tools to succeed, and the environment that is ready to support integration of content into practice. That’s a tall order.

We are in the early days of MOOC’s and its too soon to tell how successful they will be. However, theoretically there is relatively little reason to expect that they will produce the kind of results worthy of hyperbole — at east not with those already accustomed to alternatives. To offer a MOOC from a world-class university to a learner somewhere in the world where education is but a distant dream achieves a great deal. But to transfer MOOC’s to replace more interactive and engaging methods — usually face-to-face — and expect great learning is a bit implausible.

Yet, with what we are offering now to students in the form of large classes, disconnected curricula, and didactic instruction MOOC’s offer an attractive option. What it loses is the experience of learning that is not packaged in a class. This means a change to campus life, the informal and serendipitous learning that comes from being in the same physical space interacting with each other, and may seriously limit the use of thinking and creative tools that design thinking and applied creativity demand. (for a detailed look at MOOC’s and the modern university check out Nathan Harden’s essay in the American Interest).

There is much ado about MOOC’s, but is this a Shakespearian tragedy in the making for learners?

Photo credit: iStockPhoto used under license.

Posted by Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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