Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What's the matter with MOOCs?

I've ranted about this before, but it's only gaining more traction, so I find myself unable to not comment on the trend yet again. What trend? MOOCs, or massive open online courses, which I'll happily lump together with any online courses, though at least the open ones don't require you to pay (so far) and have professors from prestigious universities teaching there. Still, the pitfalls are the same.
  1. A narrow student body. MOOCs claim to be open to everyone, and sure, anyone can sign up. But how many students can succeed? What does your educational background need to be? How about your motivation level? The creators of MOOCs are themselves highly successful highly motivated people who have excelled in the traditional classroom. I believe they have themselves in mind when they create MOOCs. Perhaps the vision of themselves extends to "what if I had grown up in a remote part of the world without access to great educational resources?" But it is still a narrow vision.
  2. Limited pedagogical views. Online courses, because of technological limitations, have a limited number of ways that students can interact with each other and the teacher. These are typically videos, online chat rooms, and forums. There is nothing to mimic in-class group work; working with your peers while asking questions from the professor. There is nothing to mimic in-person immediate interactions; the ability to gesture wildly and draw pictures and receive hints, not answers. To give credit where it's due, the Udacity courses apparently stop the video frequently for quick "check that you're following" quizzes. I do that in my own classes, and it's great - no class should be a lecture. But what if the students can't answer the question on the short quiz, even after they rewind?
  3. Emphasizes the mind / body split. bell hooks writes about the mind/body split in teaching. How teachers are viewed purely as minds and lacking in body and lives outside of the classroom. I believe this is frequently true for students as well, and MOOCs make this split harder to overcome and potentially more permanent. There is nothing to mimic longer term mentoring; asking your professor how to get a job, talking about what you should do with your life, or asking for a recommendation. There is no mentor who knows you, in the context of your community and in the context of the class. There is no teacher to determine if you're doing poorly because you're not working hard enough or because you're sick or because you're working three jobs just to pay the rent. And there's no teacher to make sure you get through that, by being lenient or tough, depending on what you need.
Despite all this, the American Council on Education is considering awarding AP credit for courses taken online. Perhaps this will be fine for AP students. In fact, despite my objections, online courses provide a valuable service for many students; they allow motivated, dedicated, intelligent students who have the passion and determination to learn on their own, or have spent years in the workforce learning material on their own, the chance to gain recognition and official acknowledgement of that determination and knowledge. But let's be clear, they learned that information on their own, organizing study groups on their own, watching online help videos on their own, posting to online forums for help on their own. They've gotten help, and perhaps a class helped to organize these forums, but these students are determined individuals who deserve credit for going the extra mile to get an education. They are not the norm.

And when we consider awarding AP credit for online courses, we bring online courses into high school. High schools are not filled with dedicated intelligent students who are determined to get an education no matter the intellectual and emotional difficulty. Yet the right to an education, the right to be taught, is, I believe, a fundamental civil right. Let's not chip away at it.