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The pros and cons of MOOCs

They have the potential to revolutionize higher education - but will they?


We’ve been hearing a lot about MOOCs in the last couple of years, and hearing how they will revolutionize, or destroy, higher education as we know it. Are MOOCs worth all that hype? Are they something we should be excited about, or dread? Will the future of higher education be defined by massive online classes filled with students you’ll never meet, and who will never meet each other?

The story of MOOCs is a complicated one. It rests at the intersection of ideas around open access, new courseware models, funding issues, and the tension around what it means to teach and learn. It’s a story about active learning, and one about gaming the system.

What’s a MOOC? It stands for Massively Open Online Course. The “Massively” is a nod to the “Massively” in Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying games, like World of Warcraft, among others. Educators involved in the gaming world have seen that thousands of people can contribute to a single shared space and set of goals, in their own creative ways and means, and engage very deeply with each other at the time. MOOCs are, in a way, an attempt to bring the Massively Multiplayer ethos to the education sector.

It’s entirely possible, and indeed very common, to be against the concept of MOOCs on principle. Many people believe that it’s simply impossible to learn only through online tools, and that face to face interaction is required. But if you think about that for a minute, really think about it, you know that’s not true. Learning isn’t about the tools one uses, nor about the specific senses you have available to you. Learning isn’t about the ability to see someone’s face without technological support. Learning is about passion, commitment, curiosity, and devoting reams time and effort to something you want to know more about or get better at. You can do it through books, you can do it through conversation, you can do it by listening to lectures. You can do it by working with your hands, your mouse, your keyboard, and by trying to do things and failing. And you can most certainly do it online, without seeing anyone’s face.

We know that’s true because people outside of academia do it every day. People learn from the internet by browsing forums, wikipedia, google, newspapers, or magazines, but they also learn skills and processes deeply and thoroughly through online debates and discussions, collborative projects, fests and exchanges, leaping hoops in games, and by contributing audio, video, writing, drawing, painting, photoshopped images, and three-dimensional objects to gaming and other fan or interest communities. There are literature communities, religious communities, science communities, local history and geocaching communities; communities built around Grand Theft Auto, Star Trek, the video game Portal, a podcast called Welcome to Night Vale, and Harry Potter. People frequently learn real skills from scratch in order to contribute to communities online with whom they have never interacted in person. This is simply true; it’s not a question of whether it’s possible. It’s clearly possible, because it happens.

Education as a whole has made a few very tentative steps toward the kinds of learning environments online communities have created for themselves without calling them “learning environments.” For the most part, the kind of online learning higher education has taken on pretty much replicates our comfort zone. Our online learning is a version of what happens in a traditional, face to face class: read on your own, listen to a lecture, ask questions afterward. We have made some progress beyond that with the inclusion of things like blogs, wikis, audio and video assignments for students, peer feedback, collaborative documents, and others, but the vast majority of us are mired in that age-old model that revolves around the lecture, and the essay. So we could do more, we could build exciting, engaging, interactive, and deeply-connected online courses, but we’d have to throw away everything we know about teaching and learning and start over from scratch. And I mean everything.

Do MOOCs do that? I’m not sure, to be honest. I’m not sure yet. I think they could do. The Massively part of a MOOC is the terrifying bit, largely because we imagine the grading. How do you grade a class of 50 thousand?

Why would you even have a class of 50 thousand? The cynical answer is the fiscal one: if they’re all paying tuition, that question answers itself. But MOOCs are generally free. That’s the massively open part. They’re free so far, at least. The imagination immediately goes to a stadium-sized lecture hall. Impersonal, disengaged, rife with side-conversations and cheating. You don’t need to demonstrate learning in a class that large, because no one will ever notice if you do. But again, look at World of Warcraft, look at YouTube, look at independent crowd-sourced projects with millions of fans and followers. Individuals within large communities can engage, create, commit, and rise to the top. What if MOOCs aren’t about expanding the walls of a lecture hall, but are instead about creating online learning spaces like the ones created by interest-based communities for themselves? What if it’s about creating a space for people with a shared interest to come together and get excited about it?

Most faculty I work with would be delighted if a student became engaged in their work for the sheer love of it. Everyone gets tired of feeling like a grade-giving machine. Most people with PhDs have that sheer love of their subject themselves, after all. Maybe there’s a place for the casual student of anthropology to engage with the subject not for a grade or for a degree, but just for the love of it. Out of curiosity. Fun is rarely allowed to be work. But why shouldn’t it? Fun is a key ingredient to learning. Fun is a mark of engagement and enthusiasm. So far, MOOCs exist so that people who want to learn about a subject with the guidance of an expert can do so; it breaks the rules of a grade-based economy. MOOCs so big they’re impossible to fit into the constraints we think are required.

For many years undergraduate courses have gotten bigger and bigger, and the expectations have not changed very much. Undergraduates are gaining an important credential, and Universities need to guard the quality of their education to maintain their reputations as creators of good graduates. The fear is that MOOCs are the future of that expansion; even less interaction between faculty and students, even less hand-gradable work, but still with the expectation that an instructor will be able to guarantee that students completing the course have met a certain minimum standard of learning. I understand that fear, and if MOOCs continue to be mostly lecture- and online-test based, those fears are utterly legitimate. But if you throw out the usual fears around grading, cheating, and paying attention, the picture changes significantly. If MOOCs set out to create discourse communities around a subject, where the contributors use the knowledge they gain to create things that are meaningful to them and to that community, we are certainly looking at a different kind of educational process.

At this point, it could go either way. It could revolutionize us, indeed: it could help us become centers of enthusiasm and joy. Fun-based learning. Or, it could reduce our ability to engage at all.

Google is entering into the MOOC space now too, along with many big-name universities. It remains to be seen what all this will will mean for us. If MOOCs cannot innovate enough to create engaged communities of makers and creators, make cheating not worthwhile, and make the experience about something other than a grade, they may only underscore the value of the face-to-face experience we offer in our traditional lecture halls and seminar rooms. If they instead shine a light on a new and better way to foster learning, they may turn us upside down.

Rochelle Mazar is an emerging technologies librarian at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

You can also listen to the audio of this podcast.

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