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What if MOOCs Seriously Succeed?

The hot topic in education right now is massive, open, online courses (MOOCs). These online courses are offered by both for-profit companies and non-profit organizations. The course content is usually created by, or in conjunction with, university professors. Enrollment is open to everyone with a computer and internet access, and the courses are mostly free. As a result, many of these classes enroll thousands of students. Supporters claim that MOOCs will revolutionize higher education by increasing access for the world's underserved populations and by dramatically reducing costs.      

There isn't much available data on the effectiveness of these course offerings, but the little bit of data available reveals that MOOCs might not be living up to the hype. The data reveals, generally, dismal completion and passing rates for these massive online courses, and it seems that a large percentage of the successful students already have a bachelor's degree or higher. If the ones benefiting most from MOOCs are those who already have higher education, it doesn't seem that MOOCs are fulfilling the often stated promise of enabling greater access to underserved populations.   

A lot has been written on the several controversies surrounding MOOCs, so I do not want to rehash all of that here. Instead, I would like to comment on an important issue that is seldom discussed regarding MOOCs: the homogenization of the world's knowledge. Then I'd like to briefly provide my thoughts on the question, "What matters most in education: the content or the experience?"

What do I mean by, "the homogenization of the world's knowledge?"

Early in human history, there is no doubt that whatever education existed, it was provided by the family, tribe, or village. What people learned would have been highly specific to their culture and community. It is likely that important differences would exist in the ways, even neighboring, tribes would educate/socialize their members. At different periods (and in different places) during our ancient past, there were organized schools or at least the apprentice system to educate a portion of humanity, but all of this would have still been performed by a network of independent nodes throughout the society. The more organized our societies have become, the more uniform or homogenized the education of the world's citizenry has become. There are good reasons for this, and to a point, it has been a good thing for society.

However, for a while now, psychologists and statisticians have been aware of what has been called, "the wisdom of crowds." This is the idea that, under certain conditions, crowds can be smarter, collectively, than even the brightest member of any society. There is plenty of evidence that crowds or groups of individuals can make better collective decisions than individuals can acting alone, so long as, certain conditions are met. Perhaps the most important of these conditions is that the members of the crowd must think independently. Without this independence, all you're likely to get from a group is "group think."

In the twentieth century, television was the great homogenizer. For example, it is one of the reasons dialects and accents have become diluted around the world (although, perhaps, not the most important reason). Television partially ended the isolation of small communities around the globe. In America, during the second half of the twentieth century, millions of people from Alaska to South Florida (and everywhere in between) could turn on the television and watch one of four major networks present the evening news. All of it delivered in an accent-less form of English. The whole information/media landscape was dominated by the major networks and the major papers.

Even if the major media sources of the twentieth century lacked diversity, the post-secondary education system in America was highly diverse, and today, it is still diverse. The USA has close to 3,000 four-year colleges. In my opinion, the diversity of the higher education system in America is its greatest strength. It ensures that our nation has a diverse collective-mindset. It means there is always the potential to gather a group of diverse/independent points of view in order to harness the wisdom of the crowd. It means people are able to find nearly any conceivable intellectual experience they want. This seems fundamental to me in a free society. After all, if the educational landscape were to become entirely homogenized, wouldn't that be a great inhibition to personal freedom?         

The availability of cable television and the internet has fractured the media landscape and has provided unprecedented freedom to choose when deciding what it is we want to watch, listen to, or read. Though it is probably more confusing, stressful, and difficult to make choices about what to watch on television or which news to read over the internet, I think very few of us would elect to return to the relative dearth of options that existed before. The internet has diversified our media landscape, which is why it is ironic that MOOCs could potentially threaten the diversity that exists in the American higher educational system. The diversity that provides our country with a set of independent thinkers to draw upon when problems need to be solved.

You might be thinking that the opposite is true. After all, don't MOOCs (and online courses in general) allow a kid from a small community in the USA the opportunity to attend (virtually) great schools anywhere in the world? The answer is obviously yes. However, what happens to small, independent institutions like Reed College in Portland or, the lesser known, St. John's in Annapolis, Marlboro College in Marlboro, ... when everyone can attend Harvard virtually and cheaply from home. Will there be enough students left to attend the nearly 3,000 four-year-degree granting institutions in the country? You may say, "We have too many schools; some should close their doors," but those schools are mostly fine institutions that are extremely important to their surrounding communities. And, what happens to Harvard's standards when they realize that they can make billions in revenue offering MOOCs to millions of students from around the globe. Do they become a mega-university that is really two universities: the open, online university for the masses, and the "real" Harvard, hard to get into, offering face-to-face instruction? Finally, what's most relevant to my point about diversity and independence is that the world's problems require group wisdom, which is harmed by the homogenization of the learning landscape. It would not be good for the country/world if most of the educated among us attended just a handful of schools.

What matters more the content or how/where it is delivered?

Hopefully, even if MOOCs eventually find a successful business model, the overwhelming bulk of students in America will choose to attend college and university the "old-fashioned" way because there is so much more to higher education than the facts, ideas, and research that are disseminated in college-level courses. The role of real interaction (not just messaging or video chat) with other students and faculty should not be underestimated. In fact, I would argue that less than half of what is learned in college has anything to do with the specific subjects taken. It is the experience of being on campus surrounded by great minds and a driven, diverse student body that makes higher education potentially life changing. College campuses are a common place for people to meet their future spouse. They are places where many have found lifelong friends and mentors. I don't think that MOOCs can ever hope to replace that, but they could inadvertently harm the American higher-ed ecosystem, making it harder for students to find the kind of educational experience that has served our society well.

From my own anecdotal experience, I can say honestly that I have never had a former student say things like he/she always remembers me teaching Chebyshev's theorem or finding area under the normal curve.... What I often hear, from former students, are things like, "I remember that story you told in class about... that really inspired me," or "I remember when you dressed up for Halloween and gave the class candy...." Only time will tell what role MOOCs will play in the shaping of our future educational landscape, but I don't see how they can ever really offer those kinds of personal, human experiences.

Technology can provide great supplements to face-to-face learning (like my own STATSprofessor). The web can provide an excellent delivery system for rich content, but real life experiences cannot be fully replicated in a virtual environment. Technology is best used as a way to improve and streamline the delivery of traditional lecture materials and homework, but this should only be done in order to free up time which can be used either for more face-to-face interactions or for hands-on learning.                              

Further Reading:

"MOOC Mania" by Susan Meisenhelder

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles

http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus

http://nation.time.com/2013/09/12/

http://higheredstrategy.com/category/moocs/