MOOCs

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Synopsis

A look at Massively Open Online Classes as replacements for traditional education.

Thanks to games like World of Warcraft, many people are familiar with MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games). However, people are probably somewhat less familiar with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

While MOOCs vary considerably, the name provides their basic features. First, they are massive (or potentially so). This means that such a course can support an indefinite number of students. This is in obvious contrast to the traditional classroom which is limited by the size of the room and even with the now traditional online classes which are typically limited in size because they are taught by one (or a few) teachers.

Second, they are open. This is in contrast with the traditional closed course which is available only to students registered at a specific school. Currently, the MOOCs are operating on a free model as well—that is, students do not pay to take such classes. However, the monetization of MOOCs is certainly inevitable.

Third, they are online. This also typically involves a high degree of automation for the course. In most cases, a MOOC is pre-packaged course without interaction with an actual teacher.

Finally, they are courses—that is, they are aimed at teaching people something. The best known MOOCs, those offered by Coursera, are college classes. However, they could be classes at any level. Currently MOOCs do not provide college credit, but there are plans to change this—most likely as part of the monetization process.

Obviously, MOOCs do have some clear positive features. Since they are massive, they can support a large number of students, thus making the courses more widely available. Since they are open, the classes are available to anyone who can access a computer, thus making them available to people who might not otherwise be able to afford college classes.

As might be imagined, I find these aspects of MOOCs very appealing and consistent with my own view of broad education. After all, I have made my work on fallacies freely available for almost two decades and I have various (admittedly lame) educational videos on YouTube. However, as a professor I have some concerns about the future of MOOCs.

As noted above, it is a matter of time before MOOCs are monetized. In general, I have no problem with this—after all, I work for money and sell books via Amazon. Heck, I’d probably get involved with a reputable MOOC service. My main concern, then, is not that MOOCs will go from open to being monetized. Rather, my concern is what impact they could have on the quality of education.

Having been in education for a while, I am well aware of the business-model push to minimize costs in education. Before the web, there was (and still is) a push to have classes as large as possible—in my case, I am paid the same whether my class is a mere 35 students or a ridiculous 75 students. The web merely allows this to be taken to an even greater extreme, since it is not limited by the size of a physical classroom. With truly massive online courses, a single professor could supply an education product to thousands of students. There are, of course, some obvious concerns here. One is the workload of a professor responsible for a massive class. Another is the quality of education in such a diluted learning environment, even if the main professor is supported by graduate students or staff.

Of course, greater savings can be had by eliminating the professor entirely. That is, the class can (as MOOCs typically are now) be a pre-packaged learning product that the students click through, without any actual teacher. While a professor or other professional would be needed to design and create the course content and assessment material, this could be done once (like a book) and updated from time to time. Thus, rather than paying a professor for each semester, a professor could be paid to put himself (and others) out of a teaching job.  No doubt, some star professors (like star authors) would make good money off the courses they created. However, it would probably not be very good for most faculty.

Naturally, if the MOOC is for credit, there would be a need to grade the work of the students. Much of this can be done, obviously enough, by the use of software. True/false tests and their ilk can easily be graded automatically. Papers, lab reports and so on would still require a human grader. However, just as graduate students are currently used as grading machines, they could be employed (at vastly lower pay than professors) to grade such work. Others could also be hired solely as graders, perhaps paid like migrant farmers in terms of the volume of their work—so much per page graded, perhaps. Outsourcing would also be an obvious approach here—just as students talk to a person in India for support for their software, their papers would be graded there as well, perhaps by the same person.

This would be a dream come true for some: the arrival of the industrial revolution in education in which the labor of a person (the professor) is replaced by a vastly more efficient mechanized (or rather computerized) education machine. Students simply pay their money, log in and click their way to a degree at minimal cost to the university or college. At long last the knowledge factory would be a true factory.

For those who would profit from such a system, it obviously has incredible appeal. A college could now operate like a true business, largely unburdened by costly and often troublesome professors. It could also be advantageous for students: they might pay significantly less for their education and be able to complete it faster than they could via the traditional means of education (or even via normal online classes).

There is, however, a point of great concern: would a MOOC be an adequate substitute for the traditional class or even the traditional online class? That is, would students have the same quality of education?

Honesty compels me to admit that when it comes to classes that are traditionally taught as massive lectures there would probably be little difference. In fact, a well done MOOC might actually be superior to the education acquired by sitting in a lecture hall with 800 other students, watching a professor up on stage. As such, such massive service classes could be reasonably replaced by MOOCs.

Obviously, some classes would not work as pure MOOCs, such as classes that require actual lab work, dissections or other such things that require a physical presence. Of course, a college could simply have labs run by low paid staff members with everything else being done via the MOOC.

However, there seem to be many classes that would lose a great deal of educational quality without the sort of interaction that having an actual teacher would provide. To use an obvious analogy, while clicking about on a web site to diagnose an illness can be a good start, at some point a person should probably see an actual doctor.  Likewise, clicking through an automated class can be a good start, but at some point one should probably interact with an actual educator.

Of course, there is still the question of whether or not having the real thing (a doctor or professor) is worth the price. This is a matter that should be seriously considered. Of course, if we take the approach of replacing people whenever they can be replaced by automation, at some point we would replace everyone—even the administrators, shareholders and students.  But perhaps the ultimate dream is to have a completely automated system: machines teaching machines and money automatically multiplied in automated banks with no humans left in the process at all. More seriously, the challenge, then, is deciding when the automation is not worth the price. 

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Tags: education, learning, mooc, moocs, online learning, philosophy

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