What’s Good about MOOCs? (or, they aren’t about selling textbooks– they are textbooks)

Before I get to an answer to my post header here, a few updates, links, and other observations:

  • I have yet to hear from Coursera or anyone else about my certificate (or lack thereof) for completing World Music. Judging from the conversation on the World Music Facebook page, I am far from alone. On the one hand, there’s a huge “who cares” element at play. After all, I didn’t pay anything for the experience, there are a lot of bugs they’re still trying to work out, etc., etc. On the other hand, if Coursera et al can’t figure out something as simple as who does and doesn’t get a meaningless “certificate of completion” at this stage of the process, why should we trust these people to give real credit later on?
  • There have been tons of MOOC articles/links out there lately, far too many to mention here. One of my favorites though was CHE’s “How the Embrace of MOOCs Could Hurt Middle America” by Greg Graham. (It’s behind the Chronicle firewall, unfortunately.) It’s kind of an unfortunate headline, but I think Graham is spot-on in this piece. He argues that a lot of the enthusiasm for MOOCs by their practitioners is flat-out ego:  “If 160,000 people signed up for an online course I was teaching, I’d probably take my shirt off, write 160K on my chest, and run around campus whoopin’ it up…. Well, the longer I live, the more I realize people everywhere are just as likely to be driven by ego as by higher ideals.” Graham also points out one of my concerns about MOOCs in the long-run: “Ironically, although the move toward online education is being advanced by some of the nation’s most elite universities, in the end it will be the lower half of the student population that will be forced out of the traditional classroom, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”
  • Nicholas “The Shallows” Carr weighs in with “The Crisis in Higher Education.”  I agree with a lot of what he’s saying here and I’m glad he makes the connection to correspondence schools of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, but I think he makes the  same mistake that a lot of commentators for or against MOOCs have made, that online education is synonymous with MOOCs, which is of course not the case.
  • Cathy Davidson has a pretty good post on HASTAC, “What Can MOOCs Teach Us About Learning?” I think her points about “what I find depressing about MOOCs” to be especially true; for example, “so many of them are talking heads on a screen.   I mean, really?  That’s the best we can do in 2012?    All the research shows that the single least effective mode of learning is from the lecture.  It’s least effective for retention and it’s vastly less effective than experiential, project based learning when it comes to having subsequent applicability to new situations, to application beyond the final exam.” Exactly.

But enough hating. What are MOOCs good for, anyway?  Here are two things I’m going to try to keep in mind as I embark (more passively) on two new classes, An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python” and “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution.”

First, and maybe this is already really obvious, MOOCs work well for “life-long learners,” people who are engaged in these classes simply for the pleasure of learning something new. As far as I can tell, these are the only people who have signed on to these classes so far. Obviously, I can’t tell you about all of the tens of thousands of students who signed up for and participated in World Music, but I encountered lots of these folk, educators like me who were curious about the whole phenomenon, and beyond college professionals who were interested in the material as “infotainment.” Conversely, I don’t recall anyone who suggested directly or indirectly that they were in the “seeking an education to begin with” demographic.

This is all fine and good and I think the enthusiasm of these students is admirable, but at the risk of being too cynical about it all, this is clearly not their business model and it is not the disenfranchised students in the third world that Daphne Koller talked about in her TED talk. It certainly isn’t going to transform higher education as we know it; it’s more likely to transform things like Road Scholar and programs like Elderhostel.

Second and more importantly, I think MOOCs have a lot of potential as an alternative or supplement to textbooks. Mind you, I don’t mean to sell textbooks, as this CHE piece pondered in mid-September. That’s just publishers unable to see anything other than “units sold” trying to find a way to make more money. No, I mean instead of trying to sell paper (or even electronic) textbooks, I think that there’s a lot of potential of the MOOC as a textbook.

After all, what is a textbook, anyway? First and foremost, it’s content, just like MOOCs, and both scale content quite efficiently. Second, textbooks represent ethos and expertise, particularly for classes like first year composition, classes where most of the folks teaching it aren’t necessarily comfortable with their own ethos or expertise in the subject matter.  In both of these roles– as content and as ethos– textbooks help frame a course and provide a bridge and/or common ground between students and instructors.

In this sense, textbooks are a tool for community building, and they often teach both students and teachers, though in different ways. When I first started teaching first year writing as a graduate student and there was a required/program adopted textbook, that book was as useful to me to figure out just what the heck I was supposed to be literally doing as it was for students in my courses. Nowadays, I don’t really use a textbook at all– well, other than my own The Process of Research Writing, which is mostly a reflection of how I teach research writing– because I have a level of experience and expertise that allows me to skip past all that.

I don’t know this for sure, but I supposed it’s different in other subjects. In biology and chemistry, subjects famous for expensive textbooks and often taught in lecture formats with supplemental labs, I assume the content and community-building role of textbooks is a lot more important that the ethos/expertise role. If anything, I assume the textbook for an intro to biology class is as much a conduit between the professor and students to make sure everyone is understanding a particular concept in more or less the same and artificially fixed way.

In any event, as textbooks, I think MOOCs have a lot of possibilities. There’s potential there to deliver text, video, quizzes, exercises, etc., and there is also potential for the online discussion to supplement a conventional class, and vice-versa. With common gen-ed kinds of classes, that discussion could cross institutional lines, so you could have students at Harvard (or whatever fancy-pants school) engaged in the same discussions and problems as students at EMU or Washtenaw Community College. Plus a MOOC-based textbook could also host various kinds of “events” available for students across the world, maybe live lectures by the MOOC/textbook authors or tie-ins with relevant current events. None of this would take the place of an in-person instructor, though the MOOC-textbook might make it possible to teach more of these classes with people with less expertise. Again, this is pretty much what happens now in any class with a graduate assistant.

Is there money to be made off of this? Well, textbook companies make a lot of money, so sure. Students have so far been reluctant to pay for web-based textbooks (can’t sell them back to the store) and no one wants to pay for MOOCs. But if the MOOC was the required space for things like quizzes and tests and the like, students would pay something, or maybe it is something that institutions would pay for and then pass on to students as tuition and fees.

So that’s one good thing, sort of.

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