The Pros and Cons of MOOCS

From Nathan Heller's article, "Laptop U," for The New Yorker

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Post-secondary schools of all kinds—expensive, elite colleges, state universities, and community colleges—are flirting with the idea of MOOCs, massive open online courses, where tens of thousands of students can take the same class simultaneously. Is this the future of college? Nathan Heller wrote about the phenomenon in the May 20, 2013, issue of The New Yorker in "Laptop U." I recommend you find a copy or subscribe online for the full article, but I'll share with you here what I gleaned as the pros and cons of MOOCs from Heller's article.

What Is a MOOC?

The short answer is that a MOOC is an online video of a college lecture. The M stands for massive because there is no limit to the number of students who can enroll from anywhere in the world. Anant Agarwal is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and president of edX, a non-profit MOOC company owned jointly MIT and Harvard. In 2011, he launched a forerunner called MITx (Open Courseware), hoping to get 10 times the usual number of classroom students in his spring-semester circuits-and-electronics course, about 1,500. In the first few hours of posting the course, he told Heller, he had 10,000 students sign up from all over the world. The ultimate enrollment was 150,000. Massive.

The Pros

MOOCs are controversial. Some say they are the future of higher education. Others see them as the eventual downfall of it. Here are the pros Heller found in his research.

MOOCs:

  1. Are free. Right now, most MOOCs are free or nearly free, a definite plus for the student. This is likely to change as universities look for ways to defray the high cost of creating MOOCs.
  2. Provide a solution to overcrowding. According to Heller, 85% of California's community colleges have course waiting lists. A bill in the California senate seeks to require the state’s public colleges to give credit for approved online courses.
  1. Force professors to improve lectures. Because the best MOOCs are short, usually an hour at the most, addressing a single topic, professors are forced to examine every bit of material as well as their teaching methods.
  2. Create a dynamic archive. That's what Gregory Nagy, professor of classical Greek literature at Harvard, calls it. Actors, musicians, and standup comedians record their best performances for broadcast and posterity, Heller writes; why shouldn't college teachers do the same? He cites Vladimir Nabokov as once suggesting "that his lessons at Cornell be recorded and played each term, freeing him for other activities."
  3. Are designed to ensure that students keep up. MOOCs are real college courses, complete with tests and grades. They are filled with multiple choice questions and discussions that test comprehension. Nagy sees these questions as almost as good as essays because, as Heller writes, "the online testing mechanism explains the right response when students miss an answer, and it lets them see the reasoning behind the correct choice when they're right."
    The online testing process helped Nagy redesign his classroom course. He told Heller, "Our ambition is actually to make the Harvard experience now closer to the MOOC experience."
  1. Bring people together from all over the world. Heller quotes Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard president, regarding her thoughts on a new MOOC, Science & Cooking, that teaches chemistry and physics in the kitchen, "I just have the vision in my mind of people cooking all over the globe together. It’s kind of nice."
  2. Allow teachers to make the most of classroom time in blended classes. In what is called a "flipped classroom," teachers send students home with assignments to listen to or watch a recorded lecture, or read it, and return to the classroom for more valuable discussion time or other interactive learning.
  3. Offer interesting business opportunities. Several new MOOC companies launched in 2012: edX by Harvard and MIT; Coursera, a Standford company; and Udacity, which focuses on science and tech.

    The Cons

    The controversy surrounding MOOCs includes some pretty strong concerns about how they will shape the future of higher education. Here are some of the cons from Heller's research.

    MOOCs:

    1. Could cause teachers to become nothing more than "glorified teaching assistants." Heller writes that Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard justice professor, wrote in a letter of protest, "The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary."
    2. Make discussion a challenge. It’s impossible to facilitate meaningful conversation in a classroom with 150,000 students. There are electronic alternatives: message boards, forums, chat rooms, etc., but the intimacy of face-to-face communication is lost, emotions often misunderstood. This is a particular challenge for humanities courses. Heller writes, "When three great scholars teach a poem in three ways, it isn't inefficiency. It is the premise on which all humanistic inquiry is based."
    3. Grading papers is impossible. Even with the help of graduate students, grading tens of thousands of essays or research papers is daunting, to say the least. Heller reports that edX is developing software to grade papers, software that gives students immediate feedback, allowing them to make revisions. Harvard's Faust isn't completely on board. Heller quotes her as saying, "I think they are ill-equipped to consider irony, elegance, and…I don’t know how you get a computer to decide if there’s something there it hasn’t been programmed to see."
    4. Make it easier for students to drop out. Heller reports that when MOOCs are strictly online, not a blended experience with some classroom time, "dropout rates are typically more than 90%."
    5. Intellectual property and financial details are issues. Who owns an online course when the professor who creates it moves to another university? Who gets paid for teaching and/or creating online courses? These are issues that MOOC companies will need to work out in the upcoming years.
    1. Miss the magic. Peter J. Burgard is a professor of German at Harvard. He has decided not to participate in online courses because he believes the "college experience" comes from sitting in preferably small groups having genuine human interactions, "really digging into and exploring a knotty topic—a difficult image, a fascinating text, whatever. That's exciting. There’s a chemistry to it that simply cannot be replicated online."
    2. Will shrink faculties, eventually eliminating them. Heller writes that Burgard sees MOOCs as destroyers of traditional higher education. Who needs professors when a school can hire an adjunct to manage a MOOC class? Fewer professors will mean fewer Ph.D.s granted, smaller graduate programs, fewer fields and subfields taught, the eventual death of entire "bodies of knowledge." David W. Wills, professor of religious history at Amherst, agrees with Burgard. Heller writes that Wills worries about "academia falling under hierarchical thrall to a few star professors." He quotes Wills, "It's like higher education has discovered the megachurch."

    MOOCs will most definitely be the source of many conversations and debates in the near future. Watch for related articles coming soon.