Comparing MOOCs and books
Massive on-line courses are more comparable to books than face-to-face classes, an issue raised and discussed in the comments to the recent blog post about Larry Cuban and described pointedly in a recent comment by Mark Urban-Lurain on this blog. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education commentary makes a similar claim:
A set of podcasts is the 21st-century equivalent of a textbook, not the 21st-century equivalent of a teacher. Every age has its autodidacts, gifted people able to teach themselves with only their books. Woe unto us if we require all citizens to manifest that ability.
I just came back from a visit to Stanford where John Mitchell, vice-provost for on-line education at Stanford, explained to me the value of MOOCs over textbooks. Textbooks don’t provide much of a feedback mechanism to the author — you write the book, and you get feedback from your class and maybe a few teachers who adopt your book and provide you comments. But MOOCs let you try out ideas at scale, even do A/B testing on how to present something, and get feedback for the next design iteration. I pointed out to him that that’s true, but only if you can separate out the signal from the noise. Which MOOC students do you really want to get feedback from? The 80% of “students” who are re-taking a course they’ve taken before? The 90% of enrollees who never planned to finish?
In the NYTimes piece linked below, I don’t agree with the claim that poor videos are the “trouble with online education.” In fact, it paints too broad a stroke — there are lots of things which are online education which aren’t video-based, massive on-line courses. But the basic claim is fair and reasonable and still interesting.
Not long ago I watched a pre-filmed online course from Yale about the New Testament. It was a very good course. The instructor was hyper-intelligent, learned and splendidly articulate. But the course wasn’t great and could never have been. There were Yale students on hand for the filming, but the class seemed addressed to no one in particular. It had an anonymous quality. In fact there was nothing you could get from that course that you couldn’t get from a good book on the subject.
Certainly, there are differences between MOOCs and books. I would predict that, in a comparison study, more people would learn more (meaning pre/post learning gain) from books than from MOOCs. Our current best-in-class MOOCs we have are less engaging than best-in-class books for most people. Whether or not people finish the books they buy, many people spend good money to purchase top-ranked books. MOOCs barely get 20% finishing the course (after the first homework), when they don’t charge anything at all. Sure, there’s not much of a carrot to finish a MOOC (e.g., no credit, no degree), but neither is there for a book. The challenge is how to build on-line courses that are better than books!