MOOCs are a fundamental misperception of how teaching works
During break (e.g., multi-hour long car rides), I gave a lot of thought to MOOCs and the changes that are coming to higher education. I realized that people can only believe that MOOCs can replace existing higher-education classes if they misunderstand what a teacher does.
MOOCs (for the most part, as they are defined in Udacity, Coursera, and edX, and as defined at Wikipedia) provide lecture-like material (typically through videos). These are broken into small pieces, and are presented with interspersed mini-quizzes. There is additional homework. Feedback is provided, either canned (the system knows what’s right and wrong) or through peer-evaluation. There is typically some kind of forum for questions and answers, and is a key part of the connectivist MOOC for “nurturing and maintaining connections.”
So why isn’t this the same as a face-to-face higher education class?
- The main activity of a higher-education teacher is not to lecture. The main activity of a teacher is to orchestrate learning opportunities, to get students to do and think. A teacher does this most effectively by responding to the individuals in the class. I just got my student feedback on the prototyping course I taught in the Fall. What the students liked best was that I led discussions based on their questions and comments on the readings, and that I had stories and anecdotes in response to their queries. A teacher responds to the students, provides scaffolding, and helps the students increase their knowledge.
- A teacher is an expert at teaching the topic, and the teaching is dependent on the domain. Teaching is not a generalized skill. The most effective teachers have a lot of pedagogical content knowledge — they know how to teach the domain. The same general course structure is not as effective as a course structure aimed at the domain.
- The job of the teacher is to educate, not filter, and that includes motivating students. What’s the difference between a book and a University? You can learn from a book. Most students can’t learn as effectively on-their-own with a book as they can with a good teacher. Many self-taught learners who have only studied books lack a general overview of the field, and haven’t read the books that challenge and contradict the books that they have read and loved. A good teacher motivates students to keep going, explains why the topics are important, challenges students, points out where their understanding is lacking, and makes sure that they see more than one perspective on a topic.
If the only educated people in our society were the ones who wanted to learn (at the start, from the beginning of a class), our society would collapse. We would have too few educated workers to create innovations and maintain the technology we have. Our society depends on teachers who motivate students to persevere and learn.
There is evidence that MOOCs do not teach. We know that MOOCs have a low completion rate. What most people don’t realize is that the majority of those who complete already knew the content. MOOCs offer a one-size-fits-few model, unchanging between content domains, that does not change for individual students (I know that they hope that it will one day, but it doesn’t now), that filters and certifies those who can learn on their own. The role of education in society is to teach everyone, not just those auto-didacts who can learn in a MOOC.
Absolutely, it’s worth exploring how to make educational technology (including MOOCs) that provides learning opportunities where no teacher is available. Alan Kay encouraged us to think that way here in this blog. However, replacing good teachers with MOOCs reflects a deep misunderstanding of what a teacher does.
Please note that I am not arguing that MOOCs are bad technologies, or that they can’t be used to create wonderful learning environments. I am explicitly critiquing the use of MOOCs as a replacement for existing courses (with a good teacher), not MOOCs as a textbook or augmentation of existing courses.
How did we get to this point, that people are seriously talking about shutting down schools in favor of MOOCs? Maybe it’s because we in Universities haven’t done enough to recognize, value, and publicize good teaching. We haven’t done enough to tell people what we do well. MOOCs do what the external world thinks that University teachers do.