Higher education and MOOCs: a discussion

What do MOOCs mean for higher education?  These Massively Open Online Classes and related distance learning projects (Udacity) were the subject of a NITLE impromptu videoconference discussion today.

MOOC on the rise.

Participants included Jon Breitenbucher, Melanie Hoag, Jeremiah Parry-Hill , Tony Sindelar, Deb Sarlin, Peter Feltham, Ken Pham, Anthony Park, Sean Andrews, Gregory Esau, Alan Shteynberg, Patrick Bishop, Damien Atanassov, and Jeremiah Parry-Hill, along with myself (Bryan Alexander) as convener.   Some art now taking MOOCs, including the Model Thinking class and Stanford’s Human-Computer Interaction.

Discussion was very energetic, covering a lot of ground out loud and in chat, so these notes are an attempt at summary.

We began with a quick sketch of MOOCs and MOOC-like classes: Udacity, Coursera, MIT’s MITx, Connectivism, and DS106.  We then saw these in terms of a response to the traditional university model.  But how tied are these to universities?  Some lack credentials, or issue them in a separate or weakened form.

How successful will MOOCs be?  The proof might be in how they impact hiring.

Is there a culture/discipline split in MOOC curricula?  So far STEM fields seem to be the first coming on line.  Not much in the way of law or humanities so far.  Reasons: the latter don’t scale so well as the former, especially for assessment purposes; STEM fields are easier to evaluate.  Perhaps we’re seeing a recurrence of the classic Two Cultures divide.

Small colleges: what’s their value added in a MOOC-populated world?  Some participants saw personal connection as the leading difference.  Others feared higher costs sending students away from the liberal arts residential world, towards MOOCs.  We explored the Harvard extension school as an alternative.  It does award some form of a Harvard degree, requires some face-to-face, on-campus work.  It’s not open, per se, but does carry the promise of rich social connections.

As many technology and teaching discussions do, this one moved back to first principles: what is undergrad education for?  We covered a lot of reasons: making personal connections, having the opportunity to deeply explore one’s mind, to learn how to live on one’s own.  Perhaps face-to-face learning addresses some of these needs better than does the MOOCworld.  Some thorny issues can best be thrashed out in the same room.  Turned around, we asked: how much of these educational needs can be done online?  Perhaps it’s not an either-or questions, but a both-and.  Perhaps small colleges could become symbiotic with MOOCs.

Who’s the audience for MOOCs?  They might primarily target autodictats, since they seem to require much self-discipline and -motivation.  Completion rates are low – 1/5? 10%?

Is there a good directory of MOOCs? Class Central might be the best one so far.

We ended with a rapid-fire inquiry into MOOCs and higher education economics.  Do MOOCs help institutions economically, in terms of saving money on materials and/or instructors?  Maybe MOOCs are cheaper to offer than other, face-to-face classes.  But there might be curricular or pedagogical limitations to how far they can be deployed.  As one discussant wondered, “Can one teach critical thinking via MOOCs?”

DS 106, from the University of Mary Washington

What do you think of MOOCs and what they mean for higher education?

(photos by Alan Levine: hotel, shadow)

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Posted on March 8, 2012 at 4:17 pm by Bryan Alexander · Permalink
In: Collaboration · Tagged with: 

5 Responses

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  1. Written by Jeremiah
    on March 9, 2012 at 7:58 am

    There was a specific question about the proportion of “active participants” to “tourists” in the Thurn/Norvig Stanford AI MOOC.

    Thrun gives that ratio as 30,000 actives within a total of 160,000 signups here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtmdiPUGGe8&t=02m00s

    As some pointed out, the low barrier of entry and low cost of dropping out means we should expect attrition. Netting 30,000 active learners is the significant statistic.

  2. Written by Bryan Alexander
    on March 9, 2012 at 8:38 am

    Great point, Jeremiah. Focusing on the actives is a powerful metric.
    Did you see MIT OCW calling for one *billion* learners?

  3. Written by Gigi Johnson
    on March 9, 2012 at 9:06 am

    Are these MOOCs collecting data on their own, or working with researchers, to find any metrics other than completion? I’m assuming that their stats show how many watch which videos, do which assignments…I’m a big fan of feedback loops, and from my own experience with one of these, the onramping has been somewhat rough. Does anyone know if any researchers are working with these classes to look at qualitative measures of effectiveness? Or even what people’s goals were and what they think they may have achieved?

  4. Written by MOOCs and the Future of the Liberal Arts
    on March 12, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    [...] week I was finally able to attend a hangout hosted by Bryan Alexander. The topic of discussion was MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and open education. If you are not familiar with MOOCs then you might want to look at a few examples: Udacity and [...]

  5. Written by Jim C. March
    on April 6, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Given the aging of the US population, MOOCs may have a different value for returning students, especially the over-50 crowd. The model of teaching offered by MOOCs (no travel required, available non-work hours, low entry cost) make them particularly attractive to people starting their second life. What is the age distribution and education of the students of MOOCs?

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