The conversation about the future of education has recently been dominated by the acronym MOOC – Massive Online Open Courses. These are famously run by large Ivy league colleges, often on a common platform such as Coursera, though some are run independently too. These are normally free and are available to anybody who has a good internet connection on a computer.
MOOCs are seen as the most disruptive technology for higher education. Of you have a Stanford professor teaching you something, even if it is online, wny do you need to go to your silly little college at all? Your teachers may not be as good as the Stanford professors, and you may not learn beyond your textbook.
The best thing about the MOOCs is the chance to study with keen students across the world. Students formed their own study groups across continents, explored areas of interest triggered off by the online sessions with the professor. The peer learning networks that we have been speaking of for over two years came alive, triggered by a good professor!
There was plenty of assessment during the MOOCs too – in session exercises, assignments, peer discussions, reports. The work was not trivial either – there was a lot to read and research. The course was not simply about listening to a video. The challenge for these courses that provide assessment avenues is that one cannot verify the honesty and thus validity of the assessment. So far all these courses do is give one a certificate of participation that really does not carry any credits. There have been reports that employers are excited about these, but they do not translate into direct university credits.
The challenge for online courses such as these is clearly in interaction and connection. However wonderful an online course is, there is no substitute for a wise and caring professor. The mentorship of seniors and the escapades with peers are an indelible part of coming of age journeys. The virtual experience, even one as good as the Khan Academy, can only be a shadow of the real one.
Yet it is a valuable addition to the brave new world of learning. There is much to be said for these online courses – as is evidenced by their massive popularity. They provide excellent in depth explanations, standardized learning experience and repeat access to the training materials. While nominally the cost of these courses is zero, of course for many the access to a computer with a good quality internet connection becomes an issue. Some, of course externalise their cost to their workplace. In a perfect world, all college and univerisity libraries would be open to all, 24 hours a day with free internet access. This happens in some cities and countries – there is always a resource available for those who want to learn.
MOOCs bring value in cutting across traditional boundaries. People of all ages, from any background can participate in these lessons. And engineer can study philosophy, a scientist can learn of history. The cross seeding of knowledge and experience is bound to make great things happen in the near future.
So, are MOOCs all good? Not really. There is no substitute for the teacher who facilitates and catalyses intellectual growth. In the absence of such a teacher, this is a good step forward. A MOOC – so far – has been unable to cater to the personalised needs of the student.. it moves on, jaggernaut like, at its own pace. It can neither stop for those left behind, nor are there any built in mechanisms to help people catch up. So far, the success rates even if measured as full participation are rather low. But then, of course, many join a MOOC to learn rather than to gain a certificate or participate in assessments. MOOCs are the face of massification, an invaluable tool in disseminating knowlege. And therefore will be an integral part of learning now and in the future. A part, not the whole.
This was published in the ToI blogs on November 12, 2012 and is linked here and http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/entry/moocs-and-the-future-of-education