MOOCs, SMOOCs: What’s so disruptive about a massive class?

MOOCs (massively open online courses) are taking the educational world by storm. They promise “disruption.” edX offers us “The Future of Online Education for anyone, anywhere, anytime.” Coursera allows us to “Take the World’s Best Courses, Online, For Free.” Udacity is a “totally new kind of learning experience” where we get rid of those boring lectures. Lindsey Burke wants students able to “piece together” courses from MOOCs and traditional schools and have degrees conferred after an independent “assessment by private accrediting companies.”

Supporters of MOOCs want to wrest control of education from the high-priced, flawed business modeled, elitist dominated, bastions of liberalism filled with underworked professors where we charge students increasingly high prices (customers, they might say) but don’t graduate them in sufficient numbers. Tuition is rising while performance is not. (Because spending millions per class and giving it away for free is a great business model. Let’s ask the daily newspapers how that plan works.)

Naturally, the list of schools joining in this parade of “disruptive” pedagogy grows daily. Yesterday, the University of Texas announced they will join edX and become the first public university to bring their “system’s institutional weight” to the project.

Hailed by Governor Rick Perry as a perfect way to make education “accessible and affordable for Texans,” one wonders if Governor Perry noticed that the UT System will invest $10 million in the creation of 4 courses. I’m no math guru, but that’s $2.5 million per course. That better be one helluva a course.

And it’s free. Except to the state taxpayers and the students paying tuition at UT who are paying the professor, buying the cameras, and purchasing the technology.

While the goal of the MOOC movement seems noble, it’s worth noting that we’ve always had massively open courses; we used to call them public libraries. There has never been a restriction on self-teaching. We all know someone who achieved great success without school; people who win Trivial Pursuit even though they dropped out in the 5th grade. These are the people who make the Discovery Channel so popular.

Obviously, it’s the online that seems so important here. As student debt rises and the return on investment seems to shrink, Americans want some sort of Henry Ford model for higher ed to emerge from the scrap heap of innovation. But, we don’t necessarily want a system that makes students feel like a number. As MOOCs develop, they try harder and harder to develop technologies that allow the 100,000 students to interact with each other in smaller and smaller groups. Like a university classroom. They do this because well over 2/3 of MOOC students don’t even make it to mid-term. And they feel disconnected from the class. And they feel alone. And they quit. MOOCs, I’m sure, have noted that the University of Phoenix, a for-profit business whose profit is largely based on government subsidized student loans, has an abysmal graduation rate. Oh, and don’t forget that we have absolutely no idea if the student registered for the MOOC is the student doing the work.

So we come full circle. The high-priced business model that is publicly-financed and supported has no real way to measure performance and isn’t graduating students in sufficient numbers. We can, of course, remedy this problem by creating smaller MOOCs and requiring person to person contact. Perhaps we should set a meeting time and place. Maybe build some buildings. Ask customers to invest a little money into the project to help them feel connected and responsible. We’ll call it a university and let the kids live on campus and attend small classes where students interact and learn from each other. Naw. That’s not disruptive enough.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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