New paradigm ahead -A rethought on MOOCs

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Education is a life-long pursuit focused on turning knowledge into intelligence and skill into value. Learning and intellectual curiosity is the real currency of education, not money. With that in mind, MOOCs have had a great impact on education of late.

The aim of a MOOC is to deliver education with flexibility and affordability to students all across the globe. It makes education accessible to people . Working professionals are encouraged to continue their education by means of MOOC. Therefore, it can be considered as a blessing of technology in education.

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Benefits

By now, I have participated in about ten MOOCs . For someone like me – a lifelong learner;  MOOCs are an efficient way to learn about topics of interest to me via high quality resources created by people/organizations who know what they are talking about.

The good part is, it exposes learners to content they would otherwise  never have the opportunity to experience.  For interested, engaged and dedicated students, it is a chance to try to make sense of content they aren’t in a position to otherwise interact with.

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Is MOOC a disruptive innovation?

Massively Open Online Courses were, a few years ago, trumpeted by companies like Udacity, Coursera and others as the death knell of traditional education. Sebastian Thrun, who was one of the first to create a MOOC, famously said that in 20 years there would only be a few dozen colleges and universities left.

The University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign,  has recently announced  that it will offer an MBA degree via MOOCs. How this will work out and whether this model will be implemented  by other schools is something that is yet to be witnessed. As with any MOOC, the content would be available for free. Learners who wish to earn a credential but have no need for academic credit can pay a small fee, $79 a course, for an identity-verified certificate. Students can also apply to the College of Business and, if accepted, pursue the full M.B.A. degree. Finally, students can choose to take the courses individually for credit, postponing a decision about whether to go for a degree until they are well into the program.

In few rare cases, companies are hiring people who do not have a formal degree but have the skills they are looking for — coding being one that many are searching for. There have been reports in the recent past that a high school student was brought in as an intern at Google based upon his MOOC certificates and recommendation from his MOOC professor. Though it is quite early to reach a judgement that admission process will change dramatically in the next few years, but schools/universities are already using data to predict yield and to recruit prospective students. If they find that these alternatives will help them enroll more and qualified students, then the way students apply to schools may change drastically in the years ahead.

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Business model

The people/groups who claim MOOCs would destroy the traditional brick and mortar education system are the ones who have high stakes and have something to lose and are thus very intimidated by it. Specifically, top universities, professors and banks who enjoy the student debt as a byproduct aggregate a lot of power. If anyone can study for free, they will significantly lose those sources of power and money.

One might be tempted to ask. Why are universities developing MOOC offerings in the first place?  Well, simply because they are more afraid of being left behind and become irrelevant. Especially as we see huge corporates like Google, AT&T, CISCO, Microsoft, nvidia and more – developing their own MOOC courses that bare a higher chance of getting you a job than almost any university. The old adage is still relevant- if you can’t compete with a realistic chance of emerging winner, join the race.

Challenges

The fear of imminent  death of traditional brick and mortar education has received a lot of comment and concerns from pundits and educators. However, as the cliche goes, the rumors of the death have been greatly exaggerated. Instead of MOOCs heralding a Gutenberg-level revolution (a.k.a. e-books), these must be seen as yet another set of bells and whistles that will help some people around the world get exposure to a huge range of topics and subjects, but won’t make much of difference to the way education works particularly in first world countries. Colleges and universities will continue to bring students to campus and train them for the job market and for graduate school, perhaps with some implementation of MOOC technology, but to expect that it will force schools to either join the on-line revolution or sink into oblivion is to look far ahead of present.

On the downside, most of the MOOCS I have joined  personally have been lecture based and not particularly engaging.  While the lecture model does have a place in education, it has often proved to be largely ineffective in supporting students thinking, reasoning, and deep understanding (things prospective employers often complain are sorely lacking in their applicant pool).

Much of the hope and hype surrounding MOOCs has focused on the promise of courses for students in poor countries with little access to higher education due to little or in some cases totally absent infrastructure.

The problem with MOOCs (if at all there is one) may well be in the design. The design at least of all the ones I have seen is pretty much the same. The course content is divided into weeks, each week having a series of video lectures, slides and readings; some have multiple choice quizzes to check understanding (seriously doubtful); some have writing assignments (often peer graded) or small projects, and discussion forums. That pretty much sums up the extent of the course. Whether a course is any good (at least for me) is primarily a function of how good the video lectures are (a point in this case is Data Science Specialization offered by John Hopkins University on Coursera) and how relevant the readings are. The quizzes and assignments have added little value; even if they are well-designed since most of them is digitally graded and  there is no meaningful feedback available.

Indian context

Most of the naysayers of MOOCs hail from first world countries where access to a decent education is a sort of entitlement. Public education is relatively well funded, universities provide access to decent facilities and quality lecturers, class sizes are relatively small, teachers are relatively well-paid, well-educated, and teaching expertise is relatively plentiful. Evaluated in this context, MOOCs are indeed of limited value.

In the developing world, all the above do not necessarily apply. Teachers are mostly overworked, underpaid, and due to severe skill shortages are often forced to teach subjects beyond their expertise. Technical subjects such as maths and science often receive short shrift. The poorer the country, the worse the shortage.

MOOCs can help solve that in a big way. By providing a well organized and directed set of courses for their students, ill-equipped teachers in the developing world can delegate the teaching to experts from the outside, and change their role from being transmitters of knowledge to coaches who guide, encourage and support their students. Here we are not just flipping the classroom, we are flipping the whole system.

In their current form however, MOOCs are far too broad in category and far too focused on adult education to be of any significant use in schools. This is where limitations of MOOCs overshadow its apparent advantages. In a developing country like India, which has focused and invested more on the tertiary education than on the primary & secondary, there aren’t too many MOOC offerings which could be utilized to bridge the deficit. But I think MOOC-type analogues tailored for the educational needs of individual countries can go a long way towards solving the educational gap between the first and third worlds.

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Statistics

I have been using MOOCs to supplement my existing knowledge. I don’t sign up in order to attend a regular course. I bet there are thousands of others like me, messing up the MOOCs metrics (read: the average course completion rates for MOOCs are not very encouraging~15%) because we only ever plan to use such courses to supplement current knowledge at out own pace. Many of the people like us never intend to stick to the course schedule and shouldn’t really count as a dropout.

As a working professional and a curious learner, I love MOOCs. I can take the classes when I need. I can fast forward through certain lectures. I can slow down others. I can quit a class when it’s usefulness for me and my particular situation has been satisfied. At times it also provided me with a reason good enough to miss classes during graduation years.

Conclusion

Not a chance they could destroy education.  MOOCs can only improve educational standards if universities use them to support and complement what they are already doing.  On their own, MOOCs cannot really teach the majority of students; students need face to face interaction to learn. This is one of the chief reasons why MOOCs have such a high dropout rate.

MOOCS are in an infant stage.  As with most new innovations, and most models of education, there are good ones and bad ones.  Are they destroying education?  Definitely not.

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