MOOCs Redux

November 5th, 2012

The Education Supplement of the New York Times this Sunday had a long feature article on “The Year of the MOOC.” The supplement cover has an albino rabbit, its pink eyes framed by the Os in MOOC, staring out at the reader  — the implication being that these MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are multiplying like rabbits. Point taken. Anyone who has ever had an albino rabbit, however, knows the lack of pigment in its eyes can cause poor eyesight and vision problems, problems not unlike some noted in the article.

The medium is still the lecture…. Feedback is electronic. Teaching assistants may monitor discussion boards. There may be homework and a final exam.

The MOOC certainly presents challenges. Can learning be scaled up this much? Grading is imperfect, especially for nontechnical subjects. Cheating is a reality. “We found groups of 20 people in a course submitting identical homework,” says David Patterson, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who teaches software engineering, in a tone of disbelief at such blatant copying; Udacity and edX now offer proctored exams.

Some students are also ill prepared for the university-level work. And few stick with it.

All that said (and I had noted such problems in one or two or three or four earlier posts), the sense of excitement is palpable. Laura Pappano, the author of the article, incarnates it in Nick McKeown, one of a pair doing a Stanford-based MOOC on computer networking: “Dr. McKeown sums up the energy of this grand experiment when he gushes, ‘We’re both very excited.’ Casually draped over auditorium seats, the professors also acknowledge that they are not exactly sure how this MOOC stuff works. “We are just going to see how this goes over the next few weeks,’ says Dr. McKeown.”

There’s nothing wrong with feeling our way. In fact, one of the refreshing things about this overview is the way it captures the frontier spirit and ad hoc mash-up that is the current state of MOOC-dom with headings like “WHAT IS A MOOC ANYWAY?” and “WORKING OUT THE KINKS.” Increasingly, MOOCs come in different styles and “flavors” (a word taken from one of the other headings), something a lead graphic tries to capture:

Clockwise, from top left: an online course in circuits and electronics with an M.I.T. professor (edX); statistics, Stanford (Udacity); machine learning, Stanford (Coursera); organic chemistry, University of Illinois, Urbana (Coursera).

Also, a sidebar not available online but only in the paper supplement presents a comparison chart of how the major players among the MOOC offerers (“The Big Three”: edX, Udacity, and Coursera) differ by such critical considerations as assessment, academic integrity, and social interaction.  In fact, one of the points of the article is the growing need to discriminate among MOOCs in terms of their “flavor” and quality. Duke prof Cathy N. Davidson is quoted as saying, “We need a MOOCE — massive open online course evaluation.”

I said in an earlier post that it would be a wrong to mistake MOOCs with online learning generally. As important as it is not to generalize from MOOCs to all of online learning, it’s be increasingly important not to generalize MOOCs as a uniform category, mistaking one for another as if they were like, well, so many white rabbits. We’ll see better practices emerge, better breeds, interesting mutations. Here is an area where the hype is actually outpaced by the changes wrought almost daily, an area to keep an eye on.



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