Tuesday, April 23, 2013

MOOCs and online education

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and concerns about online education are all the rage these days at universities.  There is a growing recognition of a few key points:  The cost of undergraduate education (in the US at least) continues to increase much more rapidly than inflation; online capabilities are sufficiently advanced now that it is possible, for comparatively little investment, to distribute educational content to many thousands of people at very low cost, in principle having a major pedagogical impact (see, e.g., the Khan Academy, to say nothing of MIT's opencourseware); more than one major concern is springing up trying to guide online education at the university level (see, e.g., coursera and edX).  [Note to self:  find some demo as cool as the thermite reaction to hook people into any online course I ever teach.]  There is clearly a major sense of urgency on the part of university administrators.  To belabor an overused analogy, they are worried that the online education train is leaving the station, and they fear the consequences of getting left behind. 

All of these things are true, and I understand the concern.  However, a few points have occurred to me about this, and I'd be happy for some discussion in the comments if people are interested.
  1. Many people do not really have the self-discipline to learn in an online-only environment.  I like to think I was a pretty dedicated student (no smart comments from my former classmates, please), and I'm not sure I would have the self-discipline to watch online-only lecture material and do online-only assignments for an entire semester.  Some people do have the personality for this, but I have a hunch that many of them are the same folks who really can check a book out of the library and teach themselves a new subject ab initio.  Most 18 year olds are not like that, and the peer pressure/social environment of having friends physically going to scheduled classes is a major motivator.  Bill Press, when he visited Rice and we chatted about this, pointed out that many people pay real money to take Microsoft online certification courses, and complete them at a high rate.  That's true, but it's also a particular case where the financial benefits of completing that particular course are often very clear to the student, and it's also true that there's a difference between university study and vocational training.
  2. It only makes sense to develop online courses where your institution really adds value.  Does anyone think it would be a good idea for every major university to develop their own MOOC for Introductory Calculus?  We could do that, but in the end there will likely be a small handful of truly innovative, extremely well done calc courses.  The market will drive toward some kind of mix-and-match mode of operation (unless the content providers constrain things greatly).
  3. The sense of urgency is not unreasonable, but early innovators don't necessarily win the day.  For example, Lycos and Alta Vista were early to the scene in "search", yet comparative latecomer google crushed them.
So, are MOOCs really going to sweep through and destroy the modern university system?  Are physical universities going to become like specialty bookshops and online providers like Amazon?  Let me know what you think.


Anonymous said...

I recommend you to actually take a well organized MOOC course. I tried one about a year ago (A.I. course at udacity.com) and followed the course through even though the subject wasn't of particular importance to me. The point is that even though online resources for learning have existed for more than a decade (or even longer), these new MOOCs have evolved to a point where they can actually keep students engaged throughout the course. The lectures are kept interesting by dividing them into small clips and giving quizzes inbetween the clips and the whole course is typically a well-thought package instead of just hundreds of pages of text or hours of videos of a teacher talking in front of a class.

I would say that a well-organized MOOC is superior to any traditional course with 5+ students in almost every possible way. For more arcane courses where number of students is small enough so that the teacher can have genuine interaction with the students the traditional approach might be as good as a MOOC or in some cases even better.

But seriously, before critizing, you should try a well-organized MOOC. For example, in Udacity all classes tend to be pretty good. in Coursera, the lecturers are given more freedom over the format of the course which means that there are some not-so-successful courses.

Chris Goedde said...

I'm pretty convinced that people who think MOOCs will displace universities don't understand (a) education or (b) people.

They don't understand education because there's a lot more to education than content delivery. Delivering content to people is easy. The big revolution in content delivery was the printing press. While the web makes it even easier, this doesn't really matter, because content delivery isn't the limiting step in education.

They don't understand people because (as you point out) most humans, especially most traditional-aged students, aren't going to sit alone in their room or home and diligently work through difficult material. That's just not how we operate. If it were, libraries would have replaced universities a long time ago.

This isn't to say that there's not interesting stuff going one in the general area of multi-media presentation of material, e.g. smartPhysics, or iBooks Author. But while these tools may replace traditional textbooks, I don't see them replacing the traditional classroom.

MOOCs may put a little pressure on large lecture courses where multiple-choice exams are the only assessments, but that's a good thing.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon., I didn't criticize anything, really. I know that there can be extremely well done online courses; Rice had an exceedingly popular and successful course on introductory programming with python. Still, I find your statement that a good MOOC is better than a traditional course w/ 5+ students in "almost every possible way" to be very provocative. Could you elaborate?

Chris, I like your point that content delivery is not the limiting step in the educational process - very well put.

Anonymous said...

I have the strong feeling that the value of an education "enjoyed" using only MOOCs will be significantly less, for both the academic career and industrial positions.

I tend to see MOOCs at the cross section of education and PR - the educational side will be tutorial like (a good example would be your Python course), and it is functional as PR because it could educate the general public about important aspects of science.

However, none of these two aspects foster a deep understanding that I think should be associated with a proper (physics) education.

Anonymous said...

Although I doubt that MOOCs will supplant the traditional university, I think that there is certainly some real value in the video lecture. The main downside (that I see) of the video lecture is that you lose interactivity, for example, the ability to ask questions to clarify a concept in real time.

However it seems to me that what is gained vastly outweighs this downside. I have sat through many lectures over the years, and I rarely remained completely engaged throughout the entire 1-1.5 hours. Video lectures give one the ability to pause, rewind, and replay as many times as one likes in order to fully understand a particular point. I think many people have expressed that this is one reason why they like Khan Academy in particular.

But more than that, recorded lectures give the lecturer the ability to pursue "the best lecture". Mistakes and confusions often occur in live lectures, and these can be corrected and improved by multiple takes, edits, and stitching if done well. Furthermore, data can be collected as to which parts of the lecture are most rewatched, and this can lead to a better understanding of where/when/what causes confusion among students.

Also, we wouldn't have to even pursue "the best" lecture, but we could instead offer multiple videos with different ways of explaining a particular concept that students could sample to gain better understanding (I'm thinking here of Malcolm Gladwell's Spaghetti Sauce Ted talk.)

Well, these points have been pointed out before, I'm sure. But the point is that video/online education certainly has some benefits, and it seems that these benefits should somehow be incorporated into mainstream education.

Anzel said...

I sort of remember Dean Dad saying that the folks who REALLY need to fear the MOOC are the For Profit colleges. They're the ones who are really trying to work the "credential" market. Rice, as it stands, will still sell the "total college experience" and "High Touch Engagement" and do well for doing so.

Otherwise, I've yet to be convinced that they're little more than more multimedia savvy distance learning classes. My mother took those classes, for credit, to learn German decades ago. This is certainly not a BAD thing--it's a great resource to have available and I've been using Software Carpentry to work on my own Python skills--but there's nothing particularly new here except perhaps the scale (viz, they're more flexible and "transferable").

There might be a bit more "higher level" material as well, though I'm curious how the model would work beyond computer science subjects (either the code works or it doesn't, and can be a bit more automated). Grading 30-page essays on some Marxist theory of some-book-or-other will still be work-intensive and lab courses are right out.

Anonymous said...

My perspective is that of an early career physicist who has been meaning to learn Python in order to use/modify open software code. This was fairly low priority compared to building my research program and broadening out to new areas, so I had been postponing it. At the same time I was curious about MOOCs. So I decided to take the Rice Python course this semester, and I can assure you that following this course (submitting HW and all) is not of the same level of self-discipline as checking out a book/playing around with the topic on your own. There are deadlines for HW submission, you receive emails notifying you about new assignments and lectures, and this creates a feel of obligation, even to a busy person who has not been a student for a while. It can also be much more time-effective to follow the course structure that someone else prepared than navigating a new topic on your own.

Regarding feedback and interactivity, there is a discussion forum associated with the course to ask/answer questions open to all students as well as 'community TAs'. This has great benefits, especially to people who have more time than someone like myself and are willing to go deeper into the subject.

Having said all that, I think that by no means can MOOCs substitute traditional in-person education. However, it is a great supplement to regular courses and universities should treat them as such. I can imagine for example an undergraduate student who needs to refresh a topic that is a prerequisite following an appropriate online course in parallel to the traditional more advanced course.

And of course, it is great for less privileged students around the globe to have access to the highest quality teaching (and community feedback) just by having an internet connection and curiosity.

Barry said...

"And of course, it is great for less privileged students around the globe to have access to the highest quality teaching (and community feedback) just by having an internet connection and curiosity. "

Note that they don't have access to the highest quality teaching, because that would involve more interaction with the teacher.

The 'world's greatest teacher' giving online lectures is in the end giving online lectures.

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