MOOCs are not the Bad Guy

Ben Affleck's not the bad guy either
Ben Affleck’s not the bad guy either

Sebastian Thrun announced last week that Udacity was going to be pivoting away from higher education to pursue corporate education partnerships.  And then the internet exploded.

What has ensued has been a lot of football spiking and endzone dancing by people who felt that MOOCs were not the answer.  For instance, Jonathan Rees says

I would argue that Sebastian Thrun’s most famous educational innovation is already dead. In fact, it was pretty much dead on arrival.” 

Meanwhile, Rebecca Schuman added this colorful analogy,

Sebastian Thrun, godfather of the massive open online course, has quietly spread a plastic tarp on the floor, nudged his most famous educational invention into the center, and is about to pull the trigger.”

MOOCs are dead, ya’ll.  We can go back to whatever it was we were doing before they showed up. Right?

No. no I don’t think we can.  Humbly, I would suggest that Drs. Schuman and Rees are missing the point.  Much of what I’ll call the “bad feelings” around MOOCs are not the fault of MOOCs at all.  They are the fault of xMOOC founders.

MOOCs did not say there were disruptive, and they did not say that they were going to replace higher education as we knew it.  MOOCs did not say that there would only be ten universities in 50 years or that they had uncovered the super-secret magic sauce of online education.  How could they?  MOOCs are courses.  Massive Open Online Courses.  They are things, much like a textbook, or a video, or a collection of free and open courseware.  Things do not make audacious statements; people do.

Instead of coming in and putting themselves above traditional faculty by making pompous pronouncements like “I try to think of what’s best for students, and then I do that*” (as opposed to normal college faculty who what…don’t do that?), xMOOC founders could have had a real dialogue with educational reformers and innovators.  By bashing the public, and policy makers, and administrators over the head with the idea that “Hey guys, education is broken, completely, but don’t worry here is the answer,” (with a little help from the Silicon Valley trade presses, and irresponsible journalists everywhere), MOOCs were elevated to a messianic status they did not deserve.  This brought criticism from BOTH reformers who pushed for pedagogical improvements to make MOOCs actually open, actually engaging and actually connective, as well as crotchety curmudgeons who feared for their job and expatiated at great length about the inherent value of “face to face instruction.”

But guess what?  MOOCs do something that you can’t do in a traditional classroom.  They provide structured information to anyone with an internet connection, for free.  Yes, you can argue that they could be better.  They could rely less on canned lectures, and less on objective testing.  Their discussion boards could be less of a swamp of sadness, and more of a useful community building tool.  They aren’t perfect (definitely, definitely not perfect), but they do open students to knowledge and experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have.

You know what students can do with that knowledge?  They can get real live college credit, through the form of a prior learning assessment.  If a student was so motivated, they could take several MOOCs, come to a school like Thomas Edison State College, and through a combination of direct, high stakes testing and portfolio assessment, get a real live college degree.  So while you all have been busy cheerleading the destruction of MOOCs, we’ve been building a way to use MOOCs to provide students with a regionally accredited degree without sacrificing our college’s academic rigor, or wasting student’s time.  MOOCs are not the bad guy, and sometimes, they can even save the day.

Tune in next time when I talk more about Thomas Edison State College’s Associates of Science Degree, and how you can get one using free online resources.


*See every Andrew Ng presentation ever.


3 thoughts on “MOOCs are not the Bad Guy

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