MOOCs, Robots, and the Secret of Life

Kevin Carey writes insightfully about the use of MOOCs in higher education

Some MOOC courses aren't equivalent to standard college courses. He gives an example of Introduction to Philosophy from Coursera, writing, "It was fun, and I learned some things," but students are expected to spend only 1-2 hours per week on the course. More importantly, he considers the educational process to have two primary components: 

  • "One involves making choices about knowledge, ideas, and skills. What do we want students to learn? How do we present that information?"
  • "the second component: creating a process and environment in which students make meaning out of the information you’ve presented, integrating it into prior knowledge and larger concepts in a way that allows for applications to problem-solving and transfer to other domains."

The Coursera course lacked the second component and was mostly a transmission form of education in which students received information but didn't use it.

In contrast was MIT 7.00x, an introductory biology class on edX. MIT 7.00x was like Introduction to Philosophy in that there were video lectures. However, Carey spent about 15 hours a week on this course, and it integrated problem sets, or psets, that are "extensive and difficult and ... where most of the real learning occurs." As Carey, notes such an approach is traditional, but 

Where MIT distinguishes itself is in making the lectures very good, the problem sets challenging, the examination standards high, and the curriculum expansive in scope.

MIT goes beyond "simple multiple choice and true/false questions" to using simulators that allow physical manipulation of biologicall structures, which requires that the information and concepts presented in lectures be used in problem-solving exercises, thus fulfilling "the second component" of the educational process.

As Carey notes, some might argue that there's a video lecture isn't as good as being in the room with a "live" instructor. Carey disagrees. He asserts that for him, the video was better as he cold pause it to get his notes right, plus a professional edited video right in front of him was better than sitting in the back of the room where "it was harder to see, harder to hear, and more distracting .... The kid with pink hair next to me kept fiddling with his iPhone and was clearly bored."

Carey continues, asserting that offline instructors can bore as much as online instructors of MIT 7.00x can inspire. In fact, he states that most of his in-class instructors were not inspiring. Instead,

They involved days and weeks and months of courses that mostly involved professors talking and me listening, taking notes. The guy who taught me Emerson, my 19th Century American lit professor, didn’t look me in the eye and ask me anything. Instead, he told my class that it would be inappropriate for us to ask questions while he talked. The used copies of Hawthorne and Melville I bought at the campus bookstore already had the relevant passages from the lecture underlined. The problem wasn’t that he was just a flesh-and-blood-robot. It’s that he was a bad robot. And he is not alone.

As Carey admits, not every subject can be put into a MOOC. Composition is one that seems not to fit well. While courses in science generally have well-defined and (in)correct answers to questions, composition doesn't. How does one evaluate whether a word is appropriately vivid? Whether a sentence is clear and concise enough? Whether a paragraph has good coherence? Whether an essay meets audience expectations? 

Yet, for those other courses, MOOCs are certain to disrupt higher education.