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“Massive Online… OOOOOOKS”

I’m about to embark on a new experience: teaching an online class. It’s a short course, really, just four sessions about my favorite topic ever (radio astronomy). It’s not for credit or associated with a university, kind of a “lifelong learning” experience for funsies type of thing.  I’m not even getting paid separately for it, jut folding it into my normal CosmoQuest duties so that the fee paid by the students goes directly to funding our citizen science programs. (We do pay our outside instructors, however!) I wasn’t sure it would work at first, asking people to pay for classes with no tangible benefit other than the love of learning? Yet we have dedicated students in a class capped at 8 so we can all fit in a Google Hangout, plus a space for a guest from the rest of the CosmoQuest team.

Our “CosmoAcademy” director Matthew Francis has called it “the anti-MOOC,” where MOOC stands for “massive open online course.” It’s a class, and it is online. But it is anything but massive, and it’s not entirely open, in that anyone can sign up, but the class sessions are private. In a way, it’s an idyllic little situation, learning for the sake of finding out something interesting. It’s an opportunity that few are able or willing to take, especially in light of all the information available for free to the internet generation, and especially with the rise of the MOOCs.

I first thought that MOOCs were a delightful concept. Learning from the experts for free? Oh boy! So many people would like to take such opportunities who cannot afford college, especially for a subject that is taken “for fun” rather than a degree desired to get a job. I first heard of them through excited new students who were meeting in coffee shops to discuss the latest lecture or work on assignments together. After all, group work and discussions are an excellent way of learning, much to the chagrin to those of us who hated group work when we were kids. Active participation in the learning process, however, has been shown time and time again to have great benefits. So these informal coffee-shop dissertation sessions were a lovely idea to supplement the material being presented in the MOOC.

BerlinThe problem is, however, that I must have run across a particularly unusually motivated group of students in the early days. It turns out that the dropout rate for MOOCs is incredibly high, quoted at around 90%. But those of us that visit internet forums are aware of this particular phenomenon… plenty of people sign up for a free online experience, many lurk, and a very few provide most of the content and interactions. So this isn’t a classroom in any traditional sense, but free, dare I use the word, edu-tainment for many. MOOCs, in their current form, should pose no threat to the system of higher education (which is already rife with problems of its own.)

But some are decrying MOOCs as downright dangerous, such as this Slate piece that was included in an earlier “Required Readings.” It points out that MOOCs rely heavily on the model of “the professor talks at you and you learn stuff” that so many in academia are desperately trying to change. It also makes a stiff job market even worse for aspiring professors if more and more courses are consolidated under this model. I don’t think the perceived evil lies in the MOOCs themselves, but in the way that they are being touted as an educational revolution. As universities are looking for ways to save money, the idea of offering large online courses, open or not, is hugely tempting. The question of developing online classes was even a huge factor in the much disputed dismissal and subsequent reinstating of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan by the Board of Rectors last year.

The much maligned MOOCs are then a small part of much larger issues with student loans, , university funding models, faculty tenure systems, and the growing pains that come with any new technological advancement that has such broad social implications. I realize now that it is a bit of a step backwards for those of us looking forward to more interactive learning experiences for students, but I wouldn’t begrudge someone who wants to watch the lectures. I just don’t think they are going to revolutionize higher education. The fear is that these will morph into the dominant system of higher education, but I think the alarm bells are being rung loudly enough that it won’t happen. At least, I can hope. But the implementation of online tools in traditional classrooms is rolling forward with much more positive results, such as access to broader ranges of tools, information, and even audiences.

In any case, I’ll be teaching my little course happily, knowing that I can’t offer any “real world” benefit from my knowledge and experience of radio astronomy, but happy in the knowledge that a few others will get to share my love of a certain subject for a few weeks.

If you’ve had experiences with MOOCs or other forms of online learning, let me know in the comments!

Featured image CC A Watters on Flickr. Middle image CC Ingo Bernhardt on Flickr. Title quote from a speaker at a recent conference who hilariously forgot the acronym mid-sentence. 

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Nicole

Nicole

Nicole is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at a small liberal arts college. Her home on the internet can be found at One Astronomer's Noise.

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