What’s Wrong with MOOCs

MOOC’s are massive open online courses.  Read about them here.  The premise of this post is that what’s wrong with MOOCs is the same thing that is wrong with the current lecture – homework – test – final model of education only more so.  It is assumed here that the MOOC is taken for some kind of meaningful credit.

Generally a learner’s attentiveness to a lecture flags after about twenty minutes.  Also  the act of taking notes is a good learning technique.  A lecturer with live students can sense student discomfort and take measures to renew their involvement, say getting the students to  all stand up and turn and discuss the topic with their neighbor.  The assumption with a MOOC is that the students will pause a lecture when they get lost or tired.  This requires a level of self-awareness that many people do not have.  If a MOOC is part of a regularly scheduled class and students wait until the last minute to view the videos as many do, not much learning is going to occur.

There will also be no compelling reason to take notes.  MOOC lectures are usually available anytime.  If videos are being reused, a set of lecture notes will soon be circulating on the web – a set of really good notes since some enterprising person will realize that many people will be willing to pay for good notes – say ten dollars for a complete set.  Given the numbers of students a MOOC is designed to reach, this could be quite lucrative.

Once a set of notes exists possibly with annotations about homework problems and test questions, a textbook entity will have been constructed.  Why watch the videos which offer no chance for immediate feedback, when one can just read the book.  So what do video lectures really bring?  The lecturer could be a top researcher in his/her field who brings a superior organization and a topic choice that reflects the current state of the field. But unless the subject of the course is fairly high level, current textbooks will have the same information.  Also the lecturer should be a outstanding “explainer”.  Even so this person will be getting no feedback from his/her audience and the lectures will become flat and nonrhythmic.  Conclusion:  Video lectures are intrinsically worse that live lectures given the same lecturer and are useful only if a student missed a class.

The lecture is only the first step in the learning process that of changing a student’s brain for the long term.  Doing homework that is working problems, writing essays, reflecting on discussions  for significant amounts of time is how the deepest learning occurs.  Well-designed homework has students practicing the patterns of reasoning of the subject matter and applying the reasoning patterns and new knowledge to different sometimes difficult problems.  The danger is that changes in an individual’s brain will be diluted in group homework sessions whether prescribed by the syllabus or organized informally by students.  An important objective of homework is to have students confront their understanding of the material and make a model that works for them.  Most students, at least in math, think homework is about working problems for a grade and thus any means of solution is okay – help from a friend or relative or from an internet exploration.  MOOCs will only acerbate this tendency.  On-line forums will be formed to discuss methods.  After the first iteration of a MOOC, worked out homework assignments in detail would be available.  Though the details of homework assignments can be changed, the types of problems are generally limited.

I have heard that a large universities test files exist – files of each professor’s tests for his/her courses.  If a professor recycles test questions and how can they not, even if they changes numbers or required approaches, access to a test file is an advantage.    On the internet the content of MOOC tests will be recorded and traded.  At this point tests will no longer be meaningful measures of student learning.

In short the chief object of a course is student learning.  Learning occurs in individuals through their attempts to understand and explore the patterns of reasoning of a particular subject given new (to the learner) knowledge.  Individually worked cleverly designed homework with deep questions of sufficient frequency and length “force” learning to occur and will need to be graded by human beings.  MOOC-like courses sever a personal bond between faculty and student and offer an “easy” path to course completion without learning and are not the way to go.


About jrh794

I am a sixty-five year old math instructor at Southern Oregon University. I taught at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed California for twenty-six years. Prior to that I worked as a computer programmer, carpenter and in various other jobs. I graduated from Rice University in 1967 and have a MS in Operations Research from Stanford. In the past I have hand-built a stone house and taken long solo bicycle tours. Now I ride my mountain bike and play golf for recreation.
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