The antidote to cranial rectal insertion in the academic world
MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) are a wonderful start to a possible future where education is free to all. I support them fully. I may enrol on one. I may consider creating one. I also think they are about 10 years too late, but that’s a different story (we could have done this, as a global community, many years ago).
However, I do have three problems with MOOCs and the cloud of rhetoric that lingers around them. Here they are:
1. The idea of “giving away” lectures and teaching material to the non-enrolled populace (Open Learning) is not new. Between 1971 and 2006 the Open University in the UK broadcast course-specific programmes and lectures on the BBC (both TV and radio). They continue this service on iTunes and YouTube.
Here is a neat little video when they celebrated 40 years, which gives you an idea of the breadth of content: http://youtu.be/3JbV6llUJd8
And a more humerous perspective on some of the older OU programming: http://youtu.be/2un9rO2ZF4g
2. MOOCs are not a panacea to the lack of access to high quality tertiary education world-wide. You still need high quality primary and secondary education. You still need a computer. You still need internet access. The image below highlights the uneven distribution of access to computers and the internet (from http://rosieleavyict.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/poverty.html ).
3. Coursera has a potentially inconsistent position. On the one hand they “envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” On the other they claim “Coursera is an education company that partners with the top universities”. Unfortunately, the term “top universities” usually refers to quality of research and the success of their graduates. However, there is very little evidence to suggest that the best education comes from the “best” universities. Indeed, what tends to happen is that the best universities attract the best students in the first place, and so have very little they need to do once they enrol. Christensen and Horn sum it up nicely in their Harvard Magazine article:
“Indeed, the quality of America’s colleges and universities has been judged historically not by the numbers of people the institutions have been able to educate well, regardless of background, but by their own selectivity, as seen in the quality and preparedness of the students they have admitted. Those institutions that educated the smartest students, as measured by standardized tests, also moved up in the arms race for money, graduate students, and significant research projects, which in turn fueled their prestige still further, as faculty members at such schools are rewarded for the quality of research, not for their teaching.”
I still love the idea of MOOCs, but lets all please keep a level head on the pros and cons. And let’s really try to make an attempt at increasing access to high quality education worldwide.