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The Madness of MOOCs

There's a lot of excitement about online learning, and rightly so. Online courses could increase access to education and quality of instruction. Unfortunately, today's “Massive Open Online Courses,” and similar offerings have been massively successful only in raising media attention. San Jose State's remedial MOOC offerings got axed after their pass rate was less than 40%, compared to over 75% for face-to-face versions. A recent study estimated MOOC completion rates were below 7%. Something's wrong

Let's imagine it's January of 2011. Udacity, Coursera, edX haven't launched, and MIT Open Courseware is a little project for nerds. We're sitting down to design how online courses would work. Imagine for a moment that someone suggested we have set start and end dates, post lectures at the start of each week with quizzes and homework designed to be as easy to grade as possible, and due at the end of the same week. We'd laugh at anyone who suggested that kind of thing, because it's stupid.

Today's "Online Courses" are lectures read into a webcam by professors, with some diagrams thrown in so you have to watch a video, tied to an inflexible schedule. That's not a course. In a course, lessons are adapted to you and your peers on the fly based on the cues you're giving the presenter; a friend down the hall will draw a diagram to explain a concept to you; you can go to office hours, and have an things explained to you. These are reasons, it turns out, that we don't just give textbooks to students and let them figure it out. MOOCs are just worse versions of textbooks.

Marsh McLuhan talked about the idea that inside every medium, there's another medium; for a real course, it's conversation. A MOOC is a bit like an audiobook, but that's not fair to audiobooks; they tend to contain highly edited content, and are easy to consume. MOOCs are neither. The MOOC is a frankenstein medium aimed at making universities feel good while doing little about education.

What would a real platform for online education look like? I'm not sure, but let's look at how it could take advantage of the medium:

  • Interactive explanations of intuitions behind concepts
  • A/B testing and personal targeting of different approaches to optimize for successful teaching
  • The ability to offer alternate explanations, more detail, and conceptual breakdowns inline on request
  • Interactive problem examples

Obviously, some of these have been used, but not holistically. It's clear though, that MOOCs-as-we-know-them aren't courses through the internet; they're courses-on-DVD glued to a web forum. I'm not sure quite what the future is, but I'd wager that it'll look a lot like a webpage.