A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. Many pundits and some policy makers are gaga (completely absorbed, excited or infatuated) by the vision of being able to deliver higher education coursework at incredibly low costs. MOOCs are supposed to be taught by rock star professors who work at elite universities and can deliver a lecture better than anyone. Only computers and one rock star are needed to deliver a course to thousands, world-wide (at least anywhere with a fast Internet connection and up to date software.)
There are three issues that most people who are gaga about MOOCS choose to ignore.
The first issue is that higher education involves more than absorbing facts and knowledge from a rock star. Part of what makes a college degree valuable is the interaction that happens in a classroom. Although discussion boards have their place, unless the student is going to live and work in a virtual universe, a discussion board is no substitute for face to face interaction. Having professors who aren’t all extroverted rock stars is actually an important part of higher education. Students learn to adapt and learn in different situations and from different people.
The second issue is motivation and persistence. One of the major current challenges in higher education is the increasing number of students who quit when they are confronted with difficult situations. These students floated through high school, choosing classes that they could pass by showing up. There was always extra credit. They cheated. They know they can get into college if they graduate from high school, even with an extremely low grade point. So, why do any more than the minimum?
The third issue is assessment. MOOCS generally use non-proctored assessments, either delivered and graded by a computer or graded by another student in the class, a “peer.” In either case, there is no guarantee that the student getting the grade is the person who actually did the work. If the assessment is computer delivered, then the content is limited to what can be graded by a computer. Showing the thinking involved in getting to the answer is not assessed. Perhaps in other disciplines, peer assessment is valid. In my experience, it doesn’t work very well in math. A C student does not know enough to evaluate the work of another C student.
This is on my mind because of a conversation I had today after class with one of my students in my second semester Math for Elementary Education class. She is not passing and is naturally discouraged. She wants to improve her grade. I did not have her in the first semester; she took it on-line. It turns out that the on-line course was completely delivered using a publisher’s software package. The tests were not proctored. She figured out how to “game” the system. She used the “try another problem” feature on the homework to get a step by step process for doing the exercise. She printed it and then “did the steps” on the assigned problem until she got the answer. Since she doesn’t believe that she is good at math, she didn’t really attempt to understand what was going on. The tests were computer generated and included problems that were similar to the assigned problems within the chapter. Since they were “open notes,” she used all of her copies of the worked out solutions for the exercises to figure out the answers for the test. This strategy was sufficient to earn her a C but, as she readily admits, she didn’t learn much. It is no wonder that she is struggling in my class.
Although on-line homework can provide valuable practice and immediate feedback to students, students also need to do work that is more complex than can be graded by a computer. My feedback on their work can make a difference, if they choose to pay attention to it.
I heard a policy maker talking about education reform. Her argument was that since college graduates make more money than high school graduates, we need to produce more college graduates. Since not enough students who enter college persist to a degree, we need to change college so that they can be successful. I wonder if we change college so that they can be more successful (reduce the number of credits required, allow MOOCs to be counted towards graduation, use more computer delivered instruction, even changing the content of the courses), will a college degree still be as valuable?