MOOCs: what’s real, what’s hype

I have an article in the new issue of Technology Review, The Crisis in Higher Education, that looks at the phenomenon of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The free delivery of college classes over the net is stirring a huge amount of excitement this fall, and the organizations pioneering  the MOOC model — notably, Coursera, Udacity, and edX — are grabbing a lot of attention and investment. But outsized expectations about revolutions in education have accompanied virtually every major new communication medium in the past, including the postal system, motion pictures, radio, TV, and personal computers. (In 1927, the University of Iowa declared that “it is no imaginary dream to picture the school of tomorrow as an entirely different institution from that of today, because of the use of radio in teaching.”) So is today different? Will the combination of breakthroughs in cloud computing, data mining, machine learning, and social networking at last enable distance learning to achieve its grand promise? That’s the question I wrestle with in the article.

Here’s how the piece begins:

A hundred years ago, higher education seemed on the verge of a technological revolution. The spread of a powerful new communication network — the modern postal system — had made it possible for universities to distribute their lessons beyond the bounds of their campuses. Anyone with a mailbox could enroll in a class. Frederick Jackson Turner, the famed University of Wisconsin historian, wrote of how the “machinery” of distance learning would carry “irrigating streams of education into the arid regions” of the country. Sensing a historic opportunity to reach new students and garner new revenues, schools rushed to set up correspondence divisions. By the 1920s, postal courses had become a full-blown mania. Four times as many people were taking them as were enrolled in all the nation’s colleges and universities combined.

The hopes for this early form of distance learning went well beyond the broadening of access. Many educators believed that correspondence courses, by allowing assignments and assessments to be tailored to each student, would actually be better than traditional on-campus instruction. The University of Chicago’s Home-Study Department, one of the nation’s largest, told prospective enrollees that they would “receive individual personal attention,” delivered “according to any personal schedule and in any place where postal service is available.” The department’s director claimed that correspondence study offered students an intimate “tutorial relationship” that “takes into account individual differences in learning.” The education, he said, would prove superior to that delivered in “the crowded classroom of the ordinary American University.”

We’re hearing strikingly similar claims today. Another powerful communication network—the Internet—is again raising hopes of a revolution in higher education. This fall, many of the country’s leading universities, including MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton, are offering classes for free over the Net, and more than a million people around the world have signed up to take them. These massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are earning praise for bringing outstanding college teaching to multitudes of students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it, including those in remote places and those in the middle of their careers. The online classes are also being promoted as a way to bolster the quality and productivity of teaching in general — for students on campus as well as off. Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett has written that he senses “an Athens-like renaissance” in the making. Stanford President John Hennessy told the New Yorker he sees “a tsunami coming.” …

Read on.

(Also check out The Library of Utopia, a somewhat related article I wrote for Tech Review earlier this year.)

4 thoughts on “MOOCs: what’s real, what’s hype

  1. Mark

    There is another issue that I think needs to be discussed and that is taking classes with the goal to get a degree. None of these free classes offer credits that can be applied to any type of degree, although some offer a certificate. That seems to me to be a big difference that no one is talking about.

  2. Brian Dear

    I’m amazed that nobody, including apparently Mr. Carr, is aware of the long and rich multi-decade history of online courses in universities. Geez, it’s been going on since the early 1960s.

    And we are not advancing in terms of technology. What was done in the 70s and 80s is arguably far more sophisticated than the typical “YouTube video and some simple quizzes” approach touted as such an advance today. The only thing that has advanced is scale, and a business model at Google that permits free worldwide transmission of videos via YouTube. Calling this new wave “MOOC” is appropriate because the emphasis is on the M. Things have scaled, but this is fundamentally a distribution story, not an innovation story.

  3. Daniel Cole

    Yes, but massive distribution alone can have vast qualitative aspects, as Marshall McLuhan taught us. Like most other communication based technology, the innovation isn’t much of a story before the distribution. It’s distribution on the massive scale of hundreds of millions of home computers that’s going to have the social effect. The story is what that social effect will be. On that note, a passage that concerned me particularly was:

    “What particularly excites him and other computer scientists about free online classes is that thanks to their unprecedented scale, they can generate the immense quantities of data required for effective machine learning. Koller says that Coursera has set up its system with intensive data collection and analysis in mind. Every variable in a course is tracked.”

    I can only assume that, once again, the participating public will have no say and likely no knowledge of the use to which the information collected on them is put to and with whom it’s shared.

    BTW, I’ve watched the blog here for some time, but never been able to comment since I refused to sign up for a Google account. So kudos on the new revamped version. I’m looking forward to stopping here more often.

  4. Daniel Cole

    Heh, obviously the italics were meant for the word “story” only. No more fancy chat tricks for me.

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