A MOOC-ish Experiment

For some time now, I’ve been following with interest and excitement the development of new online tools for teaching and learning. I’ve had visions of being able to learn just about anything of interest in my spare time; creative writing, world history, Eastern philosophy, or simply a refresher on my high school linear functions class. One of the available tools out there is called a “MOOC” or “Massive Open Online Course“. Purportedly, these platforms use videos, readings, and problem sets in combination with interactive user forums to allow for greater interactivity between distance education students and their teachers (Wikipedia article).

My hopes and dreams were somewhat tampered on Tuesday of this week when San Jose State University‘s Academic Senate announced that it will soon vote on a proposed policy preventing the university from bringing in outside technology providers without prior approval from tenured and tenure-track faculty members (Kolowich, November 2013). San Jose’s president is being accused of using edX and Udacity, two major providers of MOOCs, to teach more students for less money (Kolowich, November 2013). Unfortunately, recent trials of these platforms found that “students in the “Udacified” versions of the courses performed significantly worse over all than did their classroom counterparts” (Kolowich, November 2013).

Even more concerning was a related article in Slate.com by education columnist and adjunct professor Dr. Rebecca Schuman. She reports that Sebastian Thrun, CEO and cofounder of Udacity, said recently that students who struggle with MOOCs are “students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives” (Schuman, November 2013). Although these online courses could be used to bring low-cost education to those who most need it, the platform is instead targeted to the wealthy student who can easily afford other types of in-class education (Schuman, November 2013). MOOCs also fail to alleviate issues with excessively large classrooms and overworked faculty members (Schuman, November 2013).

I still look forward to the day that I can learn about 18th century European history in the wee hours of the morning from the comfort of my living room. However, I also expect to see a lot of critical research into the distribution, usage, and value of these online teaching tools coming from within universities in the coming years (e.g. in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University).

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