Friday, July 5, 2013

Self-service learning

Stolovaya-57 - Soviet Style Self Service by Kwong Yee Cheng, on Flickr
CC BY-NC-SA Some rights reserved by Kwong Yee Cheng
Take courses from the world's best universities featuring their top professors completely free! That's what we've been hearing about MOOCs for the past two years or so and many articles I've read have swallowed this message almost without question, making claims that MOOCs will sweep away expensive higher education and revolutionize universities. Let's calm down a little now and ask why they are free and what the differences are between MOOCs and the regular university courses (campus or online) that cost money and are based on students meeting entry requirements.

Comparing MOOCs to regular courses is a bit like self-service compared to table service. All the ingredients are in there and you make your own way through the material on your own or in the company of friends. If you have questions there's generally no responsible member of staff available to answer but often someone else in the queue can help since they've eaten here before. The food is generally good but it's up to you how you compose your meal and there's not much guidance available. Some people don't take a full 3-course meal and some only drop in for a coffee but everyone is welcome to drop in when they can. It's much cheaper than a restaurant with table service and highly trained staff and is perfectly adequate in many circumstances. But sometimes we want that special treatment, advice, quality, atmosphere, comfort and exclusivity and we're willing to pay for it. It's not a question of one or the other but they both fill important roles.

There's an excellent article on this theme by Jason Boyers in the Huffington Post, Why MOOCs Miss the Point With Online Learning. He describes how regular online university courses differ from  MOOCs by offering qualified support, clear learning objectives, interaction, engagement and of course examination. It's wrong to say that MOOCs are offering top university education for free - you get some good content and a structure but without the elements that add valuable quality.

"The premise is that you are paying for the same thing you might otherwise get for free, but you are not. There are few things that are equal between a MOOC and high quality online education. You are paying for an engaged faculty member, who is working with you toward course completion. You are paying for meaningful feedback on assessments and documented growth in a higher level of understanding about a topic. You are paying to learn alongside students who all exhibit relatively the same investment in the learning experience as you, and who will likely be there tomorrow to respond to your discussion post. You are paying for an administration that is committed to your course completion because they are accountable for your success. You are paying for content that is part of a larger whole; this course is but one along a journey toward a degree or certificate."

The main point here is that it has taken 10-15 years to develop quality online learning. MOOCs, at least in their high profile form, offer exciting opportunities to make elements of higher education accessible to all but they are not replacing quality online learning any time soon.

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