MOOCs: Madness of Crowds or Unmet Need?

An interesting take on MOOCs from the Chronicle last December that I’m just catching up with.

For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?
‘Disruptions’ have the buzz but may put higher education out of reach for those students likely to benefit the most.

A few choice bits:

A ‘Mass Psychosis’

Higher education does have real problems, and MOOC’s, badges—certificates of accomplishment—and other innovations have real potential to tackle some of them. They could enrich teaching, add rigor, encourage interdisciplinarity, reinforce education’s real-world applicability, and make learning more efficient—advances all sorely needed.

But the reinvention conversation has not produced the panacea that people seem to yearn for. “The whole MOOC thing is mass psychosis,” a case of people “just throwing spaghetti against the wall” to see what sticks, says Peter J. Stokes, executive director for postsecondary innovation at Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies. His job is to study the effectiveness of ideas that are emerging or already in practice.

He believes that many of the new ideas, including MOOC’s, could bring improvements to higher education. But “innovation is not about gadgets,” says Mr. Stokes. “It’s not about eureka moments. … It’s about continuous evaluation.”

Even more trenchantly from the president of Trinity College in DC who suggests a “follow the money” line of inquiry.

Screen Shot 2013-02-12 at 8.16.56 AM
When does the MOOC bubble burst? Is there a Coursera Stats course I need to take to find out?


“The idea that they can have better education and more access at lower cost through massive online courses is just preposterous,” says Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. Seventy percent of her students are eligible for Pell Grants, and 50 percent come from the broken District of Columbia school system. Her task has been trying to figure out how to serve those students at a college with the university’s meager $11-million endowment.

Getting them to and through college takes advisers, counselors, and learning-disability experts—a fact Ms. McGuire has tried to convey to foundations, policy makers, and the public. But the reinvention conversation has had a “tech guy” fixation on mere content delivery, she says. “It reveals a lack of understanding of what it takes to make the student actually learn the content and do something with it.”

Amid the talk of disruptive innovation, “the real disruption is the changing demographics of this country,” Trinity’s president says. Waves of minority students, especially Hispanics, are arriving on campus, many at those lower-tier colleges, having come from schools that didn’t prepare them for college work. “The real problem here is that higher education has to repeat a whole lot of lower education,” Ms. McGuire says. “That has been drag on everyone.”

Much of the hype around reinvention bypasses her day-to-day challenges as a president. “All of the talk about how higher education is broken is a superficial scrim over the question, What are the problems we are trying to solve?” she says. The reinvention crowd has motivations aside from solving higher education’s problems, she suspects: “Beware Chicken Little, because Chicken Little has a vested interest in this. There is an awful lot of hype about disruption and the need for reinvention that is being fomented by people who are going to make out like bandits on it.”

Overall, the Chronicle piece is a little muddled, befitting the topic. How do you describe a bubble from the inside anyway? It looks beautiful and shiny, and then it pops.

Of course, I’ve got MOOC musings of my own, but will save them for another day.

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