Many contrarian thoughts and bullet-points about MOOCs

MOOC Crib
MOOC Crib (Photo credit: snowpup5)

I present some general and largely negative points against MOOCs (wiki: ‘A massive open online course (MOOC) is an online course aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web‘) below.  Well, against the MOOC hype anyway.

As a contra to what I say below: this Clay Shirky piece is fantastic on the hope for MOOCs; this piece by Shirkey gives a particular insight into the grotesque inflation of fees at university in the USA. Disentangling the hype and hope for MOOCs from much-needed retrenchment of fees to attend university is not a straightforward task.

MOOC Problems – as I see them

MOOCs are just that – MOOCsThey are not MOODs – Degrees; or MOOMScs or MOOPhDs (I leave it someone else to figure out how to pronounce these). The day when you consult a MOOC-trained oncologist or neurologist or clinical psychologist or lawyer (or well … think of a profession)  is far away. A MOOC-trained biochemist or indeed any wet or dry scientist would be more-or-less useless to an employer – why? Do they know which end of a retort stand is which? Have they ever measured an actual compound and injected it in vivo? Or collected a real data point?

Accreditation for a MOOD is deeply problematic. Currently, universities provide a convenient, substantial and hidden compliance and accreditation mechanism for a wide range of professional and non-professional courses. Accreditation for a very basic MOOC might not be a problem for certain types of courses (assuming you can control cheating) – but completion rates seem very low (~<10%). Good luck with seeing someone through the 14 years needed to train as a neurologist!

MOOCs miss a key university experience – sex, drugs and rock n roll (as well as all the other stuff – debates, sports and all the rest of it). And students do want these.

MOOCs miss dynamic real-time participative feedback (not that is necessarily present in traditional lectures – but the conversations with student groups after lectures is often the key).

MOOCs do not allow students to learn from each other easily – as they do not sit together – in the lecture, seminar, library, cafe, wherever.

There seems to be a whole universe of social cognition and social interaction that MOOC boosters seem to ignore (or, more cattily, are missing themselves, and assume are missing in others). By this, I mean simply that the sum total of the university experience is not captured in an online video experience. Anyone who knows the difference between watching a live concert on television and being at the concert in person knows what I am getting at. When you’re there, you’re there. On telly – well, what’s going on in the kitchen?

And what about the psychology of learning and memory? A MOOC designed ignorant of this (and see this) will be end up like these: a time- and money-sinkhole.

MOOC hype misses a key component of what universities are about – knowledge generation, as opposed to knowledge transmission. This function of the research university will not disappear. And research-led teaching? I use a superb textbook – just issued – which gives no coverage to a new and important research technique* – because the literature moves faster than textbooks. It moves faster than MOOCs too! But I can cover it in lectures easily.

MOOCs are hugely difficult to monetise unless there is a deep brand (which might be personal) backing them. A MOOC from Joseph Stiglitz or Nouriel Roubini would attract people by the truckload (while the current economic crisis continues!). One by John Gurdon or one on neuroscience of zombies might not (more’s the pity).

MOOCs will be fantastic for supplementing and supporting pre-existing material and courses – but they need to better than watching a fancy BBC documentary on whatever it happens to be.

I suspect in ten years we will look back and see MOOCs in a very different light – just like we look back on the dot-com graveyards  into which so much money was poured and largely wasted. Instead money will be made in ways that we can’t envisage. And the technology will allow us to do things in learning that we can’t begin to think of.

I do actually support online MOOC-like initiatives of every type and stripe – I think we need a period of fevered experimentation to try and see where the future lies. It may be for example that the merging of big data and MOOC approaches allows a way of thinking anew.

I also suspect where the money is to be made in MOOCs in the short-term is in life-long learning – things like CPDs etc.

And it might be that everything I have said contra MOOCs above is an exercise in confirmation bias.

Here’s an interesting news report on a MOOC: http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/professor-leaves-a-mooc-in-mid-course-in-dispute-over-teaching/42381

*The technique (which promises to be transformative): 

The CLARITY technique:

A chemical treatment that turns whole organs transparent offers a big boost to the field of ‘connectomics’ — the push to map the brain’s fiendishly complicated wiring. Scientists could use the technique to view large networks of neurons with unprecedented ease and accuracy. The technology also opens up new research avenues for old brains that were saved from patients and healthy donors.

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist

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