Very few people who enroll in MOOCs (massive open online courses) tell us about the experience. I just took one and learned these lessons:
Lesson One: Professors need to start phasing out in-class lecturing now.
Based on my own experience as a student and as an adjunct professor, the vast majority of professors spend much of their time in class lecturing. I suspect this will not last in the age of MOOCs. Not that the lecture will become obsolete–indeed, the lecture as a pedagogical tool has had amazing resilience. Lecturing arose because books were once both rare and prohibitively expensive, and lecturing made it necessary for only one person to read while others took notes. Of course, the printing press, VHS tape, and YouTube have all shattered this justification for the lecture, yet the lecture survived. I’m betting it will survive MOOCs as well.
However, the resiliency of the lecturer is another question altogether. It will become extremely difficult to charge a lot of money for in-person lecturing if MOOCs are willing to give away lectures for free, especially as the quality of online lectures improves. To be sure, this does not mean that professors will be obsolete; rather, we simply must figure out where professors add value. In a world where MOOCs (and other sources) saturate the market with free high-quality lectures, a professor’s greatest value comes from non-lecturing activities best performed in person: guiding students through complex examples, providing hands on demonstrations, leading group discussions, mentoring students, grading, etc.
While painful for some, viewing professors as complementary to online programs will arguably improve education in the long run. As former NYU professor Robert T. Morrison stated about the lecture, “Teachers are expensive, and we can’t afford to waste the ones we’ve got on this glorified stenography.” Freeing professors from lecturing obligations will allow them to focus on what they do better than anyone or anything else — teach.
Lesson Two: For students taking a MOOC, self-motivation and self-discipline are even more important.
One advantage of in-person courses is the expectation that students will show up at certain times. Indeed, during my MOOC experience I felt none of the nagging guilt about skipping class that I experienced in my college years. My ability to work on the course at any time made it easy to put it off. In fact, I’m still working on the last few weeks of course material even though the course is already over. This procrastination wasn’t about a lack of time – for instance, I am completely up to date on the TV show The Walking Dead – but rather a lack of self-discipline.
Lesson Three: MOOC students ought to think more carefully about what courses to take, and what they want to get out of them.
MOOCs require students to think much more deeply about what they want to get out from their education. For instance, I signed up for my MOOC to learn how to use the R statistical package. Since I only wanted to see examples of other people’s R code, I watched the videos and lecture notes but avoided the assignments and quizzes. Had I taken this course in a traditional institution, I would have had no choice.
Students will also need to put more thought into the courses they take. When I was in college years ago, I chose many of my courses based on graduation requirements and scheduling. In a world of MOOCs, however, those considerations will increasingly be pushed aside. Competency-based evaluation of knowledge will increasingly replace seat time/credit hours as the milestones of education, and MOOCs (or their successors) are tailor-made for that world. While this change will mark an improvement in many respects, one consequence is that students will need to assume a greater role in determining the shape of their education.
Lesson Four: Policymakers should stop subsidizing universities and start subsidizing education.
The federal financial aid programs are basically set up to subsidize university-based education exclusively. As my MOOC experience demonstrated, universities are not the only place education can occur. To that end, federal policy should support education regardless of who provides it.
To illustrate the bizarre outcomes of the current system, consider that in 2010-11 Johns Hopkins University had around 5,800 full time equivalent (FTE) undergraduate students who received millions of dollars of federal financial aid ($3.4 million in Pell grants and $17.8 million in federal loans). In contrast, none of the students who participated in my MOOC -not the 50,000 who watched the video lectures, the 20,000 who took the quizzes, or the 5,500 who received certificates of completion – received any financial aid. This, despite the fact that the course I took was taught by Dr. Jeff Leek, a professor at Johns Hopkins. This bizarre outcome — generous aid available for one types of learning and no aid for another– massively distorts the delivery of higher education. The financial aid system needs an overhaul if the goal is to subsidize real education.
MOOCs certainly have the potential to revolutionize higher education. But realizing that potential will require adaptation on the part of students, professors, and policymakers. I hope the four lessons I learned by taking a MOOC will provide some insight into what the future may hold.