MOOCs today are our equivalents of early TV, when TV personalities looked and sounded like radio announcers (or often were radio announcers). People are thinking the same way about MOOCs, as replacements of traditional lectures or tutorials, but in online rather than physical settings. In the meantime, a whole slew of forces is driving a much larger transformation, breaking learning (and education overall) out of traditional institutional environments and embedding it in everyday settings and interactions, distributed across a wide set of platforms and tools. They include a rapidly growing and open content commons (Wikipedia is just one example), on-demand expertise and help (from Mac Forums to Fluther, Instructables, and WikiHow), mobile devices and geo-coded information that takes information into the physical world around us and makes it available any place any time, new work and social spaces that are, in fact, evolving as important learning spaces (TechShop, Meetups, hackathons, community labs)."
The previous paragraph, from futurist Marina Gorbis in a Co.Exist post from March 2013, pretty well sums up what I've come to see as the near-future of education - and why I'm fed up with most of the hoopla around MOOCs.
As Tony Bates has observed (in a scathing response to a June 2012 TED talk by Daphne Koller), yes, many elite universities are now dipping their toes even deeper into online education, but the tunnel-vision and even condescension that seems to swirl around some of these experiments is troubling.
For example, Daphne Koller started her June 2012 TED talk to promote her "elite" university-supported MOOC platform, Coursera, by citing a deadly stampede for educational opportunity in South Africa. To show how MOOCs might change the world? I think Prof. Koller's choice of an example to dramatize the need for MOOCs is unfortunate. MOOCs might be part of a larger ongoing movement (as Prof. Koller may or may not know, South Africa has a long history of online educational offerings), but does she really mean to suggest that Coursera might have saved a life that morning in South Africa...?
And Prof. Koller's talk - like many TED talks - proceeds from there to make a case for technology-driven "innovation" that sometimes borders on condescension (I'm offering a simple solution for one of the world's most complex problems and...).
Are the results for MOOCs really living up to the hype?
And is the lecture model that seems at the heart of so many MOOCs really the best use of the interactivity and social networking that distinguish the web from other platforms?
As Tony Bates observes "the teaching methods used by most of the Coursera courses so far are based on a very old and outdated behaviourist pedagogy, relying primarily on information transmission, computer marked assignments and peer assessment."
Maybe MOOCs are a necessary step. And, as more educators appreciate just how significant the changes to the educational paradigm might be in the 21st century, today's MOOCs may get better. And it's unfair to judge all MOOCs when one stumbles badly in a very public way. But I worry that today's MOOCs (especially those from "elite" universities based on Old World paradigms like the lecture and 12 week course) may actually be a distraction from the main path.
When the history of 21st century education is written, will MOOCs play a starring role?
Or will they be remembered as a misstep.
Yes, Prof. Koller and her colleagues mean well. But in a world where almost every child is connected to the internet via a mobile device, learning resources will not follow the same rules of scarcity that have contributed to old world stratification of education. And a lecture from an elite university's gray-haired professor may not be as relevant as some of the other tools that today's educators might be focusing on instead of MOOCs.
As Marina Gorbis writes: "Instead of worrying about how to distribute scarce educational resources, the challenge we need to start grappling with in the era of socialstructed learning is how to attract people to dip into the rapidly growing flow of learning resources and how to do this equitably, in order to create more opportunities for a better life for more people."