Will MOOCs revolutionize education? History says the odds are against it.

MOOCs – Massively Open Online Courses – are well up in the hype cycle right now. Coursera, Udacity, and other companies are trying to establish themselves as leaders in this “emerging market,” following the 1999 model of build the traffic first, then figure out how to monetize it. (That model worked fine for Google and Facebook, and failed for many others – but that’s a separate topic.) The expansive vision is that instead of showing up in classrooms to listen to a professor, students will “engage in online learning” including lectures and discussions over the Net. If they are in conventional colleges, they will still come to class, but it will be to discuss and go beyond the lectures they received the night before.

A recent post on another blog about the Open TV course movement reminded me that TV was once receiving similar game-changing forecasts. I’m sure it accomplished a little, but it never got much traction and came nowhere close to its hype. The post was on Punk Rock OR, and it gives some history that I didn’t know, about education by TV.

The history of education in American is littered with 1) fads of all kinds, and specifically 2) claims that XYZ new communication technology would revolutionize higher education. Examples include radio, mail-order courses, TV, movies, Control Data’s instruction system that used a time-shared computer, the Internet in general, the World Wide Web (that one is partly accurate). Many of these have had some value, but none of them has changed the basic paradigm of “asses in classrooms,” or if they have, they did not reach even a 1% market share. Notice that all of these have the same principle: achieve economies of scale, by using the faculty member far beyond where his or her physical voice can carry.

Yes, technology has helped education, and sometimes has even revolutionized it. Two old examples are the printing press, and the pencil. (Does anyone know a source for the explanation, by a school board, of why paper and pencils were unnecessary expenses, given that a chalkboard was perfectly adequate for teaching writing? I read about this many years ago.)

 But true revolutions in education are very rare. An example of a computer-revolution-that-hasn’t-happened: discussion conferences where discussions continue after class. These are technically straightforward, and the infrastructure exists and is used (e.g. Blackboard and others). So far, I have seen approximately zero examples of massive changes created by such discussions, for all their promise.

So I take the lack of impact from MOTVCs as yet another bad sign for MOOCs. Many of these forecast revolutions in higher ed, including TV and courses-by-mail, have foundered because there is something superior about actually showing up in a classroom, surrounded by other people talking about the same subject. We don’t really know why it’s superior – but so far, the replacements have not kept students coming back. Is there much reason to think “this time it’s different?”

Tieing this to technological knowledge and art/science, the main topics of this blog, good teaching apparently contains elements that are still very much art. Perhaps it’s as simple as the observation that humans, as social animals, use our brains differently when we are in groups.

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