Two headlines from different publications:

  • No Rich Child Left Behind, and Enriching the Rich: Why MOOCs are not improving education

  • Weston High faculty creates online courses for the world

Are these headlines saying the same thing in different words? Not really. Are they perhaps contradictory? Not really. But they certainly suggest different tones: the first is downbeat about MOOCs, the second upbeat about them.

So this is a good opportunity to look at the pros and cons of MOOCs. Both of these articles can be considered “fair and balanced” [oops…I can’t say that, since the phrase has been corrupted by Fox]. But they come to opposite conclusions. Before we look at the pros and cons, gentle reader, let’s be sure that you know what MOOC means. Don’t bother looking it up in Urban Dictionary:

Derivated from the acronym meaning Massive Open Online Course

“Derivated”? Please!

Anyway, the first article, by the distinguished Mark Guzdial, doesn’t even bother defining the word, apparently on the principle that everyone knows what it means by now. But that’s definitely not so! The second article, by the equally distinguished Boris Korsunsky (my colleague in our sister department at Weston), defines MOOCs (plural) as “Massive Open Online Courses,” thereby agreeing with Urban Dictionary without committing any solecisms. Now that that’s out of the way, we can return to the question of pros and cons.

As the headline hints, Guzdial’s analysis of the pros is a bit snide:

They help rich white men find better jobs. They help educate the rich. They help a small percentage of the poor.

All the money being poured into developing MOOCs fuels the gap between the rich and the poor. If you want to improve education generally, nationally or worldwide, aim at the other 90%. MOOCs aren’t improving education. They enrich those who are already rich.

If these are the pros, Guzdial doesn’t need to tell us what the cons are. Maybe he is right. If so, don’t shoot the messenger — as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out.

Korsunsky’s article is much more truly balanced, and I say that with all objectivity, not because he is a colleague and a friend. For instance:

Getting more students ready for the AP courses through online pre-AP offerings is an important public policy goal.

Weston’s involvement in MOOCs is currently in the form of courses written and delivered by five high-school teachers in conjunction with Harvard and MIT’s edX program. These MOOCs are open to the world, not just to the wealthy. Is the program successful?

The courses do appear to have been useful. For instance, Weston AP physics students are ahead of last year’s timeline by at least a week, thanks to their refreshed mastery of the basic concepts that allowed for a faster pace without sacrificing the depth of coverage.

Overall, this has been a great learning experience for the involved faculty and, hopefully, for the students. We proudly consider the project a great success. In total, our courses reached almost 26,000 students in nearly 200 countries (U.S. was most prominently represented, while India, Canada, Britain, China and Egypt tended to be among the top participants in most courses). Worldwide, almost 700 of those students earned the completion certificates and countless more gained valuable experience.

On the other hand:

  1. The numbers of students enrolled in the courses ranged from about 17,000 from 182 countries (French) to about 1,200 from 89 countries (biology).
  2. The numbers of students who actually tried at least one assignment from the course were much lower – from 21 percent of the enrolled students in physics to about 10 percent in French.
  3. The numbers of students who passed the courses and earned the certificates of completion were lower still – from 6 percent in physics to about 1 percent in French.

While the passing percentages may not look impressive, they are, in fact, very much in line with those for most MOOCs. For instance, the first run of CS50x, the fabled Harvard “Introduction to Computer Science,” awarded certificates to less than 1 percent of the 150,000 students who enrolled. In fact, these numbers demonstrate both the potential and the limitations of MOOCs. While these courses have tremendous reach and convenience, they are also hard to complete. Apparently, we humans do need face-to-face interactions and, perhaps, the presence of a human instructor in order to find success.

So…a mixed conclusion. Unlike Fox, it’s truly fair and balanced.

Word cloud from Univ. of Wisconsin

Word cloud from Univ. of Wisconsin

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston