Friday, January 10, 2014

Whither MOOCs?

So, I have long been skeptical that MOOCs had the messianic potential its supporters have claimed on its behalf. To a grizzled skeptic comme moi this seemed like just another venture that administrators concoct every so often of make themselves look like visionary bidnessmen, out to save humanity while making a quick buck on the side.  Of course, this time could be different. This was not just another case of TQM (total quality management) or efficiency management. This time, we found the magic ingredient: something able to both cut ever increasing costs and enhance the educational experience. Not surprisingly, this time the source of our salvation came dressed up in silicon, the techies leading the way to the promised land, all the while making a couple of bucks: doing well by doing good. Who could legitimately complain?

Now the second thoughts are starting to cluster like buzzards around a wounded water buffalo.  The beast is not yet down, and maybe it will make a remarkable recovery, but it has seriously stubbed its toe (or whatever it is WBs have) and the limp may betoken more serious problems. The most serious one being that it may not really save much money anyhow and maybe it won't really enhance the educational experience as advertised and maybe modern students, even those accustomed to YouTube and Pinterest won't find the hot new MOOCish environment all that stimulating. After all, there is quite a difference between watching cats do their thing and watching stats videos.

At any rate, here's an NPR piece (news on NPR is like a Whole Foods opening in an "up and coming" neighborhood; either is a sure sign that the news is in fact old) recounting some MOOC travails. Note the twin themes: the courses tried out sucked and they weren't cheaper. The second point might be more important than the first. after all this stampede has largely been driven by bureaucrats, pols, and entrepreneurs; not a trio famed for caring first and foremost about the public good. At any rate, it seems that we are now getting ready for MOOCs 2.0, where humans are reintroduced into the equation. I'm sure that pretty soon we will discover that for lots of learning, its good to have LOTS of such interaction, for as Tracy Wheeler observes in the piece, learning has a large social dimension. Does this mean that we will soon rediscover the virtues of the class room wo/manned with human instructors? And the reinvention of university campuses (Coursera is calling these "learning hubs," cute, eh? I can see it now: The Harvard/Yale Learning Hub). Who knows?  From where I sit, the bidness strategy of MOOCs is to figure out how to siphon money that goes to college instructors and redirect it towards tech companies who promise to deliver a cheaper superior product. If the product is not cheaper and/or the product is not superior, then executing this plan will require some film-flam. So buckle your seat belts and get ready for the fun. There's lots of money potentially at stake, and when this happens, you can count on the BS to flow freely.

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