Educational psychologist, Marilla Svinicki has analyzed the potential learning in MOOCs in the National Teaching and Learning Forum (December 23, 2012 and reproduced in Tomorrow’s Professor Msg. #1229). She concludes (correctly in my view) that online learning is good at providing information but not (yet) quite as good at giving guided feedback. Compared side by side, this a cogent and reasonable comparison, but what Svinicki, and other MOOC critics miss, however, is that there are MASSIVE asymmetries here.
MOOCs are massively cheaper. Assume for a moment, you are buying a car and comparing the $25,000 Honda with the $250,000 Rolls Royce (“entry level model”). Even without a college degree, you can probably figure out there is a massive difference in price, so you reasonably ask “how different in the product?” or “what could possible be worth 10 times the price?” If the answer is, well there is a little more feedback that results in a little more learning, that is a very weak sales pitch. (Probably better to stick with “The Rolls Royce (or the elite college degree) will give you much more status and you will be better able to attract a mate.”)
But our classroom-based courses are not just 10x the price. MOOCS are FREE! So all of us teach at colleges are that massively more expensive. (Yes, for all the math geeks, we are ALL actually infinitely more expensive.) I am not sure we can be infinitely better, but we need at least to be MASSIVELY better. A little more feedback for massively more price, and we will still end up like Tower records and your local newspaper (who discovered that browsing was fun, but not MASSIVELY more fun and worth a small premium price.)
The only match for the MOOC is the MBC: the MASSIVELY BETTER CLASSROOM.
It is true that there is more feedback in college classrooms, but for many students, especially at large research universities (like the University of Texas where Prof Svinicki teaches), it is not massive amounts of feedback. Of course, there is (usually) more learning in a 12-person discussion or an active-learning based classroom vs trying to learn with 100,000 massively different people in a MOOC. But, the real question (for students, parents, governments, and hopefully universities) is whether it is worth the MASSIVE extra cost to sit in a lecture classroom with 300 fairly similar (mostly white American and upper class) students, and take 2 midterms and a final, with little other feedback.
Indeed, a problem with MOOCs is that the learning community is vastly different. That can be an advantage, but perhaps not yet when there are quite so many in the virtual classroom. Classroom teachers have an advantage here, but they often do not exploit this. (When you have changed universities did you spend the summer analyzing the differences in your students and reworking every syllabus before the fall?) If we want to take advantage of this asymmetry, teachers need to spend a lot more time on what Dee Fink calls “situational factors” and which, of course, is the first step in his approach to designing significant learning experiences.
Another asymmetry is the audience. Universities are doing MOOCs because they are a public good. For students who can’t afford or reach an elite American university, they are a massive opportunity. So again, the comparison should not be just an absolute question of where is there more learning. MOOCs won’t replace all college classrooms, but they were not designed for that. For a student without the access or means to afford an expensive American higher education, the MOOC is a massive new opportunity for learning.
MOOCs will get better quickly. There are important reasons for some universities to do this. Soon there may routinely be as much or more learning in MOOCs. The response, however, should not be for everyone to start offering MOOCs. Roll Royce’s expertise is not necessarily in building a $25,000 car. But MOOCs are indeed the new (and cheaper) competition and that can and should be good for us, but we need to work just as hard to get better quickly and make sure that can justify our massively higher cost with MASSIVELY BETTER CLASSROOMS. MOOCs, meet the MBC.