Compete with MOOCs?! Why not co-opt them instead?

Since I won’t write another blog post until the beginning of spring term, I thought I’d write something a little different.  Instead of a traditional data-filled post, I am going to weigh in with a suggestion – an opinion that is merely my own, not to be confused with some broader administrative position.  I’ve been mulling this one over since the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) last year, but it really came to a boil last week when I read about Scott Young and his MIT Challenge.

At first glance, Scott Young’s MIT Challenge smells like the arrogant prank of an affluent Silicon Valley prodigy.  A recent university graduate who fancies himself a blogger, writer, and “holistic learner” decides to see if he can complete the entire MIT curriculum for a computer science major in a year without enrolling in any MIT classes.  Instead, he plans to download all course materials – including lectures, homework assignments, and final exams – from MIT’s open courseware site and MIT’s edX.  He’ll only spend money on text books and internet access, which he estimates will cost about $2000 over the course of the entire curriculum (a paltry sum compared to cost of attending MIT for one year – $57,010 in 2012/13).

Well, he did it (that little @$#&!).  From September 2011 to September 2012, Mr. Young completed and passed all of the course work expected of MIT students to earn a major in computer science.  And just in case you think it a braggart’s hoax, he posted all of his course work, exams, and projects to verify that he actually pulled it off.  Essentially, If he had been a paying MIT student, he would now be considered one of their alums.  He might not have graduated cum laude, but you know what they call the person who graduates last in his class from Harvard Medical School (for those of you who haven’t heard the joke, the answer is “doctor”).

My point isn’t to celebrate the accomplishments of a brash, albeit intriguing, young man from Manitoba (wouldn’t you know it, this guy turns out to be Canadian!).  In the context of the academic tendencies we all too often see in students, his feat suggests more that he is an outlier among young adults than that a tsunami of self-directed learners is headed our way.

Rather, the simple fact that the full curriculum of a computer science degree from MIT is already freely available online should blow up any remaining notion that we, or any other small liberal arts college, can continue to act as if we are the lone gatekeepers of postsecondary content knowledge.  The ubiquitous availability of this kind of content knowledge delivered freely in educationally viable ways makes many a small college’s course catalogue seem like a quaint relic of a nostalgic past.  Moreover, if any major we offer is merely, or even mostly, an accumulation of content-heavy survey courses and in-depth seminars, we make ourselves virtually indistinguishable from an exponentially expanding range of educational options – except for our exorbitant cost.  And though we might stubbornly argue that our classes are smaller, our faculty more caring, or the expectations more demanding (all of which may indeed be so!), if the education we offer appears to prospective students as if it differs little from far less expensive educational content providers (e.g., general education is designed to provide content introductions across a range of disciplines, majors are organized around time periods, major theoretical movements, or subfields, students earn majors or minors in content-heavy areas), we increase the likelihood that future students will choose the less expensive option – even as they may whole-heartedly agree that we are marginally better.  And if those less expensive providers happen to be prestigious institutions like MIT, we are definitely in trouble.  For even if there is a sucker born every minute, I doubt there will be many who are willing to borrow gargantuan sums of money to pay for the same content knowledge that they can acquire for 1/100th of the cost – especially when they can supplement it on their own as needed.

Admittedly, I am trying to be provocative.  But please note that I haven’t equated “content knowledge” with “an education.”  Because in the end, the bulk of what Mr. Young acquired was content knowledge.  He’d already earned a undergraduate degree in a traditional setting, and by all indications, seems to have benefited extensively from that experience.  At Augustana, our educational mission has always been about much more than content knowledge.  This reality is clearly articulated in the composition of our new student learning outcomes.  We have recognized that content knowledge is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition of a meaningful education.   With this perspective, I’d like to suggest that we explicitly cast ourselves in this light: as guides that help students evaluate, process, and ultimately use that knowledge.  This doesn’t mean that we devalue content knowledge.  Rather, it means that we deliberately position content as a means to a greater end, more explicitly designing every aspect of our enterprise to achieve it.  Incidentally, this also gives us a way to talk about the educational value of our co-curricular experiences that directly ties them to our educational outcomes and makes them less susceptible to accusations of edu-tainment, extravagance, or fluff.

To date, the vast majority of successful MOOCs and online programs focuses on traditional content knowledge delivery or skill development specific to a given profession.  The research on the educational effectiveness of online courses suggests that while online delivery can be at least as effective as face-to-face courses in helping students develop and retain content knowledge and lower-order thinking skills, face-to-face courses tend to be more effective in developing higher-order thinking skills.  So if our primary focus is on showing students how to use the knowledge they have acquired to achieve a deeper educational goal rather than merely delivering said content to them, then . . . .

What if, instead of fearing the “threat” of MOOCs and online learning, we chose to see them as a wonderful cost- and time-saving opportunity?  What if we were to co-opt the power and efficiency of MOOCs and other online content delivery mechanisms to allow us to focus more of our time and face-to-face resources on showing students how to use that knowledge?  I don’t begin to claim to have a fully fleshed-out model of what all of this would look like (in part because I don’t think there is a single model of how an institution might pull this off), but it seems to me that if we choose to see the explosion of online learning possibilities as a threat, we drastically shorten our list of plausible responses (i.e., ignore them and hope they go away or try to compete without a glimmer of the resources necessary to do so).  On the other hand, if we co-opt the possibilities of online learning and find ways to fit them into our current educational mission, our options are as broad as the possibilities are endless.  I guess I’d rather explore an expanding horizon.  Enjoy your break.

Make it a good day,






3 thoughts on “Compete with MOOCs?! Why not co-opt them instead?

  1. Thanks for the Scott Young story link. That is a driven young man!

    I appreciate and resonate with your perspectives on the MOOCs, and seeking to find ways of co-opting and collaboration.

    I would like to add that I wish articles and blogs would more often make clearer distinctions between MOOCs and “online” classes, to help nuance the discussion. Misperceptions about what “online” learning is are still common, partly because it continues to evolve and is very different than what it was 10 years ago and what most people think it is. There are many ways now that content is delivered online. And unlike the online learning of the 1990s and early 2000s, neither “face to face” nor “relationships” can continue to be contrasted with all online learning, even if they can be contrasted with many MOOCs in that way.

    MOOCs are indeed a powerful global force, and perhaps the most intriguing online and cultural learning movement at present. And I think it is extraordinary that world-class content can be so globally accessible. And I agree that this is very distinct from what a residential liberal arts college views as a full education. I simply want to highlight that additionally there are other (non-MOOC) online platforms (e.g. the Adobe professional video services that allow extraordinary use of face to face video and all kinds of additional media sharing and manipulation – used by folks like USC, U of Maryland, and other colleges and universities) out there already co-opting some of the great benefits that MOOCs give you (e.g. prepackaged world-class content knowledge) and combining them with the engagement that comes with face to face relationships with professors and applied breakout group dialogue with fellow students (as many of these courses are delivered with class sizes in the 10-15 students per course). These types of online course delivery methods tend to feel more like a “blended” course (as there is delivery of some items outside of “class time”), but the live class sessions just happen to also be online. While these courses are not free, nor exceptionally cheap, they are cheaper than traditional courses in many instances. All that to say, MOOCs may be online, but those terms are nowhere near synonymous. And better understanding the different opportunities of what can be done online will hopefully help us move into more proactive and nuanced discussions of how to respond (and co-opt) the best of what is happening with online learning.

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