I’ve been skeptical about massive open online courses (MOOC”s) for several reasons. It’s a great idea to try to make education, especially from elite institutions, more accessible. As long as you have a computer and an internet connection (no small thing in many parts of the world), MOOC’s are free and the list of universities offering them in the U.S. and Europe especially is impressive and growing.
It’s possible to root online education inn authentic human interaction but you have to work at it. You can’t simply expect it to happen spontaneously; it has to be embedded in the pedagogy and in the design of the course. I think our understanding of how to do this is incomplete at best. Any course, such as a MOOC, which is self guided, has a real problem creating authentic relationships, especially when there are 100,000 students taking it.
My instinct, then, suggests that these courses are going to be most useful for motivated autodidacts but difficult for the rest of us. I’ve just watched a TED video by Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera, that has gone a long way to change my mind. What’s fascinating is that the students themselves are creating solutions to some of the problems of MOOC’s. They’ve formed study groups, for example, that meet in person all over the world.
Coursera is also using a peer grading system, which suggests one strategy for dealing with writing-based assessment. Coursera is using the massive amount of data they generate to investigate what does and doesn’t work and create strategies to improve learning. There’s never been such a large pool of data or a group of researchers dedicated to learning from it; it promises to be a prominent force in the future of online education.