The Expansion of MOOCs and the Meaning of Life

The FT earlier this week had an interesting report on the expansion of MOOCs into China. Not, surprisingly enough, the expansion of China into MOOCs, which, given the size of their market and the qualification-centric nature of their educational system, would make a lot of sense. No, for now, foreign (”western”) MOOCs are starting to make big inroads there. Which, given the size of their market and the qualification-centric nature of their educational system, actually makes even more sense.

Hong Kong, image via Wikipedia

Hong Kong, image via Wikipedia

Guokr Mooc Academy launched in July 2003 and currently hosts just over 2000 courses via partnerships with Coursera, edX and other US and UK platforms. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the courses deal with the sciences and technology. But, and this got my attention, there is increasing interest in humanities courses. Including history.

One of Harvard’s MOOCs is a course called ChinaX. Subtitled in Chinese, it can be seen in China on Youku, the “allowed” alternative to YouTube. It offers a 10-part history of China, including the Tiananmen Square massacre, and so far it has escaped censorship. Of the courses’ approximately 60,000 students, about 10% are in China. That’s over 6000 students, enough to fill over 100 large university-size classrooms. And since the high demand will lead to other, similar courses, with similar or increasing percentage of Chinese students, this could end up attracting the attention of the authorities.

So, how long before censorship affects what MOOCs can offer? When does the “open” part of the acronym (Massive Open Online Courses) start to look less so? China is obviously not the only country that this could end up being an issue for. Will the fact that curious students have access to “alternative” views of history, change education systems? Politics? Nationalism?

Here is where the access vs quality debates get interesting.

I have on several occasions written (here, here and here) and spoken about the educational revolution that the MOOCs imply, how they open up worlds, distribute knowledge and empower everyone. I’ve taken many, and I’ve loved most of them. I enjoy the freedom of being able to come and go as I please, to sample new areas and to take courses I never expected to be able to take. I have gotten so much more out of MOOCs than I ever expected. I am a MOOC fan, because my expectations were realistic, or if you’d rather, low.

And I am relieved to see that the hype, both positive and negative, is beginning to die down. If you’ve ever taken a business course, you’re probably familiar with the Gartner hype cycle. An innovation takes off, captures headlines, and everyone is convinced that universities will close, the world will become smarter and education will never be the same again. Then, in an unreasonably short space of time, when the unrealistic expectations aren’t met, the innovation is deemed a complete failure, a wasted experiment, and the end of civilization as we know it. Then, as people start thinking, the innovation claws its way out of the trough of disillusionment, and starts really getting to work on shifting perceptions and processes.

MOOCs are there. You hardly ever hear of MOOCs replacing universities any more. Nor does anyone claim that they are useless. “Blended learning” is the catch-phrase of the edtech sector, and while schools are taking their time in incorporating this major efficiency (in which some lectures are delivered via video), it will become a standard feature of education in the years to come. Personally I love the idea of the “flipped classroom” in which students watch the lectures at home, as many times as they need, pausing and rewinding where necessary, while they do the exercises with the teacher and their peers in the classroom.

One aspect that the original MOOCs were criticized for was the lack of interaction with the professor. You watched the videos, you did the assignments, maybe you interacted via text with others in the class in the forums. But you didn’t get to enjoy first-hand the professor’s personality, you weren’t given the opportunity to catch his or her enthusiasm, you didn’t feel the validation of the professor knowing your name. And, you missed out on significant, dynamic, human debate, which is the backbone of most of the non-scientific higher education study.

Back to the China question: is it possible to learn history online? In what way is that different from reading a book? The multimedia effect brings the content a bit more to life, sure. But the value of the human connection and its role in inspiring students, opening their eyes and broadening their viewpoints should never be underestimated. Always, a human professor that cares can transmit and influence so much more than a well-designed screen.

But, the human touch is not always an option, either for economic, geographical, or – as in the case of ChinaX – political reasons. In this case, and countless others, access is enough. Those who claim that the human touch is essential, are leaning on a limited definition of the concept of higher education. As are those who claim that the information is the only important part.

by Chris Brignola, via Unsplash - lovely photograph, and I'd though you'd like the symbolism/reference to bridging worlds... ;)

by Chris Brignola, via Unsplash – lovely photograph, and I’d though you’d like the symbolism/reference to bridging worlds… ;)

One professor reaching tens or even hundreds of thousands of students, automatic grading, self-paced study… it’s easy to see why we all got very excited about the possibilities for developing nations and those who don’t have easy access, economically or geographically, to higher education. And it’s true that for a lot of the courses, a connection with the professor is not “necessary”. It is possible to absorb the information without it. But, to claim that MOOCs could replace traditional education is to misunderstand what education is for.

Understanding what education is for is actually almost impossible, as there is no one “objective”, or even definition. To say that it’s about “becoming a well-rounded citizen” is western-centric. For some, it’s about learning about life. For many, it’s about getting a well-paid job so that you can support your parents, spouse and children. As long as there are cultural and economic differences around the globe, there will never be agreement on this, and insisting that any one definition is the correct one is not very useful.

What is useful is that we are finally taking a good, long, hard look at the options. Going to a traditional university is still one of them, and it always will be. But it is becoming more and more of a luxury as costs rise and available time dwindles. Higher education is no longer the only road to success, if by “higher” education we mean a quality university with a wide breadth of subjects. “Further” education – a constant updating of skills and interests – is essential in today’s workforce, and will be even more so in the coming years as sectors grow and contract and as focus gives way to flexibility and creativity. MOOCs fill that need quite nicely. They are specialized, allowing for honing of skills, learning a new technical qualification or dabbling in something completely new. They are flexible, fitting around work and other life demands. They are frequently updated. And they are low-cost, or even free.

Is the human connection necessary? The answer to that depends very much on each individual’s goals and expectations. Many MOOCs are attempting to find an ideal connection/automation balance. Hangouts with the professors, group chats on Twitter, AMAs on Reddit… All these allow the students to feel “connected”, while at the same time allowing the professors unprecedented efficiency. Are these initiatives practical? They are more expensive than the full automation approach, in that they require more of the professor’s time, and a certain amount of set-up. But, and I speak from experience, even a brief contact with the professor is motivational, so much more so than speaking to his or her assistants, or the Community Managers on the discussion groups.

image from Deathtothestockphoto

image from Deathtothestockphoto

Maybe we’ll end up with tiered pricing, some courses offering both higher and lower interaction paths. Or, some courses will be free, with other, more “human” ones requiring a fee. I, personally, would be willing to pay for a “deeper” understanding and connection in many of the courses I’m interested in. But others I would like to “dabble” in for free, to start with, anyway.

The technological revolution at university and further education level is well under way, and its benefits are being enjoyed by millions. However, the technological revolution at school level has not yet found its groove. And it’s not because of a lack of choice. The explosion of technology attempting to revolutionize schools is dizzying, chaotic and at best, confusing. Over the next few years we will hopefully see a consolidation of this sector, so that we can focus on the important role of the teacher.

Personally, I believe that more resources should be spent on the human connection at primary school level. I’m sure that we all remember at least one school teacher that changed us, that showed us a path we were unaware of, that encouraged us and that opened doors to a future we didn’t know we wanted. If we could harness technology to make teachers’ workdays more productive, if tasks could be made more efficient and if time-consuming routine work could be automated, they would be able to focus on the ever-important human connection with their students. Not only could we finally set off a revolution in primary education similar to that experienced by higher education. We could also develop a generation that is more focussed, more optimistic and more motivated than any that have come before.

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For more on online education, check out my Flipboard “Internet and Education”:

flipboard education

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