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What's the Matter With MOOCs? - Innovations - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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The strangest thing about this MOOC obsession is the idea that something that very wealthy private institutions offer for free, at a loss, as a service to humanity, must somehow represent the magic numbers in the higher-education lottery. It’s new, it’s “innovative,” and it’s big, the thinking goes. So it must be the answer.

Let me pause to say that I enjoy MOOCs. I watch course videos and online instruction like those from the Khan Academy … well, obsessively. I have learned a lot about a lot of things beyond my expertise from them. My life is richer because of them. MOOCs inform me. But they do not educate me. There is a difference.

For the more pedestrian MOOCs, the simple podium lecture captured and released, the difference between a real college course and a MOOC is like the difference between playing golf and watching golf. Both can be exciting and enjoyable. Both can be boring and frustrating. But they are not the same thing.

Of course, Dragas and Kington don’t seem to acknowledge in their correspondence that MOOCs cost a lot of money, do not in any way simulate a classroom experience, and constitute—at best—the efficient yet static delivery of course content. The delivery of course content is not the same as education. And training students to perform technical tasks, such as doing basic equations in calculus, is not the same as education. Teachers get this, of course. So do students.

If we would all just take a breath and map out the distance between current MOOCs and real education, we might be able to chart a path toward some outstanding improvements in pedagogical techniques. But we can’t do that as long as the rich people who run university boards conduct their research by reading David Brooks columns and proceeding to lop off the heads of institutions who don’t seem to be following the mania of the moment.


Real education happens only by failing, changing, challenging, and adjusting. All of those gerunds apply to teachers as well as students. No person is an “educator,” because education is not something one person does to another. Education is an imprecise process, a dance, and a collaborative experience.

Education is the creation of habits of thought and methods of inquiry that yield unpredictable results. We offer diplomas to people upon completion of a rigorous and diverse set of intellectual experiences—not the mere accumulation of a series of facts and techniques. Education is certainly not an injection of information into a passive receptacle.


the difference between a real college course and a MOOC is like the difference between playing golf and watching golf


Stunning, thorough, and thoughtful. I enjoyed it. 

This is actually similar to the case I make to folks on why we are building games to help people learn. We are not aiming to replace teachers or schools, but rather provide an additive out-of-classroom experience for students who might be struggling or otherwise need a more interactive and engaging lesson plan.

I especially enjoyed the comment about watching people golf vs. playing golf; I'd suggest it's like playing golf on the Wii. It lets you feel like doing the real thing and understand the idea of how golf is played, but it may not be similar to the real thing. It's easy to watch videos online, like TED and khan, and thoroughly enjoy it -- like a good lecture -- but still not truly act on the content.

I think online education is about access, availability, and affordability; it is not a replacement, but rather an addition to get more access than is normally possible (24/7), anything you want -- like amazon vs library (availability) -- and finally affordability; there are many folks around the world who will never be able to afford a US-quality education. This gives them an opportunity to get a pseudo-experience without winning the green card lottery, or being the best and brightest from their country.

Ultimately, recordings do not replace live concerts, TV and movies do not replace live theater, the kindle does not replace the physical book.

In all similar examples of a new medium forming, I believe the issues boil down to access, availability, and affordability of the content being distributed; however, we should not pitch the new thing (MOOC in this case) as an entirely new way of doing the old thing, but rather the old thing done well on a new medium.

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