Why Be Afraid of the Big Bad MOOC?

Posted on Jun 19, 2013 | 12 Comments

HM_LOGOHere is this month’s piece on the changing world of work from furniture maker Herman Miller, a company for which Peter Drucker long consulted and that continues to exemplify his principles of innovation and effectiveness.

Do massive open online courses—widely known by their acronym, MOOCs—portend the end of institutions of higher education as we’ve known them? Is learning in such manner all good, all bad or somewhere in between?

Given the wildly varying opinions about MOOCs (and Peter Drucker, for one, recognized both the pluses and minuses of online learning) I recently embarked on a very personal form of research: I signed up for one—English Composition led by Duke University Professor Denise Comer and team. Given that I work remotely for an office furniture company, I thought I’d be a natural for this learning style. Overall, the experience was very positive, and not unlike mobile working.

What worked well? The content was delivered in three- to seven-minute videos, making it easy to focus and convenient for viewing multiple times if needed. Comer included experts in humanities, social sciences and biological sciences who shared their points of view on writing for their respective disciplines.

The first writing project included an opportunity to participate in a Google “hangout session” with Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code. Unfortunately, I have an unpredictable schedule, and a flight to Chicago prevented me from signing up as a panelist. But upon arrival in Chicago and getting into a cab, my iPhone alerted me that the session was about to begin. I joined as an observer. After all, I was going to be in the cab for the next 40 minutes. Game changed.

What were the flaws? With so many students, who could possibly review all of the drafts and final papers? The students could, of course. There are legitimate concerns about under-supervised peer grading. Some academics consider this a “slippery slope.”

As Drucker told us, however, “the best way to learn is to teach.” If you really immersed yourself in the content, the tools for analyzing one another’s papers—with empathy and chances for discovery—were there.

Image courtesy of Herman Miller

Image courtesy of Herman Miller

My experience convinced me there is a place for some version of MOOCs in most areas of higher education. From a design standpoint, these courses present an opportunity to reevaluate the effectiveness of traditional content delivery and campus spaces allocated for that purpose. A recent two-year study by the University System of Georgia revealed that at one of the state’s campuses, the average classroom is used a mere 18.5 hours per 40-hour workweek, and many times seats are just two-thirds full. I would guess that this institution is not an anomaly. The key question is: How might these spaces be better used if course content was delivered online?

Meanwhile, for those students where a full-time, four-year residential educational experience is not accessible, might a free online course offer an introduction into the world of lifelong learning?

The answers will emerge when we start looking for ways to incorporate the best of MOOCs instead of being afraid that they will blow the house down.

Susan Whitmer, Research Lead, Education

12 Comments

  1. Arabella Santiago
    June 20, 2013

    I agree with the Drucker quote you cited that the best way to learn is to teach. I work for a startup in San Francisco called Scoop.it, an open knowledge sharing platform that helps users find, curate and publish relevant content on topics they care about. We’ve naturally attracted many educators, professionals and students who learn while they’re curating AND also teach their community of interests because they contextualize and share these pieces online. We say that curation is the act of turning information into knowledge — and giving open and free access to this ability is invaluable, in my opinion.

    With that, I don’t really see any drawbacks to massive open online courses (MOOC). The fact that this innovation makes education more accessible is what mattters. Now, those who are looking to learn can do so and gain much value from open knowledge sharing even if they don’t have the resources or opportunity to receive a degree from an expensive university. Who cares if others judge the online course and think of it as lesser quality compared to traditional education? What matters is what you as the student got out of it and how you can apply what you’ve learned. This is how the knowledge worker sharpens the saw through independent learning, innovative thinking and the application of such to their work. Why would Drucker be opposed to any of that?

    Reply
  2. Rob Perhamus
    June 21, 2013

    I just finished a MOOC- Crash Course in Creativity from Stanford. It was actually one of the most engaging learning experiences I have had, although perhaps for different reasons than most- adult experiential learning. The course was 6 weeks, long, with 2 individual assignments, followed by 3 team assignments and a final individual assignment. Our team of 10 used Google Hangouts, to say hello, then got right into actually do the work together, using screen-sharing , Google Docs and Prezi, in real time. We used a simple free tool called Whenisgood.net to schedule our hangouts. The team was diverse, Bulgaria, Portugal, Boston, Texas, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, from Samsung, GE, 2 Universities, a grade school teacher, a winery owner, a designer, a programmer. I think all had master’s degrees. We truly learned from each others experiences. I think the punch line is that we continued to hangout, even for the last assignment(that was individual). And, several team members continue to have 1 to 1 video conferences. I continue to apply what I learned almost daily. I think most of our team plans to take other MOOC courses together in the future. It was actually the “hangouts”, that took the place, out of a time and a place to learn. BTW, if you want to hangout sometime send me and email and I will show you the ropes.. it’s easy.

    Reply
    • Susan Whitmer
      June 22, 2013

      Rob,
      One of my classmates recommended the Stanford Crash Course in Creativity to me. Her description of the experience was very similar to yours. I look forward to looking into it. I think the size of the class makes a major difference.
      The same statement applies whether the class is on ground (lecture hall vs studio) or virtual, right?

      Reply
  3. Grant W. LeMyre
    June 22, 2013

    Eager to understand more about your experience.

    Reply
    • Susan Whitmer
      June 22, 2013

      Grant
      I am happy to have a conversation about the experience if you are interested.

      Reply
  4. Richard Straub
    June 22, 2013

    Very timely post! I just heard Howard Lurie VP of edX at the EFMD Annual conference. He said that often the question is being asked whether MOOCs will disrupt traditional education. He claimed this disruption has already happened – and he demonstrated the case of a course on electronic circuits with 150 000 students enrolled. Even though “only” 7 100 finished the course and it would have taken some 20 years to reach that number in the traditional classroom format. And even the drop-out number does not tell the full story – participants may select to get to stage one, two, three or four according to their individual learning needs. The challenge for the education institution will be to make the classroom an interactive experiences, especially in behaviour oriented management training – which will change the role of the instructor profoundly.

    Reply
  5. Richard Straub
    June 22, 2013

    And here is the link to a report from Howard Lurie’s presentation – http://bit.ly/1320j27

    Reply
    • Susan Whitmer
      June 25, 2013

      Thanks for the link Richard. Interesting comments on by Howard Lurie and others.

      Reply
  6. Maverick 18
    June 26, 2013

    I still remember the lecture halls where I attended class as a first year engineering student 15-20 years before the advent of usable PCs. Very little personal interaction in those lecture halls, and the lectures were much easier to sleep through than a paced interactive on-line course as has since become available. MOOCs, I’m all for them, particularly if they can bring down the cost of a college education which has significantly outpaced inflation since my lecture hall days.

    Reply

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