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Yet More Conflation of MOOCs with Online Education: An Open Letter to Dr. Matloff
March 27, 2013 - 9:00pm

Dear Dr. Matloff.

Thank you for contributing to our community's discussion about the pros and cons of MOOCs.  

I thought that your critique of the limitations of the current MOOC offerings in your Bloomberg opinion column Dumbed-Down Math and Other Perils of Online College made many valid points about the challenges of bringing a college course to scale.    

Your column was re-published in my local paper under the headline Online Classes Offer Inferior Education.

Where I would like to take issue with your column is what I see as a confounding of "MOOCs" with "online learning."

Your column treats the two concepts as synonymous, a conclusion that contradicts years of experience in creating and teaching online courses that is shared by many members of our higher ed community.

If it is any consolation you are in good company, as MOOC boosters as well as critics make the same mistake

To pull out some quotes from your column:

"Some proponents of online instruction have claimed that it could act as a leveler for the poor, whose high schools have few or no Advanced Placement courses."

and

"If online interaction is as good as claimed, why are chief executive officers of MOOC companies going on roadshows to sell their products?"

It is clear that you are a dedicated and innovative educator, and have invested a great deal of thought and energy into your teaching.   This is clear from your following paragraph:

"Yes, placing instructional material online should be encouraged. All of my class materials -- homework, exams and full open-source textbooks -- are available on the Web. And I am not defending the age-old system of professors writing on the blackboard while students dutifully take notes, which is certainly not my approach. But I teach in person, not impersonally to thousands of unseen, unknown people around the globe."

Nowhere in your essay is the recognition that online education, if done correctly, may offer a similar level of educational quality that you provide in your face-to-face courses.   

A MOOC may contain a number of positive and negative attributes, but these attributes differ in both kind and degree from a traditional (small scale) online course.  

What distinguished a MOOC is not that it is delivered online, but that it is delivered at scale.

What distinguishes a traditional online class is not the technology that students interact with the course, but the degree to which the instructor is able to build relationships and engage in collaborative knowledge creation with the students.

The quality of a traditional online class, one that is cohort based and instructor led and is limited in enrollment, is best evaluated by the level of interaction and discussion and debate within the course. 

So by all means, please continue with your trenchant critiques of MOOCs.   

My only request is that you be precise in your language, and be careful not to equate the specific instance of a MOOC with the much larger world of online learning.

 

 

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