Books are MOOCs, too.
Shall we count the ways? Books are mobile, ubiquitous and comprehensive. A student devoting the requisite time and attention to a book will acquire as complete an understanding of the course material as from a MOOC. For the most part, books covering material in any course are readily available in libraries -- and where an older edition suffices (as it does for most courses) can be purchased at minimal cost.
Books are available throughout the world, and if we count the number of people who riffle through the pages of a new book (riffling being the equivalent of the tens of thousands of people who try a MOOC and drop it at once), books readily qualify the “massive” designation as well.
Students can, and have, mastered college courses studying alone from books, and the same will be true for MOOCs. More likely will be the use of MOOCs as supplementary and support material for a conventional course -- again, just like books. It also follows that the same kind of students who come to class unprepared, not having read the text, will probably come to class not having followed a MOOC.
In essence, MOOCs and books are part of a continuum. MOOCs aren’t a new technology as much as an improved technology. Just as a frame of reference, the excitement surrounding MOOCs resembles the hype that welcomed television as a teaching medium.
But books and MOOCs are not identical. There is an undeniably greater attraction to an exciting online MOOC presentation than even the best-written book. Students needing help are more likely to be drawn to the one than to the other, partly because reading a book requires much more active involvement than watching a MOOC online. On the other hand, once a student does get involved with the material in a book, the result is likely to be greater depth and understanding.
Books are usually current, with content shaped by the market, and honed against the work of competitors. Students who have difficulty understanding the presentation of difficult material in one textbook usually can consult a range of other textbooks to seek alternative approaches. Teachers find it easier to assign a specific homework assignment in a book than a "viewing" in a MOOC.
Textbooks enable students to make connections and to acquire knowledge in a structured manner, to review, to test themselves and to prepare their own notes. Textbooks help capture the material in an orderly manner and often serve as avenue for further work.
Books also have the distinct advantage of absolute privacy. There is no way to record how many times a person had to reread a passage, or the need to consult other books.
To the scholar, the text, and even more so, library stacks, present the prospect of serendipity. Leafing through a book or looking through a library shelf has a special attraction, unlikely in a MOOC.
Dazzling early successes notwithstanding, MOOCs, like books, will not empty our classrooms. The successes were likely due to outstanding lecturers meeting gifted students who were particularly interested in the subject matter. In other words, there was a unique fit between the course, the level, and student interest and ability. Such an auspicious fit is rare and is probably the reason there have been reports of less successful attempts at using MOOCs in a comprehensive college program.
Interestingly, gifted students who have the ability to complete courses on their own, be it from books or MOOCs, continue to choose to attend classes at brick-and-mortars. Weaker students who need the traditional teacher-centered structure are certainly not going to attempt to learn through MOOCs.
Putting aside professionals and advanced degree holders seeking growth and advancement, it is hard to envision more than 5 percent of the 20 million postsecondary students in the US drifting over to MOOCs, even if it is established that the education is a complete one, and even if course credit is readily available. Sweeping changes modify technology; they do not modify people.
MOOCs will not cause a disruptive transformation in higher education. They will offer an alternative helpful to some students, and may suggest modifications to traditional teaching and structures that will prove effective. But a great deal of experience is needed before a definitive conclusion can be drawn regarding the role MOOCs will play in higher education.
As for those who wait for the millennium when students will effortlessly absorb a college education, cost-free -- we aren’t quite there yet.
Bernard Fryshman is an accreditor and professor of physics.