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MOOCs from Here
July 22, 2012 - 9:57pm

The normally sober Tim Burke had a bit of a meltdown on his blog about MOOCs and their attendant hype. (MOOCs are Massively Open Online Courses, such as the ones offered through Coursera.) He rightly called out the techno-utopians for their eager willingness to believe that the latest techno-toy will Change Everything, and offered helpful reminders of previous techno-toys that were supposed to Change Everything, and didn’t. (Sunrise Semester, anyone?)

My view is probably closer to Burke’s than to the true believers’, but in some ways, I’m much less worried about it than he seems to be.  

MOOCs, at this point, are webcast courses that anybody can follow online for free. The most popular ones are based at name-brand universities and have online viewers from around the world.  (In fact, the vast majority of the students who stick with the MOOCs seems to be from outside the United States.) They don’t offer academic credit, although some universities are starting to experiment with ways of including MOOCs in packages that include credit. And, of course, anyone could follow a MOOC for a while and then test out of a class for credit.

Given the ways MOOCs work, they strike me as absolutely wonderful supplementary resources for students who are already taking classes. But outside of a small number of very high-achieving autodidacts, I don’t see them replacing what we do in their current form.

For the insanely gifted but isolated student in East Nowhere, a high-end MOOC is a chance to both pick up great information and even prove something.  That’s terrific, but that’s not our core demographic. Our core demographic, here at the community college level, is the average student.  This is the student whose K-12 preparation was anywhere from “pretty good” to “you’d really rather not know.”  More of our students place into developmental math than place out of it.  They are not busting down the doors to take Intro to Engineering at MIT in their first semester.

Many of our students show up with learning disabilities -- some documented, some not -- and/or some bad study habits picked up in high school.  Others simply have habits of weak performance that become self-fulfilling expectations, unless somebody intervenes.  And others are perfectly capable, but just need structure. They’ll study when compelled, but they don’t make a habit of seeking out supplementary texts in the library, let alone watching 45 hours of online lecture.

At the community college level, we’re finding, student success is very much about replacing bad habits with good ones, and low expectations with high ones.  That’s partly an academic function, but it’s largely about emotions and expectations.  Students who form study groups and stick with them do much better than students who don’t. For that matter, students who join extracurricular activities tend to do better academically than students who don’t. It doesn’t appear to be entirely a function of self-selection, either; student feedback, and the scholarship I’ve seen on it, suggest that having allies makes a difference.  

The contribution I can see MOOCs making at this level is supplemental. Many students, especially those with certain kinds of learning disabilities, already rely on lecture-capture technology to help them review outside of class. Having an expensively produced MOOC as an option gives that student another resource on which to draw.  (Our tutoring center already uses certain Khan Academy videos that way, especially for algebra.)  To the extent that a well-produced MOOC can help a student visualize a concept, or review it, I see it as a plus. But it’s a useful extra, rather than a replacement.

To me, the relevant parallel is the public library. It’s already possible for students to go to their local public libraries -- or, yes, the internet -- and read ahead on concepts covered in classes.  That has been possible for a long time. But most don’t. The few who do tend to be the ones who would do well anyway.  Some companies have sold cassettes (!) of lectures at high-profile universities for years; they haven’t displaced high-profile universities.  I’d be afraid of MOOCs if I were afraid of BOOKs.  I’m not.

If anything, MOOCs in the right courses could be incredibly helpful in enabling faculty to experiment with flipped (or semi-flipped) instruction. To the extent that MOOCs might enable professors on site to focus more on helping students get through knotty issues, rather than just explicating the same old stuff at the board, they could add value. (Alternately, they could give an exasperated instructor an option to refer the slowest-moving student to, without making the entire class wait.)  But the structure, the pacing, the human connection, and the institutional legibility all still need to be provided first by the professor, and subsequently by student support folks -- advisors, counselors, etc.

We already have online courses, but they aren’t MOOCs, and the difference matters.  Our online sections are either the same size, or smaller, than their onsite counterparts, and each one has an actual human being teaching it.  (Despite the overheated fantasies on both sides, online courses don’t actually save faculty labor costs.  They do save facilities costs.  It’s cheaper to add server space than to add classroom space.)  They’re highly interactive; faculty here report that an online course takes at least as much time to teach as an onsite one, even if the time is spent in smaller chunks.  Onsite courses here are as much about student interaction and engagement as they are about presentation.  That’s why we’ve managed to keep our online course completion rate at the same level as our onsite rate.  

The real threats to community colleges aren’t MOOCs.  Yes, we may lose the occasional prodigy who is suddenly able to show Harvard what he’s got.  But those come in ones and twos.  When I lose sleep about the fate of my college, it’s because of finances, legislative blind spots, clunky federal rulemaking, and the general political trend towards framing higher education as a private good.  It’s not because of MOOCs. I’ll save my meltdowns for the real threats.


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