When MOOCs Are Better Than College Classes

The real comparison.


August 13, 2014

Missing in the fiery debate over whether Massive Open Online Courses are as good or far worse than traditional residential classes is a heretical discovery I made last year: that in some cases MOOCs can actually be better than the same course taken in a classroom setting.

Now I’m not talking about the opportunity MOOCs provide students to take classes from the best colleges and universities in the world without having to go through an application process, getting “stuck” just taking classes from one school, or paying a dime.  Nor am I talking about the convenience of being able to take a class where and when you like (whether that be in a soccer stadium in Nigeria or at a suburban library). 

Those virtues are well rehearsed, as are the shortcomings of learning in a massive open environment, including non-existent interaction with professors who only appear in pre-recorded videos, lack of community outside of overcrowded online forums (a pale alternative to the intimacy of classroom conversations, not to mention all-night caffeine-driven dorm bull sessions), and limited means of putting your learning to work through challenging assignments.

Ironically, the virtues I’m talking about derive from the very things for which MOOCs are often condemned.  For example:

Video vs. Live Lectures

There is no doubt that video-based lectures lack the type of human contact one gets in the classroom where a professor is free to tack his or her presentation based on give-and-take with live students.  But having taken several dozen MOOCs over the course of last year, I discovered a new visual language developing within MOOC videos that turned them into something different than the sage-on-stage moved to the screen.

For example, the “lectures” that made up HarvardX Ancient Greek Hero MOOC featured the professor, his colleagues and students engaging in intimate conversations, giving learners the impression that we were eavesdropping on real-world discussion rather than being lectured to by a single prof speaking from the podium.  And by the time Harvard’s epic ChinaX MOOC is done, nearly every China expert at the university will have participated in videos shot in museums and other facilities across the Harvard campus (not to mention on location in China).  Try getting the budget to do that for a 50-person live class. 

Quality of Online Discussion

The fact that a majority of students participating in a MOOC already have a BA or advanced degree means that the quality of conversation within online class forums can be quite high.

For example, when taking a course on the later plays of Shakespeare, reading and watching his Troilus and Cressida (a work set during the Trojan War) introduced me to a vain and cowardly Achilles who bore no resemblance to the ultimate hero (and bridegroom) I was introduced to during my close reading of the Iliad in the aforementioned Ancient Greek Hero MOOC.

A query I made about this discrepancy in the HeroesX forum was answered within minutes by someone who was able to provide me the list and explanation of the classical sources Shakespeare would have had access to when writing Troilus in the early 17th century (sources that did not include the Iliad).  Try finding that level of expertise in a class full of 18-19 year olds.  

Creativity of Assignments

Few of the assessments and writing assignments I was given during my year of intense MOOCing were as challenging as what students can expect in a classroom where humans (vs. servers) can evaluate the quality of complex submissions.  At the same time, a number of MOOCs are starting to experiment with assignments that can only be given in global, online classes of thousands vs. physical classrooms containing dozens.

For example, a MOOC I took on critical thinking and argumentation ended with a contest in which students submitted hundreds of arguments reflecting one or more principles taught in the class and then voted those arguments up and down with the highest vote-getters used by the professors to anchor a final summary lecture.  Another MOOC on the history of higher education asked students to add their own local history to a common timeline, creating a meaningful classroom artifact built from the local knowledge of thousands.

These are both examples of crowdsourced assignments, and given the tendency of MOOC makers to borrow the best ideas from one another, it’s just a matter of time before more massive online classes start including projects that have no equivalent in the small, physical classroom.

What all these virtues have in common is that they derive from what MOOCs are (big and online) rather than what they are not (small and physically intimate).  Which raises the question of whether both advocates and critics comparing MOOCs to traditional residential classes might be looking in the wrong direction.

Jonathan Haber is Chief Learner at Degree of Freedom. His book, MOOCs: The Essential Guide, will be published by MIT Press in October. (Note: A version of this blog first appeared on edX.org.)

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