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Educational technology is hot (finally!). Thanks to edX and Udacity and Khan Academy and Coursera and the Stanford AI course our world is getting lots of attention.  Lots of people have lots of opinions about the growth of the massively open online course (MOOC), but as with most things a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. 

David Brooks' column The Campus Tsunami (5/3/12) is a case in point.

Brooks completely confounds online learning with MOOCs.  He seems to think that the courses that will be offered by edX (or the Stanford AI course) are no different from other online courses.  

Brooks writes that:

"Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures. This week, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology committed $60 million to offer free online courses from both universities."

Brooks goes on to worry that:

"Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience? Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy? Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?"

In talking about MOOCs and online courses as interchangeable and equivalent entities Brooks is doing a disservice to both. He is demonstrating a shocking ignorance about the work that many of us have been involved in for many years to help design and teach small online courses, ones that mimic the learning (and sometimes enrollment) of a traditional seminar.

Certainly the development of open online learning is an interesting and important development. Our methods for designing and facilitating traditional online and blended courses will benefit from what we learn from these open experiences.  

Creating and teaching a MOOC is in no way identical to the work of creating and teaching a traditional online course. These online courses depend on the personal relationship between instructor and student that online learning facilitates. This relationship does not scale past a certain number (50 with a well designed courses and robust course inputs), certainly not to the level of a MOOC.   

It is this lack of scale that defines the educational opportunities incumbent in traditional learning, and it is because of this lack of scale that we invest so much of our individual and societal dollars in higher ed. A MOOC will do many good things, but it will never create the relationships and personal connections between learners and teachers that catalyzes our most authentic and meaningful learning experiences.

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