MOOCs and the End of Courses?

The Game of Thrones effect and why George Siemens gets this one wrong.

June 9, 2014

George Siemens wrapped up the edX Consortium #FutureEDU conference with a rousing keynote address.  

If you are looking for a keynoter for your next conference, meeting, confab, gathering, assembly, conclave, powwow, or rave I highly recommend George.

Most everything that George talked about in his address Where are MOOCs Leading Higher Education? made good sense to me.  

George talked about the granularization of learning and assessment (from competency based learning to the rise of badges and the end of the credit hour).  

George talked about the complexification of higher ed. (A new word for me, one that I love).  

He argued that a single narrative no longer fits the university story.   

Perhaps the most fascinating part of George’s keynote is when he talked about what MOOCs are destroying.  

Amongst his list of higher ed casualties:  Faculty Autonomy, Courses, Control (of the University), and Accrediting Agencies.  

For George, these transitions are a natural and probably expected outcome of “the internet happening to higher education”.

“The internet happening to higher education” is a great quote.   

And George’s predictions may one day prove prescient.  (And I am of course doing a lousy job of capturing the subtlety, nuance, and force of George’s keynote arguments).

Where I take issue with George’s claims of what MOOCs are destroying derives from how I am seeing open online education at scale play out at my campus.

Faculty autonomy.  No way.  Faculty are more important than ever, and there is absolutely zero intent to influence what they will be teaching.  (And I’d argue that the what, rather than the how, is the really important part of the autonomy equation.  But we can debate).

Let’s leave aside the contentious issue of faculty autonomy for now, and go directly to George’s claim that MOOCs (and adaptive learning platforms) will ultimately prove the death of the traditional course.

His argument is that the traditional course narrative will eventually be understood as an anachronism in an age of non-linear and chunked learning.  

As evidence he points to how we’ve gotten off track in evaluating MOOCs around the idea of “completion”, pointing out that nobody ever says that we “completed a library”.   

Just as the Internet disagregated music (the download replaced the album), destroyed the newspaper (Craigslist replaced the classified), the traditional course is also bound to end up on the dustbin of history.

I’m not so sure.  

A little noticed and less understood phenomenon in higher ed is that courses are actually getting much better.

Why are courses getting better?

Blended learning.  Online learning.  Teams.

The move to redesign courses, particularly traditional large lecture courses, for blended and online formats has opened a window for a rethink of what the course is and how it should be experienced.  This rethink has been undertaken as part of a larger move to teaching as a team sport, where faculty (subject matter experts) partner with instructional designers and media specialists and librarians to design the learning experience.   

We see this shift to a team approach to teaching most obviously in MOOCs, but the vast bulk of course redesign and team based courses is occurring in blended classes that are not open and not taught at scale.

Where I think that George could be on to something is that as courses improve they will also become more expensive.   

MOOCs and adaptive learning platforms for the masses (learning at scale), expensively designed and lavishly taught high quality courses for those select few that can pay the freight (learning at human scale).  

There is precedent in other areas of the information economy.

Television has gotten much better over the last couple of decades, but only better for those able to afford the expensive premium cable subscriptions.

Game of Thrones is a superb and marvelous show, put together by a talented and diverse set of writers and actors and special effects experts, but only those that can afford HBO get to enjoy it.

Our best (large, introductory) classes at our highest cost (if not highest price) institutions may never be as good as a Game of Thrones, but we will see some pretty great classes being put together by teams of faculty and non-faculty educators.

Are MOOCs and adaptive learning platforms the reality TV of early 21st century postsecondary education?

Is George right?  Will the Internet destroy the course?

Or am I right?  Will the Internet destroy the narrative course for many, while bringing some courses to levels of quality and expense not previously witnessed?


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