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On 7/17 the NYTimes published an analysis piece by Richard Perez-Pena headlined "Top Universities Test the Online Appeal of Free".

There is a good deal to like in this NYTimes piece, as Perez-Pena correctly notes that it is a "major development" that "…a dozen highly ranked universities said they had signed on with Coursera, a new venture offering free classes online." Indeed.

Where I think the NYTimes, along with other media outlets, has been less than rigorous in reporting is the important distinction between Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the instructor led, cohort based online courses.  

The fundamental point to be made clear is that while the delivery method of a MOOC is via an online learning platform, a MOOC is not the same as a traditional credit bearing online course. MOOCs are not online courses, and online courses are not MOOCs. Conflating the two does a disservice to both.  

MOOCs are so exciting precisely because they are a new form of education. A MOOC is not a traditional online course where university has simply "thrown open the digital doors", letting everyone in the class. Rather, a MOOC (if it is to be at all effective) must conform to design and facilitation practices that are different from the design and teaching of a traditional online course.

The NYTimes Perez-Pena piece largely misses this distinction. The author writes that:

"Online classes have been around for years, with technology evolving to include multimedia features and interaction among students and faculty. What is new is the way top colleges are jumping in with free courses — in effect, throwing open the doors digitally."

MOOCs and online courses may share a delivery platform (web based learning), but they differ in fundamental ways. How is a traditional online course different from a MOOC?  

The critical difference is that a well-designed online course is built around the co-construction of knowledge amongst the students and the instructor. This knowledge construction requires active and personal engagement between students and faculty.  Conversation.  Dialogue. Collaboration.  Give and take.  Back and forth. 

A well constructed traditional online course is not a vessel to deliver content from the brains of the professor to brains of the students, but rather an opportunity for faculty to guide, shape, reinforce, and support student learning.   Good teaching, both online and face-to-face, requires both a subject matter mastery and the ability to create and nurture environments that facilitate active learning.  This work requires that the faculty have the opportunity to interact with the students.  

Online (and blended) learning may help us scale up these interactions, and we have gone a long way in understanding how re-engineer traditional lecture courses to act and feel more like small seminars.   Better utilizing the expensive and scarce talent of our faculty with online and blended learning will be a key element of increasing higher ed productivity, an important element of bending the higher ed tuition cost curve.   

There is a limit, however,  to how much online and blended learning can scale while remaining true to an authentic course experience.   No matter how well the multimedia, assessments, and peer learning opportunities are designed into a MOOC, the experience with 160,000 fellow learners (as in Stanford's AI course) will never be comparable to a well designed traditional online, blended or face-to-face course.   

MOOCs may have many things to teach us about how to better design our traditional courses, and I'm hoping that we learn from data linking inputs (media, lectures, exercises, simulations, formative assessments etc) to outcomes (summative assessments and eventually even job performance).  The large number of students in MOOCs and the availability of rich data around MOOC participants is an education researchers dream.   

But MOOCs alone will not solve our cost, access, or quality challenges in higher ed. They are as much substitutes for traditional courses (online, blended, or face-to-face), as Facebook is for real friends.  

Institutions of higher learning will be making decisions about investing in MOOC and decisions about investing in expanding online and blended learning.   The underlying tools may be the same, but these are fundamentally different decisions. 

We, and the NYTimes, should take care not to confuse the two.

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