‘The New York Times’ Got It Wrong

Josh Kim says the Times and others don’t get that a MOOC with 1.8 million students is demonstrating a postsecondary teaching and learning renaissance. Here’s why.

September 6, 2017

Earlier this month The New York Times ran a great article on Coursera's Learning How to Learn open online course. The article pointed out all the wonderful things about the course, including how the MOOC had been taken by 1.8 million students in 200 countries.

What the New York Times story did not cover, and what those writing about higher education from outside the academy consistently miss, is why a MOOC like Learning How to Learn is so important.

The real story is not that the course reached so many lifelong learners (which is great), or even that the participants in the course had the opportunity to develop new skills based on the science of learning. Rather, the real story is how much the science of learning is being infused into the design of traditional face-to-face, blended and online courses throughout higher education.

The fact that college courses are increasingly designed and taught using methods that align with the research on how people learn will go down as the most important higher education story of the early 21st century.

Across much of the postsecondary landscape, this is a distressingly recent development. There have always been pockets of research-informed teaching in higher education. Until recently, however, the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) was often marginalized. Engaging in research designed to understand and improve one’s own teaching was often not viewed as a wise path for junior faculty to follow in negotiating the tenure track. Schools and departments of education have always done good research, but all too often the findings of these scholars did not show up in the course designs or teaching practices of the majority of faculty.

Today, things are changing quickly. Learning science is hot. Every campus that I'm familiar with has been involved in institutionwide discussions about how our students learn, how we teach and how we might leverage new technologies to improve both.

We are in the middle of this postsecondary learning renaissance, which means that it is hard to identify that it is occurring, much less make sense of its causes.

The Learning How to Learn MOOC is a single data point in a larger story about the changing world of postsecondary teaching and learning. MOOCs have a role to play in this story. The hype around MOOCs had many not-so-good results, such as the crazy idea that open online learning would replace small-scale faculty-led courses. They didn’t and they won’t.

What MOOCs have done is open a window for our institutions to have a conversation about how learning is changing. MOOCs have allowed us to experiment with new methods and digital tools.

Most importantly, MOOCs have caused those of us involved in the open online experiment to think deeply about what can only be done in traditional courses. If a course students pay for is not immeasurably superior to a free open online course, then we are in big trouble. MOOCs have caused us to up our teaching and learning game -- and to do so we needed to turn to learning science.

We should not overstate the impact of MOOCs on driving this postsecondary learning renaissance in which we find ourselves. I’d argue that the most important catalyst has been the growth of online education -- and the instructional designers who have been hired to collaborate with faculty on designing online courses. Instructional designers have brought their knowledge of the research on learning to our campuses. This knowledge did not stay contained in online programs; it is migrating over to all of our teaching.

In addition to learning professionals on our campuses who work on online programs, we have also witnessed great advances in the science of how people learn. Brain and learning sciences are among the hottest interdisciplinary fields. The fact that this work is being popularized in MOOCs such as Learning How to Learn is an indication of the excitement and interest in this field.

This story, that of a postsecondary teaching and learning renaissance, is the real story of the Learning How to Learn MOOC. It is a story that will not be told by those outside higher ed, and it is up to those of us working in the middle of all these amazing changes to highlight and share them.

Too often the only stories coming out of higher ed are ones about rising costs, increased student debt, adjunctification and campus ideological conflict. The challenges that our higher ed sector faces are very real. These challenges, however, should not overshadow the amazing advances -- particularly in teaching and learning -- that are also occurring across higher education.

There has never been a better time to be a higher education learner than now.

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Joshua Kim

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