Where's the Real Learning?
I admit it – from kindergarten on, I was teacher’s pet. I got an assignment. I labored over it, made it perfect, turned it in early, got the A.
Until now. Let me confess: I am a MOOC noncompleter. I had heard the hype that massive open online courses (MOOCs) are transforming higher education, and I wanted to see for myself.
I enrolled in the University of Edinburgh’s MOOC on e-learning and digital cultures, offered through Coursera. With enthusiasm I joined my 260,000 fellow students, whom I assumed shared my interest in a rigorous and rich college experience online.
On day one, I got a form e-mail welcoming me. I was to watch a few videos each week, do a few readings, and do my homework – maybe: "There are no weekly 'assignments,' although we do recommend trying at least two of the suggested activities. These are not assessed, but will help you to prepare for the final assignment."
I started out eagerly, watching the videos, skimming the readings, and participating in the online discussion forum. I could do this late at night at home or while traveling for my day job. But after two sessions, my interest waned. Maybe it was the lack of real-time interaction with classmates or professors. Maybe it was the lack of accountability. I soon wasn’t watching all the videos, and I certainly wasn’t doing the practice homework that no one would ever grade. Honestly, I felt more like an audience member than a student.
The final assignment would determine if I passed or failed, but I didn’t feel connected enough to the class to complete the project. And what would have been my reward? A noncredit statement of completion of truly questionable value.
My MOOC experience is pretty typical. Passing is about showing up, not doing the kind of quality work that meets any standards of academic rigor. Even with bare minimum standards for passing, classes have huge rates of attrition.
At the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, we pride ourselves on delivering high-quality master's-level programs online. I don’t think the problem is with online learning. Rather, we should see MOOCs for what they are so far: an easy way to dabble in a subject, maybe learn new material, maybe not, and sometimes with highly respected faculty. In my MOOC, I never saw my professor live online.
We must do more than put a camera in a lecture hall and put professors in a loosely moderated discussion forum. We must offer real-time interaction between professors and students, and between classmates. There must be learning objectives, not just topics to be covered, so students know where they’re headed academically. We must require students to be accountable and expect them to show a mastery of a subject beyond a "showing up" standard.
Those of us who deliver a real college experience online for credit are happy to share the many lessons we’ve learned. Because nobody wants to be a noncompleter.
Karen Symms Gallagher is dean of the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.
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