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Apples and Oranges | Does Comparing MOOCs to College Blind Us to Their Real Value?

Comparing MOOCs

Grand Grocery Co., Lincoln, Neb., Library of Congress

When people are comparing MOOCs to the college experience, it’s often to articulate resistance to the MOOC hype by ticking off all the qualities of traditional colleges that are impossible to reproduce and that are precious. And I get it. Those qualities are precious to me, too. The essence of college is in the interaction among students and between students and faculty, and you’ll never catch me discounting the value of that aspect of college. It drives me nuts to see that compromised, either by students who don’t take advantage of the opportunity or by state legislators who treat it as superfluous to their agenda of credentialing the workforce.

And it is difficult to imagine that kind of personal interaction happening online. I’m talking about simple things like serendipitous meetings between a student and teacher outside of the classroom. I still remember bumping into my Shakespeare professor — later a mentor and good friend — in the local video store (This was a while ago) and drifting into a conversation about Salman Rushdie that triggered a scholarly interest in contemporary literature that remains an important part of my life today.

And, amazing coincidence, just last week I was sitting in the lobby of a local art museum, half a continent away from that college, when I heard (rather than saw) my old life drawing instructor. I had last heard and seen him over twenty years ago, but I recognized him by the same impatient bark he used to have when he would leaned over my shoulder at the easel and literally guide my hand. I still have some of those clumsy drawings packed away with the old typewritten papers from the Shakespeare class, and I’m still married to one of the models.

No, you won’t catch me discounting the value of a traditional college education.

But while trying to protect what’s precious and perhaps unique about college, I think we’re blinding ourselves to experiences in MOOC environments that, if not an exact replica, are powerful and valuable in their own right. Running into your professor at the video store and having the five-minute chat that steers your life in a new direction might not happen online, but other kinds of interaction can happen. And that something else is often overlooked in these discussions, mostly because we tend to look for one-to-one replacements.

Let’s take online forums, for example. They’ve been around as long as any online tool. It’s kind of a stale technology when you think about it, often frustrating and unsatisfying. Forums certainly aren’t a one-to-one replacement for a live, synchronous discussion, or what used to be called simply “conversation.”

But if you’re looking for a new apple to compare favorably with your old apple, you’re always going to be disappointed. We have to think of forums as something else with their own value. The fact that they keep sticking around despite how stale the technology feels should tell us something. There is a value there. It is a nebulous value, maybe, not perfectly identified and defined yet. But the value of running into your professor on the quad is nebulous to someone who hasn’t had the pleasure. People who haven’t had the privilege don’t get it. Taxpayers certainly resist supporting it.

Alternatives to face-time with the professor?

I was in a MOOC workspace a few weeks ago right after a course commenced, and within a couple of hours I saw several students begin to engage with one another, to self-identify as Spanish speakers, to name the different countries they are from, to joke about their different “accents” online, to switch to Spanish and back to English again and to sort out when it would be appropriate for them to use which language in the forums. The tone of it reminded me a lot of a college bull-session at orientation weekend.

And that’s with a really clumsy technology. Imagine what happens when the MOOC providers enable chat or video conferencing.

In the class I’m referring to, a course on business strategy, there were 80,000 students enrolled originally, and based on past experience, about 5,000 of them will still be involved at the end of the class. The professor made it clear he wasn’t going to be taking individual questions from this number of people. So much for a long chat in office hours, right? But MOOCs can provide creative alternatives to that.

For example, in this case a number of outside organizations are volunteering themselves as test cases for our final projects and will be represented by individuals from those organizations, getting involved in the forums to respond to our strategic plans. How many organizations? I don’t know yet. But assuming it’s enough that the ratio gets down to where real interaction becomes possible, the connection that potentially happens when I work with an organization could be quite powerful.

This is something made possible by the expansion of technology. It’s not a one-to-one replacement of a professor  introducing a star student to his influential friend — which isn’t something available to most of the people in this MOOC at any price, anyway — but it’s not a net zero either.

And what about those 5,000 students? They are unlikely all to be novices on the course material like myself. Among them are unimagined possible interactions. Every possible interest and support must be included in there somewhere, and in that haystack is someone who could change my life the way my old Shakespeare professor did.

MOOCs might actually have more interaction

Nor are face-to-face meetings out of the question. Coursera connects each classroom space to, an online service that allows any individual to organize an interest group locally. (So far, Coursera’s deployment of this seems a little clunky to me, but let’s assume an optimal use of it for this discussion.) A student clicks to their local Coursera Meetup, sees that some extrovert has proposed a real-life meeting to discuss the class, that a handful of people have said to count them in, that a date and place has been negotiated, and off they go, highly motivated students taking control of their own learning.

Which when you think about it is what college is supposed to be and rarely is anymore. If you look up the word college in a dictionary (after you return from a video store, naturally), you find that it means a group of people creating and sharing knowledge among themselves, collaboratively. That is every professor’s dream, usually unrealized. If we’re lucky, that kind of meaningful collegiality happens in brief flashes once or twice a semester.

But what if there is no professor up there scolding us about our “class participation?” It turns out, in MOOCs at least, that we might just start doing it on our own. That we’ll do it even more than the MOOC providers accounted for when they set up these creaky discussion forums. Because the reality is MOOC students are hacking the system, building their own ad hoc connections outside the MOOC space to meet via Google Hangouts and Skype and Facebook. Without the crutches of grades and requirements and personal interaction with professors, they’re realizing collaboration is what they really want and need and enjoy the most, and they’re just start doing it on their own initiative without waiting for a class participation grade to enforce it.

MOOCs aren’t college. Granted. If you are comparing MOOCs to college, all you’re going to see is differences. But if you compare it to something to more basic than college — education itself — then other routes to achieving education start to make themselves apparent. You start to see see other characteristics that have a value. The value of MOOCs is right in front of our faces, but we’re having trouble seeing it because we keep comparing it college, blinded to the orange because it’s not an apple.

Robert McGuire (52 Posts)

My content marketing services firm provides all-in-one external staff solutions for companies looking to grow their business through thought leadership. I started MOOC News & Reviews in 2013 out of a fascination with the economic, demographic and technological forces impacting edtech, online education and higher education, and I wanted to provide a forum for serious discussion of this new phenomenon. I love building communities of writers engaging in lively critical dialogue about emerging issues.

One Comment

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