Gas station without pumps

2012 November 27

MOOC game

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:48
Tags: , , , ,

I really liked a comment by Mark Urban-Lurain on Mark Guzdial’s blog:

Here’s a fun game to play with everything you read about MOOCs to help sort out the signal-to-noise ratio.

Substitute TEXTBOOK for ONLINE/MOOC COURSE to see how transformative the discussion of MOOCs is in that context.

Below are the results for above breakthrough announcement. I’ve yet to see an example that is any more exciting. Anyone have one?


The fast-moving world of TEXTBOOKS, where anyone can READ TEXTBOOKS from a world-famous university, is making new foray into the community college system, with a personal twist.

In a partnership billed as the first of its kind, the PUBLISHER edX plans to announce Monday that it has teamed up with two Massachusetts community colleges to offer computer science classes that will combine TEXTBOOKS and classroom instruction.

Beginning next term, Bunker Hill and MassBay community colleges will offer versions of a MIT TEXTBOOK that will be supplemented with on-campus classes. Those classes, to be taught by instructors at the two-year schools, will give students a chance to review the TEXTBOOK and receive personal help.

“This allows for more one-to-one faculty mentoring” than exclusively READING TEXTBOOKS, said John O’Donnell, president of MassBay Community College in Wellesley. O’Donnell added that the schools’ involvement allows edX “to test its TEXTBOOK content on a broader range of students.”

Students will pay the same amount they would for a standard class.

via edX offers a CS1 MOOC via Massachusetts community colleges « Computing Education Blog.

I think that this comment sums up a lot of my feelings about the MOOC hype: that they are mainly a rather expensive replacement for textbooks, rather than a better way of offering courses. (And by “expensive”, I mean expensive to produce, not expensive to consume, as MOOCs are currently heavily subsidized by their producers as an attention-getting gimmick and offered free, like other advertising.)

A lot of the hype about the advantages of online education (like being able to rewind and view stuff again) seems to be just a poor approximation of books (which can be reread, annotated, indexed, …) for illiterate people.  The video lecture is mostly a book for illiterates.

Of course, a MOOC is more than a collection of video lectures, as such collections have been around for a long time, but have not got the social cachet of a MOOC.  In fact, most of what makes MOOCs popular is that they are fashionable. I suspect that the fad will not last long, and that MOOCs will become just another minor part of the education landscape, increasing online education by a little bit.  Of course, in the meantime, universities will have created a bunch of high-level, overpaid executive positions to manage online education, and such positions will be damn near impossible to eliminate, even when the underlying educational enterprise is seen to be of minor educational value.

I think that MOOCs will attract primarily two groups of students: adults who want some continuing education and home school students who are desperate for content at a reasonable level.  Neither of these markets will make much of dent in traditional college education.  MOOCs will be competing mainly with “university extension” courses: those unaccredited courses that use university names without really being a significantly connected with the rest of the university.


  1. I agree with you that MOOC’s are mostly online textbooks, though not necessarily for the “illiterate.” They are also for people who prefer processing information in ways other than reading (who are often not illiterate, but just have a different skill set). I myself also hate video lectures. They’re never at the right pace for me (and, to be honest, I’m not a big fan of in person lectures, either, though there the possibility of interacting with a real person can be a benefit). I’m not also a fan of movies — I rarely watch them. But, others consume information in different ways, and, now that videos have become available, I think they will become a significant means of communication. They weren’t available for much of human history, and even when they became available as movies, they did not provide the additional benefits of pausing, reviewing, rewinding, all expected features these days that vastly change their utility. I think online “textbooks” in the form of videos, sequential story telling, visual lectures, online quizzes and questions, and group interactions over larger frameworks from classrooms are all going to become an important part of the learning environment. I don’t think they are “courses”, and I think that they should lead to credentialing in only limited cases. I also think there will be battles fought, as people try to replace credentialing with online versions of courses (especially in situations where the credentialing is iffy anyway, and is mostly being used as a labor supply measure). Universities are going to have to deal with these battles (and right now, many of them seem to be thinking they can join the game, as their best bet), which undermines their other functions

    Comment by zb — 2012 November 28 @ 07:52 | Reply

    • You’re right, of course, that some people process words better in audio form than in printed form, even if they are fully literate. I was exaggerating. Some of us process words better in written form (the online lectures are not a very good format for the deaf, for example), and indexing and search capabilities are much more advanced for written work than for video.

      It’s good to have a multiplicity of different formats for education, and I don’t object to MOOCs being one of the many. What I object to is the hype that says MOOCs will replace all other forms, and the administrators pouring money into creating on-line courses, with no evidence that there is any educational benefit or benefit to the institution, just because it is suddenly fashionable.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 November 28 @ 08:33 | Reply

  2. I had a specific interaction with online textbooks yesterday, that made your post particularly in line with what I’m thinking about right now. I introduced multi-digit multiplication to my nine year old. I “showed” him how to do it, with asides for some of the theory (i.e. we’re really adding 6 X 317 to 30 X 317, . . . ). He got a bit frustrated with me. As a solution, we turned to the Kahn video lecture. Kahn said pretty much the same things I did; clearly, he explains and understands that level of math in much the same way that I do. Because my son couldn’t interrupt Kahn (except by pausing, and certainly not to complain that he wasn’t explaining well), he listened to everything Kahn said. Then, in one portion (“put a zero when you’re multiplying the second digit”), he was able to pause to see if Kahn had told him why (no, Kahn hadn’t, though he said he’d tell later). But, the lecture was a useful introduction (not really a review).

    Then, my kiddo tried to execute the algorithm. He ran into some issues, because he’d coded the rule incorrectly (in a way that makes no sense, and would not have entered my frame of reference, but maybe a 3rd grade teacher would have seen where the error was going). By staring at the problem and arguing with me a bit, he revamped the rule and understood the algorithm (the specific issue was how to implement the rule for the “carry” when multiplying the 2nd, 10s place digit). It was an interesting lesson in teaching. And, I think it showed the way the online lecture was useful (it did provide something more/different than my description, even though my description was very similar. The format, the sequential build up of the information, the ability to pause, the inability to interrupt, all played roles in teaching.

    Finally, I do really think there will be a role for online testing (especially in early learning). In the same evening, I used a few different online sources to quiz my kiddo in multiplication tables. So, I think that the “online textbooks” are going to be important (just as textbooks were). But, I think for real education, they can’t circumvent the human interaction, where one person tries to understand another person and help them learn (me, in this case, but the role I want teachers to play, in general).

    Comment by zb — 2012 November 28 @ 08:01 | Reply

  3. I have to admit I took a little offense at the “textbooks for the illterate” comment until I read your reply to the first comment. This quarter my linear algebra course at UCSC was taught using a textbook written by MIT professor Gilbert Strang (I’d wager you’ve never heard of him) whose writing style, in terms of overall clarity, is… well, it’s atrocious. But upon viewing his video lectures for the course, which were lucid and precise (as opposed to the text), I could understand much better what he was trying to get across with text. I’ve elected to view the lectures (in addition to the regular lectures) before doing the exercises and only refer to the text when I need small pieces of information. I’d say the videos have been indispensable. So I really do believe that video lectures are a great tool (Kahn’s site has certainly been an amazing addition to my education), and they can be as simple to produce as setting up a camera and filming a normal lecture. Though I do, of course, agree with you that they are no replacement, and unworthy of hype, seeing as I hope to one day be a professor of mathematics and/or CS.

    Comment by Paul Sintetos — 2012 December 2 @ 21:20 | Reply

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