MOOC start-up Coursera announced this week that it would partner with another three major universities. What’s a MOOC, you ask? It’s a Massive Open Online Course, and an acronym that you’ll only see more of. Coursera, like Udacity, grew out of one of Stanford’s early MOOCs. (Wired recently did a profile of Udacity’s co-founder, Sebastian Thrun.)
As we sally out into the brave new world of massive online endeavors, what are some of the educational values we’ll want to take with us?
Old-fashioned sustained attention, for one. The miniscule attention span of the average digital native has now been measured—digital natives switch media platforms 27 times an hour—and that’s an argument for incorporating digital media into the classroom so that it functions really differently from the media students consume in their leisure hours. Making academic excellence a top priority wouldn’t hurt, either. Steven Conn decries the nation’s willingness to support outsized athletic programs, even when they cut into the quality of athletes’ education, even in high school.
Such sports programs may motivate students in the wrong direction, but at least they’re motivated in some direction. Right now, colleges students aren’t feeling particularly motivated to learn—if anything, student motivation declines during college. Schools can increase motivation by giving students more autonomy over topics and format, getting them invested in their work by requiring revisions, assigning professors who are good at motivating students to core and introductory classes, and generally encouraging faculty-student interactions. (One way to motivate students might be to personalize their educational experience, in the same way that websites personalize ads; I remain skeptical.)
Those relationships are key, though, and they’re the biggest challenge facing MOOCs. Many include rating systems that help make sense out of their online discussion forums, so that students can rate each others’ comments as helpful or interesting. And online discussions can “encourage reflection and usually reach 100% participation,” one of the findings discussed in Francine S. Glazer’s introduction to Blended Learning: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy. “100% participation” means that the quiet kids contribute to the discussion, too. And, according to Susan Cain’s new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, we would be wise to do a better job of listening to the introverts. William Pannapacker’s review reflects on the damage caused by “the routine exclusion and silencing of talented, quiet people,” as well as the strange ways in which academia requires both extreme introversion and extreme extroversion.
But, as University Diaries notes in her most recent reflection on teaching a poetry MOOC, online courses, especially with such huge enrollments, have to be pretty polished. They lack the “dynamic contingency” of the classroom. And that dynamic contingency, both in and out of the classroom, can be one of the most valuable components in an education. As Mark Putnam reminds us, it’s often the people that matter most in one’s educational experience. He’s also reminding liberal arts colleges, who can easily forget their core values that as they try to compete with larger institutions on other measures.