What began last year as a technology upgrade in education has more recently become a revolution meme. At last week's South by Southwest Edu conference (the education partner to the SXSW music and film festival), almost a dozen panels were devoted to the subject of massive open online courses. Known by the rather bovine acronym MOOC, the latest iteration of online learning was debated in panels with titles like Online Education: Will It Make Us Smarter? and Not Another Zombie Idea.
For higher education, MOOCs have become fantasy household robots, doing the dishes, vacuuming, listening attentively. MOOCs are going to create students with job-ready skills, cater to individual learning styles, enable collaborations between students and faculty in different countries. Maybe they'll even alleviate poverty as students in remote regions learn skills like computer programming and engineering. Canadian universities have joined the movement.
Before we believe that massive online courses are going to solve the problems of postsecondary education, we should ask whether we're buying a Roomba: good at getting into hard-to-reach places but no match for a man with a Dyson.
Those who see a world of possibilities in MOOCs say that type of comparison – between the best possible scenario and a type of disruptive innovation – is unfair. That MOOCs have been identified as a type of disruptive innovation is largely due to Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen who, in his book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, applied a concept he'd first used to analyze corporations' competitive strategies to education. Disruptive innovations "don't compete against the gold standard at the outset," said Michael B. Horn, one of the book's co-authors and education executive director at the Innosight Institute, a not-for-profit think tank based in San Mateo, Calif.
In an e-mail conversation, I had presented the case of a small seminar with under 20 students and a gifted teacher. Horn argued I was thinking of the best possible educational environment, not the norm of limited and expensive access to education (particularly in the States), or large class sizes and faculty with little time to spare for undergrads. In that situation, engaging students who are often described as "digital natives" through technology by delivering course material online, expanding classroom discussion through social media, or using "flipped classrooms," is an improvement.
MOOCs are not a tool in the service of current educational models, however. Instead, they are mounting a challenge to traditional campuses. Over time, Horn predicts, they will become a better option and draw traditional learners who prize "affordability, convenience and simplicity."
One true believer is the New York Times' Thomas Friedman. Last week, he began his column by admiring the very cool sneakers his friend, Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel was given when he visited South Korea. Sandel had been invited due to the popularity of his university lectures on justice which were filmed and shown on Korean television. The Sandel footwear reference was not just a gratuitous cool friend brag, but a shout-out to the future. Professors of the future have great sneakers and are not stuck in a physical classroom but project their image and words across the planet.
Propelled to the heights of academic stardom by his Justice lectures, Sandel is now heading up an edX MOOC version. (The course starts tomorrow: You can sign up here. Free!). Ironically, it helps to have a "gold standard" classroom experience to appreciate Sandel's philosophical views. To a vision of liberalism in which differences of nation, ethnicity, class and perhaps gender are irrelevant to individual identity, Sandel built his reputation on offering an alternative where people's particularities have to be acknowledged if we're going to resolve how to live together amicably.
I wasn't too fond of this philosophical identity politics in university, but it had the great virtue of describing the actual classroom and my classmates. The greater our differences, the better the conversation. Rather than jump on the large is beautiful ride, we could demand that every undergraduate has the chance to sit in a small class and talk to their classmates and perhaps even an opportunity to visit a professor as gifted as Sandel during his office hours.