MOOCs: Usefully Middlebrow

25 Nov

[ Dawid Ryski for The Chronicle Review ]

By Jonathan Freedman

I was having lunch with a brilliant, hip colleague in the digital humanities when the question of MOOCs came up. “MOOCs are over,” she said. “Administrators haven’t figured it out yet, but everyone else knows.” My tech-savviest administrator friend agreed. Having taken two or three online courses to check them out, he admitted it: “MOOCs are a sideshow.”

The problems endemic to MOOCs are well known: the high dropout rate, the variable quality of the offerings, evaluation methods that make educators roll their eyes, stale lectures, and tests that make you remember why high school was such a bad idea. And with their failures, the way in which they’ve been sold by credulous columnists like Thomas Friedman and the self-serving entrepreneurs whose arguments he parrots—that is, as a replacement for traditional brick-and-mortar universities—is looking increasingly tenuous. Always one step ahead of the curve, the godfather of the massive open online course, Sebastian Thrun (who notoriously proclaimed that in 50 years, there might be only 10 universities left in the world) has thrown in the towel. He’s announced that, following a disastrous trial run at San Jose State University and plagued by ridiculously low completion rates, his start-up, Udacity, would henceforth focus on vocational training.

It is true that MOOCs are useful for learning certain delimited subjects—my administrator friend enjoyed his MOOC on statistics in everyday life, for example—or for brushing up on the latest information in a specific area. MOOCs also satisfy a vast and deserving market: the millions, if not billions, of people in the global South whose access to educational institutions is severely limited. But the dream of a MOOC U. fades with each empirical study showing their ineffectiveness, despite—or perhaps because of—a constant inflow of dollars from governments and universities.

[ Full article available at The Chronicle of Higher Education: ]

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Posted by on November 25, 2013 in MOOCs in the News


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