When MOOCs Are Better Than College Classes

13 Aug

By Jonathan Haber

Missing in the fiery debate over whether Massive Open Online Courses are as good or far worse than traditional residential classes is a heretical discovery I made last year: that in some cases MOOCs can actually be better than the same course taken in a classroom setting.

Now I’m not talking about the opportunity MOOCs provide students to take classes from the best colleges and universities in the world without having to go through an application process, getting “stuck” just taking classes from one school, or paying a dime.  Nor am I talking about the convenience of being able to take a class where and when you like (whether that be in a soccer stadium in Nigeria or at a suburban library).

Those virtues are well rehearsed, as are the shortcomings of learning in a massive open environment, including non-existent interaction with professors who only appear in pre-recorded videos, lack of community outside of overcrowded online forums (a pale alternative to the intimacy of classroom conversations, not to mention all-night caffeine-driven dorm bull sessions), and limited means of putting your learning to work through challenging assignments.

Ironically, the virtues I’m talking about derive from the very things for which MOOCs are often condemned.  For example:

Video vs. Live Lectures

There is no doubt that video-based lectures lack the type of human contact one gets in the classroom where a professor is free to tack his or her presentation based on give-and-take with live students.  But having taken several dozen MOOCs over the course of last year, I discovered a new visual language developing within MOOC videos that turned them into something different than the sage-on-stage moved to the screen.

For example, the “lectures” that made up HarvardX Ancient Greek Hero MOOC featured the professor, his colleagues and students engaging in intimate conversations, giving learners the impression that we were eavesdropping on real-world discussion rather than being lectured to by a single prof speaking from the podium.  And by the time Harvard’s epic ChinaX MOOC is done, nearly every China expert at the university will have participated in videos shot in museums and other facilities across the Harvard campus (not to mention on location in China).  Try getting the budget to do that for a 50-person live class.

[ Full article available at Inside Higher Ed: ]

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Posted by on August 13, 2014 in MOOCs in the News


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