Are MOOCs just glorified textbooks?

Sometimes, when talking to educators, one gets the feeling that all the hopes of overhauling our education system seem to be pinned on technology and MOOCs (massive online open courses). Yet, while their popularity is growing, so is the criticism.

Here are a couple of examples from recent times.

Jonathan Rees has a scathing piece in Slate magazine against online-only higher education saying it will be a disaster for students (and most professors).

Here are some interesting excerpts:

But the most common way to assess learning in the MOOCs offered by the largest providers is a single multiple-choice question after approximately five-minute chunks of pre-taped lectures. If I had told my tenure committee that I taught history this way, I’d be in another line of work right now. Anyone who has the slightest interest or expertise in education would never teach this way, even if they were paid to do so.


The average drop-out rates for existing MOOCs is about 90 percent, so while Coursera may offer access to higher education anywhere in the world where potential students can get the Internet, it offers no guarantee that anybody will actually learn anything.


While MOOCs may serve a purpose as nerdy edu-tainment for people who are so inclined, a workforce trained without close contact with professors of any kind might as well not attend college at all. Going to the library and reading a bunch of books would be equally effective, and probably a whole lot cheaper.

Another indictment of MOOCs comes from professors in the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University (SJSU) in California, USA. The SJSU administration have just bought a package of online courses from edX, the online education company formed by MIT, Harvard etc., the professors were being “encouraged” to teach a “blended course” that would use the lectures from the online courses.

The professors refused, and wrote this open letter to Michael Sandel, the Harvard professor whose MOOC they were being asked to use.

It is telling to discover that the core of edX’s JusticeX is a series of video-taped lectures that include excerpts of Harvard students making comments and taking notes. […] we believe that having a scholar teach or engage his or her own students in person is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students. Indeed, the videos of you lecturing to and interacting with your students is itself a compelling testament to the value of in-person lecture/discussion

Purchasing a series of lectures does not provide anything over and above assigning a book to read. […] having our students read a variety of texts, perhaps including your own, is far superior to having them listen to your lectures. This is especially important for a digital generation that reads far too little. If we can do something as educators we would like to increase literacy, not decrease it.

Read the full open letter. It is quite interesting.

I understand, of course, that the above criticisms are oversimplified, and there are many arguments in favor of MOOCs. And obviously, in a country like India, where the quality of professors in tier 2 and tier 3 colleges leaves a lot to be desired, some of the above criticisms against MOOCs don’t even hold.

But still, these are arguments worth keeping in mind. For example, if you’re going to bet the future of education on MOOCs, you need to make sure that the MOOCs you’re building are not just glorified textbooks.

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