One of the biggest criticisms leveled against not just MOOCs, but online learning in general is the lack of human connection in courses where students and teachers are primarily interacting with one another via technology.
Lecture videos can be stunningly produced, can edit out a professor’s burps and brainfarts, and even integrate footage highlighting examples that would be difficult or impossible to reproduce inside a physical classroom (such as the setting off of an chemical or atomic explosion). But they are still one-way communication vehicles that eliminate the student’s ability to interrupt the lecture to ask a question or have a point clarified.
Also, the give-and-take you’d find in traditional discussion sections, before-and-after-class hallway conversations, or all-night dorm room, library or coffee shop bull sessions must take a different form when the students participating in these discussion and arguments are separated by time and geography, as they are in most online courses.
That “different form” is a technology-mediated one with tools such as discussion forums, social media sites, audio and video conferencing, and other systems providing students with all kinds of ways to interact. And if friendship and even romance can be carried on through these types of social media platforms, why not learning?
Like so many other aspects of new technology-driven education methods, God is in the quantitative and qualitative details.
For example, the popular Modernism and Postmodernism course I’m taking has generated close to 250 online threads under General Discussion alone (with over a hundred other discussion taking place in separate forums dedicated to lectures, assignments and attempts to organize additional physical or virtual “meet-ups”). The top threads in these forums include dozens of interchanges between students. And for every student posting something to a thread, it looks like anywhere from 100-1000 “lurkers” have viewed the discussion (where they have presumably learned something).
While I haven’t been able to participate in these discussions as much as I’d like (given the number of classes I’m taking simultaneously), several of the exchanges I have participated in have been extremely interesting and challenging (as much or more so than similar discussions I remember from my original college experience back in the typewriter era).
Certainly some of those discussions suffered from the same problems you see in other online forums (such as the comment sections associated with news stories). In other contexts, I’ve referred to the phenomenon of online conversation “gravitating towards the meme,” meaning that in discussions of certain topics (such as Election Year politics, the existence of God, or anything having to do with Ayn Rand), it doesn’t take more than 25-30 comments before you degenerate into fallacious arguments, name-calling and demands for apologies. And from personal experience, I can tell you that online classroom discussion is not immune to these problems.
But generally, issues regarding class discussion moving entirely to technology-driven platforms has to do not with the quality of discussion (which, as I said, can be very high), but with the loss of spontaneity, informality and those components of human communication (body language, facial expression, tone of voice, etc.) that do not translate into typewritten words.
I’ve seen this in small online classes I’ve taken (such as a graduate level course on teaching critical thinking) that required students to post their assignments each week and further required us to submit at least three comments on what we thought of our fellow student’s submissions. For the most part, all of the material posted online was interesting and thoughtful. But very few of the interchanges would have added up to more than 5-10 minutes of the conversation the writers would have had if they had been in the same room discussing the subject as a group.
MOOCs being taken by tens or even hundreds of thousands of students increase the odds that a discussion will extend beyond 2-3 people for 1-2 days. But this points to another problem, namely what is one to do when entering a discussion that already has hundreds or even thousands of posts associated with it?
To cite one example, the discussion prompt that ends each of the lessons in EdX’s Justice course results in over 2000 student comments. In theory, an online voting system that allows students to “Like/+1” a comment (and thus shoot it up the rankings) allows the most thoughtful submission to rise to the top. But a quick look at those numbers reveals that less than 50 people received more than 1-2 votes (in fact, only three received more than 10) which means that for most of this thread, people are generally talking to themselves.
The use of video conferencing (such as Skype or Google+ Hangouts), combined with attempts to organize physical meet-ups of students taking the same class might fill in some of the holes that clearly remain in this aspect of online education. But even if these systems work, they are likely to only reach a small percentage of students – albeit the ones most likely to be committed to (and thus succeed in) turning their classroom experience into genuine learning.