MOOCs and the Autodidact

As I mentioned last time, someone interested and truly motivated to learn a subject has no shortage of ways to achieve that goal.

Taking a course through a residential or online college is one way of obtaining expertise (presuming time and resources permit), or perhaps a nearby extension school or other adult education program will allow you to take a class on your topic of interest.

But this is just the start to a list of options for an eager and resourceful learner who could also turn to recorded lectures from iTunes University, Great Courses or Modern Scholar to obtain at least the lecture portion of a high-quality course taught by an experienced instructor.  And as I’ve pointed out ad nauseum, motivated students can supplement these lectures with syllabi, reading lists and assignments to more closely replicate the experience of a complete course.  (For example, the obvious reading list for my current Shakespeare course includes the instructor’s book coupled with the plays of William Shakespeare.)

And for those who don’t need the structure of a class to learn something, you’ve got podcasts to choose from, documentaries on education-related TV and YouTube channels to watch, learning communities to join and – dare I even mention it – books you can read for the purposes of self-education.

In olden days (i.e. before Netscape,), “book learning” was the primary method for self-propelled education and people who pursued such learning options were termed “autodidacts,” with names like Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison frequently dropped to demonstrate how greatness can be achieved through self-created vs. formal education.

Auto-didacticism tends to trigger images of the outcast who is really a self-taught genius (think Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting).  But if you think about the narrow range of classical and religious subjects traditional education limited itself to until very recently, learning about new topics such as science and engineering could only be accomplished outside the framework of traditional centers of learning.

Today, auto-didacticism has escaped boundaries of class and subject area to almost become a leisure activity (but, again, only for the self-motivated learner).  I’m thinking now about the British guy I just met whose shelves groaned under the weight of all the books he’s read on Winston Churchill.  And then there were the historical re-enactors (friends of a girl I dated many years ago) who spent vacations performing research in national archives on Revolutionary War uniforms.  Or how about my friend’s father (a first generation immigrant) whose stupendous knowledge of natural science was achieved solely by spending his retirement watching the Nature and Discovery Channels?

Now MOOCs fit into this mix in an interesting and valuable way.  For unlike putting together your own reading list and learning without any outside assistance, MOOCs are genuine college classes that provide the scaffolding (lectures, schedule, syllabi, etc.) needed to master a subject.  Unlike recorded lecture classes, MOOCs provide all of these materials in a single accessible package.  And unlike traditional classroom courses (which also package course material for easy delivery), MOOCs are free (at least for now).

Rather than dwell (yet again) on how well MOOCs deliver these goods vs. other alternatives, right now I’m more interested in whether the people taking MOOC classes are the same autodidacts who would have found another alternative to learn the same subjects if the MOOC phenomenon had never occurred.  In other words, are MOOCs truly opening up educational opportunities to people who never had them before, or are they just providing one more option to an audience of autodidacts already glutted with choices?

Next time, I’d like to propose a couple of ways we might be able to answer that question and provide some thoughts regarding where different answers to that question might lead.


  1. Taking stock of the MOOCs landscape: past, present, future - Blog - March 24, 2015

    […] major criticism of MOOCs has been the lack of interaction. It’s been suggested that MOOCs are fine for autodidacts, but the majority of learners need feedback to improve; the learning sciences supports this as […]

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