MOOCs Inside the Classroom

While the notion of MOOCs and other forms of free learning providing an alternative to a traditional (and expensive) college education will continue to draw headlines, these new tools are already playing role (and generating controversy) based on their use inside the physical classroom.

For instance, according to Sanjay Sarma, Director of MITx and MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, the MITx platform and content had over 1200 users within MIT in 2013, making it one of the most important online tools students use while attending the school as residents.

And if you look at the one of the major controversies resulting from MOOCs (the revolt of the philosophy department at San Jose State over the licensing of edX content), that debate was over what the availability of online materials (such as the MOOC version of Michael Sandel’s Justice class) would mean for existing college programs led by existing teaching staff.

The notion of the flipped classroom, one in which lectures become something students do in their dorm rooms via online video while the classroom becomes the place where discussion, projects and other interactive or individualized learning takes place, undergirds most discussion of MOOCs within the university.

For instance, during a panel discussion on MOOCs during this week’s LINC conference, several of the speakers used similar slides that included paintings and woodcuts of medieval classrooms where sages lectured from the stage in much the same way professors do today (albeit without the beards and turbans).  And the message accompanying these images was that, unlike previous technological breakthroughs (such as the blackboard), online tools provide the means to truly change the dynamic of teaching for the first time in a thousand years.

One of the challenges to this analysis is that while technology allows us to take one part of the classroom (lectures) and move them from the classroom to the browser, it is still unclear exactly what is supposed to take place when students gather in the rooms where those lectures formerly took place.

It’s all well and good to say that the classroom will be transformed from a place where interacting and doing replaces listening and note taking.  But where are these wonderful new interactive classroom projects supposed to come from?  And are professors really ready to dedicate closer to 100% of time in class to meaningful discussion (especially for bigger classes that already supplement large lectures with smaller discussion groups)?

I previously mentioned one discipline (technology) that’s utilized the flipped classroom model for years.  In theory, the availability of tools that can teach and assess rote skills remotely should free teachers to focus on individualized practice or teach complex concepts when kids get to class.  But as schools eye areas to trim, it’s unclear which will come first: the transformation of the technology class into something new and invaluable (perhaps becoming the place where vital skills like Information Literacy and critical thinking are taught) or the termination of departments whose traditional subject is already being taught online.

Just as the MOOC phenomenon is showing us the holes that need to be plugged if these and other online learning tools can truly serve as an alternative to brick-and-mortar classes (quality evaluation, meaningful discussion, credit), the integration of MOOCs (or MOOC components) into those physical classrooms highlights things that are still needed if the flipped classroom is ever to move from being the latest teaching fad to the cornerstone of a new mainstream teaching model.

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