MOOCs and Lifelong Learners

In both the backlash stories I wrote about last week and responses to my backlash backlash pieces, a certain argument seems to be repeated that asks why schools and investors should be sinking millions into creating educational resources (i.e., MOOCs) that we all know just benefit older, educated, professional (and by implication well-off, middle-class) lifelong learners who already have so much, vs. using those same resources to advance the education of the neediest.

I’ll admit there is a certain emotional resonance to such an argument (who, after all, doesn’t want to do the most they can help the poor and struggling?).  But over time I’ve become increasingly impatient with this charge and have only just started to figure out why.

For starters, let’s take as a given that the upwards of 75-80% of people who currently take MOOC classes already have a degree (sometimes more than one) and could probably find other ways to learn some of the things they’ve been studying even if MOOCs didn’t exist.  At the very least, this means that one-fifth to one-quarter of students enrolled in a MOOC do not fit this demographic.  Now as a fraction, that’s pretty small.  But if you apply it to the number of people taking a massive online course, that means we’re talking about thousands and thousands of young students who are taking advantage of the educational opportunities they might not otherwise  have access to.

No doubt many of those younger students also fall into the well off/middle-class category, and here the implication is that any self-education performed by people fitting into this demographic represents little more than self-indulgent recreational learning.  But does that include the hundreds or thousands of teachers learning how to educate students more effectively by taking MOOC classes as part of their professional development programs?  Or professionals around the world learning how to improve public health by taking courses such as HarvardX’s Health and Society?

I guess one could make the case that studying philosophy is the supreme example of self-indulgent learning.  But even this philosophy student was able to give something back through a free course I created last year (which got built using tools I learned about through online learning, BTW).

Then there is the fallacy of assuming whatever MOOCs are today (including their class makeup) is what they must always be.  But just because today’s student body is mostly older and better educated than the people the MOOC makers thought they would originally be serving, that doesn’t mean more younger people (including younger people who don’t have access to any other affordable type of education) won’t gravitate to them over time.

In the meantime, who is better to serve as a guinea pig (I mean beta tester) for these programs, a student using them as the only means they will ever have to learn a subject, or some already-educated professional who can both provide insight into how MOOCs can be improved, and live with the consequences of them not yet being as polished as they will eventually become?

Finally, a lot of hay has been made over the fact that experiments to see if MOOCs could used to teach math to traditional college students at SJSU was a failure.

Putting aside the fact that this experiment was primarily about seeing how MOOC teaching could be supplemented by various forms of 1:1 or group learning (i.e., an understanding that MOOCs on their own are primarily good only for self-motivated learners was already assumed before the project began), all this experiment showed was that MOOCs failed to make up for all the previous failed programs and institutions that allowed students to get into college without knowing their math well enough.  And, as far as I know, none of the proponents of those programs are being asked to participate in the kind of public self-flagellation rituals being demanded of the MOOC makers who at least had the good sense to tack away from a teaching method that didn’t seem to be working, rather than double or triple down on a strategy that wasn’t delivering results.

As a final thought, I’m also not convinced that the number of self-directed learners who can benefit from MOOCs and other forms of free learning is finite or static.  In fact, if the MOOC experiment yields nothing more than a better understanding of what kind of people succeed in these independent learning environments, perhaps that insight can be boiled down into a set of resources and tools that could improve educational outcomes across all grade and income levels.  Might that be worth pursuing before declaring that the best colleges in the world providing their best courses to anyone who wants them for free are doing nothing more than creating new playthings for the bourgeoisie?

2 Responses to MOOCs and Lifelong Learners

  1. Joanna December 5, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    I think the common argument that people who have degrees don’t really need further education has the underlying assumption that people stay in the career they trained for. I know quite a few people who have degrees, can no longer find work in the field they did their degree in but can’t afford to do another degree in a different field. For such people MOOCs have the potential to be just as helpful as they might be for someone without a degree.

  2. Gideon Baumeister December 9, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

    In redressing the balance, media sources need to focus on the open online movement that IS focusing on those without degrees and opportunities not on slating the sources that aren’t having that effect. For example, little-known has nearly 2.5 million students on its platform with 600 courses – all offered for free. The level is pre-college – vocational and practical skills courses to enable those without the opportunity for an education to obtain a means of gaining employment and progression in their careers. Yet, the US-obsessed media don’t look to this project (located in Ireland) and are so parochial in their fixation on US higher education. The discussion is a much larger picture and our discourse should begin to reflect that.

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