The MOOC Audience

Earlier in the week, I gave a talk about this Degree of Freedom project to a group of educators, most of whom taught at community colleges in the Boston area.

At first, I wasn’t sure about the reception I’d get from such an audience.  While I didn’t anticipate hostility, one of the big MOOC controversies is over what the availability of free Ivy Leagues courses might do to the rest of the higher education system.

Some community college professors have been particularly outspoken about the threats they feel emanating from MOOCs, with one commenter to this Chronicle piece expressing suspicion that I and other heavy-duty MOOC users are a “Trojan Horse” that administrators will use turn the faculty into serfs toiling away on grading while Harvard and Yale professors get to do all of the fun stuff (without having to actually interact with students).

But even before my talk began, the vibe I was getting from the group was not one of concern, but curiosity.

After all, MOOCs are as new a phenomenon to them as they are for the rest of us.  Some teachers knew about them from stories they read in the news, but were curious about the nuts and bolts of what taking a MOOC class was like.  A few had taken courses from places like edX and Coursera while others were looking for advice on how to select a course and what to expect in terms of workload.

While a number of questions arose regarding the quality of massive online learning classes (including questions on how they are developed and who vets them), the overall sense was that these professors considered the MOOC to be just another piece of educational technology they might consider using in their classes, if it was ready for prime time.

This combination of enthusiasm coupled with caution and adventurousness leavened by practicality should not have surprised me since it was the same attitude I discovered when lecturing to many similar audiences during my stint as “Digital Strategist” with one of the major college textbook publishers.

In that role, I was mostly talking to instructors working in business and technology departments who taught courses in computer concepts and applications.  And part of my job was overseeing the content of an online product that provided e-learning, performance-based testing and automatically scored homework to students taking classes in computer applications.

Now one might think a software tool that took over so much of the instruction and assessment historically done by teachers would be feared and loathed by professors worried about being replaced by robots.  But as it turned out, teachers not only loved this product but were happy to migrate most if not all rote instruction and grading tasks to it and then use class time to cover more complex topics or work directly with students on individual or team projects.

In other words, tools like this e-learning and assessment system have already been fully integrated into a flipped classroom model in at least one discipline (computing) to the point where professors’ greatest fear is now not having the latest version of such a product at hand when they need it rather than the fear of being replaced by it.

This flipping has been accompanied by changes in how this discipline goes about its business with some aspects of what is taught (such as computer concepts) diminishing and/or being consolidated with other subjects.  And everyone involved with this field (including instructors, administrators, publishers and educational technology providers) are understandably concerned about the relevancy of courses on Microsoft Windows application software taught to classrooms full of students taking notes in Google Apps running off their Mac laptops.

But these are changes that would be underway regardless of what educational technology was integrated into a classroom.  And if you look at wider trends going on throughout general education (rising prices/student debt coupled with budget cuts, the rise of “vocational” majors like business and programming at the expense of the liberal arts, the division of the professorate into the lucky tenured and the unlucky adjunct toiling away on multiple campuses) you can see why MOOCs may not be top of mind for every educator.

I don’t think it’s an accident that teachers working in state and community colleges have been more entrepreneurial with regard to what takes place in their classrooms compared to professors teaching in institutions weighed down by centuries of “how things are done here.”

But being early adopters also means they have likely been burned at least once by some “Next Big Thing in Education” (technology-driven or otherwise) that turned out to be a passing fad.   Which means that their readiness to experiment coupled with a healthy sense of cautious optimism (an attitude I both respect and share) is probably just what the MOOC movement needs right about now.

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