The Problem with MOOCs

When MOOCs were the rage in higher education, I asked my friend David Kaiser, a physicist and professor of the history of science at MIT, when he was going to do a MOOC. Dave has won teaching awards at MIT and writes brilliant books on the history of physics. Who better to do a MOOC or two bringing his wonderful style of teaching and presentation of important physical ideas to more people. But he was not at all interested, and as far as I can tell several years later has not done any.

“Why” I asked. “Because you can’t change them.” he replied. As he explained, one of the most wonderful aspects of teaching a course year after year for a great teacher is the opportunity, indeed the necessity, to change and adapt the courses in general and the presentations in particular. His reaction brought back a vivid memory of my first couple of years of teaching high school physics. I usually carefully prepared my lectures which were the standard fare for most of my classes. Occasionally too busy, too tired, or too lazy to develop a new one, I would grab my lecture notes from the previous year which I thought pretty good. The class usually started all right, but I soon got into trouble. The coherence was gone, the presentation no longer seemed to make sense to me. I don’t know if my students realized that I was stumbling, they were too busy taking notes, but I did. So, I would stop lecturing, told my class what I had done, apologized, would come back the next day with a fresh lecture and gave them time to work on their assignments. One of the things that makes teaching such a great job is the year-to-year, day-to-day, and even student to student opportunity for improvement, for growth, for learning. This has not been true of curriculum.

MOOCs like textbooks are expensive to produce. They are linear, moving from topic to topic in a standard form, a continuous line of lesson following lesson. They are thus difficult, often impossible, to update or change. Once created, except for minor revisions they are for all practical purposes, fixed. Yet, the world is constantly changing, and even more importantly students are constantly changing. A fixed curriculum or presentation cannot work. It will no longer work to expect textbooks to have a 7 year lifespan. Nor will MOOCs, made once and used again and again, work either. The analog continuous linear sequence of lessons that represent a course is no longer functional in the digital world.

The digital world is a discrete world. It needs education to be flexible, easy to change, constantly renewing, and growing. The metaphor for the analog age and the MOOC is the book, done once and then published. The metaphor for digital age educational content is the newspaper, renewed and reimagined everyday. One is fixed, unchanging, the other constantly refreshed. One is designed to be the same for all students, the other can be different to suite the needs and interests of every individual student. One is the education of the past, the other is the education of the future.