MIT Stem Pals
  July 2012  

Beware of MOOC’s: Weapons of Mass Instruction!
From Richard C. Larson

Dick LarsonA MOOC is a recent creation: Massive Online Open Course. Even the definition of a MOOC is not yet agreed upon. One person’s MOOC is another person’s garden-variety asynchronous online course. To me, the thing that makes a MOOC a MOOC is (1) huge worldwide enrollment, (2) for near-zero tuition and (3) yielding a certificate of competency when a final exam is passed. By huge, we are talking north of 100,000 students in one MOOC! Such a game changer in enrollment and tuition makes headlines, as did recent MOOC initiatives from Stanford University (with its 100,000+ enrollment in “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence”), MIT (with MITx and Harvard (collaborating with MIT, with EDx And other universities are becoming MOOC’ers, too. Enrollment in one MOOC eclipses total on-campus student enrollment. MOOC devotees want to “…teach the World.” Some have called MOOCs “…networking on steroids.”

Using technology to “teach the world” is not new. Think of the Gutenberg printing press in 1436. Arguably, books became the first successful technology to teach the world. Then newspapers, radio, TV and finally the Internet. What is the difference between MOOC’s and Open Educational Resources (OER), such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW)? OCW and related OER programs are online publication initiatives. All the material is there to learn—same as MOOC’s. But one needs to be disciplined and not need a certificate of competence. In my files, I have over 100 emails from learners around the world who have written to MIT’s Professor Walter Lewin about how his OCW video lectures have changed their lives and made them fans of and competent in physics. Bill Gates is one of these fans. But if one is lacking in such discipline and needs more structure as well as a certificate of competence, then the MOOC is the thing for you. A MOOC is an asynchronous online course with all the usuals: lectures, problem sets, online tutors, study pals, problem solutions and exams—and a certificate.

Why do we discuss MOOC’s in STEM Pals? Because there is no reason why MOOC’s or something similar could not be coming to STEM education in secondary schools—worldwide. Already we have lots of OER content for high school STEM students, including the Khan Academy, MIT BLOSSOMS, OER Commons, OER in Mathematics and more. And we have lots of high school students taking for-credit online courses, advancing them towards their high school diplomas. So, would it make sense to create a high school MOOC, say in senior level physics, by using Prof. Walter Lewin’s OCW lectures on Newtonian mechanics? By making your local high school’s physics class a MOOC, the students would be sharing the experience with 100,000 or more students from around the world—indeed, networking on steroids! Study pals from so many possible countries and cultures. I think the key difference here is your local in-class teacher, who will remain as important as ever with your local students. But the teacher would be freed of the responsibility of presenting essentially the same lectures year after year. She or he would also be freed of making and grading homework, as that could all be done online with MOOC software. So, the teacher’s responsibility in class would be advancing the thinking and understanding to higher levels. She/he could help the students move beyond rote learning to deeper understanding. Yes, Walter Lewin does this too, with his inspiring lectures. But the final important steps are from the in-class teacher.

Anyway, this is how I see MOOC’s possibly coming to high schools, bringing true Weapons of Mass Instruction. We welcome your thoughts, too.

Richard Larson is the Mitsui Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT. He is also the Director of MIT LINC and the Principal Investigator of MIT BLOSSOMS.

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