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Year of the MOOC: Rsp to NY Times, A Student-Made MOOC by Dan Ariely and me

Year of the MOOC: Rsp to NY Times, A Student-Made MOOC by Dan Ariely and me

I'm intrigued by the range of responses detailed in this lengthy New York Times story The Year of the MOOCMassive open online courses are the educational happening of the moment. Everyone wants in. No one is quite sure what they’re getting into.     Read the full article here.

The article quotes me and also gives the link for the really fabulous course that Dan Ariely and I have posted and been crowdsourcing ideas for over the last year or so.   It's called "Surprise Endings:  Social Science and Literature" (English/ISIS 390).  Here are some features that make our MOOC unique.  First, the  students will be creating a public online course, a MOOC of their own.  Second, it's not talking heads.  We hope the students will come up with ways of presenting learning lessons that are so creative, exciting, inventive, and challenging that it will blow all existing MOOCs out of the water.  


Here's the link to a blog about our course, “Surprise Endings: Social Science and Literature”: please join the conversation in the comments!


It's possible that the students will also begin to reimagine the university for the 21st century when it is there turn to produce online cours material.  Think about the possibilitie with a course called "Surprise Endings!"   That sets the bar for inspiration and challenge and, well, surprise pretty high.  The class is already, structurally, freed from the constraints of brick and mortar, of the demographics of elite-university tuitions, and even of discipline.  Dan's an economist with a position in the MBA program and I'm an American Studies scholar who codirects  PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge.  Neither of us is anything like a conventional teacher and we're both pretty spontaneous and like to work hard and have fun.  We laugh a lot.  All that--including and perhaps especially joy--are missing from a lot of the talk about education and about MOOCs.  We're so obsessed with assessment we're missing the fact that, in the real world, excitement and joy and challenge are real motivators of learning and, indeed, success.   We're hoping our student-created course will challenge other online course developers to think about what it means to have this incredible opportunity to think virtually, not limited by the silos and bricks and mortar of the traditional university.  


Why digitize and automate the traditional  research university puny when we have the potential, for the first time in human history, to live our learning large?

 Our make-a-MOOC has lots of public components so please join us, leave comments, and be part of re-imagining the university for the future. 


Our aim is NOT to preserve the structure of the research university that came to American with the founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1873 with the explicit purpose of training specialized professionals for the Industrial, Fordist era of specialized, hierarchical, top down labor (whether on the assembly line or in the corporate headquarters). 


We're flipping everything, not just whether you happen to read before or after or during class.  We are also making an opportunity for students to take charge.  The one voice I rarely hear in these acocunts of MOOCs though is the student voice.   What do students think of these online courses?  If students could remake the university online, would they really be repeating all the rigid, ridiculous, and often outmoded silos of the university, the artificial divisions of knowledge into discrete subjects that do not map at all onto the fluid, global problems that are everywhere in the work world?   If students could recreate the Perfect Virtual University Online, would it really replicate the bureaucratic distribution requirements, major requirements, minor requirements?   Would it really replicate talking heads (or Khan Academy's moving hands?)   We don't need the "sage on the stage" model anymore . . . so what DO we need?


The MOOC of 2012 is basically higher education's version of the "horseless carriage."   Some programs, notably Udacity, are organizing courses by skills rather than traditional academic areas ("How to Build a Blog" or "Building a Web Browser" are two offerings, for example).  But in general the MOOC is still at the classic first stage of invention that carries its history in its very form:   it still looks like an old horse-and-buggy university, just with a different kind of "horse power" to keep it going.  




The student-created MOOC that Dan and I are envisioning next semester is an attempt to kick-start a new form of massive online open courseware that might take a new form.  What is that form?  We don't know.

And that's the invitation.  I hope you'll join us in imaging what that future might be!

image by photoeverywhere -

1 comment

I have to be honest and say that I'm still deeply sceptical about MOOCs. I'm very interested in looking at new ways of approaching the use of technology in the classroom—whether as a means of helping students to visualise data in innovative ways, or creating a more accessible classroom for those with disabilities, or a number of other avenues—but as a historian I'm always inclined to be dubious about a teleological argument, with change always good and the arc of history always trending towards the positive and towards progress. I do like your idea of giving students some voice in what works for them in the classroom, but I'm concerned about the practicalities of a flipped classroom with the student as teacher/course shaper.

How do students know how to teach themselves? Even with the best, brightest, most motivated students there's going to be a lot of reinventing the wheel—or will this methodology still involve a teacher providing guidance and instruction about how to gain the analytical skills which a student needs, just under another name? How can MOOCs work when flying in the face of so much research on pedagogy which says that people learn best in face-to-face environments with small teacher-to-student ratios? How are MOOCs fundamentally different from a large public library, where all the reading needed to get through a humanities degree has been available to the general public for a long time now, except by virtue of various technological additions? Would MOOCs shift the profile of who gets to be a teacher/researcher ever more towards those who come from "prestige" institutions?

There is certainly much that could, and probably should, be changed about the university as it currently exists in the western world. But, in the words of one of my fictional heroines, Elizabeth Bennett, "I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good." I noticed that in the NY Times article which you linked to, that the students who got the most out of MOOCs seemed to be those who met in person with other students, who studied with them and discussed the course topic with them. Is it possible that the university as we experience it has survived as long as it has not simply because of inertia, not because of physical limitations, but because sitting down with a group of people and engaging in intense, face-to-face discussion is still one of the best teaching methods we have?