Blog Post

MOOCs and Scalability

I've only followed the development of MOOCs from the sidelines. This month, I decided to try out a couple of MOOCs, mainly as a lurker. My institution is exploring alternative learning models and MOOCs are sure to be part of the discussion, so I wanted some first-hand experience with which to measure the hype. The courses I'm exploring are both with Coursera. They are topics that I know something about, but could benefit from learning more. So far, the dominant impression for me is just how MASSIVE these MOOCs are. Maybe that sounds like a dumb statement given that massiveness is the very nature of the beast, but let me explain.

One of the primary (supposed) benefits of MOOCs is that they are scalable. They will work just as well with one student or a hundred thousand. Educational opportunities can expand and contract as demand requires. I get the aim, but I'm a skeptic. The perceived scalability of MOOCs seems to rest on two key assumptions: 1) That any individual learner can adapt the instructional experience to their needs. 2) That current technologies used in MOOCs are, in fact, scalable and robust.

On the first assumption: The two courses I've been exploring are set up in a manner similar to a traditional online course (I love that we've arrived at the point where online courses can be viewed as "traditional"): course goals, schedule, various forms of instructional media, discussion forums, etc. Taking this existing structure and assuming that it can scale to tens of thousands of students seems naive to me. Take the discussion forums, for instance. In just over a week, they are unwieldy and almost incomprehensible. I feel ok about this mess because I am mainly just exploring and I am pretty familiar with online instructional environments--I can fairly quickly assess what I need to pay attention to and what I don't. But, this course would freak my undergrad students out.

I have taught primarily onlne for the past four years. I teach at a community college and my students range from high school concurrent enrollment students to university students aiming for cheaper tuition. I have some students who are web-savvy and others who are still uncertain about attaching a file. But whatever their experience, most of my students need help at some point to navigate the course's content and infrastructure. For most of my students, the massiveness of the MOOC would be challening--and for many, deal-breaking. Thomas Friedman recently wrote about the "revolution" MOOCs will bring to higher education: "Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education." Friedman acknowledges that most of the people who complete MOOCs are "from the middle and upper classes of their societies," but he is convinced that the demographics will broaden within the next five years. It's not clear what convinces him about the demographic shift, and I'm certainly not persuaded. I don't yet see much other than hope and good intentions. A student who has little experience in online courses (or the web in general) would have a harder time negotiating the course and making it work for them. For someone who has not had positive experiences with education and who feels intimated, there seems to be little to guide them.

On the second assumption: Granted, I have only explored two MOOCs (with one organization), so I am probably overgeneralizing here, but it seems that the basic infrastrucutre is very similar to what is currently used with more traditional online courses. I don't trust that these technologies are as scalable as advertised. Consider the Coursera course that was shut down after one week because it clearly didn't scale to accommodate its 40,000 students. Ironically, the course was Fundamentals of Online Education. The tools that were being used in the course would likely work very well in a trad online course with a student cap, but in the context of the MOOC they were quickly broken.

I'm sure there are many HASTACers who have much more experience with MOOCs than I do. I'd love to hear what you think.

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