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MOOC: the most seductive phrase in education

By Jeremy Cunningham
December 2nd, 2015

The idea that high quality coursework can be taken online from the best professors from anywhere in the world is revolutionary. The promise is endless: a leveling of opportunity, an elimination of privilege; MOOCs represent the internet’s promise of an egalitarian utopia.

It’s hard not to have MOOCs on the mind as I approach my classes. In any class, students fall onto a spectrum. At one end are those who are truly engaged in what is happening in the room. They see the value of immersing themselves in the classroom experience and they are better for it. On the other end of the spectrum, there are students who want nothing to do with the classroom. They may or may not have the requisite skills, but they bring nothing to each meeting. They struggle to stay focused and engage with those around them. They may be disruptive, or their lethargy may just bring others down through osmosis.

I think of MOOCs when I see this second group. Not just because it sounds like a name I may call them when relaying classroom tales, but because, in my moments of greatest frustration, I wonder why they can’t just take the course in that format. They give nothing to the face-to-face classroom experience and seemingly get nothing from it; let’s get them in a MOOC.

Harriet Swain reveals why I should resist this urge in an article titled, “This change will be the end of the Open University as we know it” in The Guardian. She outlines the decision by Britain’s Open University (OU) to close several locations and concentrate on helping students online. The institutions enrollment has been falling and they have fully embraced the MOOC as a way to fulfill their mission to “promote educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfill their potential.” Swain reveals complications with the transference of students to MOOCs. She cites experts saying that most students who succeed in MOOCs are highly qualified professionals or that the platforms are not conducive to individuals new to the higher education setting. The average age of OU’s students is trending younger, so logically these students are more prone to taking coursework online. But, paradoxically, it’s not as successful. Individuals without prior educational experience are more vulnerable to failure with this mode of study and have less of a safety net to save them.

This is a cruel truth of the craze about MOOCs. By promoting and adopting online learning, students and teachers are lulled into believing that anyone can succeed at it. All stakeholders see it as a cure to their particular problem: access, participation, time, and classroom management.

But it’s not that simple. The online space is unique and takes a unique individual to properly navigate it. It’s those that aren’t committed to the process need to be exposed to the classroom the most. They need to witness other students committing to ideas, completing work, and functioning in a community of learners. They need this community even if they don’t contribute to it.

As a teacher, I need to understand this. I have taught in the online space and love what it brings to education. But I know its limitations. Instead of wanting to sentence some students there out of frustration, I should seek to truly differentiate my face-to-face classes from online ones and demand that students engage.

Furthermore, I need to appreciate the step students have taken into the classroom. I need to respect where they are and attempt to position them to learn the most that they possibly can. With all the options to spend time, they have chosen school. And they have chosen the brick and mortar version.

If they haven’t been seduced by the MOOC, then neither should I.

Read Harriet Swain’s full article here.

Read more about Open University here.


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