The ABCs of MOOCs: what it’s like to enroll

Each week, in a kind of lottery system, the professors picked a few questions and posted replies. There were weekly office hours run via chat by TAs, but they picked eight submitters to Skype with and then posted the transcript. A few weeks into class, “community TAs” were also selected from among active student participants to lead online discussions.

I admit I didn’t take full advantage of the opportunities available, but obviously they don’t compare to an on-campus experience. MOOCs are looking for ways to build community and may succeed. But the lack of individualized help is why MOOCs will be an inadequate — even counterproductive — substitute for current face-to-face higher education options.

Even their biggest backers acknowledge that their most effective role is supplementing, not replacing, traditional teaching

The question isn’t whether a MOOC with a great MIT professor is as good as what MIT students get on campus. It’s not, but that’s not the choice most people face. The question is how the MOOC experience compares to the alternatives they do have.

On that, the answer is not bad at all, and likely to improve rapidly as the data on how students learn piles up from the MOOCs, and teachers begin making use of it. That, too, is a potential revolution.

Still, I’m also more aware of just how incomplete an education would be if based entirely on MOOCs. Here’s one big thing I never did in this course: I never made an argument. I was graded almost entirely on multiple-choice questions (sometimes we were asked for a number).

I never went through that process of examining disparate evidence, weighing it, synthesizing and articulating an argument that to my mind should be part of any college course, even in economics.