The MOOC is dead, long live the mOOC!

Our climate of ever-new-news has recently whipped up a whirlwind of coverage on the failures of MOOCs. It’s not as big as the nimbus of glory that initially accumulated over Udacity and Coursera, but what data there are do seem to show that MOOCs haven’t lived up to media expectations. Where oh where is the free and perfect educational betterment of all people they promised us?

It does seem clear that, for people already deeply engaged with learning, MOOCs provide another avenue for finding more knowledge. And all the folks entering and dropping these courses are providing a wealth of marketing data to Coursera, allowing it to pivot to a clear profit structure. Which has got to be really good for education.

The connection of MOOCs to my work is that, as a practitioner of ‘flipping’, I may be associated on my campus with online learning generally, and online lectures specifically. And make no mistake, the flipped aspect of my class is very important to me. But I’d prefer to be thought of as the guy trying to upend the way chemistry classrooms are run, rather than the guy trying to replace those classrooms with online professors from MIT and Berkeley. Indeed, I think the recent MOOC pessimism actually provides a little space to step back and consider: what does direct interaction with a teacher offer students? I say let’s swap in “moderately online” for “Massive” and “open-ended” for “Open” … moderately online open-ended course-structures.

Self-criticism: oftentimes I find myself thinking that in my class I merely glorify or amplify the ‘discussion’ section lots of courses at other universities employ. Sometimes these are referred to as ‘recitation’ (shudder) sections, and they take the form of 1 hour per week meetings, usually led by grad students, where examples from scientific literature are linked to the course content. I’ve just blown that up into 3 hours/week, and included games and projects to the roster of literature articles and problem sets we wrestle with. But why on earth would I do that? Much has been said (try here, or here) about what online classes miss, so I will simply say that I’d rather a student fall in love with an idea and be driven to find out more, than have her front-load the ‘more’ while crushing out the excitement.

This latter phenomenon is what I think of as the ‘crisis of content’ that science instructors always seem to face. And regardless of how many NSF/NIH/HHMI panels declare it, most instructors just cannot bring themselves to accept the notion that Less Is More, when thinking about what content to present and omit. But let’s be clear: by pushing my lecturing online, maybe I’m sidestepping that problem! The content is still there, just not in the classroom.

Generally, though, I am less interested in how much students have committed to memory than I am with helping them develop the faculties required for using what they know. So I am obsessed with the notion that college kids don’t need me to hold their hand as they learn basic vocabulary and concepts. Instead, I posit that students might use my stupendous knowledge and skills to stay focused in the light of the scientific literature’s blinding rays. In practice, this philosophy always leads me farther and farther from grades and assessment, two of my least favorite facets of modern teaching. But that points up a good criticism of my methods (as if the preceding statement weren’t self-incriminating enough): that my class might lack the rigor of one whose metric is a student’s preparedness for the MCAT. But I say that this is no crisis, that if we say we don’t teach to the test, then we shouldn’t. Let’s just see if society collapses under the weight of all the critical thinkers we generate.

But I do not wish to be an evangelist for my insanity… a ghostly army rises before me as I think about the generations of excellent thinkers and scholars that were trained in the ‘outdated’ modes that precede the current technology-in-teaching fad, and in the modes that preceded the last fad, etc… and then I start imagining Socrates drinking with his buddies and I think “man, that’s where it’s at! I’m going to teach like that!” Ok, that’s just straight up hubris, and anyway it didn’t end well for Socrates, so… I guess in the end I’m acknowledging that, just like there many effective learning styles, there are many effective teaching styles. I would just hope that all of those styles are motivated less by ‘preparing the workforce of the future’ than by passing on a love of learning and a thirst for scholarship. It is my job as a teacher to pollute minds with those attributes; with them fixed firmly in place, how can a student go far wrong, really?


Full disclosure: like everyone else, I didn’t complete the two MOOCs I joined (teaching, lab, family, house, commute all competing for my brain), but I did get great nuggets. For example, William Kuskin introduced me to the art of Winsor McCay, for which I am eternally grateful! Also, I learned from Hitoshi Murayama that stars’ orbits around galactic centers don’t obey the inverse square law; hence, dark matter. To any students reading this, wondering about the relevance of such seeming cultural minutia or cosmic enormities to a molecular biologist’s teaching or research, I would just say: “everything is relevant.”


One response to “The MOOC is dead, long live the mOOC!

  1. My HS math teacher Mr. C once said, “We don’t need no stinkin’ integers.” When we all stared back, he got angry. The next day, we watched the Treasure of Sierra Madre. No explanation. It was only a decade later I figured out why I did not like the film but somehow knew the awesomeness of that moment. And what I keep trying to build in the minds of my students: the ability to leap sideways at any given moment.

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