How Facebook Made MOOCs Viable: MOOC planning – Part 2

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor embarking on his first massively open online course.

One obvious, but huge distinction between planning a physical course and planning a MOOC is that for the former, it is generally fairly easy to make changes — even major ones — once the course is underway. But MOOCs are different. It requires an enormous amount of time to put a MOOC together (video recording/editing and implementing all the online course materials are just two elements not present in a physical course, or if they are, those materials can usually simply be omitted if a mid-course adjustment is required). As a result, once the course launches, you are pretty well committed to running it through largely as planned.

If I were putting together a MOOC for which Stanford would charge (and offer credit), by now I would be getting decidedly nervous. But that is not how things stand at present. Everyone sees this sudden MOOC explosion purely as an experiment to see what the medium can offer. The courses are free, and since there is no credential at stake, there is no worry about unmotivated students or of cheating. An unmotivated student is not going to continue with the course beyond the first week or so, and the only person who loses by student cheating is the student. Presumably both will change if this experimental phase is a success, and MOOCs take their place alongside other forms of higher education, where there are payments and credentials.

My own view, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is that MOOCs are not a replacement of the traditional bricks-and-mortar university, rather they are the twenty-first century version of the textbook.

Widespread availability of textbooks did not replace universities. Indeed, they did not change university education very much at all. In theory, once every student could purchase a textbook, there should have been little need for professors to give mainstream content lectures — particularly if the professor had written the course textbook — but the basic content lecture continued to remain the dominant model.  Early in my professorial career, I tried to adopt a flipped classroom approach, based on giving students reading assignments from a book I had written, and using the class time to discuss the material. It proved to be a disaster; hardly any of the student read the assigned reading, and of those that had, few really knew how to read a mathematics text and learn by so doing. I soon ended up having to give classical lectures on the material that was expressed far better in my textbook — far better because I had spent time putting my thoughts onto the page and the resulting manuscript had been professionally edited.

I am not sure that, on their own, video-recorded instructional material will lead to much of a change in university education either. Video-lectures are not really very different from textbooks. At least, for most university-level material that is the case. For learning how to carry out maintenance around the house, to change a bicycle tire, to assemble a piece of furniture, etc., video is far better than text. But those are all simple procedural learning — the goal is to learn how to do something, and for that purpose, showing is more efficient than describing in words. In contrast, the main focus of much university education is understanding; the student is supposed to learn how to think differently. That is very hard to do at arm’s length, regardless of whether the arm involves a textbook or a video. It is by direct interaction with an instructor and with other learners that we can gain understanding and learn how to think a certain way. That is why I don’t see MOOCs as a threat to the existence of universities.

MOOCs may, however, do what textbooks and instructional-videos failed to do. They may finally give rise to flipped classrooms — a mere six centuries after the invention of the printing press give rise to textbooks. The reason is, MOOCs are far more than video-recorded instruction. In fact, video lectures are one of the least significant elements of a MOOC. The key to the educational potential of MOOCs are human-computer and human-human interaction —  the latter especially so for most subjects. In particular, social media are what make MOOCs possible, and it is the widespread familiarity with, and acceptance of, human-human interaction over an ethernet cable that led to the sudden explosion of interest in MOOCs. In short, MOOCs are a direct consequence of the growth of Facebook, which made interaction-by-social-media global.

[I should add that I don't see the degree of human-human interaction offered by social media in a MOOC being as educationally powerful as direct fact-to-face interaction. The unavoidable limitation in a MOOC is not the medium per se, rather is the scalability factor. In a physical class, the students get to interact with the professor -- the expert, the domain professional. In a MOOC, that crucial part is missing. I think good course design can get a lot out of social media, but that one factor means that we'll always need physical universities.]

The challenge facing a professor setting out to design and offer a MOOC, then, is to figure out how to take advantage of the (human-computer and) human-human interaction made possible on a global scale by social media, in order to provide students with a valuable learning experience.

In this regard, the experiment really begins with (many of) the 117 MOOCs currently offered by the MOOC platform Coursera. Coursera is a spin-off from a Stanford project in Computer Science to develop a platform to support flipped classrooms at the university. The first wave of Stanford MOOCs were basic level computer science courses, where there is a heavy focus on procedural learning and less dependency on reflection and peer interaction. (Those features come later in CS, and when they do, not a few Stanford CS students drop out and start their own companies, occasionally becoming millionaires within a few years!) But many of the second wave of courses now underway are in humanities and other areas, where the primary focus is on thinking and understanding, not doing.

To take just one instance of course design, in a basic-level computer science MOOC, it is possible to give machine-graded assignments. It would be possible to offer a math MOOC a similar way, provided the focus was on mastering basic computational procedures.  But in my case, where my goal is to develop mathematical thinking, I realized from the start that the key to making it work would be the social media factor. Just as it is for humanities courses.

That impacted how I would design, structure, and present the core material, as I’ll describe in my next post.

To be continued …

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2 Responses to “How Facebook Made MOOCs Viable: MOOC planning – Part 2”


  1. 1 Akshat Verma August 14, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    Dr. Keith,

    You say that like textbooks, these MOOCs wouldn’t lead to the end of universities. But the textbooks never gave students any credits or any certificates. In the near future, there’ll definitely come a certification system of these courses. Some universities already accept these courses. Do you think students will still want to pay the hefty fees and go to colleges? Even if they are able to get jobs on the basis of these online courses.

    I am privileged that I can study in an elite college in India (IIT), but approx. 90% of my fellow countrymen aren’t so lucky. I would love to know your opinion on the impact such courses would have in such countries, say African nations or third world nations, where elite education (hell, food) isn’t as easily accessible to everyone. Would these courses have more impact in such countries? Where these may prove to be the only option of education for millions.

    And thanks a lot for this insight into what goes into making a MOOC. And its amazing to read the amount of effort and thought that has been put into making it. You’ll definitely have me in your next class . :)

    • 2 Keith Devlin August 14, 2012 at 5:31 pm

      Akshat, Thanks for the comments. Everything I’ve experienced in sampling and now mounting a MOOC convinces me that they cannot come remotely close to offering what a student gets from spending several years at a good physical university. But most people have no opportunity to have such an education. For those millions of people around the world, a MOOC is way better than the alternative, that is nothing! So, I am in total agreement with you on the benefits of MOOCs. That, of course, is why we are doing it.

      But good, real universities offer much more, and society will continue to need people who have benefited from a real university education, where far more is learned than can be gained from taking an online course. What I do see happening is elite universities like Stanford using their MOOCs to identify and recruit good students from around the world — just as Google uses Udacity to identify future engineers. If anything, I think MOOCs may create an even greater demand for physical universities, by making eligible for such an education millions in the world who currently do not have access, and providing an entry point for them. Getting a “Certificate of Completion with Distinction” in my MOOC, or any other online course from an elite university, is not in itself a verifiable credential. But for many people who currently do not have access to what you and I have, it may be enough to open the door to being able to get both a good education AND a valuable credential.


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I'm Dr. Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University. I gave my first free, open, online math course in fall 2012, and have been offering it twice a year since then. This blog chronicles my experiences as they happen.

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