Friday, March 8, 2013

MOOCs - A Coming Onslaught

I've been writing about, talking about, thinking about and taking MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for quite a while now.   I've just read Thomas Friedman's recent New York Times article about MOOCs.  He and I are pretty much on the same page - although a lot more people read his page than mine!  Of course, Clayton Christensen has been talking about education being ripe for disruptive innovation for years and published Disrupting Class five years ago.

Friedman points to the emergence of Professor as Rock Star.  I've long made the point that, with the globalization of education, the few will rise to the top and drive out mediocrity. Friedman describes how  Harvard Humanities professor Michael Sandel, has become a rock star in Korea and China.  I first heard Sandel speak at the TED conference in 2010 and I've just signed up for his upcoming Justice course on edX, the joint MOOC platform of Harvard and MIT.  Regular readers of this blog may soon read more about that course.

Who wants to learn high school math from a crappy, or even mediocre, high school math teacher when you can learn from the incredibly popular and engaging Salman Khan at Khan Academy?  Who wants to learn history from a schmuck at a third-tier university when you can learn at the feet of Jeremy Adelman of Princeton?  (see my rave review of his Coursera course here.)

I've mused about this rock star phenomenon with my students in the Managing Innovation course I've been teaching in two different MBA programs since retirement from full time employment.  I consider myself a 'pretty good' teacher, regularly earning Teaching Excellence awards at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and complimentary comments from students.   But world class?  I think not.  Clayton Christensen is not teaching online yet, but if someone were to be given the chance to learn from this rock star, the pre-eminent world expert on innovation, or from Lib Gibson, they'd be crazy to choose me.

So what are the prospects for a good-but-not-world-class professor?  As lectures become available online, institutions are experimenting with flipping the classroom model: watch the lectures online in your own time at your own pace  and do homework or discussions during class.  San Jose State is flipping that classroom with MIT's introductory Circuits and Electronics course and College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto is doing the same with Salman Khan's math videos.   Perhaps there'd be scope for people like me running those discussions.  But this prospect would be rather gloomy if teaching was my chosen career.  Such outsourcing would definitely diminish my value.

Another of Friedman's points is about the coming shift from the Time Served model of education to the Stuff Learned model.  Sitting through high school, and getting a graduation certificate (of uncertain pedigree since different high schools have such different standards), will no longer be the benchmark.  Rather, your actual competence in a subject will be measured.

A good example of this is my own abortive registration for Calculus: Single Variable by Professor Ghrist of University of Pennsylvania.  I had two motives.  One was a crazy desire to refresh my memory about calculus and one was to see Professor Ghrist's teaching methodology, which looked downright exciting.  I was advised to take a self-administered test before starting the course to ensure I had the right background: if I scored less than 80%, think twice about registering.  So, I have a Masters in Math, and I've even taught first year calculus - a mere 43 years ago - although I've never used a stitch of what I learned.  The Axiomatic Foundations of Algebraic Topology (my thesis topic) doesn't exactly come up in everyday conversations.  Well, I was even rustier than expected and I didn't come near scoring 80%.  So I self-selected out of the course.  (Maybe I'll go to Khan Academy and brush up on some of that prerequisite stuff).

So how does this differ from what happens now?  I'm sure that with a credential like a Masters in Math, I'd have been accepted into that course.  In the bricks-and-mortars world, my bum in that seat would have denied a chance for another more worthy student.  In the world of 'infinite' capacity, I can decide whether to take the course or not, without impacting access for anybody else.  And there was a great online tool to help inform my decision.

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