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The Good Life and Open Online Learning

MOOCs after the hype.

May 14, 2018
 
 

3 sentences caught my eye in the 5/12/18 Washington Post story on professor Laurie Santos’ Yale University course on Psychology and the Good Life.

"The impact is not limited to Yale. Stories about PSYC157 spread around the world. Santos created a pared-down version of the class and offered it to anyone on the online education site Coursera.  Within two months of its launch, more than 91,000 people, from 168 countries, were taking it."

The fact that professor Santos is running an open online course with over 90K lifelong learners was not what the Post story was about.  We only learn about the Coursera course about two-thirds into the article. Rather, the story is largely about the impact that the course has on Yale students.  About the stressors that today’s college students must navigate. And about how Psychology and the Good Life is Yale’s largest class in 317 years.

What is fascinating - at least to me - is how little of a deal is made of MOOC version of the course. For all of us working in the open online learning movement, the downplaying of MOOCs is a good thing.

Those of us who are actually involved in the development or teaching of MOOCs do not believe, and have never believed, the hype.   We never thought that MOOCs would replace residential courses, as open online education is different in almost every what that matters from what we most value in higher education.

The value of attending a college or a university - and of taking either residential or online courses - has mostly to do with the human aspects of learning.  What the professor brings to the table in an educational setting where learning is predicated on the relationship between the educator and the student becomes more valuable - not less - in the digital age.

The combination of abundant bandwidth, adaptive learning platforms, and ubiquitous screens has succeeded in commoditizing content.  There is little value in an education that is all about information transmission and testing.  The real value comes in the active and experiential learning that can only occur at a small scale.  This only happens when a professor has the opportunity to get to know her students as individuals.

Open online learning is never, and was never, going to replace traditional (residential, blended, and online) college teaching and learning.  Open online education is, however,  a terrific platform to share ideas.  Professors do many things to disseminate knowledge.  They publish in peer reviewed journals.  They write chapters, and scholarly monographs, and textbooks.  A professor can write for a general audience in op-eds and magazine articles. They can give public talks.  Social media is another platform that professors have to share knowledge.

MOOCs are one more platform that faculty can use for public engagement.  An advantage of MOOCs is that this public engagement can be interactive, two-way, and participatory.  Good open online courses have high levels of engagement.  Much of the connections formed in a MOOC are between and across learners.  Still, these are real learning communities.

There are many other complementary advantages to open online education.  Well run MOOC programs will help advance the core residential, blended, and online teaching on the campuses in which they originate.  MOOCs can be opportunities to develop new materials - such as simulations and assessments - that can be re-purposed for traditional (small-scale) courses.

Open online courses can also be opportunities to experiment with new methods and new techniques, with the learning from the courses at scale then applied to the core teaching activities.  The availability of lots of data about what works and what does not in an open online course will inform how we design our local educational environments.

I also think that we are moving towards a future in which open online courses, and not Google AdWords, are the funnel into the masters degree admission funnel.  This forecast may or may not prove out to be true, but I’d say that any institution that depends on the revenues from masters programs to support their business models would be foolish to not at least investigate the emerging MicroMasters trend.

That the Washington Post story on Psychology and the Good Life so downplayed its MOOC child is a good thing.  It shows that open online education has begun to evolve into something different than many thought it would be.  Something that is quieter, more aligned with the values of our institutions, and more sustainable.

Open online education is becoming part of the fabric of higher education.  Just another part of work that professors do to participate in the larger marketplace of ideas, that institutions do to advance their teaching and learning, and that programs do to find and enroll new students.   That seems like a good development.

How have you seen the open online education movement change at your institution?

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