MOOCs Won’t Replace Traditional Education. But They Don’t Have To

Rick Martin
9:40 pm on Dec 21, 2012



One of the bigger technology stories of the past year has been the emergence of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. Platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and Udemy offer courses on a wide range of topics and can be accessed from anywhere on the planet with a decent internet connection. They are the logical evolution of the correspondence course realized thanks to the internet.

I won’t be so dramatic as Clay Shirky to say that MOOCs are going to turn institutional education on its head. I think he’s creating a false dichotomy by discussing them in this way. The truth is that many educational institutions are playing a big part in the growth of MOOCs. If I draw on my own recent experience with MOOCs, I’ve been in a Python course with Rice University professors on Coursera, and I did another on data visualization from the Knight Center for Journalism through UofT. Many of these courses bring much of the same information, and indeed the same instructors that you’ll find in universities.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that MOOCs are no replacement for in-class instruction. Posting a cry for help in a forum is hardly the same as raising your hand to ask a question. But MOOCs really don’t have to replace conventional education. They can be a supplement. Or, if you’re like me, a way for old (long-since graduated) dogs to learn new tricks. Or — and perhaps this is where the real impact lies — for a kid growing up in rural India or China, it can be a door to new worlds that’s suddenly as close as the nearest internet cafe.

For our readers who live in the world of startups, MOOCs have a lot to offer as well. The rich offerings of technical courses mean that suddenly your non-technical people can get become familiar with programming — not because you need those people to program themselves, but because it will help them see new possibilities, and thus work better with coders.

I’m curious to know how many of our readers have been taking advantage of MOOCs this year. If you have, do let us know what your experience has been like in the comments.

  • Michelle Katics

    We had a great experience taking a MOOC (Coursera: Gamification) this past year. Not only did it allow executives of our start-up company on two different continents to access the course, but we also networked with developers and designers. We got great feedback and ideas, and we have already hired four different classmates from three different countries for freelance work.

    It’s a bit unfair to compare to a traditional classroom, since many of the benefits come from working and learning in a new way. It should be noted that the diligence I learned in a traditional classroom served me well in succeeding in the MOOC!

  • Daithi

    I despise the butt-in-seat courses at traditional schools. They move way too slow. The instructor inevitably has to try and get most of his students to a similar starting point, so they spend a ton of time reviewing prerequisites, and if you already know the prereqs too bad. They also spend time hammering home basic concepts they feel are important, except I understood those basics the first time they said them and really didn’t need to hear them repeated four different ways.

    There has also been occasions where I was the dolt. I’ve had classes where I was so lost that I didn’t even know enough to know how to ask the instructor a question that would help me get on track. The first time this happened to me was a Computer Programming class 30 years ago, so I went a got a book on computer programming from the library and learned on my own. I’ve now been working as a software engineer all of my adult life.

    Most people think learning through MOOCS or on your own is inferior to learning in a traditional classroom environment, but I disagree. When you learn on your own you get to work at your own pace, but more importantly, you will run into problems and have no one to ask for help, and this is where real learning takes place. You will have to work hard to find those answers and they will stick with you far better than they do with the student who had the answers given to them. It is struggling and failing and then over coming where real learning occurs. I think it is the students who need a teacher to hold their hands and to guide their learning who are receiving the far more inferior education.

    The biggest problem with MOOCS is that you can’t earn credit for the courses. If I complete an online course in say Calculus from Stanford, and then take a proctored test to show I have the same level of knowledge as someone who took the classroom version then I should be eligible for credit. I can understand a top-tier university not wanting to grant credit (they are proving the courses online for free), but accrediting agencies like ACE should definitely be recognizing these courses for credit.

  • Sui Fai John Mak

    Hi Rick,
    Interesting to learn about your experience. I reckon the two MOOCs that you have participated are based on an instructivist pedagogy, and are principally working on a mastery learning model. There is not much difference from those information from the university. Here I have conceived such MOOCs in 2010 (and even in 2008) on what might be the future of education We are now facing the reality that MOOCs are fully implemented in many of the universities and HE institutions. Relating to the question: “Would MOOC replace traditional education (HE)?” I would say yes, based on the fact that many institutions would soon find that MOOCs could reach to a wider audience, thus boosting the enrollment and help in reducing the cost. Surely there are challenges including the accreditation and cheating in MOOCs. However, in the long run, institutions would gradually replace some of the courses with MOOCs in order to remain sustainable. There is simply no return back to the traditional education, as the cost is too high, where there aren’t enough students attending the course.

    I have also created a series of posts on MOOCs that highlight the trend on my blog.


  • Cindy

    Daithi – Very insightful comments especially the one about real learning coming from failing and then succeeding and I am a teacher. I also think there should be a way to earn credit. There could be a cost involved in crediting just like applying for licensure .

  • Rick Martin

    Yes, I imagine sooner or later many MOOCs will provide credit. Regardless, I think in many areas you don’t even need credit to reap the benefits. For example, a company hiring a programmer might be far more interested in your github page than in your paper certifications.

    In an case, very exciting times!

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