I just listed to “More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall is Obsolete,” an Intelligence Squared debate about the role that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other forms of online learning should play in higher education. The panelists arguing for the motion were Anant Agawal (founder of edX) and Ben Nelson (CEO of the Minerva Project). They were opposed by Jonathan Cole (Provost of Columbia University) and Rebecca Schuman (an adjunct professor and education writer). While the debate didn’t sway my opinion either way, I think that the panelists made some really interesting points that are worth thinking about:
- The majority of current MOOC students already have bachelor’s degrees. This fact runs counter to the narrative of MOOCs being a democratizing influence that makes a college education accessible to more people. This could potentially speak to MOOCs being best suited to people who are already well-practiced learners. If this is true, then MOOCs might be best utilized with upperclassmen, rather than with younger students who might require more guidance and support as they learn how to learn.
- Anonymity and limited interaction between the professor and students are not the sole province of MOOCs. Large lecture courses at brick and mortars can be every bit as bad in terms of facilitating student learning. That being said, I think that accompanying a large lecture (or potentially a MOOC) with carefully planned discussions and labs led by motivated TAs can help with this problem.
- Small classes with intense interaction between students and the professor are not the sole province of brick and mortar institutions. The Minerva Project seeks to replicate the seminar experience by having small online classes (less than 20 students) that interact with each other and the teacher via webcams.
Overall, I found the debate to be stimulating and well worth listening to. Given that the debate about the value of online learning and courses is an evolving one – due to rapidly improving technology and to the increasing digitalization of our social interactions – I’m sure that I’ll be revisiting these topics in later posts.