All the public conversations right now around higher education are getting it wrong. Everyone’s talking about the free access to college courses that Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) are creating. They talk about the potentially detrimental effects platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and MITx, might have on the higher education industry. Whether or not these online classes count for anything in terms of credentials. The economic value of college itself. That’s all important. But no one is talking about learning.MOOCs work like this. Online, you can take a class taught by a professor from a leading university. Harvard, Stanford, MIT. Any field you choose. Comp Sci to Ancient History, take your pick. You get custom-recorded lectures, auto-graded quiz assignments, and in some cases, peer-evaluated written work. In some cases if you do well enough, you can get a “certificate of completion.” They courses are run in realtime, with assignments due on a weekly basis and lectures released in order, also on a weekly basis. Sound a lot like school? That’s because it’s trying to be, and that’s a huge mistake, a sadly missed opportunity.
The model here is designed from the perspective of putting teaching online. That’s not the future of education. No one is talking about learning because the people who are talking here and designing systems are education reformers. Reform is not nearly enough to change education now. We need a revolution. We have to start thinking of all this as putting learning online.
What we’re getting now in open classes detaches teaching from physical classrooms and tuition-based enrollment. What MOOCs should be working toward is more radical—detaching learning from the linear processes of school. That’s not the goal of the designers of MOOCs, but it absolutely should be.
What would this detached model of learning with access to the resources of school look like? It looks like the forms of independent learning I’ve been researching and writing about for Don’t Go Back to School. People getting the resources to learn what they want to learn, in contexts in which that knowledge or skill is necessary to the learner, or something they are passionate to learn. Some people learn very well in the constrained modes of school, and that’s fine. But the model of independent learning allows people to learn the way they need and want to. As one among many examples, let’s say you’re taking a class in modern poetry. You’re doing this because you like to read it and want to understand its context, or there’s one poem you love and you want to read more. Neither of these is necessarily well served by a linear class structure. What if you could start with the poem you love and find your way backward and forward and sideways from there, using syllabi or timelines and lectures to contextualize the poem. You could find sideways paths to other contexts of the poem, history, what’s going on in art, or politics, to other writers and poetry. You end up with a broad, insightful, deep, and pleasurable learning experience and outcome. You remember what you’ve learned. That’s what independent learning is like, and that’s what school disallows. That’s the assumption we need to model open education on.
This is important for learners’ experience and for feeding their motivation. It’s also important for a changing job market. Increasingly, at the leading edge of hiring in some businesses and at the center of hiring for other professions, the ability to learn on the job, independently and quickly, is the most crucial qualification.
MOOCs have other challenges besides ditching linear formats. The most important condition for independent learning reported in my research is learning in the context of a community. MOOC designers make only a token effort to incorporate the social aspect of learning, with giant discussion forums that produce crowds, not learning communities.
If MOOC designers start taking a lesson or two from the way learners learn outside of school, they could drive genuinely useful reform in higher education. Right now they’re just putting vinegary old wine in giant new bottles. That’s not enough.