Online education at a massive scale has become commonplace, and that makes me worried—for learners, for the higher education industry, for the public good.
Let’s assume that’s not going to change. And for now, let’s set aside the hard questions about access, quality, the role of higher education, for-profit education, the value of professors and the curricula they develop in concert at individual schools.
For learners, there is another critical issue that hasn’t been put solidly on the table. It’s simple. Classrooms are conversational spaces. Learning happens through student collaboration, community and conversation, far more than it happens in lectures and tests. MOOCs replicate a lot of the worst things about traditional school, and the one thing they fail to reproduce is the only one that really matters. Online learning in whatever forms it takes needs well designed conversational spaces too. That means, at minimum, attention to group sizes and composition within large populations, useful moderation, an innovative conversational structure that doesn’t rely on threaded comments. This is a non-trivial problem, and it’s the most important one for technologists to tackle.
The real promise of online education is the idea that we can design educational experiences that put collaboration at the center, that let students connect meaningfully, whether they are working through established learning channels or in collaborations of their own making. This is a chance to do something amazing.
C’mon technologists. Bring it.