About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Back To School

Several months ago I went "back to school" (virtually speaking) to study something I actually WANTED to learn.  My portal is the website Coursera, which is a consortium of universities offering free online courses in a wide variety of topics (the acronym fashionable among academics for this phenomenon is MOOC (massive open online course) pronounced "MOOK").  Now that I'm at the half way mark through the 14 week class, I thought it would be useful to record my thoughts and impressions.

The course I'm taking  is offered by the University of Virginia (UVA) and titled The Modern World: Global History Since 1760. Taught by Philip Zelikow, White Miller Burkett Professor of History, the course is being taught simultaneously on the UVA campus (see here for a news clip about the course).  For his online students, Professor Zelikow delivers roughly seven tutorials per week in the form of videos recorded in his office that last between six and 35 minutes.  At the end of each week there is an online quiz.  There are also electronic bulletin boards for students to open discussion threads in which Zelikow and his teaching assistant will occasionally comment.

The weekly quizzes are multiple choice and there are no exams or papers.  This is certainly understandable given the work that would be involved to read essays and papers (about 40,000 students around the world have registered; it would be interesting to know how many stick it through all 14 weeks).  All that is really tested, then, is the student's aggregation of knowledge, with no real evaluation of understanding (which would involve essay questions) nor the ability to apply what is actually learned (which would involve writing papers).  UVA does not offer credit for completion of the course, although students receive a certificate upon its successful completion.

Different schools have a different approach to MOOCs, even those under the same umbrella.  For instance, this course runs the same period as the "live" version and is about as good a virtual reproduction as can be afforded to the university with minimal cost.  Other courses offered by Coursera last as few as six weeks, and seem more like advertisements for their extension school courses.  One course (not through Coursera) is actually a barely disguised vehicle for selling a book the school publishes.

So far, I don't see MOOCs as being quite as revolutionary as some hope (or fear).  They are better oriented towards more technical, quantitative material.  The only interaction with other students occurs through bulletin boards (Coursera does provide some networking for local meetups but this seems little used) without the give and take of a live class.  Absent a serious commitment by universities to hire many more TAs, there seems to be a limit on the quality of learning that a MOOC can provide as mentioned above.  If a university were to hire the quantity of graders needed, student fees would likely be involved, and that would probably curtail participation dramatically, especially for international students.  For those seeking such an option, there are already extension schools even at big name universities.

At the end of the day, what such courses might do is force universities, many of whom are convening committees to study the challenges posed by MOOCs, to reexamine the classroom and academic environment they are providing their own students.  In many cases, e.g., intro to accounting, I'm guessing they're really offering in-person MOOCs with massive student packed halls, materials taught mostly by TAs, and grading by problem set.  It's these sorts of experiences that are most easily replicated by MOOCs and therefore most threatened by them.  The small history seminars and English lit. classes, not so much.  

If competition from MOOCs force universities into bringing back quality, interactive learning as opposed to one way lecturing, they will have contributed significantly to higher education.  What really needs to happen in education is that employers, students and parents need to start focusing on education rather than credentialing.  There is significant evidence that higher education teaches too little and costs too much, but so long as the premium is placed on the paper (and the institutional name on the paper) rather than demonstrated learning, this situation won't get any better.
The "live" version of my class is taking place here: Nau Hall at the University of Virginia

This is where the virtual version takes place...