MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

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George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 1, Pages 16-17

MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

Many believe that the future of college (and even high school) education in the United States lies in the expansion of online education, especially of a new system known as “Massive Open Online Education”, or MOOCs. The definition of a MOOC is to be found in its four elements:

  • It is designed to enrol a massive number of students (early courses course have had 100,000-lus students)
  • Even though MOOCs are, at least so far, offered by traditional universities (e.g. Stanford), they are open to anyone
  • MOOCs are exist only online and accessible to anyone with a computer and able to access the Internet
  • And, of course, their main function is to educate

While some the ideas behind MOOCs are traceable to the early 1960s. The first true MOOC began in 2008, but the big breakthrough came in 2011 with three Stanford University MOOCs each enrolling more than 100,000 students and in nearly every country in the world. A corporation, Coursea, where enrollment passed two million students, late 2012) emerged out of this at Stanford and today other companies (Udacity, edX) and many other universities are eager to offer MOOCs. There is a widespread feeling that MOOCs are going to spread rapidly and in many ways dramatically alter higher education. A major driving force is the increasing costs of traditional higher education and the fact that MOOCs are able to reach a far greater number of students at much lower cost (one instructor can teach those 100,000 plus students). MOOCs also utilizes advanced modern technologies rather than traditional, and rather primitive, face-to-face interaction in small classes, or the far less personal large lectures, characteristic of traditional college education.

One MOOC begun in 2012 is an introduction to sociology taught by Professor Mitch Duneier at Princeton University and offered to about 40,000 students worldwide on Coursea (Lewin, 2012a) , along with about 200 other courses. Like all others involved in these early courses, Prof. Duneier is feeling his way through the various aspects of the course. As in most of the early MOOCs, less than 5% of the students who began the course completed it and took the final exam. However, there was lots of student involvement and Duneier found: “Within  three weeks, I had more feedback on my sociological ideas than I’d had in my whole teaching career” (Lewin, 2012a). Feedback came through global exchanges on an online discussion, a video chat room, as well as study groups that formed throughout the world (e.g. Katmandu, Nepal). Duneier was also delighted to find that he could discusss highly sensitive sociological topics such as the lack of public restrooms for those who sold things on the street (a topic that Duneier [2000] wrote about in a famous sociological monograph, Sidewalk).

However, there are a variety of problems associated with MOOCs beyond the fact that such a small percentage of students complete courses. One is the difficulties involved in creating a web-based course that has the production values that students are accustomed to in movies, videos and online content (although one instructor has figured out ”how to make PowerPoint dance” [Lewin, 2013: A10]). Another, is that the requirements of being a good teacher mediated by the computer and the Internet are different from those required in the classroom (and few are trained, or have any experience, in teaching in this way) and for many it will be a difficult if not impossible transition. Then there is the issue of evaluating the work of thousands, potentially many thousands of students, and the fact that this will overwhelm the instructor, even with many assistants. One of the ways this is being dealt with, and it creates many other problems, is to have the students evaluate themselves.  Yet to be determined is how students can earn degrees through MOOCs, as well as how colleges will be able to collect fees and tuition and earn profits from what will ultimately be an expensive undertaking (Lewin, 2013). In terms of the latter, venture capitalists seem to think that the money will be there since they are already investing millions in MOOCs. Finally, there is the worry that this will lead to an even more stratified educational system. On the one hand, students in less developed countries, and in community colleges and lower-tier colleges and universities in the United States, will be exposed to elite educators and courses thereby democratizing education and reducing inequality in education. On the other hand, those in less developed countries and lower-tier educational institutions will be increasingly, if not totally, reliant on MOOCs and similar modes of delivering mass education (e.g., Udemy which allows professors to put their own courses online). In contrast, students in developed countries, especially in their elite universities, will continue to get highly expensive and more effective face-to-face education.

References

Lewin, Tamar. “College of Future Could be Come One, Come All.” New York Times November 19, 2012:

Lewin, Tamar. “Students Rush to Web Classes, But Profits May be Much Later.” New York Times January 7, 2013: A1, A10.

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MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

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George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.

Chapter 16, Pages 666-667

MOOCs and the McDonaldization of Education

                It will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid McDonaldization on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In fact, we can expect a far higher level of McDonaldization on MOOCs than in a variety of traditional educational settings that are, themselves, increasingly highly McDonaldized. Why?

For one thing, while it is possible to invent each MOOC class anew every semester, there will be a strong tendency to develop a script that can be reused, perhaps modified slightly, each year. To provide predictability in the evaluation of students, detailed “rubrics”, or standardized scoring systems, will be created, provided to students, and used to evaluate them. The more standardized and detailed the rubric, the less room for unpredictability, for creativity, on the part of both students and teachers. MOOCs will tend to be prepackaged systems with a series of short segments (often no more 8-12 minutes of lecture), embedded questions, and immediate (albeit automatic) feedback. In addition, as MOOC classes evolve, they are going to require higher and higher production values to rival those in the movies, TV or Internet performances of one kind or another. Once corporations invest serious amounts of money in techniques to improve the quality of MOOCs, there will be a strong interest in using those courses over and over in order to maximize the return on investment. Furthermore, MOOC classes are likely to be videotaped, or otherwise recorded, so that each class can be repeated semester after semester. Even if this were to be resisted at the major universities (e.g., Stanford) and by the academic stars most likely, at least at the present, to teach these classes, the classes would still be taped so that they could be used, probably for a charge, at lesser colleges and universities. This would be highly predictable with each academic setting that uses the prerecorded classes getting exactly the same content. While some interactive elements could be added to any prerecorded class, it would not even have the limited spontaneity of live MOOC classes.

The efficiency of many McDonaldized systems, including MOOCs, is heightened by substituting non-human for human technology. In the case of MOOCs, this is especially clear in the need to use computer-graded exams rather than more subjective essay exams graded by instructors. Efficiency is also increased in McDonaldized systems by “putting customers to work” rather than having the work done by paid employees (Ritzer, 2013). Obviously, it is more efficient from the point of view of workers, and cheaper from the perspective of the system that employs them, to have unpaid customers do such work. In the case of education in general, and MOOCs especially, there is a strong tendency to have the “customers” in the educational system, the students, do work performed by teachers in other contexts. For example, it is impossible for instructors to respond to thousands of online comments and questions. Instead, through the use of “crowd-sourcing”, students may be allowed to vote up or down on each question and comment. Based on student voting, instructors can focus on those issues that are considered important by the crowd; rather than the instructor, the class does the work of deciding what’s important (Lewin, 2012).  After the video presentation of a lecture, much of the educational process is left to the students either on their own or through in-person or online groups and other forms of interaction. The best example of this is the grading process. In classes of 100,000 students, or more, instructors, no matter how many assistants they might have, are not going to be able to do the grading. Thus, much of the grading is left up to the students themselves. Each student’s exam or paper might be read by, say, five other students with the student’s grade being the average of the five evaluations.

MOOCs tend to limit, if not eliminate, the processes that might serve to make education less McDonaldized. In his work on British education, Wilkinson (2010) argues, following up on some of my ideas (Ritzer, 2010), that the way to do this is to focus on the everyday, face-to-face, activities of teaching rather than developing large-scale systems- like MOOCs- to create a meaningful educational experience. As Wilkinson (2010: 157) puts it, the answer lies in finding ways of ”making ‘excellence’ enjoyable, engaging and rewarding for both children and education workers”. In my view, solution lies in focusing on “everyday activities of education making them not only the center of concern but where the true spectacle of education- excellent teachers finding new and exciting ways to educate students- is to be found” (Ritzer, 2010: 149). The problem with MOOCs from this perspective is that they move in exactly the opposite- and wrong- direction in focusing on creating a new system of education rather than working within the traditional system of everyday face-to-face education where excellent teachers engage with students in collectively finding what works for a specific issue at any given moment. MOOCs lack that direct contact and when classes are prerecorded there is little or no possibility for creative mutual engagement between teacher and student.

References

Lewin, Tamar. “College of the Future Could Be Come One, Come All”. New York Times November 19, 2012.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society 7th, 20th Anniversary Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Ritzer, George, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.

Wilkinson, Gary. “McSchools for McWorld? Mediating Global Pressures With a McDonaldizing Education Policy Response.” In George Ritzer, ed. McDonaldization: The Reader, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013: 149-157.