MOOCs verus a science education

Are massively open online courses (MOOCs) going to revolutionize high education? Over at Pacific Standard, I argue that they won’t – at least not science education, and I suspect that’s true of most other areas as well.

The punch line:

Far from overturning the staid and overpriced traditional lecture model of education, MOOCs reinforce that model and conflict with recent research on how to teach technical subjects like science.

This doesn’t mean I think MOOCs are bad. They put great content out there, made freely accessible to anyone, and they certainly can become a component of higher education. But the teaching approach behind MOOCs reinforces the idea of education as primarily a transfer of knowledge, which is, unfortunately how too many of us think about education. We take a class and learn “the material”.

Carl Wieman, physics Nobelist and founder of the Carl Wieman Science Initiative at the University of British Columbia argues that we need to stop thinking about education as a situation in which:

The faculty member simply transfers their expertise, as if it were bits of information, to the receptive students, much like pouring water from a large jug into a set of small receptive cups.

A better way to think about education is to compare learning to what musicians, athletes, and dancers do with a coach or teacher. You don’t go to your music teacher to learn how to play some pieces; you go to learn how to play the instrument, and, hopefully, become independent as a musician. The same idea certainly applies in science education – we want students to practice scientific thinking, so that they can apply this to new situation.

As I argue at Pacific Standard, I think MOOCs are generally ill suited to do this, just as purely online piano lessons will be no replacement for the real thing.

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3 responses to “MOOCs verus a science education

  1. I agree that MOOCs are ill-suited to the back-and-forth exchange between teachers and students that is required for a solid education. Sadly, though, the same can be said about the way many real-life science courses are designed and taught. Intro to biochemistry, at 8am, with one professor droning on at a lectern while 500 students blink at him and highlight their notes? How is that interactive? Meager office hours and exhausted TAs don’t really compensate for that feeling of distance between teacher and student. Not to mention the fact there’s always so much focus on memorizing facts instead of figuring out how we got to accepting those ideas as fact in the first place, and that won’t be healthy for science in the long run.

    I love that you speak of “Science Coaches.” That’s how it needs to be. But I think that once we’ve gotten to college, it’s almost too late to start. Scientific thinking needs to be taught early and reinforced often, if we’re to hope for any degree of scientific literacy in this world.

    That said, I’m not entirely against MOOCs. I think they have their uses. A free MOOC can make an introductory-level course accessible to students who want to see if the subject interests them. I’m signed up for an epidemiology course that starts in the fall, because I’ve long thought it was a subject I’d enjoy, but I can’t afford to go back to school (and into debt) for something I only *might* like. If it inspires me, maybe I’ll make that investment after all.

    • My experience with my kids’s elementary/middle school classes is that at least some K-12 schools are way ahead of universities in ditching the lecture model and adopting newer teaching methods. My kids rarely just sit and listen to lectures (although in middle school my oldest does get some experience listening to a lecture – still a valuable life skill). They spend most of their class time doing tasks that would have been homework when I was in school, except because they are in class, the experience includes much more immediate feedback.

      Wieman argues that, even though there must be some up-front cost/effort by universities that switch to this newer approach to teaching, once you’ve made the switch, this new approach doesn’t really require more money/time investment than the old style, and the results are much better.

      Even better, many groups on the leading edge of science teaching (like Carl Wieman, or Sally Elgin at Wash U, through HHMI) are designing courses and making resources available that can be picked up by teachers at any university who want to modernize their teaching.

  2. I agree that Science should be more about thinking and doing rather than reciting; transformative rather than transmission in modern educational parlance. Online courses of the traditional type, such as those I am (miserably) taking via University of Central Missouri are bad enough (damn near worthless but they make the university $$). MOOCs can be no better. They are fine for “fun” and they might help raise the overall level of science appreciation but they’re more like watching Nova or Nature than a real Science course.

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