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.