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Bruno: It's OK When Online Courses Are Traditional

DeborahplayVia Andy Rotherham, Dan Butin has a piece in eLearn Magazine that is rightly critical of the idea that "massive open online courses" (MOOCs) represent a real paradigm shift in higher education.

As he points out, MOOCs mostly just offer the potential for a more efficient and egalitarian distribution of the same higher education resources currently offered at elite universities. That's potentially very important, but it distinctly does not involve reconceptualizing teaching in higher education. Butin thinks this fundamental traditionalism is a problem, arguing that MOOC projects like MITx "have replicated all of the problems of the traditional industrial-age model of lecture-based teaching and testing that has minimal linkage to student outcomes."

This fundamental traditionalism in MOOCs doesn't really worry me, however.

The first reason I'm not worried is because I haven't actually seen much research indicating that lectures are especially ineffective for learning. Indeed, some researchers have even found that "traditional lecture style teaching is associated with significantly higher student achievement" compared to many alternatives. 

Nor do I agree with Butin that it is "sad" that "much of teaching...is highly prescribed and structured". While students at the college level may be expert enough to benefit from less-structured instruction, the research indicates that more guidance in instruction is generally better.

Like Butin, I would like to see MOOCs offer more immediate feedback and fine-grained responsiveness to students, and think they have tremendous potential in that regard. (Think Khan Academy but more agile and aimed at higher education.)

In some ways that would be a progressive educational advance, but at the same time it's not all that different from the kind of educational paradigm B.F. Skinner was advocating almost a century ago and is therefore, in its own way, very traditional. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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My grandfather wanted, after retirement, to take a few classes solely for personal interest, but in a traditional college, he couldn't hear the instructor. He's partially deaf after years of working on Air Force planes during the Korean War. These online classes are perfect for him. He can put the volume where he needs it to be and still enjoy learning something new. I'm thankful for Harvard and MIT for opening up many of their classes to everyone.

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