educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Parents of college-bound kids, do you know what a MOOC is?

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No matter how plain-speaking we think we are, we all have our own form of professional jargon. I guess because I’m a word person, I find it interesting when I unwittingly fall into the jargon of my world and realize outsiders have no idea what I’m talking about. For instance, everywhere I go lately in my world of writing and technology, I encounter MOOCs. I say “MOOC” all the time, and I get about 10 stories/news items a week in my In Box about them. Yet, when I utter “MOOC” outside of work, people look at me strangely.

Jargon-obsessions aside, if you have kids who are going to college, you might want to get up to speed on MOOCs. A MOOC, terrible acronym that it is, is a Massive Open Online Course. Some of these courses have 100,000 people, thus Massive. By definition, anyone can sign up, thus Open. These courses are Online, on the Web. The idea of a “Course” is a little more slippery. I’ll get to that in a moment.

MOOCs have been primarily set up by rich universities that have partnered with companies like Udacity or Coursera. The universities provide content, and the companies make the online MOOC delivery platform.

What is the goal? Well, it depends. In some ways, there is the lovely goal of knowledge sharing. There is something noble about opening the knowledge of your institution to the world, and online learning has helped some people do just that. But it’s a little less noble to mass produce education for money, and even less again for rich institutions to create courses that other, less rich institutions will be forced to use as outsourced education (this is close to already happening, although some places have fought back, like San Jose did).

In MOOCs, high-quality video-type materials are often used to deliver course content. Students can view the material at their own pace and have access to a variety of interactions, although most of those interactions are peer-to-peer (with 100,000 classmates, your time with the professor is going to be slim). There are often some kinds of assessments — perhaps tests or quizzes — associated with these experiences.

You should know what a MOOC is because legislatures (like California’s) are beginning to contemplate if a MOOC can be taken for college credit. Whether this is a revolutionary step in education or just a faddish blip on the higher ed radar screen remains to be seen.

No need to get all up in arms — just yet. Think about it. The idea of a massive educational experience isn’t new, having roots in old radio educational programming. When I run into MOOC naysayers, which sometimes happens when I look in the mirror, I ask, “What have you taught yourself how to do on the Internet?” The person in my mirror has several answers, including having performed at least one medical procedure based solely on Web instructions; names are withheld in this case to protect the innocent and avert lawsuits, but the procedure was 100% successful (my kid’s arm is fine).

A self-motivated learner may do well in a MOOC. And, my own quackery aside, I regularly enhance and sometimes build knowledge about many topics through not-even-all-that-earnest Web research.

Viewing these massive, impersonal learning experiences as real “courses” changes the conversation. People are crying foul, saying that this cannot be.

But the real problem may be that we have been set up for this kind of higher ed experience in many other ways. As a number of people have pointed out, colleges have been doing lots of things to make education more, well, efficient for years. “Hey, here’s your course in a lecture hall with 500 of your closest friends” and “Your courses at supposedly elite institutions will be taught by adjuncts who make $2000 per course and teach at four other institutions in your city” and that kind of thing. As this piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education related, institutions and their faculty are having trouble articulating the logic against MOOCs because we in higher ed have been complicit in many practices that discourage good teaching and student-teacher interactions for a long while.

If you have kids preparing to go to college, you might want to ask some better questions. Look past all the pep rally campus visit hoopla and swag and ask someone straight-up, “Who will teach my kid’s classes and how will it be done?”

I’m not against MOOCs, and, in fact, I am a major proponent of online learning. But you should be aware what you might be getting into. If your idea of education involves your child’s ability to interact regularly with instructors who are local and well supported, you should make sure that is what in fact will be happening in the courses you are paying for.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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4 Responses to “Parents of college-bound kids, do you know what a MOOC is?”

  1. I’m more worried about about another college-related abbreviation: EFC. Which is, oh, about 100%.

  2. MOOC is a funny word.
    what you write makes me giggle.
    writing is funny.
    my friend billy’s funny.
    he should be a word.

  3. thanks Lou!
    or should i just call you the next Stan Lee?!
    what if you changed your name to Lou Lee?
    and then if you married Lee, his name would be Lee Lee!



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