Can massive open online courses (MOOCs) help us change the world?

“Life is the gift of nature; but beautiful living is the gift of wisdom”
— Greek adage

This past fall I signed up for an online class from edX, which is the new online extension school started by Harvard and MIT (and now includes other schools). I was excited because edX classes are free, and I wanted to see what college age kids were learning in computer science. The class I selected was “Software as a Service” (SaaS) from Berleleyx, and it was to have lab exercises on Amazon’s elastic compute cloud, teach object-oriented programming using Ruby, and apply an Agile development methodology. Fun!

Unfortunately, I became a statistic because I was unable to complete the course. At the time I signed up, I was working for a local client and able to do class work in the evening. But, my life is not static. By the time the class started, I was on assignment in PA on a troubled project, which left me with no energy for online learning. It seems that my story is not unique because MOOCs have a high drop out rate, at least according to an article in MIT Technology Review by Nicholas Carr. In my case, the problem was not lack of desire, but simply my changing circumstances; the classes seem geared more for young people than for a middle-aged guy who travels every week for a busy job, while raising three college age kids. Nevertheless, I remain enthusiastic and plan to try again.

Online courses are not new; the MIT Open Courseware site has been around for years, and much professional learning has moved to an online format. However, these early attempts were limited by existing technology, and were, in my opinion, less exciting than those produced today. The lectures are video taped, so you just watch, read the book, and do the homework. I liked the edX experience better because there is more student engagement. The format breaks talks into brief segments, interspersed with exercises, and the opportunity exists to interact with other students. One advantage of the old format is the ability to work at your own pace without a deadline; with edX you need to keep up with the class and finish on time. Nevertheless, I think that it is more fun to learn with others than to slog through difficult material on your own. Besides, there is a much richer pallet of technology (at relatively low-cost) to support online learning today, including data streaming, social networking, and “advanced analytics” (clever algorithms that can process vast amounts of data to improve the learning experience).

Let me talk for a moment about the scope of this trend. Carr’s article lists six e-institutions (there are more) and for just those there are more than 3 million people enrolled. When I signed up with edX, there were a handful of courses, mostly in computer science. Today, even a few months later, I find 27 courses, including a few liberal arts selections such as CB22x: The Ancient Greek Hero, ER22x Justice, or 14.73x The Challenges of Global Poverty.  Coursera, one of the for profit alternatives, offers over 200 courses. Doing a completely unscientific survey of other e-institutions (Coursera, Udacity, The Open University, etc.), my observation is that the order of emergence of these classes is computer science, engineering, applied science, and finally liberal arts and pure science.

This trend is in its infancy, but is growing quickly. No one yet knows the exact strengths and weaknesses of open courseware, or how successful this trend will be. One thing for sure is that this trend represents a big change to education, and with change comes controversy.  Carr’s article, The Crisis in Higher Education, covers this part well. Or, read the New York Times article College of Future Could Be Come One, Come All. Or, do a web search on “MOOCs” and you’ll find endless hits for your reading pleasure. I’m not an education expert, so I’m not going to weigh in too much on pros / cons of online vs. classroom education. What I will say is that I think that this is a disruptive innovation that is here to say. Further, I suspect that the designers of MOOC systems are right when they say that online education won’t make classrooms obsolete, but that the nature of teaching will change in the future.

If we accept that this change is coming then how do we use it to our best advantage? One point that disturbed me in Carr’s article was when Sebastian Thrun, professor of Artificial Intelligence at Stanford and one of the founders of Udacity (a for profit e-institution) said that “the traditional university is an outdated artifact and believed Udacity will offer a new form of lifelong education better suited to the modern labor market.” Ouch — this comment on the labor market makes me shiver. Over the past 10 years, I’ve witnessed software engineering, at least for some people, degrade from a noble, intellectual, and challenging pursuit to the equivalent of working in the drudgery of salt mines. All this change comes from companies that have transformed what was once a creative activity into a manufacturing line using ever cheaper labor. If we teach people only what they need to know for the job, then we will effectively rob people of the ability to act as citizens. If MOOCs are to help society then MOOCs should focus on expanding wisdom as well as knowledge.

To be citizens In the 21st century, our children all need to know basic modern science. The physics taught to most high school students brings them up to date as of about 150 years ago. To put this another way, the physics that most high school students learn was known by 1865, and we are essentially not teaching students much of anything beyond that. College is not much better. Watch this open letter to the president: Physics Education on you tube, which provides a fantastic summary of this educational gap. As this video points out, how would you feel if your children graduated from high school not knowing about WWI, WWII, the civil rights movement, or the fall of the Soviet Union?

Remember Star Trek 2009, when young Spock was in school learning the Vulcan way? Well, our children of the 21st century need to be trained the “Human Way”: every child should grow up with a basic understanding about our world and our universe. Our children should feel closely connected to every person on the planet, knowing that we are all genetically 99.9% identical. They should know that stars hidden by the sun will be visible during an eclipse due to the bending of space and time. They should appreciate the navigation system that guides their car is constantly adjusting clocks because time in the satellites overhead passes more quickly than here on earth (without adjusting clocks as required by Einstein’s general relativity, navigation would fail in about 2 minutes). Every time they answer their cell phone, they should think about 20th century physics and quantum mechanics. Our children need to know that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old and the earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Finally, they should appreciate the profound impact that evolution by natural selection has had on biology and on our understanding of our world and ourselves. It is projected that MOOCs will use massive databases and sophisticated learning algorithms to essentially provide one-on-one instruction to the masses. Perhaps we can leverage MOOCs to teach people the basic knowledge they need to live on this planet and have meaningful discussions about things that matter to all of us.

Why is this knowledge important to be a citizen? According to a gallop poll 46% of the US population believes that human beings were created in the present form within the last 10,000 years. How can we have a serious discussion about policy issues, like climate change or energy policy, with people who don’t accept that coal formed millions of years ago or who believe that coal was formed as a result of Noah’s flood? These anti-science beliefs jeopardize U.S. Democracy because policy must be debated using a common set of facts. There can be no meaningful discussion when facts are ignored and replaced by false opinion. We have elected officials who hold anti-science views. One example is Senate Science Committee member Sen. Marco Rubio (R) who, when asked a question on the earth’s age, answered “I’m not a scientist, man” followed by “I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians.” Or, consider Congressman Paul Broun (R-Ga.) who said that evolution and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of Hell.”

Democracy won’t work if almost half the population is ignorant of basic science. Unfortunately, science is not the only education issue.  Some fear that the emerging common core state standards could be a miscalculation if the pendulum swings too far by replacing literature with bland non-fiction. The well-developed mind needs to read philosophy, novels, poems, and stories as well as memos, technical manuals, and train schedules. Knowing how to read a factory procedure won’t help people evaluate complex social and ethical issues needed to answer ballot questions in the voting booth. I’m sure that there are powerful interests that would like our education system to focus on producing an inexpensive labor force, and may not mind if people don’t have the knowledge to make meaningful choices as voters, or be active citizens.  Nevertheless, we the people will benefit by providing a more complete and broad-based education.

Some college professors have said to me that education should focus on “critical thinking” and not “big book knowledge.” Carr’s article, however, says that “many graduates display little evidence that college improved their critical-thinking skills.” This conclusion is consistent with my experience working with recent college graduates. Critical thinking is important, and the fact that students are not demonstrating it is disturbing. Nevertheless, we also need every person armed with basic knowledge. Our children need to think critically and have a solid foundation of facts.

We need a national goal of teaching modern scientific facts to every student. Boy Scouts need to know basic outdoor skills, lawyers need to pass a bar exam, so why not expect all people to have a common foundation of knowledge that is a basis of citizenship?  This is not an elitist suggestion, it is quite the opposite:  knowledge opens the doors of opportunity and access for people. Knowing the age of the earth is a start, but it’s not enough. I don’t have a complete list, so I’d welcome suggestions. What does every person need to know about our world? Beyond science, let’s not forsake philosophy, art, literature, music and all the other subjects that make life interesting and pleasurable.

OK, massive online courses won’t change the world by themselves. However, if we work together to establish sensible policies that complement this disruptive technological change, then together we can ensure that all people will be happy and active citizens in the 21st century.

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6 thoughts on “Can massive open online courses (MOOCs) help us change the world?

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