In a recent post at The Conversation, Gavin Moodie makes the case that technology has a history of improving learning, not destroying it, and that MOOCs will continue that tradition.
Moodie reviews the history of previous technologies—like the printing press—changed, but didn’t kill, universities. This narrative is familiar to anyone who has kept up with MOOC discussions. In brief, books transformed the idea of the lecture—once students had access to books on their own, it was no longer necessary for instructors to read books to them. Lectures changed from “cursory” to “expository,” which included discussions of questions and problems. Books also made self-directed learning possible on a whole new level.
Printing also changed the role of libraries. Moodie notes that the pedagogical role for libraries emerged in the 18th century, when there were so many books that it became impractical for scholars to have personal copies of all of the ones they used on a regular basis. It’s this last point I want to focus on—during this time, bodies of knowledge became so big that it was impossible (or at least very expensive) for any one person’s collection to contain all of the essential information on a topic.
And that was in the 18th century. Today, bodies of knowledge are so big that it is nearly impossible for one person to even know it all, much less have it stored in a collection (digital or otherwise).
What does this have to do with MOOCs? I suggest that MOOCs can help higher education respond to the rapid growth of knowledge. Not only is there more knowledge than could possibly be contained in a single collection, but there is much more than could be conveyed in a single course or even by an academic department. This certainly isn’t a bad thing! But it does mean that the same course varies widely across institutions and instructors. This is one of the reasons digital badges and other more modular credentials are becoming more popular—they are tied directly to knowledge and skills so that employers and others can know exactly what a student who takes an “Intro to Programming” course, for example, knows how to do.
MOOCs can allow institutions to offer courses that they don’t otherwise. They also allow students not only to take courses that aren’t offered at their school, but also access content that the courses at their school may not cover. Many MOOCs cover the same topics, but from different perspectives (even on Coursera, there are several intro to programming courses, all of which are different). Students can use these courses to their advantage to gain a more complete understanding of a subject area.
Like Moodie said, technology will improve higher learning, not kill it.