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When MOOCs Go Bad

Like many others, Via Meadia welcomes the development of MOOCs (massive open online courses) like those offered by Coursera and EdX. But there’s a problem: we’ve noticed that many of online ed’s biggest boosters have often never experienced an online class for themselves and so tend to overlook some serious problems in the platforms that are out there today. (VM staff, on the other hand, have been dabbling in everything from classes on game theory to computational investing.)

We tip our hats to Jill Barshay, however. She’s an education writer for the Hechinger Report who actually signed up for a Coursera course (about designing MOOCs, no less) and reported on the experience.

Unfortunately, her experience was a disaster. The course enrollment immediately overwhelmed the organizers. The technological platforms couldn’t handle the approximately 41,000 students who signed up for the class. Desperate attempts to fix these technical issues on the fly only made things worse, and the lack of guidance and poor communication from the professor made it nearly impossible for students to do anything. The course was such a mess that it was shut down after only six days.

Understandably, Barshay left the experience with a somewhat jaded view of MOOCs:

What did I learn in six days? Not everyone should try to be an online teacher. One of the great ideas behind online education is that there performers who can deliver riveting lectures, who are masters of explication. Wouldn’t it be great if the internet could deliver them to millions of people around the world? That’s what’s marvelous about some of Sal Khan’s mathematical videos. The problem is that almost anyone can set up an online course and thousands of people will enroll. Unfortunately, there’s no guide to tell you who’s good and who isn’t.

These concerns are real enough, and online ed boosters should always be sure to temper their enthusiasm. But qualifications work both ways: we shouldn’t take these early missteps as a sign that MOOCs are inevitably doomed.

At this early stage, professors and students are still experimenting, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Mistakes will be made, but the industry can learn from them.

Conditions on Christopher Columbus’ first journey to the New World weren’t very good, and the Santa Maria, the largest of his three ships, ran aground on Christmas Day and had to be abandoned. But that voyage marked the beginning of the age of transatlantic travel, not the end. In the same way, a lot of the ventures now being launched to capture the dynamism of online learning will run aground, and many of the students and professors engaged in these ventures are in for some rough rides.

But using the power of the internet to make education cheaper, easier and better is so important that one way or another we will figure out how to make it work. Change is coming to the world of higher ed.

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