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MOOC Backlash
NYT: Higher-Ed Revolution Still On Course

In a tweet this morning, Foreign Policy’s Dan Drezner took us to task for our support of MOOCs, linking to Tamar Lewin’s NYT piece on setbacks for the MOOC movement. The piece discusses two examples critics have used to attack the technology: the dismal failure of a group of math MOOCs offered at San Jose State University, and the controversial profile of Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, in which he admits to having doubted the quality of his company’s early offerings.

Yet the picture is not nearly as bleak as this account makes it seem. San Jose State, for example, responded to its failure this past Spring by tweaking its model in a Summer course, which was a success. And despite Thrun’s misgivings about Udacity’s past courses, he isn’t abandoning the project, but rather changing its focus to subjects that can be easily taught through MOOCs and are more closely linked to the job market. Lewin’s account becomes considerably more optimistic as it goes on, noting that colleges continue to push forward with their MOOC projects despite recent setbacks, often by combining online coursework with various forms of in-classroom learning:

Whatever happens at San Jose, even the loudest critics of MOOCs do not expect them to fade away. More likely, they will morph into many different shapes: Already, San Jose State is getting good results using videos from edX, a nonprofit MOOC venture, to supplement some classroom sessions, and edX is producing videos to use in some high school Advanced Placement classes. And Coursera, the largest MOOC company, is experimenting with using its courses, along with a facilitator, in small discussion classes at some United States consulates.

Some MOOC pioneers are working with a different model, so-called connectivist MOOCs, which are more about the connections and communication among students than about the content delivered by a professor.

“It’s like, ‘The MOOC is dead, long live the MOOC,’ ” said Jonathan Rees, a Colorado State University-Pueblo professor who has expressed fears that the online courses would displace professors and be an excuse for cuts in funding. “At the beginning everybody talked about MOOCs being entirely online, but now we’re seeing lots of things that fall in the middle, and even I see the appeal of that.”

And even this isn’t such a huge shift; it has always been pretty clear that MOOCs would eventually incorporate in-person teaching with their online content.This may sound less revolutionary than a world of entirely remote courses, but there’s still plenty of room for disruption within this framework. Classroom teaching, for example, need not be performed by professors; professional teacher’s assistants or even personal tutors could do that more cheaply and just as effectively. This, in turn, could allow top colleges to expand their reach by opening small teaching centers around the country, without the need for expensive investments in buildings or expensive faculty. Coursera is already experimenting with a program like this in foreign countries. In a higher-ed world still dominated by professors with lifetime tenure, this still counts as a significant change.

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