Friday, April 13, 2012

Learning from MOOCs

March 14, 2012 - 2:26pm

Audrey Watters

MOOCs. They're all the rage these days, it seems -- so much so I'd make them an early pick for one of the major ed-tech (startup) trends for 2012. Of course, describing MOOCs as an "ed-tech startup trend" and associating it with 2012 overlooks the history of Massive Open Online Courses that's not associated with Silicon Valley startups -- heck, that's not associated with Silicon Valley at all.

But it's the story of the "success" of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence class last fall that seems to dominate the mainstream narrative surrounding MOOCs. The 160,000 students that enrolled in Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun's class was certainly a watershed moment -- most of all for Thrun, who announced at the DLD conference in Munich that he couldn't go back to teaching at Stanford and was founding his own online education startup, Udacity.
So here are the ingredients for "democratizing higher education" according to the NYT: access to the Internet, a lack of access to elite universities, motivation. Then you're off and running on a "path toward sophisticated skills and high-paying jobs." Considering that the Stanford MOOCs and those offered by Udacity and now MITx all focus on computer science-related courses, that seems to be the focus.
For those that have participated in earlier MOOCs -- particularly those offered by professors outside Silicon Valley and outside the CS department -- the new MOOCs might feel like a different beast altogether. Indeed, at a recent SXSW panel on massive online learning communities, P2PU director Phillip Schmidt called this the "parallel reality" of MOOCs. There is a certain "through the looking glass feel" to the discussions of MOOCs when they focus just on the Stanford experiments, too. As George Siemens has argued in a recent post/presentation,
Our MOOCs value ontology first and epistemology second. We have an ideology of developing learners who create and share artifacts of their learning, control their own learning, and own their own spaces of learning. In the process, we emphasize social networked learning (connectivism). We make sense of complex knowledge by connecting to others, creating and making “stuff”, and engaging in discourse and interacting with the ideas of others. The Stanford MOOCs are more traditional as they emphasize knowledge development not ontological development. The primary innovation of these MOOCs relates to scale and economics: the numbers of learners that can take a course (currently for no fee, but I think that will be short-lived).
The emphasis Siemens recently wrote that "It is important to realize that MOOCs are not (yet) an answer to any particular problem. They are an open and ongoing experiment." (Arguably Udacity hopes to be an answer to the problem of recruiting talented workers into the tech industry.) How will this "open and ongoing experiment" proceed now that alongside the institutional and cross-institutional MOOCs, we have a whole cadre of for-profit startups?

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