MOOC Doesn’t Reinvent Education

A while ago, MOOC was the hype. People kept talking about it, and some think it is going to make education equally accessible for anyone and reinvent education. Well, it’s not.

It’s not because of the completion rate. MOOC was criticized for how low it is: for a typical Coursera course, less than 10% of the students enrolled would get the certificate. In a popular course “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue”, 226,652 students enrolled, but only 2.3% completed the course (data source). Though 2.3% is not low at all. When only counting students that actually attempted the course, the completion rate is around 40%. This is a decent figure, considering (1) the course is completely free, (2) there is no limit on how many courses you can take simultaneously, and (3) the certificates mean much less than a real degree.

MOOC is not as game-changing as people think. It is surprisingly similar to the online courses most universities offer. Video lectures, check. Online quizzes, check. Discussion forums, check. A final exam, check. MOOC is nothing more than what the current education offers, the only real difference is that it offers it everyone online for free. This is great, but the potential of technology is largely untapped.

Also, MOOC is inferior to a real course in almost all stages of learning new knowledge, namely attention, encoding, and retrieval.

First, the student needs to attend to the content in order to remember it. However, watching video lectures is passive. It’s even more difficult to concentrate on watching a video lecture on a computer than listening to a professor in class. The environment is just not there.

Then there are problems with encoding. Encoding happens more easily when sensory-emotional information is received or new information can be attached to prior knowledge. Video lectures cannot provide any more than visual and auditory information. With students from all backgrounds, it’s unrealistic to expect any prior knowledge from them. Personalization doesn’t work with fixed material and hundreds of thousands of students.

Retrieval is a great way to prevent trace decay. Spaced repetition is particularly nice. However a normal college course won’t provide this, so either does MOOC. It would be much easier to provide this add-on on a MOOC platform than in a college course. Universities cannot afford to have TA chase students around and show them flashcards. But if the student wants more practice, he can always use physical flashcards or create Quizlet sets for future review.

Though MOOC still has a long way to go before becoming a more effective means to learn than a college course, it provides valuable insights to education. It is a massive experiment in education - what if higher education is free? What if you don’t have to get admitted to a university to have access to what it offers? What if a course lasts years? The internet is the only place for these experiments to happen because on a scale so big they would disrupt the education system too much. Another important thing MOOC has done is providing data of millions of real students.

But still, MOOC is not the future unless it changes dramatically. Things that would give it a definite advantages includes but not limited to: an immersive and interactive environment, personalization that probes the student’s prior knowledge, multi-sensory input, emotional effect, friendly spaced repetition tool, and other things that were not possible in a traditional classroom.


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