For a year or two there, free online classes seemed like they just might be the future of higher education. Why, some influential computer scientists wondered, should there be thousands of colleges and universities around the country all teaching the same classes to small groups of students, when you could get one brilliant professor to teach the material to the whole world at once via the Internet?
In a March 2012 Wired cover story about the phenomenon, Udacity founder and Stanford artificial-intelligence whiz Sebastian Thrun predicted that within 50 years there would be only 10 institutions of higher learning left in the world. Udacity, he reckoned, might be one of them.
As of this month, that prediction is looking overblown. After a year in which almost every big-name university in the United States rushed to get in on massive open online courses, or MOOCs, the backlash is in full force.
And no wonder: The idea of free online video lectures replacing traditional classrooms not only offends many educators' core values, but it threatens their jobs. Worse, the early evidence suggests the model may not work very well: A partnership between San Jose State and Udacity this spring ended with more than half the students failing. In the same spaces where advocates not long ago trumpeted the MOOC revolution, critics now warn of the "MOOC delusion."
As much as everyone wants to see college costs reined in, replacing thousands of professors and classrooms with a handful of websites populated by remote talking heads cannot be the answer. But before we throw the whole idea out the window, it's worth asking: Might there be a way that online lectures could complement the traditional higher education experience rather than replace it?
Anant Agarwal, president of EdX, believes there is. Like Coursera and Udacity, EdX began by offering full-service online classes for free, taught by professors at Harvard and MIT, the initial partners in the venture. EdX has appeared less focused on getting big quickly and more open to experimentation in terms of how it can best serve professors and students. One of those experiments is what UC-Berkeley professor Armando Fox calls SPOCs — "small private online classes," as opposed to massive open ones. The approach is also known, less acronymically, as "hybrid" or "blended learning."
The basic idea is to use MOOC-style video lectures and other online features as course materials in actual, normal-size college classes. By assigning the lectures as homework, the instructors are free to spend the actual class period answering students' questions, gauging what they have and haven't absorbed, and then working with them on projects and assignments. In some cases the instructors also use some MOOC-style online assessments or even automated grading features. But in general they're free to tailor the curriculum, pace and grading system to their own liking and their own students' needs.
The notion isn't entirely novel. A similar approach has been popularized at the high-school level in recent years by Salman Khan, who encourages teachers to use his free online lessons to "flip the classroom": Students watch lectures at home and then do their "homework" in class. Freed from the need to prepare a lecture for each class session, instructors can focus their time on the rest of the educational experience — the individualized, hands-on instruction and collaboration that no MOOC can provide. In this model the online lecture starts to look less like a poor substitute for traditional classes and more like a 21st-century twist on the traditional textbook.
The early results are promising. At San Jose State — the same college where so many students failed the Udacity course taught entirely online — a SPOC partnership with EdX has gone much better. There, professor Khosrow Ghadiri used an online circuits and electronics course taught by Agarwal, the EdX president, as part of a flipped-classroom model for two of the three sections of his required engineering class. As the semester progressed, the students in the flipped class consistently outperformed their peers.
In other cases the approach has allowed instructors and students to tackle high-level material that they might not have attempted otherwise. Jaime L'Heureux, an information technology professor at Bunker Hill Community College near Boston, told me that she signed on to co-teach an experimental SPOC using online materials from an EdX class on the Python computer programming language.
Neither she nor her co-professor were fluent in Python, and it was taught by an MIT professor and geared to MIT students. But L'Heureux said EdX worked with her to adapt the material to a slower-paced syllabus, and the flipped-classroom model allowed her to learn along with her students. Was she worried that the MOOC material made her replaceable? L'Heureux laughed. Her students would never have made it through the course, she says, without both the instructors' hands-on help and the persistent motivation of having to come to class and work through the difficulties alongside their classmates and the people who would be assigning their grades.
EdX isn't the only MOOC provider experimenting with hybrid classes, but key questions remain for all, the biggest of which is whether a flipped classroom using video lectures is any better than one that uses good old textbooks. Ian Bogost, a Georgia Tech computer science professor and acute MOOC critic, acknowledges that replacing textbooks with MOOCs might make the material more accessible to some unmotivated pupils. But in an essay he asked, "If the lecture was such a bad format in the industrial age, why does it suddenly get celebrated once digitized and streamed into a web browser in the information age?"
Whether SPOCs amount to some sort of pedagogical revolution, it seems clear that they hold more promise than pure MOOCs when it comes to delivering students a full educational experience.
Will Oremus covers emerging technologies, tech policy and digital culture.
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