I was chatting the other day with a colleague who works in our College of Undergraduate Studies. We got on the topic of MOOCs and the idea that they are claiming to provide free education to the world. As those trained in Latin are wont to do, we discussed the etymology of the word education: educere, to lead out or raise up. The Romans used the verb to talk about raising their children. When we educate our students, we truly are acting in loco parentis. But how do we effectively nurture tens of thousands of children at once? Can this job be reduced to a series of algorithms that require little human interaction? Can we rely on the older kids to step in and raise their younger siblings because we parents are too busy making sure there's food on the table and the laundry is done?
The phrase "education at scale" has been attached to MOOCs--initially by Coursera, Inc. co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng in their talk "The Online Revolution: Education at Scale"--with seemingly little thought about what it actually implies. In fact, the phrase itself highlights a paradox at the root of Coursera, a paradox that Koller has alluded to when she rehearses the impetus for founding Coursera. On the one hand, Koller was interested in improving pedagogy in her own classes by using online tools like pre-recorded, interactive videos to deliver content outside of class, thereby freeing up class time for higher quality interactions with her students. In other words, she was interested in blending (or perhaps flipping) her campus-based classes to improve the learning experience of her students. On the other hand, Ng was interested in globalizing his classroom and (massively increasing the instructor:student ratio). While Koller was driven by improving student education, Ng seems to have been driven by a desire to scale-up his audience. In their home discipline of computer science, these two impulses are somewhat less contradictory than they are in, say, English or History of Classics.
I don't mean to say that it is not possible to teach more students with better learning outcomes by using technology more effectively--it obviously is and it is what many K-12 and university instructors are trying to figure out how to do. But it is important to recognize that the phrase "education at scale" is not what most MOOCs currently do. Rather, MOOCs deliver content at scale. It is commonplace to point out that printed books have been performing this same role for centuries; but it is worth observing that MOOCs can go to places where books in large numbers still cannot (particularly third world countries). As well, for a generation raised on images rather than the printed word, I can imagine that it is easier for them to learn from the embodied rather than written "textbook" (even if it is true for some/many (as Mary Beard argues) that content is easier to digest in written form).
Putting content online--even if it has embedded quizzes and assignments--is not the same as educating. I can understand how two extremely intelligent and creative Computer Science researchers might not recognize this distinction, however. In a problem-based field where instruction is highly structured and can easily be packaged in terms of mastery of a series of concepts of increasing complexity; and where assignments can be machine-graded, the claim that a MOOC student who completes all the work and uses the discussion forums as well as peer study groups is receiving something approximating the classroom education of a paying Stanford student is more believeable. I can't imagine that all MOOC students come away with a strong grasp of the conceptual underpinnings of the course content, but obviously this is a small cost by comparison to the benefits for students who otherwise would have no access to a particular course. I suspect that statistics or a differential equations course work in fairly similar ways. I also imagine that, as we move further down the spectrum, towards disciplines that are less problem-based, that don't have a single correct answer to a question, we move further away from anything vaguely resembling education. Taking a MOOCified version of my Intro to Rome class won't hurt anyone; but I could not say with a straight face that they were getting 90% of the learning experience that my UT students were getting. If they were, then my UT students would be right to think I was an overpaid dinosaur.
This would all be low-stakes, disciplinary quibbling if it weren't for the fact that legislators and even university administrators salivate at the phrase "education at scale." They imagine that they will be able to teach tens of thousands of students with a small stable of "the best professors" (whatever that means). Heck, maybe they will just license courses from other institutions and hire low-paid adjuncts to run the course on campus and call it education. This is the point where a public-lecture friendly platitude can actually become incredibly dangerous to the mission of higher education, particularly at public universities and in disciplines that do not fit the current MOOC platforms all that well (i.e. liberal arts).
States and the federal government have cut appropriations for education year after year, for decades. We are at something of a crisis point, to be sure, but it is a crisis that is man-made and is not a crisis in higher education per se. It is a crisis created by government's refusal to fund education properly; administrators' inclination to use adjuncts and lecturers instead of tenure-track faculty (thus giving themselves more control over annual budgets since they have effectively lowered the fixed costs of paying tenure-track faculty salaries). Fewer instructors means that fewer courses are offered and fewer seats are available, particularly in high-demand and lower division courses. This problem could be solved in a number of different ways: states could appropriate reasonable money for their public institutions; philanthropists, especially those wealthy Silicon Valley folks who are now so interested in higher education, could endow professorships across disciplines. Tuition could be increased, effectively acknowledging the fact that states are no longer sponsoring so-called state universities.
Instead, as many others have noted, we have venture capitalists and others with a horse in the race declaring that there is a crisis in higher education; and that only technology can solve the problem. Oh, and to adopt that technology will cost a massive investment of $$ by institutions who are too impoverished to hire tenure-track faculty. The regents of my own institution recently created an Institute for Transformational Learning and gave its director somewhere around $50 million to allocate. In the meantime, my department is not permitted to replace retiring and departing colleagues, to the point that most of our core courses will be taught by grad students, adjuncts, and lecturers in the coming year. State lawmakers, regents, and even administrators want to believe in the myth of education at scale because it seems to provide a solution to their budgetary woes that does not require a long-term investment in faculty.
Until MOOCs make serious advances in their pedagogy, however, it is false advertising to say that the vast majority of them are providing education at scale. They provide many other benefits, including allowing for much higher quality student-instructor interaction by shifting content delivery to outside of class; opening the gates of the university to anyone who is interested (and perhaps persuading more Americans that professors are not all pipe-smoking, latte drinking, leftist slackers); and encouraging Americans to be more intellectually engaged in general. These are all good things, but they are not interchangeable with a quality university classroom experience--not yet and perhaps not ever.
But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It *is* possible to teach at scales larger than what we have currently been doing, and to do it more effectively than ever before, by making better use of education technology. I have done this in my own large lecture class. Enrollment has doubled from 200 to 400 students; but those 400 students are learning more and better. I know this because we are doing careful studies of their learning and comparing it to previous cohorts. To accomplish these improved learning outcomes at a larger scale has required a large and sustained investment of time and energy from me and a tremendous amount of classroom support (a team of 4 ace teaching assistants and 2 undergraduate graders). I have worked with an excellent team of learning and assessment specialists from around campus and have consulted with several other faculty who are doing similar things with their courses. I have spent a year developing content for the course and will continue to do so over the summer. Effective teaching requires enormous energy and engagement--and this doesn't get easier or cheaper over time (at least not until a computer can be programmed to respond with a certain kind of intervention to a certain kind of comment on a discussion board, for example). There *are* advantages to teaching 400 students instead of 200, but they are related to issues like time to degree and better use of campus resources.
When we talk about education at scale, we can't assume that this is what a MOOC does, at least not without evidence of learning outcomes for MOOC students. In the meantime, though, we need to be experimenting, figuring out what the limits of scale are for our classes and our disciplines. What is the largest number that we can teach and continue to see improved learning outcomes? At what point does that curve turn downward? The limits of scale will surely vary quite a lot between disciplines and individual courses. The more theoretical and "subjective" (in a good way) the content, the more difficult it will be to increase size without serious sacrifices to learning outcomes. Education at scale does not simply happen by making course content available and interactive (though I am willing to concede that it can sometimes happen in a computer science or calculus course with a highly motivated and self-sufficient student). Moreover, in most disciplines, education at a scale of tens of thousands, much less hundreds of thousands, of students will never happen.
Addendum 3/28/13: A critique of the problem of scale even in a math course on the MOOC platform.
Addendum 4/1/2013: Steve Krause on Duke's English Comp Course and the problems of teaching writing at scale (scroll down the page for comments)