Passing fad or educational revolution, MOOCs are on the minds of educators of every stripe. Massive Open Online courses, taught by star professors to thousands of students at once, are supposedly going to revolutionize the higher education world. I’ve not taken a MOOC nor do I imagine I ever will. I just don’t think anything that I want to learn more about at this point could best be taught via a MOOC. For example, although my technological skills are in need of some updating, if I’m not in front of a computer approaching learning something like Excel in a hands on manner, there’s no way I’ll retain anything.
That got me to asking, What if my undergraduate education occurred in the age of MOOC madness? I received my B.A. in Telecommunications from the Department of Speech Communication (now Communication Arts and Sciences) at Penn State in 1985. I chose that program because of the interpersonal interaction with my professors – in a MOOC world, I’m just not sure I’d have majored in Communication, let alone eventually obtain a doctorate in the discipline.
But could any of my undergraduate courses succeed in a MOOC format? I’m thinking about many of my general education courses. Let’s take Introduction to Film as an example. It fulfilled a humanities requirement and was simply a fun course. All 700 of us met once a week for a 50-minute lecture on film history and once a week to sit in the dark in Schwab Auditorium to watch film. I saw Birth of Nation, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Bicycle Thief, all the classics. It was certainly an impersonal course on some level. I took three exams, all multiple guess and upon turning in my paper, I had to show ID to prove that it was actually me taking the test. Could this course be offered in a MOOC format? Of course – as soon as the problem of verifying identity of the student is solved. But will it be the same experience? Doubtful. Nothing can replace seeing Psycho for the first time in that auditorium and hearing half the crowd scream as Norman Bates murders Marion Crane in the shower of her room at the Bates Motel.
One of my science electives was taught by a professor who had an experiment on the Space Shuttle. Being a total space program geek as a child (I never missed an Apollo launch) I was mesmerized. The entire course was organized around the experiment, which helped illustrate countless scientific concepts. There were over 500 students in my class. Could it have been a MOOC? Most definitely, but like viewing Psycho with my classmates, I don’t think the excitement of being there to actually listen and watch the obvious joy the professor exhibited while discussing his experiment could ever come across on video. In a student learning outcomes world though, I have no doubt that the goals of both of these courses could be accomplished in a MOOC format.
Turn to my Communication courses, though, and the story is different. I took Public Speaking from NCA’s current 2nd Vice President, Carole Blair, back in the fall of 1981 while she was working on her doctorate at Penn State. That class hooked me on the discipline and I followed it with courses in rhetorical theory with Gerry Hauser, small group communication with Randy Hirokowa, and politics and film with Tom Benson. Lectures, discussions, interaction and yes, actual face time via office hours (Benson’s office hour lines were historic!) could never be replaced by a MOOC. The critical thinking, communication skills (both written and oral), ability to work in groups and the like, all the things that employers are saying they want (see AAC&U’s recent employer survey) couldn’t be taught in a MOOC.
No one can watch 1000 speeches and give the kind of feedback Carole gave to me in public speaking, which greatly improved my oral communication skills. No one can grade 1000 papers and give the kind of feedback Tom Benson used to give me on my writing. I suspect MOOCs are here to stay in some form but they won’t replace the classroom completely. My hunch though is that MOOCs have the potential to go the way of the elocutionists before too long. The deep learning that one is supposed to engage in at a college or university level simply can’t be accomplished in a MOOC format. Further, I suspect somewhere along the line, reading a book or watching a good history channel documentary will be preferable to star professors lecturing at us via our home computer.