I’ve just finished my first-ever MOOC, Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets (ADLS), led by Dr. Sue Alcock of Brown University. I enrolled in the course simply to find out what MOOCs are like for students. The last week of the course included an optional meetup at Brown’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World that was attended by about fifty people. Discussions at the meetup, coupled with recent conversations I’ve had with faculty and alumni from Brown and other universities, have brought into stark relief some misconceptions about technological innovation in higher education.

Decoration of Tomb of Per-NebIn December 2012 The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article that asks the legitimate question “For whom is college being reinvented?” The article argued that innovations like MOOCs best serve those who are already well-educated — the existing socioeconomic elite — while those who are most in need of a college education are the worst served by instruction-at-a-distance. This is a valid point. The people at the Brown meetup were intelligent, educated, and articulate — especially the ten year-old girl. Acquaintances of mine who have taken MOOCs are the same. They already have PhDs and enroll in MOOCs mainly as a leisure activity for self-enrichment rather than to improve their career prospects. Conversely, it’s fairly obvious that a completely different population of students — for example, those who have already failed remedial coursework on a physical campus — are not going to do well in a fast-paced online environment where success requires good time management skills, intrinsic motivation, and accurate self-appraisal.

The Chronicle article completely ignores higher education outside of the USA. As someone at Brown said, what about a place like India, where over 20 million people graduate from high school annually? Only about 15 percent of them will see another day of classroom instruction. Building the physical infrastructure to provide all of them with some form of post-secondary education is highly unlikely given the cost, and that doesn’t even address the problems that exist in India at the K-12 level. The USA’s public K-12 education system is also under-performing. In other words, wherever you look, innovation in education, whether at the primary, secondary, or post-secondary level, has the large potential payoff of increased upward socioeconomic mobility, and MOOCs appear at least superficially capable of generating these payoffs at low cost because of their scalable technology.

What seems to be missing from much of the debate is whether or how this or any other technology amplifies the truly valuable part of the traditional college experience: the interactivity that does or should occur between and among students and faculty. Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at different models of higher education:

  • First, the one-to-one, master and apprentice model produces deep understanding, but is very time and labor intensive. A Mayan shaman or an Italian Renaissance painter could only take on a few students at a time.
  • Second, the one-to-many model produces sufficient but not deep understanding for massive populations; it is the industrialized education of the modern era. At its apex we have the star professor whose sage words are broadcast to an audience — whether physically present or remotely located — like a televangelist.
  • Finally, there is the many-to-many model in which the active teacher/passive student relationship is replaced by interaction among all participants in a feed-forward process. Examples of this model include biochemistry labs where teams of graduate students and faculty conduct research, start-up accelerators and entrepreneurial training programs that assist in business development, and . . . wait for it . . . inverted classrooms using problem-based or project-based learning.

Much of the technology applied to education to date has been simply a replication of the second model. Opportunities for interaction don’t change when a lecture given to a room of four hundred students is recorded and put online for an audience of four thousand. It’s still one-way delivery of content.

Selma_Al-RadiThis brings me back to the meetup for ADLS. People there said that they learned from seeing the work of others and from providing feedback on it, something that often doesn’t happen in traditional colleges courses where only the professor sees students’ work. They also said that simply watching video of Dr. Alcock* talking in her office felt as if she was directly addressing them as individuals, and that seeing professors and graduate students engaged in thoughtful conversations helped them learn about the scientific aspects of archaeology and also increased their interest in learning about different cultural heritages. There was a sense of interactivity that permeated the course — the people involved were able to transcend the limitations imposed by the technology.

As Salman Khan alluded to in an interview mentioned in a previous post, an intense, collectively-experienced, real-time rite of passage produces outcomes that probably cannot be replicated online. But for those who have no access to a worthwhile physical school because of constraints on time, wealth, or ability, something is better than nothing. And the better we combine effective instructional techniques with technologies that allow low-cost access, the more people will be able to learn.

*No, the photo is not Dr. Alcock — it’s Dr. Selma Al-Radi.