In the Tech World, a New Species Evolves

I spend a lot of time talking to people about massive open online courses, or MOOCs. It’s my job, after all, to represent the MOOC project in computer science and physics that I’m currently working on at Harvey Mudd College. I’ve heard pretty much every
argument for and against these courses, from the incredibly articulate to the
downright absurd. And it’s been a while since I’ve heard any new arguments. No side has won. We’re still not sure whether MOOCs herald a new, more informed age of worldwide education, or if they portend the destruction of the traditional classroom and all for which it stands.

I think if we keep the conversation going the way it’s going right now, we’re
never going to reach a solution. That’s because we talk about MOOCs like
they’re politicians, or sports teams, or weather events. We choose to root for them or to boo them or to stay
inside and ignore them altogether.

But MOOCs aren’t events, nor are they movements or a single kind of fixed entity. They’re a form of technology created to
solve a particular problem using particular resources and a particular
structure. As with any other form of technology, the problems, resources, and
structure are all constantly open to change. And it’s up to the creators to adapt to those changes.

Let’s talk about another important, and much older,
technology: the telephone. I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been decades
ago to persuade offices to put phones on every desk. What must the managers have
thought? “So you’re telling me that when someone wants to talk to me from
another room, they will make this box on my desk start screeching every few
seconds, and it will not stop making that sound until I stop everything I’m
doing and respond to the call?” The telephone was an amazing advancement in technology, but a very
flawed one—and it was no simple feat addressing those flaws.

While I think many arguments against the original phone are still
valid for the miniature computers we carry in our pockets today, it’s hard to
argue that the technology isn’t enormously valuable in modern society. But
that shift didn’t happen immediately, and it didn’t happen through people arguing
about whether it was good or evil to use a phone. It came from adapting.
Voicemail, caller ID, text messages, collect calling, putting people on hold,
conference calls, video calls—we’ve taken the premise of the phone and made it
into something infinitely more practical and adaptable than its original form.

MOOCs are still fairly new, which means we
haven’t had much chance to adapt yet. 2013 was a major turning point for the
traditional MOOC, because we finally got enough data and results to say that
these online courses aren’t doing quite what we thought they’d do. They mainly
serve the already-educated elite, they have enormous attrition rates, and the
students leaving these courses often do so not having retained as much knowledge as
their peers in physical classrooms—which leaves us wondering: Now what?

The answer isn’t that complicated: We build and adapt.
We can do better in serving the students we want to connect with, the ones who
don’t have access to these resources any other way, such as the middle-school girls and students of color that HMC’s project hopes to reach. We can use the platform not
just to replace teachers, but to empower them with examples and resources that
allow them to focus individual attention on their students. We can develop more
potent ways for students to communicate with each other, to share information
and even to collaborate on their work.
A lot of the things I’m describing here are already happening, but many are drowned
out by the discussions of whether MOOCs, or blended classrooms, or online
education as a whole, can be useful. Those conversations will never be
productive because the answer right now is not a powerful “yes” or “no,” but a
tentative “sometimes.” And that answer doesn’t help anyone.

So let’s start getting in the habit of asking a new
question: “What can we do better?” There are a lot of answers, many of which we’re
still discovering. And people like me, developers of MOOCs,
can work with those answers. That’s the conversation that can make this technology into what
we want it to be.

Elizabeth Schofield HM ’13 holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and is the program coordinator for HMC’s MOOC project. 

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