The Future of (Distance) Education – MMOLES?

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My debate of the flipped classroom a month ago was spurred by an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education where a Stanford student questioned the practical result of the university’s initiative to make some of their courses available online and free.  This student criticism was a news media outlier; the vast majority of press was positive, which would be expected in the current geopolitical climate.  Governments want to keep costs down and want to utilize standardized metrics to measure educational outcomes, so delivering content online to a throng of individuals makes great sense in those terms.  My experience as an online teacher and a face-to-face teacher, as well as an online student and a face-to-face student, have led me to skepticism about this model in nationwide use, especially on the K-12 level.

I’m not against the concept of free online education.  I find myself more and more fascinated by informal learning spaces, but understand the necessity for structure in how we design a learning journey.  If you put someone on the Internet and tell them to learn how to build a search engine, success rates are going to be miniscule.  If you design a learning environment to help people find success in building a search engine, success rates are going to be much higher.  According to Stanford, of the 160,000 people who enrolled in their initial offering this Fall, 23,000 completed it and received a certificate of completion, meaning their scores on quizzes and tests were high enough to be considered fluent in the subject.

QUICK NOTE:  I have considered researching NaNoWriMo, the online writing community that churns out a novel during the month of November, and see a parallel between their success rates (usually 15-18% of people who start the project will *complete* their book in the month) and those of Stanford.  But I have concerns about the methodology behind NaNoWriMo — encouraging people to write is vital to good writing, but in my history as a creative writing teacher I have seen many people who are happy to write but their writing flounders and meanders and lacks poignancy and destination.  Writing more might help that, but it could also result in more poor writing and greater frustration.

To me, the badge or the certificate is not the important part (when it becomes the important part, people game the system to get the badge or certificate, and lose the purpose of seeking the information in the first place).  Here is content, developed by a professional, available for anyone who is interested, to do with it what they like.  If you want a certificate, you can enroll.  If you just want to do the coursework and lectures but aren’t interested in the tests or assessment on homework, you can audit the course.  The information is out there, access to the professional is out there, and it is free.  The question is, what does it do to current conceptions of learning, and how might it change learning (for better and for worse)?  I can speculate from my theoretical framework, but the courses are free and open, and sound interesting for my current line of work.  So I have enrolled in two courses:  Introduction to Human Computer Interaction via Stanford, and How to Build a Search Engine via Udacity (a company founded by the mastermind behind the free online courses, Sebastian Thrun, who left Stanford to do this because he sees a seismic shift in education and wants to be at the front of it).  Both are audit; I’m interested in content and informal learning, though will have access to worksheets and tests if I desire.

The press lists this endeavor as a success, and the course offerings via Stanford have grown nearly tenfold.  The question is — what does education look like when it leaves lecture halls and seminar classrooms and even online LMS, and turns into Massively Multi-Student Online Learning Environments (MMOLES)?  Can you make community, and if you can’t make community, can you learn anything more than information to be applied in singular instances?   A valid criticism from the student in the Chronicle article was the lack of interaction between teacher and student, as well as students themselves.  I reference Wenger’s Communities of Practice a lot; will these courses allow community to coalesce, or will individuals be on independent fact-finding missions, with no relationship to the hundreds of thousands likewise engaged?

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