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Gadzooks, MOOCs!

December 11, 2013
by Timothy Lesle, M.J. '08
Illustration of computers and graduation caps

“I’ve been rereading Christensen a lot,” says Armando Fox. The Berkeley computer science professor is referring to business guru Clayton Christensen, famous for his research on how innovations can unsettle existing institutions. For example, how the PC upended the market for mainframes, or how the new business and publishing dynamics of the Internet have thrown traditional media companies into turmoil. Now Christensen warns that higher education will face its own disruption in the form of online learning.

Fox is also the academic director of the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education, which helps coordinate and develop web-based instruction, including Berkeley’s “MOOCs” (massive open online courses). MOOCs have sparked widespread interest, with for-profit startups jumping into the market alongside prominent universities. Since 2012, Berkeley has been offering its MOOCs through edX, a nonprofit collaboration founded by Harvard and MIT.

A MOOC is more than just a bunch of lecture videos thrown on YouTube. Each course is carefully planned and entails homework and examinations, as well as online discussions. Sometimes students can earn a certificate for completing a MOOC, but, crucially, they do not receive academic credit from the affiliated universities (at least not yet). MOOCs are also typically free, with some Berkeley courses open for registration for up to 100,000 students.

While MOOCs give anyone with an Internet connection access to some of the most talented instructors in the world, they’ve also sparked fears about the future of education. In a recent talk at Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, polymath and author Jaron Lanier went as far as to say that the MOOC movement “is going to leave only a few brand-name academies standing, is going to remove diversity from education, and is going to ruin academic careers.” In November 2012, computer scientist Moshe Vardi wrote, “If I had my wish, I would wave a wand and make MOOCs disappear….”

Fox understands these concerns, noting, for example, that though he expects Berkeley will be a leader in MOOC research and development, institutions in the middle might end up feeling squeezed by community colleges from below and top-tier schools above. “In the educational field as a whole,” he says, “getting away from Berkeley, will there be a certain amount of disruption for other universities? Probably so.” But he feels many other criticisms are overblown and misunderstand the movement’s potential.

He says MOOCs should be considered simply another tool to help improve education, as lessons learned in the classroom are translated to the MOOC level, and lessons from the data-rich MOOCs inform the classroom. He points to successes tailoring MOOC technology to benefit Berkeley students in “SPOCs” (small private online courses), which blend online elements with traditional face-to-face interaction, helping students and instructors to get the most out of their time together.

But even as Fox throws cold water on some of the most alarmist criticisms of MOOCs, he saves a little to throw on MOOCs themselves. College, he says, is a time for students to learn principles of time management and self-discipline—and there’s no evidence MOOCs work well for people who haven’t developed those skills. “I don’t know who got the idea that this was a reasonable substitute for actually taking good courses with good professors on campus,” he adds. “But at Berkeley, that’s the reason we’re not using them in that fashion.”

“[This] is going to change education just like computers did, just like TV and video did,” he says. “Does that mean that it’s the end of education as we know it because it will all fall before the god of MOOC? No, I think that’s shortsighted.”

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