Many of you have probably seen this talk by Daphne Koller, or one like it. She talks about the origin and goals of Coursera, a system that provides MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) from top universities for free to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.
There are plenty of user complaints about online courses, most of them revolving around peer grading (graders don't always grade responsibly or competently) and the lecture-heavy blahbeddy blah of the courses themselves (the platform and reach may be revolutionary, but the pedagogical method is anything but). And the idea that you can "teach" in this format is a fairly maddening claim to most educators (depositing a one-size-fits-all packet of information into a zillion people's faces with zero interactivity is not "teaching").
Come on! It's amazing! Knowledge is power. MOOCs may not be "classrooms" but they are libraries of knowledge and they have the power to reach hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people.* They cannot replace schools, or teachers. But they can open a brand-new door for remarkable but underresourced people who can activate that knowledge into growth and action (in a class of 100,000, if even 1% are driven further, that is a pretty impressive mass).
When women gain access to knowledge, they are healthier, their children are healthier, and their societies' economies are healthier. When young men gain access to knowledge, they broaden their understanding of how they might find their place in the world, of what it means to be strong. When any person gains access to knowledge, (s)he develops a mental and psychological framework that would have been impossible without that experience. How can we deny the power of this resource?
MOOCs also provide an unprecedented opportunity to hone and improve the delivery of knowledge. To paraphrase Koller, when two people get a test question wrong, it's meaningless, but when 2000 people do, conclusions can be drawn. Imagine if we could harness just some of the data the millions of American children produce in school, and use it to improve our school system.
Yes. I am aware that this is exactly the kind of thinking that has led to misguided policies related to data-driven instruction, student assessments, and teacher evaluations. But that is because of the patronizing, almost imperialist stance the policy-makers in our land--the legislators and their loud fringe constituents and their very persuasive corporate backers--have adopted toward teachers and teaching. It's their conclusions that are tone-deaf and unhelpful--not the possibilities. You can't solve everything with data and you can't squeeze data from everything. But there must be SOMEthing meaningful we can draw about learning from the digital and analytical powers available. We just need to ask the right questions, use the right tools, and be humble about the incompleteness of what that data can really tell us in a rich and unpredictable human transaction such as teaching. (For the record, we're 0 for 3 there).
Something like 96% of MOOC enrollees never finish the course. Of course that wouldn't be acceptable in an education system--but that's okay, because a MOOC isn't a classroom. If 4% of registrants gain something significant from a MOOC, that's a lot of souls. A MOOC's strength is numbers, reach. The strength of excellent teaching is the opposite: personalization, and depth. MOOCS are not classrooms. But they're pretty amazing.
*(Frankly, given our warmongering natures, the ability for one person to communicate convincingly to masses of those numbers is a little staggeringly terrifying, but let's stick to the positive use of that capability for this post, shall we?)