The freedom of learning

In Thoughts on June 9, 2015 at 7:16 am

I have just read an article in Wired UK, in which Jonathan Haber, Harvard faculty member and expert on MOOCs (also title of his dissertation/book) mounts a defence of open learning methods such as MOOCs. I wanted to second and expand this plea.
If you do not know what a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) is, it is a new form of teaching relying on materials presented online (multimedia, a lot of video lectures) that are discussed and processed through a mix of discussions, online quizzes, essays and discussions. The massive part relates to the enrolment figures, which frequently reach into the tens of thousands.
Necessary consequence of this format is, that obviously the staff cannot personally keep tabs on every student. So essays are graded by peer review, discussions are only loosely moderated, mostly to prevent trolls from wrecking the place, and a lot of the processes are automated.
Haber now detects, and he is much closer to the educational discussion on the subject than I am, a backlash mostly citing the very low graduation rates. But that is where I think the fallacy already starts. To illustrate this, I would like to share a bit of my personal MOOC history.
I have participated in a number of MOOCs ranging from Gamification over Writing and Archaeology to Counter-Terrorism. Yes, I have given up on MOOCs that I did not like, an easy option given the zero fee associated with this open form of learning. But at least the way I am using it, the efficiency of the platform is irrelevant. The courses I have seen feature academic experts, who teach their favourite subject and in the process draw on a global audience to build an at least transient community of practice. A professor from Colorado crowd-sourced an eclectic mix of people, not all of whom spoke Spanish, to read and transcribe antique Spanish church records to bring the mediaeval city and community of Plasencia back to life. A team from Zurich invited experts in different fields to explore how Viking sagas and artwork use space in their message, and how that explains their worldview.
Now I am an engineer by training, and as you can see, these subjects having nothing to do with continuing professional development. I am using MOOCs to explore subjects because they are interesting (or at least seem so at first glance). The relatively inexpensive teaching methods allows academics to teach what they love and experiment with method, content and ideas in the process. And they allow me to invest time and effort into developing my personality, rather than my career. This, even time 500, rather than 20000 is worth it, no matter how many “finished products” leave the process at the end.


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