Feature Story

Open Online Courses: Higher Education of the Future?

by Eric Rabkin

One instructor's firsthand look behind the scenes of the movement offering online education to the masses.

I am "teaching" a MOOC, one of those  massive, open, online courses through which Coursera and, more recently, edX  offer people around the globe challenging learning experiences through a simple internet connection: video mini-lectures, machine-graded problem sets in some courses, peer-evaluated essays in others, discussion boards, and more.  There's no cost or credit for the "students" yet, but could this point the way to the "schools" of the future?

I would guess that in forty-two years of on-campus teaching at the University of Michigan I have worked with between 12,000 and 20,000 students.  Right now, under the auspices of U-M  and Coursera,  I am offering "Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World"  to about 39,000 participants.  They form and engage in a learning community interconnecting at least the six continents from which they have so far sent me personal messages and perhaps, I suppose, even Antarctica.  "Teaching"?  "Community"?  What do these words mean in a MOOC?

As soon as most humanities colleagues hear about this course, their first response is, "Good luck grading all those essays."  But my aim here is not to compensate in a MOOC for the possibilities of a classroom but to exploit the possibilities of a MOOC in order to offer something new, vibrant, and as educationally worthwhile as one would find on the most sought-after campuses in the world.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller reports in her TED lecture on MOOCs that, with this many students, when an issue is raised on a forum, the mean time to someone else on the forum contributing a useful response is 22 minutes.  That's 22 minutes around the clock, because the course community is global. No professor could ever be that responsive.

The point is not to replicate the give-and-take that students and instructors normally share in a campus-based course but to create a context within which participants produce a give-and-take that helps them educate each other, just as a group of friends might when leaving a movie theater discuss the fine points of the film together.  The aim is to crowd-source commentary and evaluation within the context of a genuine community.  And it is working.  I applaud the participants in this course.

These people also educate me. I had not anticipated the kindness and excitement I see. Despite the potential impersonality, I have received emails of thanks, of enthusiasm, of discovery.  I have replied to some of those and some of my replies have been reposted to the forums by the recipients.  The community knows I care and, at first astonishingly to me, cares back.   They care enough not only to spend time with each other but to share their experiences, some even through blogs of their own, with the wider world.  Amazingly, this feels somehow like a family.  Not like a nuclear family, but like a suddenly discovered distant city brimming with eager cousins one had never known before.  And with "meet-ups," such city-based subgroups are forming, too.

I feel a genuine connection with these people as, it seems, some feel with me, just as one does in a traditional classroom.  I monitor the forums and each week produce a supplementary clip motivated by the discussions that the participants have had as they help and prod each other.  One fellow wrote to me that one of those clips has inspired him to retrain his mind to be a better teacher. 39,000 people, each an individual.

Because of that felt connection, I was shocked by the angry passion that burst out on one forum thread not about what anyone said or thought of the literature but about plagiarism.  This course carries no credit; it requires no fee.  It had not occurred to me that anyone would cheat, or that others would care so deeply if someone did.  But people do want to present themselves well even in such a context and resent misrepresentations that violate mutual trust.  So I wrote a substantial discussion of the meaning of plagiarism, its moral implications, and those of too-ready accusations of plagiarism.  The passion subsided.  And one person wrote to apologize, explaining that he hadn't realized what he had done and offering to withdraw from the course.  I did not accept that offer.  He is still with us.

Not only do the participants teach each other, they teach me.  Networked across the world, they deepen my understanding of community, expand my understanding of teaching.  More importantly, they prove that global community in the context of a course is truly possible.  And it is wonderful.


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